Hawaiians are nice people, if you don't pretend to be god.
By David Farley
People don't honk in Hawaii. Nor do they speed. Driving down Honolulu's congested main highway, H-1, I quickly learned that my California disposition was completely out of place. If pale skin didn't give me away as a non-islander, then the fact that I was driving 59 miles per hour-four miles above the speed limit-and passing cars like I was on the Autobahn, did. This was my first time in Hawaii and, to be honest, I wasn't sure if I'd like it. Images of overweight Midwestern tourists in thongs flashed through my mind. So did Don Ho, prefabricated beach hotels and women wearing muumuus. Then, minutes later, after arriving at a friend's house on the island-state's capital, I learned about "living aloha."
When you arrive in Hawaii, someone inevitably greets you with "aloha," a term that every American knows, whether they've set foot on Hawaiian soil or just watched too many episodes of Hawaii Five-0. But it's more than a greeting. In addition to functioning as "goodbye" and even "I love you," aloha is a state of mind. Remember the hospitality guests on Fantasy Island? "Smiles everyone. Smiles," Mr. Roarke would say, his plane-spotting midget glued to his side. That's aloha.
In 1776, English explorer Captain James Cook docked in Hawaii while the islanders were expecting the god of the harvest, Lonoikamakahiki (say that five times out loud and you'll turn into a crab). The Englishman was shown major aloha, the island's chief even offering up his own daughter for Cook. When a scuffle ensued and Cook started bleeding-thus revealing that he wasn't a god-the native Hawaiians bludgeoned him to death. Not very aloha.
On Oahu (one of the smallest, yet most populated of the seven islands), I drove aimlessly through Honolulu's streets hoping to receive some good aloha from the locals. I found it in the form of the "shaka." This gesture, made by forming a fist and leaving thumb and pinky finger erect, is used on the mainland by California surfers and lumpy middle-aged couples who've just returned from a Hawaiian vacation. But in Hawaii, the shaka is taken seriously. I flashed it at a fat man sitting on a bus stop bench. Without flinching he raised his shaka above his head like a sluggish yet victorious boxer. I was in business.
On the mountainous Round Top Drive, where the sky and sun gave way to rainforests, I rolled into Puu Ualakaa State Park. Here we saw Honolulu stretch from the massive crater at Diamond Head beach to Pearl Harbor. In between was the sprawl of boxy, high-rise, matchstick hotels and apartments. On the way down, twisting and turning through patches of rain and sunshine, a 20-something man on a scooter flashed me the shaka as we passed by. Nervous, I stuck out my hand, hoping to form the shaka, but instead I accidentally gave him the devil sign.
Eating Poke, Man
Of the five million people who visit Hawaii every year, three out of four stop on Oahu. Few venture far from Waikiki, Honolulu's beachy version of Fisherman's Wharf. ABC stores (translation: tourist traps) on every corner compete with small outdoor booths to hawk authentic Hawaiian kitsch-from wooden tiki idols to muumuus to blinding floral shirts.
What Waikiki-bound tourists don't experience, however, is authentic Hawaiian cuisine. And by this, I mean poke (pronounced 'po-kee'). Poke, cubes of raw fish mixed with spices and ingredients like seaweed and chives, is found in the seafood section of island supermarkets. Butchers happily let you sample eight to ten different kinds. Our favorite was the seaweed-peppered ahi tuna, octopus and fake crab (an unidentifiable, tasty white fish). Because one of Hawaii's chief pastimes is sitting on the beach, poke makes an excellent snack after battling the surf.
I ate poke every day, supplementing only with more raw fish. Sushi is ubiquitous in Hawaii. I figured this out during my first visit to a 7-11 on route the North Shore. Where parched hot dogs and oily nachos sit for hours under heat-lamps at mainland 7-11s, in Hawaii sit "special" sushi rolls: "Spam Masubi," a hunk of America's favorite "meat" on top of a block of rice. According to my hosts, Spam is huge in Hawaii and native Hawaiians eat it with just about everything, even disguising it as sushi. Despite my eagerness to show aloha, my diplomatic career stumbled when I failed to eat Spam sushi.
Later that night, I sighed with relief when Spam Masubi wasn't on the scribbled menu at Tokkuri-Tei (611 Kapahulu Ave. Suite 102, Honolulu, 808-739-2800). In fact, this downtown eatery served the best nigiri I'd ever had (keep in mind, I've never been to Japan). Washed down with a few bottles of nigori (cold unfiltered) sake, I was ready to start spreading some of my own aloha.
Livin' on a Prayer
The next day, I visited the dumpy Kam Super Swap Meet in West Honolulu near Pearl Harbor. Most residents come here to buy reasonably priced fresh fish. As far as I could see, few people cared about the junk-and I mean "junk" in the strictest sense of the word. Under a shaded area near the snack bar, a few locals slumped over picnic tables, beaten down by the heat. A karaoke machine played instrumental music-until I grabbed the mic. I wanted to give something back to the Hawaiians. I wanted to say "aloha" in my own special way. "Let's get this party started," I belted into the mic as the beginning riffs of Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer" began. "Where's the aloha at this swapmeet today?"
"Tommy used to work on the docks," I crooned, as people gathered around the snack bar. "Union men on strike he's down on his luck. It's tough." It was like being in a rock video. By the end of my tune, the people who originally looked tired and sad were clapping. "Thank you Hawaii!" I said. "I'm here all week." A few minutes later, a woman working the snack bar gave me a half-price soda because she liked my performance. I didn't expect such a quick return on my aloha.
While "speeding" past cars on the H-1 on the way back to the airport, I realized that my initial impression of Hawaii wasn't completely wrong: it's difficult to take someone seriously when they're wearing a muumuu. But even though I spent four days doing little besides sitting in a house with a drink, complaining about the heat (except for when I was driving around in a car, drink in hand, complaining about the heat), Hawaii isn't so bad. Where else can you sing Bon Jovi songs at a swapmeet (and get an ovation), dress like an extra in a Jimmy Buffet video (without being laughed at) and-as I did on the way to the airport-get pulled over for driving four miles above the speed limit on the superhighway (and not get a ticket)? That's aloha.