We are staying in a room at the Waikiki Beach Hilton, which, with its ocean views and high-pressure shower head, is dangerously close to nice. But in the corridor I am pleased to meet a fat and saucy cockroach, thoughtfully dispatched, perhaps, by a concierge who has gotten wind of my preferences. In live-and-let-live aloha spirit, I do not molest the animal. My wife, however, in consideration of the sleeping guests the roach might visit, bruises the creature with a sack of dirty diapers before it jogs off down the hall.
In the lobby, we lay down $12 for two coffees and one banana and browse the morning paper, which proves a clemency from anticipated horrors. The front page of The Honolulu Star-Advertiser bears not a single presidential headline. “Legislature Considers Funding to Combat Rat Lungworm Disease” is the story of the day.
Dawn finds us waterfront on Oahu’s North Shore, downrange of the Banzai Pipeline. The sand has a forthright cornmeal consistency. The water is the blue of telegraph insulators. The waves transmit a disaster-movie feeling with every crash, even after you have watched a thousand of them land. The young and barely clad are out in force, demonstrating physiques that can come only from long and rigorous hours of ignoring national politics. Just up the shore, two young women are seriously engaged in the business of aiming a big professional camera at the tanned, professional butt of a third young woman who, I’m guessing, is a big deal in a modeling niche I didn’t know existed. One thing is sure: No way will I be bathing here.
My son gives not a damn. He uncloaks fully his cloudlike body and hits the sand like an oyster in a breading dredge. The day is perfect room temp with a breeze. In the distant shallows, surfers shoot the tube or gleam the curl or whatever that amazing thing is called. My wife and I breakfast on fresh coconut — neither sweet nor flavorful but fun to gnaw, for the feeling that you’ve acquired termite superpowers. Jed squats and tumbles and packs his nethers with 20-grit. “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” is his ecstatic report on the sensation. I am right there with him. It would be overselling things to claim that I’ve achieved rapturous mind erasure my first morning in Hawaii, but this is, well, rather nice.
For lunch we motor clockwise down the coast to the Kahuku Superette. The Superette is a homely liquor shop/convenience store that from the outside is easily pictured in a newscast with police lights flashing on it. Inside, they dish out poké of world renown. Poké is sashimi salad doused in soy and sesame and other things. We get a tub of traditional shoyu poké and a tub of limu poké with crunchy bits of seaweed. The place to gobble the Superette’s poké is in your hot rental car in the muddy parking lot. Gemlike blocks of tuna nearing a full cubic inch are bright and salty as the sea.
Back in Honolulu, the Pearl Harbor Visitors Center is out of tickets to the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial site, so we resolve to take in our ration of history with a trudge around the Makiki neighborhood, where Barack Obama grew up. It is an area of cinder-block buildings and auto-parts shops well off the luau trail. On the sidewalks, hard-luck people push baby strollers full of cans and bottles because the redemption center forbids the use of grocery carts. Parking is free on the street, one of Makiki’s practical concessions to the paradise theme. No plaque marks the Punahou Circle Apartments, where Obama lived during his middle- and high-school years, and where, just before the 2008 election, he returned to visit his maternal grandmother as she was dying. It is as regular an apartment building as you could find anywhere in America, a putty-colored tower whose minute balconies hold garbage bags, golf clubs, a vacuum cleaner and one (small-size) American flag.
Nearby on King Street, we nip into the Baskin- Robbins where I heard Obama worked in high school. It is the sort of cramped little parlor that, if you had a job there, would make you sink into despair or go on to be president. I ask the young woman on scooping duty if it’s true that Obama used to dip cones at this very counter, and she says, “Yeah.” No plaque in there either, just a newspaper clipping taped to the sneeze guard next to the smoothie machine.
“ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK.” “FISH AND EELS MAY BECOME AGGRESSIVE.” “DANGEROUS SHOREBREAK.” “DO NOT ENTER IF YOU HAVE OPEN WOUNDS DUE TO RISK OF BACTERIAL INFECTION.” So runs some but not all of the cautionary signage at the Ahalanui Warm Pond. My kind of place!
We have fled the Banzai Pipeline and the crowds of Waikiki to spend four aimless days poking around Hawaii Island, a.k.a. the Big Island, the easternmost landmass in the archipelago. The Big Island, which is larger than all the other Hawaiian Islands combined, is big because the volcanoes here (the only active ones in the state) keep making more island every day.
The volcanoes also supply natural hot tubs like the Ahalanui Pond. The only trouble is that renegade bacteria like a nice warm soak as much as we do. If you don’t want to go home majorly colonized, the internet advises that you hit the pond early in the day, when the night seas have rinsed the pool and the day’s throng of bathers have not yet added their personal contributions to the stew.
We arrive at the pond just after 9 a.m. It is a partly man-made, not-quite Olympic-size lagoon walled with volcanic rock over which the Pacific spills. Three other folks are breast stroking the green shallows, none of them microbially “hot” in appearance. In we go.
Through heat-jellied water, my diver’s mask reveals an aquarium of striped fish and fish with long Hitchcockian faces and tiny minnows hungrily scrumming at a scratch on my boy’s knee. Now my son is shrieking. I surface. Not shrieking but crowing. Jed, a connoisseur of bath water, is sampling the pond by the bulging cheekful and finding it superb.
As usual, Jed’s judgment is on point. This pond is excellent, maybe the closest I have ever found to my mind’s ideal of the great American swimming hole. It is a wallopingly beautiful place where admission is free. No “Royal”-access luxury cabanas, roving pedicurists or sling chairs for rent. It is not up a mountain or deep in a jungle but near enough to a parking lot that the infirm can enjoy it, too.
By 10 a.m., a little bit of everybody is shouldering in for a wash. There are local families with babies and senior citizens with foam flotation noodles and tourists with sun-scalded calves the color of Spam. Through modern advances in waterproofing, four young women have brought their telephones with them into the pool, fending off a potentially cloying surplus of timeless splendor. The bacteria deserve credit, too, for their silent encouragement against loitering. After an hour’s swim, still free of visible rashes, we make for dry land.
Out in the poolside park, Saturday things are happening. A mom wonders when the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting will clear out from the picnic shanty and make way for her 2-year-old’s birthday party. A guy is washing his dog in the foot bath, near a sign that says “no animals allowed.” Over in the parking lot, we are glad to find a man dealing coconuts from his beat-up S.U.V. Shirtless, veiny and tan beneath a blown-out wicker hat, he puts the nuts down on his tailgate and machetes them with great flair. This coconut man (the second in our mounting tally) seems a little offended when we ask what his coconuts cost. “I prefer donations,” he says. “I don’t think of myself as a business. I’m just out here trying to feed the people.” My wife worms it out of him that, really, he wants $5 per nut. I hand him a 20 for two. Clutching my money, he goes into a thing about how the green of the coconut is the same green as the dollar. Then he tells me how coconut water is chemically identical to human plasma and how World War II field hospitals would transfuse soldiers with coconuts when they ran out of blood. I have heard this fable before and know it to be hogwash, but I say, “Oh, wow,” and await my $10 change that does not appear to be forthcoming. After a weirdly long interval of communing with my bill, Coconut Man No.2 looks up at me and says in a put-out sort of way, “Oh, did you want some change?” I allow that I do, and he produces it.
I go away full of gratitude for this fellow, not only because his coconuts are very fine, but for nipping a budding and inconvenient fancy that I might like to live here on the Big Island. His brand of coconut palaver is, I suspect, common in these parts. Encountering it on any sort of regular basis, straight-world mainlander that I am, would drive me out of my mind.