Like with a newborn baby, it’s the first breath that counts.
After 11 hours crammed (fetal-positioned) inside the womb of a jet plane, I emerge, wrinkled as an infant lamb, rubbing my eyes against the bright light of midday.
Out with the old, in with the new—the stuffy, recycled air, bottled up in the aircraft since Atlanta, wafts out the door. I follow, stumbling a step before inhaling my very first breath of Hawaii.
My first gulp of Hawaiian air is the olfactory equivalent of harp music. In one nasal breath, I smell orchids and honey, vanilla ice cream sundaes, cotton candy, and the sweet dew lapped by hummingbird tongues.
What’s more, the air is heavy and thick and wet so that it feels like sucking in a big gulp of flower soup—the tropical atmosphere and the sticky sweet smell of flower leis that hang from everyone’s neck.
I look at all the other new arrivals, red-faced, sweat beads arched across their brows—all of us newborns, happy to be in Hawaii yet quite confused by this new existence. There are finches flitting around the terminal, landing on leather chairs and chirping welcome.
Hawaii is the farthest journey I have ever made inside my own country—more than 5,000 miles southwest from home. Had I traveled the same distance in another direction, I would have landed in Argentina or Nigeria or Greenland.
But this is a domestic flight—I checked in with my driver’s license, and although I am dashing across a continent and half an ocean, I remain within the United States. From my little window in the sky, I watched the first few hours of August brown below me, followed by hours of Pacific blue that became brighter with time.
Like all remote islands, it is both surprising and a relief to find that after all this hopeful flying, there is in fact, a safe place to land in the middle of this endless ocean.
As we broke through the island clouds, I caught my first sight of Hawaii—the silicon-chip-like subdivisions of Honolulu, as placeless as any you find in Houston or Boise or Kansas City. The drab streets and brown houses seemed so comfortably American, I found it both bizarre and wonderful.
Only when I spotted the Dr. Suess-like palm trees planted along those computer-designed streets did it strike me that these were tropical suburbs, alive with creeping lizards, exotic birds, and bursts of flowers like none that I had ever imagined.
And now here I stand in the airport, smelling those unimaginable flowers for real, listening to the eager birds—feeling like I’m walking through a true rain-forest paradise except for the glaring Starbucks and Italian-scented California Kitchen before me, followed by the men’s bathroom labeled with the Hawaiian, Kāne.
The terminal is filled with happy hellos: Aloha! Aloha! Flowers get thrown around everyone’s neck—except mine. Somehow I wander past that ritual, unnoticed, and head out into this state that has eluded me until now.
I may spend my life traveling, poking my face into the rare and unknown corners of the globe, but somehow I have gone all this time without ever visiting the very obvious island of Oahu. Outside is America—American flags, honking Honolulu taxis and busy rental car shuttles, families bundling themselves into minivans, happily complete after gathering their respective travelers.
Oahu is “the gathering place,” and today it has unexpectedly gathered me to its turquoise shores. I am glad to be here—finally—and to be greeted at every turn with a friendly Aloha. I feel phony saying it back—a desperate haole eager to belong, responding, “Al-O-ha!”
I am not even a pineapple mite’s worth Hawaiian—not by birth or address—and so after only 36 hours in the 50th state, I will spare any attempts at deciphering the deeper meanings of Aloha. My outsider’s guest is that it is not to be explained in a blog post—only lived.
Aloha is a unique greeting for a unique place, but not so different from the kind salutations I encounter elsewhere on the planet. In Muslim countries, I get As-Salāmu Alaykum (السلام عليكم) “Peace be upon you,” and among Hebrew speakers I get “Peace to You,” Sholom Aleichem ( שָׁלוֹם עֲלֵיכֶם) In India, I hear the Sanskrit Namaste—“I bow to you,” and in South Africa, the Xhosa talk of uBuntu—“I am what I am because of who we all are.”
My first-day-in-Oahu guess is that Aloha includes all of this, and more. Every day that I travel I am reminded of the universality of culture—as well as the staggering differences made manifest in the names we choose for one another.
Here in Hawaii I am a haole—Hawaiian for “no breath.” Perhaps the first Americans to land here failed to greet their hosts with the traditional cheek-to-cheek nasal inhale, or perhaps it’s as it was explained to me—that the first outsiders were so pale in comparison, they already looked dead.
Whichever it was, I am a “no breath” on an island of a thousand flower-scented breaths. I am sure I will get used to it quickly, but I am confident that when I return home, I shall be disappointed by the lack of inhalable orchids and plumeria.
Already, I have made the mistake of referring to home as “in America” and “stateside”, to which patriotic Hawaiians frown back at me. Hawaii is very much the United States. I have always known this, however, the America I know does not have coconut trees 50 feet tall, or grandiose statues dedicated to great surfers or pretty finches freely inhabiting the airport. Back home I’d be hard-pressed to find a can of Spam, and “in America” we serve apple pie instead of hula pie.
And so, my dear Oahu, please forgive my first-timer’s wide-eyed, open-mouthed babbling about your very American island. I have only now just learned how to breathe, so it will be a while before I learn to speak—
Until then, I’ll stick to the word I barely know: Aloha.