November 24 to December 6, 2005

Even after flying tens of thousands of miles this year, airfare pricing still leaves me totally confused. But there is at least one secret that I did discover. If you fly to the United States on Thanksgiving Day, you'll pay half price. So for me, as I crossed the international date line on the way from Sydney to Honolulu, I managed to have a 45-hour Thanksgiving. No turkey. Just a Chili's hamburger -- exactly what I craved.

Based on my observations, I assume that "Hawaii" is the native word for, "land of many vowels." Consider, for instance, that the names of the four largest islands -- Hawaii, Oahu, Maui, and Kauai -- have only five consonants between them. At times, the vowel repetition can get out of control, as in the case of the Hawaiian state fish, the Humuhumunukunukuapua'a. The English version -- the Hawaiian Triggerfish -- is easier, if not nearly as fun to say.

My visit to Hawaii started in Waikiki, Honolulu's tourist district. The expansive stretch of beach is packed all day long while novice surfers try their luck with the tame waves of the south shore. As a backdrop, the distinctive Diamond Head crater rises up above the city with its highest point hovering 760 feet above the clean, blue waters of the Pacific.

Having spent more than six months abroad this year, it should be expected that I perceive the United States from a slightly different perspective. Not surprisingly, American obesity is immediately apparent upon entering the country. But to characterize the populous as "fat" is an oversimplification, as I also notice more people who are exceptionally healthy, following strict diets and workout regiments that have yielded admirably toned, tanned bodies. Instead, I see America as a land of extremes -- bimodal distributions that defy the bell curve. People don't walk from place to place -- they drive or they run. No one sees our president as "acceptable" -- they either adore him or despise him. And as I wander around the touristy island of Oahu, the distinction between the Comfort-Zoners and Adventure-Seekers is more apparent than ever, with the former paying big bucks for lavish luaus and the latter hitting the hikes and learning to surf.

I also notice the little things that are seemingly unique to the United States. For instance, this is apparently one of the only countries in the world where the up position on a light switch is the standard for "on." And after traveling a world that puts an emphasis on saving natural resources, energy, and water, it was surprising to walk into my Waikiki hostel and discover a sign saying, "Please be considerate to the other guests. Leave the air conditioner on." In fact, while walking down the street, the cool, temperature-regulated air can be felt spilling out of the wide-open shop doors, inviting customers inside. And what happened to the doors on the refrigerated compartments in the grocery store?

The Waikiki area has some great sights to see, including the Makapuu lighthouse and the colorful variety of sea life at Hanauma Bay. But I quickly tired of the tourist crowd and headed out to the island of Kauai, which has a well-deserved reputation for exceptional natural beauty. Just 30 miles across at its widest point, the island of 60,000 residents is packed with secret beaches, verdant mountains, and towering waterfalls. This island also boasts the wettest place on earth -- Mt. Wai'ale'ale, which receives more than 40 feet of annual rainfall. (I assume that underwater locales are exempt from this distinction). Some of Kauai's sights were made famous by the heart-pounding helicopter fly-throughs in the movie Jurassic Park.

The Na Pali Coast to the north is one of the most dramatic parts of the island. Here, brutal waves crash against secluded beaches nestled between the steep basalt cliffs. These black walls rise more than 2000 feet from the ocean, sprinkled with green wherever the tropical vegetation is able to cling to the porous stone. The coastline is so rugged and the jungle so dense that there are no hiking trails, much less roads, that fully circumnavigate Kauai.

Further inland, Waimea Canyon was aptly dubbed the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific" by author Mark Twain. There, the rivers that drain from the higher mountains carve a deep chasm through the red, iron-rich soil. But unlike the Grand Canyon, these bright, sculpted walls are then blanketed in green foliage for a brilliant display of color, set against the bright blue sky and constantly changing clouds whose shadows slink across the painted walls.

Early one afternoon, I went trail running along a narrow, infrequently used path on the west side of Waimea Canyon. About a mile into my run, I was surprised to hear another runner coming from the other direction. But as the "runner" came into view, he snorted and squealed at my presence before darting off the trail. Startled by my encounter with the wild boar, I paused, picked up a sizable club, and walked slowly through the dense undergrowth, poised for another encounter. And I did see two more boars -- one adult and one baby -- but thankfully never needed the club.

Some of my more dramatic hikes took me to the waterfalls of Kauai. After a four-mile hike along the Na Pali coast, I was rewarded with views of Hanakapi'ai Falls, where water tumbles 300 feet into a dark, shaded pool lined with bright green ferns. Plunging into the frigid waters, I swam under the waterfall and onto the narrow rock ledge behind it -- a refreshing break before hiking the four miles back to Ke'e beach.

On another occasion, I conveniently ignored the "Danger" signs on the short hike to Wailua Falls. Although not as tall as Hanakapi'ai Falls, the Wailua River carries an immense volume of water that passes partly through a natural stone arch before pounding into the deep pool 100 feet below. After swimming to the base of the cliff, I traversed the moss-coated ledge around the back side of the waterfall while wiping the heavy spray from my eyes. From that vantage point, it would be hard not to appreciate the staggering power of the falls, which tumbles down with a deafening roar.

As much as I loved Hawaii, when my time came to go, I was more than ready to return to Boston. I missed Tomas, my family, and the same bed to sleep in night after night. And while the idea may seem unfathomable to my friends in Hawaii, I missed winter and was happy to see snow on the ground as my plane touched down on the east coast.

As I've traveled around the world over the last year, for every place I've checked off the list, it seems I've added two more. So while my travels may be over for now, it will only be a matter of time before wanderlust gets the best of me again.

© Copyright 2005 by Rob Jagnow.