Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Hawaii: Diamond Head & Byodo-In Temple

The best thing about having a birthday while living in Australia and visiting Hawaii is getting nearly 48 hours of birthday between all the time zones. It was fantastic to get happy birthdays around the clock. Most of the activities I hoped to do on my birthday were fully booked before I thought to make reservations. I did book some reservations, but the soonest was a week out. Instead, my aunt and I went to a Japanese restaurant and then Honolulu Zoo. The zoo was really great, but I'll explain more about it in another blog entry, or else I would overload this one with pictures. 

The next day I began searching for sights to see around me. I decided on Diamond Head (aka Le'ahi) since it was close enough to see in the horizon. It took a while to find the bus, as the public transportation system here is nothing like the public transportation in Melbourne. Here, there are only buses, no trains or trams. Each bus trip costs $2.50 round trip. There is a time limit for the round trip, but I'm not sure what it is. The hard part is that most bus stop signs do not list which buses stop there; you are just expected to know. The online information is serverely lacking in timetables and current routes. When I couldn't find the original bus I was planning to take, or any bus stops for that matter, I asked a lady at an island tour stand. Apparently, the bus listed on the oahu transportation website as the only Diamond Head bus, wasn't running at all that day. The lady at the desk directed me to the correct bus and stop. 

Diamond Head is the remains of a volcanic eruption approximately 300,000 years ago. The ash cemented into a tuff cone crater, 350 acres wide with the highest point being 761 feet high. Originally it was given the name Le'ahi. It is said that the sister (Hi'iaka) of the Hawaiian fire goddess (Pele) named the summit, but there is some disagreement on what that name meant. In the late 1700s, foreigners passing through mistook the crystals within the tuff rock to be diamonds, giving the summit it's now common name, Diamond Head. The federal government purchased Diamond Head in 1904 for military coastal defense. They created a zigzag of pathways with several steep staircases leading to the highest lookout point. To this day, these paths are still used. Volcanic rock is extremely vulnerable to erosion, but the pathways help to protect it. These were the trails I followed. 

-The view from the sidewalk.

I began by walking along the edge of a road uphill. By the top of that hill, the view was already picture worthy. The sidewalk squeezed into a couple feet barricaded off inside a short tunnel. Signs for Diamond Head began littering the side of the street shortly after. It only cost $1 to get inside the park area. The zigzag trails made the journey to the top considerably longer, but also much easier to walk. The stairs tried to murder me. I later read on a pamplet about Diamond Head that most of the staircases contain 99 stairs. It seems there are also two pathways to the top, one much easier than the other. I discovered this after I had gone all the way up the hard way. There were a few small tunnels mixed in which gave a welcomed chance to cool off. The summit was beautiful, with a view of a lighthouse, the total crater of Diamond Head, Honolulu, Waikiki beach, and quite a bit beyond.

-This is the way I went. Had I paid a bit more attention, I could have found a much easier path directly behind me! (The bigger issue: what's the red stuff on the walls....?)

-It was difficult to get the lighting correct. Totally forgot to take out my earbuds or actually look at the camera...

After Diamond Head, I began looking into other paths to hike and places to visit. This was my chosen method: go to Pinterest, search for O'ahu, research where the prettiest pictures were taken. By far, the best place seemed to be the Haiku Stairs (aka Stairway to Heaven). It is a pathway of stairs which follows the very top of a hill ridge, giving a gorgeous view of the island. Unfortunately, the stairs were seen as a neighborhood nuisance and dangerous due to erosion, ultimately resulting in their closure in the 1980s. Now they are monitored by security guards and trespassers are ticketed. Since nobody was willing to bail me out if I got caught, I had to cross that one off my list. The search did take me to a wonderfully entertaining website "fictionally" decribing in detail how to break into the Haiku Stairs.

-A Pinterest picture of the Haiku Stairs

The next most beautiful place on my list was the Bypdo-In Temple. I figured out the bus route and spent nearly an hour traveling to the eastern side of the island via public transportation. The bus dropped me off right in front of a huge graveyard of rolling hills in the Valley of the Temples. Each of the deceased had a plaque above them, with only a few having more to mark their grave. As I walked past the graves, churches and temples began appearing behind them. It seemed to be a never ending graveyard of various religions. Near the end of the road, was an entrance booth to see Byodo-In Temple. It cost $3 to visit, which I had no problem with paying. The road was somewhat long. It was made for driving, not for pedestrians. Several different cars stopped to ask if I wanted a ride to the temple. I refused since I was quite enjoying the walk there. It was beautiful. One grave had a feral cat colony living beside it. As I approached, most of the cats ran, but a few were too comfortable sun basking on the warm black tombstone to be bothered by me.

