Monday, 5 November 2012

A day lost in paradise

'By the skillful and sustained use of propaganda, one can make a people see even heaven as hell or an extremely wretched life as paradise.'
Can you guess who said it?

Hawaii does have the feeling of paradise. A combination of breezy tropical climate, stunning beaches and turquoise ocean would hit many people's paradise criteria . Certainly my love of swimming gives Hawaii an incredible appeal. Paradise is a concept that appears in many religions and cultures. However paradise is often contrasted and therefore defined by the juxtaposition with hell. And in many ways it is difficult to appreciate paradise if you have not known anything else. Hawaii in November was sweeter knowing that every other November I have spent fighting the clocks going back, the nights drawing in and wearing thicker cycling gloves.

I decided I wanted to go to Hawaii when I saw the holiday photographs of my fellow teacher Russell Jones. I was teaching about American entry into World War Two and he took a lesson using holiday snaps from his visit to Pearl Harbour to explain what had happened. It was only through teaching the topic that I realised where Hawaii was - bang smack in the middle of the Pacific - and it all made sense.

The Americans were expecting an attack and had just begun to use an early radar system to scan the skies. The Japanese aim was to deliver a knock out blow that would leave America powerless to stop its plans to dominate the Pacific. The Japanese planes were detected by a radar station but a Lieutenant made a fateful decision to not worry about it as they were expecting some planes to arrive from the main land. The two hour attack was a significant defeat for the United States. 2,402 people were killed and 1,282 wounded, including 68 civilians. However despite this initial defeat the attack on Pearl Harbour ultimately brought the US population behind the decision to enter the war. Roosevelt declared war on Japan the next day ultimately resulting in the collapse of the Japanese empire. That statement of course leaves out the millions of deaths, war atrocities and the dropping of two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that happened in between.

The Pearl Harbour memorial is built above the still submerged hulk of the US Arizona where 1117 men lost their lives. You have to take a boat across the harbour to get there . You are asked to remain in silence for the journey. There was a certain irony that there were so many Japanese tourists in Hawaii. We stayed with Rita and Cam in the pretty little town of Kailua. They noted how busy the beach had become since it had become a Japanese tourist hot spot. A different kind of Japanese invasion. Unlike the Brits, the Japanese aim for pale skin. Some people wear hoodies to surf and one woman covered herself with newspaper on the beach to keep off the sun. Whilst us Europeans knowing everything we know about skin cancer soldier on for the caramel tan. Whereas many of the Australians and New Zealanders I have met are liberal with sun screen. I just can't shake my notion of tan looks better.

More and more Americans came to Hawaii particularly because of the military base. However the Polynesian islanders were not the first. They arrived in two waves around the year 1000. It is thought there were other people on Hawaii before this but nobody knows exactly what happened to these apparently little people. They appear in traditional Hawaiin folk tales.

Hawaii has higher taxes than much of the US but much of this comes from tourist taxes in hotels and restaurants. Employers are obligated to provide health insurance for employees who work over 20 hours a week. As a result 90% of Hawaiians are covered, there is more preventative care, less hospital treatment and Hawaiians spend proportionately less on healthcare than other US states. Despite the wealth on the island Hawaii has voted for the Democrats in 10 of the last 12 presidential elections. With their own Obama up for election today, this election is likely to be no exception.

Another thing I did not realise before I came, was that Hawaii is made up of eight different islands that were united by King Kamehameha the Great in 1810. Christian missionaries arrived ten years later bringing the usual heady mix of opposition to human sacrifice and new European diseases.

We spent two weeks on the island of Oahu. The first we got back on our bikes and cycled up the east coast and the second we separated. James' girlfriend Helen flew out and they spent 5 days on the north shore swimming with turtles and kayaking. People make a place and I was also lucky to spend my time on Hawaii with some great people.

