Anyone who lives on the Big Island and has left – whether for the day or for weeks at a time – knows that feeling when you see that Kona runway and its surrounds as the plane makes its final approach. To the unfamiliar eye, the terrain is often likened to Mars: no real vegetation to speak of, just black, cracked lava as far as the eye can see. And when the massive jet makes it’s way to the a simple, single story, open-air terminal, it feels a bit like you might have taken a wrong turn in Albuquerque (à la Bugs Bunny).
The envisioned tropical glamour of Hawai‘i is put immediately to test as you make your way down the movable stairs that serve as the gangway. As welcoming as the destination is, there’s a visual shortage of the palm trees and blooming hibiscus that a visitor might expect. Nevertheless, the air is sweet with the fragrance of lei, and there are smiles everywhere.
When you live here, everything you see and smell as you exchange more than one familiar “howzit” with airport employees feels like home. And every step toward the airport exit feels like magnificent relief. As a recent transplant, I have a visceral reaction to being home; I can only imagine what it feels like to people who are born and raised here. Maybe kind of like removing an 18th century corset – finally able to draw long, deep breaths after days/weeks/months of short, staccato oxygen intake.
I had the privilege of traveling to Atlanta and Chicago with a group of HPA (Hawai’i Preparatory Academy) colleagues on an R&D trip for the school. As we work to build a comprehensive sustainability plan for the school, our group of three teachers, the head of school, a facilitator, and me set out on a week-long journey of exploration, visiting with a range of innovative and progressive corporate and educational environmental leaders, all of whom shared with us their wisdom about ensuring their organizations serve to make our world a better place. Whether through architecture, behavior, or programming, each group not just focuses on conservation but also strives to inspire their communities to understand deeply how much of an impact individual behavior can have on the greater good of our planet and of future generations.
Our collective wheels were spinning and grinding every second of every day, and our creative juices were beyond flowing. The Big Island – given its being the most remote land mass on the planet, having almost every climate on earth, and being steeped in an incredibly rich and historical culture of surviving against the odds – might be considered the most ideal place for a school. Actually, not just might be…it is.
Needless to say, we didn’t have quiet moments to ourselves for seven days straight. Even the late nights and early mornings in our hotels were full of group text threads hundreds of messages long, sharing observations, perspectives, ideas, and thoughts on next steps. It was a glorious example of collaboration every step of the way, and – like I said – it was a genuine privilege to be a part of it.
And I am E-X-H-A-U-S-T-E-D.
Given our task at hand, and given our particular cohort, it was, of course, inevitable that we would be on overdrive. What I neglected to factor in is the impact of the complete culture shift of being on the mainland: hours in traffic on eight-lane highways, shoes other than slippers (flip-flops), dinner at 8pm (versus our standard 5:30-6pm), no rice at every meal, and constant mach 10 conversation. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Truth be told, for me, having to stop yourself from hugging hello and goodbye was the greatest challenge of all. Perhaps it seems strange that this circumstance would weigh so heavily, but the resulting longing is real. Unable to connect this way, I felt a distance that was hard to overcome, were that even possible.
Historically, Hawaiians greeted each other by sharing ha, or breath with one another. This exchange is done when two people press together the bridge of their noses while inhaling at the same time. It’s a greeting that welcomes the other person into their space by sharing the breath of life, which was sacred to the culture. Greeting by exchanging ha is rarely practiced in Hawaii these days and is usually only seen in traditional or cultural events. Now, everyone is greeted with a hug and a gentle kiss on the cheek, a modern gesture with a deeply rooted intention.
To me, this tradition is not merely fascinating; it is incredibly powerful. In fact, when the idea of leaving the island for good ever crosses my mind, I simply can’t imagine life without the ability to connect with other humans in this way at the very beginning of every relationship. It is very, very real, very, very beautiful, and now feels very very non-negotiable. Sure, I can immerse myself in other cultures where this is not tradition, but no longer can I call those places home. A culture where life is about sharing oneself and caring for one another as the starting point? That’s the place for me.
Since returning from our trip, I’ve been thinking a lot about the feeling of joy and comfort I feel from being back. Sure, there’s being with Jim again. And sleeping in one’s own bed could be reason enough, as could being surrounded by familiar possessions. But it really does go deeper than those things. Heavenly Beds in Sheraton Hotels are pretty nice, and Chicago and Atlanta are quite familiar to me from years of traveling to both cities. But here, like nowhere else, I truly feel as though I am surrounded by people that know me and care for me, and I can let down the guard that has been in place for the past week. Aloha is a real thing, and – it turns out – I am no longer comfortable without it.
Yeah, yeah, yeah…I know that sounds cliché. But I feel as though I entered a new level of my evolution, by discovering the space in my heart to understand what it really means and to live it. It is powerful and meaningful beyond any achievement or accomplishment. This article says it beautifully and gives so much depth to the five letter word. Truly, aloha means so much more than hello and goodbye. Read it. You won’t be sorry.
So, aloha, Big Island! It feels heavenly to be home.