The beginning of the graveyard.

I like to imagine that the person buried here really loved cats.

I'm pretty sure this person liked cats, or at least stained glass tigers.

The Byodo-In Temple is a replica of a Japanese Buddhist temple by the same name in Uji, Japan, near Kyoto. It's opening dedication ceremony occurred on June 7, 1968 to commemorate the hundred year anniversary of Japanese immigration to Hawaii. Surrounding the temple is a simple, yet well cared for Japanese style garden filled with a variety of common birds and koi fish. A large pond stands in front of the temple, forcing the pathway into an oblong shape. The signs led me to a six foot sacred bell (aka bon-sho.) This bell was created in Osaka, Japan and modeled to look closely to the 900 year old bell hanging at the original Byodo-In. I was invited to ring the bell using a shumoku log before entering the temple. The sound was meant to clear the mind and remind visitors of the transitory nature of life. The doors of the temple were open, allowing people to go inside or see in while walking around the front. Bare feet were required for temple entry. I was wearing yoga mat sandals, which were surely cleaner than my feet after walking so much. I chose to not enter for fear of tracking dirt. From the outside I could still smell the thick odor of burning incense. The centerpiece for the indoor area was a nine foot and two ton representation of Buddha. It was to represent life and light, to simplify it more than I should.

As I was exiting the temple, an elderly Japanese man sitting on a cheap fold-up chair on the porch asked me where I was visiting from. I summed up that I was from Tennessee, but was visiting Hawaii from my new place in Australia. A middle-aged Japanese lady selling small paintings at a counter nearby joined the discussion by asking about my reasons for traveling and what my family thought. Both admired my solo travels. While they weren't related nor from close towns, they had both had been Japanese born, though they neglected to say why they chose Hawaii. The woman began asking me about Koalas. She had wanted to visit Australia to "hug the koala" for the past serveral years, but had yet to make it to there. The elderly man commented about how poisonous the snakes were in Australia. I successfully resisted explaining the differences between poisonous and venomous, and simply agreed with enthusiasm. He delighted in that and dove into stories about catching snakes using sticks as a boy. One time he came upon a tree, only to find out it was a python. He and his childhood friends caught that one too!  When he was very small, he would sing to himself at night. At this point the man looked quite serious and looked me in the eye as he exclaimed that snakes have ears; if they hear you singing at night, they will come crawl into your bed while you sleep. As soon as he learned that'd rom his father as a boy, he never made noise at night again. 

The woman behind the counter caught my attention at the end of the story to ask my name. "Like Morgan Freeman? I thought that was boy only name... That is a great name!" Her name was Sumie. She asked me what other Hawaiian attractions I was planning to visit. When North Shore was mentioned, the elderly man said something in Japanese which was too fast for me to catch. After a few quick exchanges, Sumie explained that the man's son was a professional surfer. A recent storm had created 50 foot waves at the North Shore causing a surfing competition to be canceled. The man suggested I also go to see the volcanoes on Hawaii island, and then he stood up and walked into the crowd surrounding a temple gift shop. 

Sumie returned to the topic of koalas quickly, which soon evolved into asking about my career. She enthusiastically claimed that I would be very successful. I responded with an "I hope so" which was clearly not enough confidence to satisfy her. "You will be very successful. I can tell. You will be very great." I thanked her, but she continued. "Do you do work alone or in group?" I thought It was an odd question, but I replied that I enjoyed both depending on the work. "See! You adapt! You seem very brave and independent person. Your face, your face says happy. It is friendly. You are good at talking to everybody." This was making my head a bit too big to keep it balanced propery between my shoulders. I said that she was very sweet and that I appreciated it, but she wouldn't let me leave just yet. "I see you blush, but it is all true. You will be very great! You will do good things!" Finally, with a last thank you, she let me move out into the gift shop yard. 

The gift shop was selling small bags of food to feed the birds and koi. A southern black man was still as stone, down on one knee with an arm outstretched to the birds, as if he were about to reenact a scene from Shakespeare. He stayed delightedly frozen as two doves landed on his fingertips to eat the food he bought them. Two black swans, gifts from Australia, swam slowly over the koi, hoping for some of the treats to be tossed their way. Through the crowd, I spotted the elderly man once again. He was muttering something that sounded like "pecan." Assuming he was speaking Japanese with someone else, I continued walking. All of the sudden, he shouted a loud "Morgan-San!" My head jerked back over to his gaze as he pointed and stated in a firm, but excited tone, "Morgan-San. Peacock! There is a peacock here to show you. His name is Mr. Peabody. You will like him." The whole time he had been trying to get my attention to see a peacock, not talking about pecans. The peacock was very pretty and quite friendly, though I kept a respectful distance. Before the man left the temple, I asked his name. While I couldn't quite catch his long and complicated name, I definitely caught the "Bishop" part of it. This man was the head of this temple and I had spent the whole time just assuming he was a bored old man. I said goodbye and shook his hand as he left for the day. Before leaving myself I bought a small little turtle figure from the gift shop which had been made in Japan. 

