MANILA, MAY 4, 2008
(STAR) By Butch Dalisay - Technically speaking, Honolulu was the first American — indeed, the first foreign — city I’d ever been to. It was September 1980, and I was 26 years old, winging my way to Washington, D.C. on my first trip abroad; our flight stopped over in Hawaii, and I took the opportunity to step into my first American restroom. I’d pass through Honolulu again a couple of times after that, but never went beyond the airport. I actually had a chance to study in Hawaii — the Ph.D. program in Manoa had accepted me — but I felt that Hawaii was a bit too close to home, literally and climatically, so I opted to freeze out in the Midwest instead.

But everybody dreams of going to Hawaii. You can’t escape it; it’s one of those fantasies hardwired into the 20th-century mind, generated by wobbly hula-girl figurines and Elvis serenades beneath the palms. I remember having a favorite Hawaiian shirt when I was a small boy — or maybe it was my mom’s favorite, because she kept dressing me up in it — and what fascinated me about it was its coconut-shell buttons. Now and then my mom also served up something called Hawaiian Punch out of a colorful can. On truly special Christmases we ran into a box of Hawaiian Host chocolate-covered macadamia nuts. When Ferdinand Marcos got shipped out in 1986, we all thought he deserved a sorrier outcome than exile in Hawaii; it didn’t seem right, since Hawaii’s supposed to be a reward, not a punishment.

“Rewarded” was certainly how I felt a few weeks ago when a message dropped out of the sky sending me to Honolulu to check out the award-winning service of Hawaiian Airlines — which, after almost 80 years of shuttling people around the South Pacific and to the US mainland, was inaugurating its Manila-Honolulu route. It seemed a bit overdue, considering how many Pinoys populate the Hawaiian islands and how long they’ve been there, but better late than never — which was also true for this one passenger in seat 40C.

It’s a 10-hour flight to Honolulu, and it helps those easily disoriented by time zones and jetlag that Hawaiian Air’s four-times-weekly flights (Mo-Tu-Th-Sat) leave Manila at 7 p.m., touching down in Honolulu at 11:15 a.m. — of the same day! (That’s right, you actually go back in time.) So it’s just like sleeping the night away, something easy enough to do in HA’s spacious cabin. (A big guy like me often has to ask for the bulkhead seats to hang loose; this time, I didn’t have to, and had enough space to work on my laptop.)

Our hotel turned out to be the 101-year-old Moana Surfrider, the so-called “First Lady of Waikiki,” whose only sign of age was its exquisitely preserved frontage and lobby (and the huge, triple-trunked banyan tree in the back, fronting the ocean). Ah, yes, the ocean — you stepped out the back door and it was right there, a broad sweep of blue flecked by sailboats and surfers, and fringed by a creamy curve of sand called Waikiki, with the famous Diamond Head at the far end. I got my feet wet, but never did get to swim in the water, preferring to observe, um, the local beach culture, which seemed to involve a minimum of fabric and a maximum of skin. (It’s hard to be an old man on Waikiki Beach.)

After a day of contemplating navels (not mine) and convincing myself that there was more to Hawaii than Waikiki (of course there was, but I pointedly avoided calling my university contacts, to imbibe the tourist experience), I joined my Hawaiian Air group on a visit to the USS Arizona memorial in Pearl Harbor and, the next morning, to the Polynesian Cultural Center across the island. I have a nearly morbid fascination for war memorials and museums, but the one thing that impressed me about the Arizona — whose hulk remains embedded in the mud below the elegant white memorial that now crowns it — was how oil continued to bleed from its tanks 67 years after it sank, casting a rainbow sheen on the water.

The Polynesia Cultural Center, on the other hand, showcased the major ethnic groups of the Pacific, and here (as on the tour bus) we realized that every guide in Hawaii calls their visitors “cousin”; our guide himself was “Cousin John,” a Samoan Mormon ex-missionary who spoke fluent Tagalog. It was at the PCC that we got treated to the inevitable (and why, indeed, avoid it?) luau.

A famously finicky eater (translation: I avoid things most normal people enjoy, like cheese and curry), I didn’t think I’d like the food, especially after an initial encounter with fish dipped in coconut batter and a swig of coconut beer (strangely enough, I love coconut, all by itself). But I discovered, at the luau, that I could live on Hawaiian staples forever — okay, maybe not the sticky poi, but the Chinese “chicken long rice” (dried chicken sotanghon, to you and me) and the imu roast pig (lechon served in strips).

On the way back to the hotel from the Arizona, the bus let us off at the Ala Moana Mall, and like a homing pigeon I went straight to the Apple Store and picked up my Hawaiian souvenir: a USB-Ethernet adaptor for my MacBook Air. I successfully resisted buying an aloha shirt, despite the tremendous pressure to do so; the only ones I really liked — those that came in pure silk or cotton with just the barest hint of a bamboo or a vegetal curl on them — cost over a hundred dollars. (Why is it that the simplest looking things always cost the most?)

It’s easy to dismiss much of the Hawaii we saw as a tourist trap, but if you’re a tourist, there are worse fates than being trapped in Waikiki, watching the sunset with a cold beer in hand. Waikiki was indeed teeming with boobsy babes, Pat Morita lookalikes, ABC Stores, barrel-chested Samoans, Filipino shop clerks, and camera-toting tourists like us in cargo shorts and flip-flops, living out their memories of Hawaii Five-O and Magnum, P. I. The killjoy academic in me kept thinking what a different experience the first Filipino sacadas had when they came over to the islands in 1906, and what it must feel like today to be among the one percent of pure Hawaiians left in the population.

But whichever Hawaii you’re looking for, Hawaiian Air will help you find it, and if you book before the end of May, it’ll cost you less than $500 round-trip (plus taxes) to see Hawaii for yourself. And the tourist hordes aside, any place where they still give up their seats for old ladies on the bus can’t be too bad.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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