The first thing I noticed was the heat. It was universal. Not the scorching heat of home but a layered heat, heavy with perspiration and anticipation. It was brimming with discovery, ready for me to explore. Once past the security guards with hand-me-down AK’s, the world opened up and lay at my feet in sweaty bliss. Everywhere I walked I could smell the heat of this beautiful tropical land. It smelled of rotting trash and sunscreen. I was thrilled and energized. The world buzzed with color. It was alive! The high tropical sun burned down with an intensity only found on the Equator. I shielded my eyes and felt the burn on my neck, turning virgin white skin lobster red in minutes. Tuk-tuks and scooters zipped by. Everywhere I looked people were busy buying and selling. A young boy with a monkey on a chain scampered by, chasing a young girl. I laughed and urged him on. I felt that I myself could chase the girl and bury her with all the happiness that was bursting from my being. I had made it to Paradise! I walked to the beach. “Whatever you do, never say a word to them.” I was cautioned. How could I not when there was so much to say, so much to live for! “Sunglasses?!” I gave him silence. “Sunglasses?!” I continued to stare blankly towards the blue horizon. “Sunglasses?!” Not getting anywhere he started to move off. I couldn’t help myself– no thank you, I said. It was if I had opened a bag of chips; the hawkers flocked like seagulls up and down the beach. In a moment we were surrounded; I had given them attention and they had found the crack. They made decent money selling knock off Gucci and Calvin Klein. The goods came from China, the dollars from Australia and America. Here on the beach in Bali, the two worlds collided and a trade was made. I flung my arms furiously. So long as the tourists continue to come the plastic goods will too. This was the cost of our peregrinations, the price for interloping on their sacred land. Reluctantly I succumbed and handed the man a five dollar bill. He made his profit and they all disappeared into the midday heat as suddenly as they had arrived. I had found Paradise, and now I must pay for it. And besides, I needed the shades.
My condition, hungover and jet lagged, called for a shortlist of remedies; reckless abandonment of moderation and rum. I had only been on the island several hours and I was already lonely and in need of a drink. I fumbled through the humid air searching for somewhere familiar to land but the bustle of the street distracted me. Throngs of people were busy buying plastic leis and $10 Mai Tai's, eager to fill their shore excursion day with shopping bags full of authentic island tales. I dodged ladies buying pearls and teens with Hard Rock shirts, all harmless aliens with sunburn lines where their socks used to be. A businessman in golf shorts and a pineapple shirt jabbered into oblivion, happy to hear himself. A street dog limped across the road; his master followed. All was frantic, and happy, and foreign. My head was spinning so I sat down, alone on a bench on Front Street and watched the parade. This scene, I realized, could play out in any tropical land, where the heat and sweat conspire against productivity and the view is too valuable to leave untouched; where holidays are made. But there at the present I was fully put off by this show of unbridled, chaotic energy in paradise. I had come seeking the exotic but I now needed to find some peace. I found a small open air restaurant with an ocean view, an open sign, and a strong promise of booze. It was remarkable in its blandness– not entirely uncomfortable, but slapped together in that remote island way. The tiki masks and bamboo just about covered the cinder block walls. Bud Light signs took care of the rest. The tin roof was rusted and creaked in the tropical afternoon. It felt dark and smelled dirty, so I passed through the door on the other wall. I grabbed a chair and collapsed, a pleasure in any land, and found myself alone on a stone terrace looking out on a break wall and the Pacific Ocean beyond. The air was hot, and the smell of fish was unavoidable. My chair shifted easily under my weight, but it felt good to sit. Like all the others that were meticulously arranged it was plastic and cheap. Heinz ketchup bottles and small packets of fake sugar littered each empty table, unmistakeable signs of civilization. From my lonely perch the languid workings of Lahaina town were obscured by the drab buildings of sheet tin and cinderblocks, but it was there. I watched a cruise ship tender leave the harbor riding deep in the water; she was full with passengers carrying backpacks bloated with the plastic and cellophane indicators of a successful tour. The shoddy break wall wrapped itself back to my position. Behind me, inside the restaurant, was a television set. The picture was obscured so I listened instead. The economy was in shambles, the attractive sounding anchor said breathlessly. The sun was shining and the tide was ebbing out. Puffy clouds swept the horizon. I exhaled and the murmur of the news broadcast was swallowed by the din of the surf. We seemed too far from the place where that was happening, where that mattered. I was thirsty; it was too late for lunch and too early for dinner. A waitress emerged from inside with a plumeria behind her ear. She tidied the tables to appear busy. I almost didn’t notice her leave. She must have understood my needs and returned with a tall glass. The rum went to work and I began to feel proud of myself for finally arriving here.
