HAWAII

The Big Island: State of Grace

         

I was nervous about asking how much Orchid Bungalow, my luxury dwelling by the sea, was going to cost me - it was said to be the most expensive, the most sumptuous in Hawaii, and that was saying a great deal, because already I had felt Hawaii to be the most orchidaceous place on earth. Still I risked the question when I saw Ms L'Eplattenier, the bungalow manager. "It's two thousand five hundred dollars a day," she said, flinging back the drapes to show me my swimming-pool. I must have winced, because she turned back to me and smiled. "That includes continental breakfast," she added.

This was the Kohala Coast, just north of Kealakekua Bay, where Captain Cook was clubbed to death in February 1779. it is impossible to travel in the Pacific, even for a short time, and not develop an admiration for this hero of navigation and discovery, who was - amazingly, for a great captain - a thoroughly good man. Having sailed from Niihau some nine months before to look for the Northwest Passage - a sea-route to the Atlantic - Cook had been resting in Hawaiian waters after finding only dangerous ice and mountainous shores. His two ships had returned to Hawaii, but this time to Maui, and Cook bitterly logged the fact that the pox they had left in Kauai and Niihau had reached this island. They sailed on to the island of Hawaii and made contact. The islanders were harder to read than any Cook had met before - their behavior threw him. The Hawaiians still seriously wondered whether this was the god Lono, on his floating island.

What followed was a chaotic interaction, a clash of cultures, with blundering on both sides which made violence almost inevitable. Was this haole really Lono? Were these sailors dangerous? Cook met the aged King Kalaniopu'u, who treated him as an equal. Meanwhile William Bligh and others were making charts, collecting artifacts, sketching pictures of landscapes and ceremonies. but the pilferage by islanders - their passion for pieces of iron undiminished - was unceasing. there were random desecrations and casual cruelty by Cook's men. the ships were besieged for iron, and islanders even devised ways for winkling nails out of the ships' timbers. This situation continued for just under four months and then at last, with the theft of his best cutter - an important boat to the expedition - Cook was so exasperated he went ashore to take the King hostage until the vessel was returned. The King was at first friendly. there was a conversation. but a misunderstanding arose, and soon panic. The islanders became menacing - Cook's frightened men fired their muskets. A thousand islanders had gathered on the beach. Many of them began to throw stones. cook was struck by stones, and then clubbed and held under water, and stabbed, and drowned.

"Justifiable homicide," Mark Twain snarls in the Big Island chapter of Roughing It - he felt that Cook had been ungrateful and belligerent, that he had asked for it by pretending to be Lono. but poor cook had died in an almost meaningless scuffle, an incoherent event, an accident of panic and riot. It was an unacceptable way for a hero to go, and yet human and horrible, a bit of bad timing, just the sort of end you predict for yourself. And though the conflict was later patched up, the next day some islanders dressed themselves in the breeches and shirts of the men they had killed and went to the beach and showe3d their buttocks to the seamen, mooning being a traditional Polynesian way of taunting an enemy. The beach at Kealakekua Bay is still strewn with stones, the right size and shape to use as weapons.

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Beyond the bay, and above it, is a lava field - great browny-black cinders and clinkers the size of boulders, called a'a - as far as the eye can see, interrupted by the occasional grove of palms or stretch of meadow. Because of that landscape there has not been much building here. There are three large resort developments, but they are self-contained, like small green islands, isolated on the coast at the end of the lava flows. On this leeward side, it hardly rains (ten inches of rain a year) - it is a great sloping desert of black volcanic rock, the Kaniku Lava Flow on the west coast of the Big Island. Orchid bungalow was one of four luxury bungalows at the Mauna Lani Resort, and because of golf tournament was in progress, my neighbors were Arnold Palmer (in Plumeria), Lee Trevino (in Hibiscus) and Gary Player (in Bird of Paradise). Jack Nicklaus had just moved out of Orchid. golfers were the only people swinging clubs on this coast these days.

