Last month my husband and I took a trip of a lifetime - we cruised from Vancouver, BC to the Hawaiian Islands, made four stops while in Hawaii, then cruised back to Vancouver. Neither of us had been to Hawaii before, and we booked the trip 15 months in advance. To say we were excited is a bit of an understatement!
Although we did some research about the islands we were visiting and what to do there, we didn't really put a lot of time into learning about Hawaii's history or their stories. I always intended to, but somehow other priorities always seemed to get in the way. I think there was also a small sense that, since we were still travelling in the US, how different could it really be? I know, I know. Call us naive!
Luckily, the cruise line that we were on has a "travel guide" that accompanies every cruise. The job of the guide is to give talks and presentations that help passengers better understand the history, culture, geography, and people of the place you are visiting. We were incredibly fortunate to have Kainoa as our travel guide - a native Hawaiian who can trace his family's presence on Oahu back 600 years.
We went to see Kainoa's talks almost every day. And considering we had 10 sea days and he spoke twice a day, this added up to quite an opportunity for education! We learned about each of the cities we were visiting, their history and what things to see in the surrounding areas. We learned about the geographical history of the islands, Captain Cook's visit, the history of the monarchy and how Hawaii moved to statehood, the attack on Pearl Harbour, and the biological diversity of the islands. I'm rather sad we missed the talk on the migration of the Polynesians to the islands, as well as the history of the lei and the hula, but it was tough to fit everything in.
For both myself and my husband, we found that learning so much about Hawaii from such a charismatic speaker and within days of our visit really brought us much more enjoyment once we got there. We recognized landmarks, knew some of the stories our tour guides on the island were telling, and were better able to remember the history and put it all together with what we were seeing.
But for me, I think the best part was hearing the mythic references in Kainoa's talks. It was an entirely different experience to hear someone talk matter-of-factly about myth, rather than reading it off the printed page. It reminded me of how myths are meant to be enjoyed - through story, song, poetry, and perhaps most importantly, out loud. It struck me once again how myths can be so simple and yet so complicated. Here's an example:
At one of our talks, Kainoa was discussing taro, and how it is a staple of the Hawaiians' diet, much like potatoes are in North America. The traditional baby food in Hawaii is a kind of mashed or liquefied taro, which from the pictures looked a lot like pablum.
Kainoa related the simple story of the mother and father goddess whose baby was stillborn. They buried the baby in the ground and from this spot the first taro plant grew.
For me, this story was completely familiar - so similar to many of the agricultural resurrection stories. But then Kainoa said: "This story reminds us that Taro is our elder brother. As Taro takes care of us, we must take care of Taro."
It sounds so simple, right? But this totally blew my mind in that way that myths have a habit of doing - such a simple revelation but such powerful ramifications. In all my readings of agricultural myths, I'd never quite heard it put this way before, and suddenly I had an entirely new appreciation of the stories. It was a lightbulb moment!
There were many other fascinating tidbits of myth, from the volcano goddess Pele's ire at a geothermal plant being built on her mountainside (several accidents and a lava eruption resulted in the cancellation of the construction) to the birthing stones where noble mothers would come to give birth to their children. And lots in between.
And all of this doesn't even touch on the monarchy. I found their history to be incredibly interesting, and it's easy to see that King Kamehameha the Great has already reached mythic status (he reigned in the 1700s). The Hawaiian monarchy is spoken of with great respect by the Hawaiian people, and their annexation to the US was considered a sad and solemn event by the people we talked to.On a side note, did you know that the only royal palace located on US soil is located in Honolulu? It's called 'Iolani Palace, which means "hawk of heaven". We were lucky enough to visit and tour it. I can't recommend it enough if you're staying in the city.
Overall, this trip brought home a really powerful reminder. To really enjoy your travels, learn the history, culture, myth and stories of the places you are travelling to. Wherever possible, talk to the people themselves and hear their stories from their own lips. The world of myth shouldn't just be read about in scholarly books. It should be lived!
I purchased two books about Hawaiian myth while on the islands that you might be interested in: Hina - The Goddess and Ka Honua Ola: The Living Earth.