21st Century
The Future
World Travel
Books & Film
Original Fiction
Opinion & Lifestyle
Politics & Living
Film Space
Movies in depth
Kid's Books
Reviews & stories

The International Writers Magazine

America’s Bali Ha’i
First impressions of O’ahu
Clive Branson

In the air at night, towns and cities across America speckle the black velvet of land like gold dust. The landscape looks like a lit up computer chipboard. The black ink sky eases its way to a lazy haze of Florida orange and then to that of a swimming pool blue. The jet floats over clouds that are more reminiscent of torn cotton balls. Approaching Hawaii, the islands look like dark green apparitions of barnacles suspended above a haze of sea.r of relief. "Aloha," crackles through the onboard PA system.

Hawaii from Space
As the jet descends, I am struck by the unrelenting severity of the volcanic mountains – a regurgitation of leathery-faced rock punching skyward. Like Autumn leaves that hang on tenaciously, I hold my breath as the jet descends and seems to glide before skipping a beat when landing. As the jet parks in front of its gate at O’ahu Main Terminal, there is a rush of loosened seatbelts and that sudden nervous chatte

Sunrise in Lanikai © Clive Branson
My friends, Jim and Barbara Wiecking, greet me with the traditional lei which nowadays is only honoured to those who are in a tour group. I haven’t seen Jim since we were 14 and attending school in Belgium 30 years ago. The Wieckings live in Kane’ohe, a bedroom community about a half-hour drive north of Honolulu. The evening is immersed in hours of reminiscing. I finally go to bed around 1 a.m., but by 5 a.m., the wild roosters that roam this neighbourhood are crowing, claiming their territory. Vehicles have already become red corpuscles along coagulated arteries like Pali Highway or on the celestial H3 route.

The sky sheds its dark, dank overcoat as the sun peaks over the distant eastern hilltops and yawns against the grandeur of the jagged, Cathedral-spired Ko’olau Mountain Range, transforming the sheer 4,000 foot wall from a deep emerald green to a tropical, effervescent aqua hue.

Though O’ahu is only 608 sq. miles in circumference, the micro-climates are schizophrenic: often during the day, you can simultaneously experience precipitous valleys between the steep, craggy volcanic mountain ranges of Ko’olau (from the southeast to the mid-north) and the rugged Waianae Mountain Range along the west; sun-soaked paradise in the south while the north is like an vortex of blustering winds. Regardless, O’ahu isn’t so much divided by geography but rather by social structure. Each class clings to their own turf like lupids to rocks, from the low-income, unpropitious areas of Kalihi and Makaha in Waianae (West); and the middle-and-upper class serenity of Manoa and Nu’uanu, to the ultra-exclusive echelon in Waianae-Kahala/Kailua. It’s a territorial thing that applies even to the Mormons, whose objective is to convert all of Polynesia into Mormonism, have their own university, banks and cloistral compound. The Polynesian Cultural Center is virtually their headquarters. Going to the Center to see Hawaiian culture is a bit like going to Disneyland to see America. Then there is the military, who amass in their own subculture in the tens of thousands on self-contained bases and in married quarters; to the tourists, who rarely venture beyond the beach kitsch of Waikiki where it is almost an Epiphany to Shop. Sun. Sand and Surf.

"Suburbia is where the developer bulldozes out the trees, then names the streets after them." – B. Vaughan
As the "gathering place," O’ahu is not only the seat of the state government and Hawaii’s financial and business capital, it is also the home of nearly three-quarters of the state’s total population. Officially, O’ahu belongs to the city and county of Honolulu which also includes the uninhabited Leeward Islands that stretch a thousand miles northwest of Kaua’i, making it virtually the largest "city" in the world. However, O’ahu is a bit of a paradox. Its attraction is also its greatest threat. The stratospheric rise in population may improve progress but at a price. Whatever land is available is usurped by voracious developers. The Federation for American Immigration Reform states that Hawaii loses 1,400 acres of open space and farmland annually to development. Already, 31,000 Hawaii households are defined as "severely crowded" by housing authorities. Education suffers due to a hemorrhage of students and must improvise space as classrooms.