"A strange things happen to our guests in the bungalows," the resident manager of Mauna Lani told me. "They get what we call 'bungalow fever' - they check in and eat all their meals in them. they use their twenty-four-hour butler service. They give parties, they have cookouts. They don't leave. And when it comes time to check out they don't really want to go." The current record for staying in one of these $2,500-a-night bungalows is held by the actor Dustin Hoffman, who checked in and did not emerge until twenty-eight days later. The sun was shining on the snow-capped crater of Mauna Loa the day I checked into Orchid Bungalow, and almost the first thing I saw from the veranda (or lanai) was an enormous humpback whale, which breached and slapped its tail throughout the afternoon. that night I was invited to a part at the hotel - something to do with the golf tournament. The moonlit Pacific lay just beyond the rawbar, where Bryant Gumbel stood, beaming expansively. The president of Rolex, lifting a grilled prawn to his lips, displayed his wristwatch, a Rolex EJ Presidente - he had handed out at least one that day to a successful golfer. I was in conversation with a man wearing an ugly shirt.
 
"I've got a twin-engine jet with a Harley Davidson on board. I can go anywhere in the world. where should I go? Don't say Yerp. I hate Yerp."
"Know where his money comes from?" someone said to me later. "He's a multimillionaire. His father invented the supermarket shopping cart."
"It's like inventing the spoon," I said. "Or the can-opener."
"Charo and Sylvester Stallone have houses in Kauai," someone else was saying. "She was married to Xavier Cugat. We used to see Willie Nelson jogging on Oahu."
"If you understand Japanese banks you understand Japanese investment in Honolulu. People just off the plane were getting mortgages of between two and five percent, and they could borrow up to 120 per cent of the purchase price."
"The Japanese love Disney memorabilia - Mickey Mouse, especially. but they're also into quality. Hermes opened a store in Honolulu strictly for the Japanese market. We're talking silk shirts at thirteen hundred dollars a pop."
"They used to pee in the sink," a hotelier was reminiscing, smiling at the memory. "This was only ten or fifteen years ago, in a good hotel - well-to-do guests. They stood on the toilet seat to do a number two. I guess they were used to poor sanitation in their country. They stretched out on the lobby seats and had naps. They walked int he public rooms in their pajamas - kimonos, whatever. We had to
print notices. 'Please do not pee in the sink.'"
 
Across the lawn, Japanese tycoons looking deceptively child-like were clustered around Arnold Palmer - his name was impossibly difficult for them to pronounce. They had flown in from Tokyo for the tournament, and here they were proferring their caps and visors for him to sign, which he did without a protest. One of those Japanese gentlemen moved into Plumeria bungalow after Arnold Palmer had moved out. Each day a stretch limousine drew up to the front door and the family - father, mother, four children - disappeared inside and, hidden by its black windows, were whisked away. But they were soon back in the bungalow garden, sniffing flowers and thrashing in the pool A sort of bungalow fever afflicted the golfers. Gary Player wanted to bring the butler with him to south Africa, and he was so taken by the bungalow's design that he asked the management for a copy of the architect's plans. One of the other golfers - Nicklaus, I was told - also insisted on a copy of the floor plan. And all of them said they would be back, as soon as possible: the luxury had not been exaggerated, nor had the daily rate put them off. Or did they get it free? some of them were walking billboards. Lee Trevino had a contract to wear a hat advertising a Japanese make of car - and he never took the hat off. A prominent golfer like Trevino could get half a million dollars to wear one of those hats. They wore patches on their shirts. They had big visible logos on their golf-bags. They would have called themselves sportsmen, but some of them were merely glorified sandwich boards.

Gillian, the woman who had told me the price of the bungalows and added memorably, that includes continental breakfast, stopped in at Orchid bungalow to make sure I was comfortable.

"I am very comfortable," I said.

The bungalow had two enormous bedrooms, each with its own spa area - steam bath, whirlpool bath, orchid garden, a central lounge area was about half the size of a basketball court, with a cathedral ceiling, and the entertainment center in the southwest corner of the lounge was supplied with a television, VCR, tape deck and CD player. I could have added, I often sleep in a tent.

This bungalow had recently figured in an episode of the popular television show. "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," she said. She pointed out how the tables and some of the furniture had been cut from solid blocks of Italian marble, that the carpets had been loomed in England using the designer's marble-matching pattern of burgundy and gray. Had I noticed the bar - seventeen full bottles of liquor? She wondered whether I had any questions about the pool, which was exclusively mine, as was the outdoor jacuzzi nearby.

