This month marks exactly one year since I made my last trip home. We went to Hawaii to bury my grandparents together in our family temple, and to come together as a family and celebrate where we came from. I’d been to Hawaii several other times, but when I was much younger and unable to fully appreciate what I was experiencing (that seems to be the theme of all my major globe-trotting trips). This trip instilled something inside of me, like the feeling you get when you return home from a long trip and you fall into bed and all at once feel surrounded with safety and comfort. It awakened a feeling of finally belonging, and a deep hunger to hold on to that feeling tightly. If there is such a thing as love at first sight, I felt it on those beaches. I fell madly, deeply in love with everything around me in such a profound way that I’m still trying desperately to recreate those feelings back on the mainland – after all, wherever you go, there you are.
But I believe there is some ancient magic on those islands, something that attracts the dreamers, the travelers, the artists and creatives, the ones who are thirsty for adventure and crave a life lived off the beaten path. There’s something electric in the air there, and I’ve been captivated by it.
I want to show you the things that made me fall in love.
When the jet-lag first hits you, you’ll find yourself waking up at odd hours of the morning. Hours you’ve probably never witnessed before… at least not soberly or on your own will. And when you rise from your sleep at 4 am, restless and helpless in the face of circadian rhythms, you will be greeted by a still but slowly stirring darkness, a darkness that will eventually give way to the most beautiful sunrise you have ever seen. There is a quote that says, “Climb up on some hill at sunrise. Everybody needs perspective once in a while, and you’ll find it there.” It’s true. Any worry, anxiety, fear or sadness is wiped away by sheer awe and appreciation. How can you not be grateful when you’re witnessing a wonder of the world that so many of us take for granted? Watching a sunrise over the ocean or the mountains of Hawaii is a memory that will be forever imprinted on your memory.
I’m a firm believer that the cure for anything is saltwater – tears, sweat or the sea. When you step into the ocean, your whole being is cleansed. For me, at least, it’s like a baptism. Whenever anything hurts me, I go to the sea and she heals and renews me. In Hawaii, you will find yourself constantly drawn to the ocean. Everywhere you go there are hidden beach access points, secret trails that lead to the sea, and scenic highways that take you up and down the coast. You’re never far from hearing the lulling rumble of waves or feeling the kiss of salt in the air. But what makes Hawaii different from most beachside tourist destinations is that even though every beach looks like something out of an expensive coffee table book, you’ll often find yourself alone. It’s only you, the ocean, and the occasional sea turtle swimming along the shoreline. The feeling of complete and utter serenity is hard to beat.
There is a memory of the Hawaiian ocean that has stuck with me for many years. When I was younger my parents took me back to Hawaii and we discovered a secret cove off a backroad in Oahu where we could go snorkeling. It was a local spot, completely untouched by the outside world save for a few native islanders who came to fish or sit on the reef and watch the horizon. We had to climb down a steep face of jagged reef rock, and what lay below looked like a movie set. Shallow water of the most vibrant turquoise hugged a small shoreline of sugary white sand. The cove was entirely sheltered by rocks, with only a small opening where the body of water met the sea. And it was empty. Completely devoid of life from the outside. But when I put on my snorkeling mask and dove into the water, it was like opening a door to a bustling city. The water was alive with schools of pink and blue and yellow striped fish darting in and out of clusters of reef. Stingrays hovered on the ocean floor, and the occasional ray would skim the surface with its leathery wings. Everywhere I looked there was something new to explore – an eel baring its teeth at me from a hole in the rock, a crab flexing its spiny arms at me, the shadow of a shark prowling in the deep mouth of the cove. The memory I hold dearest to me is when I swam the perimeter of the little cove. I found a small nook in the rocks where the sunlight was beaming through the water and illuminating everything around me. As I started to explore, several sea turtles came drifting up to me, obviously intrigued by this new creature in their environment. I swam beside them for what seemed like an eternity, admiring their wrinkled shells and curious eyes. I lost touch with the outside world and became absorbed in the calm and quiet underwater universe of the turtles. The pure magic of that moment and that memory has enchanted me ever since then, and is a story that I often recall fondly when thinking about home and the sea.
For all the restless travelers who can never quite settle in one place, in Hawaii you can drive 10 minutes in any direction and find yourself in a completely different climate. Islanders often say, “If you don’t like the weather, get in your car and drive a couple miles.” If you’re feeling adventurous, any given island has a handful of peaks to climb and conquer. During my trip I climbed the pillbox hike in Lanikai, the Iao Valley Needle hike, and Mount Haleakala. Each climb provided me with the solitude and centeredness to contemplate the issues I was working through at the time, and each peak had a completely unique and breathtakingly stunning view. I can’t even begin to describe what it feels like to look over an entire island from coast to coast, or look down through the clouds on the rolling fields of Maui from 10,000 feet. Somehow, on top of those ancient and timeworn mountains, you start to lose sight of all your petty problems and shed all your stresses and simply become grounded. Nothing can bother you when you’ve literally overcome mountains, and are witnessing how insignificant the day-to-day of the world below is. If you want some perspective, you will find it here.
Beyond the beautiful scenery, there is something alluring about disappearing to an island for awhile, where you have little contact with the outside world. Time seems to stop there, and there’s no more rushing in traffic or hurrying to meet deadlines. Everyone moves slowly, sometimes pausing to admire the plumeria trees that line the neighborhood roads, or stopping to talk to neighbors. No one is too busy to show love and appreciation. The most popular Hawaiian word is aloha, and it’s a fitting word to sum up the culture if you break it down into its fundamental parts. The word Alo means to share in the present moment with a loved one or companion. Oha is joy. Ha is life energy. Therefore, aloha means “the joyful sharing of life energy in the present.” When you’re in Hawaii, everyone you meet greets you with this reminder to pause and show gratitude. Aloha is hello, goodbye, and love all in one word. It means coming together in celebration and appreciation of the present moment. Aloha.
Maybe it’s because I have roots there, or maybe it’s because of the strong community, but ultimately the feeling that draws me to Hawaii is one of belonging to a family. We buried my grandparents side by side at the Byodo-In Temple nestled in the Ko-olau Mountains in Valley of the Temples. A lifetime of family and friends stood together at the foot of those beautiful mountains to honor their memory, and at that moment, feeling the wind snake through the rolling hills, standing next to the people I loved the most, I felt a great sense of belonging.
There’s one memory in particular that still brings tears to my eyes every time I think about it. After the emotional ceremony, we spent a long and exhausting day exploring the island with family, and once we finally made it home to our house on the beach we were physically and emotionally worn. My sister and I had opened the windows in our bedroom facing the mountain and a gentle, salty breeze was embracing us as the sun started to set. We dozed off, feeling comforted and lulled by the wind and the sound of the ocean waves as the summer light faded away. In a dream-like state, I was woken some time later by the sound of my dad sitting on the corner of my bed, softly playing the ukelele that hung on the wall and singing us a Hawaiian lullaby. Even though we were renting the house that we stayed at, I felt like I had finally come home.
I feel that feeling every time I think about Hawaii. E komo mai. Welcome home.