An Ocean State: The Place of the Gods

Lava Land, ‘The Place of the Gods’; where the West and the East come together. Firstly, a bit of history. If you like geology, the islands were created by volcanic activity. If you prefer local mythology, it was the battle of Pele, the goddess of fire and volcanoes and her older sister Namaka, the goddess of the water and oceans, which led to the creation of the archipelago. Captain James Cook named it the ‘Sandwich Islands‘ in 1778, in honour of John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich. Fortunately for everyone, the State’s current name took hold in the 1840s, after its most southern and largest island. In 1989, despite successful anti-annexation petitions, which were signed by almost all of Hawaii’s then 40,000 population, preventing the required two-thirds majority in the Senate, a joint resolution was then sought which only required a simple majority. As such, the United States took control, and even though the legality of the ‘Newlands Resolution’ is still questioned by political activists today, its ensuing influence on Hawaii since has been vast. Yet, with its national Capital almost five thousand miles away, it struck me as being very much a part of, yet far enough removed from mainland USA.

Waikiki, O’ahu

Right in the middle, taking centre stage, the island of O’ahu accounts for two-thirds of Hawaii’s current 1.5 million population, the majority of whom live in the State capital of Honolulu. But it is Waikiki where the tourists flock to and so has had the most significant impact on Hawaii’s economic prosperity and cultural change.

Just south of Downtown, it is the superficial part of the island, a glamourous tourist nest, with a beach curtailed by all the top end stores and so it ticks all the boxes for those seeking the cultural experience of Armani and Victoria’s Secret. When the indigenous Pacific Islanders refer to O’ahu as ‘The Gathering Place’, I’d like to think they didn’t expect that to mean the Starbucks coffee line. But it does still have a relaxed charm to it; busy but not overcrowded and small enough to be out of the hive within minutes. Before the boom in the tourism industry, Waikiki used to be marshland, and was largely cut off from the rest of the island; the name means ‘bubbling water’ as it acted as a run off for the rain falling from the tropical mountainous island centre.

The ‘locals’ consist of people from mainland America, Japan, South America, you name it… we were having a drink in one bar with fluorescent writing all over the walls, and one of the barman told me he was originally from New Mexico, and then began to explain how he’d love to leave and return home but isn’t allowed to as he’s prohibited for shooting his dad some years back… I am not sure if it’s a useful or wasteful asset to be able to deal with conversation starters like that, as I found myself still chatting for a good ten minutes… but the one Bud Light (#steadyon) was as far as I was willing to go.

A quick heads up. The hostel I stayed was chosen on the basis that it was the highest rated on TripAdvisor. The Seaside Hawaiian Hostel. I learnt several things here. For a start, just how misleading a name can be when it’s located on ‘Seaside Avenue’ – a road which runs perpendicularly to the seaside. Also, when you ask the owner to advise you on a certain route and you get a reply of “have you checked google?!”, you realise an 8.8/10 was probably a little generous. Luckily, the online ‘review your stay’ beckoned, and ‘review your stay’ I most certainly did!

The North Shore & Central O’ahu

To see real Hawaii, you have to go north. It’s a drive through rainforest, a coffee farm, pineapple plantations, sugarcane fields, but it’s a world away from Waikiki. I did an ‘Eco-tour’ which was eleven hours of various stops, and included paddle-boarding along the Anahulu River, swimming in Waimea Valley waterfalls and at Sunset Beach, where the world’s top surfers hit 60ft waves.

But these apparently pristine beaches also bear the scars of a modern consumerist world. You don’t need to look too closely to see thousands of tiny pieces of plastic visible amongst the sand. This pollution of the seas is a growing global catastrope and affects everyone. As nations’ plastic consumption increases, the oceans become ever more polluted and ecosystems break down. This issue needs far more attention than it currently receives as nobody can predict exactly how big the impact will be. We all, whether directly or indirectly, depend upon the health of the ocean.

Our local guide and driver was a brilliant native Hawaiian called Kevin, who named everyone in the group simply by where they were from. As we were approaching the wet part of the island, he looked in the rear-view and probably with greater delight than anything he’d described so far, said, “hey England, look… clouds. Rain!”. It seemed to amuse him more than I anticipated so I thanked him for making me feel at home.

We later stopped at the Byodo-In Temple, a replica of a 900-year Buddhist temple in Japan. Whilst it does not host a resident monastic community nor an active congregation, it is still used by worshipers from around the world. It was completed in 1968 to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the first Japanese immigrants to Hawaii, who in joining the Chinese, Filipino, Korean, and Portuguese to work in the pineapple and sugar plantations, were instrumental in creating the diverse population seen in O’ahu today. Like much of USA, it stands proudly on the shoulders of multiple ethnicities, and whilst I’ll of course advocate sensible border controls, this fact must remain vivid and present when politically shaping the future of the country. [I discuss this slightly more at the end of this article.]

