“OK, children. This is our last time on the escalators. We go up. We go down. And then we head back to the gate and wait with Mama.”
“OK, Papa,” agreed Rose.
“OK, Papa,” echoed Samuel.
We rose up out of the crowd of passengers in the Honolulu airport, mostly white mainlainders off of Flight #1 from Chicago, waiting for their vacation paradise to begin. They milled about in close quarters, stepping carefully around the wheeled handbags and carry-on purses, overstuffed and resembling panicked blowfish. As my children and I rose through the opening in the ceiling, the sunhats of the other passengers disappeared and we found ourselves on an upper level, surrounded by windows with a view across the tarmac to the metropolis beyond, and somewhere after that, the sapphire blue Pacific Ocean. There was not a soul on floor two except us and we weren’t staying long.
“Aloha!” commanded a disembodied voice over our heads. “Due to heightened airport security…”
“Come on Samuel!” Rose yelled and traced a semi-circle back onto the down escalator with Samuel right on her tail. I grabbed their hands as we entered the mass of humanity. Repeat ad nauseum.
Twenty minutes later, and twenty hours after we had rose from our predawn beds in Vermont, we handed the boarding passes to the agent for the last leg of our flight. Honolulu to Kauai. Crossing the threshold onto the plane, I was baptized in a cloud of condensing vapor falling from an overhead vent. Rose and I walked to the very back of the jet to our rigid seats that did not recline. She promptly fell asleep across my lap.
On a previous leg of our journey, the children were still “perky at thirteen o’clock,” but patient, excited, well-behaved, even as we waited for the Chicago bound passengers to deplane.
“We’re going to Hanayuyu!” Samuel told a soft-toned, bespectacled man in a business suit.
The man looked down at my three-year old and all the muscles in his middle-aged face resolved into an enormous grin. His second chin jutted out as he peered down at Samuel with an astonished, wide-open mouth.
“Hanayuyu?” he said, his voice full of glee. “How wonderful!”
Samuel smiled back, feeling instant pity and comradeship. “Would you like to go to Hanayuyu?”
“I would love to go to Hanayuyu!” he answered, he eyes squinting shut in imagined ecstasy as he drew out the verb.
“OK. Let’s go!” said Samuel. Practical boy, to the point. No more monkey business. Let’s get this show on the road.
I snapped my eyes open. I was sitting upright against the back wall of the cabin, but my chin was digging a hole in my sternum through a wet patch of cotton T-shirt smelling of my own saliva. The back of my neck felt stretched and distended on the right side. Dawn was smiling down at me. “We’re here, hun. Can you wake up Rose?”
It turned out that I could not. She had been napping a bit on the flight from Chicago, but still had a strong sleep deficit to make up. I carried her across the Kauai airport for a good quarter mile before the jossling woke her.
The buildings in Hawaii are topologically inside out, like a drawing by M.C. Escher. You could drive your gleaming, newly-washed, rental SUV into the tiled lobby of your resort without shattering wall or window and park it among the carpeting and paintings and statues. The door men, liveried in flowered shirts and knee-length shorts waiting with luggage trolleys behind their podiums, would scarcely glance in your direction. Within the lobby, glass doors lead to exotic spas, and there are corridors passing down rows and rows of hotel room doors, where small wren will land at your door and pick up a crumb of muffin off your discarded room service tray before flying away down the hall. If you walk further down the hall, the roof vanishes and a two hundred year old baobab tree is growing through a hole in the floor up through an atrium with no ceiling, and a little farther on, there is a waterfall with a swan swimming about.
The first two days, Dawn took the children to markets, parks, and beaches, and when they wanted a break, they came back to the hotel and went down to the pool. It was shaped something like a lagoon with a beach made of large grain sand (or small grain pebbles), a water slide, a waterfall, and a couple of snaking canals hidden by landscaped islands and a coi pond. There were three sand-bottomed hot tubs, one set aside for children, which turned out to be useful when the clouds came through. We had the occasionally shower or storm, but the sun always came through eventually. The children were happy and easy to please and there was hardly any whining. Even for a child, it is hard to complain in Hawaii, and they tried to hold up their end with only minimal success.
I spent those days in meetings with my fellow employees, and I must say that they were meetings that definitely “didn’t suck.” We held them at restaurants in posh hotels, on a boulder strewn slope approachable only after wading a creek, under trees on sand covered cliff tops. Last year had been moderately successful, so this company retreat was sponsored by the company. You can do that sort of thing when you are the sole owner of a six-person company who happens to like tropical beaches, and that is what my boss is, God bless him.
One night, the teenage daughters of one employee offered to babysit the younger children of other employees so the adults could go out for dinner in a fancy restaurant. We brought Rose and Samuel to their room, only to find that a surprise birthday party had been arranged for Rose (it being her 6th birthday). There was cake and ice cream and balloons and cards, and we were able to slip out without a hint of separation anxiety. That was a fine evening.
