Before travelling to Hawaii I met with my high school English teacher. While catching up and discussing winter holiday plans she told me of her own trip to Hawaii – what sounded like a begrudging trip. Instead of staying in Waikiki or in the touristy sites, she stayed further inland at an out-of-the-way bed and breakfast. There, and while travelling the lesser visited and more historical parts of Hawaii, she learned that many natives of Hawaii have a different notion of Hawaii than the rest of us – the tourists. Stemming from a sordid and turbulent history, many Hawaiians struggle with the resort-ist destination that Hawaii has become. She learned that Hawaii in fact appealed to many other countries before being annexed by the United States in 1898.
I walked down the Waikiki strip tonight. Though well aware of the tourist destination that is present-day Hawaii, I am continually surprised to see the multitude of high end retail stores: Louis Vuitton, Ferrari Store, Gucci, Bebe, and the list goes on. It wasn’t until the far end of the strip (though still on the strip) that I began to see signs of homelessness, poverty, and hunger. Small groups of homeless people would congregate at picnic tables next to the ocean to share in limited food. A frail woman, with leathered skin and a hunched posture, scurried along the strip opposite my direction – her little dog in tow and carrying a large shopping bag which she gradually filled with bottles and cans. As I turned around to retrace my stroll, I came upon her again – her dog still in tow and her bag a little more filled. I had picked up a pizza at the end of the strip before turning around. Having eaten only one slice, and now carrying the leftovers, I summoned the courage to approach the woman and her dog. I asked if she was eating tonight – if she would like some pizza. I wasn’t sure how she would react; whether this sort of thing would be embarrassing for her or interpreted as an insult. She looked up at me tentatively, interrupted from her B line for the next trash basket; registering the question, she said, “Oh, what about you?” I was touched: Here I was trying to think of her – among all of the tourists milling about, spending money on lavish foods and??extravagant??souvenirs – and she quickly, without hesitation, thought of me. “I’ve eaten some already,” I replied. “It’s pepperoni and mushroom. You can have it if you’d like.” And in a voice that sounded too sweet to come from such a tired body, she offered, “Oh, thank you so much.”
It’s easy to vacation. Tonight I witnessed the ease with which so many of us went about our touristing and spending with blinders donned, ignoring (whether intentionally or absentmindedly) the poverty and hardship in our midst. Hawaii has become the property of its visitors, it seems – stolen out of the hands of its natives. It’s too easy to vacation.