What am I doing in Hawaii? Those that read my articles on Japan will have a good idea. For the lazy rest, let’s just say that some things are worth (ahem! women …) changing your plans for. So after a long flight from Taipei and back through Osaka, Japan, there I was in America.
And America it felt. For the first couple days, it felt strangely good to be in known territory again. Stores I am familiar with, a culture and a language I can understand, food that in spite of its lack of refinement, is only done properly in North America. Only for the first couple of days though, because soon enough, the large roads, oversized pick-up trucks with mags, poor public transportation, poor urbanization and a sprawling suburbia soon made me remember why our cities have such a bad reputation around the rest of the western world. Honolulu is no exception, it is just another American metropolis with daily traffic jams, sketchy neighborhoods and homelessness issues. Close inspection will reveal an Hawaiian twist to things, but if it was not the many hours of flying over the water, you would think you’re actually on the mainland. Downtown Honolulu really is many people’s idea of an idyllic place, which is why plane loads of foreigners and american retirees flock there when the weather on the northern hemisphere gets chillier. I even met my uncle, who along with my aunt has been snowbirding a couple of weeks out of the Canadian cold in a rental condo for the last couple of years. Literally steps away from the famous Waikiki, I did not really bother asking them how much their rent was, but I bet it was way beyond my current means. Also beyond those of most Hawaiians for that matter as a only few kilometers away the upscale hotels and shops abruptly fade to expose the harsh reality of city life in America.
Honolulu boasts a couple of nice museums and monuments, but its flagship attraction is definitely Pearl Harbour, the site of the eponymous attack by the Japanese in 1941. It takes at least two days to properly visit. What I managed to see on the two occasions that I managed to wake up early enough to make it worth the trip was the USS Bowfin, a WWII submarine, the USS Missouri, a battleship and the pacific aviation museum, which made for its lack of quantity with quality restored warbirds from the golden era of aviation. Otherwise, the Japanese might have you believe that Waikiki is the place to be and indeed, while they used to drop bombs on this island they now drop big dollars and invade by the thousands every week, especially in this area where it is said that they spend on average 500 to a 1000 dollars a day, While the famous beachfront street makes for a nice evening stroll, there is not much to it if you’re used to the concept of American style shopping or think your hard earned money shall be spent on something more worthwhile.
The island on which Honolulu is, O’ahu has a bit more to offer and Melissa and I devoted many afternoons driving around it to sample some of its foods, check some parks, beaches, skydiving (wanted to try but the weather was not on our side), etc. I wanted to take her out scuba diving as well, but it was too logistically complex so one weekday I woke up at 05h30 and went on my own. While certainly more expensive than your average tropical country, the quality of the equipment and overall level service left very little to be desired. I would not say the same about the diving itself though, to which I would only give the OK mark. The reef appeared to be in decent shape, the dolphins and whales were at their usual posts along the route to the wreck (an upside down landing barge) but there was just not much to see down there.
On the second dive, I found myself face to face with a sea turtle as I was exiting a swim trough. It was hiding immobile in a corner so the other divers had not seen it and when came the time for it to go back up for a gulp of air, it had to swim through a large cloud of divers into which a couple she bumped during here ascension, leaving them very surprised when they noticed who they had collided with. Much to the amusement of the Japanese group that was following us at a shallower depth. It’s hard to properly convey facial expressions with a full set of scuba gear on, but laughter is one that gets across pretty easily.
The Big Island part 1
Hawai’i, the state, is an archipelago and Hawai’i is its largest island. There are eight overall, and having exhausted all that I felt like doing around Honolulu, I had to go visit another and picked the most obvious one for three reasons. First, because it’s the one with most if not all of the active volcanoes on it (when you see images of Hawai’i, chances are they were taken there); second, it had one specific dive I really wanted to do. Third, because I friend I had made while in Honduras was staying there. To save some confusion, the Hawaiians have decided to name their eponymous land mass the big island, because it is big; go look for yourself on Google maps. Big enough so that it takes several hours if not an entire day to circumnavigate it by car, hence the absolute necessity to rent one because public transportation, as in most places on this continent, is lacking: consisting only of a couple of buses that circle the island every day. Also warned by Melissa and longing for the cathartic sensation provided by the open road, the decision was an easy one and I rented a set of wheels that I picked up in Hilo (the largest city) the morning after arriving on the island.
