The $1 Oahu epiphany

Circling the heart of Hawaii by bus was something I'd wanted to do for years.

By Don George

Published June 30, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

A couple of months ago, I was invited to Oahu, Hawaii, to speak at the annual conference of the Public Relations Society of America. As you know, dear reader, business travel is an oxymoron. Business travel is anti-travel. The best sightseeing occurs between the airport and your hotel. You spend all day in dreary meetings in cookie-cutter buildings; when they finally let you out for a taxi to the business dinner, you're shocked to discover you spent an entire day in Paris or New York or Tokyo without ever being aware of it.

Luckily, on this Hawaii trip, my schedule afforded a single entirely free afternoon between speeches, panels and receptions. This brief block became the focus of my pre-trip preparations: What could I do?

On previous visits to Oahu, I had discovered a few fine ways to while away a weekday afternoon. You can go to Waikiki's leafy Kapiolani Park and watch extended families picnic and play Frisbee with the slow, stately grace and from-the-belly joy that seem enviably Hawaiian. You can hike into the scraggly wilds of Diamond Head, so incongruously close to the concrete and steel of Waikiki. Or you can spend $20 to $120 on a package tour and go virtually anywhere in an air-conditioned coach with a gregarious guide.

But I chose something I've been wanting to do for years and had never gotten around to trying -- something locals had assured me was the best way to see the real Oahu: the $1 circle-island ride on TheBus, Oahu's public transport system.

Thus I found myself on a Thursday noon at the bus station outside the Ala Moana shopping center, just opposite Ala Moana Park in downtown Honolulu, watching Bus No. 52 pull to the curb. I hopped on, dropped in my dollar, settled into a window-side seat and began my adventure.

For me, a big part of travel is embracing the unknown. But when you have a must-attend cocktail reception at 6, you have to follow Don's Business Travel Rule No. 1: It's fine to let serendipity take you by the hand -- as long as you have a backup plan. Old No. 52 was perfect in this regard: In four hours TheBus would circle me right back to where I had begun, and I had no idea where it would take me in between.

One of the great things about riding the public bus is the insight it gives into local life. The people around me were not package tourists -- they were Oahu residents going about their daily business. The brisk lady in the mango-colored suit was scanning stocks in the Honolulu Advertiser, the unruly-haired man in shorts and a tatty T-shirt was scrupulously cleaning his nails, the Gap guy in khakis and a vanilla short-sleeved shirt was making dinner plans on his cellphone. And the stout Asian woman in front of me was thrusting a 3-by-5 index card before my eyes: "I'm hungry," it read in a wavy scrawl. "Please give me money so I can buy food."

As the prim, grim buildings of downtown Honolulu slid by, I dug into my pocket and handed her some coins. She gave me a slight nod and shuffled into a seat. The advertising placard above her read: "Do you know a child who needs free or low-cost health care? Aloha United Way."

The buildings began to thin out, and suddenly we were surrounded by greenery. In the distance a gaggle of children waddled barefoot behind their teacher into a school.

After half an hour, TheBus turned onto Highway 92, and suddenly the brilliant Pacific was on our left; green hills shimmered on our right. We were in Hawaiian suburbia: trim houses with palm trees and flaming red hibiscus in their front yards, tikes tricycling on tranquil streets framed by a dozen gradations of green.

We drove on, past sprawling gashes of copper-colored soil, a barbed-wired, helicoptered Army base, a shopping center with a KFC, Burger King, Long's drugstore and YMCA, which seemed just like home -- this is America after all -- until I saw a looming row of green serrated peaks beyond them. In the parking lot, Toyota pickups had surfboards stacked in back.

About an hour into the ride, another Hawaiian icon appeared: pineapples! First there was the tourist-friendly Dole Plantation, with its exhibition patches and cafeteria -- and its restrooms. (Note to self: Next time pee before boarding the bus.) Minutes later the real thing appeared -- spiky fields on both sides of the road, stretching until they disappeared into the bases of now mist-shrouded peaks.

We drove into clouds and suddenly entered an open-air carwash, rain conga-ing on the roof and falling in torrents down the windows. Minutes later we exited into sheer squinting sunshine, a wild world of wind-bent beachfront houses on our left and wind-churned grassy hills with grazing horses on our right. Here for the first time I had the feeling of being really out there, in the unseen Oahu, miles and miles from the hype and high-rises of Honolulu.

Soon we passed the famed Banzai Pipeline, where I peered in vain for surfers slicing killer waves. No pipes, no people. I was beginning to question the whole Banzai myth when we came to a sign planted firmly in the middle of the highway: "Road Closed." A woman who had just gotten on TheBus noticed my consternation. She had on a flowing floral dress and cradled a woven basket of groceries in one arm and a daughter sporting a garland of flowers in the other, and I had dismissed her as human driftwood, something the surf of the '60s had deposited on Oahu's shore. But then she smiled kindly and stroked her child's hair and told me in a gentle voice that high winds and waves had washed out a stretch of the road at the far end of the island. Bus No. 52 would stop at Waimea Valley Adventure Park, she said, where I could take a minivan across the washed-out road and pick up Bus No. 55.

Suddenly I wanted to ask her if she had just picked her child up at preschool and what kind of house they lived in and what it was like to wake up in the morning surrounded by all that ocean and wind and green and what she did during a whole day in that wide-open, sun-swept place where people still wore long floral dresses and garlands in their hair. But I didn't say anything, and then TheBus stopped and they were gone.

I got off at the adventure park, ate a coconut and macadamia nut ice cream cone, got on the minivan and rode by the water-blasted beach and gouged-out road. The landscape looked stunned.

Then Bus No. 55 chugged up and we rode past a spectacular swath of unpeopled sand, mile after mile of it, bordered by palms and pines and retina-popping purple and red bougainvillea.

It was sometime during this stretch that I began to realize how odd I must look to everyone else, scribbling furiously in my notebook while they rode home from work or school or market. This place I found so exotic was home for them.

As I was reflecting on this, something miraculous happened: TheBus stopped outside a school, and about 20 children piled on. They were chattering excitedly and playfully pushing each other; then they jostled toward the back of TheBus, settled into the seats all around me and began tossing jokes back and forth like basketballs.

I could understand only about 20 percent of what they were saying -- "This really is like being in a foreign country," I thought to myself -- but the miracle was this: their faces. As I looked from one child to another to another, I realized that here was the story of Hawaii, this rainbow of humanity stretching from the red-haired, vanilla-ice-cream-with-freckles-faced child on my left to the sloe-eyed, cafi-au-lait-toned beauty before me to the bushy-black-haired, pumice-colored young man standing to my right and saying something about a teacher that had all of them laughing.

The earth-girdling spectrum these students embodied and their seemingly easy intermingling -- well, maybe I was romanticizing it, maybe I was reading much more into it than was really there, but for a long moment on a small bus on the far side of Oahu, among the extravagant endowments of beach and palm and peak, I looked in awe on Oahu's human landscape, and felt a little bud of hope open inside me.

The bill? Bus fare: $1. Coconut and macadamia nut ice cream cone: $2.50. Now that's what I call a deal.

Don George

Don George is the editor of Salon Travel.

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