My own country did a whole “Year of Return” thing, and did I choose to return? No. Where did I run away to instead? Hawai’i. The irony? I spent a lot of time comparing my tourist experience in Hawai’i to what I assume to be the tourist experience in Ghana. Spoiler alert: Hawai’i won out on almost everything.
The reason I was in Hawai’i at all is because I decided to crash a family vacation my aunt had planned for her nuclear family. My uncle couldn’t make the vacation dates and I calmly inserted myself in his place because when there’s an opportunity to take a vacation on someone else’s money, you bloody take it.
My experience of Hawai’i was actually very limited. It was only about 5 days long, and we never left the island of O’ahu at all, barely even left Waikiki. I want to say that I could count the number of native Hawaiians I encountered in Honolulu without running out of fingers and although this is an exaggeration, it felt true. Maybe I felt a kind of relief because I couldn’t quite come up with any region or city in Ghana where a non-native tourist wouldn’t consistently encounter native Ghanaians. (This is the only place where Ghana won out over Hawai’i.) On the other hand, what made me the most uncomfortable during my trip was how, every time I encountered a native Hawaiian, they were serving me in some way.
But you know which demographic flocked in their hundreds? Japanese folks. As a matter of fact, it seems to me I experienced Honolulu in English, but with Japanese subtitles. This is both a figure of speech and quite literal. Almost everything was written in two languages: English and Japanese. I didn’t see text in the Hawaiian language even a quarter as much as I saw Japanese. Directory signboards, shop names, products sold, offerings on menus, available brands of tea, free brochures… It all reflected the primary tourist demographic.
I have a few hypotheses for how come Honolulu was full of Japanese people. One is the geographical proximity. There’s almost nothing but sea between Japan and the Hawaiian Islands, making it possibly a prime vacation destination. But my second hypothesis feels stronger: Hawai’i is bloody expensive, and those Japanese tourists were rich AF.
Walking along the streets of Waikiki was a designer experience. Walk out of the hotel and a Louis Vuitton store is staring you in the face. But right beside that LV store is a Gucci store, and right beside that, oh look, Balenciaga!
In many ways, Honolulu reminded me of Cape Town, in that both seemed to want to cater to tourists so much that the indigenous culture was smothered by the foreignness. It seems even harder to find Hawaiianness in Honolulu than it was to find South Africanness in Cape Town. But then again, I was only in O’ahu for 5 days, so who knows what’s out there?
I don’t know about the rest of the Hawaiian state and its islands but affordable, Waikiki was definitely not. I got a couple of ice cream cones and I considered that a splurge. By the way, if you ever go to Hawai’i, I highly, highly recommend getting Kona flavored ice cream. I don’t know what makes Hawai’i’s Kona coffee different from any other types of coffee, I just know that the stuff was fire, and unexpectedly bomb in ice cream. Speaking of Hawaiian specialties, I don’t think I knew before I went there that they have a thing with pineapples. Once, the family was at breakfast, and my aunt ordered a fruity drink in mango flavor, and the waiter said something droll like, “You’re in Hawai’i, we don’t have mango. You’re getting it in pineapple.” I thought it was hilarious.
I found out how expensive Hawai’i was the very night that I arrived. My aunt had planned for a shuttle to take me to the hotel. I got into the shuttle, the driver mentioned the name of my hotel and asked me to confirm, and I did. I was the last shuttle passenger to be dropped off. I can’t say my destination didn’t look a little shady to me in the first place. What kind of hotel did my auntie book? I wondered to myself. There wasn’t even a car park. It lowkey looked like some abandoned warehouse. The shuttle driver tried to give me instructions on how to get into the actual hotel from the dark and confusing outside, but the instructions itself were complicated.
I let my cousin know that I’d arrived, and she ran around the whole hotel ground floor looking for me and never found me, even though I was “right there.” She stubbed her toe quite badly in the process. (This stubbed toe was brought up many times throughout our Hawai’i stay. By her.) Long story short, we were at completely different hotels. They had the same name, except for one word. I was at the Hilton Village hotel, when I should have been at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. No kidding.
Shout-out to technology, because after wasting a lot of time trying to describe my position in the lobby to my poor cousin, some location-sharing features told me exactly what I needed to know. The shuttle driver was long gone by then, I was a tourist in an unfamiliar US colony-I-mean-state, and it was late at night. I had to Uber. The right hotel was a mile away from the wrong hotel. The Uber trip was sixteen dollars. For a trip that was less than ten minutes. SIXTEEN DOLLARS. So that’s that on that for prices in Waikiki.