"We put out some CDs we thought you might like," she said.
Kenny Rogers, Fleetwood Mac, Eric Clapton, Cher. Never mind. I had a whole catalogue to choose from.
"The chef will be over shortly to take your instructions for lunch and dinner," she said, and shed vanished.

That was something I was to take for granted - the sudden apparition of a butler or a maid, setting out fruit juice or caviar, skimming the pool, bearing flowers or fruit. It was all accomplished without a sound, as though these people trembled a few inches above the floor. Any request I made was carried out instantly, gracefully and without any pomposity - no Jeeves nonsense, but rather speed and a smile, from Richard, my personal pool attendant, to Orrin my butler, who served the meals and opened the champagne. Each morning before I did anything else I strolled from the bedroom to the lounge and opened the sliders to the lanai, walked around the pool to the edge of my domain, where a fishpond, my own fishpond, with appropriately big fish circulating init, separated me from the beach. there were coconut palms leaning over the sand, and the lagoon at the edge of the bay was greener than the sea. The beach was mine, the whole Pacific was mine, all the happy isles of Oceania, and so was this luxury bungalow. but wasn't my chef a trifle overdue? When I saw a human being on the beach I became slightly miffed and pouted in my luxury bungalow, wondering whether I should summon my security guard, until I remembered that In Hawaii the beaches are for everyone. 

The momentary sense of violation at seeing another person on the beach, the glimpse of Friday's footprint, in a manner of speaking, helped me to understand how quickly I became habituated to this billionai0ie's life. Hey, I could get used to this! people say, when something unexpectedly pleasant comes their way. They are telling the truth. to rephrase Tolstoy. All luxury is the same, but misery for each person is miserable in its own way. And it is the easiest thing in the world to become corrupted by the good life. Once you have flown first-class in an airline an economy seat is intolerable: after you have tested luxury you are changed, and there is no cure for it. Pain does not create a long-lasting memory, but the memory of luxury exerts itself for ever. That is wonderful, the memory of happiness being so strong, but I can imagine circumstances when it might become a curse. It could be a crueller punishment than torture - giving a person a taste of heaven, creating a habit, and then whisking the victim away to suffer without it.

The hitch at Orchid Bungalow as that the day was not long enough. I wanted to read, lie in the sun, exercise, swim, sit in the jacuzzi, eat lengthy sumptuous meals, drink champagne and listen to music all at once. I discovered that some of these activities could be combined. Now I understood why many multimillionaires - Axel Springer and Somerset Maugham were but two - received annual injections of longevity potions. The science of life-extension is funded by a large number of very wealthy individuals, who have the most selfish motives. there is something about the pure effortless pleasure of being hoggishly, sluttingly rich that must make you want to live longer. The fact that the sun was shining on me out of a cloudless sky in what was by any reckoning one of the most beautiful places in the world only enhanced what was already wonderful. It is hard to improve on bliss, but Orchid bungalow proved that it was possible. The only way I could imagine myself happier, more comfortable or contented, was to have someone else to share that bliss with.

"What if I wanted to have a dinner party?" I asked the chef, Piet Wigmans, when he came to take my order one day. "Say six people."
"Anything you like," he said. He suggested the food we might have - the various local fish, tuna and opakapaka (snapper), shrimp from Oahu, crabs and so forth. There were also Maine lobsters, New Zealand mussels, Chilean asparagus, fresh avocados and passion fruit - and he was a master chef; he had run great kitchens in San Francisco and Dorado Beach. ("How did you make out in Puerto Rico?" I asked. he replied, "Fine. I have a whip.")
I chose spicy dungeness crab soup, followed by spinach salad with avocados. The main course would be sauteed opakapuka with citrus sauce and stir-fried baby asparagus and snowpears and garlic potatoes. for dessert, chocolate Grand Marnier souffle. As soon as any chief mentions baby vegetables you know you're into three figures. 
"And now shall we discuss the wines?" Chef Piet asked.

