shaka, brah

Posted: November 7, 2021 in Travel
Tags: , , , ,

The plane touched down in Kalului around 3:00 pm. Minutes later we departed the aircraft and strolled through the open-air terminal to claim our bags. As a mainlander I immediately sensed something, although I couldn’t articulate what it was. Perhaps the cumulative effects of an 11-hour flight messed with me. Maybe the warm breeze rustling through the palms created a psychological illusion. It may have been the lack of scowling, brash crowds which tugged at me, people jostling to get a prime spot at the baggage carousel in a hurry to move onto the next angst-filled activity. Whatever it was, one thing was certain: something was in the air, invisible yet tangible, passive yet active. It whispered, “Aloha, malihini. Welcome to Hawaiʻi.”

During our time on the islands it was impossible not to be seduced by the unhurried pace, the remarkable natural beauty, and the genuine smiles and calm demeanor of the locals. I realize tourism is the lifeblood of the state and it would be foolish to treat visitors poorly, yet this was different. It wasn’t just the pleasant daily interactions which struck me, it was everything.

A few nights after we arrived I watched the 10:00 pm local news. The lead story was about a disciplinary incident at an elementary school. It had nothing to do with guns or drugs or sexual abuse or any of the other relentless disgraces which bombard most of us. No, it was about a student talking back to a teacher. They didn’t threaten the teacher; they simply talked back in a disrespectful way. I thought surely something else of significance happened in the world, something that merited bumping the sassy student from the lead. I reached for my phone to confirm my suspicions that yes, bigger stories were out there. Back home I constantly check my newsfeed which most certainly is not good for my emotional or physical health. However, at that moment I realized I actually didn’t care. Here the outside world was just that: outside. It was as far removed from my consciousness as a long-forgotten childhood insult. I placed the phone down without looking at it. The hard truth was that here on an island in the middle of earth’s largest ocean the machinations of life away from the island held no interest. And once again that night, as with every night preceding and following it while in the Aloha State, I slept like a child without anxiety or frustration nipping at my dreams.

The news was a symptom of a larger phenomenon around perspective, one which is endemic to those who call Hawaiʻi home. Even in Honolulu, a modern and bustling city, the differences were inescapable. Window signs encouraged people to “Please enjoy your food and beverage before entering the store” and were a bold contrast to the blunt “No food or drink allowed.” An Apple store employee’s entire sales pitch for a watch amounted to a lazy grin and “It’s really cool.” In New Jersey a list of features and upgrades would have followed any perceived interest in a purchase. A UPS driver outfitted the cab of his truck with blinking Christmas lights and listened to 70’s disco as he drove around delivering parcels. (We saw him twice, so I am pretty confident this was normal for him.) Lyft drivers shared their stories of moving to the islands years ago with no intention of leaving. Sure, life was expensive, they admitted, but… At sunset families played in the surf, couples strolled along the beach, and surfers and paddleboarders waded in the ocean hoping to catch the final waves of the day.

Sunsets were ceremonial. Of course they were spectacular, each one subtlety different thanks to the clouds and the constantly shifting axial tilt of the planet. Every evening people gathered on a beach or in a park or on a promenade as sunset approached. They watched the light turn and bask everything in warm hues of yellow and orange, the golden hour indeed. When the sun was about to slip below the horizon line, someone somewhere would inevitably blow a pū (conch shell) to bid the day goodbye and give thanks for its many blessings. If I had known about this rich tradition prior to visiting, I probably would have harbored cynical preconceptions about it – and would have been dead wrong. Hearing the distinctive sound of the pū in the face of a stunning sunset was quite affecting, much more than I could have imagined. It magnified the fullness of the day in the best way possible.

These experiences and others crystalized into a distinct feeling of friendship, understanding, compassion, and solidarity. I realized this was what I sensed upon arrival. Hawaiians have a name and gesture for it: Shaka. It means “hang loose”, “right on”, “take it easy”, or any other similar sentiment. You fold your three middle fingers into your palm and leave the pinky and thumb upright, then shake your hand. It offers reassurance about what is true and important, things which can easily get overlooked among daily pressures and challenges. The moment is beautiful, life is glorious, and we are all so fortunate to be here right now experiencing it together. Corny? Sure. Vapid? Perhaps. But there is nothing corny about friendship and understanding, and there is nothing vapid about compassion and solidarity.

Shaka, brah. Shaka.

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