Hawaii: Hilo

1 Mile to Airport, 26 Miles to Volcano

I’m standing in a line of five hundred. Every one of us is headed in the same direction – through security and off the boat. We’ve been sailing for the past week, and are making a one-day stop in Hawaii.

Sometime in the midst of the line I start wondering. Is this what Semester at Sea is all about? Waiting in seemingly endless lines, spending enough time in a country to see a tourist attraction or two, and then hopping back on the boat? After spending a year living as an exchange student in Ghana, I can’t help but wonder: Can I discover a location and meet its people in just under a day?


He is the Sailor Man, I know him by no other name. He and his wife make the journey between Alaska and Hawaii by sailboat almost annually. The Sailor Man very boisterously said good morning, and we ended up having a conversation with him about our plans and mission. His Hawaiian wife spoke very little English – she stayed in the shade of the telephone poll and smiled at us. He was so outgoing that I almost didn’t have the heart to say goodbye despite the sweat pouring off my back from the hot sun. We gave her a ‘mahalo’ and she was overjoyed. I never learned his name; he never learned mine.

The tailgate end of the truck had been torn off entirely. Victoria’s cousin laid each bike down on the back of his truck before tying them down with a coil of thin rope to keep them from sliding off. He pulled the cord a few times to verify the strength, then hopped off the end and into the drivers’ seat. As he jumped, the back tires visibly sagged. I sat in the front to help navigate back to the hostel from which we had rented bikes. Each one had a $75 deposit on it, so I was just praying that the thick string would keep the bikes from crashing into the road long enough. The dashboard mirror was completely absent, apparently the adhesive melted away by the Hawaiian sun. The key was forced into the engine and turned. The engine coughed akin to a chain-smoker. Again and again the key was turned, but all the truck did was sputter. He took the key out, blew on it, and the truck started with a thunderous roar.

Not a single tourist was on the beach. We came across it while biking and had to stop. It was a brown sand beach. Students from University of Hilo were in a canoe rowing in-between flags as a dark skinned coach yelled from the shore. Besides them, the beach was empty. When wet, the brown sand looked like little more than dirt.

I met Margo in what was likely the worst Tavern in Hawaii. They had about ten food choices on the menu, and after asking what was in the pot stickers I got a response of, “They’re frozen.”

She never seemed to be just standing; she was in a perpetual state of dance. Her name was Margo.  When we met her at The Tavern, her eyes lit up and she hugged each of us. She described herself as a bit of a street artist, and after learning about our voyage she wanted to share her gift with us. Her gift is playing the guitar. “What do you want to do spirit, tell me please,” she asked before her performance. After apologizing several times for only having five strings on her guitar [she was missing the high e], she played ‘What’s up’ by 4 Non-Blondes.

The most significant part of Hawaii was the strangers I met. But really, are there such things as strangers? After a day in Hilo, I’m not so certain. I traveled here on the MV Explorer cruise ship, an object of opulence. I originally planned to visit waterfalls and a volcano, but I don’t want to be another tourist. I may only have about six days in each country, but I want to meet people and see the inner beauty of the country – not just the most popular attractions.

Traveling to non-tourist destinations is like the brown sand. If you’re only staring at the water, it may seem murky and muddy. But once you take the time to sit back, you notice how it [literally] sparkles under the sun.

brown sand beach



February will be absolutely insane – over the course of a month we will only have 7 days of classes due to nonstop ports in Asia. Tomorrow we arrive in Japan, and we will hop next week to China – to be followed by Vietnam, Singapore, and Burma.

Needless to say, I cannot wait to get off the ship in the morning!

Leave a Reply