Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Walking On A Live Volcano And Hula Dancing: Hilo Shows Spiritual Side Of Hawai'i

Mariechen Puchert / youth
Delicious fruits for sale at the Hilo Farmer's Market in Hilo, Hawai'i

By Mariechen Puchert
Associate Editor
HILO, Hawai’i, U.S.A. – For my sailing voyage around the world, Hawai’i was perhaps the single port about which I felt ambivalent. For the majority of students and staff sailing with the Semester at Sea Spring 2013 voyage, it was a final opportunity to be on American soil, to have cellular reception and to contact their loved ones on the mainland.
For me it was a port, an island I had never visited, but one I expected to find in the clichéd fashion it is portrayed in Western media. Of course, I was breaking the number one rule of traveling – never make up your mind about a place before you’ve been there – but I did not even realize my prejudices at the time.
So expecting persistent tropical-style music with too many bright colors and fruity alcoholic drinks, I stepped onto Hawaiian soil in Hilo.
Hilo is one of the two big cities on the Big Island, the other being Kona. Remember that Hawai’i is an archipelago of various islands, of which O’ahu, which hosts the state capital, Honolulu, is perhaps the best-known.
Mariechen Puchert /
Flowers for sale at the Hilo Farmer's Market in Hilo, Hawai'i
Hilo is not the stereotypical Hawaiian town. I should note that many locals do wear the popular Hawaiian shirt, so perhaps that part of my preconceived ideas was slightly on point.
But attending a free Hula show, followed by a free Hula class in the community center was an eye-opener. Hula is the traditional Hawaiian dance, and you may have seen the vigorous hip-shaking and scantily clad ladies doing these dances in films, even Disney’s Lilo & Stitch.
Mariechen Puchert /
A trail at Volcanoes National Park
The Hula that I witnessed was calm and sensual, and performed by both men and women. The accompanying music does make use of the ukulele and rhythm sticks, but the result is harmonious and far from clichéd. Watching some very accomplished Hula dancers and musicians was a highlight of my short visit to Hilo.
Later I hopped on the Hele-on bus with some of my fellow students. Destination: Volcanoes National Park. The Hele-on bus serves Hilo and surrounds, at $1 per person. With student IDs, we could ride for free, which was a wonderful reprieve.
The ride from Hilo to the volcanoes is a long 90 minutes, but as the trip progressed, more and more locals joined the bus, and soon we had the opportunity to talk with them and learn more about living in Hawai’i.
I find that the best part of traveling is talking with locals.
I spoke to a few people who support the call for Hawaiian sovereignty. Some just want tribal sovereignty, while others want a secession. I also spoke to many Hawaiians who are quite happy to be citizens of the United States of America. It was interesting to see that those of Polynesian, Asian and Caucasian descent are seen on both sides of the debate.
The Volcanoes National Park is a beautifully-preserved rainforest, hosting the active volcanoes Kilauea and Mauna Loa.
I never imagined that I would walk on a live volcano. It was pouring with rain, but the scenery was amazing and we did a steep hike. There are hiking trails good for a short visit of two hours as well as for a longer visit.
One has to be careful, of course. There are areas that clearly forbid entry and, keeping in mind that it is an active volcano, it is probably a good idea to abide by such directions.
Mariechen Puchert /
The Hilo Farmer's Market sells a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, flowers and much more.
Visiting the well-known Hilo Farmer’s Market was another wonderful experience. We gorged ourselves and cheap and delicious fruits. I had the opportunity to meet a gentleman who makes herbal lotions and oils as alternative remedies to allopathic medicine. He believes that herbal remedies guide one’s life force into repairing the body as it knows best, and many Hawaiians believe the same.
The Hawaiian people I met are very spiritual and live with a sense of community I haven’t often seen in other Western places. They are also incredibly kind and helpful and made all Semester at Sea students feel welcome.
I hear that a vacation in Honolulu is great fun, but for a culturally-rich experience, I would certainly encourage traveling to Hilo – and doing so with an open mind.
Mariechen Puchert, a South African medical student, is taking a Semester at Sea voyage that will take her nearly all the way around the globe.

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