We settled on the wines - four altogether - and then feeling slightly weary from all these decisions I reinvigorated myself with a swim and a little nap on my sunny lanai. The guests, my new Hawaiian friends, were delightful - intelligent and shining with health and accomplishment, all of them residents of the little paradise and my bungaloid version of Xanadu. One of the guests was the distinguished trial lawyer George Davis, still brilliant and active at the age of eighty-three, looking a bit like Robert Frost. At one stage in the dinner he recalled the last night he spent with his doomed client Caryl Chessman, which was Chessman's last night on earth, in 1960. Chessman had not killed anyone. He had been convinced of being involved in a bangled kidnapping - he had protested his innocence in a famous and eloquent book which had been utterly convincing. the crime was not serious by today's standards, and even if he had committed the crime today he would not have been executed for it - it was no longer a capital offense. that night Chessman said goodbye to his attorney. His parting words were, "George, you're shaking hands with a dead man." A few hours later he was electrocuted.

After dinner, when I was alone, I walked outside. The pool was glowing, the palms rattling, the moonlight lay liquefied on the POacific. I sat under a jeweled sky having difficulty imagining what Death Row must be like. I took out my pocket calculator and began tapping away - peep, peep, peep. Ah, yes. At $2,500 a day, it would cost me $32 million to live in Orchid bungalow until the year 2015, when I would be eighty-three years old. It had only taken two days for this luxury to affect me, but it did so profoundly. It was a shock to my system that in a very short time transformed me, as luxury will - like a drug. it was wonderful being supine and semi-comatose in the sunshine, but it was also a bit like being a zoo animal - wallowing in the sort of captivating comfort that I felt would numb me and then make me fat and crazy. On the other hand, I wasn't terribly worried: at these prices there wasn't an earthly chance of thin luxury lasting much longer. I realised a little. I became reclusive and abstermious. I began living in a corner of the bungalow and working hard to break the day into three distinct parts - morning (tea and writing), afternoon (light lunch, swimming, then poaching myself into exhaustion in the hot tub), and evening which was built around one of Chef Piet's dinners, an elaborately choreographed event, no matter what was on the menu - usually a hoarded dollars' worth of sealife so deliciously prepared that I stopped asking the butler for the Tabasco sauce.

The sun shone unceasingly upon the sea, and the humpback - my daily whale - bucked and slapped just offshore. I was living in all the Hawaiian splendor, and yes I was also a spectator to it, enclosed by a bungalow so protective it was like a complicated organism, feeding me, cooling me, lulling me to sleep with material caresses. It was an existence just about summed up in the expression "splendid isolation." What was strictly Hawaiian about that? I kept asking myself whether I could have mistaken this place for another many paradise in the Caribbean, or the Mediterranean, or the coast of Africa. but no - the flowers and the fragrance were Hawaiian, the great rolling waves could only have been breaking and dumping on the Pacific reef, the high clouds, the coral, the vast dark landscape of lava, some of it gigantic a'a cinders and some of it the buckled pahuehue that looks like a melted parking lot; the hospitality, the smiles, the sense of abundance - it was all Hawaiian in its very essence.

The nagging reality of it was the price - $2,500 a day. I began seriously to wonder what the opposite of this might be. What would life be like if I were living as cheaply as possible in paradise? Indeed, how much fun would you have here in Hawaii on one-thousandth of that, say about $2.50 a day?

I still have my Oceania camping gear: tent, sleeping bag, cooking kit, water bag and Swiss army knife. I had left my collapsible boat in Honolulu but I had had the good fortune to meet one of Hawaii's best-known kayakers, who had loaned me an inflatable kayak and a paddle. My idea was to check out of the luxury bungalow at Manua Lani before my bungalow fever became incurable, and paddle down the coast - find a sheltered cove, go beachcombing and live on next to nothing. I averaged the coast of the needles, couscous, fruit and vegetables I packed into the kayak and it came out to $2.18 a day. So I had thirty-two cents a day to play with, but that was purely theoretical - the nearest shops were in Kona, thirty miles away. My original plan had been to go to the north shore of the island and paddle from one casual valley to the other - from Waipio to Waimanu, where the steep valley walls allow only helicopters or the sturdiest hikers to enter. But of course a kayaker could enter from the sea, paddling around the headlands. but the seas were bad - everyone warned me against them.  Nainoa Thompson was one of the leaders, and the navigator, of the Holulea expedition - helping to sail successfully a double-hulled canoe from Hawaii to Tahiti and New Zealand in 1986. He took me aside, and said, "I was out in that channel in a sea like this and the glass on the steering house was smashed by waves - that thing is fifteen feet up, and it's very strong. Don't paddle there now." some other time, I thought. I was patient in Hawaii. I would be here a long time, I felt. there would be time for everything.

