Escaping Is Not a Form of Understanding

In the internet age, travel essays are shared far and wide—and they aren’t always well received back home.

A worker holding a broom and a hose cleans a brown, patterned floor.
A worker cleans off a rooftop deck at a hotel in Waikiki in December 2016. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

The little transgressions are the forgivable ones. Local knowledge in any place is earned with time. So it’s understandable that someone who is only visiting Hawaii might think to describe poke as “sashimi salad,” for example, though that’s not quite right.

But then there are the big transgressions, the characterizations of a place that are so unmoored from a sense of history that it’s almost shocking.

Almost. But Hawaii has seen it all before.

The Hawaii Cure,” a feature published March 21 by The New York Times Magazine, treads a well-worn path of colonialist tropes as a writer indulges his escapism fantasies with a trip to Hawaii. That’s nothing new. Yet in the internet age, a lighthearted essay can travel quickly back home and elicit a scathing response from the people who live in the place it depicts. Dozens of Hawaii people I know from when I lived on Oahu responded to the essay—in text messages, online chats, and Facebook comments, to me and to one another, with messages like: “Not today, Satan,” and “I like that you have the print version so you can BURN IT,” and a keyboard-smashing “owfi;ds'pfwePDKFMQE;LFSGKDFJ.” Let’s just say the emoji responses were not kind either.

The travel essay, as a form, is particularly fraught in places where indigenous groups were displaced by colonialism. Theodore Roosevelt’s writings on Africa, for example, were deeply influential in shaping global perceptions of a place that he described as having “the spectacle of a high civilization all at once thrust into and superimposed upon a wilderness of savage men and savage beasts.”

Africa was viewed as a vehicle for escapism for Roosevelt and other writers, including the many inspired by him who would follow suit. Travel writing was, for a time, one of the main ways people learned about distant cultures.

“Certain places seem to exist mainly because someone has written about them,” Joan Didion wrote, in her own essay about Hawaii, published in The White Album in 1979. “Kilimanjaro belongs to Ernest Hemingway. Oxford, Mississippi, belongs to William Faulkner.” Coming from a writer’s writer, like Didion, who is herself a dedicated Hemingway fan, this seems to be meant as a compliment. But it is her use of the word belongs that hangs on the page.

Travel writing is traditionally concerned with the writer’s sense of belonging, or lack thereof—the spectacle of being somewhere new, the sense of displacement one feels. Focus on your own sense of self in a place where questions of belonging are at the heart of local politics and culture, however, and you risk misunderstanding the place entirely. Escaping is not a form of understanding, anyway.

“It’s worth noting,” writes David M. Wrobel in his book Global West, American Frontier: Travel, Empire, and Exceptionalism From Manifest Destiny to the Great Depression, “that Roosevelt overtly insisted that politics, whether domestic or foreign, not intrude in his African experience.”

Which brings us back to “The Hawaii Cure,” billed as “a first trip to the island, in a desperate bid to escape the news,” but with no hint at the short distance between escapism and exploitation in the history of Hawaii, or in the history of travel writing for that matter.

“Can it be true?” the author asks. “The aloha spirit is real? Paradise on earth? An Eden of happy Americans moated from our national ravages of malevolence, contempt, uncertainty and fear?”

There are deep and complicated tensions in these questions. Hawaii is beautiful, yes, but it is not simply an “Eden of happy Americans.” Though many people in Hawaii are proud of its nearly 58 years of statehood, others don’t consider themselves to be American at all. The state’s economy is hugely dependent on both tourism and federal jobs, both of which can be viewed as complicit in a form of settler colonialism that shapes the way people perceive and experience life in Hawaii. This is heavy stuff, and worthy of consideration by all Americans, especially those who visit Hawaii.

The Times story doesn’t go there. Instead, it begins with a stereotype, a reference to Polynesians overeating. Its first scene takes place at a commercial luau. And though the author, Wells Tower, hints that he’s somehow in on the joke—it’s not totally clear what he’s lambasting. (In response to my interview requests for Tower and his editor, The New York Times told me they had “no comment.”) There are moments of self-deprecation in the essay, but the prevailing tone is one that supports the idea that Hawaii is, as Tower puts it, “a magical land where the laws of physics bend toward human satisfaction.”

Along with the idea that Hawaii exists to please outsiders is the recurring theme that it’s still never good enough. “Hankering after something incontestably Hawaiian, you end up on a charter bus bound for the Chief’s Luau at Sea Life Park 15 miles east on the Kalanianaole Highway. Never mind that what is most purely Hawaiian about the luau is its proficiency at extracting tourists’ dollars.”

Now that is something.

You might argue that whatever it was that was most “purely Hawaiian” is long gone, perhaps lost when Hawaii was first invaded by colonialists, or when the Hawaiian Kingdom was overthrown by outsiders in 1893, or when the United States annexed Hawaii in 1898, or when steamships gave way to commercial airplanes and ever more hotels blossomed along the Waikiki coast. An allusion to anything being “purely Hawaiian,” if such a designation could be made, seems tone deaf in a place where some people’s housing is still determined by blood-quantum laws.

Tower goes on to say he always assumed Hawaii was a “meretricious luxury product,” worthless unless you quantified your own happiness in dollars. But on this trip, he says, he is ready to go to a place that is “notoriously nice.”

“Give me a slack-keyed, macadamia-dusted holiday,” he writes, “where things are pretty and people are smiling, if only because it’s in their job description.”

The people we meet in the story, however, often come across as caricatures. There is the “tanned, professional butt” of a young woman on the beach. And later, “this coconut man (the second in our mounting tally),” who tells an old story about coconut water being used in place of blood transfusions during World War II. “I have heard this fable before and know it to be hogwash, but I say, ‘Oh, wow,’ and await my $10 change that does not appear to be forthcoming,” Tower writes. Eventually, he gets his change and departs, “full of gratitude for this fellow, not only because his coconuts are very fine, but for nipping a budding and inconvenient fancy that I might like to live here on the Big Island. His brand of coconut palaver is, I suspect, common in these parts.”

Is it at all possible that this particular brand of “coconut palaver” is just a guy who sells coconuts, and that he just sold you two coconuts, and that’s basically it? No matter. To the visitor, this encounter is strange and undesirable: “Encountering it on any sort of regular basis, straight-world mainlander that I am, would drive me out of my mind.”

The writer concedes to being awe-inspired by the sight of Kilauea, the long-erupting volcano on the Big Island, but then describes the lava flow as “newborn wads of America,” which is not exactly the tenor of respect that one might expect for a sacred site. (It’s also weirdly nationalistic language for describing a geologic phenomenon.)

As it happens, that section of the story contained a translation snafu, an understandable mistake—we all make them—and had a correction appended: “Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article gave an incorrect English translation of the Hawaiian word ‘Kilauea.’ It is ‘much spreading,’ not ‘mush spreading.’”

Leaving readers with an image of spreading mush, however, seems about right.