Should you hold a gun to my head and tell me to describe the Hawaiian Islands in one word, that word would be “vivid.” And yes, I’d give you that description only under the threat of death. Why? Because Hawaii is so many things that describing it with just one word, condensing it to nothing but a few sounds, and squishing it into the tight, unimaginative boundaries of language feels like a crime.
One main road can take you all around the island of O’ahu. There are many more roads than on Kaua’i but still—a big, comprehensive loop there is but one. As I was starting my day out in Ala Moana, my loop went as followed: Diamond Head, Halona Blowhole, Waimānalo, Byodo-In Temple, Fumi’s, Sunset Beach/Point, Haleiwa, Dole Plantation, and back “home.” And it took me not only on a big adventure ’round the island but on a tour of life itself.
Lei, Laughter, and Love
A man I met in the street in the early morning adorned me with a lei made of deep purple orchids. Being gifted a lei is an honor and one you should never refuse. Saying no to a lei is a big taboo—one should always graciously receive it with a smile and thanks. In Hawaii, “a lei is a common symbol of love, friendship, celebration, honor, or greeting. In other words, it is a symbol of Aloha.1“
My grand tour of the island began at Diamond Head—or, more precisely, Amelie Earhart’s marker. However, it wasn’t the monument—neither the geological nor the historical one—that caught my attention. It was the wild laughter and screams of joy that came from down below, carried on the wings of the ocean breeze—it was the yips of pleasure from the surfers who were enjoying the morning swell. Never mind they had to go to work after this early session; at that moment, the world was perfect for them. And by extension, for me, too.
The Magical Li Hing Mui
Past the Halona Blowhole I went, watching the ocean water be forced through the geological structure and spray the surrounding rock. Impossible as it may sound, the coastline changed a bit, and a view of Mānana Island opened up before me. The ocean felt different on this side of the island—and it was.
In Waimānalo, a man with a stand on the side of the road changed my life. He was stood on the side of a small shop and one wouldn’t even think he was selling something if he didn’t have more pineapples than one person could possibly need—or, in other words, if he didn’t look like that man from that maths problem who, for some inexplicable reason needed fifty watermelons. This man offered me a taste of something bright red.
“Is it spicy?” I asked.
“No, not at all, it’s sweet!”
“…and spicy?” I suggested again with a smile as I stuffed that mysterious cube in my mouth.
OH. MY. GOD.
It wasn’t spicy. But it sure was the best damn thing I’d ever had in my mouth at that point.
“You like it?” he asked.
“Do you have, like, fifty of these?” was my reply. I ended up buying two portions of pineapple with li hing mui powder which, apparently, the guy had made himself. Li hing mui powder is made of dried salty plum and a few other things and takes pineapple to its next—and final—level. I believe there is no way to make pineapple taste better but this. Level: god. I ended up eating a full half of a giant, li hing mui-blood-red pineapple.
Byodo-In Temple: The Power of Peace
My next stop was the Byodo-In Temple. It tends to get quite crowded, however, it was still early enough in the morning that it wasn’t too bad. The temple itself was gorgeous, standing in front of a steep, green ridge that seemingly touched the perfectly blue sky. Its bright red color contrasted with the greenery. A path led across a bridge the same color and past a bell to announce one’s arrival. When the bell rang, my heartbeat matched itself to the sound.
I found a place in the back of the temple, a tiny grassy clearing with a small buddha statue. Although the main areas around the temple started to fill up and it was hard to find a place without a stream of people, this spot was completely empty and silent. There was something powerful about the way it kept its own piece of peace. All the colors came out more real than they did elsewhere, as if they, too were alive. Forget what you know about light and sound; here, these were entities of their own.
When the time came to leave the place, I went; and, like a cloud or like a loyal dog, the stillness followed, making everything seem and feel more alive.
Fumi’s: Heaven Incarnate & The Beauty of Human Being(s)
When it was time to get lunch (as the route dictated), I was still full of pineapple. The shrimp shack named Fumi’s, one I’ve heard so much about, stood on the side of the road, letting out wisps of mouth-watering fragrance. The unwary traveler would be caught in it and drawn to the shack like Hansel and Gretel were to the gingerbread house. I didn’t need that magic to want to eat there. Even though I was perfectly satiated mere seconds before I made it to Fumi’s, my stomach started to growl the second that heavenly smell tickled my nostrils.
I didn’t always eat shrimp. I grew up on dumplings (the European kind), sausages, sauerkraut, end the like. My central-European Czech tastes, influenced by nearby east Germany, never included seafood. Five years of living with the Phans changed that rather drastically. There I was, in Hawaii, having eaten raw fish the day before, shaking with anticipation as I ordered my Lemon Pepper shrimp plate. The Butter Garlic shrimp sounded delicious, too, but I thought lemon and pepper would allow for the actual taste of shrimp to come through.
