I knew that Hawaii was part of America but I still didn’t expect it to be so American.
The first Hawaiian I met was a giant customs officer named Shuzawa. He looked suspiciously at my passport while I looked suspiciously at his desk. Underneath a magnifying glass and collection of stamps there was a mousepad showing a cutaway diagram of a pistol – like sinister lego instructions. Behind Shuzawa there was a wall of posters showing bald eagles superimposed over the Twin Towers exhorting the TSA staff to ‘never forget’. I hadn’t even left the airport and I’d already crossed off a few boxes on my American Culture Bingo card.
Kona Airport itself is built on a massive blackened lava field left behind by the 1801 eruption of Hualālai. The lava from that eruption extended the coastline of Hawaii by several square kilometers and turned the area just north of the island’s capital into a lumpy field of basalt worm-holed with lava tubes big enough to accommodate a double-decker bus. Before the airport could be constructed workers spent more than a year blasting away at the rock to flatten the lava field and backfill in the tunnels. By the time they were finished they’d used more than a thousand tons of dynamite.
In the rental car parking lot Hawaiian license plates with rainbows told us that we were in the ‘aloha state’. The word has been reduced by English speakers to a polite greeting but, traditionally at least, aloha encompassed notions of peace, love and compassion. Since 1986 it’s also been codified into law. According to Hawaii’s Revised Statutes, section 5-7.5;
‘Aloha Spirit’ is the coordination of mind and heart within each person. It brings each person to the self. Each person must think and emote good feelings to others.
Hawaiians might aspire to the spirit of aloha but it’s Pele – the Hawaiian goddess of fire – who’s handiwork is most visible on the big island. Everywhere you look you see the geological gore leftover from recent eruptions.
I’d been led to believe that living amongst volcanoes was a societal form of gambling. Those living on fault-lines and hotspots enjoyed the benefits of the rich volcanic soil but had to reconcile themselves with the possibility of sudden fiery death. The mentality of the volcano-dweller, then, is a perverse sort of optimism; make hay while the sun is shining and hope your descendants are smart enough to move elsewhere.
As it turns out that calculus only applies to what are called ‘composite volcanoes’ – mountains like Fuji or Vesuvius which tend to explode and shower the surrounding area in mineral-rich ash. The other kind of volcano – the kind you find on Hawaii – are called shield volcanoes.
Shield volcanoes are not nearly as dramatic as their pointier cousins. When they become active they release rivers of lava which slowly bury everything in their path. Volcanologists call this type of eruption ‘effusive’ and even though vegetation eventually returns to the effected areas the process takes hundreds of years. A trip around Hawaii’s Big Island reveals long fields of blackened rock that look like Mordor and can be roughly dated by the degree to which the basalt has collected enough dirt to support weeds.
Most of Hawaii’s ‘recent’ lava fields are in the south – near the Volcanos National Park. When we arrived the Kilauea volcano had been continuously erupting for more than four months. Thousands of residents had been evacuated and most of the island’s police force were occupied on cordons around the disaster zone to stop looters and curious onlookers who might get themselves into strife. When the lava finally eased off a few months later it had added another one and a half square kilometers to the island’s coastline and wiped out an entire subdivision of 700 homes.
We didn’t get to see the Kilauea volcano wreaking havoc but we did wake up each day to a reminder of its effusiveness. Everywhere we went the views were washed out by a sort of overcast haze more often associated with places like Beijing. At first I assumed it was just sea mist but we soon learned that everyone living downwind of Kilauea has to go about their day breathing in what’s known as ‘vog’ – volcanic smog made up of sulfur dioxide with traces of acid and ash.
I considered hiking out in the dark to get a glimpse of Kilauea’s fire but I didn’t want to run into Shuzawa’s colleagues in the Hawaii 5-0. As we were only a few days into what would turn out to be a very long trip, I didn’t want to risk legal troubles and I also didn’t want to fork out hundreds of dollars for a heli-tour. Instead Amy and I decided we could get cheap thrills walking up Mauna Kea – the highest peak on Hawaii.
