Sunday, June 10, 2007

Stickwick in Paradise

Just got back from a conference trip to Honolulu, and gotta say that for all her problems, Hawai'i is one fantastic place to visit. I had heard so many negative things about how the tourists are treated by the locals, that, like with my trip to Paris, I was dreading the experience only to find that it was quite pleasant.

[Lots of pretty pictures to follow, none of which are mine. I forgot my camera at home.]

I loved the weather on O'ahu. Never gets above 85 degrees, cools down nicely at night. We arrived in the evening, pretty groggy from all the flying; after a good night's rest we hit the beach early the next day. As an astronomer, I should have been prepared for the fact that the sun is almost directly overhead at such a low latitude -- for comparison, I grew up in Prince George, B.C., latitude ~54 deg, am now living in central Texas, latitude ~ 30 deg, and Honolulu is ~21 deg. Even though the daylight hours are shorter this close to the equator, the sunlight goes through less air mass during peak hours, and you really increase your burn potential. I got a burn on my face the first day at the beach, and one of my colleagues ended up with blisters (ouch). Great way to identify yourself as a schmaltzy tourist, as opposed to the mahogany-colored caucasian locals.

This is the first place I've been to where I've not been in the racial majority, or even plurality. Whites constitute about 40% of the population, with the rest being mostly a mix of Japanese and Polynesian. The islanders are mostly very attractive people, some of them breathtakingly so.

Attractive locals

I did almost all of the typical O'ahu things a tourist can/should do the first time there:

Waikiki -- Honolulu surprised me at first with its urbanness. Think of downtown L.A. pushed right up onto the beach, except most of the high-rises are hotels and condos. It's a pretty beach, but very touristy. Endless shops and restaurants. The all-purpose tourist ABC stores are everywhere. Driving through Waikiki one night a colleague stopped counting at 16 shops, some of them directly across the street from each other. Did some clothes/souvenir shopping at the open-air market. I think one of the vendors scammed my credit card number here -- when I got back to Texas, my bank called and said that someone was attempting to make numerous charges on my account. Waikiki must have the highest concentration of living statues in the world. One was really good, the rest were kind of pathetic. Some good street musicians, including a very short ukelele player, sort of a miniature Don Ho. Lots of street artists, too.

Luau -- Went to the famous Royal Hawaiian Hotel for a luau. Probably not the most authentic experience, but it was lots of fun. Food was incredible. Roast pork is the feature, but also had mahi mahi, and a variety of teriyakis. Poi is pretty bland. Had my share of mai tais and coladas. The entertainment was first-rate. The hula girls were beautiful and talented, and the men were quite appealing and agile. We saw Hawai'i's best fire-knife dancer, and he was pretty good. A few schmaltzy singers, Don Ho-style, but I like that kind of stuff. The stars came out, Diamond Head was in the distance, the surf was rolling in on the beach behind the stage, and you just felt like life couldn't get any better.

Waikiki beach -- Royal Hawaiian in the foreground, Diamond Head in the distance

Ala Moana -- We stayed at the conference hotel, the Ala Moana. Very nice. Adjoins Hawai'i's premier shopping center, the Ala Moana Mall, home to designer shops with $800 handbags. Zillions of Japanese tourists shopping here. One block to the Ala Moana beach park, which I liked better than Waikiki beach. It's family-oriented, no scammers and weirdos. The water is the perfect temperature -- cold when you first jump in and then really nice. Water is extra-buoyant here, so you can float with no effort.

Dinner cruise -- I forgot to mention that my aunt joined me on this trip. Hubby couldn't get away from work, so I took her instead. We did the ultra-schmaltzy dinner cruise on the Star of Honolulu, a four-deck cruise ship that goes out to Diamond Head and back to the Aloha Tower, all the while serving you filet mignon, endless crab legs, and all the tropical drinks you can handle. The food and drinks were very good, but the entertainment was kind of dorky. You could tell the entertainers had done this a million times before, and it was old hat. There was one particular dance, I think it was Maori, that required the men to jump around and yell, and one of them got his kicks out of going right up behind unsuspecting old ladies and scaring the daylights out of them with a sudden yell. It was on this little excursion that I discovered I don't like boats very much. The minimal rocking bothered me, and the thought of being dumped in a shark-filled ocean should there be an emergency (unlikely, as that was) had me anticipating our return to shore very much. I can only imagine how I would have fared on something like this.

Dog the Bounty Hunter -- My aunt and I are fans of the show, and she really wanted to see the Da Kine Bail Bonds office. I was too shy to go, fearing that Beth would come out and yell at us. While I was at a lecture session (one of only two I attended the whole eight days I was in Honolulu) Auntie called Da Kine to see if it was OK to come for photos, Leland answered and said by all means come over. She got her photos, and now I wish I had gone with her.