I got my food and found a place to sit next to a family of four. The full tables were probably just another testament to the goodness of the food—just like to family was a testament to the goodness of people when they made space for me. As it later turned out, they were from LA and also Phans. Which really probably wasn’t much of a coincidence at all, given it’s one of the most common last names. After the introductions were made, I took my first bite—and I’m going to repeat myself but:
OH. MY. GOD.
If heaven exists, I’ve glimpsed it through that Lemon Pepper Shrimp. Poets may write thousands of verses and never come even close to describing how incredibly wonderful it tasted. My taste buds were in ecstasy. My brain chemistry was altered. The dish, the combination of flavors, did something to me—and I’ve never been the same for it. I know I wasn’t—and am not—overreacting because, since that fateful day, no food has ever tasted so good, nor has ever made me feel the way that shrimp from Fumi’s did.
If, after reading through that ode, you think—just like I did—that there was nothing that could make the lunch better, you’re—just like I was—mistaken. Sure, there was the sun and the lovely people and, most importantly, the heavenly dish, but there was one more thing: music from Braden Wood, a (very) local musician with a guitar. With his witty, friendly way of going about performing for the public, he made the atmosphere as complete as it could have been. Even though I didn’t know anyone, it felt as if I was there with friends I’d known my whole life.
Big Waves on Sunset Beach
The sides of the road changed from empty to overflowing with cars in the span of only a few meters. Suddenly, it was hard to even see where the road ended and the grass began. That’s because I’ve arrived near Sunset Beach where the Good Waves were that early afternoon. The beach was swarming people, just like the ocean, but it wasn’t hectic or claustrophobic as crowded places tend to be; in fact, the place felt relaxed. The shared interest in good waves, good drinks, and good company made it a very pleasant place indeed.
It took only a few seconds before I saw a surfer claim a wave and then it was a never-stopping show of skill and pure joy. Even though I’d never stood on a surfboard before, the feelings of excitement were so overwhelming I wanted nothing more than to join everybody out there in the waves.
Someone told me that there were green turtles at Hale’iwa Beach. I caught a glimpse of one when its head poked up above the surface. There was a stand with surfing lessons and, for a second, I thought about signing up for one but decided against it; the day was getting a bit too short and I didn’t have a swimsuit, anyway.
Across the road from the beach and park was a small, shaded patch with a few picnic tables scattered around. North Shore Macadamia Nut stand stands there—and I do like macadamia nuts but that’s not what I got. A little bit on the side, there stood a small, colorful stand with palm fronds for the roof. Fruit, smoothies, and açaí bowls were sold there, however, it was sugar cane juice that tickled my fancy. I’d never had it before.
The woman who manned the stand took a whole stick of sugar cane and stuffed it in its entirety through a blender, then squeezed the juice directly into a cup. It was a no-nonsense process that led to a cup of the best ‘lemonade’ I’d ever had. Ambrosia nectar who? The Greeks should have had this instead!
The last stop of the day before I headed back home was the Dole Plantation. Even before you arrive there, you can see the fields belonging to it along the road. I’ve seen a pineapple grow once before at Hawaii’s Local Buzz but that didn’t diminish my astonishment at all. Seeing pineapples at different stages grow on a stalk straight from the ground was like watching aliens come to Earth.
The place was packed. I tried to go inside but there were just too many people. The line to get the Dole whip, a frozen pineapple mush whipped so perfectly it feels like a heavy-cream ice-cream, was so long it would have taken literally forever to get to it. The place was overwhelming and I found a quick escape back out. And there, in the light of the white-blazing sun, stood a small stand that sold just that. It was on the side and a short line of five people was nothing compared to the literal circus-zoo-craziness that went on inside the main building.
For the third time that day, my reaction to the food was OH. MY. GOD. Pineapple is one of my favorite fruits and perfectly whipped frozen pineapple at that? Holy cow. After that experience, I know that waiting even in that terribly long time would have been worth it.
Swimming & rain
Rain started to come down hard on my way back home. It was getting late; the sun had disappeared behind the clouds and one could tell only from the fainting light that the sun had set for the day. I picked up dinner and did some work while watching Rooted: The Story of HURT. Slowly, the rain let up and a deep purple-pink sky dappled with stars appeared once more.
The night wasn’t so young anymore and my bedtime was nearing, however, the mind wasn’t ready to go to sleep yet. Instead, it saw itself swimming in the dark ocean water. In only a few short minutes, I was there for real. Waves broke further away from the shore, leaving the water near the beach unbelievably calm, reflecting the starry sky. As I swam, ripples ran across the surface and disturbed the image. The day came twinkling through the darkness like the stars. For some reason, the islands made my existence much more vivid, helped me feel much more real.
The sway of the water put me asleep; only the early-morning song of the birds and the traffic sounds found me in my bed and rose me slowly into the new day.