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  • Writer's pictureCaroline Olesen

Hawaii: Mused

All photos are shot and edited by Caroline Olesen. All copyrights belong to Caroline Olesen.

"Hawaii is not a state of mind, but a state of grace."

– Paul Theroux

I woke up one morning about three days after touch down on Maui. 12 hour jetlag making the 6 am call time easy. Pushed my sleepy limbs into a black bathing suit, the most subtle and demure one I brought, though the low cut back and high thigh cuts still made me think twice. After all, I was about to attend a kind of spiritual practice. But then what connection does modesty have to spirituality. This narrative is one often encountered in religious practices, but spirituality is personal - and my body is part of who I am, even if it doesn't define me. Unlearning rules and norms thrust upon you is a long process. I thought experiencing another culture's healing ritual might help me in my journey to unlearn some things.

Feet slipped into flip-flops and towel in hand, I set out for the beach. Hi'uwai is an ancient Hawaiian ritual. The flyer had explained it as "to cleanse in seawater. In ancient Hawai'i, the bath between midnight and sunrise was regarded as a ceremony of purification. It was a symbol of cleansing all impurities of the past. ... The ritual of purification involves wading silently into the tranquil sea while releasing problems, stress, or grief." Fred, who would guide us through the ceremony, was already there, the sky a rainbow of pastels as a back drop. The colors seemed to ebb and flow in their satuation, sometimes appearing as ghosts of themselves and other times as a clear and sharp palette. A group of ten assembled, strangers to each other and maybe even a little to ourselves. Fred talked us through the ritual; there's a pre-cleanse chant called E ho mai, the cleanse of walking into the water, and a post-cleanse chant called E ala e!. And so we started:

E ho mai

E ho mai ka 'ike mai luna mai e Transfer me the knowledge that comes from above

O na mea huna no 'eau of those hidden, skillful things

O na ike e that is in the knowing

E ho mai, e ho mai, e ho mai, e give to me, give to me, give to me.

Noone said a thing. All in our own space, walked ungracefully in the sand to the edge of the sea. The salty water stung a small cut at my ankle from when I had shaved my legs the day before. I took a deep breath and then the cut didn't matter, wasn't the focus, wasn't my purpose with being there, letting the water enfold my calfs, knees, thighs, hips. Chilly, I slipped my fingertips under the surface, my palms resting and moving in rhythm to the waves. Another deep breath, consciously from the diaphram all the way down to engage my pelvic floor, and with the next swell I sank completely into the depths of indigo. Waves pulled me back and forth, the current giving and taking and I tried to release some of the darkness I've clutched as a safety blanket. Because when things are bad they can only get better, and when they're good, there's always another shoe to drop, and I'm trying to let go of poor logic like that. Eyes closed, my hair carried across my face in incessant motions, back and forth, back and forth. It'll be hell to untangle later, but that's not important, wasn't the focus, wasn't the purpose of being here, in the Pacific Ocean at sunrise a world away from home. Find peace in this unknown, I told myself, find peace in new rituals and old beliefs. Find peace in knowing there is no easy peace, that it's okay to struggle with peace, to struggle with letting go of the struggles you've told yourself are yours.

You can think a lot of thoughts in a short period of time because I wasn't under water more than 30 seconds, and it wasn't transformative. I didn't emerge from the ocean a new and better person. But it felt good, it felt like it was supposed to: cleansing. Like washing your face after a long day, or showering after a hard workout - it doesn't change the whole day or mend your soar muscles, it just makes you feel fresh, non-sticky, relaxed, clearer.

Once we were all out of the ocean and had towels wrapped around our wet bodies to shield from the morning breeze, Fred instructed us to clap in tact and then he started the second chant. The whole ritual ended when he blew the skull sized conch, making a haunted sound. "And that's the morning call for everyone else," he chuckled. I smiled, wiggling my toes into my flip-flops, starting for the shower to wash off the sand and drying salt.

E ala e!

E ala e, ka la i ka hikina Rise up the sun is in the east

I ka moana, ka moana hohonu in the ocean, the deep ocean

Pi'i ka lewa, ka lewa nu'u climbs to the heavens, the great height of the heavens

I ka hikina, aia a ka la, e ala e! in the east, there is the sun, rise up!

