The International Writers
As the jet descends,
I am struck by the unrelenting severity of the volcanic mountains
a regurgitation of leathery-faced rock punching skyward. Like Autumn leaves
that hang on tenaciously, I hold my breath as the jet descends and seems
to glide before skipping a beat when landing. As the jet parks in front
of its gate at Oahu Main Terminal, there is a rush of loosened seatbelts
and that sudden nervous chatte
First impressions of Oahu
the air at night, towns and cities across America speckle the
black velvet of land like gold dust. The landscape looks like
a lit up computer chipboard. The black ink sky eases its way to
a lazy haze of Florida orange and then to that of a swimming pool
blue. The jet floats over clouds that are more reminiscent of
torn cotton balls. Approaching Hawaii, the islands look like dark
green apparitions of barnacles suspended above a haze of sea.r
of relief. "Aloha," crackles through the onboard PA
Hawaii from Space
Sunrise in Lanikai © Clive Branson
friends, Jim and Barbara Wiecking, greet me with the traditional
lei which nowadays is only honoured to those who are in a tour group.
I havent seen Jim since we were 14 and attending school in
Belgium 30 years ago. The Wieckings live in Kaneohe, a bedroom
community about a half-hour drive north of Honolulu. The evening
is immersed in hours of reminiscing. I finally go to bed around
1 a.m., but by 5 a.m., the wild roosters that roam this neighbourhood
are crowing, claiming their territory. Vehicles have already become
red corpuscles along coagulated arteries like Pali Highway or on
the celestial H3 route.
The sky sheds its dark, dank overcoat as the sun peaks over the distant
eastern hilltops and yawns against the grandeur of the jagged, Cathedral-spired
Koolau Mountain Range, transforming the sheer 4,000 foot wall from
a deep emerald green to a tropical, effervescent aqua hue.
Though Oahu is only 608 sq. miles in circumference, the micro-climates
are schizophrenic: often during the day, you can simultaneously experience
precipitous valleys between the steep, craggy volcanic mountain ranges
of Koolau (from the southeast to the mid-north) and the rugged Waianae
Mountain Range along the west; sun-soaked paradise in the south while
the north is like an vortex of blustering winds. Regardless, Oahu
isnt so much divided by geography but rather by social structure.
Each class clings to their own turf like lupids to rocks, from the low-income,
unpropitious areas of Kalihi and Makaha in Waianae (West); and the middle-and-upper
class serenity of Manoa and Nuuanu, to the ultra-exclusive echelon
in Waianae-Kahala/Kailua. Its a territorial thing that applies even
to the Mormons, whose objective is to convert all of Polynesia into Mormonism,
have their own university, banks and cloistral compound. The Polynesian
Cultural Center is virtually their headquarters. Going to the Center to
see Hawaiian culture is a bit like going to Disneyland to see America.
Then there is the military, who amass in their own subculture in the tens
of thousands on self-contained bases and in married quarters; to the tourists,
who rarely venture beyond the beach kitsch of Waikiki where it is almost
an Epiphany to Shop. Sun. Sand and Surf.
"Suburbia is where the developer bulldozes out the trees, then
names the streets after them." B. Vaughan
As the "gathering place," Oahu is not only the seat of
the state government and Hawaiis financial and business capital,
it is also the home of nearly three-quarters of the states total
population. Officially, Oahu belongs to the city and county of Honolulu
which also includes the uninhabited Leeward Islands that stretch a thousand
miles northwest of Kauai, making it virtually the largest "city"
in the world. However, Oahu is a bit of a paradox. Its attraction
is also its greatest threat. The stratospheric rise in population may
improve progress but at a price. Whatever land is available is usurped
by voracious developers. The Federation for American Immigration Reform
states that Hawaii loses 1,400 acres of open space and farmland annually
to development. Already, 31,000 Hawaii households are defined as "severely
crowded" by housing authorities. Education suffers due to a hemorrhage
of students and must improvise space as classrooms.
