Paul Theroux’s Quest to Define Hawaii

For this renowned travel writer, no place has proved harder to decipher than his home for the past 22 years

The Hawaiian islands, from left to right, Niihau, Kauai, Oahu, Molokai, Lanai, Kahoolawe, Maui and the Big Island. (Jacques Descloitres / Modis Land Rapid Response Team / NASA GSFC)
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Hawaii seems a robust archipelago, a paradise pinned like a bouquet to the middle of the Pacific, fragrant, sniffable and easy of access. But in 50 years of traveling the world, I have found the inner life of these islands to be difficult to penetrate, partly because this is not one place but many, but most of all because of the fragile and floral way in which it is structured. Yet it is my home, and home is always the impossible subject, multilayered and maddening.

Two thousand miles from any great landmass, Hawaii was once utterly unpeopled. Its insularity was its salvation; and then, in installments, the world washed ashore and its Edenic uniqueness was lost in a process of disenchantment. There was first the discovery of Hawaii by Polynesian voyagers, who brought with them their dogs, their plants, their fables, their cosmology, their hierarchies, their rivalries and their predilection for plucking the feathers of birds; the much later barging in of Europeans and their rats and diseases and junk food; the introduction of the mosquito, which brought avian flu and devastated the native birds; the paving over of Honolulu; the bombing of Pearl Harbor; and many hurricanes and tsunamis. Anything but robust, Hawaii is a stark illustration of Proust’s melancholy observation: “The true paradises are the paradises we have lost.”

I think of a simple native plant, the alula, or cabbage plant, which is found only in Hawaii. In maturity, as an eight-foot specimen, you might mistake it for a tall, pale, skinny creature with a cabbage for a head (“cabbage on a stick” is its common description, Brighamia insignis its proper name). In the 1990s an outcrop of it was found growing on a high cliff on the Na Pali Coast in Kauai by some intrepid botanists. A long-tongued moth, a species of hawk moth, its natural pollinator, had gone extinct, and because of this the plant itself was facing extinction. But some rapelling botanists, dangling from ropes, pollinated it with their dabbling fingers; in time, they collected the seeds and germinated them.

Like most of Hawaii’s plants, an early form of the alula was probably carried to the volcanic rock in the ocean in the Paleozoic era as a seed in the feathers of a migratory bird. But the eons altered it, made it milder, more precious, dependent on a single pollinator. That’s the way with flora on remote islands. Plants, so to speak, lose their sense of danger, their survival skills—their thorns and poisons. Isolated, without competition and natural enemies, they become sportive and odder and special—and far more vulnerable to anything new or introduced. Now there are many alula plants—though each one is the result of having been propagated by hand.

This is the precarious fate of much of Hawaii’s flora, and its birds—its native mammals are just two, the Hawaiian hoary bat (Lasiurus cinereus semotus), Hawaii’s only native land mammal, and the Hawaiian monk seal (Monachus schauinslandi), both severely endangered and needlessly so. I have seen the slumber of a monk seal on a Hawaii beach interrupted by a dithering dog walker with an unleashed pet, and by onlookers in bathing suits hooting gleefully. There are fewer than 1,100 monk seals in the islands and the numbers are decreasing. The poor creature is undoubtedly doomed.

Hawaii offers peculiar challenges to anyone wishing to write about the place or its people. Of course, many writers do, arriving for a week or so and gushing about the marvelous beaches, the excellent food, the heavenly weather, filling travel pages with holiday hyperbole. Hawaii has a well-deserved reputation as a special set of islands, a place apart, fragrant with blossoms, caressed by trade winds, vibrant with the plucking of ukuleles, effulgent with sunshine spanking the water—see how easy it is? None of this is wrong; but there is more, and it is difficult to find or describe.

I have spent my life on the road waking in a pleasant, or not so pleasant hotel, and setting off every morning after breakfast hoping to discover something new and repeatable, something worth writing about. I think other serious travelers do the same, looking for a story, facing the world, tramping out a book with their feet—a far cry from sitting at a desk and staring mutely at a glowing screen or a blank page. The traveler physically enacts the narrative, chases the story, often becomes part of the story. This is the way most travel narratives happen.

Because of my capacity for listening to strangers’ tales, or the details of their lives, my patience with their food and their crotchets, my curiosity that borders on nosiness, I am told that anyone traveling with me experiences an unbelievable tedium, and this is why I choose to travel alone. Where I have found a place, or its people, to be unyielding I have moved on. But this is a rare happenstance. The wider world in my experience is anything but unyielding. I seldom meet uncooperative people. In traditional societies, especially, I’ve found folks to be hospitable, helpful, talkative, grateful for my interest, and curious about me, too—who I am, where I’m from, and by the way where’s my wife? I have sometimes encountered hostility, but in each case I have found that conflict dramatic enough to write about—a rifle muzzle in my face in Malawi, a predatory shifta bandit in the northern Kenya desert, a pickpocket in Florence, a drunken policeman at a roadblock in rural Angola, a mob in India, teenaged boys jabbing spears at me in a shallow lagoon where I was paddling in Papua New Guinea. Such confrontations go with the territory.

My love for traveling to islands amounts to a pathological condition known as nesomania, an obsession with islands. This craze seems reasonable to me, because islands are small self-contained worlds that can help us understand larger ones. For example, in Easter Island, Earth Island, the authors Paul Bahn and John Flenley convincingly argue that the fate of the world has been prefigured by the eco-disaster of Easter Island, the history of this small rock standing as a parable of the earth. Literature is full of island parables too, from The Tempest through Robinson Crusoe to Lord of the Flies, and notably in each case the drama arises from people who have arrived on the island from the outside world.

One of the traits that I’ve found in many island cultures is a deep suspicion of the outsiders, palangi, as such people are called in Samoa, suggesting they’ve dropped from the sky; a haole in Hawaii, meaning “of another breath”; the “wash-ashore” as non-islanders are dismissively termed in Martha’s Vineyard and other islands. Of course it’s understandable that an islander would regard a visitor with a degree of suspicion. An island is a fixed and finite piece of geography, and usually the whole place has been carved up and claimed. It is inconceivable that a newcomer, invariably superfluous, could bring a benefit to such a place; suspicion seems justified. The very presence of the visitor, the new arrival, the settler, suggests self-interest and scheming.


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