The population explosion seems to be ignored by rapacious union leaders and short-sighted, timid city councilors. The island is over-developed, spoilt, polluted and so expensive that young residents can no longer live there. To put salt on a wound, the U.S. Census Bureau forecasts that Hawaii will be the fastest growing state between 2000 and 2025; its population will increase by 44 percent. If remedial action isn’t initiated by the Hawaiian government, such as stricter immigration policies, the impact may become irreparable – the population size will be disproportionate with the island’s size. Of course there is the environment issue: What was once considered "the Garden of Eden," the pretty, uninhabited island of Kaho’olawe, just off Maui, has for fifty years been a target for bombing practice by the U.S. military. Through the efforts of people like Hawaiian Senator, Daniel Inouye, the bombing has now ended but the island is off-limits due to severe contamination and an unaccountable number of unexploded bombs scattered around like Jack-in-the-Boxes.

I asked Jim, a 35-year resident of O’ahu, whether O’ahu is turning into a bloated Eden? "Hawaii manages by crisis," quips Jim as we sip coffee in a Kailua café. "The troubles are monumental. It’s a Vegas mentality." He leans forward pushing up his glasses from the brim of his nose with his forefinger, "Hawaii has an inadequate water preservation system that relies almost exclusively on spring water, its longevity, unknown. Yes, we collect rainwater, but only for O’ahu’s arid areas. Do you think that could support 2 million people in an emergency? We’re surrounded by water that we don’t desalinate."
A waitress refills our cups.
"We have no windmills or solar-power on O’ahu," he continues. "Our oil is brought in every day by barge. And although H3 (Highway 3) has been a blessing, we haven’t developed an infrastructure such as a rapid transit system, like a ferry fleet or monorail system, to handle our soaring population. Consequently, there is no governmental control on land or rent control. We are raising the standard of living prices beyond acceptable means." He pauses and looks out into the distance, "I love it here, but I don’t know what’s going to happen to this island. Our greatest resource is excuses." I later learn that there has been an initiative to launch a car-ferry service, however; like anything political, the proverbial nod depends on who gets the credit and who makes the profit. There is no question that O’ahu is the nucleus of the Hawaiian chain and will remain so, despite official efforts to shift growth to other islands. O’ahu is Hawaii’s Mecca for culture, variety and excitement.
The original inhabitants of the Hawaiian islands are believed to have been the descendants of Asiatic peoples though Polynesian voyageurs from the Marquesas were probably the first to discover the islands as a settlement around A.D. 500-750. Tahitians were the next group to reach Hawaii 500 years later. These new arrivals are thought to have conquered and enslaved the Marquesans. At the time of Cook’s discover in 1778, the islands were a series of fiefdoms under warring kings. It was King Kamehumeha, from the Big Island, whose conquest of the islands was cemented with a terrifying conclusion in 1795 at what is now Pali Outlook. Kamehumeha’s army had routed a combined opposition of O’ahu and Maui chieftains and driven them up the perilous incline of Nu’uanu Valley. Many of the defeated warriors perished by leaping over the cliffs to avoid capture. More than 800 skulls have since been found at the bottom of the abyss.
Hulia Fishpond © Clive Branson

With the advent of whaling ships in 1819, whites, known as haoles by the locals, were quietly undermining Kamehameha’s peaceful leadership and culture. In 1814, Kauikeaouli, Kamehameha III, became king. He introduced the Declaration of Rights ending Hawaii’s days as an absolute monarchy. Thirty years later, he enacted The Great Mahele (division), effectively eliminating the feudal system between the islands. Although a very magnanimous gesture, Kaukeaouli allowed the ownership of land to be granted to commoners and commercial investors, this merely invited entrepreneurs to seize control. And it didn’t take long. The next king in 1875, David Kalakaua, was forced to sign the Bayonet Constitution, granting ex-pats living in Hawaii the right to vote, confirming their increasing influence in the islands.