The population explosion seems to be ignored by rapacious union leaders
and short-sighted, timid city councilors. The island is over-developed,
spoilt, polluted and so expensive that young residents can no longer live
there. To put salt on a wound, the U.S. Census Bureau forecasts that Hawaii
will be the fastest growing state between 2000 and 2025; its population
will increase by 44 percent. If remedial action isnt initiated by
the Hawaiian government, such as stricter immigration policies, the impact
may become irreparable the population size will be disproportionate
with the islands size. Of course there is the environment issue:
What was once considered "the Garden of Eden," the pretty, uninhabited
island of Kahoolawe, just off Maui, has for fifty years been a target
for bombing practice by the U.S. military. Through the efforts of people
like Hawaiian Senator, Daniel Inouye, the bombing has now ended but the
island is off-limits due to severe contamination and an unaccountable
number of unexploded bombs scattered around like Jack-in-the-Boxes.
I asked Jim, a 35-year resident of Oahu, whether Oahu is turning
into a bloated Eden? "Hawaii manages by crisis," quips Jim as
we sip coffee in a Kailua café. "The troubles are monumental.
Its a Vegas mentality." He leans forward pushing up his glasses
from the brim of his nose with his forefinger, "Hawaii has an inadequate
water preservation system that relies almost exclusively on spring water,
its longevity, unknown. Yes, we collect rainwater, but only for Oahus
arid areas. Do you think that could support 2 million people in an emergency?
Were surrounded by water that we dont desalinate."
A waitress refills our cups.
"We have no windmills or solar-power on Oahu," he continues.
"Our oil is brought in every day by barge. And although H3 (Highway
3) has been a blessing, we havent developed an infrastructure such
as a rapid transit system, like a ferry fleet or monorail system, to handle
our soaring population. Consequently, there is no governmental control
on land or rent control. We are raising the standard of living prices
beyond acceptable means." He pauses and looks out into the distance,
"I love it here, but I dont know whats going to happen
to this island. Our greatest resource is excuses." I later learn
that there has been an initiative to launch a car-ferry service, however;
like anything political, the proverbial nod depends on who gets the credit
and who makes the profit. There is no question that Oahu is the
nucleus of the Hawaiian chain and will remain so, despite official efforts
to shift growth to other islands. Oahu is Hawaiis Mecca for
culture, variety and excitement.
original inhabitants of the Hawaiian islands are believed to have
been the descendants of Asiatic peoples though Polynesian voyageurs
from the Marquesas were probably the first to discover the islands
as a settlement around A.D. 500-750. Tahitians were the next group
to reach Hawaii 500 years later. These new arrivals are thought
to have conquered and enslaved the Marquesans. At the time of Cooks
discover in 1778, the islands were a series of fiefdoms under warring
kings. It was King Kamehumeha, from the Big Island, whose conquest
of the islands was cemented with a terrifying conclusion in 1795
at what is now Pali Outlook. Kamehumehas army had routed a
combined opposition of Oahu and Maui chieftains and driven
them up the perilous incline of Nuuanu Valley. Many of the
defeated warriors perished by leaping over the cliffs to avoid capture.
More than 800 skulls have since been found at the bottom of the
Hulia Fishpond © Clive Branson
With the advent of whaling ships in 1819, whites, known as haoles by the
locals, were quietly undermining Kamehamehas peaceful leadership
and culture. In 1814, Kauikeaouli, Kamehameha III, became king. He introduced
the Declaration of Rights ending Hawaiis days as an absolute monarchy.
Thirty years later, he enacted The Great Mahele (division), effectively
eliminating the feudal system between the islands. Although a very magnanimous
gesture, Kaukeaouli allowed the ownership of land to be granted to commoners
and commercial investors, this merely invited entrepreneurs to seize control.
And it didnt take long. The next king in 1875, David Kalakaua, was
forced to sign the Bayonet Constitution, granting ex-pats living in Hawaii
the right to vote, confirming their increasing influence in the islands.
The last monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, the only reigning queen, realizing
the political dominance the white business community had amounted (particularly
from sugar and pineapple plantations), recommended a new Hawaiian constitution,
seeking to empower herself and Native Hawaiians, but her ministers feared
financial reprisals from the likes of the Annexation Club; a group of
white plantation owners, who in 1893, overthrew the monarchy and placed
in a puppet provisional government. Despite President Grover Clevelands
attempt to restore the monarchy, Queen Liliuokalani was arrested and imprisoned
after she was accused of attempting a counter-revolution. In 1898, under
Clevelands successor, William McKinley, a joint resolution of the
U.S. Congress approved official annexation of Hawaii in 1900. By 1959,
after years of debate, Hawaii became the 50th U.S. state.
