Travel: Road-tripping Kauai

The island of Kauai offers devilish hikes, lava swimming holes, stunning canyons, and even a Hindu monastery.

“Puff, the magic dragon, lived by the sea

And frolicked in the autumn mist, in a land called Honah Lee”

Local boys hanging at Queen’s Bath

These 1960s lyrics mythologizing Hanalei — Kauai’s erstwhile hippie town — paint a picture of pristine beaches caressed by a blissful breeze. Such heavenly hangouts are indeed easy to find on Hawaii’s Garden Isle, but travelers may be surprised to learn that, Kauai has more to offer beyond the beaches – from Hollywood stargazing to mystical pilgrimages.

Getting to Honolulu takes patience, but from there, twenty half-hour flights take off daily for Kauai’s Lihue Airport. Tan-skinned surfers regularly hitch rides on Kuhio Highway, although renting a car is the easiest way to explore the island’s majestic peaks and hidden groves. The driving is relaxed along Route 560 (Kuhio), which hugs the length of Kauai’s habitable coastline.

Just north of the airport, Kapa’a Town gives adventurers a chance to kick off the road trip with a hearty American diner meal at Kountry Kitchen. Start getting used to the friendly-but-no-frills service that is typical of laidback island restaurants here – the banana mac nut pancakes are well worth it.

Continuing along Kuhio Highway, Queen’s Bath, an out of the way lava swimming hole set in the slightly pretentious (as far as island pretense goes) resort town of Princeville, provides a perfect dipping spot. The rocky shoreline and moderate hike keep big crowds and vehicles out of the Bath. The natural walls of this clear blue tide pool shelters swimmers from the magnificent waves crashing all around.

Postcard perfection at Kilauea Point

Nearby, historic Kilauea Lighthouse gives snap-happy travelers a chance to capture picturesque scenes. The site also houses the Kilauea Point Natural Wildlife Reserve where breeding efforts rescued Hawaii’s official bird, the wild goose ne ne, from extinction. On a good day, families of ne ne’s stroll the lawn alongside with visitors.

Fabled Hanalei rests on the northern end of Kauai. Here, lithe bodies oozing  with Ibiza-esque glamour loiter the beaches, expertly ride the waves at Pine Trees, and sip cocktails in front of ten million dollar vacation bungalows. A bike ride down the two-lane beachfront road yields better stargazing than a stroll down Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. The likes of Pierce Brosnan, Julia Roberts, Michael Crichton, and the Beastie Boys build homes or regularly come here to get away. In a town with a last-recorded official population of 498 (in 1990), chances of crossing paths with a sun-kissed celebrity are pretty good.

The northernmost “last stop” before Kuhio ends and the wilderness of the Na Pali Coast State Park begins is at Haena, where lovers can catch spectacular sunsets or treasure hunt for sea cucumbers as the evening tide recedes.

Spectacular sunsets nightly at Haena

Casual digs and fine dining dot Hanalei’s old town center. Pearls and a dress are not out of place at Postcards Café, while slippers and board shorts do just fine at Bubba Burgers and Java Kai’s porch front tables.

Thrill-seekers can plan overnight camping trips along the Kakalau Trail, an eleven-mile hike through the uninhabitable western coast of Kauai. The less adventurous can still get a taste of hiking and see exclusive views of the Na Pali Coast on a two-mile jaunt to Hanakapi’ai Beach or go an extra two miles to reach Hanakapi’ai Falls. The lazy and generously-budgeted can skip the footwork entirely and take an aerial tour of the coastline on a helicopter ride.

Mystic river: the Wailua River runs along monastery

Kauai’s hidden jewel, the Hindu Monastery, is another experience entirely. This mystical sanctuary, set amidst 353 acres of wild forest with the Wailua River running through, was founded in 1970. The tech-savvy (they Twitter and blog) monks of the Saiva Siddhanta Yoga Order reside here and, among other spiritual duties, fundraise for the sixteen million dollars needed to complete the monastery’s grand temple project – the Iraivan Temple, being built entirely of hand-carved stones shipped from India. Call ahead and set out early to catch a rare guided tour of the grounds, or come any morning to quietly take in the surreal sight of orange-robed Caucasian monks praying alongside Indian pilgrimage families.

The breathtaking valleys of Waimea Canyon are nestled along Kauai’s southwestern coast. Legend goes that Mark Twain baptized this natural wonder as “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” Sadly, no historical record exists to prove Twain ever set foot here. Nevertheless, the stratified layers of orange and red earth are so radically different from the lush greens and blues of the northeastern shores that one wonders whether it is still Kauai out here.