If we’d done a little more research we might have reconsidered. While the track from the visitors centre to the summit is only ten kilometers it climbs almost 1500 meters over that distance. To make matters worse there’s no water, no vegetation, no shade and the summit sits 4000 meters above sea level. Vog notwithstanding it did promise some nice views so, the next day, we drove to the visitors centre in the dark and started the trek at dawn – following rock cairns along a trail of scree and big, rust-coloured boulders.
It proved to be a very hard hike. The higher you go the thinner the air gets and the the slower you walk. Every now and again we’d find a bit of relief as drizzling rain clouds swept across the slope but, for the most part, the day stayed clear and still and hot. Every so often we heard a sound like thunder but the sky overhead was totally blue. Headaches kicked in somewhere around the 3000 meter mark but we continued upwards driven by sheer stubbornness – hoping we were somewhere near the top so we could hurry up and get back down.
Discomfort aside, the terrain near the summit of Mauna Kea is unlike anywhere else on earth. There are jagged arêtes and smaller cinder cones sticking up from the gravel and not a single shred of vegetation. It looks like the photos that came back from NASA’s curiosity rover after it touched down on Mars. That might be part of the reason why the neighbouring peak of Mauna Loa was chosen as a stand-in for the red planet. The Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS*) is a research program run by the University of Hawaii and funded by NASA to find out how astronauts will cope on a long-term mission to mars.
So far they’ve run six simulated missions to Mars. Each mission has seen a half dozen volunteers confined to a tiny geodesic dome way up on the side of the mountain with strictly rationed freeze-dried food and only brief opportunities to venture out in their second hand space suits. Some of the missions have lasted more than a year and, although the researchers aren’t in a hurry to share their findings, their commitment to the project seems to indicate that one of the larger hurdles to manned space exploration will be overcoming shitty roommates.
While NASA looks to its future on the HI-SEAS there are other scientists nearby looking into the distant past. The summit of Mauna Kea is dotted with domes housing telescopes and other instruments – all pointed at the heavens. Several times the track took us alongside the access road for the observatories – a single lane of bitumen which zig-zags its way up the slope from the visitors centre. Most of the astronomers work the night shift and while acclimatising to the altitude is tough the low humidity makes for ideal stargazing conditions. The government of Hawaii has even replaced all its sodium street lights with blue-filtered LEDs to cut down on light pollution.
For the last two years the University of Hawaii (who hold the lease to the site) have been engaged in a stand-off with protesters representing the traditional owners of the land. The protesters have staked out a camp at the entrance to the visitors centre in an effort to halt the construction of a new, much bigger, telescope. The planned Thirty Meter Telescope** (TMT) will triple the resolution of the largest instruments currently in use (also on Mauna Kea). There are already 13 telescopes on the site but the presence of the observatories has always been a cause of contention for locals who consider the peak to be a sacred place.
By the time Amy and I reached the crater and finally saw the observatory buildings it felt like we were suffering from a severe and undeserved hangover. The altitude, combined with dehydration created a special sort of headache that only started to ease off once we were halfway back to the visitors centre.
As we drove back to Kailua-Kona in our little rental car we finally discovered what had been causing the thunder throughout the day. Fighter jets from the nearby Pohakuloa Training Area had been conducting target practice in the valley between the two sacred mountains. We watched two planes like little grey arrowheads as they whipped across the saddle and then pitched upwards into the clouds. Their bombs exploded in the valley a few seconds later – first with a cloud of smoke and then with a rumble as the sound caught up with us.
Pohakuloa is one of many US training grounds across the chain of islands. Hawaii is one of the most heavily militarised states in the US. At any given time roughly ten percent of the population are active-duty soldiers or civilian contractors to the armed forces. In addition to the giant naval base at Pearl Harbor, there are dozens of training grounds, airfields and testing facilities dotted all over the islands. Most of the land now occupied by the military once belonged to the Hawaiian monarchy. Their crown land was ‘ceded’ to the US government when the islands were annexed in 1898. Aside from tourism, the US military is the single largest contributor to the Hawaiian economy.