While walking back down the pathway, I saw a flash of brown fur scurry into a small hole. Not sure what types of small mammals live on the Hawaii islands and with a few hours left of day, I camped myself just behind the hole. Moments later a mongoose head shot out, saw me, and hid once more. I was satisfied with that and left, happy to have seen a mongoose for the first time. I soon learned that they are as plentiful as feral cats here, but it was still exciting. 

As I waited for the bus next to a group of young teenage boys trying to hide the fact that they were doing some sort of drug, I watched a chicken cross the a busy road. Apparently, the answer to the age old riddle is to get to the McDonald's for littered French fries. Who knew?



Wednesday, January 15, 2014

First Week in Hawaii

At the beginning of January my aunt Bernadette offered me an incredible opportunity. She offered for me to come visit her and my cousin Anna, who was currently on winter break from her college in Oregon. It would have been enough just to see family. With a large, spread out family, I've never lived more than five driving hours from at least one close relative before Australia. However, this trip was not to Minnesota, where my aunt lived when I left the states... It was to my aunt's brand new apartment in Honolulu, Hawaii!!! I had never been to Hawaii before, nor did I think I would ever get an opportunity to go. I jumped at the chance and booked my ticket there as soon as plans were worked out. There were too many variables to figure out the best time to come back, so the ticket was a one way. I will go back to Australia. I'm just not sure how soon exactly. (Probably when Bernadette gets sick of me watching late night Dexter episodes or forcing her eat Buffalo Wild Wings nearly every day.)

Unfortunately, karma decided it had been a little too good to me lately so leveled out the field with a head cold. It wasn't a bad one at all. I thought I would be good as new for Hawaii. Wrong! You see, I have these things called tonsils. They decided to throw a little bratty tantrum and swell. They are normally large and I have delayed getting them removed for a few years now, despite the fact that my family all seem to think that they will literally be the death of me. Here's why they think that: when my tonsils swell, they are the size of golf balls. Really. People often don't believe me and ask to see. I then hear them gasp as they exclaim the reality before them as if it will shock me. My tonsils affect my vocal chords so my ability to speak ranges from deaf person to Little Mermaid. Sometimes I think "This isn't so bad; At least I know sign language." Until it dawns on me that nobody else knows sign language. I might as well be a street mime! To make things worse, it takes considerable effort and causes pain to eat, sleep, and breathe. The worst part of all: I can't drink Coca-cola! The bubbles hurt.... :( 

My plane was to leave Melbourne on Friday at 4:30pm and arrive in Honolulu on Friday at 6:00am. Yes, you read that correctly. It was a 10.5 hour flight which would fly me exactly 10.5 hours into the past. This was great, but it won't be as great when I lose a whole day returning to Australia. I took my small duffel bag with only three simple outfits, two pairs of shoes, a bathing suit, a light jacket, and toiletries. I'd like to say something that makes me sound like a prepared, low-maintenance, experienced traveller to explain the light load. In honesty, the baggage charges were outrageous and I am cheap! That bag was staying well under any weight limits. At the counter, the lady helping me asked for me to put the bag on the scale so she could weight it. I did so, proudly knowing that I would not be charged any money. She smiled, slapped a sticker on it, and threw it on a conveyer belt before I could stop her. I wanted to keep my bag with me on the plane, or at least the jacket. I tried to explain, but it was no use. The bag was long gone. She could hardly understand me anyway. By this point my voice resembled that of an old man after a lifetime of smoking, and possibly a tracheotomy. Surprisingly, nobody stopped me to ask if I was well enough to take a ten hour plane ride. They all just gave me a look of sympathy, a nice nod and smile which helped me know that they couldn't understand a word I said, and then waved me onward. Since I couldn't drink coke, I was drinking water. A LOT of water. At every check point the security guards would throw away my water. After every checkpoint, thinking it would be the last, I would buy a new bottle. In total, I bought $25 worth of bottled water. Thankfully, I did drink most of it, as I was guzzling it down in record speed. 

