Yellow and red birds jet across the sky, as a red ink sunset drops below the bluest water you have ever seen. Blue water like that shouldn’t exist anymore, but apparently, here on The Big Island, it does. Hawaii (what they call The Big Island) is full of contradictions. Rainforest on one end, desert layered in lava rock on the other. In fact the whole Island is made of lava rock–and it’s still growing as we speak. It’s the youngest island, I am told, and the least developed.
It’s home to the tallest mountain on earth, Mauna Kea. Mauna Kea, if measured by its tippy toes just below the Pacific Ocean, out-zenith’s the zenith of Mount Everest (which is the highest mountain above sea level). Mauna Kea doesn’t spit out lava these days, but Kilauea does. Known to the native Hawaiians as the ancient fire goddess “Pele,” Kilauea puffs out sulfur dioxide into the air which hangs in the sky over the Big Island in the paradise version of mainland smog (the locals call it vog.) Pele, the active volcano, is continually destroying everything in its wake, while at the same time adding more land to the Big Island every second. Destruction. Creation. Destruction. Creation.
On the ground, the mongoose is constantly scampering around, looking for a native bird to eat. The mongoose is not native to Hawaii and is considered a pest (so much so that our nature guide suggested we run the mongoose over if we ever come across one.) The other natives, including the native Hawaiians themselves, are hard to spot. A sign with a silhouette of a duck warns of Nene crossings. Nene’s are an almost extinct species of native ducks. I never saw one. More prevalent than “Nene” crossing signs are road signs that read “Tsunami Evacuation Area.” Signs that remind ecstatic visitors that paradise can turn into a nightmare at any moment–and yet it only adds to a sense of exhilaration and adventure you can’t get on the mainland (such as standing over an active volcano and wondering whether at any second it might blow up where you stand.)
There is often only one highway, with single-lane roads going one way in either direction. Houses don’t stamp out nature like they do in my native Los Angeles County, no, here nature appears to be drowning out houses. Plants and vegetation subvert man-made roads, cut them in half, and intimidate them by hanging ominously over the asphalt. The island doesn’t want to change, and its people agree. Often Hawaiian songs sound mellow on the surface, but deep within their lyrics they fiercely call for the natives to protect the island and their culture from outside influences. Hollywood images don’t do justice to this place. Hollywood movies, songs and stereotypes don’t even scratch the surface of anything real on the islands. Nothing of 2D filmstrips exists there. What exists is an incredibly beautiful landscape and rich Hawaiian culture that somehow has managed to survive long enough for its wisdom to be passed down to an unsuspecting visitor.
If words could be considered a product, then the word “Aloha” could be seen as having been so commercialized, artificially processed, and mass-produced that its present meaning is so far away from its original meaning that it brings one to pause on the nature of words. Aloha means “hello,” it means “goodbye,” it means “love,” but most importantly the “ha” in Aloha means “the breath of life.” The breath of life represents the absolute best of ourselves and connects us directly to our creator. So, anytime someone says Aloha to you, they are giving you the best of themselves to you, and there is an exchange of breath. I cannot think that it is a coincidence that “the breath” is so central to so many artistic, spiritual, and in this case, cultural and linguistic practices. Paying attention to your breath is central to meditation and exercise, including yoga. Breathing helps center the Actor on stage, the Dancer on her movement, the Singer on her song. Over the years I’ve been more aware of this, but I tend to forget. It’s as if The Big Island was reminding me to breathe.
There is a different mind-set on the Island, that is not spoken but is felt. A surfer might stretch out his pinky and thumb in the “Hang Loose” sign, a polite call for you to “chill, relax.” You think, well this is fine for a vacation, but life is not meant to be lived relaxed or chill… there are real problems out there, real issues, stress, work, pressure, there are important things to attend to. Relaxing is fine on a vacation, but in real life, its impossible!
Pinky and thumb repeat: “Hang Loose!” Someone says, “Aloha.” You breathe.
Here, turtles move rapidly beneath the clear water, while time crawls forward slowly. It makes you wonder: “Did I just slip into a dimension out of space and time?” No. I don’t think so. You wonder if the peace you see outside of you on The Big Island is reflecting the peace that is growing inside of you–or your potential for peace. I wonder if Aloha is really there to remind us of the breath of life that is within all of us. I wonder what it would be like if we reminded ourselves each second to breathe, relax, just chill. A Tsunami might come along any moment to slap away everything. The volcano might suddenly erupt and demolish my home. Ah well. That’s life. Pinky and thumb pivot back and forth: “Hang Loose!”
Aloha isn’t just a word. It’s a philosophy of life. And luckily, unlike the many wonders of The Big Island, you can take Aloha with you and share it with the people you know.
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