Any time I travel, one of my big concerns is unintentionally being one of those Americans — pushy, demanding, and brash. This worry of mine persists on Hawaii despite its being a US state. When I expressed this concern to my doctor friend on the flight to Honolulu, a three-decade resident of the islands (and the one who declared me an adventuress), he had a pragmatic response.
“You’ll never not be a haole,” he said, using the disparaging Hawaiian term for a white person. “But you can choose not to act like one.” I agreed. I want to be an appreciative visitor, not a selfish tourist. I want to embody the adage I learned in Spain: the tourist demands, but the pilgrim is grateful.
With this in mind, I now realize that my first opinions of Molokai were influenced by a jet-lagged mind and a weary body dripping with perspiration in the tropical air. Although I’ve not gotten into anyone’s face, I’ve been a bit critical. The weather’s been unusually warm, for example, and I complained immediately about the fact. Imagine my relief when I realized every single local we’ve talked to said the same thing: “It’s so hot.” At least we’re all whining together.
Now that I’ve been here a few days, everything looks different. The errors of my biased thinking are clear. Those seemingly-barren trees, for example, were merely backlit by the sunset. I’ve since learned they go dormant in the arid summer and their sprays of tiny green leaves appear only after a rain. The day after I arrived, overnight rainfall refreshed their parched existence and are now graceful and lovely for miles around.
The mysterious black creature that crossed the road on my arrival revealed itself to be not a dinosaur, but an enormous turkey. In fact, a whole flock of them resides on the property, grazing at dawn and dusk. With hilarious amusement, we’ve watched them running a breakneck speed from terrifying rotating sprinklers. This area is replete with introduced birds and indigenous ones alike; our lifetime bird list is getting new checks left and right.
In hindsight I also regret writing unkind things about my friend’s car. It was (and still is) exquisitely excrement-covered, thanks to the prodigious efforts of local birds. However, it is a hardy Hawaiian car — da kine, my generous friend said by way of introduction. Did I mention that she’s offering it to me at no cost? The intrepid, if-road-worn, maroon VW has been ferrying us to and fro sporting brand-new brakes. I’d much prefer an unwashed exterior any day to a plunge off a cliff.
With my biases retracted, I will say that Molokai is not like other Hawaiian islands. It’s truly traveling abroad. Here people take pride in being known as the Friendly Isle, but the friendliness comes with no subservience to or special treatment for visitors. “Take us as we are, or go to another island,” it seems to say. If there is glitz here, we haven’t seen it. In fact, the brochure stand at the airport featured nothing more than home-printed pamphlets for massage therapy, a local organic farm, and a single fishing charter. A huge, double-sided laminated map of the island (which came with our unit, but can be purchased anywhere) highlights the isle’s many natural features and its few amenities. Notable was its introduction: “While visitors are openly welcomed here, it would be wise to understand the ways of Molokai . . . To become a resort island is not a Molokai goal . . . here you will find authentic Hawaiian culture, a rural lifestyle . . . but you will need to slow down, be less demanding, and respect the Molokai way of life.”
I think Molokai’s culture is best encapsulated by a sign posted outside a local grocery store. It reads: “Aloha spirit required here. If you you can’t share it today, please visit us some other day. Mahalo.”
Can you imagine what would happen if every culture, every destination in the world made a similar declaration? What if every demanding tourist was sent home for bad behavior? What if those only who traveled were genuinely interested in participating in the true flavor of a community, rather than in superficial, escapist entertainment? This would be practically impossible to enforce, of course. Sadly, it would also mean I would have been banished from the island on Day One, despite my best intentions.
For me, travel offers personal and spiritual opportunities which cannot be cultivated without openness, curiosity, and gratitude. Expectation is the enemy of enlightenment. If I wanted a cooler climate, scenic vistas, and cheaper food, I could have just stayed home! It’s the discomforts of a journey that can provide the catalyst for personal and spiritual insights. “It’s changing you,” observed my partner, Mary, “rather then you trying to change it.” Exactly.
So, while I’m here, I’m following the map-writer’s advice and slowing way the heck down. I’m breaking my habit of interrupting. I’m making space to really listen, which means tolerating what (to me) are uncomfortably long silences. People here don’t open up with just a smile — you’ve got to be the smile. Fakers not welcome. There’s my spiritual lesson, right there. Be the smile.
Today, as I was walking into the General Store in Maunaloa, I noticed a grandmother and her young grandson coming up behind me. I held the door open to let them enter first.
“Hey, now,” the slight-framed woman admonished her charge as they went in. “She held the door for you. Say ‘Thank you, auntie.'”
He looked up at me for a moment and parroted sweetly, “Thank you, auntie.”
Auntie! Maybe I am getting the hang of this friendliness thing.