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.
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?