Hawai'i: Lovely People, Lush Tropical Foliage, Rolling Blue-Green Surf, Feral Chickens, and of course, Pipi Pupu...
I don't travel well, especially these days when you have to undress at security after standing in line for an hour, and then be felt up one side and down the other by an equally-embarrassed TSA employee. Short, single-city flights are bad enough, but Hawai'i, undoubtedly a premier destination, is nineteen hours, three different often-delayed aircraft, and three obnoxious airports away from San Antonio.
My lovely bride, the Lady Karen, won a week-long Hawaiian vacation from her company. Unable to find more suitable companionship, she decided to take me along.
And so we embarked on the vacation of a lifetime, the journey to which had become a rather grueling ordeal by the time we reached the West Coast and headed out over the ocean.
At least, I thought, we'll get to look down on the wide blue Pacific as we pass over. But no; there were clouds all the way until just shy of Honolulu, by which time my hiney was so sore I didn't care about looking down upon the ocean anymore and didn't give a flip about the fact that Pearl Harbor and Diamond Head lay just below us as we approached Honolulu. Karen was airsick and I was just out-and-out planesick.
We passed our time in the Honolulu airport trying to get Karen's stomach right and buying over-priced drinks for me in an attempt to get my attitude right. Our lay-over in Honolulu stretched into three hours (we were actually headed on to Kaua'i), but after an hour or so, Karen began to feel much better. In order to facilitate her recovery, I bought her a lei. Isn't she pretty?
Then it was on to Kaua'i as the sun went down and the sea below grew dark. We landed in Lihu'e and taxied into a terminal that doubles as a fruit stand and tiki bar. And not a large one, either. We were then shepherded onto a bus for a night-time, hour-long ride over the twisting mountain roads to the south coast and the small town of Po'ipu. (I know, it looks like it ought to be pronounced Poy-poo but no, it's Po-ee-pu. The hotel is located on Pe'e Road. No, again, sorry, it's pronounced Pay-ay.)
Which brings us to a short discussion of the Hawaiian language. And I have a theory. I think when God was handing out languages to the various peoples of Earth, He did really well at first. Like with Spanish – it makes sense and has a good mix of vowels and consonants. But then He passed over Eastern Europe where He got a little carried away with the consonants and a bit stingy with the vowels. As He moved on, Asia got more than its share of “Z”s and “G”s.
By the time He got to Hawai'i, all He had left was a boatload of vowels and a handful of consonants, mostly H's,L's,M's,W's,P's, and K's. Which is why your average Hawaiian word is comprised of one or two of these consonants and eighteen vowels. Nor does it comport well with other languages like, say, English. For example, the Hawaiian word for appetizer – on every menu – is Pupu. And yes, it's pronounced just like it looks. One of the best appetizers in the islands is braised beef strips. Very yummy, I ate it often. Now the Hawaiian word for beef is Pipi, pronounced Pee-pee. So get this – you can go into any restaurant on the islands and with a straight face order a Pee-pee Poo-poo platter. Not only will they not laugh at you …...... they'll bring it to your table.
Speaking of food; there are a million chickens on Kaua'i. Everywhere. Feral chickens, not in pens, but free-ranging, not really wild, but not really tame either. There are several theories about how they got there, the most widely accepted being that Captain Cook traded a few pairs to the natives a couple hundred years ago. Some of them, sensing opportunity, high-tailed it into the countryside where they've lived ever since. With no natural predators, they've done very well, thank you. These aren't fancy chickens, nor are they members of any exotic breed, they're just chickens like those you see on any farm anywhere. And they're protected (except, of course when one tries to cross the road and is unsuccessful – then the nearest restaurant gets a small break on its food budget for the day). I won't waste space on a photo – you know what a chicken looks like.
It was nearly ten o'clock local time when we got to the Grand Hyatt at Po'ipu. The staff was friendly and efficient and within minutes we were ensconced in our room. The shades were drawn, it was totally dark outside, and we were shot from nineteen hours of travel. I, of course, was cranky. “This had better be worth it,” I grumbled.
Several times that night we were awakened by what sounded like a pretty intense thunderstorm. By 3:30 AM (8:30 in Texas) I was awake and watching Stuart Varney, who was way too alert and animated for such an ungodly hour. But then of course, he's in New York, damn near on the other side of the world from Kaua'i. By six, it was light outside and Karen was making coffee. Still cranky, I downed a cup and then got up and approached the drapes. Looking back at Karen, I groused, “I hope that we can at least see the ocean, even if it's just the horizon line.”
Throwing wide the drapes, this is what I saw:
Evidently, the company Karen works for appreciates the $1.3 million in diamonds she sold for them last year.
Of course, we had to get down to that lovely beach and wild surf as soon as possible. We hurried through breakfast, changed into our swimming suits and headed out.
Sadly, just five weeks before the scheduled trip to Kaua'i, Karen had slipped in the shower and broken her shoulder. She was in the immobilizer right up to three days before departure. Even then, the doctor agreed to let her go only if she did no swimming at all and promised to wear the immobilizer on the trip there and back and at night.
We strolled along the beach and came around to where we had a better view of the hotel. It is said to be one of the premier resorts on the planet. I think that's likely – what do you think?
