Hawaii Deserves Better From Me

I have been lucky enough to visit Hawaii four times so far.  And, I can say without reservation that I loved it each time.  I’ve rented open-air jeeps and driven around volcanoes and found deserted beaches.  I learned to surf.  I danced the hula, ate roasted pig and plates of fresh pineapple, and drank piña coladas.  I visited Pearl Harbor, watched whales dive, and experienced magical sunsets.


I know this paragraph will sound snobbish and off-putting, but here I go: everyone speaks English so it’s comfortable and easy.  And it’s American, so it’s clean and modern.  There aren’t any bugs or snakes.  Or exotic diseases.  You can drink the water.

As a tourist, it is hard to imagine a more potent example of paradise.

But, taking off my tourist hat and looking at Hawaiians as fellow Americans, I start to feel a little more uncomfortable.  They have a long and tortured relationship with the mainland U.S., and their rich culture, I feel, has been Disneyized for easy consumption.

After my last trip there I was determined to learn more about it and be a more responsible tourist.  So, I read Sarah Vowell’s “Unfamiliar Fishes”.

unfamiliar fishes

Anyone familiar with Vowell (I wasn’t) will immediately see the error of my ways.  Her book is very entertaining.  But, even in the course of criticizing the patronizing way the missionaries and U.S. government treated the nation of Hawaii, her easy-breezy, overly-chatty tone manages to patronize its history.

I was enjoying the book so much as I read it, that it wasn’t until almost the end that I realized how cringe-worthy this irony really is.  And how much I felt like the book was my fifth visit to Hawaii, where I thoroughly enjoyed myself but didn’t give the island or its people the respect they deserve.

In fairness, I did learn a lot.  From the death of Captain Cook, to the influx of missionaries, whalers and sugar cane prospectors, I do have a much more nuanced understanding of the plight of the Native Hawaiians as their population was decimated from 300,000 to a mere 40,000.

But, as much as Vowell educated me that Hawaiians are sensitive to this day about their annexation into the U.S., I was left feeling uneasy with her flippant tone and the shallowness of her descriptions.

Annexation ceremony in 1898 in Honolulu.

Annexation ceremony in 1898 in Honolulu.

The truth is, I have been spoiled by all the effort that Ryszard Kapuściński, and other authors I’ve been reading, make to remove the “Us and Them” mentality, and explain history, places and cultures with sensitivity and depth.  And, that’s just not the charter Vowell embraces.  She is purely an entertainer.

I ate up her book, but it left me hungry, with the all too familiar guilt of a junk food binge.

Can A City Be Sexy?

I think so.  Because to me, New Orleans is sexy.

I guess, first, I should acknowledge that there are different types of sexy.  But, in this case, I am not talking about perfectly packaged, “everything in its place” sexy.  And I’m not talking about cute, fun, flirty sexy.

I am talking about seductive, sultry, a little messy, too much of a good thing but you don’t want to stop, sexy.

On my first trip to New Orleans, I was just impressed alone with the outside showers.  I was a little kid, and we were there for the World’s Fair.  All I remember is it was stifling hot, but they had outdoor showers, or misters or something, that we spent a lot of time admiring.

Now, I think of New Orleans as a different kind of hot.  The food.  The music.  The architecture.  The history.  The people.  Hot, hot, hot.  Sexy hot.

And, the books I’ve read based in New Orleans do as much to bolster my impression as my visits have.

First and foremost, Anne Rice.  I was a teenager when I first discovered her books, and I felt a flush of excitement of the forbidden fruit as I read about the vampires in New Orleans.  I would never think of the city the same again.


I have recently discovered Isabelle Allende.  She shares Rice’s talent of being able to weave a spellbinding story while relaying history and culture.  AND a powerful talent to anthropomorphize places.


Both of these authors bring New Orleans to life for me, and in their incarnations, New Orleans is as sexy  as the city I know and can’t stay away from.

I’m Going to Graceland

There are a few places in the United States that are still on the top of my list to go visit.  I have done a pretty good job seeing the country, but there are gaps.  One of the gaps until recently was Graceland, and Memphis, in general.

When describing myself, “Elvis fan” would not make the list of characteristics.  But, I do love me some Elvis.  And, I have always wanted to make the pilgrimage to see his house (and car museum, and plane).  And, I was looking forward to a lot more than just Graceland:  I wanted to see the duck parade at the Peabody Hotel, try Guss’s famous fried chicken, and listen to some music on Beale Street.

We got to Memphis, and headed directly to the Heartbreak Hotel, where we spent our first night.  (We were actually scheduled to stay both nights there, but immediately upon checking in, we decided we needed a plan B.)  Then, we taxied to Beale street, and got into the Memphis groove.

The next day we toured Graceland, which lived up to all my expectations, and then moved into the Peabody Hotel where we saw the ducks.  The staff at the Peabody couldn’t have been friendlier and they directed us to Guss’s, where we imbibed several frosty beers while waiting for our table.  The wait was worth it, that chicken was finger licking delicious.

The whole visit to Memphis, I was thinking about the latest Stephen King book which I had just finished, 11/22/63.  In a nutshell, it is about a time traveler from the present day who travels back into the late 1950’s in an attempt to stop the assignation of John F Kennedy.  I really enjoyed the book, and while it doesn’t take place in Memphis, it kept coming to mind.

One of the major takeaways I got from the novel was that while, in many ways, the late 50’s and early 60’s were a golden era in the US (the food was tastier, the beer was fresher, the air was cleaner, the cars better), it was really only a golden era if you were a white, Christian, heterosexual man.  If you weren’t, you are a lot better off in 2012, no matter how good the food used to taste.

My Mom Died While Traveling

I know that’s a shocking title, but it’s the truth.  And it conveys how pervasive travel really is throughout my life (and was through hers).  But, the odd truth is that she died on a work trip, as did her dad.  Even odder, he was traveling from Chicago to California, and she was traveling from California to Chicago.  Live by the sword, die by the sword, so to speak.

My mom was born in Washington D.C., where her dad worked for the Truman administration.  My grandfather used to travel to San Francisco every month,  and once or twice his whole family joined him there.  He died when she was 10, and her mom moved the family to Europe (Italy and Switzerland) for a year.

When they got back stateside, they moved to Chicago, where my grandmother remarried.

My mom went onto college in D.C., and then moved to North Carolina and Texas with my dad after they were married (he was in the army).  When he was deployed to Vietnam, she moved them back to Chicago.

After my parents divorced, we moved with our mom to Arizona, and then California.  We went on lots of trips to places like Hawaii, New York, and more than a few national parks.

My mom’s job was crazy high-travel, mostly back and forth from LA to Chicago.  My sister and I used to joke that she had a second secret family there :).  But, after years of giving her a hard time about her frequent trips to Chicago, they became a blessing.  My sister and I had each moved there after college, and it was so awesome that our mom was out and able to visit with us a couple of times a month!

Weirdly enough, she was in Chicago when she died.  As sad as the whole experience was for us, the silver lining was that she was in Chicago since we could be with her for the whole process of the bypass surgery, recovery, stroke, life support, etc.  And it meant we could bury her in Chicago.  I mean, sure, we could have moved her body if she had died at home in LA, but I don’t think we would have thought about it.   As it was, we buried her in Skokie, and go visit her regularly.  If she hadn’t been traveling at the time of her death, we couldn’t do that.  After giving her such grief for her trips to Chicago, I couldn’t be more grateful for them now.