Even the most distracted tourist is liable to notice the military presence. You can see old quonset huts behind long stretches of fence-line and watchtowers. There are notices advertising military discounts in every restaurant and you see groups of young men with high-and-tight haircuts in every airport departure lounge. When our own PM Scott Morrison attempted to avoid reporters during last year’s catastrophic bushfires he stayed at the Hale Koa Hotel in Waikki – a resort reserved for members of the US armed forces.
Standing in opposition to all this is a small but persistent Hawaiian Sovereignty movement that continues to push for independence but Hawaii’s demographics are not in their favour. Roughly twenty percent of the population claim native Hawaiian ancestry but they are disproportionately found on the wrong side of the poverty line. In an article detailing the legal contest over Hawaii’s ceded land journalist Ed Rampell interviewed a local activist and human rights lawyer named Poka Laenui. Laenui explained that many of the difficulties encountered by his community can be traced directly to the military presence.
“More and more of our people become homeless because of the grab for limited resources and housing, and our people, who are the homeless, will have to leave Hawaii because it’s so expensive…. The military shoots up housing costs”
Rather than addressing the underlying housing affordability problem government funds have instead been used to fly homeless people in Hawaii ‘back’ to states on the mainland. But the homeless in Hawaii are disproportionally islanders – including a large number of Micronesians and Marshallese who have tentative access to US welfare systems thanks to a provision in the Compact of Free Association (COFA) that gives the US military access to a whole host of small island nations in the pacific.
So in our first week on the Big Island we found out that the geography is terrifying, the air is poisonous, colonialism is still in full swing and the US army is a blight on the landscape. But what about the people? The stereotype is that Hawaiians are friendly and easygoing but the extent to which that holds true depends on who you’re comparing them to. The day before we left the Big Island a local resident, somewhat removed from the spirit of aloha, shot dead a policeman at a traffic stop near Kilauea National Park. That triggered a manhunt which lasted for several days and ended with another shootout that left the suspect dead and two others wounded.
When I went online a few months later to confirm the details of that incident it had already been overtaken in the local news cycle by other, similar, shootings. I should point out that, statistically, Hawaii is one of the safest places in the United States in terms of gun crime. It also has some of the strictest gun control laws anywhere in the US and yet Hawaiians still have to contend with regular showdowns.
For the sake of comparison it’s worth reflecting on some of the statistics. If you look at just one type of gun violence – police shootings – you find that Australian police end up killing, on average, about five people every year. That death toll encompasses every state and territory and the entire population of 24 million people. By contrast, in just the second half of last year, Hawaiian police alone gunned down six people – that’s in a state that only has about 1.4 million residents.
All that being said it is possible to ignore the news reports and the gun mags and the ‘no trespassing’ signs. There’s plenty of resorts where you can wall yourself off from the island’s unpleasant realities. That was certainly our plan to begin with. Over our short stay we hiked through jungles, explored caves, swam with dolphins and visited the site where captain Cook famously overstayed his welcome. At times it was positively serene but don’t be fooled by the postcards – it’s not all palm trees and grass skirts.
*Textbook example of a Backronym
**I understood ‘thirty meter telescope’ to mean that they were going to build an optical telescope thirty meters long which sounded pretty amazing in a Wile E. Coyote sort of way. Turns out most modern astronomical telescopes are the ‘reflector’ variety and the ‘thirty meters’ refers to the diameter of the mirror. Housing an instrument that size requires an enormous structure. If and when it’s completed the TMT will be visible from all over the island but, in the long run, none of the telescopes will escape the wrath of the fire goddess. Mauna Kea has lain dormant for four and a half thousand years and is overdue for another eruption.
Star Advertiser – Legislation seeks to continue flying isle homeless back home
Civil Beat – Experts: Lack Of Mental Health Treatment Among The Culprits In Police Shootings
People’s World – The Pentagon and Hawaii, militarized state of armed occupation
The Guardian – ‘A new Hawaiian Renaissance': how a telescope protest became a movement
Hawaii News Now – State officials: Majority of Kaka’ako homeless are COFA migrants
The Atlantic – When a Mars Simulation Goes Wrong