Big Trip: Part 4 (Hawaii)

Tuesday, May 13
9:09 PM (Pacific Standard Time)

Wow. Being in an open-air airport is cool until a plane fires up in front of you. That noise was deafening for a few moments.

I’m in Honolulu with another four hours to wait until my flight back to Portland. I could take a bus down to Waikiki and a taxi back to the airport, but that would be somewhat pricey. Even though I’m missing out I think I’ll be able to entertain myself here. It’s nice to be able to feel the breeze, at least. I’m sitting in a semi-open corridor in front of a little garden, beyond which is the tarmac. I have dried papaya and a package of Kona coffee in my bag and a wilted lei around my neck, which was bestowed upon me four nights ago when I arrived in Hilo. When I departed the Big Island this afternoon I had to say goodbye to Justin, knowing that it’ll probably be another two years or so before I see him again. We are each living our own adventure and that’s fine—but it was really nice to have such a close friend around for a few days. I couldn’t stop crying on the flight between islands. Now I’m pretty well distracted with thoughts of dinner and ways to stay entertained and all the tasks I need to take care of when I get back to the mainland (foremost among them will be sleep!).

Today was mellow. I checked out of my Volcano hotel in the morning, then we went to a coffee shop in Hilo and I caught up with a friend from Humboldt who is living there. Didn’t want to stay in the coffee shop for too long, though, since outside the weather was sunnier and warmer than it had been during my whole stay. So we strolled through some of the bayfront parks for a while, enjoying some shade and warm breezes. On Coconut Island Justin showed me a palm tree that was marked to show the heights of four different tsunami waves that have hit Hilo during the past 60 years. It seemed like the sea, which was so calm today, is just biding time until another tsunami occurs.

Incidentally I met another former Humboldt resident today, a bearded man eating lunch at a natural foods café who noticed Justin’s Los Bagels T-shirt. He had lived in Humboldt for almost two decades and left for a warmer climate. It seems that a Humboldt-to-Hawaii trajectory is about as common as a Humboldt-to-Portland move. It’s hard to imagine both Portland and Hawaii having similarities to Humboldt when they are so different from each other. I wonder if all places around the country (maybe the world?) are more similar than I’m able to realize with my limited traveling experience.

Our trip to the Kona Coast was on Sunday. It was a long drive to get there, but worth the wait. The weather was overcast but drier than it was on the Hilo side of the island. Without sunscreen we managed to paddle a kayak across Kealakekua Bay to the Captain Cook Monument, snorkel for more than an hour, and paddle back without getting badly sunburned. Yeah, some burning took place and I have a tan line across the bridge of my nose where my glasses sit, but that’s a small price to pay. I had never gone snorkeling before, and it was pretty disconcerting when I first entered the deep blue to take my place among corals, fishes, sea slugs and urchins. I had rented some goggles with prescription lenses so I could see things clearly, but my sense of depth perception was off. I would worry that I was starting to get too close to some of these creatures, then tentatively stretch out my hand and realize that there was still reasonable distance between us. After I got comfortable in the water I could start to appreciate the wonders around me. There were dozens of different kinds of fish, almost all of them fluorescently colored and each one fascinating. Some were about the length of my pinky finger, but there were a few impressively large ones as well. When I listened closely I could hear them nibbling on the coral. A lot of them I recognized from a book about sea life that I think my grandma used to have. I must have studied that book a lot for the images to have stayed in my brain. A few of the names stuck, too, like angel fish and clown fish and parrot fish.

I managed to exit the water without touching any urchins or slipping and bruising myself on the rocks. I also managed to paddle back across the bay while keeping both eyes open most of the time. (As an inexperienced kayaker I tend to splash myself a lot, and the saltwater burns my eyes.) The sun was shining a little bit on our way back, making the water incredibly blue. Apparently it was too late in the afternoon for us to see spinner dolphins, which are common in that area. We could have gone to see dolphins at one of Kona’s resort hotels, but once we got back to shore we decided to stay on the main shopping strip and then get some dinner.


Tuesday, May 13
11:07 PM (Pacific Standard Time)

Still waiting. There are few places in the airport with all the following characteristics: comfortable seat, free Wi-Fi access, and an electrical outlet nearby. I was piggybacking on the Continental Airlines’ “President’s Club” network for a while, but apparently their signal reaches only a small part of this level of the airport.