"Aloha is the unconditional desire to promote the true good of other people in a friendly spirit out of a sense of kinship."

– Abraham Akaka

The Islands

From above they look greener than Savannah on St. Patrick's Day. The volcanic grounds rich in minerals, fertile for lush shamrock colored flora to sprout. Clear water lets reefs and sand paint abstract shapes on the blue canvas.

Two weeks aren't close to long enough to understand the world from this angle. I've been fascinated with the storytelling of Hawai'i and how closely it rests to the surface of society. Perhaps because I descend from a culture with equal boundless stories where things of nature could be explained by gods and their tempers. Midgård and Maui are worlds apart though.

These islands appear to thrive on contrast; the deep blues of the ocean in contrast with the vibrant greens covering the lands, the softness of beautiful beaches in contrast with the sharp drops from cliffs, the civilization bustling with strip malls in contrast with the abundance of natural forces. Contrasts and kindness were my first impressions of Hawai'i.

Kindness from all and in spite of being a tourist. Not too long ago (2022), I saw a TikTok video by @alexaanneisaacs, a native Hawaiian, who explained how harmful tourism can be to the beautiful islands. When we traveled there in 2019, I was blissfully unaware of the colonial oppression natives still face today. Being forced off their land by rising property taxes caused by foreigners and corporations buying up large plots of sacred land to turn to hotels and strip malls. The recent surge in population has inflated the cost of living, which disproportionately affects native Hawaiians and adds to the gentrification. Today, only around of 10% people living in Hawai'i are native (according to the US Census).

I am not literate enough to speak with authority on the issues native Hawaiians face nor am I native, so I defer to those are like the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement.

Looking back, I should have been more aware of our surroundings, more in tune with the history and culture, more appreciative of the native people and found ways to support them directly while there. Hindsight in 20-20 and learning is a gift granted those who make mistakes. Know better, do better. Be intentional with your travel.

"Kaohinani is a Hawaiian word meaning gatherer of beautiful things."

– Rob Brezsny

The Food

Have you ever tasted watermelon while on acid? Everything is intensified by a hundred - the taste, the texture, the juice overflowing with every bite dripping down the sides of your mouth. It's glorious and lush. The fresh produce in Hawaii came very close to achieving this intensity, although falling short because, well, I wasn't on acid. The bananas somehow perfectly ripe on every açai bowl, no browned edges or soggy texture. The fresh coconut chopped open on a road side by a man with a macheche, giving both its juice to quinch thirsts and meat to help the snacking hunger from driving on the rolling highway that lines Maui. Fish so fresh it almost tasted salty.

And seafood just tastes better by the sea. I don't eat a lot of meat or fish in my daily life, so vacation indulgences like poké in Hawaii are a rare treat. It also makes the meals more special. More memorable. Because of the delicious food, and also because the surroundings. One night we went into Lahaina for dinner. Ubered, as we had no cars, and while driving down the coast, I sat in the driver's seat and to my right, radiance of the setting sun filled the sky. It was the kind of sunset that had everyone stopping to take pictures. Maybe there are many of these in Hawai'i, but somehow that doesn't diminish the beauty of this one. The colors were sharper, deeper, more reflective as they stretched across the heaven and ocean. In Danish, there's a very specific word for the color a sky takes on in a sunset like this one: purpur. It's a cross between pink and lavender, red and purple. Even the white wall of the building where our Uber stopped, was bathed in purpur. I had forgotten my camera, this one night with the most beautiful sunset, but then I'm not even sure my camera would do it justice, could do it justice, or even should do it justice. Some things are just meant to live in memory, their essence growing and fading as ebb and flow, there when needed for reflection.

Stopping by the roadside became a regular occurrence as we ate lunch at a purple food truck one day and about a week later we stopped on the north east side of O'ahu, discovering an arts and food market there. It had been on my Hawaii bucket list to try 'shave ice' and whilst walking amongst tie-dye shirts and puka shell necklaces, I spotted a truck selling smoothies and shave ice. Spray-painted with images I don't quite recall, my focus was on the menu by the ordering window listing all the different fruity flavors one could choose from. I had coconut, strawberry, and a third the name of which I don't remember but which was maybe the most delicious. You could place shave ice somewhere between ice cream and ice cube; you scoop it up and as soon as you place it on your tongue the flakes melt like the first snow touching the not-quite-cold ground. Flavor spreads like butter on warm toast filling your mouth and leaving you with the sensation of having just taken a nice long sip of something cold. It's like frozen soda but not. Like frozen fruit punch but not. I let my family try it and there was divided opinions, but I thoroughly enjoy it, especially for cooling down on a hot summer afternoon in Hawaii.

