It is easy to dislike Hawaii if you’re in Waikiki. It’s a crowded not-quite-anywhere strip of hotels and shopping and pale unadventurous architecture, it smells of coconut tanning oil and second hand smoke and spilled mai tais. Homeless people stroll the avenue side by side with Japanese tourists sporting t shirts that make no sense. I didn’t like Waikiki the first time I was there, the traffic is crazy, the beach is crowded, and food is expensive. But it’s grown on me over time, I like the parade now, the unexpected islands of sanity, I like getting up early to go swimming with the old ladies and to watch the surfers, girls and boys, so pretty on the waves. Between the traffic and the sunburned crowds, Waikiki is a sort of imaginary Hawaii made real, grand hotels on the shore, beach boys and palm trees and the sound of the ukulele and tropical cocktails while the sun drops red into the Pacific.
I am thinking about this postcard Hawaii because on my last trip there, I watched a travel companion search for it and not find it. It was painful to watch such romantic expectations unfulfilled. The picture bride stands on the dock and sees that the mail order husband is so much older than expected. The mail order husband, fooled by the staged photograph is disappointed by a flawed complexion. The landscape is not green enough, there is no passion inspired by the broken black lava that tumbles into the sea. The tourist centers are tacky and worn, there’s a lack of glamor and grandeur. The natives don’t ceremonially tattoo visitors to claim them as family, nor do they drape us in leis as we arrive.
For about nine months out of the year I think about moving to Honolulu, Hawaii’s only real city. In this invented life, I have a small one bedroom apartment with noisy air conditioning and a tiny balcony with no view. There’s wifi, so I work for my mainland clients — the job market in Hawaii is difficult, at best — and I take the bus to the beach. I buy groceries at Foodland and I complain about my rent because it’s the same amount I paid for my modest yet spacious home with a yard in Seattle. Sometimes, my imaginary life is in Hilo, where I never quite feel like it’s my home. I’m a usurper, and outsider with a used Toyota and neighbor who left the mainland 20 years ago and is annoyed by my presence because I’m driving up real estate prices. My Seattle friends envy my choices because they think I’m living in paradise — they don’t see a parking lot of traffic and no room to breathe. In this imaginary life, I’ve embraced, with great difficulty, a sense of diplomacy that’s contrary to my nature because now, I live on a small island and I want to get along with everyone as best I can, or at least not piss them off. This is my imaginary Hawaii, a much more real place that I’ve built out of experiences on the islands. It’s less attractive than beach boys and sunsets, though all this is exactly what I picture when I think about living in Hawaii.
Whenever I board a flight for the islands, I am full of optimism and expectation. I know that the air will smell of salt and maybe, depending on where I’m going, flowers. I know that I will eat melt in my mouth tuna. I know that there will be pineapple and mango and avocado that make mainland produce taste like plastic. I know I’m going to get lost, driving my tinny rental car to a destination that’s on a street with a name that is all “k”s and “l”s and is and “i”s between two streets with names that are all “k”s and “l”s and “i”s. I will think this is pretty funny, though I’ll be annoyed if I’m alone because I need someone to read the signs and the map. I also know that I’ll experience something that blows me sideways, that fades my postcard vision of Hawaii even more — someone will tell me that the WalMart was built on sacred ground, I’ll be shocked by the amount of plastic on the beach, all of it washed clean and smooth by the ocean, I will learn more heart breaking history and have to go sit down in the shade devastated because I’ve learned about, oh, the bomb tests on Kaho’olawe, for example.
It’s weird to have a long term relationship with a place that isn’t my home. I’m keen to the flaws but part of my heart remains in the islands. I am thinking about this because I on my last trip there, I watched a traveler open the envelope and take out that staged photo, and, then, respond with such disappointment at the real thing. How can a place stack up against such oppressive expectations? Why would Hawaii want to be our Shangri-La, our Atlantis, our Bali Hai? It’s so much work, too much makeup, the lighting and the filters and the fiction to make a place paradise belies what’s really there.
And I’m good with what’s really there. I like the messy Chinese guy in flip flops and a tank top that makes my mango smoothie — he doesn’t know it, but he’s always my first stop in Waikiki. I like the Vietnamese kid who’s selling cheap bikinis and beach towels but has a sophisticated understanding of Pacific Rim politics and history. I like hearing sweet songs pour out of big Hawaiian guys who look like they could hurl you, single handed, back to mainland if they were so inclined. I like the bossy Philippino ladies at the farmer’s markets, I like hearing Hawaiian language mixed in with English and coming out of the mouths of white girls who look like California. I like the sudden rain chasing me under the nearest overhang or banyan tree, I like the annoyance of waking at five in the morning with the birds. I like walking down the crowded strip of sand that is Waikiki Beach with a coffee milkshake, while worrying about plastic and erosion and culture.
I’ve been building a small collection of vintage postcards from Hawaii. I love looking at them — better if they’ve already been stamped and sent, a scrawled message to Cousin Angela back in Iowa or Professor Kaye in Palo Alto. I love the idealized images, hula girls and outrigger canoes and luxury hotels flanked by palm trees. But they are not my Hawaii, they aren’t really anyone’s Hawaii, not anymore, probably not ever. I keep them at my desk and I flip through them when I’m dreaming of the islands. They remind me of what Hawaii is and, maybe more importantly, what she isn’t.