Hawaii and I have intersected twice. Last December I stayed at the Westin Princeville Villas and St. Regis Princeville on Kauai. Days and nights in the December breezes of Hanalei opened up a memory box of encounters and adventures from my first trip to Hawaii 35 years earlier.
In 1977 I left California for Hawaii with a four island hopper ticket three months before my 18th birthday. Hawaii was my second choice destination since I had a valid U.S. passport in my possession, but after working in California four months cutting firebreaks by hand on the ridges of the Santa Lucia Range in Monterey County for about $2 per hour, I learned the cost of a ticket to New Zealand was about the same as my entire summer earnings including a month of overtime pay while working several weeks of August at Big Sur fire camp support for the fighters of the Marble-Cone Fire in the Ventana Wilderness. Up to that time, Marble-Cone was the largest wildfire in recorded California history.
The ticket to Hawaii was less than one-third the price of a New Zealand ticket ($300 range) with flight tickets to all four islands of Oahu, Kauai, Maui and Hawaii and open standby flight dates allowed for travel. I only had to show up at the airport on any date and wait for an available seat between two Hawaiian islands.
The air travel flights have little memory space after 36 years. Getting to Hawaii was not my focus. I don’t even recall the airline I flew.
Living in Hawaii was the focus of my trip. This was my solo adventure with no family network to fall back on. Not like I was leaving the country, although life on the islands was a foreign culture. Encounters with Hawaiian locals, military transients, hippies and outcasts dot the memories, yet the ultimate culture I found myself living with on a daily basis was ‘surf’ culture. I remained mostly an outsider in the communities of outsiders I lived in due to my abstinence from the waves.
I have never been on a surfboard to this day. Sea gazing rather than seafaring is more to my liking.
My dream was to be a Kwai Chang Caine of the beach, a small Grasshopper in the tropics, yet even more peaceful with all my people encounters since I never learned Kung Fu or how to fight in any meaningful way. I stayed safe in Hawaii despite my own actions. Words saved my ass several times. ‘Be nice’ my inner mantra.
Windward Side of Oahu
Oahu was my first island stay with most of the time spent on the east coast around Waimanalo, followed by the west coast, or as mariners say, the leeward side of Oahu and then the North Coast where I saw some big wave (15 to 20+ feet) surf action.
Waimanalo Beach is where I had my first encounter with local teenagers. Two guys went through all my possessions in my backpack while speaking to me with intimidation. I was small in size, yet after four months of swinging an axe in the California summer sun, there was a wiry appearance to me. My skin was dark enough to not be mistaken for a hothouse flower. The local boys did not take anything from me and neither one pulled my KA-BAR army combat knife out of its sheath. We hung out on the beach for some time, an hour, maybe two before they left me alone again at the pine tree forests adjacent to the long stretch of sandy beach where I stayed within the military zone far enough from the public campground by the main island road to be out of the local police patrol zone a couple miles away. Military police were never a problem for me on Oahu as a teenage military dependent from California. The soldiers were generally only a year or two older than me and often helped me out with food.
I had spent one night at the public campground on Waimanalo State Beach. Two problems. One is I did not have a state park camping permit and being only 17 I was unable to legally buy a camping permit. Police kicked me out of the campground after one night. The other issue was advice from a kindly father, local to the area and camping with his children. He warned me I was not safe in the campground and he had kept me from being attacked, but recommended I move over to the beach at Bellows Air Force Station military reservation and illegally camp in the woods there. He said the local thieves stayed away from the housing area and woods of the military recreation area.
Having grown up on military bases I was able to hang out at the military beach recreation area without anyone questioning me as long as I was not carrying my backpack around too much. Military vacationers and soldiers took care of me and I was invited to meals and I even couch surfed with a military family who pulled me off the beach and into their lives briefly during their vacation.
Somehow I hooked up with two U.S. Navy guys who were back on shore their first day after months at sea. The crew had R&R at the Bellows beach recreation base near Waimanalo. They befriended me and took their long-haired backpacker beach hobo to the barracks for a hard military cot to sleep on, providing me with food, drink and more. I was out of the frying pan with the locals and into the fire of drunk fleeties on shore leave.
I survived with a little help from the friendly armed forces in the barracks who kept me safe from harm despite threats from some unfriendly rednecks sleeping around me in the same large room.
Leeward Side of Oahu
Afraid to outstay my welcome with the rowdy squids on shore leave, I headed west to Waianae where I found myself truly too close to the fire fights of island natives and the transient soldiers stationed at another recreational beach for military personnel.
Both beach patrolling forces, local insiders and military outsiders, were armed with guns.
And the military police did not seem to have the upper hand in the beach fights during the time I stayed.
The military cabin on the beach at Waianae was rented to me for something like $5 a night. The place was a dump with a mattress on a spring bed so poor and enough mosquitoes inside the room to resemble the Off bug repellant Mosquito Box commercials of the time period. I set up my tent in the cabin and slept on the floor. At least I was legally living on the beach for the first time since my first night on Oahu when I blew $20 for a Waikiki Beach high rise hotel room.
A local Samoan teenage girl from Waianae seemed to be a better safety guarantor with the local gang boys than the military police patrolling the beach recreation area. I had been around a few tough kids in high school, mostly teenage boys who lived in juvenile offender half-way houses between California Youth Authority prisons and release back home. The juvenile delinquents from California I had navigated around the previous two years of high school hanging around Monterey had little scare factor on them compared to the hefty Waianae Samoan girl who took me under her protective wings.
In exchange for a hassle-free stay on the beach I felt obligated to hang out with her an hour or two a day when she stopped by the cabin to chat or she found me hanging out at the beach. She spoke words with a dialect I could barely understand and the glint of light reflecting off razor blades in her hair was a frequent distraction to her words. Truly. She carried razor blades in her Pacific Islander corkscrew curly hair. Her name is a faded memory now, although I recall she was taller than me and at least 50 pounds heavier.
My Samoan angel kept me safe in the day and the military police army guys I partied with watched over me at night.
A motorcycle ride up Kolekole Pass at sunset with one of the soldiers was the ultimate visual image of my trip to the leeward side of Oahu.
I lived a couple of weeks in Waimanalo and Waianae on Oahu in the fall of 1977 without getting rolled or laid on the beach. Both of those were good outcomes given the circumstances of the time.
I left the shadow of the military on Oahu for my second island adventure on Kauai. Nudists, surfers and the Kalalau Trail provided a very different Kauai experience where the environment provided more dangerous encounters than the people.
And that is another story.
Ric Garrido, writer and owner of Loyalty Traveler, shares news and views on hotels, hotel loyalty programs and vacation destinations for frequent guests.