"For me the magic of Hawaii comes from the stillness, the sea, the stars."

– Joanne Harris

The Sights

Tourists buzz around, caps and cameras and all, when you first enter the Pearl Harbor Visitors Center. My Fujifilm FX2 is planted in my right palm, my hair is bunned on the top of my head. Straight ahead from the entrance you'll find the anchor from USS Arizona. My feet stopped in front of the giant sculpture. It felt heavy, but proud. A symbol of perseverance. People moved around me and I lifted the camera to snap a photo, but it felt wrong. I did it, but it felt wrong. Like taking pictures in a graveyard, it felt like invading a space that was there to see but not to take home. I moved to read the names of those who lost their lives on that December morning. It seems rare that you get to stand it a place where you can say for sure: history changed here. Years ago, history took a turn because of what happened right here. It felt heavy, as if gravity pulled harder at my shoulders and I ran my fingers across the names edged in stone. A new meaning to "set in stone", the past chiseled there and the future penciled in a calendar. I wanted to remember their names. To bear witness to the fact that they had lived, that the names of those who died matter. Do they matter more than others? More than the genocide victims in Rwanda or those who die of poverty in Bangladesh or the transgender women killed by violence? No, they don't. It's a weird concept that some lives are more celebrated than others in our cultural memory, some deaths have bigger impacts. But memory is by nature selective, and cultural memory even more so. Why is one name carved in stone and one isn't? I wanted to bear witness in that moment, to the place and the people I could bear witness to there. Trying to feel the pain of their loved ones and the promises lost on that day in December.

Maybe I should be better about bearing witness to those who don't have a monument. Read articles about the innocent lives of Dana Martin and Zoe Spears, and try to feel that same pain for their loved ones and their promises. Bearing witness by remembering their names and donating and talking and taking action in their names. Some people may argue that these lines of thought are not what monuments are for, but if not for reflection on the value of human life then what? The world seems daunting with all the things we should do. But I don't think that should stop us from trying.

On Maui, my father and I stumbled upon a gallery. Strolling about Lahaina one afternoon, we walked into Harte International Galleries with the window promising us Picasso, Chagall, Dalí, and more. In the luxurious space full of the so-called masters, my pink running shoes and bike shorts seemed out of place. But we were met with smiles and talks and I was gifted a book about a painter I didn't know. It might have been superficial, but it felt sincere. It felt kind and generous, open and free.

Top down on the cabriolet we rented and the green encircled us. A bending wall padded with jade colored plants rose ahead of the car as we followed the curved highway lining the coast of O'ahu. It's easy to recognize the landscape from Jurassic Park, but awes when it appears before your very eyes. Simply driving is sightseeing in Hawai'i. Counter clock wise around O'ahu, you will drive with beaches on your right and lush mountains on your left. Small towns dot the coastline, with the exception of Honululu. The state capital boasts of everything from large shopping malls, to artsy districts like Kakaako, full of murals. Camera in hand I spent a late morning wandering the streets, struck by deja vu from walks I took through Melbourne's alleyways, looking for the decorated walls. This kind of art is transcendent, forceful and untamed in its nature, making the world its literal canvas. Making the daily extraordinary.

"A slight breeze cooled the Hawaiian spring air, swaying the branches of palm trees, which cast black silhouettes against the purple and orange colors of the twilight sky."   

– Victoria Kahler

The Nature

At the top of the ocean, my bikini-clad body bobs up and down. Snorkel secured between my lips and teeth. Goggles a tad bit too tight. It'll leave a red goggled imprint as a reminder not to make that mistake again. You live, you learn. Fish hang in the water like birds in the air and ride waves like the birds do the wind – as if the world inverted because I could flip my body and see the same thing in the sky, couldn't I? Their graceful movements I try to mimic as I bend at the hips and swim deeper, closer to the seabirds. Their scales a tight knit sweater with metallic gloss, or maybe it's more like the fabric itself, the thread is made of reflective blue,green,yellow yarn. I see a seaturtle and a starfish, me floating still, skimming the ocean edge with my back and butt. Poor fish, I think, us humans are aliens invading and destroying their world with toxins; sunscreen and plastics and tourism bleaching their world dead. We are the strange creatures who prioritize our needs above that of anyone or anything else. We should do better. Hopefully, we are. I bob up and down on the top of the ocean and watch a world where I don't matter move through the reef. I'm glad I bought reef safe sunscreen. I like it here.

