Two winters ago on the Hawaiian island of Kaua‘i I met a man in his mid-thirties, a Midwestern loner who’d been kicking around on the island for five years. He was from one of those wheat-growing plains states with stubble fields caked in snow to the horizons, and he didn’t talk much, but I kept nudging the conversation along, speaking of the beauty of the island, saying how nice it must be to live there. Dreaming of a life in paradise but clinging to my pessimism, I ventured the supposition that jobs were hard to come by. As if to confirm my suspicion, he said he’d been out of work but had just been hired as a fry cook at the McDonald’s up the street. Embarrassed for him, I said, “Well, I guess that will do for a while.” He made it clear, though, that the job was more than acceptable; it was the fulfillment of his dreams. All he wanted was enough money to eat and go to the beach. He gave no thought to insurance or retirement, let alone to having a family. He worked in order to live, to stay on the island. I, by contrast, lived in order to work and to squeeze out two weeks of vacation. This guy lived in vacationland, where it was 80 degrees and rainbows all winter long. With five dollars in his pocket he felt free.
My wife and I returned to Hawaii this winter, mostly to visit the Big Island, and once again I was struck by the placid nature of the local people and their seeming lack of ambition. In Hilo, the Big Island’s largest town, shops tend to close at 5:00 p.m. Not just the tourists, but everyone walks around in sandals or flip-flops, and the men wear big bright shirts that resemble kids’ pajama tops, with repetitive patterns of fish or palm trees or surf boards and sunsets. Those shirts tell you all you need to know: each day it’s more of the same. If you like to surf, and you surfed today, you can surf tomorrow, too.
We visited my wife’s Uncle George and Aunt Jo. George grew up in New Jersey, but when he saw Hawaii for the first time, as a young soldier sailing into Honolulu at the outset of World War II, he vowed, “I’m never leaving.” And he’s been back to the mainland only once in 60 years. He wrote in advance of our trip to tell us simply to call as soon as we were on the island, regardless of when that might be. “Don't worry about short notice,” he wrote. “Normally, week in and week out, we simply watch the sun come up, and set, and come up, and set, etc.” The fact that he and Auntie Jo are retired doesn’t really distinguish them from the other islanders.
The idea that the islands are a paradise is founded on the understanding that nothing that happens elsewhere really matters there. The only current newspapers you can find in Hawaii are the Honolulu papers, which pay scant attention even to events on the other islands, let alone to those on the mainland. So when you are out on one of the less populated islands, like the Big Island, all that matters is what’s right in front of you. A tourist who gets into the swing of things, who accepts that the towns shut down early and that there isn’t much to do anyway but sit and admire the lush greenery or take in the sunset from the nearest black sand beach, is in danger of losing track of the days and missing his return flight. And there’s a chance that such an event, acknowledged in the right spirit, might be the first step in a transformation. After all of his money was spent, and not until then, he would look for odd jobs, anything to keep going for a few more days, and then a few more days, until imperceptibly he will have become a local, an islander in a Hawaiian shirt, someone who’s never going home again, because his eternal life has already begun here on earth.