Instead of staying at Waipio, I paddled about seven miles south of Orchid bungalow and camped among the palms at the edge of Keawaiki Bay. An estate nearby comprised a dozen rambling stone buildings, and had been built in the 1920s by Francis I'i Brown, champion golfer, bon-vivant, millionaire and direct descendant of one of King Kamehameha's advisers - in other words, in one of the smallest and most select classes in Hawaiian society, an alii, a nobleman. The family had once owned a very large slice of Oahu, including Pearl Harbor. One day at Keawaiki I pressed my nose against the window of one of these stone buildings and looked at the framed photographs on the near wall. One was a picture of Francis Brown standing with Babe Ruth, both of them in golfers' duds, knickers and long socks and cloth caps. In another he posed with a young man still recognizable as Bob Hope. Stories were told in Honolulu and the Big Island of Brown's eccentricities and friendships, and how this strange little seaside estate - accessible only by water - had been visited by celebrities. "Wild parties," people said. In the center of one of Keawaiki's brackish fishponds was a semi-ruined dwelling, which had been a little pavilion once upon a time, where Francis Brown - who had never married - kept the girl of his dreams, known as one of the most beautiful hula dancers of her time, named Winona Love.  

The buildings were empty and locked, and had the sunfaded moribund look of neglected houses by the sea. but I had no need of them. I cooked my dollar's worth of dinner - couscous and lentils, fruit and tea - and sat at the edge of the cindery dune above the black lava beach under that same crescent moon that had bewitched me at Orchid bungalow. I had had air-conditioning there and a pool; here I had a soft breeze and the sea, and for a bath a brackish pool that had been scooped out of the lava, fed by a spring. It is not hyperbole to say that I felt a greater sense of wealth, greater happiness and a more powerful sense of well-being camping here than I had had living in the luxury bungalow. It was the same sense of liberation I had felt on the desert islands of Vav'au and in my little camp at Tongariki, beneath the crumbled ahu, at the edge of Easter Island. I was not only safe and very comfortable, but most of all nothing interruptive like a wall or a carpet or a pane of glass stood between me and this natural beauty. There was nothing to fear - in fact, I felt supported and protected by the palms and the dunes, and that encouraged me and raised my morale. At the bungalow I had only wanted to mooch around the pool - I had become fairly dopey and unambitious. But here, living outdoors, I was filled with a desire to get into the kayak and paddle beyond the bay.

I paddled north into the next bay and around Weliweli Point, where waves were smashing onto the black heap of lava. I paddled a few more miles to Anaehoomalu Bay, where there were two luxury hotels and no one swimming in the sea, much less boating. I found a secluded beach at the south end of the bay, had lunch and headed back. The wind had picked up and the waves had heightened, but this inflatable kayak bobbed along, twisting and sliding. The humpback whale appeared early the following morning, just offshore, near enough for me to see the blast from his blow-hole. He surfaced and slapped his tail and turned, plowing the sea like a dithering submarine. I paddled out in his direction, and I saw him dive one last time: he did not breach again that day. So I turned south, where a lava flow a mile wide formed the coastline. Just beyond Ohiki Bay was Luahinewai, vividly illustrating the Hawaiian conundrum that most beauty spots on the islands are haunted with grisly memories - this particular area of outstanding natural beauty was associated with the slaughter of Chief Keoua and twenty-four of his retainers by King Kamehameha in 1790.

My bay, Keawaiki, was particularly rich in fish, which were gold and emerald and silver, surgeon fish and parrot fish and the small, colorfully striped state fish (humuhumunukunukuapua'a). They twinkled like jewels among the coral. Because of its protection and its steep beach I could dive in from the shore and go snorkeling and float on the fringes of the tide rip to the edge of the bay, weightless and warm. here in my little camp exercise required more initiative than at Mauna Lani - no health club, no golf course - but because of that was more rewarding. I swam, I walked. One of the strangest trails I have even hiked lay just inland from the palms, a hot narrow path through the lava flow, called the King's Trail, and cut centuries ago by Hawaiians long before hoales like Cook ventured ashore. The path is a groove three feet deep, like a single wheeltrack that runs for miles down the side of the island. Like the Inca Trail and Watling Street it is one of the great thoroughfares of the ancient world. I hacked at coconuts, I searched for petroglyphs - the rock carvings that are numerous on the Big Island.

