To reach Hawaii, I took a plane from Los Angeles to Honolulu. The frequency of flights between LA and Honolulu is surprisingly high: several companies fly the route and each has several flights a day. Therefore although the distance to Hawaii is great, you don’t feel there as if you were isolated from the mainland United States. Hawaii is an archipelago consisting of four main islands – from West to East Kauai, Oahu, Maui and the Big Island (Hawaii itself) – and many small islands. The capital is on Oahu, and that’s where most population lives, although Oahu is not the largest island – that’s the Big Hawaii, which is several times larger. The distances between the islands are rather significant and so normally you have to fly between them. I spent a week in Hawaii and all this time I was on Oahu – there’s enough to see and do and I didn’t want to jump from one island to another in crazy tempo.
The touristic centre of the island is no doubt the famous Waikiki beach, located just outside of the Honolulu downtown. This one of the most celebrated of the world’s beaches is a symbol of Hawaii. In the Waikiki beach area there is a whole panoply of hotels, restaurants, a zoo, an aquarium, tennis and golf courts, huge shopping centres. Everything for the tourist. The beach is indeed very pleasant. Despite my general boredom with beaches I went to this one quite a number of times and swam, usually at dusk. Classical view of Waikiki with the Diamond Head mountain in the background:
Waikiki was mostly built up in the seventies with skyscrape hotels of the same type. I decided to stay there as it made most sense logistically. I was however terrorised by the extreme noise at nights – simultaneous sounds of thousands of air conditioners together with the signals of garbage trucks all through the night. But the views from the hotel rooms are magnificent. I was in sheer delight when I first opened the door of my room on 16th floor. Afterwards I moved from one hotel to another every two days, looking for the quietest. They’re all more or less the same, actually rather high level, if you don’t care for the noise.
Diamond Head is the volcano in the South East of Oahu. You can climb it and the trek seemed relatively easy to me. This is the view from the top. Right in front there is a Second World War fortification. A serious-looking plate forbids you to go there – but people do, and so I did too.
The view from the fortification back to the highest point:
And a panorama of Honolulu from Diamond Head:
A friend of mine lived in a village of Kaneohe in the East of the island. It is one of the most picturesque places on the archipelago. Most classical photos of Hawaii where you see those unusual emerald green mountain slopes are actually taken in Kaneohe. The view of the harbour:
And to the mountain ridge that divides Oahu into two:
Oahu continues to be one of the key bases of the American fleet in the Pacific. About half of the island’s population directly or indirectly linked to the military – either military personnel, their families or people working in the infrastructure. It is of course also the place where the American fleet was handed the worst defeat in its history. The Japanese attack on the American fleet took place in 1941 in the Pearl Harbor not far from Honolulu. The main tactical invention of this attack was the use of aircraft carriers. The carriers came in absolute secrecy and total radio silence all the way from Japan. The Americans did expect an attack but were certain it would come from the sea. Anticipating such an attack Oahu was turned into a fortress. The attack from the air was a complete surprise for them though. In the museum you can see the photos of the American sailors looking at the sky in utter astonishment. The Japanese planes inflicted major damage on the American Pacific fleet, a number of big ship went to the bottom of the sea or had to undergo major repairs. About 3000 servicemen were killed. This brave Japanese plan that resulted in complete success changed war strategy entirely from then on. Even today the American fleet has no battleship at all, instead it boasts a whole list of aircraft carriers.
Pearl Harbor is open for visitors today. It is a monumental museum devoted to the memory of those who died. In the centre of the museum you can see a so-called Tree of Memory, which symbolises rebirth of life after the tragedy. I must say that I expected a rather jingoistic and one-sided representation of the conflict, but the museum’s viewpoint is quite balanced in telling the story of the war. It explains the motives of the Japanese and does commend their risky but ultimately successful tactics. Perhaps one of the reasons is the fact that a large proportion of the visitors are actually Japanese tourists.
