I’ve always been an independent traveler. By myself in a foreign land, the experience is mine and mine alone, I’m able to tune in and experience what Lawrence Durrell described as “that mysterious sense of rapport, of identity with the ground.” Solo travel has a way of luring one into the most unlikely friendships; it invites the unexpected, it provokes serendipity.
It also affords unparalleled flexibility -- traveling alone, one is free to change plans at a moment’s notice, or to have no plans at all. One is free to meet an attractive German man in Prague and subsequently hop a train to Berlin, just for the heck of it. A solo-traveler can, on a lark, extend their stay indefinitely, find low-paying, slave-driving illegal employment to supplement funds and sleep on the couches of benevolent Dutch ex-pats. The advantages are endless.
I’ve spent a good deal of time engaging in this kind of whimsical international exploration. Settling down into a committed relationship and a secure domestic life I feared my days of adventure were over. Don’t get me wrong, I felt blessed and intoxicated to have finally found true love and was rather content to not be living out of a suitcase, but I worried about predictability encroaching upon my happy new lifestyle. Luckily my husband-to-be, Dan, was an avid traveler as well.
But traveling with a partner is different; for one thing, it requires consultation. Before hopping a ferry to Crete you must convince your cohort that everything will be fine even though you are nearly out of money. If you want to stay a few months in Corfu working in a restaurant you need to find two jobs instead of one. Traveling with a partner calls for compromise, agreement and more commodious sleeping quarters. I had to face it- things were going to change. My days of meeting attractive Welsh guys in London and impulsively jetting off to Turkey were over.
But old habits die hard. Dan and I were going to Hawaii and I was in charge of planning the trip. For a seasoned world-traveler you’d think an excursion to Oahu would be a piece of cake. And indeed, it probably would have been if I had actually bothered to do any planning. But I didn’t want my days of adventure to be over. Not then, not ever. I wanted to be spontaneous and open to the unexpected. So I booked our plane tickets, bought a tent and borrowed two flashlights. That seemed sufficient.
The thing about camping in Oahu is that you have to book your campsites in person at the Department of Parks and Recreation. That much I had come prepared for. I even had the address scratched onto a post-it note in my pocket. What I didn’t anticipate was that arriving Friday afternoon on this laid-back tropical island, public offices would be shutting down early. After collecting our luggage and calling the office we realized we were never going to make it in time. But my old friend serendipity stepped in. A helpful stranger directed us to a satellite office that would be open an hour later.
We boarded a bus that took us deep into the most unlovely parts of Honolulu. It was urban and gritty, full of long, gridlocked boulevards. Still, we were happy just to be somewhere warm. With a little help from another kind stranger we got off at the correct stop and were personally escorted right to the satellite office. We made it just in time, sneaking in the door just as they were about to close. So it seemed that everything was a going according to planlessness.
We entered the office and were greeted with a familiar sight—a long snaking line of people with dour expressions clutching administrative forms. The satellite office it turned out was the DMV. Not where you imagine yourself on your tropical holiday. Score two for the unexpected. Dan tried to remain cheerful as we waited, shooting me the occasional dirty look. For some reason he prefers not standing in long lines on vacation unless there is a rollercoaster at the end. Go figure. Finally it was our turn.
We stated our business and were given some unwelcome news. There were no camping spots available, they were all booked. We stood there, dumfounded. We didn’t have a back-up plan. The friendly bespectacled woman behind the desk suggested some nearby hotels or a YMCA. It was obvious from our expressions that we’d had our hearts set on an outdoor tenting adventure. I’d bought the damn thing especially for this trip!
“Are you sure,” I pleaded, “There’s nothing at all?” She looked at our sad pathetic faces and tapped at her computer. “Actually… there is one spot left. But it’s in a very dangerous area. You wouldn’t want to stay there.” We perked up. Danger Schmanger, where was it? She gave us a map, pointing to the Leeward side of the island. Another administrator, a pretty, middle aged woman, came over and looked on with disapproval. “Oh you don’t want to stay there. That’s not a good area,” she said, citing rampant drugs and theft as some of the dangers. But we were not to be dissuaded. “Well, if you just keep to yourselves and don’t talk to anyone, you might be okay,” she finally conceded. The bespectacled woman chimed in ominously, as if we were heading into a war zone, “Just trust your gut. Your gut won’t steer you wrong.”