Once at the wheel, I immediately set out for the volcanoes national park, where the most active volcano on the island has been spewing gases and molten rock for as long as the records go back. No luck this year though; activity had receded so lava flows have hardened into a thick crust and no longer dump themselves into the ocean into a spectacular show of smoke and light. Still, past eruptions provide for a spectacular scenery and a lot of it can be viewed from the comfort of your vehicle or a short hike. It was already late in the afternoon, so with a map of the park in hand, I set out on the road down to the coast, stopped at a few craters and made it to the end, where the road has been covered by a lava flow that occurred in the 1980s. I timed everything so that by the time I would be back at the visitor’s center, night would have fallen and it would have become possible to see from a distance the glow of the lava lake inside the Kilauea projecting itself on the fumes. However, a thick fog had settled, making that impossible.
No worries, by leaving at this moment, I could arrive in time for the end of the free amateur stargazing session happening every night at the visitor center of Mount Mauna Kea, Hawai’i’s highest peak at 4205m and home to numerous telescopes. I had hoped that due to it’s altitude, the mountain would be free of weather obstruction but no luck again, the clouds had beaten me. A break in the cover let me see Jupiter and its Galilean moons, but that was it. Nonetheless content of having enjoyed such a great view of that planet, I got in my vehicle for the journey home. The thickness of the fog made the drive back a very long (but eerie) one where I often had to slow down significantly and put the four flashers on. In the end, I arrived at my hostel safe and sound but too mentally exhausted too do anything but watch TV with the receptionist and listen to his ramblings about conspiracy theories and generally stuff people that waste way too much time on the web like to talk about.
Having not seen enough of the Volcanoes national park, I set out for my second visit, which this time I dedicated to on foot rather than on wheels exploration. Walking inside and around volcanic scenery is as one would expect, spectacular, and I wish I had had all my camping equipment with me to go for a longer trek away from the crowd of day visitors. That night, I was suppose to meet Rimas (my diving friend from Honduras) on the other side of the island, so after a quick stop for a responsible wine tasting session at a local winery, I got behind the wheel and drove to Kailua-Kona, where after dropping my stuff at the hostel, I joined up with him at a local bar. You meet dozens of people on a weekly basis while travelling, a portion of which end-up on your Facebook account and an even smaller percentage you even stay in touch with, knowing however that the chances of you ever seeing them again are slim to none. Thus, it felt special to encounter Rimas so far from where initially came to know one other. He was my diving instructor in Utila, Honduras so it took me some minutes to do away with the student/teacher relation we had over there but once I had adjusted, we picked up were we left and had many stories to recount as the only constant within both of our lives had been travelling. For that night, I had booked a room at an affordable but very inconveniently located hostel; Kona, being a resort town, is very pricey. But for the remainder of my stay, Rimas kindly offered me an inflatable bed in his living room, which I gladly accepted, sort of expecting he would make that proposition, but too polite to ask for it outright.
Diving with Manta Rays
Having been shown videos of the famous Manta ray dive of Hawaii by a french guy while in Tokyo, it was clear I could not leave the big island without having swimmed with the “peaceful giants” myself. Rimas’ girlfriend, Sarah, was working as an instructor at one of the local dive shops and told me they offered it and went out pretty much every night. The next day upon awakening at my hostel, I grabbed the phone Melissa had kindly let me use while in Hawaii and called to inquire about availability for that same night, because the dive happens after sunset. The manta ray dive is simple in concept: a lot of people hold a lot of very powerful underwater torches, like flies to light, the plankton gets attracted in the beams and the mantas to the plankton.
We headed out in the middle of the afternoon, stopped along the way to watch a whale that was putting up a show for us and first dived the site at daytime. On the way up, a manta ray was spotted in the blue, a very good sign according to Sarah, because it meant more were around. Came back on the boat, had some sandwiches and waited for the sun to set while spinner dolphins were, well, doing spins around us. Nothing really would have prepared me for the awesome spectacle that was to come. There is an always eerie feeling of being underwater at night, with others waving beams of light all around, but what made the experience unbelievable was those large, several meters across, manta rays looping in the beams to gulp the congregating plankton, in the process getting so close that sometimes I had to duck out of the way or got brushed from behind. If only the surge had not been so strong. The only rock that I had to grab on already being a poor anchor, I soon noticed that my bare hand had been centimeters from a sea urchin. From there, I attempted to hold it between my legs, but to no avail, I still had to paddle around to keep myself stable and as a consequence exhausted my air fairly fast. For those of you that are interested in getting a video approximation of what it was like, click here.
