For anyone who believes that Hawaii is not exotic, clearly they’ve never been. A couple of months ago I came across a post on a travel board asking people which destinations they would never want to visit; numerous people listed Hawaii. They claimed that it was too America, that it wasn’t special. After getting past my supreme annoyance regarding the people’s astounding ignorance, I found this funny for many reasons including the fact that Hawaii is the only state in the country that is home to rain forests, Iolani Palace is the only royal palace in the United States, and there are dozens of flora that are native to Hawaii. Yes, I’m sure Hawaii is “just” like their home state.
I’m not denying the sometimes obnoxious proliferation of American commercial entities in Hawaii. Establishments like McDonalds, Outback Steakhouse, Walgreens and Staples are ubiquitous in Honolulu and the island of Maui, but also in the 49 other states plus countries so culturally different from the United States like the United Arab Emirates. Just as in Dubai, a shopping excursion to the Dubai Mall would hardly count as an authentic and unique experience, a desert safari would. The same goes for Hawaii. One needs to look beyond the over development of Waikiki Beach on the island of Oahu and travel to the North Shore instead, where the only major hotel is the Turtle Bay Resort. There, outsiders to Hawaii can see and experience Hawaiian life much as it was more than 50 years ago.
When we visited Maui we stayed in Kaanapali which, excluding Kahului (where the international airport is located), is the island’s most developed and tourist heavy area. Although it was certainly in close proximity to historic Lahaina, at one time capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii and the center of the global whaling industry in the 19th century, it still featured chain restaurants like the Hard Rock Cafe and Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, which somewhat detracted from its historic background. However, visits to Maui’s upcountry, the region of Hana, and the island’s desolate eastern coast showed just how widely exotic Maui is.
On our visit to the Alli Kula Lavender farm, we left behind the golden beaches of Kaanapali and journeyed literally in altitude to upcountry, an area of the island that is home to the world famous Haleakala volcano and also where much of the island’s produce is grown. Gone were the congestion and glitzy hotels, replaced with it barren stretches of road and one story buildings. The sound of crashing waves was no more, instead nothing but sometimes eerie silence against the backdrop of vast open stretches of green fields. In Alan Brennert’s Moloka’i, many of the characters who had leprosy escaped to the hills of Maui’s upcountry, knowing that they stood a better chance of evading capture and being sent to the leper colony on Moloka’i since the area was so remote and barren. Driving through in the 21st century, the upcountry area was incredibly desolate. I can only imagine how much more so it was a century before automobiles and paved roads. We even drove across sections of the road that featured cattle grids, barriers designed to keep cattle out of certain areas. One thinks of an island like Maui as a place full of glitz and glamour, where money flows from the pockets of its rich tourists, and yet it as a rural aspect to it as well.
Our driver on the Road to Hana tour was a native Hawaiian. While she regaled us all day with tales of the island and her family, I found her story about squirrels the most amusing and certainly the most memorable. One year a crew was unloading a shipment of Christmas trees on Maui when out of the box jumped a squirrel. The crew shrieked in alarm over an animal they had never seen before, not knowing it is was dangerous or not. (Squirrels are illegal in Hawaii so, while they are native to North America and certainly a common site on the mainland, on a tropical island where they could significantly harm the native fauna found there, a squirrel is as exotic and as dangerous as a puma.)
While the Hawaiian islands constitute an American state, the 50th state of the United States is nothing like Pennsylvania or Illinois. Hawaii has its own language, its own culture, and a history drastically different from that of the mainland’s. I hope to visit Puerto Rico sometime soon, an island commonwealth of the United States, and while I know la cultura americana has certainly left an imprint there, I know that speaking Spanish in Old San Juan and leaving behind the casinos and American establishments and mingling with the natives will show just how little native Puerto Ricans want to be tied to los Estados Unidos. In the course of modern history, the United States has appropriated many islands, all of which are exotic and distinct. So the next time a person says one of them is too “American” and not worth a visit, they only need to go there just to see how un-American they really are.