I’m intrigued by the fact that my cell phone clock has adjusted to the local time. My laptop computer hasn’t.

Anyway, Monday (yesterday) is the one Hawaii day I haven’t covered yet. We started off with a treasure hunt at Rainbow Falls, near Hilo. My boss participates in the worldwide activity of “geocaching,” in which people hide little boxes and trinkets in locations that other seekers can find with a set of geographic coordinates and a few hints. I was given the geographic location of a cache near the waterfall, and my boss had given me a medallion to put in the cache. (The medallion is traceable; if you punch in a certain code somewhere on the official geocaching website, you can see where it has been.) Justin and I were looking for a small Rubbermaid container that was covered with camouflage tape and hidden under a boulder. We traipsed through some tall grasses and kept waving the GPS receiver around, looking for the correct spot. When we made it to the correct geographic location we found the boulder, but no evidence of anything buried or placed there. The river had flooded during winter and spring and had probably washed away the cache. Mission: unaccomplished.

After Rainbow Falls we paid a visit to Akaka Falls, which was pretty amazing. Justin remarked on the fact that people are so fascinated by falling water. Is that strange? There are many natural phenomena that look spectacular and/or push the limits of our understanding; but this is just a stream of the most common substance on earth, which happens to be falling over a cliff. Are we amazed that the water is able to keep on going after encountering such an obstacle?

I’m not going to get philosophical about waterfalls, so I’ll just mention another interesting phenomenon that I was able to witness in Hawaii. In grassy and forested areas there were tiny herbaceous plants that would physically respond to the touch of a finger—their little pinnate leaves would just fold in half. It was like touching a snail and watching it retreat into its shell. A person could be entertained for whole minutes by these plants.

We spent a little more time wandering around Hilo before making a climb of nearly 14,000 feet to the summit of Mauna Kea. There is a visitor center at about 9,000 feet, where we stopped to acclimatize. I stumbled like a drunk, feeling like I was about the fall down the slope of the mountain even though the path I stood on was nearly level. At the gift shop I bought a hot chocolate and a bumper sticker proclaiming, “Beware of Invisible Cows.” When you get high enough on Mauna Kea you are in the clouds, but you are also driving through cattle pastures. Except for that sticker most items in the gift shop followed an astronomy theme. That’s because Mauna Kea is home to several observatories, operated by about a dozen different countries. We saw them when we got to the top. It was difficult to walk around for very long because it was bitterly cold, and the altitude gave me a headache and made it hard to breathe. We were above the clouds and in a landscape completely different from everything I had known. The topography was jagged and dotted with craters from extinct volcanoes. The ground was covered with cinders and rocks of deep reddish brown. This is a place where people practice maneuvering the kinds of vehicles that will later be driven on the moon or on Mars (or so I hear). Adding to the surreal atmosphere was the fact that large swaths of hillside were coated with snow. It was an amazing place from which to watch the sun set. We had hoped to do some stargazing after dark, but the skies were too cloudy.

Being on an island messed with my sense of geography. I am used to orienting myself by using the ocean: if the sea is to my left, then of course I’m heading north. On an island there are two directions: toward the ocean and toward the mountain. Looking at the sun helped to remind me where I was in the grand scheme of things … but really, I was in the middle of nowhere. (Actually I still am, as I’m typing this.) It’s hard to fathom the distance between my hometown and me when it consists of nothing but ocean. On the mainland I can tick off the miles with highways and landmarks; not so on a trans-oceanic flight. Also the phrase “Pacific Standard Time,” the way we use it, seems a bit silly now.

I’m beginning to realize more of the value of traveling. I know this is cliché, but it broadens your perspective on the world and strengthens you. On this trip, with all my obligations fading into the distance (but not disappearing) I feel a little more alive and more aware of what is important. I also feel a little more brave about venturing into the next phase of my life: moving to a new city. I can’t really describe how or why. I just think it’s important to see new places, try new things, and be reminded that there’s much more to life than what you have going on at home. That said, I do feel a little homesick. Also I am more tired than philosophical at this moment.

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