We decided to get closer to the water. Shipwreck Beach is small but lovely, and the surf there is awe-inspiring. Surfers love it. For some reason, they recommend against swimming, not just because you might get hit in the head by a surfboard but also because the water is “dangerous”. And that morning the red flags were out in force.
We found a place among the rocks to the west of the stretch of sand where we could sit and watch the waves.
After awhile, giving into temptation, I said, “I'm going in.”
Karen looked at me. “What?”
“I'm going swimming.”
She watched me for a moment and then gazed out at the sea. A look of longing spread over her face. “I wish I could go out with you.” You see, my lady is no shrinking violet; she's courageous and brave, and she's a better swimmer too, not stronger, but quicker and more clever. I shook my head. “You can't, honey.”
She sighed and her face grew sad. “I know.”
“Do you mind if I go?”
Another sigh. “No.”
“Will you take some pictures?”
I went down and walked along the sand until I got to the center of the crescent-shaped beach, and then I turned and faced the water. Instantly, I had doubts. The Pacific is vast and powerful and its massive waves thunder like the voice of God as they crash against the ancient shore. A tingle of fear worked its way up my spine. This might be foolish, I thought. But I didn't want to chicken out in front of my lady. Even though we've been together nearly forty years, anytime she's around and watching, I feel the need to impress.
I became aware of someone standing beside me. I looked over. A balding Japanese man about my age stood there. He pointed out at the surf. “You go in?”
I nodded. “I'm thinking about it.”
He turned and watched the water for a long moment. I could see that he was harboring the same doubts about the whole proposition as I was. I introduced myself. “Dan, from Texas.” We shook hands, like gladiators about to face the arena. “Kazu,” he said. “From Kyoto.”
We stood side-by-side for a bit, working up the courage. He glanced back at his wife, sitting a ways up the sand. I looked over at Karen. Then I grinned at Kazu.
“I'm going in.” I said. “I think I'm man enough.”
He grinned back. “I go, too.”
Well, I wasn't man enough. Nor was he.
As we would discover in just minutes.
I went down and struggled through the crashing foam, got knocked down, got up, struggled on, got knocked down again, got up, struggled on, got bowled over, went under. Crap, I thought, I'm getting water in my ears. Now, I hate water in my ears because I'm prone to getting swimmer's ear. Got a bad case of it in the Caribbean a couple of years ago, lasted for weeks. It was miserable. Finding myself for a brief moment between waves, I rubbed the salt water out of my eyes and rolled my head over to either side, draining out the liquid.
Another monstrous breaker came at me. As the water in front of it deepened with the wave's approach, I swam quickly into it, hoping to ride up and over the crest. Earlier, I had watched the surfers, mostly local guys, and noticed that they all employed a similar technique when facing an oncoming breaker. They would tip their boards down into it, duck their heads, and a moment later pop up on the other side in calmer water. Sure, they're all on surfboards so by and large they're riding on top of all that power and not actually down in it; still, the technique would probably have worked for me. But as you know, I don't like getting water in my ears.
So, I tried riding up and over. It didn't work.
The wave crashed just as it got to me. Down I went into roiling water and boiling foam, tumbling over and over. Crap, I thought, I'm REALLY getting water in my ears now. And I was down there in it, being tumbled over and rolled along for a really long time – long enough for the tingle of fear still hovering along my spine to become a regular jolt of terror. Just when I thought my air would give out, I popped up – into the calmer water in the wake of the enormous wave that rumbled away toward the beach. I rubbed at my eyes, dug the water from my ears and looked around for Kazu. All I could see, a short distance away, was a bobbing head and an occasional glimpse of two very round, frightened eyes.
I was in calmer water now, deeper water, out beyond the breakers among the heaving swells. Having just been seriously pummeled, I decided to get even further away from the treacherous breakers along the beach behind me and swim out into the ocean where I could ride up and down the swells for a while and rest. (Yes, you heard me – rest. I was no longer thinking about fun but recovery.) I swam just a few strokes and discovered that I was in fact very, very tired. The struggle from the beach had taken a lot out of me. I was beat.
Kazu had drifted to the west, into the paths of the surfers. An enormous swell came in from the sea, breaking slowly from west to east as it went in toward the shore. Angling down along that sloping mountainside of water, staying just ahead of the break-over, came a surfer. His board sliced within mere inches of Kazu's head. I yelled like a banshee, but of course it did no good – nothing as insignificant as a human voice can be heard above the roar of the Pacific. But that was enough for Kazu, he turned and swam like a madman toward the beach.
I had had enough, too. The strength of that ocean, its awesome power, is a tangible, fearsome thing. It can be felt in the water surging all around you. It's like being suspended in the gaping maw of a hungry monster. And that monster is about to swallow.
I was in a long low trough, between swells. A good time, I now realized, to get out of this situation with my life. I turned and swam toward the breakers and the beach. I was done and wanted out. But, oh, I was so tired. My progress toward the safety of the sand was tedious, slow, and wearisome.
I heard a roar behind me, as if the ocean was giving voice. Turning to look, I felt my blood freeze.
