Two years ago, I moved back to Hilo, back to my parents’ home, where I had lived from childhood through my graduation from Hilo High School as the salutatorian in a class of 730 students.

The wise, young woman I was then, all of 17, never expected to return to my hometown, except on vacation. But a family medical emergency summoned me back, and what I have found, to my surprise, is that I really LOVE living in Hilo, being on the Big Island, and in general, being back in the Aloha State.

For more than two decades, my career as a journalist had taken me to some of the United States’ most exciting cities — Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Seattle, New Orleans, New York. But I always carried within me the aloha spirit, which buoyed me every time I settled into a new apartment, established a new circle of friends, and then, a few years later, moved on.

Before moving back into my childhood bedroom in March 2015, I lived for five years on Oahu, mainly in Honolulu, which itself was a brand-new city to me. I recall only one trip to Honolulu in girlhood: I had “won” a free, all-expenses-paid trip to the state 4-H conference, held on the University of Hawaii, Manoa, campus, as a high school student, because of the excellence of my photography project.

A sign of welcome on the Big Island. Denise Laitinen

In Honolulu, whenever I was asked about my hometown or high school, I immediately detected that the questioner’s face would become dismissive and disdainful, indicating their thoughts: “Oh, you, country bumpkin,” and then the conversation would die out.

Hey, people of Honolulu, you can keep your outdated notions about Hilo and rejoice in the overpriced rail system you are going to be paying for, forever.

Hilo is a wonderful place! For one thing, here on the Big Island, we really do have aloha spirit, and you will notice it on the road as a motorist.

If you are trapped in a driveway, waiting for an interminable line of cars to pass by, a kind soul in the queue will often pause to let you by.

If you need to make a left-hand turn, the first car of the oncoming traffic will frequently pause to let you by.

Another real-life example of the old-fashioned, sweet hospitality that is still rampant on the Big Island: I was at Pepe’ekeo Post Office, a village outside of Hilo on the Hamakua Coast, mailing some letters, on my way to Costco on the other side of the island. When I got back to my car, it wouldn’t start. It also started raining heavily.

A stranger in a pickup truck, who was a customer exiting the post office, offered to take a look. He spent a good half-hour under the hood of my car, in the heavy downpour. He finally told me that his efforts to charge my battery were fruitless. The problem was likely with the ignition mechanism. He drove away before I could take his name. His diagnosis was later confirmed by my auto mechanic in Hilo, where AAA towed my car and me.

It makes a real difference in your life to be surrounded by people of goodwill, who greet even unknown passers-by with a hello and a smile.

Hilo is also filled with reminders of my mother, Song Soon Ann Park Lee, 91, who passed away Feb. 17, 2017, in a Hilo hospice. Of course, the family home, where I live, carries many photographs of Mom.

When I am in the kitchen chopping veggies for an omelet, I am reminded of my mother, doing the very same thing. She made the best omelets!

I am planning to make Hilo my permanent home. That would never have happened, had it not been for my mother’s illness that had brought me back to Hilo, sweet Hilo.

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