We took a vacation with family to The Hawaiian Islands to celebrate my 40th and my Mom’s 70th birthdays. It was a wonderful week of Ohana adventure with lots of time in the water appreciating reef ecology. My partner and I invested in full wet suits to avoid sunscreen (which damages reef with chemicals), and brought the camera to share some of our discoveries. Gratitude to the islands, the people, and the unique flora and fauna found in Hawaii. Acknowledgement to pacific cultures and the rich melting pot of these islands, which have a painful history of colonial subjugation- including the forced annexation by The United States in 1898. Though our visit to Hawaii was tourist driven, we recognize a deep cultural history in Hawaii, including hospitality, which is often abused and appropriated by commercial interests. These consumer capitol interests are not in support of native Hawaiians, or their culture, and it is up to us as guests to acknowledge our part in perpetuating these abuses.
A local native of Lanai shared with us that starting your visit as a guest of Hawaii with a native guided oral history tour of special places on the islands is a step in the right direction. He acknowledged that hospitality is now the only way to make a living in Hawaii, and reiterate that the custom of welcome is part of the spirit of Hawaii, but not the exploitation. When we arrived, we spent our first day on Oahu visiting Bishop Museum in Honolulu. This museum is dedicated to the living culture and history of Hawaii and its people. Grounding at this place of history, curated by Hawaiians, helps us become more aware of our impact on Hawaii, and what we as visitors can do to support local culture and custom while contributing positively as guests in this amazing tropical place of wonder.
What brought us to Hawaii in the first place? Well, my Mom’s family has been going to Hawaii since my maternal grandfather served in Guadalcanal during WWII. He fell in love with The Pacific, and became an eager investor in early vacation getaways on Oahu. In 1969, the family flew to Honolulu from Los Angeles on the second commercial 747 airline flight to Hawaii. The late 1960s was early days in long distance commercial flying, but beautiful warm beaches and the swinging Waikiki tourist trade was hot, and my Grandfather bought a timeshare to be part of the action. The whole family lived on Waikiki for a summer and my uncle got a cameo in season two of the original Hawaii Five-0. At this time, commercial tourism was the lifeblood of Hawaii commerce, a trend that continues today.
The Esco family brought back bright floral prints and decorated with Tiki interior design at home, including bamboo furniture. My grandfather cultivated crape myrtle, originally from China and Korea, but a tropical reminder of Pacific beauty in Oklahoma. Mr. Esco kept the love of Hawaii close to his heart. He also developed personal relationship with a resident Japanese family in Honolulu. It was a chance to share condolences after war, and build new bridges in business and commerce. The two families shared close friendship for many years, and our family provided support and a home away from home for their daughter when she attended The University of Oklahoma. Hawaii is home to The King Kamehameha School, which offers college prep education to native Hawaiian students across the islands. The school and scholarships were created by the last royal linage of Hawaii, Princess Pauahi Pākī. Her endowment to her people continues to support education and cultural preservation.
Another similarity between Oklahoma and Hawaii that might have felt like home to my grandfather when he was stationed in The Pacific Theater, was the rich red earth. Though these two states are separated by thousands of miles, they share a similar red dirt, and this familiar site across the landscape is echoed in dry, arid hills in places like Maui and Lanai. Though Hawaii is tropical, it also hosts many arid places where rain is blocked by higher mountain peaks. Hawaii’s red soil is “oxi-soil”, related to tropical environments. In Oklahoma- Mollisols, Entisols, Alfisols deposits- “Central Rolling Red Prairies” are the lands of our Oklahoma family roots. Rolling grasslands and sandy deserts bring an additional lunar landscape to a set of islands more associated with palm trees and jungle depths. The geology spans a million years or more; still, these lands have formed in the same epoch, and that’s a single generation in geological time.
The above photos are both turkey tracks- the left is Hawaii, the right is Oklahoma. Though one landscape is forged by volcanic activity, and the other long extinct shallow seas, these two landscapes share strong connection in our family, and we continue cultivating relationship with the land wherever we travel, in appreciation of place. In this most recent visit, our family spent some time exploring geological features on Lanai, and felt spiritual energy in the landscape. Connection to place is strong, and rooting into a place by acknowledging the land and its vitality grounds a person in any “terra firma” they might encounter. We are all of this earth and will return to the soil again when this life is over. In Hawaii, aloha ʻāina embodies relationship to land. Appreciation and respect of place is good stewardship in relationship, both with the land and the people that live there. Our family spent a morning visiting Keahiakawelo, and shared great reverence for these unique formations of stone and sand. Everything in Hawaii has a story of origin which weaves all parts of these islands together. In taking time to hear some of these stories, tourists can better respect and cultivate awareness of their relationship with place- Mahalo!