Do the muscles in your face relax when you see a beautiful landscape? Brows unclench, eyes unsquint, lips unpose. As if the nature before you brings peace simply by existing.

Dad and I hiked to the Olivine Pools on Maui, down volcanic rock sides, still black and holed. It's as if you can see the waves or rushes or ruffles of lava, its rounded curves. These shells are popped here and there, like bubblewrap. The black contrasted with hundreds of blues, as the ocean filled the rockpools, wave by wave, the spray white and tall. Fishies and crabs moved with the liberty of a homeowner, their castle an endless array of puddles and tunnels and caves to hide inside. Did everyone feel the crashing force of the waves through the soles of their feet? A fish jumped from one tiny hole to another right in front of my toes making me squeal and almost loose my balance. "It's better to get wet shoes than a wet butt!" Dad shouted from behind me. His shoes safe on the cliff side. Crouched over, I marvelled at the colors in the pools, slipping from black to sandy to turquise.

My thighs chafed badly on the hike back, but that kind of nature is worth the pain.

"In Hawaii, we have something called Ho'oponopono, where people come together to resolve crises and restore peace and balance."

– Duane Chapman

The People

Lilo & Stitch springs to mind when I think of our trip to Hawaii. "Ohana means family, and family means nobody gets left behind – or forgotten." It's one of my baby sister's favorite sayings. Baby isn't a physical descriptor, just a mental one. She's 23 and a woman in her own right. I also have four bonus-siblings. Step-siblings, really, but "step" has nasty undercurrent attached to it - courtesy of Disney and all fairytales starring evil step-anything. We're not a perfect family; my dad, my dad's wife, her four children, and my sister and I. We've been through a lot. We've had family drama that would make for a perfect 2000's Lindsey Lohan movie, or a current drama starring someone from Riverdale. It's the drama that comes with bringing two families together, and that's not something I want to shy away from nor do I want to air out our dirty laundry. There's truth in trauma, and eight people in any constellation is complicated. So I wasn't sure what the trip would bring for us - eleven in all, the family with three boyfriends in tow.

It seems superstitious to believe that Hawai'i healed our ohana. I don't believe it did. But it did seem like there was extra oxygen in the air; it was just a little easier to breathe, to talk, to laugh, to be. The uncomplicated nature and easy going vibe of the islands are infectious. Hang loose also known as the shaka sign, where the three middle fingers are folded down and the thumb and pinky are poking out in each end whilst loosely twisting the hand, is quintessential Hawaiian. The chilled out surfer culture and laid back life style permeates most of the small towns. Every Uber driver chatted friendly, offering suggestions and recommendations, telling us their life stories or how they came to live on the islands. I'm sure life is not as easy when you're not on vacation, but there are places there are move liveable than others. If you're surrounded by grand nature, maybe you feel smaller – life's problems feel smaller, perhaps. Sunshine has important biological ties to the release of serotonin. And maybe there's even a kind of herd immunity to unhappiness, or just a more relaxed mentality when it comes to tasks and time. Who you surround yourself with matters, and if the culture is steeped with a positive ideal, maybe it becomes more pervasive and fulfilled.

Ohana is the concept of family, but not just family by blood, family by intention as well. Intentional family. Family you choose. And keep choosing, or maybe just start choosing. Because who you surround yourself with matters.

On the Mused Series:

Mused is the product of my love for traveling and my passion for writing. It’s not a series of travel blogs nor is it something meant for guidance for the places to which they pertain. The pieces are meant to be dives into these cities, towns, locales. A kaleidoscope of perceptions mixed with history and experiences. The series will have original photos and stories, facts and details with the purpose of sharing the feel and atmosphere of the subject.

All photos are shot and edited by Caroline Olesen. All copyrights belong to Caroline Olesen.

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