Quick geography lesson. Imagine smoke rings blowing from a tobacco pipe growing large and larger until they escape the bowl and float through the air where in time they slowly dissolve and vanish. Picture it from overhead, fill in the smoke rings, and you have a fairly good map of the islands of Hawaii. A vent deep in the earth pushed magma up until the growing volcano broke the surface of the ocean and became an island. Every so many years (whether hundreds, thousands, or millions, I don’t recall), the vent stopped to take a breath and the newly minted island was carried off northwestward by the floating continental plate. Over time, the rain and wind wore this island down, while a new island was created back in its original place by the same process. Eventually the first island eroded back into the ocean, leaving no visible trace. This is why there is a chain of Hawaiian islands, and why the ones farthest east are younger, larger, taller and craggier, while the islands to the west are generally older, flatter, decrepit, and covered with moss and foliage.
Kauai is the penultimate island to the west. Only Niihau is older, and erosion has left it more of an oversized sandbar than a proper volcanic island. There are older islands even farther west, but as they have eroded below the surface of the water, one can hardly call them islands anymore. Though old and worn, Kauai does not have these identity crises. Mt. Waialeale, at 5148 feet, is the visible and significant remains of the volcano that formed Kauai, and though it is extinct, in fact crumbling to pieces with a long tongue of canyon on the south west side like a breach in a siege, the mountain has the honor of boasting the rainiest spot on earth with over 460 inches of rain a year. The wind driving in from the west, having become saturated over thousands of miles of ocean, rushes up the canyon and up the inside wall of the former crater. The rise in altitude creates a drop in temperature and the water condenses and precipitates. The rain falls, further eroding the crater, and rushes back down the canyon where it came from. By the time the air has climbs the peak and flipped over the crater wall, all the moisture has been wrung out like a sponge, leaving an arid desert on the other side; one of the driest spots on earth right next to very wettest.
No one rushes on Kauai. In fact, our guidebook warned us about several restaurants whose excellence in cuisine was surpassed only by the indifference of the service. But after all, it is an island. No matter how fast you move, you’re still here.
A single road winds around the outer edge of Kauai, connecting the series of coastal communities and towns, and it was the only road between our resort and the southern half of the island. During rush hour, the traffic on the two lane road would back up for miles behind the traffic light at the airport turnoff. There was no room, and even less inclination, to pass. So we sat, ducks in a row, waiting our turn to creep ahead ten feet, various radios competing over the hum of the coolant fans. One such pause gave us a leisurely view of the Kauai Penitentiary. Very closely. Even my sissy, geek arm could have thrown a stone from the car and broken a window in the warden’s office. But that would not have been necessary. I could have jumped the six foot gully, climbed the chain link fence, and opened his door myself. There was no barbed wire, no patrolling German shepherds, no observation towers or machine gun embankments pointing inwards. The few guards scattered about observed the prisoners with all the rapt attention of a underpaid middle school teacher on playground monitor duty. In fact, the resemblance of the facility to a blue collar neighborhood public school was uncanny. All it lacked was the broken playground set and graffiti.
A clique of prisoners smoking cigarettes in the shade of an awning watched us pass at a snail’s pace. I turned off the radio, rolled down the window, and asked them what they were discussing. They informed me that they were just planning their break out. It had been a work in progress for several months, but for sure it would happen “bumbye, mebbe next week.” But when I inquired, they could not satisfy me with an exact date. It wasn’t that they didn’t trust me with the information, but rather the plan had not fully coalesced. They had to work out details of precedence. Apparently certain prisoners felt it beneath their dignity to lace their fingers together and provide a boost over the fence for certain other prisoners. They agreed seniority should determine precedence, but they could not agree on what determined seniority. Some felt it should be based on how much time one had already served, though subfactions argued over whether one could count prior convictions. Others thought the length of the sentence mattered more than how much of it had been served. While those of a finer discrimination felt that the gravity of the crime should trump. Poaching pineapples from the governors private plantation might, through corruption of the justice system, result in a longer sentence but it hardly deserved precedence over honest manslaughter of one’s peers. That was the gist of the argument, and though it was hard at times to follow the local pidgin, they left long pauses between speakers in which I could puzzle out the meaning. When they reached a particularly sticky point, and the discussion threatened to raise the temperature of the already languid afternoon, a guard would come along and brokered peace, defusing the conversation with the polite dexterity of protocol officers arranging the procession to banquet hall.
I thought this madness, and told them so. Surely, I interrupted them, the fence and ditch presented no meaningful obstacle. At the time, only one guard was left in view, and he, gazing at his image reflected in the window and picking his teeth with a splinter of coconut husk, seemed suitably distracted, and, in any event, easily bribed. Why couldn’t they leave now?
“Aznuts“, they assured me. “We gotta stay brudders, else there’d be choke beef, and eriding go junk.” There was generally nodding of heads and some gave me the stink eye as to say that a law-abiding haole boy shouldn’t pretend to know mo bettah than they how things were down in Hawaii. And in the pause that followed, one sallow and philosophical member of the troupe who had been silent up until now, observed to no one in particular, “Nuff already. Where would we go, anyhow? It’s an f-in’ island.”