On our adventure in these amazing islands, we also spent a lot of time in the warm waters of The Pacific Ocean. Taking to the waves and minding shifting currants and stray jelly fish found us awash in color and light beneath the water’s surface. So much life exists where humans cannot live, and our ears could hear the crackling of active life beneath the waves. In Honolulu on Waikiki Beach, viability and vibrancy was scarce, though there was an abundant of juvenile sea life and some unique characters such as a snow flake eel, green turtles, and a few brittle sea stars. My partner brought along an underwater case for his camera and managed to capture some images from the ocean. You’ll notice a marked difference between the snorkeling on Oahu, and Hulopo’e Bay on Lanai. Every morning we took to the waters first thing, giving thanks for the beauty and all life in these sacred places.
Reef health is reflected in biodiversity and water clarity. In Waikiki, the water is stirred up by commercial boats, lots of sunscreen soaked tourists, and algae blooms. The reef consists of lava rock and a lot of sand. Comparatively, Lanai is far less accessible to tourism, and receives far less human activity. Hulop’o Bay is a protected marine sanctuary, so boat traffic and commercial industry is not present. The quality of coral and marine life is far superior. However, we saw less juvenile diversity in Hulop’o, and could not determine the reason. Perhaps nursery reef was somewhere else in the bay. Coming to Lanai, we felt the fish had suddenly supersized themselves- and the size of protected habitat might have played a part in this mature school. We experienced fish schooling in larger numbers, and even witnessed a pod of 60 spinner dolphins moving across the bay on our last morning in the water. It was such a privilege to experience a tropical reef, and especially memorable for my partner, who has cultivated salt water aquarium reefs with living coral in the past, but never experienced the real thing till now.
The fish in Hawaii all have their own unique stories too. The Belnnies, or pao’o are considered ‘aumakua- the embodiment of ancestors- eels share this sacred name too, and remind us that all creatures have important roles in cultural history for the people living with them. Fishing remains a staple in Hawaiian eating, and ancient fishponds are being rebuilt in places like Lanai, to further reconnect people to ancestral larders. Food sovereignty is a major issue in Hawaii today, and sets great precedence for all first nations people working to re-establish cultural practice and connection to the land that supports all life. We did not harvest wild foods while in Hawaii, but did eat many freshly caught fish from sustainable, local sources. Our family has a long tradition of fishing, though in Oklahoma, the harvest comes from freshwater sources. Even here in Washington, I continue to fish for trout and bass in local lakes as a staple of wild food in the home larder.
Visiting Hawaii is such an amazing opportunity, but should be thoroughly researched before you go. Look at where you plan to be and find native run hospitality where possible to support local economy. Many hotels are built on Hawaiian cultural ancestral structures- Lanai Four Seasons is an example of this. When we arrived in that area, a plaque showed where temple ruins lay, but neglected to state that retaining walls and hotel structures incorporated stone from burial mounds. This thoughtless development is typical across most of the islands, and represents the ignorance of tourism for the sake of foreign investors who have no connection to place or respect for cultural history. The staff at this hotel work here because they have no other options on the remote island, and this unhealthy relationship with tourism perpetuates the exploitation we as visitors must become aware of.
It was a marvelous opportunity to rest, relax, and explore the unique biodiversity of a very special archipelago born of fire and water. Our family would love to return some day, but plan to make sure we go as well informed guests with some understanding of etiquette, and invest in locally run native family accommodations, tours, and cultural learning. As one native Hawaiian shared, rather candidly-
“People come to our islands to take selfies, lay on the beach getting drunk, and yelling at us to serve them another Mai Tai. They do not ask about our cultural heritage or listen to our stories. We are tired of marginalization and exploitation in our homeland. Hawaiians want to share our culture in the aloha spirit, not as tourist novelties, but as a proud people with rich cultural roots.”
These words helped me to look deeply at my own footprints in Hawaii, tracing my family’s connection to the islands and knowing it’s up to us and the future generations to see the wrongs of the past and work towards bridging cultural ignorance with open mind and heart. We again acknowledge the past colonial abuse and current exploitation of The Hawaiian People. Continued support of first nation people, specifically Hawaiians, can be found here. Be sure to make a visit to cultural centers when you travel anywhere to get some cultural awareness about place and people. Hawaiians are working hard to develop a better approach to tourism on the islands, we as welcomed guests can do our part to embrace the aloha spirit by listening, learning, and acknowledging.