I had come halfway around the world to this small rock in the Pacific to find something sacred. In my eager mind, these volcanic islands represented the end of the earth. They stood isolated and organic, rebuking man’s attempt to conquer them. I imagined a world where traditions ran deep and nature’s undying cycles would smash man's frail calendars. I was hoping to find a place where the tentacles of Progress hadn't yet reached. The recession had confounded many people and caused a great consolidation of dreams and I thought that by leaving I could find peace. The clear path out was across an ocean. I was looking for something beyond. I had become disenchanted by the story that was told on either end, the supply and the demand, the profit and loss. I was saddened by what was lost. I was keenly aware that the space between the lands was full of deep mysteries that I hoped would serve as a fulcrum on which I could leverage a deeper understanding of our species. Countless times I had stood upon a sandy shore and gazed outwards towards the horizon and wondered at the depth and breadth of its confounding simplicity. I understood that it at once represented the line between here and there, an endless physical barrier to transit, elegant and simple, and also a deeply profound psychological foundation upon which our human narrative was based. We had beaten the horizon, we are told in school; human ingenuity and recklessness extended the end of the map. We bested logic and skipped across the fragile line of the horizon and landed on a virgin land full of promise and mosquitos. Once we escaped the paralyzing notion that the sea was infinite, we conquered the globe, toting our fifteenth-century baggage along with us. We were no longer bound by feeble borders, we were free. Possibilities, and profits, were endless. But the horizon, I insisted, was not so placid. Men once stood full gale against battering seas, seas that built into mountains of fury so enormous that they obscured and abstracted the simplicity of the distant horizon. These brave souls would shove off from a shore and feebly chart a tentative line across the vastness with only one objective: survival. The space between here and there represented all the fears and anxieties of our race. The weary mariners groped in the watery wilderness for a place of refuge, a rock, a speck of dust to stumble upon, a salvation from the unknown. This abstract distance dug deep into the psyche of these men and urged them onwards. It was a heroic effort. These thoughts ran through my mind as I counted the minutes to our initial decent into Honolulu. My leg was cramped and the pretzels were stale. A toddler fussed and kicked the seat back behind me. The distance was just as great, the dangers as monumental, but the inconvenience of this trans-Pacific journey had become laughable. I looked down and counted the repetitious swell far beneath me and mused at the puffs of whitewash that battered these shore. I hoped that my method of transit wouldn’t reduce the mystery, that the land still held the awe and power that it did for the sailors so many years ago. But as we made our descent below the clouds and passed over the crowded mass of Waikiki Beach my heart sank. These were domesticated islands. They were indeed fragile, innocent, and alone in a vast and untamed ocean; but they were already mortgaged. As we approached, the last rays of sunset slid down the brown and green peaks of Oahu and bounced haphazardly off the detritus of human settlements. She had been peopled. Houses and condos sprung up like weeds in the gentle hills that led to the water. Roads twisted through valleys like asphalt rivers. Shiny roofs and sparkling glass reflected the dying sun. She showed all the signs of domestication, the comfortable conversion of uncertain wilderness into manageable housing plots. Swimming pools dotted the parched volcanic scree, looking a foolish imitation of the dark blue Pacific that dwarfed them. From my window seat, far removed from the land and the sea, these stood as testaments to man’s desire to husband the earth. We had become incompetent stewards of this planet, conquerors of useless kingdoms, and our indelible mark is untold thousands of little piles of brink and wood. I watched as nameless housing developments imitated the previous, endless in their lack of imagination. Billboards shouted to be heard and parking lot upon parking lot sat empty of cars. The malls and warehouses and hotels and traffic signs violated the green grass that could still be seen. Elsewhere in the world, I thought, but not out here, leagues from land. I felt sick. We circled the tarmac for a second view before we landed. The flight attendant thanked me for my business. I was now an accomplice. My innocence was lost; I collected my meager possessions and stammered towards the door. I was no better than the rest. I would have to find my way. We were herded towards the exit. In a daze, I stopped and steadied myself on a trash can. I watched a man waddle into focus. The patchy mass of fat and flesh hanging below his chin shivered and danced as he moved; I couldn't make out if he was talking or masticating. His right forearm, enormous and lazy, was slung across his chest, crushing a styrofoam takeaway container to his heart. I could just make out the tips of a piece of pizza hanging out from either side of the food receptacle. Missed food particles littered the front of his black tshirt. He said something into his hands-free ear piece and reached for another bite with his free hand– talking, eating, and walking in a beautiful dance of consumption. I stood entranced. Was this