- Special Projects
Editor’s Note: William Hambaro took third place in our Emerging Writers Contest, receiving a prize of $200. Read about other winners here and check out their stories all this week.
Flying back from California, it’s always a sight to see the the beryl peaks of the islands poking through the blue barrenness of Pacific. You can tell the people that are first-time malihinis, with their faces pressed hard against the jet portholes in eager anticipation.
I feel their excitement, but as a born and raised kamaaina, like many of my brethren that have left years ago and only to return fleetingly back for births, deaths, graduation, or even vacations, its always semi-sweet, knowing that while your roots are in the islands, life now lies elsewhere.
But not this time. I was coming home to stay.
I haven’t lived in the islands since 1975. So things have changed. My hair is whiter, a few more pounds and my sister told me my pidgin really sucks as to be almost unintelligible. That hurt. So I try and keep it simple. Keep talking story to a minimum to disguise my haole tongue.
Besides talking pidgin, Hawaii people really are different. No matter that the state is pushing over 1.4 million plus, people here still think like it’s a small town. It’s not what you do, it’s who you know, where and when you went grad. If you live long enough on an island, eventually you get to know everybody either by blood, marriage or reputation.
So I guess that’s why huge lawsuits here are rare. My surf buddy who is a personal injury lawyer told me once that juries here rarely give large awards because they think it could be them being sued, or a family member or friend.
Then there’s Hawaiian time. “Slow down, brah, make the job last.” When I first moved to the mainland, I thought everything and everybody was literally moving faster. I had to hustle to keep up. Work harder and faster. Get ‘er done. No wonder people die in America mostly to heart attacks.
The you come back to Hawaii. You’ve seen the bumper sticker that says slow down this ain’t the mainland. Didn’t expect it to apply to all things, especially government. Seems nothing ever gets done on time much less on budget. Exhibit A being the Rail. How about the lines to get in to anything remotely needed or wanted? Three-day camp out to get into Best Buy for a TV? Or Bruno Mars? How about the DMV? Or over an hour one-way commute every day? Normal. Get used to it.
I moved back not just to Hawaii, but back to the old neighborhood in Makaha, in the house that my father built in 1955, and where I grew up. It’s was like crawling back into the womb of my childhood.
My brother, who never left, jokingly said life on the west side is like living on the “rez” — an allusion to Indian reservations he had seen in Oklahoma. By west side, I mean everything west of “black rock,” an ebony craggy crest that marks the beginning of Nanakuli, Maili, Waianae and Makaha.
They have the highest percentage of Native Hawaiians in their communities. So you see more of them here than elsewhere. None more celebrated back in the day than Chief Boki, who I think epitomizes the west side.
He was in 1820 appointed by King Kamehameha II as governor of Oahu and chief of the Waianae District. His portrait hangs on the second floor the Bishop Museum. He is handsome and majestic, dressed in brilliant native-feathered regalia next to his exquisite wife. He looks every bit the gentile noble savage.
The west side was his favored part of the island. He had traveled to Europe, experienced the outside world. But he celebrated the old traditions of hulas especially in Waianae during a time when they were fast being replaced by western Christian ways.
In possible passive-aggressive response he opened a tavern. It was a two-story wooden building in Honolulu called The Blonde Hotel. He named it after the ship that had brought him home from England.
It was according to missionaries, a place where “noisy swine gathered … drunkenness and licentious indulgence became common, and people gathered … for hulas and filthy dances.” In other words, a fun space.
It didn’t last. In 1829, seeking adventure and fortune in sandalwood, Boki sailed off into the South Pacific on his ship the Kamehameha with 250 followers aboard. They were never seen again.
That rambunctious, rebellious spirit still lives on that side of the island despite the nearby commercialism of a large Disney hotel, upscale resorts at Ko Olina and the creeping urban sprawl in Kapolei.
But past black rock, you are likely to see more pick ups flying State of Hawaii flags upside down, with the native Kanaka Maoli flags in bright yellow and green, right side up. Those flags also fly in homeless camps along the coast or over some dilapidated houses in the neighborhoods.
Many are poor, under-educated, or working class people providing much of the muscle that drives the urban core. Nevertheless, they are fiercely proud of who they are, protective of their culture.
Back in Boki’s day, the west side of Oahu far removed from Honolulu was also one of the few places you could surf in the old style, sans clothes, because nakedness offended missionary sensibilities. It must have been liberating and uncrowded. Not today.
Take for instance, Makaha’s famous surfing waves. It has a reputation for localism. Woe to you who think you can just paddle into the lineup and take any wave, much less drop in on someone.
First time back surfing at Makaha, it was “Eh, who you brah?” It was asked by a hulking, bald, bronzed Hawaiian. Uh-oh.
But then relief. It was bruddah Bruce, who I had grown up with since hanna butta days. After talking story in my halting pidgin, we were both grinning widely. Despite the years, we looked at each other as if we are still young bucks, romping to the beach on rusted bikes with our beater boards, riding the best waves of our lives.
Moving back was easy, and hard.
Now, there is much more visible inequality. Back then, when everybody around you is poor, you didn’t feel it.
I remember the old neighborhood. The friends and their families who lived in this house or that. They are often no longer there. Most have moved away. And those that are still here, I barely recognize.
Certain landmarks remain, a particular giant kiawe tree on the beach at Pokai Bay under which Boki’s hulas may have performed. There is the cove at the beach where my juvenile heart once raced after a first kiss. The kindergarten school is still there. It’s where I first got bullied.
Faulkner said it best. The past is not dead. It’s not even past. It’s all still there and I am back at home.