One of Waimea Canyon’s many faces

Although attractions and people are grow sparse on the southwestern side, there are still reasons to make roadside stops. Shrimp Station, the last dining spot before cars head up winding Waimea Canyon Drive, serves five-star coconut shrimp on paper plates. Despite its decrepit exterior, Jo-Jo’s is one of the few truly good shave ice joints, at bargain (not tourist) prices. For down home and nostalgic souvenirs, stop by Collectibles & Fine Junque in Waimea town (a real trip down vintage memory lane) and Aunty Lilikoi (home-made passion fruit jams).

Putting the babe in surf

The island road trip comes to a happy full circle down at Po’ipu Beach, the southernmost point of Kauai and a short drive from Lihue Airport. Here, snorkelers can find calm waters and schools of humu ­humu ­nuku ­nuku ­āpuaʻa, or reef triggerfish. Watching the sun descend at day’s end, it is hard not to wonder what Peter, Paul and Mary were really smoking if all they sang of Kauai was Hanalei.

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Getting there: Hawaiian Airlines flies Honolulu-Lihue hourly.

Where to stay: Hale Ha Ha at Hanalei Bay is a 5-bedroom newly renovated guest house run by a hip long-time local. Rent a single room or book the whole house for an authentic stay.

Car rental: Dollar and Thrifty usually offer the best deals, although prices per day are high compared to elsewhere in the US. Expect to pay over $100/day in peak season.

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Publication: Heading for the tracks

http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/metro/2010-01/29/content_9397869.htm

There has been a lot of talk of trains: the new real-name ticketing system, the crackdown on scalpers and an estimated 210 million passengers readying to overwhelm the railway network ahead of Lunar New Year.

Everyone is focused on getting hold of elusive tickets now, but in a week’s time, millions will be sharing in another collective experience – the camaraderie of the train ride.

I frequently travel the Beijing-Harbin route. As a child, I boarded the old clunker trains; by now I’ve upgraded to soft sleeper-only trains. Although I can well afford to take a 90-minute flight, I prefer the train, for old time’s sake.

I’ve never had an unpleasant rail journey on my annual northeastern migrations. Taking the train has always been a homely and happy experience, which says a lot about the people on it. Isn’t it true that when large numbers of people are confined in a small space for a prolonged period of time, their true characters shine through?

Some agreeable and predictable aspects of train life put me at ease. For a start, while boarding the Eurostar or the Amtrak has passengers preoccupied with reaching point B, boarding a Chinese train is a chance to indulge in our national obsession with food.

Share the journey and more

Foreign guests whom I’ve enthusiastically dragged onto Chinese trains often remark on the amount of snacks around. Regardless of how long the trip or what time of day one travels, we stock up for the train like we are going on a wilderness expedition. The habitual train traveler locates his seat and immediately spreads out a buffet of sausages, pickles, crackers, sunflower seeds, and of course, Master Kang instant noodles. What better way to make friends with fellow passengers than by sharing grub?

As the journey gets going, I can also rely on another kind of sharing to take place: the over-sharing of information. I’ve smugly eavesdropped on many conversations among foreigners discussing the Chinese habit of inquiring and divulging too much personal information.

I can empathize with their complaint. Hardly an hour into most train rides, my neighbors will have gone to the heart of matters: How old am I? Married or single? What do I do for a living? What do my parents do? How much do we all make? Having now a Western preference for discretion, I usually reply with vague “hmm’s” as curious aunties throw out unabashed guesstimates about me. But I know it’s all in good humor for they will soon bare their family accounts to me without prompting.

From there, the train ride feels less like a mutual imposition among strangers and rather more like an afternoon chatting with intimates. Topics vary, but inevitably conversations touch on suzhi, a word for which I’ve yet to find a satisfactory English translation. We, as a nation, are perpetually perturbed with our lack of admirable “quality”. So, the poorer among the travelers laud the elevated suzhi of urbanites, while cosmopolitan Beijingers sing praises of exceptional suzhi observed among foreigners.

After years of careful observation, I find that, as badly as we may display our collective suzhi in hectic everyday life, I’ve yet to come across lamentable suzhi in the train cars. Sure, old men run down the aisles in their long johns and bunk mates occasionally have the indecency to snore, but a spirit of sharing and courtesy has accompanied my every trip. As millions head for the tracks next week, I am sure they will be offering food, helping with luggage, and doling out concerned advice to those sharing their journey. And that is perhaps our truest national character.

