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Hawaii – an island paradise which enchanted the great Mark Twain

Posted in America, Anthropology, Geology, Historical articles, Travel on Tuesday, 31 January 2012

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This edited article about Hawaii originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 621 published on 8 December 1973.

Hawaiian dancers, picture, image, illustration

Hula! – Hawaiian dancers by Robert Brook

Hawaii, the largest of the eight major islands in the Hawaiian group, is a land of waterfalls, orchids and active volcanos. It is known as the ‘big island’ and is said to be dominated by the spirit of Pele, the fire goddess who causes the volcanos Mauna Loa, one of the largest in the world, and Kilauea to erupt. Mauna Loa is highly active, and every few years molten lava runs down the mountain covering several square miles. Although it is very spectacular, it is considered harmless.

Another harmless, but even more spectacular sight is the unbelievable sunsets that all the Hawaiian islands glory in. Passengers on aircraft flying in to land at any of the airports in the late afternoon have a grandstand view of one of nature’s most magnificent sunsets. The sun, a great ball of fire, sinks very fast and appears to fall into the sea and be extinguished. There is hardly any twilight over the Pacific; one minute it is light and the next it is dark. As the sun disappears, a brilliant red glow covers the whole of the horizon, making it seem as if the world was on fire. No wonder the early Hawaiians worshipped their sun god.

Surrounded as they are by the blue waters of the immense Pacific ocean, the biggest and deepest in the world, occupying a third of the Earth’s surface and larger than all the land masses put together, the Hawaiians have, of necessity, been men of the sea. Before the epic voyages of the Phoenicians and the Vikings, the Polynesians colonised islands more than 7,500 miles apart. Over 2,000 years ago these people made their long sea voyages through the vast and often stormy Pacific in frail outrigger canoes, and they are considered to be the greatest ocean pathfinders the world has ever known. During the course of the centuries they have scoured this gigantic expanse of water, navigating by the stars. For their voyages two canoes were often lashed together to support a makeshift platform for their women folk, children, plants and animals to travel on. Their major voyages ceased 150 years before the Europeans’ began.

With the arrival of the Europeans and Americans it was inevitable that these ‘paradise islands’ would be exploited. Today the Hawaiian chain, which extends 16,000 miles West-northwest from the island of Hawaii, is almost thoroughly Americanised. The population, consisting of Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, Philippino, Puerto Rican, English and American extraction, are all English speaking, and the small surviving indigenous population is hardly recognisable as such.

Although the island of Oahu, with the capital city of Honolulu, is not the largest in the Hawaiian group, it is the most important economically as well as the most highly commercialised. Honolulu is Polynesian in tradition and modern American in living standards, language, cleanliness and currency. It is a tourist Mecca, primarily for Americans, and the money tourists have left behind during the last 25 years has created an industrial and commercial boom which has entirely reshaped it. Originally it began as a collection of grass-roofed huts on the shore line of the present harbour, now Honolulu, which means ‘sheltered harbour.’ It is now a regular port of call for passenger ships and freighters. There are so many freighters that today they are nicknamed the “freight trains of the Pacific.” It is also a major port of call for the United States Pacific fleet, and for the trans-Pacific airliners on their flights to and from the west coast of America, Japan, Hong Kong and Australia.

Away from the built-up areas it is still very lovely – hibiscus blooms all the year, and bougainvillea and orchids scatter the landscape. There is exquisite scenery, tropical beaches and imposing volcanic mountains. The brasher side of the city is a medley of snack bars and sideshows, but if you are in the mood it is a real fun town. Honolulu has one of the most famous beaches in the world, Waikiki, which is dominated on one side by the huge skyscraper hotels, and on the other by the beautiful Pacific Ocean. Waikiki Beach is partly man-made, much of the land having been reclaimed from the sea, and sand has had to be brought in to make the beach habitable. They have even had to import palm trees. The once majestic promontory, Diamond Head, overlooking Waikiki, has been almost completely obscured by skyscrapers.

Nowadays when the Hawaiians take to their canoes, instead of exploring like their ancestors they have become tourist attractions, teaching the visitors how to spear fish and to surf-ride, and they take parties in their sampans to the deep sea fishing grounds.

The Luau, a traditional Hawaiian feast, has become another tourist attraction. At one-thirty p.m. a conch shell is blown to the accompaniment of drums as ‘native bearers’ carry a whole pig to the imu pit, an underground oven on the beach. It is cooked there all the afternoon and at six o’clock the guests, having paid for their meal, arrive for the evening festivities. The feast also includes sweet potatoes, salmon, poi – a paste of pounded vegetable roots – and coconut puddings, all eaten to the accompaniment of Polynesian singing and dancing. Hawaiian guitars play on the beach from morning till night, while the grass-skirted hula-hula girls dance. The adverts proclaim ‘When the moon hangs high over the Pacific, it is party time on Waikiki.’

Although Waikiki has lost its desert island setting it has, however, become a man-made paradise, not for millionaires but for the ordinary American people who come there on cheap holiday package tours.

The world has been made so much more accessible by the invention of the aeroplane that it is becoming increasingly impossible to get away from 20th century living, but even in the commercialised atmosphere of the Hawaiian islands there are still small unspoilt islands like Molokai. Here wild deer roam everywhere, and the ancient fishing villages, ranches and pineapple plantations have changed very little in the last 100 years since the American writer Mark Twain wrote of this island paradise, ‘Other things leave me, but it abides; Other things change, but it remains the same.’

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