The Library Basement
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On Maui

Published: 2009-08-12 23:20:00
Category: memory

I have just returned from a vacation on the charming Hawaiian island of Maui. While there, I read a good lot of Wendell Berry essays, so his thinking is heavily influencing my own at the moment. It is true I enjoyed my time there immensely, but I had a few nagging thoughts about Maui and vacations in general.

One of the chief aims of visitors to Maui is to get tan and get fit. We see many sunbathers of all stripes soaking in the tropical rays on the beaches. There is also a lot of fitness walking, jogging, and bicycling being done by tourists to make great exercise out of a great trip. While we ourselves were on a beach-front walk, dodging runners, I noticed some of the local workers. It seems that they had achieved dark skin and fit, trim bodies in the course of their labor, not in the course of their leisure. And this is an odd feature of American culture. We treat physical, outdoor work as deamening and yet go through great effort and expense to look like the people who do such work for a living. It seems to me that people labor outside can have their cake and eat it too: dark skin, fitness, and leisure time dedicated to actually having fun.

It was not on this trip but on my previous one where I first noted something odd about the vegetation on Maui. Simply stated: many of the iconic "Hawaiian" plants do not seem to be native to the island. Palm trees are the most obvious to me. To my recollection, I have never seen one on Maui outside of a resort area. This becomes stikingly obvious when driving on South Kihei road and seeing lines of palms on the ocean-side and lines of native brush and trees on the mountain side. Even on the tropical windward sides of the island I did not spot any palm trees. It seems odd to me that this iconic plant, which is in many ways symbolic of Hawaii, is apparently not native to the islands. Pineapples are also non-native, and I am afraid to ask about birds-of-paradise and banyan trees.

I suppose I should not be surprised to find non-native plants on the islands in developed areas. Natural history tourism is not the main drive behind destination resorts. Sun and surf are. Observing the wilder parts of Maui has become enjoyable for me. Upcountry, on the Road to Hana, and on the road around West Maui you can see the island which has not been so dramatically transformed by western visitors. There are even some changes (like the cedar trees planted along the coast for use as ships' masts) which are not so banal as the lines of palms around resort pools.

I read in a Bill Bryson book that the American phenomenon of destination resorts is a rather recent development. It depends on efficient, affordable travel. However, even after railroads bridged this country, long distance travel was apparently at first dedicated to visiting people or tourism. Destination resorts are a different matter: the trip is not meant to experience new sights or spend time with loved ones (outside of the nuclear family), but to experience the place. That is, we want to go to Hawaii because it is such a better place to be than home. Better weather, better food, better shopping, better activities, better lodgings. The obvious implication of this phenomenon is that we do not much like our homes. We want to get away, because our homes are not pleasurable nor leisureful places. I wonder why this is. What is it about our society that encourages us to live in rather unpleasant places with the promise of vacation to a better place? Why not make one's own home enjoyable, so as to be able to undertake leisure without undertaking travel when work permits a break?

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© Nathan D. Smith
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