The last monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, the only reigning queen, realizing the political dominance the white business community had amounted (particularly from sugar and pineapple plantations), recommended a new Hawaiian constitution, seeking to empower herself and Native Hawaiians, but her ministers feared financial reprisals from the likes of the Annexation Club; a group of white plantation owners, who in 1893, overthrew the monarchy and placed in a puppet provisional government. Despite President Grover Cleveland’s attempt to restore the monarchy, Queen Liliuokalani was arrested and imprisoned after she was accused of attempting a counter-revolution. In 1898, under Cleveland’s successor, William McKinley, a joint resolution of the U.S. Congress approved official annexation of Hawaii in 1900. By 1959, after years of debate, Hawaii became the 50th U.S. state.

Though the Tahitians have had a profound influence on Hawaiian history, bringing their language, customs, government and religion to the islands, one is struck by the influx of Japanese (40% of the total population) and their impact is obvious from architecture to cemeteries to the number of restaurants and Japanese cars. Regardless, O’ahu may pride itself as the most successful multicultural society in the world with a significantly higher percentage of multiracial marriages than anywhere else. It is a very gentle and non-confrontational society demonstrated by such un-American acts as illegalizing all handguns. It is unusual even to hear a motorist use their car horn, but there are 50 pages in the Yellow Pages dedicated to litigation lawyers. TV has also been a dubious persuader, eroding the traditional strong values replaced by vulgarity, greed and social degradation.
The Lei of the Land
Do you remember the flashy, exotic scenes that introduced the TV show, Hawaii 5-O? Well, O’ahu is all of that, only the police station isn’t Iolani’s Palace. And Honolulu is the pulse of the island. The capital is like any other metropolis, with a rainforest canopy of glass edifices, cereal-boxed-and-Cubist apartments, but cleaner and with palm trees. What makes the city different is its distinct contrasts, squeezed together like Velcro lovers: Chinatown, without the squalid and frenzied feel about it, but a clean, quiet and inviting sense of pride. The concrete jungle of the financial sector, the affluent galleries, the open market spread, the expansive university peppered around town, and the tourist-addicted Harborfront. Beside the Iolani Palace is the Hawaii State Capitol, a unique piece of architecture. Its open-air roof looks like the mouth of a volcano and reflects the welcoming persona of the land and its people while pillars rise like coconut trees, symbolizing the eight larger islands.

Wakiki Sunset © Clive Branson

It seems that locals either drive or jog, but rarely walk. Wallpapered with the latest pick-ups, SUVs and expensive foreign cars, they drive like they are on Prozac. Finding a parking meter spot is as rare as finding Don Ho. And it’s probably cheaper to pay for a parking ticket from a cop than pay the underground parking fares. Tickets are sometimes mistaken for home mortgages. O’ahu depends on tourism as their main GNP, catering to six million visitors annually – two million being Japanese. A couple of decades ago, city council eradicated the unshaven stigma from the name of Waikiki (meaning "mosquito swamp"). Gone are the shady and dilapidated storefronts, dark alleyways where the shadows had teeth and scummy sidewalks. The whole area of Waikiki was placed in detox, ridding the municipality of vagrants, prostitutes, traffickers, brothels and given a clean, healthy bill. Today, Waikiki is spotless, bright with wide boulevards and window displays of upscale boutiques, hotels and condos, encouraging tourists to return to their annual pilgrimage.

From Honolulu, take H1 (Highway 1) to Pearl Harbor. Most of the base, which is shared between the Navy, Air Force and Army, is off limits, nevertheless, one can still see one of the most formidable battleships ever built – the USS Missouri. Involved in three wars from World War II to the Persian Gulf, it’s massive bulk was judiciously scribed into history books, not so much for its role in the fighting, but rather as the site where the Japanese signed the armistice to end the Second World War. Submerged only a thousand yards from the great battleship, is the USS Arizona. The two represent America’s involvement in the war from defeat to victory. An interesting sidenote is if you venture to the hilltops of Aiea, one is struck by two things: first, the breathtaking beauty of the panoramic vista of Honolulu, and second; the sobering understanding as to how easy it was for someone like Takeo Yoshikawa to spy on Pearl Harbor leading up to December 7, 1941. Certain buildings on the Pearl Harbor base are still pock-marked by the strafe of Japanese fighter plane bullets during that day of infamy. A little reminder not to take anything for granted.

