I’ve bitten off more than I can chew.
I’ve been working on writing about my favorite place in the world: Kaua’i. In a way, it is a simple essay to write; the scenery is gorgeous, adventures prolific and the cultural history is extremely interesting.
Words fail me.
This place means so much to me that I find it indescribable. The blend of beauty, power and the socio-economic struggles of this place make it more complex than describing the dysfunctionality of your own family lineage, with a touch of racism and politics on the side. There is so much more than meets the eye.
There’s no doubt about it; Kaua’i is beautiful. Over a million visitors pour into the airports of the Garden Isle each year, mostly congregating to areas such as Po’ipu and Princeville. They drive up to Koke’e to visit the Kalalau lookout, perhaps hike to Hanakapi’ai beach, maybe even breach their car rental agreement and drive to Polihale State Park. They return home to tell their friends and families how beautiful it is and how much less crowded it is than Oahu (because tourists hate being around other tourists.)
This is where it gets complicated. This is where issues of localism, environment, culture and tourism blur between lines of a profoundly complicated history. This is where my role on the island becomes complicated as well.
I am a traveler. I am a tourist.
But I am also kama’aina of these islands. They continue to teach me to carry this feeling of respect and humility where ever I go.
Kauai has taught me so much about culture, life, light and aloha. I’ve gained practical skills like learning to read the ocean, how to rock hop up mossy boulders to secret waterfalls, and I can pretty much understand Hawaiian pidgin.
It has also taught me how to be a good tourist.
The longer I spend time in the Hawaiian Islands, the more I realize how much I have to learn about these volcanic rocks in the middle of the ocean and the people who inhabit them. I’ve dedicated my time to learning about the cultural and ecological history of this evolutionarily unique place, only to realize that my knowledge equates to a small fraction of all there is to learn. This place that I opened my heart to learning about, has taught me how much I don’t know. Don’t get me wrong, this is one of the most important lessons one can learn as a tourist.
Never assume you know.
I’ve always loved the outdoors and teaching people about local culture. Although I love both these things, I never idealized being a tour guide. You could say tourism chose me. I’ve worked as a server, a zip-line tour guide, crewing boats and giving snorkel tours on Maui and Kauai. I’ve seen tourism at its best and worst.
The bests are easy: people who genuinely care about the islands. They want to learn as they travel. They find the Hawaiian culture fascinating. They see the dichotomy of a stolen land which was once self-sufficient and now barely survives on tourism. They appreciate the natural surrounding not as an amusement park built for people but as beautiful land and ocean that allows us to drink water, breathe air. Yes, these are the best kind of tourists.
The worst kind of tourists are the ones that make your skin crawl. You know you’ve seen them. Maybe you’ve even been one. They can frequently be seen standing in the middle of oncoming traffic, taking a picture of a chicken. They pack their suitcases and leave their brains at home. Everything they see is there to perform for them. They have no concept of island time and are in a hurry although they are on vacation (wouldn’t want to miss dinner reservations.) They planned this trip solely so they can brag later to their friends. They want everything to be like home but different. They came here because things are different, but it makes them uncomfortable.
And they want to know why.
This is the part where I will give examples of all the idiotic questions tourists have asked my friends and I who work in tourism. Disclaimer: there’s no harm in asking questions. In reality, it all comes from not knowing. Curiosity is fine. The problem is that many people don’t think before they ask.
Let me enlighten you.
Q: Does the water go all the way around the island?
A: Yes, that is the definition of an island.
Did you attend elementary school?
Q: What time do you turn the waterfalls on?
A: Um, nobody is really in charge of that.
I guess it depends how much it’s been raining…
Q: So what holds up the islands?
A: Sea turtles, dude. (inwardly laughing)
I could go into details of the geologic concept that the Hawaiian archipelago is a volcanic island chain, but your head might explode.
Q: So do you live here?
A: Yes, I work where I live.
Either that or I take my private jet to the mainland everyday.
It’s good to ask questions, but don’t do it with a sense of entitlement. Every time these questions are asked, it is because they feel like they deserve to know.
So here’s a hint: be a tactful tourist. Know that you don’t know. Believe me, you will see far more if you don’t have your head up your ass.