Before getting on the flight I remember thinking about how easy ten hours would be. I knew I wouldn't be able to sleep with my airway closing fully every time I drifted off, waking me immediately. But still, I had flown from Minnesota to Melbourne through Shanghai. This was to be a piece of cake. I was right in that this trip was much easier than the last. I was wrong about how easy it would be. If it was a piece of cake, it was the nasty fruit cake elderly people force you to eat and pretend that you like. I was the annoying person on the plane coughing every two seconds. My body was trying to force my firmly anchored tonsils out by the brute force of loud bursts of air being expelled by my cannons of lungs. I wished it would stop, but could only sip more water and watch in horror as I woke up other passengers repeatedly. Nobody complained, but I felt bad. I drank gallons of water, getting up every half hour to pee and refill my water bottle. Each two hours I would excitedly pop a numbing and soothing lozenge into my mouth and relax into cough-free paradise until the effects would wear off fifteen minutes later. 

Halfway through the flight, I could no longer handle the cold. I was wearing a sleeveless shirt, having expected to keep my jacket with me. All around fellow passengers snuggled warmly into their plush blankets and velvety coats. As the flight attendant walked by I enquired about getting a blanket, surprised that there wasn't already one in the seat pocket for me. He said he would be happy to provide me with a blanket for a small cost of $15. I assumed he couldn't hear me correctly, so restated that I was only needing a blanket. This repeated a few times until it sunk in that the flimsy little airplane blanket was truly being sold for $15. I politely refused and continued my shivers in silent hope that neighboring passengers would take pity on my poor, cold, sick self by sharing their excess of warm items. They didn't. It was probably an act of revenge for having woken them from slumber so many times. An hour later I broke down and bought that stupid $15 blanket, which was more like a shaw in the fact that it couldn't even cover half of me. It came with a small toiletry bag containing a toothbrush and the smallest tube of toothpaste you have ever seen in your life. 

After two episodes of Friends, two episodes of Futurama, one episode of Big Bang Theory, four chapters of A Walk in the Woods, an hour of Tina Feys audio book, and countless time listening to TED Talks and a mix of Doo Wop and Rock music, the plane finally landed! I found my bag, made it through customs twice since they forgot to give me a declaration card the first time, and found a taxi. I handed the driver a sheet of paper with the address. He proceeded to spend the entire drive trying to get me to have a conversation with him, even with me repeatedly making it clear that it was painful to talk. My aunt's apartment building was huge with nearly 50 floors so it was easy to find. Thankfully my aunt chose the perfect time to come check on my arrival, just as the man at the front desk was attempting to refuse my entry. Bernadette lives only halfway up the building, though it feels much higher. The back door of her apartment opens up to a small balcony overlooking the ocean and the town between it and us. The balcony has a glass railing which, when leaned against, gives the illusion of floating. My aunt hates that feeling. I love it! The apartment is beautiful, but I only care about that view. To make it even better, every Friday evening the city does fireworks completely viewable from the balcony!

Since it was still early morning when I arrived on Friday, I decided to try to sleep. I was able to get a couple sporadic hours in before afternoon. Not much was done that day. My aunt washed and dried most of my clothes. I have a washer in Australia, but it's just so nice to put on freshly laundered, warm, soft clothes. My cousin Anna and I went to a breakfast place nearby. It was already noon, but there was still a 20 minute wait for seating. I've been told that there was a large Japanese population in Hawaii, but I had greatly underestimated it. Anna and I were two of four white people in the whole building. The far majority of people were Japanese, with a few local people mixed in. Just to be clear, I'm not generalizing Asian as Japanese. Anna and I can both speak the language to some extent. The food was good, but since I'm not a big breakfast person, I won't be back. I did however rejoice that I could buy a 1L bottle of water for 99 cents. I missed you, America! 

The weekend was slow. I was running on empty with sleep and caffeine. Bernadette had most of the weekend off, so we spent some time walking around. We checked out a mall, though didn't buy anything but more numbing lozenges and ingredients for soup. We walked over to Waikiki, a tourist area nearby, and down to the beach from there. The sand was made up of broken down shells, barely made smooth, and not yet made fine. Walking on the waters edge was nearly impossible. Each wave would send me sinking like Buttercup and Wesley into the quicksand. One wave and I was ankle deep, two and I was mid calf. We decided to continue walking farther down the beach. Soon we reached the soft and fine sand we had expected from the beginning. Soon after that we were surrounded by stands advertising surfing, whale watching, parasailing, and every other water activity imaginable. I was already hanging on to my last bit on energy, so we never stopped to investigate any of it. Bern and Anna informed me that they had been in search of the perfect piña colada and we were nearby their winner. I was game for sampling! Piña coladas are my favorite drinks ever since visiting Puerto Rico. We all sat down and ordered. They got virgin drinks. My throat was killing me, and alcohol was sounding very appealing. The bartender asked my age, but never looked at an ID. Already above carding age... Sigh. The drink was perfect!!! I dare say, better than Puerto Rico. We took a taxi home. 