It is the starkness, the apparent hush that looms over like a blanket and the profound order of the Punchbowl National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific that makes it so poignant. Lady Columbia, standing 30 feet high in white marble, symbolizes all grieving mothers and immediately draws you towards her like a magnet. She is the centerpiece of a semi-circle, pillared courtyard that displays battle scene tableaus of each of the Pacific battles. It is the resting place for over 33,000 identified and unidentified soldiers from the Spanish-American War to the present. The tourists are solemn, the locals bring flowers and the Japanese take photographs.

A spectacular experience is to travel on the John A. Burns Freeway (named after the first state governor of Hawaii), known locally as simply H3 or as the "Road to Nowhere." It is the newest highway (completed in the 1990s) and is the most dramatic and astonishing engineering feat in O’ahu, costing $1.3 billion federal tax dollars. Like the Upper Corniche along the Côte d’Azur, H3 gradually ascends into nose-bleed country (mostly by bridge and tunnel) scaling almost 4,000 feet, engulfed by towering fir, eucalyptus, pakuki and bayan-covered cliffs (pali) and snakes it way above these tree-tops and into the cool mist where the Ko’olau Mountain peaks play hide-and-seek with the clouds. Warning, there are few exits until you reach Kane’ohe but if you car breaks down, emergency telephones are every 500 yards.

Prior to H3, there were two predominant routes: Pali Trail, running down from the Nu’uanu Pali gap in the Ko’olau Range. This was the first road to dissect the mountains, connecting Honolulu to O’ahu’s westward coast. Construction workers on the site reportedly came across the skeletal remains of the ill-fated O’ahu warriors. Likelike (pronounced "leak-eh-leak-eh"), was completed shortly after the Pali Highway as the highway through the mountains between Honolulu and the windward coast in the early ‘60s. The freeway was named after Princess Miriam Likelike, younger sister of Hawaii’s last two monarchs.

Of course, most tourists come to Hawaii for dreams and beaches. I witnessed such a family on Kailua Beach. A middle-aged couple with their daughter and her over-solicitous boyfriend, pretending to have a good time on ocean kayaks and soon discovering how difficult it is to paddle against an ocean’s current. They returned after a lengthy battle of wits but a short distance on time. For their efforts were pools of sweat under their armpits and backs, red-faced, sun-burnt, exasperated and muttering obscenities about their fun in the sun. In fact, you will be warned that many beaches on O’ahu have severe riptide or under-toe. On-the-other-hand, if you love nature flexing her muscle and the rumble you hear is both the waves and the excited gossip of the locals, there is no better place to be during winter than the renowned North Shore.

When you mention the North Shore, the eyes of surfers glisten with either enthusiastic respect or dreaded fear, for they know you are talking about the Banzai Pipeline. At the Pipe the reefs have penetrating teeth. Covered in dangerous underwater caves, the reef has killed more surfers than any other sport. The water is only 2 to 6 feet deep on average and not nearly enough water to safely cushion a wipeout. A month before I arrived, a local surfer, Joaquin Velilla lost his life there and last December, Malik Joyeux, drowned at the Pipe.

During winter, the swells from Alaska build up momentum and with unimpeded speed, penetrate the North Shore with relentless thundering velocity. The breakers, displaying their neon-green underbelly, crumble into a lace-work of white froth. The thickness of the wave has enough wallop to crush a body like a pretzel stick against the shallow reef. It is of little surprise that the waves command religious reverence and are embellished with names like "Jaws" and the "Wall" by the surfing fraternity. I stand in awe watching nature’s performance.

Further down the road at the notorious Waimea Bay, the surfing community still embrace a vagabond and cavalier attitude towards life. What was once sneered at as a social stigma has now been accepted as a fashionable commodity. During the month of February, those on the North Shore seem to awaken from their bohemian reverie and congregate with the world’s best surfers for international surfing contests and bragging rights. Waves two-to-four stories high are common, barreling in with such frighteningly explosive energy that they can flow over the beachfront road. Such events offer, what 8-time World Champion, Kelly Slater says: "are the greatest 10 seconds on earth."

© Clive Branson April 5th 2007

see also New York State

 More Destinations


© Hackwriters 1999-2007 all rights reserved - all comments are the writers' own responsibiltiy - no liability accepted by or affiliates.