After leaving Samoa, we spent 4 days at sea before reaching Honolulu, the capital of Hawaii, on the island of Oahu. We crossed back over the International Date Line, so we had TWO March 25th’s. We got the day back that we lost in the beginning of March!
Hawaii did not become a state until 1959. It is comprised of 8 major islands. Most people live on Oahu, where the population is about 950,000. The islands were born between 25-40 million years ago by a series of titanic eruptions on the Pacific sea floor. This is still a very active volcanic zone, and many new islands are being birthed underwater. One in particular, called Loihi, should pop up above sea level within the next 200 years or so. Real Estate agents are already pre-booking lots for your future generations. Interested? I can get you a name.
This was the end of the line for the Polynesians, who settled here 2,600 years ago. Did they continue east, seeking the next land mass? I think they tried. They were fearless voyagers who had an “exploration gene” in their DNA. Perhaps they died along the way from starvation, were lost in a storm, or maybe they turned back, before it was too late. 2,500 miles to present day California, with no islands to take refuge on along the way, would have been a daunting feat. Even for them.
Modern history began in 1778 when Captain James Cook landed on a neighboring island during his search for the fabled Northwest Passage. On this occasion he was received as a “god”, but when he returned 8 months later, the attitude of the islanders had changed. He was killed during a skirmish, thus ending the life of a man considered to be the greatest cartographer of all time. For 10 years, during 3 voyages, he defied death on numerous occasions, mapped most of the world, and claimed countless lands for the British Empire.
Once again, the Christian missionaries followed soon after, to reform the “heathens”. They started with the Queen. After her successful conversion, she decreed that the multitude of Hawaiian Gods were dead. The natives didn’t believe her. To convince them, she threw rocks into a volcano, known to be inhabited by Pele, the God of Fire. When Pele stayed silent, instead of spewing out the insulting rocks, the heartbroken natives assumed she was dead.
But that’s not all. The Queen ordered the immediate destruction of all ancient religious icons, ceremonial grounds, and statues. Now, sadly, very few archeological remnants remain. The missionaries managed to systemically destroy all the ancient cultural beliefs of the Polynesians they converted throughout the 1800’s. It’s amazing really, when you think of the enormous influence they wielded. Not one of the islands we visited escaped their chokehold. How did the missionaries do it? Brainwashing? Torture? A promise of salvation or afterlife? Why was there no middle ground?
Thankfully, many of the islanders we encountered have resuscitated their ancient traditions and are honoring their ancestors through storytelling, dance, music, and rituals. They are also actively teaching the younger generations about their traditional beliefs. They have to compete with the adornments of the modern world, but some of the kids we met are genuinely interested in learning about the “old ways”, which is heartening.
So, today we went on a 4 hour excursion called “Natural Highlights of Oahu”. Our guide (Luke) is a graduate student from Chicago studying Ornithology (Birds) at the University of Hawaii. Now, remember, we are back in the good ‘ol, litigation happy USA… so before the van moved, we had to sign a waiver promising not to sue the tour company if we got hurt. This was not a big adventure tour, but we would encounter uneven ground. How pathetic is that? Other countries don’t care if you fall off a cliff because you are deemed responsible for your own actions. An attempted lawsuit would be considered frivolous, and scoffed at. Not here though. Where it’s always “someone else’s fault”. And, there are thousands of lawyers who will help you prove that. We were the only Americans in the group, and everyone else was perplexed by the form they had to sign. I kept my mouth shut, it was embarrassing.
Luke told us that Oahu used to be a paradise for birds. There were no four legged animals here at all, before the Polynesians arrived with rats and dogs, which they ate for food. Later, the Europeans brought pigs and cats. Prior to these introductions, the only predators were eagles and hawks. Many of the birds became “flightless” through evolution because they never had to worry about ground predators. Now, 75 bird species are extinct and over 100 more are on the endangered list due to predation by land animals who eat eggs and kill chicks. One of the biggest culprits is the mongoose. It was introduced to control the burgeoning rat population, and the experiment was an unmitigated flop. The mongoose is active during the day, when the rats are sleeping, so they never cross paths! What nincompoop came up with that brainless idea? The only native mammals in Hawaii are Hoary Bats and the Monk Seal. There are no snakes, which is good news for the birds, and the Ophidiophobiacs.
We drove through downtown Honolulu first. Luke said that thousands of acres of pristine marshland was filled in to create the concrete jungle of glitzy skyscrapers and endless parade of posh stores lining the main drag. It was not very appealing to us, but the “rich and famous” love it here. I was happy to get out of town.
Our first stop was the mammoth Diamond Head Crater that we accessed through a tunneled entrance. The name came from the first sighting by the British in the late 1700’s. They mistook calcite crystals sparkling in the sun for diamonds. I am sure they were sorely disappointed when they figured it out. The Hawaiian name is Le’ahi, which translates as “brow of the ahi fish”. It describes the profile of the crater as seen from Waikiki Beach.
Diamond Head was selected as a fortification because the crater walls offered a natural defense. From the summit, ships could be seen from Koko Head to Pearl Harbor. Fort Ruger began in 1908 with the construction of Battery Harlow on the outer slopes. The crater was a restricted military reservation from 1908 until 1976, when a portion was opened up for recreation use. It is still used by Civil Defense, the FAA, and the Hawaiian National Guard. The artillery was dismantled in 1950. None of the guns were ever fired during a war. The crater was declared a National Natural Landmark in 1968. You can hike up the side, but we did not have time today.
Here is a photo I took from an information board. You can see just how huge it is. Now, imagine it full of boiling lava. Pretty cool, huh?
The rest of our time was spent on short nature walks along the coastline and in the mountains. A highlight for me were the magnificent wild chickens and roosters we came across. They are “protected” as part of the culture, which is just kooky. Chickens? Protected? It is illegal to “corral” them, but people do it. The local kids were giggling at me for taking so many photos. They just wouldn’t hold still (the chickens, not the kids).
In the afternoon, we headed into town on foot from the pier. Luke told us that Chinatown was only a mile away from the ship. His estimate was way off. An hour later, we finally got there, and it was a big disappointment. Many storefronts were empty, and the energy was languid and depressing. There were thick bars on most shop windows, never a good sign. Cops had a strong presence. Iconic old buildings from the early 1900’s were crumbling. Homeless people dotted most street corners and some were raving about injustices, real or imagined. A few looked menacing.
I was looking forward to a good Chinese meal, but we didn’t find anyplace that looked sanitary enough to eat in. We were starving, and ended up at McDonald’s (don’t judge!) out of desperation. Tiffany’s, Sax Fifth Avenue, and Brooks Brothers is only two miles from here. Perhaps they could put up some money for urban renewal. It was very sad to see Chinatown in such decrepit shape. Especially since 50% of the population here is Asian.
We left Honolulu at sunset. Next stop, Hilo, Hawaii (aka “The Big Island”).