Kauai notes

There’s a very good restaurant in Poipu, in a house with a beautiful veranda opening onto a well-tended garden, on what used to be a sugar plantation.  The menu is full of Hawaiian ingredients, and the waiters of course point this out.  We could walk there from our hotel, so we came back three nights running.  I got to thinking about locavorism, and the line between celebrating what’s traditionally raised and eaten in a place, and saying no one in Ohio should ever eat a papaya.  Tyler Cowen recently cited a study arguing that contemporary foodies are a conservative force in the culinary world, because their locavore beliefs prevent them from appreciating innovation in cooking, if it combines ingredients from far-flung cultures, or is otherwise “inauthentic.”  Hmm…  Back on Oahu a few days later, we ate at a casual but ultra-hip nouveau dîner that was all about mashing up preparations and ingredients from different cultures, including at least one – Korean – that,  as far as I know, has no strong historical link to Hawaii.  Yet here too the menu and staff made much of the ingredients being local.  The study, at least as excerpted by Cowen, makes a point – some locavores can come off as tiresome and dogmatics, others as twee. But in my experience, locavorism is more of a jumping-off point for innovation than a barrier to it.

Kauai has a few towns and resorts, but seems to have more chickens than people.  Many – perhaps most – of these chickens are on t-shirts, posters, and bumper stickers. Oddly, there isn’t much chicken, or at least chicken isn’t much featured, on Kauai menus. The food, at least on the protein side, is all about fish and pork.  Especially pork.  I realize that celebrating the chickens has to do with seeing them as an icon of free-wheeling, slow-moving liberty.  They amble everywhere they want, living off the land and, with no predators and used to humans, never seeming to be much bothered by anything.  Still, I might put a pig on those bumper stickers.  Or a fish.

Hiking on the spectacular Napali coast isn’t really that hard, but if it’s been raining, there is a good deal of mud to slip and slide around in.  There are also, apparently, flash floods, with rivers and creeks that cross hiking trails cutting them into parts, and stranding people, sometimes for days, until the waters go down.  There was a maintenance worker at the trailhead who took great joy in buttonholing us and telling us about this happening, then scolding for being unprepared.  It was unclear how we’d prepare other than taking water, which we had, and being careful.  Also there is an unmissable sign at the trailhead, giving the same info and tips in a far less dire, and thus easier to digest manner.  In the event, the mud and one ford, across a waist deep, fast-flowing creek, holding a rope, with shoes tied together and hanging across a shoulder, were mild challenges.
We could see the small island of Niihau in the distance, off Kauai’s southwest shore.  It’s owned by a family, the Robinsons, who bought it in the 19th century.  The two Robinson brothers who run the island now have some out-of-the-mainstream ideas.  Or rather, they hold some mainstream ideas – modernity isn’t so great, we should honor the traditions of less-developed places and people, and be stewards of nature – that they take to extremes.  The are no paved roads or stores.  They discourage the locals from speaking English rather than Hawaiian, and leave them to subsist by hunting, but don’t let them use modern weapons.  There’s no electricity outside a solar setup on a school.  And save a few tourists who are helicoptered in, to hunt or snorkel on isolated beaches, there are no visitors who might bring modernity with them.  Perhaps the family is just too broke to build anything since its ranching business shut down, driving away most of the population, and too proud to let outsiders see what’s become of the place.  Anyway, there is something eerie about somewhere you can’t go, or at least can’t go to freely, because the people in charge of it don’t want you there.   Especially if that place is what I’d call a first-order geographic entity, and those in charge of it make much of its differentness, and the need to keep you out, to preserve that. The parallel is inexact, but looking at the sun set behind Niihau, I had something of the feeling I had, looking into East Germany from Checkpoint Alpha, when I was there as a college kid in the mid-80s.