The next day was just a chain of high fevers, keeping us from doing anything fun. By evening I was feeling a bit better so we decided to go out for dinner. We chose a small, beaten down place a few blocks away. The staff were all local and most of them had some form of facial tattoo. We almost decided not to eat there. Since we couldn't think of anything better, we stayed. The food was delicious! I was actually able to eat real food, so I went all out with a steak dinner. Bernadette decided to take a risk and ordered an island dish made of rice, mushrooms, chilli, and a fried egg. Anna chose chicken parmesan. Anna was the only one who didn't like her meal. They told me that most restaurants here were very good, though they had recently discovered one place with intestines on the menu. 

The next day was once again filled with fevers. Thankfully, these were not as bad. Just to be safe, we spent the day inside. Well, inside with all the windows and doors open to the unchanging beautiful weather. (I've even been wearing sunblock to bed for fear that I'll burn in the morning light through the balcony doors.) 

By Tuesday, I was feeling back to normal. I was back to chugging coca-cola, sleeping, and talking with a mostly normal voice. Anna and I decided to go out to eat and to a movie (Walter Mitty) in the afternoon. Great movie! We weren't sure what to do after the movie. I listed exciting places we could go to, but all were turned down. Eventually, it was sarcastically suggested that we wander aimlessly around the city. That was surprisingly accepted as a good idea. The only problem with wandering aimlessly is that you don't always end up in the best of places. As we walked down the street we began noticing tents pitched along the sidewalks. Naked and barely clothed children played freely in the grass. It was still daylight, there were many people around, and the area didn't seem dangerous in the least. It was simply alarming how many homeless we saw, all living in their own little community or tents, shacks, and tarps. We changed direction toward the beach. The sun's light was just beginning to sink into the ocean. The beach was covered with large boulders with a path through them. Anna and I passed a lady leaning over the edge of the rocks, with her rear end protruding into our way. Upon a second look, we saw that she was pouring a can of food out on a rock for a nearly calico cat. I went up to her and asked what she was doing. She explained that there was a large feral cat colony living on the beach within the rocks. Several locals took time to make sure the cats were fed each day. As  Anna and I continued we began seeing more and more cats, usually in groups of six or so. We sat just off the sidewalk and allowed them to come near. Some cats were completely wild, but most were used to people and wanted to be pet. Anna loved every minute of it. Before it got too dark, we found our way back to the apartment.

The next several days consisted of getting our nails done, going to the beach, and drinking piña coladas. (Most were alcohol free so we could walk the beach with them.) The musical of The Lion King was playing only three blocks away from our building and was the talk of the town. We managed to get tickets only hours before the show began. As expected, it was nearly identical to the animated movie, with all the same songs. (So difficult not to sing along!) It was the voices and costumes that made the show worthwhile. Every single preformer had a voice made for the Lion King. It was incredible.

On Anna's last day in Hawaii, we went the movie Frozen. Anna thought it was the best Disney movie ever made, but I have a suspicion that may be related to the lead character sharing her name. Unfortunately Morgans are usually evil characters, so I'm not holding my breath for a Princess Morgan movie. Admittedly, it would be my favorite if they made one. I liked Frozen, but it can't beat Tangled. I mean, what's better than a princess with a pet reptile?! Princess Anna doesn't even have an animal side kick. Not acceptable, Disney. 

Anna left that evening to go back to her college in Oregon. She was delighted to leave Hawaii. Her glowing white Minnesota skin was a daily warning of how careful she had to be to walk outside. Her bright blue hair was constantly being tainted my ocean water. Plus, her college was having a nerd fest (in a good way) of a back to school week. They were offering classes in sword fighting, lazer tag tactics, and the elvish language according to JR Tolkien. I'm not lying. It almost makes me want to go pursue a second degree, until I see Anna during mid-terms or finals in the pit of despair and exhaustion. 

Most of my first week in Hawaii was surrounded around healing and spending time with some dearly missed family. I still have many more adventures planned, probably far more than I have time to do. Don't miss my next Hawaii blog. I have a feeling it's gonna be a great one!