Publication: Our conformist ways

http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/cndy/2010-01/22/content_9359738.htm
Folks, let's dare to be differentBefore Beijing upgraded its buses to accept swipe cards, commuters used to buy flimsy paper tickets. The bus conductor, tucking a hard-frame bag under her arm, would count off the tickets, mark and then peel them from the stack using a peculiar tool – a thick, double-ended pencil (red on one end and blue on the other), wrapped many times around with rubber bands on the ends.

I dare say that every bus conductor in the city – perhaps even the country – used an identical device back then. As a child, I imagined little elves at the Ministry of Transport wrapping rubber bands around millions of pencils to issue to its staff. Later, I started to wonder why, in a country this large, there wasn’t the tiniest bit of variety in how people fashioned their makeshift tools. Where’s the innovation?

Before the 1980s, conformity was a natural result of sociopolitical factors and resource constraints. Yet, now that we have reached a stage where people can choose to do things differently, we still don’t.

Take a mundane example: How we dress is a personal way to express our uniqueness. In a Western country, if your friend buys a dress you already own you would be justified in feeling a little peeved. Copying your style is an encroachment on your individuality.

Yet in China, people often want to wear the same thing everyone else is wearing. Girlfriends like to go shopping together and leave arm in arm, sporting twin outfits. Even salesgirls try to make convincing pitches by saying: “Here is a new style that everyone is wearing this year.” Well, then it’s not very new, is it?

It seems rather frivolous to judge our national character by the clothing on our countrywomen’s backs. Let’s take a look at our grassroots entrepreneurs then. Walk through any big Beijing market – Silk Street (Xiushui), Yaxiu, the Zoo, Tianqiao, Hongqiao – and the abundant goods on display quickly get monotonous. Every souvenir stall sells the same retro chic red star hats; each sportswear vendor carries fake Columbia parkas; and accessories merchants all stock up on LeSportsacs whose cheap zippers inevitably break in due time. My husband, a consummate capitalist, gets so frustrated by this uniformity that he loudly laments: “These guys all have zero pricing power! Anyone can just walk two stalls down and bargain for a lower price on an identical item from someone else.”

He’s right. Why doesn’t anyone try something different? Perhaps a better quality cotton T-shirt might fetch 80 yuan instead of 30? And what about the long-term gain of attracting repeat customers to your differentiated products?

Even big businesses in China choose to simply “go with the flow” and replicate rather than innovate. Look at the logos of our most well-known sporting brands: Li Ning, Anta, Erke. They all look like variations on the same flourishing stroke, which, in turn, mightily resembles the Nike swoosh.

With the popularity of Starbucks, domestic chains have also cropped up with unoriginal names like, something-something-ba ke. The success of one local grocery chain named Jinkelong has spawned many kelong’s (clones) – Yikelong, Jingkelong or Xingkelong. Today, I saw a rather shameless rip-off on Xiaofeiyang, my favorite hot pot joint. The pretender was called Xiaoweiyang, “little tailed lamb”, which looks and sounds pretty similar to the original restaurant.

I hope that with rising prosperity, our people will have greater daring to dream and take bigger risks to be different.

Perhaps someday soon I can walk down a Beijing lane to browse individually styled boutiques, instead of pawing through imitations at some market named xiu or qiao.

Folks, let's dare to be different

The gentrification of Hanalei

Puff, the magic dragon

Lived by the sea

And frolicked in the autumn mist

In a land called Honah Lee

I sang this1960’s song verse mythologizing Hanalei as I drove along the unworldly blue coastline of Kauai, heading for that fabled town. I knew nothing about Hanalei, other than the marijuana (or coke, as one local hippie corrected me) theories shrouding Puff the magic dragon. Naturally, I expected to find a pristine paradise where unshaven hippies lounged on sand, their profound gazes turned toward the undulating waves.

Not knowing what Hanalei was like before, I can still safely say that it is now “gentrified”, perhaps in the way that Brooklyn or the outer rings of Beijing city have been glossed over with outsider wealth.

Like the rest of Kauai, Hanalei is astounding in its natural beauty. (With colors this vivid, drug-induced visions seem entirely…unnecessary). But quite unlike other parts of the island – indeed unlike all the Hawaiian islands – Hanalei breathes an unexpected glamour.