It was one of those humongous waves that surfers long for and look for. Piling up, up, up, it towered above me like the rugged, dark, massive slopes of the Rocky Mountains, blotting out the sun.
And there was foam surging along its crest. It was breaking over.
Right on top of me.
Oh, crap, I thought, water in the ears. LOTS of water in the ears.
Then it hit.
You ever been in a car wreck? There's that brief second when you know that it's going to be bad. Then the whole world goes crazy for a few seconds. Noise, pain, confusion, fear, more pain.
If you're lucky enough to be alive when it's over, you pull yourself out, stumble around and try to make sense of everything, and you can never really say just what happened.
That's what it was like.
The wave smashed the breath from my body on impact and then drove me further, down into the dark. I haven't had the breath knocked out of me for many years, and I had forgotten what an agonizing experience it really is. My lungs collapsed and a terrible hurt knifed through my chest. Pain erupted from several other points as well, especially along my right leg from the knee down to the ankle. As the wave churned toward the land it was rolling under itself, and dragging me along the bottom with it. For the moment, I was no longer concerned about getting water in my ears. My thinking had evolved.
Oh, crap, I thought, I'm going to die.
Then, abruptly, I found my head above water. The monster wave was rolling away toward the beach and I was behind it, in its wake. The water was still over my head, I couldn't find the bottom. My lungs screamed for air, my chest ached. In a desperate attempt to get air, I arched my back and raised my hands out of the water, gasping, trying to expand my lungs. As I performed this maneuver, my eye fell upon Karen, standing fifty yards away on the beach. Thinking I was giving myself a high-five, she waved gaily back, and indicated the camera, as if to say, “I got it!”
Great, I thought, there'll be evidence for the insurance company, in case they don't find my body.
Finally, air. I took a few grateful breaths and was thinking that perhaps everything might be alright after all when the secondary wave hit me. Bang! Down I went again, rolling toward the beach. Up I popped and then Bang! Another, and then another. It was as if the monster wave had brought all of its younger brothers with it in its wake and was teaching them the tricks. Look, guys! Here's how you have sport with the humans! Aren't they funny little things?
Eventually, I found myself in the foaming surf at the edge of the beach. The big wave had gone very far up the steep sand and was now returning. It was like trying to wade against a powerful river, but I managed it somehow. I'd had enough – I was still alive and determined to get the hell out.
As I stumbled up the wet sand, I glanced over. Kazu was a few yards away, also struggling away from the maelstrom behind us and toward his wife, standing wide-eyed at the top of the dune with her hands clasped to her breast. The look he shot my way, though brief, was not friendly at all. I swear it was accusatory.
I limped over to Karen who had turned and was gazing out over the rolling Pacific with a look of rapture on her face. “Isn't it beautiful?” She breathed.
I tried to answer, couldn't, just collapsed on a rock near her, sitting quietly, trying to fully catch my breath. She turned and looked down. “Have fun?” She asked. I could only shrug.
“I wish I could have gone in with you.”
I didn't tell her, but for the first time in weeks, I was glad that she had broken her shoulder, and was thereby prevented from tempting the power of that ocean. A shudder went through me to think that she might have gone out there.
“Hey!” She said then. “You're bleeding!”
“Yeah, it pounded me some.”
“You're bleeding a lot!”
There was a chunk missing from the lower right of my knee, and a fairly long strip of skin that had vanished from my shin, both no doubt to become food for the denizens of the sea. There were four or five weird puncture wounds on my foot and ankle as well, as if a small shark had tried to capitalize on the opportunity to feast on a human foot.
The very next day, a woman from the next resort drowned at Shipwreck Beach. In conversations with the locals we found out that the beach has a nickname - “Drowning Beach”. Though more people each year drown at Waikiki down on Oahu because of the heavy concentration of tourists there, no beach is more deadly anywhere on the islands than is Shipwreck Beach on Kaua'i.
Here it is. The people to the left, refusing to go out any further, are evidently highly intelligent creatures.
And here's Kazu and me. That little dot to the right is Kazu, with whom I shared a very brief friendship. I'm to the left. At this point, it was still fun.
Though my open wounds kept me out of the Grand Hyatt's swimming pool, we nonetheless had a great vacation. We even got back into the water again, but on the north shore, at Tunnels Beach, where a reef creates a sort of sheltered lagoon. The tropical sun is ferocious and the Lady Karen is very fair, so she went in wearing her hat in order to protect her skin. Yes, people were amused, and one woman said that she looked like one of the pictures from the glamour days of Hollywood when all the stars wore hats while swimming. Here's a photo of my glamour gal:
Kaua'i is truly the “Garden Isle”. Beautiful scenery, great people, stunning vistas of mountains and ocean. And everything blooms - trees, shrubs, grass. Flowers are everywhere. We had a wonderful time and will remember it all our lives. Karen says it's the most romantic vacation we've ever had. Maybe that's because - after that first day - I decided to expend all of my energy in the room rather than in the sea. But all good things must come to an end, and we're back in Texas now.
Where the Pacific Ocean can't find me.
Per my friend Camille's suggestion, to read more about my family's attempts to drown ourselves, visit Johnson Creek.