Sometimes when we travel we find the past, in all its weirdness and wonderfulness. There isn’t much of the past in Oahu; not among the high hotels in Waikiki or the natural grocery chains in Kailua. The closest we get is on the North Shore, where the developers have been banned from building and the waves pound too hard for big coastal cities.
But here on the Big Island it’s different. I’ve been here three days and have already had to use all the Hawaiian words I know (which is about five). And here, on Coconut Island, I read about how the ancient Hawaiians believed that the rocks of this little island had healing properties. This little island off downtown Hilo, connected now to Hilo by a modern concrete bridge.
As we visited Coconut Island, with its arched bridge and around its crumbling stone pillars, I felt the way I always do at the old stone monuments by the ocean. I squint, and I see sun-browned backs against crystal blue water, the builders building up these walls and steps bit by bit, cementing them together in whatever method they used to keep them so strong and steady that even after hundreds of years of monotonous waves, they still stand.
It is, of course, a little idyllic. But it is less idyllic here on the Big Island, less of a faraway dream; the island where the protestors fought so hard against a telescope construction on the mountain that they consider their goddess’ home that the company finally decided to change locations.
They believe in their past here, and they do more than protect it. They perpetuate it. They speak the dying out Hawaiian language, they fight for their mountain tops, and their ancient worship places still partially (or wholly) stand.
And when I look up, I see an older Hawaiian man gently park his bike and strip down, wading carefully through the rocks. He jokes to us that our boys should join him, and then tilts underneath like a pinwheel, only his toes popping up above the surface.
The stairs are still here, the stairs made however long ago, part of a temple made for healing, but they also doubled as a place of refuge for warriors.
And even more strangely, as my boys run across the island, picking up small rocks to throw back into the oncoming waves, I learn that this was also the place to celebrate baby’s lives by burying their umbilical cords; a symbol of the unbreakable bond between a mother and her child. A symbol that meant that bond was important enough to carry the physical evidence of it to an island off an island, find a safe place, and covering it over, keeping it safe with the sand that has been washed down by these waves for centuries.
Some places are distinct because they are modern, but this one is distinct because it is so much in the past. So much of the world fights forward making the past as its casualty, and we forget what came before. Here, when we breathe, in our small space between life changes, in the small time that belongs to us in this world, it is easy to imagine it is the same air as those who came for healing, refuge, or celebration in their specific times and places.
And as we look out to the east, Mauna Kea, with the snow on its upper plains lies hidden in the clouds, a sea turtle pops his head up as if to reassure herself that she gets the same view.
Some places stay the same.