Whose Place of Refuge?

Hale o Keawe, a Hawaiian sacred structure at Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Park, aka Place of Refuge. Photo by KK.

Mark Twain did come to Hawaii. It was 1866, at the very beginning of his journalism and humorist career. He hadn’t written novels yet–no Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, or Pudd’nhead Wilson. He had just published a novelty story about a jumping frog, when the Sacramento Union decided to give him a go, and sent him off as a correspondent to the Sandwich Islands.

Twain followed in the path of other tourists, missionaries, and entrepreneurs. He followed the British, after Captain Cook, after those intrepid Polynesians who had sailed up from Tahiti and Samoa. There were also French, Spanish, Japanese, and eventually the Americans, with their navy, who decided to anchor more firmly than Cook proved able. After that came a never-ending stream of more tourists, including yours truly.

Like any jewel, the history of Hawaii includes a stream of struggles from those people, over discovery and ownership.

Twain in the 1860s, photo from Library of Congress.

Roughing It in Hawaii

Twain’s Letters from Hawaii cover the long voyage across the Pacific; he curses Magellan for naming the uncooperative waters “peaceful.” Twain writes of being seasick much of the time, despite knowing his way around boats, as he would later describe steering steamboats in Life on the Mississippi. Upon arrival in Honolulu, Twain is smitten by “luxurious banks and thickets of flowers, fresh as a meadow after a rain, and glowing with the richest dyes.”

He is impressed by the presence of the Hawaiian royalty, the kings and queens who governed Hawaii at the time. But the locals are characterized as lazy and flea-ridden, though Twain says virtually the same about his “traveling companion,” the irascible Mr. Brown, a likely mythical figure who complaints constantly of the heat and insects. Upon viewing the plantations for pineapple and coffee, Twain urges the Americans to hurry up and come on over before the Brits and French take everything. American farmers would eventually take him up on the idea.

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The Big, Remote Island

Island views, photo by kajmeister outside the condo.

Imagine loading your family, your small tribe, on to a boat along with livestock, vegetables, and water, then rowing 2000 miles. Randomly, hoping you’ll find someplace else to stay because the place you came from was constantly threatened by very bossy other tribes, with bigger machetes. Rationing the food, day by day, slowly wondering if you’d die of thirst, massive waves in the sudden squalls, or in a fight with your neighbor who won’t stop talking about how everything had been better back home. Then, you finally see a shadow to the north that isn’t just another ocean storm.

Even today, the most comfortable direct flight from San Francisco to Hawaii takes five hours, flying over clouds and water and more clouds, more water, until suddenly this brilliant green farmland dotted with windmills suddenly springs beneath. The green turns to a long stretch of black rock and tan scrub that looks recently fire-scorched, then the runway. Out you go from your chilly northern home and air-conditioned plane into that tropical air, refreshing at first, but just you wait. It will soon suck out all your energy, but you won’t care. Palm trees and water will weave their mystical glamor on you. Welcome to the Big Island.

We have come to the islands for a week squeezed in the off-season between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The next few blogs should make you hear the roll of surf, the rush of air across the palm fronds, the endless morning birdsong, the morning hedge clippers…. well, there are a lot of hedges and they are always growing.

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