I stayed in Waikiki in a hostel with my cousin Jess and friend Becci where we formed a team of fellow fun seekers. When we (James and I) first met Paul and Jonnie they had had a few drinks and were in our dorm listening to Euro Pop and ready to hit Waikiki's night life. I felt like I had walked into my life in 1994 in a youth hostel. As always however first impressions are not always fair. The lads were from Northern Ireland and a good laugh. On holiday for two weeks and happy to hang out with us partly because they were keen to show that they were not a honey mooning couple. The other girls we met Chantal, Lily and Kate, three blonde Brighton lasses. 'Good odds lads' was the comment from one of Paul and Jonnie's friends on the photo of all of us posted on Facebook.

Also in the gang was Barry - from Cork who we had met on tsunami night and who, like Jess had a morbid fascination with serial killers and like me loved cheesy jokes:

'Are you from Jamaica?'
'No, why?'
'Because Jamaican me crazy'

He gave me a top name for a quiz team - Anguillerra. 'Quiz team Aguilerra' - get it?

David - from Portugal. David was a football coach and boy could he charm the ladies. He had some great lines. We were on the beach and he went for a walk saying:
'I'm going for a walk in paradise. Life is for living you know.'

We hired two cars and spent a couple of days on the north shore and back in Kailua. Jonny who works for Nike and is their representative on earth was my co-pilot and was very patient. I insisted that he should talk me through how to turn on his speaker so I would know how to do it next time even though there would not be a next time. He and our passengers were also understanding when my directions started to become a bit unclear:
'Go left. Or right. In fact you could go straight on, I don't mind'
You know you've made good friends when they can pull your leg with good intention and they think your faults endearing.

We had a great few days including two home cooked meals for 10 and an incredible Halloween night out. The streets of Honolulu were packed with people with everyone in fancy dress. Costumes ranged from Michellin Man to Captain America. Our efforts involved an orange team T shirt individually designed. Great idea Becci.

My experience in Hawaii also made me think about the backpacker scene. I have always been pretty snobbish about travelling the world, following the same route of thousands before me. I thought that this was a Western indulgence and gets no where close to the experience of living in one of these countries. But as I contemplate part of my journey by myself then these routes have an appeal. And are these well trodden paths really that different from the routes medieval pilgrims took to Santiago del Compostela? The road more travelled may include more people and more adventures.

Whilst in Hawaii and in stark contrast to paradise I read a horrid account from a friend who witnessed two young men being vilified on a bus in London for holding hands. The boys were shouting 'perverts' and 'die' saying it was against their religion. The people on the top deck did nothing. The two boys got off the bus and my friend spoke up and said 'Why did you do that?'. The response of the group was to attack and spit on him. This reminded me how crucial it is that each of us tolerates no remarks that degrade or poke fun at anyone because of their identity. Even when you know that the person making those remarks is not racist or homophobic or means any harm. It's so important to challenge the little things. This means the role that schools play is crucial especially when some parts of some religions and cultures do not tolerate being gay.

Hawaii is one of the most expensive places to live in the states. So spending two weeks in paradise made me think about how much environment affects your quality of life. Some of my favourite spots across the states were beautiful as well as progressive like Fort Collins and San Francisco. Lovely places are often homes for the wealthy. One morning after a swim along Waikiki with Rosie from the local swim club we changed in the restrooms. A woman with a southern American accent sitting in rather glamorous underwear started chatting to us. She was asking about why Hawaii had a British flag and how come it was American. Good questions and the one about the flag is not simple. She said she was homeless but liked to make the most of her appearance even if she was homeless and was planning on heading to the mall for a free makeover. She had a pair of ridiculous heels and her chatter suggested she probably found life overwhelming. There are many homeless people in paradise and the state has gone to great effort to make sure they cannot sleep on the beach and deter Hawaii's tourists - it's economic life blood.

Hawaiian paradise has more to it than beaches and sun. Aloha is used as hello but means 'affection, peace, passion and mercy'. Paradise has got to be in there somewhere.

And who said the quote I began with? 'By the skillful and sustained use of propaganda, one can make a people see even heaven as hell or an extremely wretched life as paradise.' Adolf Hitler. Paradise has surely got to be paradise for everyone otherwise it just ain't paradise.

Flying round the world west means we have just crossed the international date line so I have just skipped Monday 5th and jumped to Tuesday. A day I will never get back. Think about it. Enough to blow the mind.

A day lost in paradise.

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