Honolulu notes

We’ve come to Oahu a number of times in the seven years since our close friends moved here from Berkeley. Every time, I spend the first few days exhilarated at being in a beautiful, distant place that’s at once strange and familiar, and pleasantly slow-paced. I muse on the possibilities of moving out here and setting up a design agency, or working freelance, unless I could somehow pay a Honolulu mortgage working my dream job as a bartender at the Waikiki Elks Club. Every time, a few days in, I experience a moment of mild panic when I look out at the ocean and think about being thousands of miles from anywhere. The thought never quite leaves my mind for the rest of the trip.  There’s a Honolulu radio station that plays what it calls the “rock you live on,” and the phrase leaves me feeling uneasy.  Our friends talk about having bouts of island fever. I wonder if I would be particularly susceptible to it.

One of Honolulu’s many pleasures is an abundance of great Japanese restaurants.  I went to one with our friends, a family placr with a big dining room and one of those menus that’s like a book. To start, we ordered something called a Russian Roulette roll, just on the hunch that anything with that name would be good, or at least fun to talk about later. It was both, after a fashion, a setup of six pieces of tuna maki, with one, the waiter explained, hiding a huge chunk of wasabi under the fish.  There was a shot glass in the middle of the plate.  Anothet waiter arrived, carrying a large jar full of a yellowish liquid, with what was obviously a snake coiled at the bottom. He told us the stuff is a liqueur called habashu, and comes from Okinawa. It was obvious what you’re supposed to do if you  wind up with the wasabi bomb.  Both, and the both in combination, made for quite an experience, even if I didn’t taste much of what came after.

The beaches are everywhere and amazing. But for my money, the hikes are better. The other day,  I hiked up one of the volcanic ridges that extend into the center of the islans. I hiked up for an hour and a half, through clouds and mist, to a summit that gives a view out to Oahu’s western mountains in one direction, and up to Kailua, on the island’s windward side, in the other.  The trail was muddy from near-constant rain, and, in spots, only five or so feet wide, with what looked to be a thousand-foot vertical drop on either side. I wondered, if you fall, would your fall be cushioned or even stopped by the incredibly dense thickets of ferns, vines, and trees that cling to the sides of the ridge.  My guess is no.  I hiked up fairly fast, but came down slowly, so as not to slip. The wind howled the entire time. Wikipedia tells me there’s a Hawaiian wind god named Paka’a.  The article doesn’t mention it, but I’m guessing he’s given to bellowing fits.  I was alone on the trail the entire time.

Sunday afternoon, I sat in Nico’s, a fish restaurant and bar by the port, watching the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Golden State Warriors in Game 7 of the NBA finals. I grew up watching the Cavs, and setting them win was amazing and strange in about equal measure. I had a beer but stopped sipping it when they fell behind by 7 points. The bartender had such a deep tan and teeth so white, that had i seen her on the mainland, I’d have assumed both were artificial.  When Kyrie Irving hit the winning shot, I screamed. No one else seemed more than mildly interested.  I had the last sip of my beer, crying as I watched the players celebrate on a TV with the sound off.  Everyone around me had turned their attention back to their drinks and their phones, and their baskets of fried ahi belly and rice.  So many Clevelanders have scattered to so many places, I imagine I was one of thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of tiny atolls in a global archipelago of half-lonely joy.


It’s a truism that travel broadens the mind, but just as commonly, travel is a way to escape whatever’s troubling your mind, while building a better collection of cocktail-party stories and snow globes. What could be more fun? Not much, but Theodore Dalrymple has an idea: a holiday in an airport hotel, where you’re so cut off, and so deprived of stimuli, that you have no choice but to relax. And, perhaps, to lose yourself in intense contemplation of the meaning of life:

“Re-think the meaning of your existence with three days in a Heathrow hotel! Guaranteed nothing to do, no one to meet, perfect calm, food bland enough to reduce eating to a physiological function. No one can spend his time fruitlessly wondering what is for dinner tonight: since no one, in the normal way, is expected to stay more than one night, why should the menu ever vary?”

Until recently, you could go to a lot of different places to “get away from it all.” But now, ubiquitous connectivity and easy travel makes this difficult. So there is, I think, a certain something to Dalrymple’s contention that these hotels are the monasteries of our time. Who, though, will follow through on his suggestion to market them as travel destinations?