Having already established the extraordinarily large Japanese presence, you might perhaps find it a little less ironic that one of the highlights of my Honolulu experience was lunch in a hibachi-style restaurant. It was my first ever teppanyaki meal, and before this, the closest I had ever come to having a meal that doubled as a performance event was at a sushi place in Accra. (Clearly, Japanese folks are killin’ it at the dining experience thing.) Picture a stand-up comedian who’s delivering his entire routine… but while frying rice, vegetables, meat and shrimp. That’s essentially what a teppanyaki chef is, and however much they get paid, I’m almost certain they don’t get paid enough. The food was good, but the experience was excellent. My personal favorite highlight was our chef’s onion volcano light show.
In O’ahu, there were beaches, but beaches are not quite that remarkable. There were shops, but shops are also not that remarkable. Some of the most fun I had just casually playing is when my cousin took advantage of happy hour to get us both drinks. I drank mine way too fast because I wanted to get wet and they wouldn’t let me bring alcohol near the sea or lagoon. So, I got quite astonishingly tipsy and frolicked with fish in a lagoon that I still don’t know whether it was natural or artificial. It was so much fun. By the time I got out of the water, I had to lie down for at least half an hour by the pool, because the whole world was spinning and standing up felt like falling down. Regrets? None.
I think the highlight of my experience was the most touristy thing we did, which was spend a day at the Polynesian Cultural Center. Although it’s located on the Hawaiian island of O’ahu, it’s a center that represents six main Pacific Island territories: Hawai’i, Tahiti, Aotearoa (or, New Zealand), Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. The Polynesian Cultural Center, in particular, is where I saw that Hawaiians have nailed this tourism business, got the science down to a T. Ghana could make a fortune if it organized itself even a quarter as well as Hawai’i is doing.
The Center itself is a fascinating maze of “islands” with a waterbody snaking through the middle of the property. Several events occur on repeated, regular schedules in different pockets of the Center, and once you have a map, it’s very easy to self-direct your own tour and participate in small 15-minute events for hours on end. For example, I attended a drumming lesson in “Fiji,” a marriage ceremony in “Tonga,” threw some spears in “Tahiti” and learned how to do a Tahitian dance called ’otea’a, attended what amounted to a cooking show in “Samoa,” a Haka performance in “Aotearoa,” and ironically can’t quite remember doing anything in “Hawai’i.”
Sometime near the middle of the day, all the individual island activities are paused so that everyone can participate in a grand event along the river. The experience of this was both beautiful and terrible.
The event is essentially a theater performance staged on canoes, whose storyline is the history of the Polynesian islands from its mythological beginnings—starting with the creation of the known human world by Maui, which you may recognize from Disney’s Moana—to the present. The beautiful part is that the performance, the narration, the props, the acting, singing, dancing, costumes, etc. are all so spectacular and entertaining! The terrible part comes as the content approaches the present. At this point, the narrators speak of how the Pacific Islands fell very nearly into deep destitution after colonization, and the only thing that saved them from that is exploiting the tourism industry. They put it in a really benign way that was supposed to make the audience feel great for contributing to the salvation of the islands or whatever, but to me it felt tragic. (I’m an Africana Studies major. With all the theory in my head, there’s no way hearing things like this won’t seem dead awful to me.)
One thing that I thought was also either very cool or tragic about the Polynesian Cultural Center is that about 80% of the staff at the Center—from the vendors to the performers to the activity facilitators—were undergrad students studying in Hawaiian universities. The beautiful part was how I got to interact with some Polynesians and Asians (a lot of Japanese students too, not just tourists, I discovered), while they made some money! The tragic part was when I considered that some of these students honestly might not be at all able to afford to go to school unless they got jobs at the Polynesian Cultural Center. From what I witnessed, working there is a high-energy, high-investment, high-maintenance affair. It surely can’t be at all easy to do this work while being a full-time student. So, with my limited knowledge of what my peers in Hawaii go through, I felt many different types of ways about their situations.
The engaging but exhausting day-long experience was capped off with a theater performance called “Ha! The Breath of Life,” which was another sort of dramatization representing all six of the previously mentioned territories, via allegory. But I must say, it was extremely easy to tune out of whatever was happening on stage… until the fire dancing! I wish I had videos or photos, but they were strictly prohibited. The fire performances were certainly an excellent way to end the night, though.
Anyway, a few random extra things: I discovered I really like saying the word “Aotearoa,” and that my favorite greeting from all six represented territories is the Aotearoa 0ne: “kia ora.” They both sound so musical and beautiful. Maybe I should move there and learn their Māori language, because e dey bee me waa.
My tourist tip for anyone going to Honolulu is this: if you want to experience Hawaii with Hawaiians, you should make it a point to talk to the people who are serving you and pay attention to what they say about what they do or where they go. The people driving you, taking your food orders, giving you tours etc., they all work in the tourist industry and return to their non-tourist worlds once they’re off the clock. I’ve observed from experience that some tend to be reluctant with giving recommendations because they think tourists always want the spectacular touristy things they don’t know about and that tourists wouldn’t be interested in the quotidian Hawaiian experiences that they’re familiar with. But once they see you’re genuinely interested, they’ll dish out the info. Persist!