It all started, ironically enough, with a desire to learn to surf. The Netherlands, where I grew up had many attractive qualities, but surfable beaches isn’t one of them. So in my late teens, with visions of surfing monster waves, being awesome and getting all the girls, I began planning a trip to Hawai’i.
I did end up learning to surf, when I finally got there at the age of 22, and it was almost as amazing as I expected It to be, but what I didn’t expect was how the Islands would completely and irrevocably change my perception on natural beauty in general.
Honolulu, I’ll admit didn’t impress me. It was too similar to San Diego, to Los Angeles and Cleveland and every other American city I’d been to. It was nicer weather than most, sure, but it had the same high street shops and shopping malls and McDonalds that everywhere else did. Whatever I’d come to Hawai’i for, this wasn’t it.
Lamenting this to the guy running the youth hostel I was staying in, the advice was simple. Get off O’ahu and go to one of the other Islands. He felt, and eloquently explained to me over a drink one night, that Honolulu was a fairly standard American city, location notwithstanding, but that the other islands were where the real Hawai’i was to be found.
I really hadn’t given much thought to Island-hopping, so I pretty much went to the airport and picked whichever was the next flight to one of the other islands, and it turned out to be Maui. It also ended up saving my vacation and changing my life.
I ended up in Lahaina, late at night, with no hotel or hostel booked, but feeling far more comfortable. This was in 2002, and it hadn’t quite become the tourist hotspot it is these days, and finding a place to stay was as easy as asking a local. I’ve travelled far and wide, both before and since, and I’ve yet to meet people as universally friendly as the folks in Lahaina. Even though I was not just obviously a tourist, but almost stereotypically so, no one pointed it out to my face. Mind you, I imagine I was the punchline to a joke told to friends later, but that’s okay too. These days I understand that if you wear loud Hawaiian shirts, wear a fanny pack and pack enough sunscreen to choke a Rhino, you look like an idiot. Back then however….
For the next two weeks, I did things I hadn’t done much of. I’d always travelled to cities, and enjoyed them and now for the first time in my life I was spending virtually all my days outdoors. I learned over those fourteen days to enjoy the simple pleasures of hiking, of surfing, of just sitting and enjoying the ambience of a place that is as close to paradise as any I’ve ever found. Even though I’m not a night-person per se, I found myself staying up late and going out hiking in order to have the clearest view of the skies I could find. I had always lived in cities, and I had never seen a sky so clear, or so many stars. Later in the vacation I’d take a trip up Mauna Kea just to see more of them, but it all started lying on a beach in Maui.
On about my third day in Lahaina, and almost a week after I’d gotten to Hawai’i, I finally had a chance to learn how to surf. I ended up chatting to an old man on the beach, and when I told him about learning, he offered to teach. He was retired, and since I’d been polite, he was willing to forgive me being a Haole, which I found out much later was a pretty derogatory term, and agreed to show me the basics. He said something to me while he was teaching me that has stuck with me for years afterwards. He said ‘The only place to learn to surf, is in the water’. My first attempts were not very graceful, or very successful. I’m sure if Youtube had been a thing there’d be a hilarious Fail video of ‘dumbarse kid falls off his surfboard… a lot’, but he was patient with me and I did eventually become a passable surfer.
I ate food that was fresh, in a couple of cases I even helped catch it. The place I was staying seemed to quickly realize I was interested in trying my best to actually do something with my time rather than just sunning my face, and they kept suggesting things, and in one case it involved helping people fish with nets. Much like my experience surfing, this was not something I took too very easily, and I occasionally thing I was far more a hindrance than a help, but they did let me try at least. Even gave me one of the fish to take back with me to the hotel.
I enjoyed local music, which I had on CD for years and now resides as MP3’s on the laptop I’m typing this on. I remember this tiny little bar suggested to me by one of the locals, where they played live ukulele music. I’d never even seen a Ukulele in the real world before, and can’t say I’d ever had any interest in the technical side of how one is played. Yet, as I eat and drank and watched, I found myself utterly entranced at how they mixed music and conversation, sharing the history of Maui in between songs and instrumental bits. There was love in that performance, there was passion and something unashamedly vibrant in the performance. I wasn’t quite moved to tears but it was a close thing, and afterwards the CD I bought ended up becoming one of my prize possessions.
I shamelessly flirted with the young lady at the front desk as one is wont to do when on vacation where no one will ever hear about it or tell any of your friends about it. She flirted back with the same kind of shamelessness of knowing that the tourist would probably tip better, and he did, but she also showed me a few out of the way places. On her own time no less, so I probably didn’t make a terrible impression.
I learned to enjoy nature in a way I’d never done before, because the island is truly a spectacular one. I developed a habit of seeking out waterfalls and dunking my head under them, initially because I was doing something silly to make someone laugh, and throughout the years since as a strange form of ritual remembrance of Waimoku Falls, and the astonishing views I saw throughout the parks and hiking trails on the island. I had never been one for hiking before Maui, and while I was vaguely aware of nature before this trip, I can’t say it was anything I’d spent a great deal of time thinking about until I was surrounded by it on all side. To this day when I smell salt air, I think of Maui.
I eventually had to go back to O’ahu, I had a pre-planned trip to the Big Island to go on, not to mention that after three weeks in paradise, my time in Hawai’i was running short.
The Maui I saw was a fantasy, I know that. You can’t really get to know a place as a tourist. For that, you have to live and work somewhere. You have to see a place through the eyes of someone who has to get up to go to work, not someone who wants to get up because he has nothing he has to do, and many things he wants to do The people who live and work in Hawai’i no doubt appreciate the Islands in a way I never can, because I have only ever visited there the one time.
For all that though, dreams of Maui still come to me even today. Part of me wonders if when I go back, any of the places I went to are still there. If not, they’ll always be in my memories of Maui. Of the wind and the water and the slightly racist grandad who taught me how to surf, and the hole in the wall bar that served me a rum strong enough to strip paint. They’ll be there in the piece of volcanic rock I brought home, not realizing at the time that I shouldn’t have done so. The memories of the people I met, and the appreciation for nature that Maui instilled in me have travelled long and far to be with me today.
I hope to go back there in the next year or two, and have a chance to reconnect with a place that changed the way I travel, leading me to seek out newer, prettier natural places, and yet if I never do, I won’t consider myself hard done by.
I got to go once after all, and did it while I was young enough to enjoy any and every part of the Island.
When I think of paradise, I think of Maui, and that’s something no time or distance can take away.