Growing up, I had heard nothing of the Pacific. When I read James Michener’s Hawaii, it opened up a magical vista for me. I began to dream of the Polynesians, navigating their canoes by the light of the stars, traveling to distant islands where the trade winds blew, where palm trees dropped coconuts on to the beach, and where the papayas were so fragrant you couldn’t stop eating them.
I will never forget my first arrival in the islands. I traveled via the Big Island and arrived in Honolulu at midnight. The conveyor belt went round and round as the airport emptied. But my bags were not there. I peeked into the deserted United Airlines office. Not a soul was around.
When I stepped out the gate and into a breeze, it smelled so sweet that I thought I had gone to India. Across the street a frangipani tree beckoned. On the curbside, a man strummed his ukulele, serenading the stars. I waited. “Taxi?” I said finally. Instantly, he stopped the music, hopped into his vehicle, and took me to Manoa Valley, where I had gotten a job.
At the residence hall, a woman was perched on a counter, wearing a sarong. I had come home, I thought. My fears suddenly melted away.
The next morning, a smiling Polynesian brought my suitcase over. The next few years, during which I worked at the East West Center, a research institute established to promote understanding between the East and the West, would be unforgettable.
Here I met people from all over Asia and the Pacific, studying energy and rural development. Here, I learned to snorkel and boogie-board, dance the hula and eat Japanese bento lunches. Here I bought my first pair of jogging shoes, did my first run around Diamond Head. Here I wandered in the Japanese gardens. Here, I fell in love with my Kiwi husband. Ah, to be young here was divine, but to be in love, sublime.
Soon I was crossing the seven seas to Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud, the Maori name for New Zealand. Here, the light was so delicate and the ferns so large that it evoked nothing short of a fairy tale. The South Pacific would remain in my imagination a land where rainbows and dreams were born, where flip flops were called jandals and swimming suits togs, where wearing of shorts was obligatory in the summertime, where people’s boats were more important than their jobs, where painting fences was a national obsession, where you could watch the grass grow.
The three or four years I spent in New Zealand made me realize that in Central and South Pacific, people know how to live. How else would you explain the mass exodus of Kiwis to the beach at Christmastime in the Southern summer, leaving the rest of the country open for an invading army to march in and capture it?
How else would you account for the tents by the beach where people camped for weeks, equipped with Christmas trees, new year’s firecrackers, grills, and satiny bathrobes—a South Pacific must? After living in the South Pacific, I began to look upon workaholic Americans with dismay; they just did not know what life was all about. They did not have their priorities straight.
Coming back to the Hawaiian islands after all these years, I find that their magic has not dissipated. On the contrary, each time I come here, a new facet reveals itself to me. This time it has been the discovery of tide pools in the easternmost corner of the Big Island, filled with marine life so colorful it makes me marvel at the miracle of planet Earth. Once you look under the sea, you think of the ocean only as a surface under which real life lives. I put my head down and forget that life above water exists. I swim with the trumpet fish, the convict tangs, the pennant butterfly fish, and the trevally, and suddenly the travails of life above the surface pale into insignificance. When you are swimming with aquatic creatures, you look at the universe from their point of view. And you realize that the universe is so colorful and lively that no one should ever be unhappy in it.
I don’t know what it is about the trade winds, but they make your heart expand too. You feel more loving and generous and expansive. You stop worrying about little things.
But more than the marine life, the gorgeous sunsets, the warm waters, and the soothing Hawaiian music, what the South Pacific has revealed to me is my own fortitude. The Pacific propels me to do things I wouldn’t otherwise dare to do. Here I go snorkeling the reef when, until the age of 19, I did not even know how to swim. I walk alone on the beach at night, I watch the moon, I hike volcanoes, I go out into the open ocean, riding the waves, things my parents would never have imagined doing. When I lived in New Zealand, I swam in the waters of Gisborne once, got pulled in by the current, and was rescued by my husband.
The tropical Pacific has taught me to push my boundaries. And for that I am eternally grateful.
(Nani Hawaii No Ka ‘oi—Beautiful Hawaii is the best)
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. Visit www.saritasarvate.com