We were headed to Keaau Beach Park, just north of Makaha in an area known as the Waianae Coast. It wasn’t an area we’d intended to visit. Score three for the unexpected. I apologized to Dan for the inconvenience, “You’re traveling Julie-style now. This is what you get when I’m in charge of planning.” He made a mental note to not leave me in charge of planning ever again. “I need a drink” he said.
We were hungry too, so walked down the road in search of sustenance. We came upon a bar with black tinted windows and a motorcycle out front. Inside it had a seedy sort of vibe-- dark, mirrored and dilapidated, smoky air, large pink booths, locals clustered at the bar. All eyes went toward us as we entered.
Dan’s mood improved considerably after a few sips of his rum and coke, but a trip to the restroom turned out to be a real buzz-kill. He made friends at the urinal with the tall, tattooed, leather-vested owner of the motorcycle out front only to be issued a dire warning-- stay away from the Waianae Coast. The people there were notorious for their dislike of outsiders, said the biker, and visitors were frequently the targets of assaults and muggings. Great. Dan ordered another drink.
Back on the bus we received more unsolicited admonitions. Beware of thieves; beware of drug addicts, drug dealers and kidnappers. We felt like we were about to go camping in South Central LA. Joe, a construction worker, formerly of Minnesota told me about the area’s economic troubles while Steve, who looked rather like a crack head told Dan about the island’s crystal meth problem. Steve leered and told Dan and that he shouldn’t let me out of his sight. “Those people are capable of anything he said,” though crazed half-lidded eyes.
Sufficiently freaked out, we disembarked at our destination and were shocked at what we discovered-- a long stretch of grass scattered with palm trees hemming up to crashing surf. We laughed at all the warnings. How bad could it be? It looked like paradise!
We set up our tent just as the sun was going down. A man in Hawaiian shorts walked past, gave us a smile and set two coolers on a picnic table nearby. Shortly thereafter, he came around with two more coolers. Then two more. Until finally there were about fifteen coolers on the table. Fearing the noise factor, I called out, “Having a party?” He replied, “Kind of!” Dan glared at me. “Did you not hear all those people telling us to be careful and keep to ourselves?” “But if he’s having a party, I think we should move.” “It’s dark out. We’re staying put.” I begged. We argued. The crack head’s words fresh in his mind, Dan wouldn’t budge. He won. I stuffed my ear plugs in and went to bed angry. So much for paradise. No party was forthcoming from the cooler man, but at about 3 am we were woken to the sound of a thumping base. There were some kids in the parking lot blasting music and drinking. Finally the cops chased them off and we went back to sleep.
In the morning we realized what all the coolers were about. He was the Hawaiian equivalent of a bag lady -- a cooler guy. All his worldly possessions were in those coolers. The campsite was home to much of the area’s homeless population. They weren’t exactly friendly folk, but they didn’t give us any trouble either.
We packed up and walked down the road past a beautiful beach filled with surfers where a tattooed barrel-shaped Hawaiian a man stood by his truck with the bumper sticker, “Welcome to Makaha. Now leave.” We decided not to stop at that particular beach.
As we walked the road a beat up station wagon that looked like it had been eroding at the bottom of the sea for several years pulled along side us. Two salty white men with bushy beards and long windswept hair issued the familiar refrain – be careful! Don’t leave your car unlocked, they’ll rob you blind! When we informed them we didn’t have a car they offered us a ride. Already sore from out non ergonomic packs, we accepted.
As we climbed in, I glanced into the trunk and saw to my dismay, a pile of guns and rifles. “We’ve just been out hunting.” The driver explained. “What were you hunting for?” I asked. “Tourists.” the passenger replied. “It’s been a slow day but we just got lucky along the roadside!” They both roared with laughter as the driver gunned the engine. Dan and I exchanged glances of trepidation. Who knew Oahu was such a hot zone?
We told them where we were heading - Kaeaki Heiau, supposedly Oahu’s best-restored Hawaiian temple. They had never heard of it but we had directions. The entire car ride was full of graphic descriptions of all the horrible things that can happen to tourists in this area. “We saw you walking and thought, a cute Haoli girl like that, that’s trouble.” They said the meth addicts were likely to tie Dan up and kidnap me. We squirmed. “Especially look out for the ones with long hair and bushy beards,” they smirked.