Probably the centrepiece of the museum is the Arizona memorial. United States Ship Arizona took a direct hit of several Japanese bombs. The bombs exploded together with the weapons that Arizona itself held, the overall explosion was so strong that it sunk literally in minutes taking with it over 1000 sailors. It was impossible to repair it and so it remains on the bottom of the harbour until this day. The memorial is built over it. You reach the memorial by ship.
USS Arizona is the tomb of the sailors who died there as it was decided not to open it out of respect for their memory.
The memorial building is perpendicular to the body of the ship under water.
The water is quite shallow here so the ship reaches the surface. The machine oil is still seeping out of Arizona and you can see oil traces on the surface of the water. They say these are the tears of the sailors.
Of course you cannot help feeling very sad in this complex. But I couldn’t resist the thought that even though the death of 3000 men is of course an extremely sad thing, in the big picture of the wars of 20th and even 21st centuries it is a drop in the ocean. USSR alone sacrificed 22 million people to the war. The number of deaths in various conflicts where Americans took part after the war, from Vietnam to Iraq, far exceeds this number too. And just to think of the atrocious payback in the form of two atomic bombs! So the aura of sacred heroism surrounding Pearl Harbour, teary-eyed American visitors there, all this seemed rather out of place to me.
Frankly I am generally quite unimpressed by the unreserved praise to the army, the soldiers, the military, the war – in any country. In America in particular anything related to the military is by default positive. The strongest argument a politician can use in a policy debate seems to be “our troops need it”. I find this very strange. This goes for Russia as well, the very national identity there seems to be built around military victories. Also in Estonia the attitude towards military victory (in the war of independence) is highly deferential. I think in the healthiest attitude is in Western Europe. Open praise for jingoism would sound quite out of place there. But the memory of past conflicts is preserved in great detail.
In 19th century Hawaii was an independent kingdom. The archipelago was unified by the king Kamehameha I from the Big Island. The kings even built a royal palace in Honolulu, which is the only royal palace on the US soil. In 1893 a group of wealthy Americans organised a coup d’etat with support of the American fleet. At first they proclaimed an independent Hawaiian republic, but within a few years Hawaii came under direct US control. The status of the state was obtained quite a bit later, only in 1951. Some Hawaiians still have mixed feelings about the United States and there are even some voices in support of independence. But this is unrealistic due to various reasons – for example economic, as the islands are heavily subsidised.
I visited the Iolani palace. It is a very pleasant place, with bright sunlight penetrating wonderful rooms, full of nostalgia for the long gone monarchy. I found a bit sad though the desire of the Hawaiian kings’ to copy all aspects of the European royal life of the time – from the uniforms to the orders to the room decorations to evening rituals. This desire of course is understandable in the context of the time – it was very important to establish the equality in political and cultural terms – and yet from today it looks rather like a lack of respect for their own traditions.
The Iolani palace was highly innovative for its time. It was the first royal palace featuring a phone and electric lighting (even before the White House).
The solemn dining room. The biggest chair obviously belongs to the king.
So-called Blue Reception room.
The throne hall
This is the photo of the last monarch of Hawaii Kingdom, queen Lili’uokalani. She was removed by the 1893 military coup when she tried to change the constitution to limit the influence of the American businessmen. She refused to accept the coup and when later on her supporters tried to restore monarchy, she was arrested and spent about a year imprisoned. She wrote a melody that remains the anthem of Hawaii State to this day.
Living democracy and gay marriage
My time in Hawaii coincided with the discussion in the State House of Representatives of a law legalising gay marriage. The Senate had already passed the law and the governor was ready to sign it, so only the acceptance by the House was needed. As in most states where such a law has been passed, the project provoked a lot of passions. Both its supporters and opponents expressed their point of view with a lot of emotion. During my week in Honolulu I visited the Legislature building a number of times. I found the process mesmerising. This is a living democracy in action, I thought.