human? I felt the most alarming part of this scene was how remarkably normal it was. No sooner had he entered my world did he moved beyond and was absorbed back into the endless mass of moving bodies in the terminal. Like a mountain stream coursing its way from the highlands to the sea, this surge of human river flooded and eddied through the stark halls of Honolulu airport, a time-lapse of humanity in motion. My obese tourist was reduced to nothing more than a drop of water in the rapids of this swift moving surge of business. And like the water droplet that pulses and surges at the bequest of the immovable force of the tides, the path of this singular man was directed by the force of our humanity, predestined to walk and talk and eat as he made his way from this place to the other. When stripped of our sense of place, as often happens when we travel to remote destinations, we are reduced to our human element; soft, pliable, hopeful. We move along with the impetuses that pushes us, never questioning why. This brief encounter was my only contact with him, and why should there be any more to it? It was nothing more than a benign meeting of two travelers in passing. But he remained engrained in my mind, and I could not shake the notion that, in a small way, I was in fact looking back at myself. Here was a perfect picture of the perfect modern human. We are all but drops in the river, bumping along– talking, eating, and waddling our way the best we know how, endlessly connected, never starved, never satiated. It was then that I realized that no matter how far I traveled, how deep I searched, the heart of this darkness is truly ubiquitous, and it was slapping me in the face. We are bound together in hapless unity and the world is our oyster on the half shell. This was my human condition. Had I a companion to spare me the depths of this depression, but I was lonely and I had brought it upon myself. My departure was voluntary; I had acted alone and I now felt the sting of solitary remorse. I had arrived and was heartbroken.
It wasn't long before my solitude was interrupted. A young couple joined me on the terrace. They interfered with my view but I was drunk now and didn't care. I watched them awkwardly shuffle in the plastic chairs to get comfortable; they hadn't yet bought the postcard. They talked with one another timidly, as honeymooners do. They dropped a plastic bag full of tshirts and painted coconut monkeys into the chair between them. He handed her a white room key. She slid it into her bosom. Afternoon storm clouds were building upcountry and the unmistakable rhythm of the tropics beat around us. Waves gently crashed on the break wall below and the sun spun around us on fire, unmoved by the low-hanging rain clouds pressing their way from the mountains to the sea. I watched them unfold out to the horizon, the great equalizer. They sipped water out of glasses delivered by the waitress, as the finality of matrimony sank in. They too watched the clouds, thankful for something to talk about. He fumbled with the ring on his sunburnt finger, the unfamiliar weight a new sensation. She giggled and turned red, an inside joke perhaps. Fruity tropical drinks should loosen them up. I ordered another rum. My reverie reached a comfortable pitch. I was beginning to align with the hum of the place. The waitress returned. After we exchanged a few stumbling pleasantries we decided we should see each other later. She handed me a short order ticket, on it her name and a number. This boosted my spirits. The honeymooners laughed together and the heat didn't seem as oppressive. It was only early afternoon but I was now comfortably drunk and in perfect shape to revisit the wide world. I paid my bill and stumbled out to find a bed for the night; worst case I’d call the number I had recently acquired. Travel has a knack for providing good excuses for heedless behavior otherwise deemed questionable at home. I passed back through the dim restaurant and back into the light of the street. It was quiet now save the mournful moan of the cruise ship’s horn. It was departing and taking the transgressors with it. I began looking for comfort but found only a park bench. This was suitable I thought, and partook in the long and illustrious tradition of obliviously passing out in public.
It's often that I find myself in this detached state when I travel; it serves as a form of self-defense from the unknown, a pairing away of the strange and uncomfortable, a sort of perpetual concision. It's like buying a postcard to remember the view; when reality is too immense and complex to grasp, the facsimile is somehow good enough to reinforce our claim to the destination. We can buy it and take it home without leaving the airport. It is elementary, essential. Just a sweeping tropical view on a piece of cheap cardboard. It shows nothing of the nuance and intimacy that the land is bursting with, and because of this omission feels somehow familiar and manageable. It is how we get comfortable with a strange land. With a fish magnet we can stake our claim and hang this token of our accomplishment on our refrigerator. We own it and share it and yet remember it entirely differently than how it looked in reality. By lacking so greatly in nuance, the imagination is allowed to roam. And in doing so, our memory of the place is prodded and pulled by fancy and pride until our recollections resemble something very distant from reality. The mundane mutates and becomes magnificent, often grotesque imitations of the truth. What in reality is a dismal and depressing depravation of the human spirit, becomes just a snapshot, a simplification.