We turned off the main road and drove up into the hills. Our directions as it turned out were imprecise, but the driver suddenly thought he had an idea of where it was and began taking rights and lefts with vague certainty. I couldn’t help but imagine scenarios where I would have to fight for my life, trying to remember self defense moves I had seen in films. Worst case scenario, I could always go for the groin. But that line of thinking turned out to be unnecessary. We found the Heiau. They dropped us off and wished us well. The driver gave us his business card. His vocation? Handmade bows and arrows. We said we’d call him for all our archery needs.
The lush greenery and chirping birds on the path to the temple made us feel like we were in Jurassic Park. The Heiau itself was simple, not much to speak of really, some stacked basalt rocks, two towers of sticks, a thatched hut and carving of Ku, the God of war. We got some good pictures of Ku’s bare wooden tush and moved on.
On the advice of some other friendly bus-patrons, we called up a private campground on the North Shore and were able to reserve a spot. There was some confusion in finding the right bus, as no one seemed to have ever heard of Malekahana Campgrounds, but we finally figured out the route. It was a long one and required two transfers, but luckily an eleven year old kid with handheld video game was going the same way and helped us get off at the right stops.
The North Shore was a different world --full of surf shops, cute restaurants, fresh fruit stands, banana fields and of course miles of lovely coast line. This was the tourist’s Hawaii. We couldn’t help but notice our bus driver though. She was native Hawaiian—big and beautiful, with brown mischievous eyes, an infectious smile and a flower behind her ear. I don’t think I’d ever see anyone enjoy their job more. She seemed to know many of the people boarding by name and chatted and joked with passengers while simultaneously being mindful of the winding road. She was like a soccer Mom with fifty kids. As we came around the bend of Waimea Bay, she slowed down and ordered everyone to take in the view. Tourists and locals alike couldn’t help but be entranced by the curve of turquoise water, white sand edged with bundles of green flowering bushes, and crashing waves.
We weren’t sure about our stop, so I made way to the front of the bus to ask her. Distracted by the beautiful scenery and a bit exhausted from the two days of near-death traveling, I couldn’t remember the name of our camp site. I rummaged through my bag and found a piece of paper on which I had written Waimanalo. Now, I realize, in retrospect, that Waimanaolo and Malekahana don’t sound even remotely similar, but like I said, I was tired. “Oh you can’t camp there!” She said. “It’s very dangerous.” Accustomed to this kind of thing by now, I assured her we’d be fine. “No,” she said, decisively. “You should stay with me. You can camp in my backyard. I live up in the hills with a view of the ocean.” She went on to say how her husband was out of town and she hates staying alone, so really, we’d be doing her a favor. “You two aren’t axe murderers are you?” She asked. “No, we gave that up years ago,” I replied.
Suddenly we passed by a sign for Malekehana and it jogged my memory. “Wait! That was it-- that’s where we’re going!” The driver, who told us her name was Kulaniakea pulled over to let us out. She gave us her business card and told us to call her if we changed our minds.
We found ourselves in the town of La’ie, which is the center of Oahu’s Mormon population. Which means the grocery store didn’t have beer. We ran into some backpackers we met at the bus stop on Day One who happened to be with another girl we had met on the bus on Day Two. Small island. They told us about a wonderful little beach named Hukilau.
We camped that night on a secluded promontory overlooking the ocean. It wasn’t exactly legal, but it was beautiful. We spent the day in Turtle Bay, sipping Mai Tais on the beach and slept the next night at the Malekehana campground where we were woken up every ten minutes by a band of roving nocturnal roosters. As much as I was appreciating the unconventionality of camping in Hawaii, the sleep-deprivation was beginning to get to me. I seemed to be developing a permanent backache as well.
In the morning we took the bus to Waimea, the famous surfing beach on the North Shore and explored the nearby Waimea Falls Park, an Audubon bird sanctuary and botanical garden. At the behest of yet another bus-buddy, we popped into Ted’s bakery for chocolate haupia pie. The haupia was a layer of white pudding that tasted like coconut and almond. The crust was fantastic.