One day I went north to one of the most sacred places in Hawaii, and one of its oldest sites, the Mookini Luakini Heiau. built on a high point over looking the sea, the temple is a vast rectangle of cannonball-sized stones. It looks like a crumbled monastery, the Hawaiian version of Tintern Abbey, just as ghostly, with altars and fallen walls, and a nobility that is lent an even greater magnificence by the sight of the waves breaking on the point just beneath it. It was similar in its position and its shape to structures I had seen in Samoa and the Marquesas, but to think that these other ruins were thousands of miles away, across the dangerous moana, that made it even more fascinating. Wind and trees, the flattened grass and black rocky shore gave this part of the Big Island an uncanny resemblance to Easter Island - even to its colors and grassy odors. A ten-minute walk across the meadow was the birth side to King Kamehameha. A signboard nearby read in part, "His prowess as a warrior-statesman destined him to unite the Hawaiian Islands and bring peace and prosperity to his people ... He was true to his own religious beliefs." And there was a regal quotation from the controversial eighteenth-century ling who was known as "The Lonely One": E oni wale no oukou i ku'u pono 'a'le pau - "Endless is the good that I have given you to enjoy." My days were sunny and pleasant. My nights were luminous with stars. I slept as I had on Kauai, pleasurably drugged with fatigue. In the morning I was woken by the mewing and screeching and the ratchet-like scrapings of birds in the palms above me. The exercise and the simple food and the frugality of this enterprise made me feel smugger than when I had been living like a millionaire, and in that gloating mood I slept like a log in my tent, at the edge of the lagoon.

Time passed - months. I was still in Hawaii, I had not left Oceania. I was paddling my collapsible boat, marveling at the way its canvas hull had faded in the punishing sun. some days I paddled rented outriggers off Honolulu, and open hard-shells off windward Oahu. the places I had paddled to write about I was still paddling for pleasure. there were more sea coasts I wanted to paddle - off Maui to the bombsite of Kahoolawe, and along the north coast of Molokai to Father Damien's old leper settlement of Kalaupapa, and eventually - in good weather - from one island to another. Paddling had taken the place of writing. I thought about my book and then muttered, Oh never mind. Normally, at this point in the trip - in this chapter, say - the traveler is heading home. Or the traveler is already home, reflecting on the extraordinary trip, looking at slides, sorting notes, perhaps wishing the trip had not ended, or at least saying so. but that nostalgia can sound so insincere. You read it and think: No, you're delighted to be home, dining out on your stories of megapode birds and muddy buttocks and what the King of Tonga told you!

Isn't one of the greatest of rewards of travel the return home - the reassurance of family and old friends, familiar sights and homely comforts? I used to go back home and be welcomed, and find months of mail stacked on my desk and spilling to the floor, and after I opened it all, I would answer some and pay bills and burn the letters and envelopes. It could take half a day at the incinerator in the garden, as I stirred the ashes of all the mail I had received. And when I was done and caught up, the routine of home would re4assert itself. I would begin writing, spending the day at my desk reliving my trip, and when the pubs opened at five-thirty I would buy an evening newspaper and sit reading it with my elbows on the bar, drinking a pint of stout, thinking: A month ago I was in a tent by a riverbank, swatting flies. Sitting there under the timbers of the cool musty pub, I would have a clear recollection of someone like Tony the beachcomber on the Aboriginal coast of north Queensland - Tony saying, I found some 'roo meat under a box once. Fort I had it. Two years old, it was. I ate it. Wonderful in soups, y'know. And, feeling blessed, I would give thanks that I had returned, that I had a home, that was safe, that I had been missed, that I was loved.

