There is an other Island reality than the one that 'Iokepa lives to speak. Anyone who has sat in a Return Voyage gathering, or has casually perused this website, or has shared a conversation with 'Iokepa over the past years, knows this: He cherishes the authentic wisdom within his kanaka maoli culture. He lives to convey that aboriginal wisdom to the world--and to awaken all peoples to the strength and possibilities within their own indigenous cultures.
So after our first Return Voyage continental U.S. journey, last year, we went home. We took our beach chairs, our Willy's coconut oil, and our books to one of the ubiquitous white sand beaches on Kaua'i. We planned to refresh our bronze skin tones (mine is more conditional) and immerse ourselves in the warm Pacific ocean.
But there is more to the story
'Iokepa and I love the ancient culture, and search hard to awaken its aboriginal truth. But we don't wear blinders to what has been wrought on modern Hawai'i. We don't lie about what is in front of our eyes.
On our beach visit last fall, three small buses drove up, parked behind our chairs, and disembarked their contents--three dozen tourists for lunch on the beach. Bold signs screamed from each side of the buses: "MOVIE TOUR." It seems that despite the fact that the economy is in the toilet and tourism on Kaua'i is down by 25%, the "MOVIE TOUR" buses manage to stay full.
Don't misunderstand me. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with traveling 6,000 miles to the most isolated archipelago on the planet to experience the actual setting of a memorable, Hollywood, blockbuster film: Tarzan, or Blue Hawai'i, or Jurassic Park, or Raiders of the Lost Ark.
But when these folks in their insular buses traverse our Island from their four-star, luxury hotels, to the Hollywood locale of a glitzy, multi-million-dollar extravaganza--and then back again for cocktails--they may just be missing something important.
They come, these visitors, seven million strong, every year. They come because the weather is good. They come because the beaches are pristine, the ocean is translucent, and the stretch of sand is uncrowded. But there are innumerable immaculate beaches, clear waters, and empty spots to spread a blanket, across the face of the good earth--and most of them are closer to home.
They imagine that they come for the differences. They tell themselves that Hawai'i is "Exotic": Hula girls, and flower lei, and luau. But I beg to differ.
The principal reason that seven million tourists flock to the tiny Hawaiian Islands every year is this: It is safe and it is familiar--exactly as people search out Holiday Inns because, "There will be no surprises." They come to Hawai'i requiring that they not be challenged by another culture.
Herein lies the distinction between travel - and tourism. Between searching for the the truly foreign - which will startle, discomfort, confront our assumptions about ourselves - and a trip to Colonial Williamsburg.
Those who have, over the years, moved here to settle - in retirement or in pursuit of entrepreneurial profit off the tourist's vacation fund - cooperate in this venture. They uniformly and unstintingly insist on gated communities and familiar landscaping.
They fashion fully-forgettable villas and vistas that will be recognizable to the seven million. Selling tourists a replica of American suburbia that resembles nothing so much as the home they left behind.
Every authentic native Hawaiian cultural bump is flattened. The landscape is depleted of indigenous species: Koa and sandalwood are replaced with cactus and eucalyptus, geraniums and impatiens. Dogs, cats, and Hummers are imported--and every single import annihilates that which thrived for thousands of years in the isolation of the mid-Pacific. Daily, the sea turtle eggs are smashed under four-wheel drive jeeps. The breeding whales are frightened off by U.S. naval sonar.
In their place: Walmart, Home Depot, Hyatt, Marriott; golden arches and Starbucks.
The kanaka maoli--the aboriginal Hawaiians--remain the biggest obstacle to the romance of tourism: That pursuit of the familiar. It has been essential, first, to remove these half million natives from the land of their ancestors for "Development." It was necessary next, to destroy their culture: Because at the heart of their culture lay a core reverence for their aina--their land--an awe for each element of Creation; a communication with, respect of, and responsibility for every link in the circle of life.
So, it turns out: Hawai'i can only be prepared for its malihini - guests - by the destruction of its hosts. When those guests arrive: Armed with cameras to capture the exotic, sunscreen to block the inevitable, and suitcases full of lives in other places--they can remain fairly confident: They will never, in their two-week stay, see genuine hula, as the - prayer it was. They will not hear: The kahiko - that ancient mellifluous language spoken to the Creator's ears. And there is a better than average chance, they will not meet a single native Hawaiian--who now lives in pockets of poverty, ill health, early mortality, violence, and addiction.
Vast expanses of these native lands have been expunged of their natives--through imposition of foreign law, overt land theft, and taxation - and these natives have been resettled in tiny, dry pockets of oppression. The Hawaiian State Department of Business, Economic Development, and Tourism labors overtime to make sure visitors will never see them.
The seven million tourists who arrive each year implicitly agree to this arrangement. It's safer to climb onto the "Movie Tour" bus for the trip to Fantasy Island--the real Island just might spoil their vacation.