As we rode along the Windward coast, it seemed like the island kept getting more and more beautiful. Likewise, our bus experiences became more and more enjoyable. We were sandwiched by green mountains and turquoise waters on a bus full of kids on their way home from school. One kid played the ukulele while another talked shyly with a pretty girl. A fair-skinned, blond-haired boy sitting across from us turned to ask if we were on vacation and where we were from. He was so grown up and polite. Passing by the Polynesian Cultural Center, he told us, “It’s a really good experience.” He lamented the fact that he’d lived on Oahu for eight years, but “I still don’t have a tan...”
We got off at Kualoa Park. As we lounged in the grass by the beach, we discussed the bus driver we had met two days earlier. It’s not often that a complete stranger offers their backyard for your camping accommodations. We were curious. Was she serious? We decided to give her a call, just to see.
So it seemed my fear of predictability encroaching upon my life was quite unfounded. We found ourselves in Kulaniakea’s car, driving to Waimanalo. She picked us up at a bus stop, started telling us stories about her life, and didn’t stop for the next two days. A former professional hula dancer who had traveled the world, she said it was something of a habit of hers to invite strangers to her home. She liked to keep things interesting. On her cell phone with various friends she happily announced over and over again, “I got the tourists!” We stopped by her sister’s house where we met several extended family members and were given some hand-carved soap to take home.
Her house was just as promised—up in the mountains with a view of the ocean. She told us, “If you really want to camp, you can, but I do have two spare bedrooms.” She didn’t have to ask twice. Although initially, the allure of camping was something we were unwilling to part with, after three nights of sleeping on sticks and rocks and waking up to the sauna effect as the sun heated our tent, the romance had entirely worn off.
After getting us situated in her son’s old bedroom, she offered us some Ahi poke for dinner. Her two Chihuahuas, Papa and Ilahu (which means rascal in Hawaiian) yapped frenetically. Papa took to Dan immediately, jumping up on his lap and shoulder. “Papa, don’t shi shi.” Kulani yelled. Shi shi being Hawaiian for pee pee. On top of free accommodations and dinner we were getting an education as well.
At one time Kulani was the youngest Hula dancer in the country. She showed us an old newspaper article with a photo of her as a young girl—petite and reticent, with long flowing hair, bedecked with flowers in the traditional hula attire. I asked her to teach us a few moves and she happily obliged. She said that each gesture in a hula dance is a sort of sign language that communicates a story. We learned the gestures for wave, sister, sun and a few others. Kulani swayed to the rhythm of the palms and we jiggled to the beat of Papa’s yapping.
In the morning there was mango, papaya and watermelon for breakfast. After coffee and tea we were instructed to take her car and go to the beach. We were hesitant. “Take your car? Are you sure?” She had already showered us with so much kindness, it was too much. “Yes, of course!” she answered. “Don’t you… need your car?” we asked. “I need my car to be away so I can get things done around the house,” she answered firmly. She was so decisive, we didn’t dare argue. She packed us a cooler and loaded the car with straw mats and a boogie boards. “The jumper cables are in the back. Never use the parking break.” She said. With the CD player blasting Hula tunes, were on our way.
We followed her directions to Kailua beach, where I found a shady spot under a palm tree to read while Dan floated on the boogie board in the placid water. We spent much of the day swimming, lounging, floating and sunning. For lunch we went into Kailua town, then headed to Waimanalo beach. This was my favorite beach on the island. Ironwood trees lined a thin stretch of powdery white sand and scalloped green hills formed an imposing backdrop. The beach was nearly deserted, and afternoon sun peeked in and out of clouds as we went for a long walk.
There was a family of Hawaiians splashing around in a tidal pool closed off by a circle of rocks. A hefty fellow popped up from the water just as we passed, “Hey, do you want to see something cool?” He asked. “Yeah” I responded. “Oh, I though you were my sister,” he mumbled, but showed us the cool thing anyway. He had a jar full of little silver fish that he was trying to release, but when he plunged the jar underwater the fish wouldn’t swim out. “Maybe they like it in there.” I suggested.
On our way back to Kulani’s we picked up some food and wine. After dinner her twenty one year old son Adam stopped by with his girlfriend Angel, who we were told, can really rip. They had been surfing at Sandy Beach that day which is one of the most dangerous beaches in Oahu due to its huge waves and powerful undertow.