O’ahu is a tropical paradise in many ways and you can certainly see why Hollywood has taken advantage of it in numerous films, and why Obama chills out on the eastside on vacation. But it also has a renowned military history and presence. Its location, above all else, is what has given it such strategic value to America.

Pearl Harbour 

Everyone’s heard of it, but its significance is hard to grasp. The Pacific War put Hawaii firmly on the map. Bear with me…

In 1918, President Wilson declared that “within another generation there will be another world war if the nations of the world do not concert the method by which to prevent it.” The poverty and desperation left behind from WWI, fuelled the rise of fascism and communism in Europe and militarism in Japan, inflaming imperialism. America turned inward as the Great Depression hit, and Japan, like Germany, looked to expand. It was in response to Japanese aggression in Asia, seizing Manchuria, and the military practically taking over government in Toyko, that led to America imposing economic embargoes and deploying its Pacific fleet to Peal Harbour.

On 7th December 1941, with 185 US vessels sitting in Pearl, the Japanese air force destroyed and damaged 21 as well as over 300 aircraft. Within two hours, 2000 men were dead and another 1500 or so, wounded. The USS Oklahoma had capsized, trapping nearly 500 men – only around 35 were rescued. The USS Arizona now sits only feet below the water surface with 900 entombed within; oil still leaks, 76 years later. What’s even more staggering is that the Japanese Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Yamamoto, despite pronouncing celebration for such victories, had no expectations of success if the war with America was to last more than twelve months. Hiroshima proved him to be devastatingly correct.

Immediately after Pearl Harbour, Martial law was declared in the State, lasting almost 3 years. Never before or since in American history were U.S. citizens kept under military control in such numbers for so long. But it was the Japanese community who were specifically targeted, due to President FDR being so concerned about their loyalty in the event of a war with Japan. He also knew that the 37,000 alien residents and the 121,000 Japanese-American citizens, together comprising 37% of Hawaii’s population, were too valuable to the Hawaiian economy and defense industries. And so in marked contrast to the drastic policy of forcibly evacuating and incarcerating the 110,000 Japanese-American residents of California, Washington, Oregon, and Arizona, the army instituted a policy of “selective internment” in Hawaii, leaving most ‘free’ to continue their lives in their own homes…

Our guide for the day was a colourful native whose name will probably exhaust the character limit for this article – thankfully, he told us to call him ‘Cousin Vi’.  He drove us around the National Memorial Cemetery, which holds over 53,000 veterans of WW1, WW2, the Vietnam and Korean Wars, including many of those killed in Pearl Harbour, before heading Downtown to the Iolani Palace. This is the only Royal Palace in the US. It was also the first place in Hawaii to have running water and telephones, even before the White House; this of course begs the question, who on earth were they going to call? Ghos…….

Despite the vast and profound changes imposed on them over the years, the native Hawaiians are some of the friendliest people you could wish to meet. Whilst they greatly value tourism as being the biggest industry in the State, and the opportunities this brings, they share and embrace the warmth and generosity of the Aloha spirit. This way of life connects these American citizens with the millions living across Oceania, as ultimately, despite comprising different nations each with their own diverse characteristics, the Pacific Islands have been shaped by their common environments, and by the immense changes which the outside world has brought.

Walking through the Bishop Museum of Hawaiian History, a quote by a poet named Teresia Teaiwa struck me to sum up this spirit perfectly – a spirit which penetrates borders, language barriers and thousands of miles of sea:

“We sweat and cry salt water, so we know that the ocean is really in our blood.”

[Naturally this is a hot topic. And at this current point in time, it is boiling. Over the last two years, the concept of national borders has been brought to the forefront of the public’s consciousness perhaps more than at any other time in recent history. For me, one of the most neglected aspects of the general border debate conveniently happens to be one of the most important in understanding and appreciating modern civilization; cultural variation. Different continents, nations and, as my experience from Hawaii demonstrated, even states within a nation, have cultures that are so deeply ingrained within their societies, that together they form part of the wonderful mosaic tapestry of human habitation; these different cultures also vary in their imperfections. Rather than divisive walls, borders should be seen more as binding seams which can successfully bring together these cultures, but this of course depends on them not being abused by politicians and citizens alike. It is my general view that if there is an appropriate balance between their leniency and restriction, a greater understanding, respect, appreciation and tolerance emerges.]

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