Though the Tahitians have had a profound influence on Hawaiian history,
bringing their language, customs, government and religion to the islands,
one is struck by the influx of Japanese (40% of the total population)
and their impact is obvious from architecture to cemeteries to the number
of restaurants and Japanese cars. Regardless, Oahu may pride itself
as the most successful multicultural society in the world with a significantly
higher percentage of multiracial marriages than anywhere else. It is a
very gentle and non-confrontational society demonstrated by such un-American
acts as illegalizing all handguns. It is unusual even to hear a motorist
use their car horn, but there are 50 pages in the Yellow Pages dedicated
to litigation lawyers. TV has also been a dubious persuader, eroding the
traditional strong values replaced by vulgarity, greed and social degradation.
Lei of the Land
Do you remember the flashy, exotic scenes that introduced the TV
show, Hawaii 5-O? Well, Oahu is all of that, only the police
station isnt Iolanis Palace. And Honolulu is the pulse
of the island. The capital is like any other metropolis, with a
rainforest canopy of glass edifices, cereal-boxed-and-Cubist apartments,
but cleaner and with palm trees. What makes the city different is
its distinct contrasts, squeezed together like Velcro lovers: Chinatown,
without the squalid and frenzied feel about it, but a clean, quiet
and inviting sense of pride. The concrete jungle of the financial
sector, the affluent galleries, the open market spread, the expansive
university peppered around town, and the tourist-addicted Harborfront.
Beside the Iolani Palace is the Hawaii State Capitol, a unique piece
of architecture. Its open-air roof looks like the mouth of a volcano
and reflects the welcoming persona of the land and its people while
pillars rise like coconut trees, symbolizing the eight larger islands.
Wakiki Sunset © Clive Branson
It seems that locals either drive or jog, but rarely walk. Wallpapered
with the latest pick-ups, SUVs and expensive foreign cars, they drive
like they are on Prozac. Finding a parking meter spot is as rare as finding
Don Ho. And its probably cheaper to pay for a parking ticket from
a cop than pay the underground parking fares. Tickets are sometimes mistaken
for home mortgages. Oahu depends on tourism as their main GNP, catering
to six million visitors annually two million being Japanese. A
couple of decades ago, city council eradicated the unshaven stigma from
the name of Waikiki (meaning "mosquito swamp"). Gone are the
shady and dilapidated storefronts, dark alleyways where the shadows had
teeth and scummy sidewalks. The whole area of Waikiki was placed in detox,
ridding the municipality of vagrants, prostitutes, traffickers, brothels
and given a clean, healthy bill. Today, Waikiki is spotless, bright with
wide boulevards and window displays of upscale boutiques, hotels and condos,
encouraging tourists to return to their annual pilgrimage.
From Honolulu, take H1 (Highway 1) to Pearl Harbor. Most of the base,
which is shared between the Navy, Air Force and Army, is off limits, nevertheless,
one can still see one of the most formidable battleships ever built
the USS Missouri. Involved in three wars from World War II to the Persian
Gulf, its massive bulk was judiciously scribed into history books,
not so much for its role in the fighting, but rather as the site where
the Japanese signed the armistice to end the Second World War. Submerged
only a thousand yards from the great battleship, is the USS Arizona. The
two represent Americas involvement in the war from defeat to victory.
An interesting sidenote is if you venture to the hilltops of Aiea, one
is struck by two things: first, the breathtaking beauty of the panoramic
vista of Honolulu, and second; the sobering understanding as to how easy
it was for someone like Takeo Yoshikawa to spy on Pearl Harbor leading
up to December 7, 1941. Certain buildings on the Pearl Harbor base are
still pock-marked by the strafe of Japanese fighter plane bullets during
that day of infamy. A little reminder not to take anything for granted.