I noticed a Hamsa, the Middle Eastern hand symbol that protects against the evil eye, hanging over the door and asked about it. Kulani explained that one day she was driving to Waikiki and saw that the bus along that route had broken down on the side of the road. As she drove further she saw a girl waiting at the bus stop so she pulled over and offered her a ride. The girl was Israeli and later sent Kulani the Hamsa from Israel as a thank you. I was struck by this woman’s constant aid of wayward strangers and said as much. “Yeah,” said Adam, “She’s crazy.”
In the morning, Dan got up early and heard Kulani calling out to him. She was out watering the yard. She took a bunch of fragrant white flowers and told him, “Put these on Julie’s pillow as a surprise for when she wakes up.” The woman was hard to argue with. Later we overheard her on the phone telling someone, “I think I’ve made friends for life.” We felt the same way.
I’ve always been an independent traveler. But consider me a convert. With the right travel partner, one is free to sleep safely among homeless populations, hitch rides with shady-looking hunters, camp illegally on beautiful promontories and get taken in by former hula dancers who treat everyone like royalty. I have to admit, the advantages of duo-travel are hard to deny.
On her ninth birthday, Julie was given her first diary (a pink-heart-stippled hardcover, gold lock and all), and has been an enthusiastic scribbler ever since. When funds permit, she prefers the nomadic lifestyle, globe-trotting to various exotic destinations. Otherwise she occupies herself with guilty-pleasure-television and random acts of espionage in and around the Los Angeles area.
ABOUT JULIE RESTIVO MURPHY
more about julie restivo murphy
IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
3.29.07 @ 5:13p
Julie, two questions - 1)"husband-to-be?" I seem to remember attending a ceremony in California...was that a sham?!
2)are you indeed still friends with that nice woman?
julie restivo murphy
3.29.07 @ 5:19p
At the time of this trip (2005... I just now got around to writing about it) he was not yet my husband... and yes, we still e-mail with Kulani and even exchange Xmas gifts and New Years Day phone calls!
3.29.07 @ 5:29p
Sounds like a fun, occassionally scary, trip. I'm dying to visit Hawaii.
Two more questions - I assume Dan is all healed up by now? And is there any chance your brother would have been in a South Boston grocery store over the fall/winter?
julie restivo murphy
3.29.07 @ 5:35p
All healed, hardly any scarring. If you want to read about that: link
And yes, quite likely... my brother is living in RI and visits Boston now and then. If the guy you saw was purchasing large quantities of beer, that was definitely him.
3.30.07 @ 7:39a
Wow. Not that this brings up any camping memories, but it sure brings back lots of Oahu memories. Hard to believe it's coming up on 30 years since I left there. Your brave nature (and fiancee's willingness to trust you) gave you an unparalleled exposure to the spirit of aloha.
On the traveling side... when I was a student in Europe, I tried time and again to travel alone, but always seemed to get saddled with a fellow student. Fortunately for me, that fellow student was invariably female.
3.30.07 @ 1:29p
Awesome travelogue! I can only imagine how wonderful it was to travel through Oahu, but know how much fun it is to wing it.
While living in the Philippines, an ex-boyfriend and I used to do just that- hopping buses and taking local ferries to explore different islands and provinces with little more than a backpack and some bottled water. We met all sorts- local percussionists, a pair of Italian brothers serving old-school pizza in a little beachfront restaurant, and the occasional witch doctor. I've never forgotten how much fun it is to travel without nothing in mind but adventure and exploration, and I've made it a point to wing it wherever I go. And when I've traveled by myself... well hey, there weren't any Welsh guys on holiday, but I've met some funny Scots in kilts, a couple of adorable Finns, and a cute Brit or two.
4.2.07 @ 11:45a
When M and I spent three weeks in Ireland, we tried to wing it as much as we could, and just ended up in some wonderful situations. I love to travel that way - you just never know what you'll see or who you'll talk to.
But camping in Hawaii....mmmm, wonderful.
4.3.07 @ 11:57a
This is just fantastic. I am so planoramic when it comes to vacationing that I wouldn't even come close to pulling something like this off, so hats off to you both for doing it, and then writing about it so we can get at it vicariously.