A few steps into my afternoon stroll down the beach at Hanalei Bay, I felt grossly underdressed. Not that people around me were wearing a lot, but while I was expecting to meet with pale-skinned and slightly obese vacationers, in reality, I was the misshapen sallow duckling in a sea of lithe tanned bodies. I was sure that everyone languorously soaking up the sun or jauntily shaking their taut derrieres as they paddled on surfboards had just disembarked a private jet from Ibiza.

Out on the waves I spotted not only more beauty, but also athletic prowess. Some very fit surfers – probably the next Kelly Slater, or perhaps even the pro himself – expertly rode the waves as a cameraman onshore operated a very serious looking camera. On another afternoon, my husband would cross waves with Bethany Hamilton, the one-armed surf girl legend.

Away from the beach, the glitz and glamour continues along a few miles of road that hug the ocean. Mansions set on country club-sized acres and pretend-modest vacation bungalows house Hollywood A-listers. I learned that I was sharing the misty sea breeze with the likes of Pierce Brosnan (readying his pad for a New Year’s Even bash), one Beastie Boy (living on the very property that a friend house-sits), and Nash of Crosby & Nash. As I peddled my bike down the two-lane road, it was like spotting stars along Hollywood Walk. Here’s Michael Crichton’s house, that’s where Julia Roberts is building hers, and over there is where so-and-so stayed last year.

After my mini expedition, I came home to the internet to see just what today’s “Honah Lee” is made of — apparently quite different stuff than in other Hawaiian locales. While Caucasians make up only 27% of Hawaii’s overall population, here in Hanalei they are 57%. Looks like a money-fueled migration into the Pacific to me. A real estate search confirmed my suspicion. For a cool $12 million, I could pick up one of those beachside properties.

Despite its probable demographic and income changes, Hanalei remains, in some part, a quaint small town. Shops in town center bear historic hand-painted signs. Patrons of local eateries are happy to forego interior decoration for the unchanging pleasure of eating al fresco on wooden benches, or even standing by a taqueria truck. Newcomers and old alike look forward to weekly farmer’s market and some long-time residents still leave their homes unlocked when they’re out.

As day turned to dusk, I was drawn to the promise of a healthy meal at an unpretentious-looking café. But when I arrived in Postcards Café wearing a skirt and flip flops, a gorgeous hostess told me, with regret, that they were fully booked. As she helpfully suggested “calling ahead of time tomorrow” to me, her colleague ushered in a stiffly-coiffed, argyle and pearls wearing, Birkin bag toting middle-aged Connecticut (my guess) couple to their reserved table. Oh, Puffy, where would he frolic in the Hanalei of today?

Publication: Meal time at the construction site

http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/bizchina/2010-01/15/content_9327533.htm

Meal time at construction site

When I was working in Manhattan as a management consultant (this was years before “bailout” and “financial crisis” entered into quotidian small talk), swanky restaurants and elaborate dinners were part of the regular “team-building” and “client meeting” routines.

Meal time at construction site

After I moved over to an investment bank, the meals got better and more frequent. With the help of corporate expense accounts, my taste buds blossomed into a thousand little discerning and fickle things.

My personal spending also elevated to match my corporate entertainment lifestyle. The “Dining Out” portion of my monthly household expense report consistently grew. At the peak of the Asian equity bubble two years ago, I didn’t blink twice when I charged 200 euros on brunch for just moi at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris.

I’ve wined and I’ve dined, but none of these gourmet experiences were as memorable as a particular meal that I didn’t eat.

Recently, I was walking through Sanlitun near sundown. As I crossed the pedestrian bridge at Yaxiu, I looked down to see a big group of dusty-haired, tan-skinned construction workers, each holding two tin canteens, lining up to get dinner.

The clothing they bundled around their bodies was mostly bedecked with holes, patches, and stains. Many of them wore shoes with soles that were peeling off into a gaping hole. Some wore red string around their waists to hold up ill-fitting pants.

It had been a long time since I paid attention when passing a construction site. I was stunned by the contrast in appearance between these hard-working men and the hardhat, flannel shirt, and Caterpillar boot-wearing construction workers in New York. Yet, far from looking decrepit or weary, most of these Chinese workers wore expressions of excitement and hearty happiness. I was captivated.

I stopped for a closer look and saw that dinner was being ladled out of basins set atop large oil barrels. One barrel was heaped high with white rice that gleamed in the dusk. The other held an ambiguous-looking cabbage stew. While the “cafeteria lady” slopped rice and stew into each man’s canteens, others at the back of the line jostled each other in a friendly way.