Duane Chapman -- Dog the Bounty Hunter

Pearl Harbor -- This was the highlight of the trip. We visited the USS Bowfin first. The Bowfin is a Balao-class submarine that accomplished several missions without being sunk. Very cramped quarters. I'm 5'8" and had a hard time maneuvering around the sub, so I imagine the men serving there must have been of compact stature. I wondered what it was like to be submerged in such a cramped environment and started to feel the edges of a cold panic coming on. The men serving aboard her were probably too concerned with their missions and the threat of being sunk to indulge in claustrophobia. Then we visited the USS Arizona Memorial. You watch a 25-minute film before you take the ferry out to the memorial. Very sobering. I understood for the first time that the attack on Pearl Harbor was a calculated strategical move on the part of the Japanese, and didn't seem to represent any built-up hostility towards the U.S. But the scope of the attack was staggering when you watched the film and saw the destruction. Sailing across the harbor in our little ferry, the sun shining, and everything so serene, you could hardly believe this was the site of so much carnage. It's hard to describe what it's like to stand over an underwater cemetery -- almost a thousand men perished inside the Arizona, the names of whom are emblazoned on a wall in the memorial. From the look of it, lots of brothers perished together, and a few father-son teams. Next was the Mighty Mo, the USS Missouri, famous site of the Japanese surrender. Being aboard the Mighty Mo made me wish for just a moment that I was a man in the Navy serving aboard a battleship during World War II. It was that cool. I would go stark raving mad aboard a submarine, but living on a battleship would be swell. It was kind of cramped quarters there, as well, but there was so much of it, and you know you could always go on deck. The guns were super-impressive. What I wouldn't give to be on deck when those things were going off. Later, we munched on hot dogs and ice cream sandwiches at the commissary, and marveled at how American we felt. It was wonderful.

USS Missouri, the Mighty Mo

Diamond Head -- On our last day in Honolulu, we decided to climb Diamond Head. As the signs say, this is no casual stroll through a tree-filled park. It's 0.8-mi. to the peak with no shade except for the tunnel near the top. You wouldn't think of arid high-desert-like scrubbiness on a tropical island, but there it was. Just before you reach the peak, you take a very long straight stair and then a winding stair, which made me think of how Frodo and Sam reached Cirith Ungol. The hot, sweaty climb up is rewarded by an incredible view of the Pacific where you can see Molokai and Maui in the distance. There is an old embattlement here, which was used during wartime. When we reached the bottom, we headed straight for the fresh-pineapple stand, and let me tell you, there is nothing so incredibly satisfying as freshly-sliced cold pineapple after a climb like that. Food of the gods. After that we drove around to Hanauma Bay, famous for its snorkeling wonderfulness (which we skipped), and then visited the famous Halona Blowhole. The Pacific is breathtakingly gorgeous here. Clear, crystal blue, and going on for thousands of miles. On the way home, we hit McDonald's, and noted the infamous Spam on the menu.

View from the top of Diamond Head crater

There was an astronomical conference amidst all this wonderfulness. I gave my talk (about the biggest galaxies in the universe, I'll post on this soon), attended only two lecture sessions, and spent the rest of my time enjoying myself with absolutely no guilt or regrets. Oh, yeah -- I got over my fear of flying, too. It was smooth as silk flying LAX to Hawai'i, but pretty darned bumpy coming back. I was so tired, I didn't even care.

We were all sad to leave Hawai'i, and are now contriving reasons to go back. There's a kind of magic to the South Pacific. Some describe it as the spirit of Aloha. I don't know if I can describe it, but you feel perhaps that this is what Paradise was like before Adam and Eve got kicked out. I felt completely relaxed and at peace. For once in my life all sense of ambition, angst, worry, and urgency just evaporated, and I felt that I understood what it meant to simply exist. I think that might wear on me after a while, especially when my lack of ambition resulted in a lack of means to support myself, but it's an experience every hard-working person should have on a regular basis. It was absolutely magical for those eight days, and I can't wait to go back.


Anonymous alex. said...

As a young Marine (some 20 years ago)I spent three years on the Hawaiian Islands. I loved it! It truly is paradise. I never had any bad experiences with the locals, even though I spent a good bit of time off of the beaten path. I've told my long-suffering bride that we'll go someday. ALOHA!

6/21/2007 4:36 PM  
Blogger DirtCrashr said...

If you thought you liked Oahu, wait 'till you get a load of Maui. We keep going back.

6/26/2007 10:46 AM  
Blogger Stickwick Stapers said...

This just goes to show that you can't rely on everyone else's perspective.

I got advice from someone who lived in Honolulu for three years and seemed pretty bitter about the experience. Thank goodness I didn't take his advice -- I ended up liking everything he hated.
dirtcrashr, he said Maui was a tourist dump, but I'll take your word for it and visit there next time.

alex, I hope you can get your wife there soon! I can't wait to go back with my husband.

6/30/2007 9:20 AM  

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