Friday, June 13, 2008


I just read Alan Brennert's Moloka'i, about the 19th-century leper colony. It was a better book than I expected, focusing less on the horrors of the disease and the isolation policies, and more on how Hawaiian people, some of them based on historical characters, might have lived and died in Kaluapapa. His protagonist, Rachel Aouli Kalama Utagawa, lives long enough to receive the sulfa drugs that keep Hanson's disease from progressing or being contagious, so at the end of her life she is able to leave Kaluapapa and go home to Honolulu.

The description of Honolulu particularly interested me. Rachel lived there as a 7-year-old in 1891 and finally came back in 1948: "The difference between Old Honolulu and New, she would come to decide, was the difference between a beautiful woman who was simply being herself and a beautiful woman calling attention to herself: a little vain perhaps, but you couldn't say she wasn't attractive." I lived in Honolulu for one summer, in 1971, and finally came back during the summer of 2007. The beautiful woman calling attention to herself is still beautiful, and calling more attention to herself than ever, but some of the attention does detract from the beauty now. While I wouldn't want to say that there should be fewer hotels ringing Waikiki beach, I would say that fewer of them should be high-rises. The shadow of the high rise hotels blots out the morning sun on the beach and the trade winds that should be blowing around all the beach-side businesses. I also wouldn't say that there should be fewer restaurants opening onto the beach, but it would be nice if fewer of them were chains, turning some of the rarest real estate in the world into the same sort of homogenized mall offerings you can find anywhere. Next door to the hotel we stayed in last summer was a thriving Cheesecake Factory restaurant. I looked in every time we passed, to see if it was a novelty for Japanese tourists, or something, but the clientele looked overwhelmingly European-American.

Each Hawaiian island is a little bit of paradise, and even Brennert's characters, exiled and imprisoned on Molokai, appreciated that, despite their hardships. It's hard to find a face on any Hawaiian island that doesn't reflect some consciousness of how lucky that person is to be right where they are at that moment. Today's tourists are more conscious of the impact their stay has on the fragile environment, and today's tourist industry has more safeguards in place to ensure that paradise will not be lost through overuse and carelessness. But someone who goes to Hawaii for a brief vacation, a getaway, might not venture outside the resort areas to hear any of the Hawaiian folktales about Maui the trickster or the Menehune, or realize what it means that there was once Hawaiian royalty. Folks like that are haoles, as guilty as the early missionaries of discounting what the people who live there know about enjoying and preserving the islands. They'll drive around Oahu listening to "...paved paradise, put up a parking lot...." on the radio and won't realize how old the song is, or that they could be contributing.

Like anything of value, paradise requires you to take some time to appreciate it. Anyone who writes about the charms of Hawaii, me included, uses Hawaiian words to convey this--that Aloha "means both hello and goodbye." Almost anyone who has ever been there yearns to return. Before I read Molokai, I didn't realize that the Hawaiian burial service concludes with this farewell to the departed "go, but if you have a mind to return, come back." But that seems of a piece with the rest of the Hawaiian attitude. What haole wouldn't want to return to paradise, knowing its pleasures, and knowing that you'll still be graciously welcomed?

No comments: