I had to laugh because Waikiki is my childhood home. At age five I lived in the Rainbow Tower of the Hilton Hawaiian Village; swimming in the pool, chasing the pink flamingos and running around Duke’s Lagoon as the lounge singers, maids and cocktail waitresses kept a distracted eye on me. I was a chubby little haole Eloise.
So while most people view Waikiki Beach as a tourist trap, the highly air-conditioned gift shops with their mingling scents of coconut oil, Wicked Wahine perfume and the Pacific Ocean are very comforting to me.
Still, I felt a little guilty when I asked my boyfriend Mike if he wanted to visit my childhood stomping grounds. Because I know the drill: Waikiki Beach is the most built up, “un-Hawaiian” part of Hawaii. It’s not chic. Only suckers go there. It’s inauthentic. People have faded memories of “The Brady Bunch” and tacky luaus. I even half-heartedly offered to go to another island, figuring it was unfair to force my tourist-riddled nostalgia on him.
[Mom and Dad arriving in Honolulu in the early 1970s]
But once we stepped off the plane at the Honolulu Airport, walked into the sunlight and draped fragrant plumeria and tuberose leis around our necks, I was glad he declined the offer. Despite the throngs of pasty suburbanites on package tours, I realized that Waikiki Beach is just as “Hawaiian” as anywhere else in the islands. It’s only a certain type of smug tourist who wants to pretend otherwise. It’s these tourists who want to believe that only the remote waterfalls and lava formations are truly Hawaiian. But let me ask you this: if 80% of the Hawaiian populace lives on Oahu, how is Waikiki Beach “un-Hawaiian”?
I’m well aware that this is a contrarian viewpoint. Some of you might be rolling your eyes right now. But Oahu is known as “The Gathering Place”, and Waikiki Beach has a long history of welcoming people to its shores with Aloha spirit. Beautiful hula girls enchanted sailors and charismatic Waikiki Beach Boys like Chick Daniels, Duke Kahanamoku,
Rabbit Kekai, and Steamboat Mokuahi charmed tourists, shared island culture and popularized the sport of surfing. The word “aloha” may adorn cheap t-shirts. But it is at the heart of Hawaiian culture. Aloha is a way of life. The direct translation of “ha” is the breath of life: so this greeting is about sharing your life energy with another person.
Of course, while “aloha” was once reserved for family and special friends, for years you could stroll through The International Market Place on Kalakaua met by a chorus of “Aloha, I make special deal for you!” But you’d also catch the same vendors slurping saimin and talking to their “ohana” (extended family) under the banyan trees.
As touristy and kitschy as the International Market Place was, now that it has closed down to make way for a shiny new shopping center, I will miss it very much.
So I wonder if the reason people are afraid of being seen as tourists boils down to the quote by GK Chesterson: “The tourist sees what he has come to see. The traveler sees what he sees.” The idea is that if you avoid tourist traps, you’ll see the real soul of the city. If you avoid the beaten path, you’ll discover new horizons. But I guess because I’ve lived in “tourist traps” my whole life, I don’t see it that way.
After my family left Hawaii, we moved to Whidbey Island in the Pacific Northwest.
Overlooking the Saratoga Passage and boasting incredible views of the Cascade Mountains, the picturesque town of Langley is a popular tourist attraction. So sure, there were plenty of visitors shopping at Virginia’s Antiques and The Star Store Mercantile or catching a movie at The Clyde Theatre. But this “Village by the Sea” was also a place where local parents would just drop their kids off, knowing the shopkeepers would keep an eye on us. We were like a tribe. Once the owner of the Moonraker bookstore caught me skipping school. She promptly put her “Be Back Soon” sign on the door, threw me in the back of her truck and hauled me back to math class.
Because of this tribal effort, I managed to graduate from South Whidbey High School and moved to Seattle for a year, where I lived near the iconic Space Needle and took the Monorail each day to my retail job at the Westlake Shopping Center. I never lost sight of the Monorail’s cool, retro-futuristic vibe, how it seemed to be going back and forth between the past and the future (while transporting me to a job that was taking me nowhere.)
My college experience was equally touristy. I began my studies in London, where I walked through Hyde Park to get to class and fed the ducks with the crusts from my Marks & Spencer sandwiches. Once while making this scenic trip, a French tourist with a limited grasp of English ran up to me and said, “Hello! When you walk past, a beautiful smell comes from your behind!” I sincerely hope he was trying to compliment my perfume.
After a couple years I transferred to New Orleans to finish up my political science degree. I lived on Royal Street in the tourist-ridden French Quarter. After class my pals and I would head right to The Napoleon House for an afternoon Sazerac, throwing our book bags under the counter.
On Sunday mornings I’d go to Mass at St. Louis Cathedral, then eat beignets and drink café au lait at Café Du Monde with Midwestern visitors. Being such a touristy area, even mundane things like grocery shopping meant standing in line with your box of Cheerios along with street performers, mimes and clowns. Once while heading home, I strolled past a drunk clown, complete with big wig and red shoes, passed out on the side of the street. Not being too concerned with etiquette, I decided to pick my nose. He woke up at that precise moment and warbled, “Hey there nose-picker!”
Even my first job out of college was touristy. I worked at CNN Headquarters in Atlanta, where tour groups getting “The CNN Experience” would peer into the Master Control window, gawking at us like zoo animals. Some of them would even wander around the newsroom like modern day Margaret Meades, analyzing our behavior. Sometimes we gave them a good show just for kicks; throwing scripts in the air, running around and shrieking, “We’ve got breaking news! Breaking news!”
Now I live in New York City. My tiny apartment is right near the U.N., in the footprint of the Chrysler building. I live within walking distance of Times Square and Grand Central; which is my Cathedral. Much like Waikki Beach, it is a gathering place. That big clock is a convenient meeting spot for both locals and tourists.
And like Waikiki Beach, I look up at the stars above (even if they are painted on at Grand Central) and smile. I’ve lived in New York for over 10 years now, and I’m still proud when a tourist asks me for directions. I love that they picked me out of the crowd as being a local. Is it my strut? Is it my sense of purpose or style? (Or maybe, since I’m smiling at the Grand Central ceiling like an idiot I just look non-threatening.)
So I’ve decided I like tourist traps. I find the people who avoid them altogether to be smug know-it-alls, thinking only they know the “real” part of town. Where “real” locals live. The truth is, real locals do live and work in tourist areas. They may be rushing past you to get to an appointment. They may be taking their own guests on a tour. But you definitely see a very specific type of local behavior, a hidden glimpse of local life if you just look past the surface of tourist traps. I should know. I’ve grown up in them.
On the last day of our trip to Oahu, we met a local Hawaiian guy. He was just steps away from the famous Duke Kahanamoku statue, which is perpetually covered in the leis tourists leave behind before they go home. He was sitting in the warm, shallow water, feeding the fish with rolled up balls of Wonder Bread. He never told me his name. He just handed me some Wonder Bread and asked me to join him. We sat there in silence for a while, just enjoying the fish surrounding us and nibbling at the bread. When he finally spoke he told me he was a born and raised Hawaiian. He explained, “I could go to any beach on Oahu but I like to come here…to be with tourists like you.”