The view from the third floor of Legislature to the internal plaza. The House session is taking place behind the glass walls in the centre. To the right you can see a line of visitors wishing to observe the session from the tribunes inside the House. They are invited inside as others leave. The majority of those in the plaza oppose gay marriage, but there is also a healthy number of supporters. They are all mixed. The opponents are loudly shouting non-stop the same slogan: “Let the people vote”. Their only hope to block legislation is to put it to a referendum, although it is not a given that they would win it, but at least it would delay it. The supporters of gay marriage do not shout, but walk around the plaza waving posters.
The decisive vote in the House was delayed by a local provision requiring the House to listen to the testimony of all and any interested parties. The House asked all those wishing to testify to register by a certain deadline, and 5000 people registered, mostly opponents of the law, as it was another way of delaying the vote. But when the House started calling them, many did not come or other people came instead of those registered. As a result the House had to increase the ID control.
The square in front of the Legislature building. The monument is to a Belgian monk who cured many Hawaiians in 19th century from leprosy. I’ve heard about him in Belgium, but was a bit sceptical as to whether he really is a hero in Hawaii. Indeed he is, his monument is in the most central point of the capital.
The main street in front of the Legislature is simultaneously lined with the people demonstrating. Here the supporters of gay marriage were in clear majority, although there was also a group of opponents. The demonstrators were holding posters. The passing cars were honking loudly, and it was pretty clear if they were for or against, depending on next to which group they honked. To me it seemed that most did next to the proponents.
The guy is showing a shaka sign, which symbolises the Hawaiian notion of aloha (something between friendship, peace, compassion, understanding, solidarity). Barack Obama makes this sign from time to time. He was born in Hawaii of course and spent his teenage years here.
I thought naively that every participant brings his own posters. This is of course allowed, but in reality it works a bit differently. The organising group has already prepared a number of posters, so people simply come, choose on and stand in the row. After a while when they need to leave they simply return the poster. This lends to the demonstration a very natural, flowing, spontaneous quality. I also took a poster and demonstrated my support to equal rights for all.
A rainbow over the rainbow flag. After the necessary days of testimony hearings the House passed the law with small modifications, the Senate approved the modifications and the governor signed the law. From 2 December the gay marriages will start in yet another U.S. state.
Finally, some words about the Hawaiian food. In Waikiki it is quite impossible to find actual Hawaiian food. The restaurant scene in Waikiki is dominated by the American fast food joints and Japanese restaurants. Considering that most tourists here are Japanese, and also the local population is in part Japanese, in a way you could say that Japanese food IS local food. I visited the Japanese food court Shirakiya in the main supermarket. It’s a true celebration of Japanese food. I chose three specialities that I’d never tried before: takoyaki, spam musubi and mochi.
Takoyaki is small pieces of octopus cooked in batter to farm small balls, covered with various sauces and cooked in a special takoyaki pan.
Spam musubi is a Hawaiian national favourite, and apparently the favourite food of Barack Obama. It is a sort of a sandwich formed with sticky rice and a piece of spam which are held together sushi-like by a seaweed nori. Spam, in turn, is a local meat product, which is normally sold canned. It reminds of hot dog by consistency and colour. Spam in fact gave its name to electronic spam, via a Montie Python sketch.
Finally mochi is a Japanese sweet made from sticky rice. They can have different tastes, I picked brown bean and green tea ones to sample this time.
To sum up, real Japanese exotics! Loved it.
The visitors of the Japanese food court. Note the beer can!
Eventually I did discover an authentic Hawaiian restaurant, outside of Waikiki. The main component of this dish is kalua pork (the dish above the rice on the photo). Kalua pork is cooked in an oven, it tastes as if it were smoked. Counterclockwise next is local jerky, then salmon tomato appetiser. Next is sliced onion which you are supposed to dip in poi and eat as another appetiser (not for me). The dessert. Next is poi – brownish mix made of the taro stem, and finally rice. Overall this was quite tasty, but heavy.
In the end I stumbled upon quite fantastic food in Hawaii. This is a salad of ahi poke tuna and avocado. Ahi poke is made from a special local sort of tuna. It is incredibly fresh, raw meat, it melts on your tongue rather like ice cream. Together with avocado it is quite incredible!