It’s true. I have been stuck in Hawaii for three weeks.
This place feels like it is from an America of the near future. It’s diversity of national origin and strange linguistic cauldron places it much closer to say, Singapore, on the spectrum of human life than it does to other surf and beach friendly regions of the United States such as California. A cuisine that mixes Spam with everything: Spam with ramen noodles, Spam rolled into rice and seaweed in a burrito-like concoction. Everybody wearing board shorts and inked up with tribal tattoos.
I was expecting maybe California with rainforests. Chalk it up to ignorance.
I spent the past two weeks waiting to hitch a ride on an Air Force cargo plane heading to Guam so I can continue writing a series of articles about security in the Asia/Pacific region. I know that method of transit sounds crazy, but it’s how I got to Hawaii in the first place. Why reinvent the wheel?
So, while waiting for my Guam opportunity to no avail, I decided to make a trip to Hawaii’s big island the old fashioned way: buying a ticket on a Hawaiian Airlines island hopper. I could even crash with an old friend of mine in Hilo, who is now out of the active army and attending college.
The flight from Oahu to Hawaii is quick, about 45 minutes. If you get a window seat, you can see the Hawaiian islands unfolding before you like a 3D rendering of satellite imagery on Google Maps. I noticed the thirty-something man sitting next to me was practicing the recital of songs printed in the Hawaiian language: he would close his eyes, quietly chant, then raise his hands and gaze skyward.
When the time came for us to begin our landing approach, he folded the sheet of paper with the songs up, placed it in his pocket, and stared out the window. I turned to him.
“It seemed like you were practicing for something. Can I ask what it was?”
He explained over the course of a minute or two that he and many others would be performing in the Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo, a celebration of indigenous hula tradition. He assumed I was flying in to watch it.
I listened intently. When he was done explaining the purpose of his trip, I turned to him and calmly said:
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, man.”
Kiai, as he introduced himself to me, explained the festival’s background. When Christian missionaries arrived in Hawaii in the 19th century, they encountered a community of souls who transmitted their historical and genealogical memory through ceremony associated with the Hula dance. As such, this dance was understandably considered sacred.
But the missionaries saw a big problem with this tradition: the Good Book wasn’t available in dance format. As such, the practice of hula dancing became discouraged and eventually officially banned in the Hawaiian islands in favor of the adoption of a written Hawaiian language employing the Roman alphabet.
The 1960s saw a rediscovery of native tradition. The annual Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo, the site King Kamehameha’s chose as capital of his unified Hawaiian kingdom, was born and became recognized as the industry standard.
Participation in this festival as a dancer is considered a tremendous honor, and Kiai had been preparing for months – really, years. We exchanged contact information, and he assured me he would give me a ring if he could get me a ticket into the sold-out event (this call never materialized unfortunately, but I am certain Kiai and his crew performed admirably).
We de-planed and parted ways.
At that point I linked up with Youngstown, Ohio native Jimmy Z., Jr. Jim and I passed a very strange year of my life with at a place called “Fort Drum,” a desolate frontier Army outpost situated on the tundra which straddles the Ontario/New York border. Jim is now enrolled in a core science curriculum at University of Hawaii, Hilo, having completed his time as a communications specialist in the Army. While we were still working together, he once asked me to fill in for him as guest speaker at a MENSA event in Syracuse, NY due to conflicting obligations on his part (at this event I primarily discussed the concept of counterinsurgency. While I was returning to my car, several members of the audience approached me to privately lay claim to possession of psychic abilities. Such phenomena relate directly to the outcome of my time on Hawaii, but I’ll get to that in Part II).
Jim and his crew in Hilo are an interesting, very well read, very technology savvy bunch. Over the course of several hours, we engaged in a conversation which jumped from the implications of google glasses and 3D printing, to science fiction, to issues of race in Hawaii.
It was at that point when I brought up the Merrie Monarch festival – relating what I had learned on the flight in.
Like myself, Jim and those of his friends present that night are white. After discussing Hawaii’s unpleasant history of cultural genocide against native Hawaiians, the talk turned to what it was like to grow up Caucasian in a place that is defined by such strong non-Caucasian cultural influences. At this point I was formerly introduced to the word “haole” (I also connected the dots that I had been called the term during an earlier transit of Oahu’s beaches without realizing what it meant).