A trip like that had a beginning and an end; it was an experience in parentheses, enclosed by my life. But this trip, paddling through Oceania, had turned into my life. Now I was in Hawaii, living in a valley full of Honolulu rainbows, writing about the Trobriands and the Solomon and Australia, writing about Tony the beachcomber. I thought of the solemn Aboriginal Gladys as her grandson searched her hair for nits. The Kaisiga children singing Weespa a frayer in the darkness. The old man on Savo holding a big old radio to his ear, listening for news of the Gulf War. Mimi in Moorea saying of her Marquesan child, "Some day she will be a Theroux." There were good people in the waterworld of Oceania. I thought often of Easter Island, the haunting stone faces, the lonely wind, and because i had seen so little hunger in Oceania, I thought of the hunger of little Roberto, muttering his thanks in Rapa Nui, as he clawed the shell from the hard-boiled egg I had not wanted, and wolfed it, his eyes bulging. I spent a great deal of time wandering the beaches of Hawaii. I kept paddling too. One morning, paddling off Kauai, I saw two humpback whales and I slipped into the water and spent an hour or more with my ears submerged, listening to this happy couple sing and grunt. I was still going, like the man who steps out for a paper and never comes back. I was that man. I had vanished. And there was no reason to go back now. No one missed me. Half my life had been eclipsed.

And then all of it was eclipsed. One morning in July, the Path of Totality lay over the Big Island. I woke at 5am and foraged around for my welder's mask. It had a density factor of fourteen - the most opaque obtainable. I put it on and was in darkness. If I stared at the sun (so I was told) I would see the same darkness, and a dim wafer. The last total eclipse in Hawaii had been in 1850, and at the time the Hawaiians had felt that their chiefs had abandoned them, that the gods were angry, and that the sun - the great La which they worshipped - had lost is mana. The stars appeared in daytime, the temperature dropped, flower blossoms closed, birds stopped singing. People flocked to Hawaii to experience this total eclipse of 1991. there would not be another one like this for 142 years. Fifteen hundred Japanese crouched on the first fairway of the Hyatt Waikoloa, clutching "sun peeps" which would prevent them from being blinded. The astronomer Edward Krupp said, "Eclipses are the most awe-inspiring event on earth. No one should go through life without witnessing one."

it was also a marketing opportuni8ty. The hotels were serving a special omelette called an "egg-clipse." there were eclipse towels and mugs, eclipse mugs and jewelry. T-shirts saying Eclipsomania! and Totally Umbra! and I was there! A young man named Miles Okirmura of Honolulu sold specially sealed commemorative cans of tinned darkness. the Honolulu Advertiser pointed out that "the darkness had been canned before the eclipse." Walking groggily in the roof of my hotel in the early morning darkness I bumped into a man with a flashlight, who was unmistakably Portuguese. "It's cloudy," he said, sounding vindictive.

Louis Schwartzberg, time-lapse photographer, had been on the roof since four, assembling two 35mm cameras. He had brought fourteen large crates of equipment.

"I usually bring thirty," he said. "But I'm alone."
We are grapes. Louis looked anxiously at the cloudy skies over Mauna Kea.
"You're not going to need that," he said, indicating my welder's mask.
"What time will sunrise be?"
"It happened twenty minutes ago," he said.

A cloudless day had been forecast. Most days were cloudless here. This freaky haze was connected with the volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. Louis felt silent. I walked to the edge of the roof and saw people assembling on the driving range half a mile away.

"What can we do?"

Louis said, "Pray." I thought he was going to scream, his jaw tensed. Screaming is uncool. Louis (from Los Angeles) said, "I accept the clouds. I won't get a good shot. I accept that. At least the eclipse brought all these nice people together."

I hurried to the driving range where little family groups squatted on the grass, peering at the bright clouds, aiming cameras. Bryan Brewer, a tall pale man from Seattle wearing an Eclipsomania T-shirt, paced the grass. He was the author of a book about eclipses, called Totality. He had seen his first eclipse in 1979 and was hooked. He traveled the world, observing eclipses. this, he had predicted, would be one of the greatest. I greeted him, I asked him how he was.
 
"Nervous," he said.
It was as though he was personally taking the blame for this act of God.
"We won't see this cloud cover for another hundred and forty-two years," a photographer said.
No one laughed, though I found this very funny.