The food certainly didn’t look appetizing. There were no enticing colors to indicate anything fresh in the ingredients. But the workers buzzed around the barrels happily, like bees drawn to a flower ripe with pollen. Their eyes shimmered with anticipation. They elbowed each other with laughter. Some even rubbed their bellies and smacked their lips in exaggerated impatience.

I realized then that the food they were about to eat was better than any caviar, foie gras, or Dom Perignon that ever touched my lips. Their meal, earned through hard work, would taste heavenly because their bodies deserved every bite of what would be ladled into their tins.

I also remembered, with guilt and shame, the times that I ordered an excessive dessert just to end my dinner on a sweet note, commanded an extra dish “just to taste”, and threw out a bag of restaurant leftovers because it sat in the fridge for too long. With regret, I contemplated our cultural habit of deliberately serving too much food at a banquet, just to show guests how well they’re provided for. With material abundance and the alleviation of real hunger, most of us no longer remember what it’s like to enjoy food because we need it.

As night began to fall, I walked away from the scene. With every step I resolved to work harder, waste less and to always remember that someone really deserves the simple meals that I’ve come to take for granted.

Night at the airport

Readers, I’m back. After two weeks of Hawaiian sunshine melting away my inclination to write I’ve shaken the sand out of my hair and am back at my keyboard.

Well, technically I’m not at my keyboard. I’m typing away, bleary-eyed, in front of a free wifi terminal at Seoul’s Incheon Airport.

You see, I missed my connecting flight to Beijing. And it wasn’t even for anything dramatic like a snow storm (I departed from Honolulu) or sudden illness (Korean Air’s airplane food very much agreed with my stomach). There was no high speed dash down the travelator and no guilty party I could angrily shake fingers at. I missed my flight because I set my watch by the one clock in this futuristic airport that was an hour behind. By the time I realized my mistake, my plane was just pulling out of the suction tube that holds it to the terminal building. It was twenty minutes too late.

I feel idiotic. I had so many chances to check and re-check the time. What was I looking at if not the many, many, digital clocks?

Oh, I remember, I’ve been wearing my wobbly-legged glasses that are on the verge of being tossed out. They have become so loose they slide down the bridge of my nose to rest at the tip, making me look like a Victorian school marm. With the extreme temerature shifts that my travel schedule has put on these glasses, the lens have already started to pop out of the frame. In short, they don’t really help me see that clearly. After encountering the first airport clock that said 4.40pm and the second one that said 3.40pm, I decided that the second one had to be correct and set my watch accordingly, never to squint at another clock again until it was too late.

Ok, so I have bad eyesight, my contact lens were out of commission after my husband put Chinese mustard on them the night before (that’s a whole other story), and eleven hours of flying from Honolulu to Seoul had made me particularly bleary eyed. So I didn’t see my mistake. But, didn’t I hear the PA system alerting delinquent passengers to get to the gate?

No, I didn’t. Unlike at Beijing Capital or Charles de Gaulle, or really any airport I’ve been to, the Korean PA announcer’s voice is particularly melodious and the “beep beep”s harmonious. None of the constant stream of sounds broadcasting over the speakers conveyed any sense of urgency. I tuned it out, like Muzak in an office building elevator.

Then what was I doing for three hours (actually four) instead of paying attention to my connection time?

I admit rather guiltily that I was indulging in my favorite airport activity — checking out local DutyFree.

Hear me out, I rarely buy things at DutyFree but I like to look, and compare, and see what kinds of cosmetics women are buying in a country where I don’t have the chance to step outside the airport. I consider it some kind of market research.

But still, there’s no getting around the admission that I missed a connecting flight, for the first time in my life, because I was aimlessly strolling around DutyFree shops and eating fish cake udon at the cafe near Gate 27. (I was also, by the way, contemplating getting the spicy seafood ramen at Gate 32 because 27 had run out in the “extra hour” that I didn’t, in fact, have to kill).

To make matters worse, my mother-in-law is nervously flying alone on JAL, looking forward to meeting up with me at Starbuck’s at the Beijing airport. She has travelled a lot but this is her first time going to a country where she speaks absolutely nada of the language. Me getting stranded in Seoul pretty much means her getting stranded in Beijing.

Crap. There’s also the matter of four train tickets to Harbin that I spent much effort purchasing while I was in Honolulu, so that we could leave for the ice festival within 24 hours of touching down in Beijing.

And there’s two suitcases full of Hawaiian gifts I carefully purchased for my Harbin relatives that, even if I make the first flight out of Seoul tomorrow morning and still make my train to Harbin on the same day, will be floating around in international lost luggage purgatory.