Haole is a native Hawaiian word which means “breathless one.” It was used to describe the original white settlers of the Hawaiian islands, as they did not employ “aloha” as a greeting, a term intended to breathe life into those it was rendered unto. Similar, in a sense, to the Arabic “kaffir,” a slur Islamic slave traders used to describe the non-believers they traded as human chattel and eventually came to be adopted by white South Africans to describe black South Africans during the apartheid era. Or, really, any ethnic slur adopted by Europeans, Asians, Africans, or Meso-Americans throughout history.
It was during this conversation that we all grappled with the universal human propensity for racism. A propensity visible in all cultures throughout history, manifested in variously hideous forms. Our seemingly hard-wired desire to identify with our tribe over all others. What did we think was necessary to overcome it?
“Cobb” Denig, one of Jim’s friends, is a young man who is fond of wearing American flag bandanas. He is also very, very smart – at one point he took about 45 minutes to explain the concept of philosophy’s game theory to me. He also shared several stories of racism’s receiving end during his childhood, one that was made even more challenging for many other reasons. These stories included being routinely harassed at school, denied meals, and even a time he was thrown through the glass of a second story window. To ensure a balanced account, he related stories of native Hawaiian friends and mentors, and offered some wisdom he has picked up through the years.
“After seeing how racism can affect people, I guess it is ingrained in my deepest core that no one should be judged by their looks.”
The next day, we hopped in a rental car and traversed nearly the entirety of the Big Island. The place was amazing – deserts, canopy jungle, sweeping grassland, black volcanic beaches, active volcanoes, towering coniferous forests. A first person role-player game where you are stuck on an island until the mystery is solved, the saga taking you from one ecosystem to the next within a hard day’s hike. In a sense, the diversity of the ecosystems reflect their people’s cultural divergence (Unrelated sidebar – there was a puzzling incident in Kona where someone left an angry note written on their business card about how I had hit their car and fled the scene. This was in spite of a total lack of physical evidence and the presence of two witnesses who confirmed my account. Upon calling the accuser, he immediately backed down and insisted there had been a misunderstanding).
We finished the night atop Mauna Kea – a volcanic massif rising out of the Pacific which constitutes by far the world’s tallest mountain when measured from summit to its base in the ocean depths. Mauna Kea’s combination of altitude (nearly 14,000 feet above sea level) and its remote location in the middle of the world’s biggest ocean make it an ideal location for astronomical observation. As such, it hosts a vast array of multi-million dollar telescopes, along with a visitors center crawling with amateur astronomers.
Unless you have been there, you have never seen a night sky like this one. The closest thing I have ever seen was time lapsed images of the Milky Way taken in Death Valley. There was a true, tangibly physical sense of the earth as part of a cosmic neighborhood. I walked over to a cluster of telescopes manned by UH astronomy students – this would be a good place to get a closing quote about how staring up at the stars just makes all of our petty squabbles and conflicts on this rock seem insignificant, I thought. Pale Blue Dot and everything.
I approached Matt McNoll, a native of Telluride, CO. Matt was an interesting cat, having begun his time in college as an astronomy student but later switching to a philosophy degree. The perfect dude for my Carl Sagan closer, I thought. Battered by wind, we clustered around a 14 inch telescope. We put Saturn, the Orion Nebula, and the galaxy M1 in our sights, staring at light reflected or emitted from these objects hours or even thousands of light years in the past.
I asked Matt what prompted the dramatic shift in his prospective career field.
“Science does it’s best to explain how things work, but it doesn’t explain why…philosophy gets the closest to explaining where we get our morals from.”
“Have you ever had a moment out here when you were struck by the insignificance of all our conflicts?” I asked him.
“To an extent, yeah…but I really think that everything is just as important as everything else. Why would I value the galaxies any more than the individual? Everything is just in a struggle to maintain balance. Low pressure systems, high pressure systems, gravity, everything is just trying to neutralize itself and come to a stable state. And that’s okay, because that’s what creates diversity and diversity is what makes life beautiful,” he replied.
The best response I could summon was, “that’s deep, bro.” I had just been clowned.
So was there really any end to the saga of human tribalism and conflict? Or was the struggle to maintain balance and neutralization written into the code of the universe as much as the immutable laws Matt had described to me? On the drive back to Hilo, I recalled something Cobb had explained while he was describing the chess-playing Deep Blue supercomputer to me. This quote was what really tied the whole room together.
“The problem with Deep Blue was that it assumed that both players were playing to win. The grand master decided that he wasn’t going to play to win, but that he was going to play for a draw. Deep Blue could not handle this contingency – it just was absurd to it. It had no strategy for someone who wasn’t playing to win.”
Now that…was deep.
I fly back to Oahu the next day. But I had a feeling…a vision, even…that my big island journey through space and time was not yet complete.