A woman named Charlene had come to Hawaii to give lectures on cosmic consciousness and solar vibrations linked to the eclipse - mana in fact, emanating from the shadow of the sun. Charlene had long hair and a gown-like dress, and she had attached herself to a group of chatty photographers. She had a sense of urgency, and she walked among the group of men and women saying, "Listen guys," or "I've got an idea, guys."

The sky was filled with pearly gray clouds and on the ground the gloom was palpable. "Guys, there's an answer," Charlene said. "When the Dalai Lama escaped from Tibet he needed cloud cover. He and his followers linked their arms together and chanted 'Om' over and over." Having nothing to lose we tried this, and the clouds seemed to thicken. Wasn't that what happened in Tibet? No one said so, but nearly everyone had spent thousands of dollars to come here. Besides the Japanese there were French and Germans, there were people from Brazil, from California, from Canada. A photographer said, "Mike's in Baja. that's on the Path of Totality. there are never any clouds in Baja -"

Another photographer said, "We should go back to the hotel and watch this on CNN>"
On the roof, Louis Schwartzberg was saying, "I accept this."
"So what happened to the eclipse? a man asked Bryan Brewer.
"I don't know," Mr Brewer said, guiltily. "I'm still hoping."
"Did you see the sign in Kona?" a woman asked. "The eclipse has been canceled due to unforeseen difficulties."
"The eclipse has been eclipsed."
Tedious early morning jollity had begun .
Someone said breathlessly, "The cloud's moving."
People were willing the clouds to shift. And some of the clouds were shifting - sludgy layers of them jostled, allowing sunlight to burst from their seams. It was ten minutes to seven.

Hopefully I put on my welder's mask and was in total darkness. I took it off and saw that clouds were passing across the sun, raveling like great hanks of skeins of wool.

No one spoke, there was scattered applause and intense concentration as the sun burned through the fragmenting cloud, illuminating the wooly shreds. And when it emerged, still in haze but visible, it was not a perfect disk. There was a smooth measured bit out of the top of the sun. And while we watched the bite grew, until the sun looked like a moon crescent, a fat one, glimmering in daylight.

"What's your setting?"
"One twenty-fifth at F-eight, a hundred ASA."
It was like a command to fire, for as soon as the words were spoken there was a sucking sound of shutters and winders, a shooting that was like bolts being shot from crossbows in furious gulps.
"Check the focus."
"Look at that shadow."
"Anybody got an exposure?"

I was putting on and taking off my welder's mask. With it, I saw a dim crescent. Without it, the glare dazzled and almost blinded me. I scrunched my eyes and glanced and then looked away, as though peering as a forbidden thing. The time was 7.24 and the sun was a golden banana, and two minutes later, the air had already begun to grow cool, and the banana had narrowed to a bright horn that kept thinning and was soon a brilliant splinter, and finally a silver of intense whiteness. The rest was a dark disc, with specks of light glimmering at its edges, a phenomenon known as Bailey's Beads. At last the sun was in total darkness as though a dinner plate had been slid across it - the hand of God, someone had predicted, and that was how it seemed, supernatural. there was brief, hesitant applause, some worried whooping, and then silence, as a chilly shadow settled over us. In Hawaiian Pidgin the expression for goose pimples is "chicken skin" and I could hear this word being muttered: cheecken skeen.

By 7.29 the world had been turned upside down. Again the stars appeared in daytime, the temperature dropped, flower blossoms closed, birds stopped singing, and we sat transfixed on our cooling planet, watching light drain from the world. We stared blindly at the black sun until there was a sudden explosion at its top edge that showed a flare of red light. Our amazement was not pleasurable - not fascination, it was compounded of fear and uncertainty, a feeling of utter strangeness. It was like the onset of blindness. I looked around. There was just enough light to scribble by if I held my little notebook near my face. It was not pitch darkness, but the eeriest glow around the entire horizon, a 360-degree twilight. The silence continued, and in the large crowd, all looking upward, the mood was sombre, though the morning air was unexpectedly perfumed by night-blooming jasmine. It was a world of intimidating magic in which anything could happen.

Before the sun emerged again from its shadow, making the earth seem immeasurably grander than it ever had before, I kissed the woman next to me, glad to be with her. Being happy was like being home.

An extract of the text from THE HAPPY ISLES OF OCEANIA by Paul Theroux, published in London by Hamish Hamilton, 1992. 

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