I hadn't really planned to end up in Lahaina but the work was available so I decided to stay. The work, of course, was there because the tourists were there and this created an opportunity. I found a room and settled in. The pay was pitiful, the expenses absurd, but a spell had been cast over me and I could not fight it. As I walked down the damp beach on my first night in Hawaii, I was aware of a power that would become lodged in my imagination. It was a power far beyond the conquests of man. It was an untroubled power, born deep in the depths of this world that man, no matter how hard he tried, could never comprehend. It was the ocean, loud and large and sent to these tiny sandy shores from across a vast sea. She was a mighty and awesome thing to feel. The sand rumbled beneath my feet as I stood at the edge of a watery landscape so immense it sent shivers down my spine. I stood and strained into the empty darkness; only the wind and waves betrayed the vastness. She was huge. She was immense. She was eternal. She had no end because she had no beginning. She existed at once on every shore on earth, always moving but never going anywhere. She had no schedule, no agenda, no place to be. She spoke only in matters of necessity, never verbose or vain. She was dark and mysterious and dizzying. She didn’t ask questions nor want any answers. She neither needed a reason nor cared why not. She simply was, and as far as anyone could say, would always be. She was too big to touch– that which man had claimed on land could never be conquered out there. She stands apart from us eternally. And in that mysterious and intriguing moment I stood spellbound by her power. Here was the sacred power I sought. Here were the cycles and the traditions beyond man's reach. Here was life! But here too was darkness, a darkness with a depth so vast and powerful it scared and awed me. I had found Mana.
When nothing is sacred, everything is for sale. It's packaged and mortgaged and sold with interest. It's on sale now, no money down. It's today only. We absolve our guilt in this deal by leaving good tips at shitty restaurants, a sort of ritual sacrifice to appease the gods of money. Our temples become tourist attractions and our tourist attractions temples. Occupied and anesthetized and tranquilized interlopers with smartphones looking for the free buffet. We progress like this, consumed and dis-at-eased.; we know nothing else but this resonance in discord, so we vacation to feel normal. It becomes normal to walk around and snap pictures, never communicating. The hotels offer a chaise lounge and a tee time. It's the only beach for miles, put there by Marriott to serve as the royal ceremony grounds. I had checked into the hotel during my stay on the Big Island because I had a head cold that I convinced myself would only be cured by modernity. I had been burned by Pele and needed some comforts of home. They had a pool and free wif-fi and I was tired and weak.
I had driven in a long line of cars to Volcano National Park and unceremoniously came face to face with the god of fire. The smoke rose from the earth in protest as I crept near the summit. A tourist is harmless; a million a burden. I could feel Pele spitting his hate at us, treasure-seekers buying more postcards. Elsewhere in America the sacred has been eradicated, shipped out, paved over. But on an island thousands of miles from nowhere, where the earth still spills forth in violent spasms of birth and renewal, the spirit and power of the ocean comes to land and the air is charged with uncertainty. The same mysterious force that embraced me on the sandy beach now grabbed my throat. 'Caution: Dangerous Cliffs.' warned the feeble signs. These cliffs are more than dangerous; they are monsters of power. The sea, unmovable in her quest, slammed violently and relentlessly into the black faces, sending angry spray into the sky. I could almost hear beyond the rumble of the surf the shouting of these two forces. Pele, making land from fire, and the sea hissing, cooling and pounding it back into sand. This was land– the realm of man– and the untamable sea at odds. People clambered over the dangerous cliffs and took selfies, heedless of this sacred temple to the gods. It was an amusement park for adults oblivious to the earth's vents of rage. Steam and bile spewed from the land, the wind blew in disdain, the sea indifferent. The cliffs are alive with breath. "Don't climb on me!" he shouts, "I will eat you and serve your remains to the ocean." I sat disgusted at the end of the earth, earth so fresh I could still hear it cooling, and looked out towards the horizon. The sun was high but not hot. Dark, puffy clouds filled the sky and the trade winds whipped the few palm trees still rooted in the volcanic soil. When nothing is sacred, everything is for sale.
We paid for this? The locals sat watching us with as much scorn as Pele. They were angry too but they have human needs. Are they not absolved? I retreated, burned and scorned by the people and this place, to what I knew. I returned to the Marriott were Pele's force and the fire's whims had already been tamed. I felt drained. The wine helped my head cold but the power of the day put my mind at bitter ends. I watched a queue of American and Japanese tourists waiting for a show. We were told the venue was the burial ground of King Kamehameha, but I had some doubts. A luau, a feast– we deserve it we tell ourselves while buttoning down Hawaiian shirts made in China. 'Ancient Sacred Rituals' the sign reads, 'Tonight only - $159 - Free Lei!' At least we don't have to leave the resort. So we wait in line for our ration of Aloha– we gulp it down, shove our faces fat with it, then shit it out in 5-star toilets.