How did I screw up so royally bad? It didn’t help that when I showed up at the Korean Air Transfer Desk saying, “I missed my flight, can you help me?”, the man behind the counter looked at me like I was an elephant with three tusks. Doesn’t he deal with this all the time???

Blame schmame, I simply have to find a way to pass the night. The airport hotel was out of the question — fully booked (by equally negligent travelers as myself I hope!) and too expensive anyway. I roamed the brightly-lit lanes until I came upon an ideal nook. It’s a modest “rest & relax” area on the second floor, with windows overlooking the gates downstairs and a clear view of one gigantic clock. There is a bathroom and water fountain nearby, and I checked out the shower room to find that it’s free. In the morning, the cafe here will hopefully serve breakfast and until then, I can while away the insomnia on these nifty free computer terminals. It’s like the Mesopotamian river beds, fertile with everything I need to stay civilized for twelve hours.

I pieced two lounge chairs together to make a bed, strapped my camera bag to my arm, put my boots on my feet (if I lose these I’m frost-bitten dead meat when I land in Beijing ), and settled in for my night of homelessness. It’s a little chilly — I’ve never longed for a fleece blanket with so much intensity — and my backpack makes an odd-shaped pillow and some Slavic peoples are in the computer corner laughing too loudly, probably at YouTube videos. But as far as homelessness goes, this is probably as good as it gets.

Sweet dreams everyone and fingers crossed that my next update comes to you from Harbin.

Publication on Friday: Beijinger in Hawaii

http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/cndy/2010-01/07/content_9277701.htm

Basking in tropical humility

It’s been 10 days since I last heard a car honk. Actually, make that any kind of vehicular honk, be it an electric bike’s urgent “beep beep”, the angry bleat off a truck horn, or a frantic bell ringing atop tricycle handle bars.

No, I haven’t gone deaf. I’ve been in Hawaii. Here in Honolulu, the sky is insanely blue and when people say it’s “foggy” outside they refer to clouds draping over mountain sides.

With abundant natural blessings, people on the Hawaiian islands are understandably relaxed. Gone from my line of vision are the scowling faces of Beijing traffic wardens, bureaucrats, and street vendors. Instead, everyday I’m greeted with beautiful, ethnically ambiguous faces, glowing tans, and the jolly vowelled sounds of “Aloha!”, “Mahalo”, and “Mele Kalikimaka!”

Basking in tropical humility

“Chilling out” Hawaiian style didn’t come to me naturally. When my plane landed, I got my Chinese elbows ready and was gunning for the aisles to race to a good spot in the immigration line. But as my fellow passengers began asking each other with the gentleness of lambs, “Would you like to go first?” I backed down with shame.

Soon, the island calm infiltrated my city skin. I, too, started waving “hello” to strangers in cars at intersections. Coming upon other tourists, I offered to take their pictures. On a grueling hike, I smilingly accepted the gift of a makeshift walking stick from another hiker, then made good on my promise of giving it to someone else when I finished.

What’s happening here? Is my urban grit turning to mush with the tropical humidity? Surely, there is something unpleasant about Hawaii!

Well, yes, there are bad things about Hawaii. Foremost in my complaints is that Wi-Fi isn’t free at Starbuck’s like it is in Beijing. My cup of English Breakfast now only buys me the right to sit on an earth-toned sofa, listen to an ambient coffee company CD’s, and pay $5 for two hours of Internet access. Two hours!

Compared with Beijing, the food in Hawaii is also expensive and not that varied. I’d be hard pressed to find hummus or chorizo here. There are plenty of good local eats, but they’re usually heavy meats, piled in a heap, and served at a restaurant with the word “shack” or “station” in its name.

It’s also a myth that everybody is nice in Hawaii. There are many residents who resent the outsiders who come to crowd up their beaches, compete for waves (“jocking for position” in surfer slang), and push up real estate prices. Locals wear their discontent with outsiders on cheeky car bumper stickers like, “Slow down, this ain’t the Mainland” (referring to the 49 other American states) or “If you like Kauai, send your friends to Maui.”

I’m fine with trading in winter winds for the ocean breeze and small inconveniences for a few weeks. Eventually, the thing that gets to me is how nobody in Hawaii ever seems to have anything to do, anywhere to be. Grown men stand around beach parks holding beers every day of the week. Supermarket cashier ladies chit chat with customers in great detail about what’s cooking for dinner.

All this “laid-backness” isn’t bad, but for a city slicker like me, it can make me long for the rude honk of a car horn!