It is the starkness, the apparent hush that looms over like a blanket
and the profound order of the Punchbowl National Memorial Cemetery of
the Pacific that makes it so poignant. Lady Columbia, standing 30 feet
high in white marble, symbolizes all grieving mothers and immediately
draws you towards her like a magnet. She is the centerpiece of a semi-circle,
pillared courtyard that displays battle scene tableaus of each of the
Pacific battles. It is the resting place for over 33,000 identified and
unidentified soldiers from the Spanish-American War to the present. The
tourists are solemn, the locals bring flowers and the Japanese take photographs.
A spectacular experience is to travel on the John A. Burns Freeway (named
after the first state governor of Hawaii), known locally as simply H3
or as the "Road to Nowhere." It is the newest highway (completed
in the 1990s) and is the most dramatic and astonishing engineering feat
in Oahu, costing $1.3 billion federal tax dollars. Like the Upper
Corniche along the Côte dAzur, H3 gradually ascends into nose-bleed
country (mostly by bridge and tunnel) scaling almost 4,000 feet, engulfed
by towering fir, eucalyptus, pakuki and bayan-covered cliffs (pali) and
snakes it way above these tree-tops and into the cool mist where the Koolau
Mountain peaks play hide-and-seek with the clouds. Warning, there are
few exits until you reach Kaneohe but if you car breaks down, emergency
telephones are every 500 yards.
Prior to H3, there were two predominant routes: Pali Trail, running down
from the Nuuanu Pali gap in the Koolau Range. This was the
first road to dissect the mountains, connecting Honolulu to Oahus
westward coast. Construction workers on the site reportedly came across
the skeletal remains of the ill-fated Oahu warriors. Likelike (pronounced
"leak-eh-leak-eh"), was completed shortly after the Pali Highway
as the highway through the mountains between Honolulu and the windward
coast in the early 60s. The freeway was named after Princess Miriam
Likelike, younger sister of Hawaiis last two monarchs.
Of course, most tourists come to Hawaii for dreams and beaches. I witnessed
such a family on Kailua Beach. A middle-aged couple with their daughter
and her over-solicitous boyfriend, pretending to have a good time on ocean
kayaks and soon discovering how difficult it is to paddle against an oceans
current. They returned after a lengthy battle of wits but a short distance
on time. For their efforts were pools of sweat under their armpits and
backs, red-faced, sun-burnt, exasperated and muttering obscenities about
their fun in the sun. In fact, you will be warned that many beaches on
Oahu have severe riptide or under-toe. On-the-other-hand, if you
love nature flexing her muscle and the rumble you hear is both the waves
and the excited gossip of the locals, there is no better place to be during
winter than the renowned North Shore.
When you mention the North Shore, the eyes of surfers glisten with either
enthusiastic respect or dreaded fear, for they know you are talking about
the Banzai Pipeline. At the Pipe the reefs have penetrating teeth. Covered
in dangerous underwater caves, the reef has killed more surfers than any
other sport. The water is only 2 to 6 feet deep on average and not nearly
enough water to safely cushion a wipeout. A month before I arrived, a
local surfer, Joaquin Velilla lost his life there and last December, Malik
Joyeux, drowned at the Pipe.
During winter, the swells from Alaska build up momentum and with unimpeded
speed, penetrate the North Shore with relentless thundering velocity.
The breakers, displaying their neon-green underbelly, crumble into a lace-work
of white froth. The thickness of the wave has enough wallop to crush a
body like a pretzel stick against the shallow reef. It is of little surprise
that the waves command religious reverence and are embellished with names
like "Jaws" and the "Wall" by the surfing fraternity.
I stand in awe watching natures performance.
Further down the road at the notorious Waimea Bay, the surfing community
still embrace a vagabond and cavalier attitude towards life. What was
once sneered at as a social stigma has now been accepted as a fashionable
commodity. During the month of February, those on the North Shore seem
to awaken from their bohemian reverie and congregate with the worlds
best surfers for international surfing contests and bragging rights. Waves
two-to-four stories high are common, barreling in with such frighteningly
explosive energy that they can flow over the beachfront road. Such events
offer, what 8-time World Champion, Kelly Slater says: "are the greatest
10 seconds on earth."
© Clive Branson
April 5th 2007
New York State
all rights reserved - all comments are the writers' own responsibiltiy
- no liability accepted by hackwriters.com or affiliates.