Not so sure if we’re really doing a service to these animals by making feeding so easy for them, but listening to the staff explaining how it lets the dive community keep a close eye on the population by reporting each different sighting of an individual using a web tool, I convinced myself there was some good in it. Every manta ray sports a specific pattern of dots on its belly, which make them recognizable as each has inherited its own little name and apparently, those that have been diving the area for a long time know all 200 of them. A true relation of interdependence when you think about it: no manta rays, no divers; no divers, no money; and on completion of the logical loop: no money; no manta rays. Such is the reality of wildlife conservation on this day and age.
The Big Island part 2
Wanting to do some more hiking the next day, I brought up a Google map view of the area on my laptop and realized that the cinder cone of the nearby volcano was actually climbable. Great! Drove there, but nowhere was the entrance of the park to be found. Went back and forth, even asked local shops, no clue. Frustrated, I headed for my plan B, which was basically just a beach with some paths around it but too absorbed with my previous failure, I simply checked out the beach and went back to Rimas’ apartment. All hope was not lost, I could still go stargazing! There I called the tourism information center at the Mauna Kea observatory to ask if the skies were clear enough but once again, no, the cloud layer was again obstructing the view. Rimas’ came up with a great alternative: drink.
Full of good intentions the night before, I did not manage to wake up as early as I wanted on my last day, so I had to cancel my initial objective of going back to that stupid park and devote the remaining time I had with my rental vehicle to crossing the island back to the other side. Again, beautiful scenery, but the jungle had given way to a barren high altitude valley between the imposing Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. I was making good progress, so I figured time permitted for me to climb again to the Mauna Kea information center to enjoy the view at daytime, which I did and to my surprise found they had a telescope aimed directly at the sun. So for the very first time, I got to see with my own eyes solar flares and black spots, but through a filter of course. I was told that going further up to the top, where all the bigger telescopes are, required a 4×4, but I saw a few cars making the ascension and some other tourists confirmed that it was indeed possible. If I did go, I would need to extend my rental, but according to my interlocutors, the view was well worth it. Upon asking the astronomer on duty if he recommended it, his answer was a categorical no. Towing from 4000 meters high down to Hilo starts at a 1000$, rental places forbid it and tough it is possible by car, making it up with the underside of the vehicle unscathed requires a healthy dose of skills a chance. That settled it.
Satisfied with all the driving around that I did, I decided not to extend my rental and drove back to Hilo, surrendered my rental vehicle and got to the airport where I sat and worked for a good 8 hours while waiting for my flight back to Honolulu. A bit of productive time never hurts. It boggles me with it’s not possible to ferry between the islands, but as explained by Melissa, the service used to be available, but the airline companies lobbied hard and in the end managed to convince the lawmakers that ferries were worse for the environment and had the passenger ferries’ operating licenses revoked. Go figure.
Going halfway around the world for girls
The things we do for the ladies… If it was not for Melissa, I bet I would probably never have gone to Hawaii and for that alone I am grateful. While Honolulu is not my idea of a nice city, the big island definitely had a lot more to offer that I expected and I’m certain the other ones would be worth paying a visit to as well. I’ll be blunt: the overall appeal of Hawai’i is far lesser that any other place I’ve been so far, but as you might have guessed, sightseeing was not the priority, it was things that fall outside of the scope of this blog.
So in the end, I did not do much that is worth recounting on this post, I really lifted my foot of the pedal when it came to seeing and doing things. Not meaning that I did not spend any quality time there, quite the contrary, but It’s just as well that the pace slowed down because I needed a break. I needed a bit of boredom and sedentarity to feed the travelling bug. Once I got back from the big island, I was ready to head again into the Asian vortex and within a few days had booked my plane ticket to Singapore.