The taxi driver looked around wearily as he pulled into the parking lot. The restaurant we were looking for was an island of light in the centre with a few darkened cars surrounding it. Through its large windows I could see that the seating area was just under half-full, the patrons partially obscured by the lace window dressings that were kitsch without trying to be ironic, an earnest display of homeliness.
“Are you sure we’re at the right place?” Our driver was a young, blonde, all-American college kid type. “This neighbourhood is kind of…sketchy. I can wait around to drive you back if you’d like?”
“No, we’re good, thanks!” We paid him and exited the silver Prius. I’d found the place on Yelp, one of the highest-rated Chinese restaurants in Honolulu. The reviews confirmed that the portion sizes were large, delicious, and inexpensive, and after days traipsing around the tourist traps of Waikiki, I was looking forward to the laid back vibe of the “real” Honolulu.
The patterned linoleum tablecloths and laminated menus were miles away from the glossy shopping strip we’d visited earlier. The marbled pathways lead to designer boutiques that gave you bottles of chilled Fiji water while they wrapped your purchases. That very day I’d asked the price of a second-hand Chanel watch for kicks, and my husband and I had tried to keep straight faces as we pretended to consider the $16,000 porcelain timepiece. I told the very attentive and polite shop assistant that I’d have another look at the Cartier piece I saw next door, before we went to Macy’s and I bought a Fossil knock-off for less than a hundredth of the price of the Chanel.
Anyway, this mom-and-pop Chinese was more in step with the low-end souvenir shops we found at the other end of the beachfront, with their plastic flower leis, cheap beach towels and lifesize cutouts of Barack Obama beckoning you in. Surrounded by chain link fences and scrappy yards, I could understand the taxi driver’s trepidation at dropping a couple of tourists off in an anonymous neighbourhood late at night, but we really wanted Chinese. Plus, we were from South London, you could almost say that we felt at home!
Living in London you get used to crossing between the worlds of bustling chicken-shopped high roads sponsored by Lycamobile and Lebara, and the postcard-friendly streets of West End and Central London. You realise that the cropped and colour-corrected visions of Trafalgar Square and Marble Arch are far from the full picture, and only a small segment of the vibrant city that draws bright-eyed hopefuls like moths to a flame. So when travelling I always want to experience the fullness of my destination: what it looks like on a first date as well as when it’s popping to the corner shop in a headscarf to buy milk and eggs. Luckily, while we were in Honolulu we were recommended the services of a local tour guide, a guy who was born and bred in Hawaii and of actual Polynesian descent. Our day out was narrated with stories about Hawaiian royalty as well as the contemporary context of the local community. He told us about the colonial history, current youth unemployment and the fact that the sand on the famous Waikiki beach was imported. He also took us to religious cultural sites, the best spot to buy moreish garlic prawns, and took pictures of me holding up peace signs on the beach. As well as the luau and volcano-hunting, one of the highlights of the two weeks we spent in the Pacific was the frank conversations we had with our tour guide about Christian missionaries, the American education system, and tourism’s affect on Hawaii while sitting in afternoon traffic snaking it’s way back from the east of the island.
As tempting as it is to refer to what we saw during our brief introduction to “everyday” Honolulu as the “real” Honolulu, the fact is that all of it is the “real” Honolulu. From the $100 sushi to the homeless sleeping in tents on the beach, each contradiction and surprising fact is as real as the next. And you know what? I’m even tempted to believe that the in between moments, like when you glimpse the blue ocean shimmering behind the hulking lush mountain range ahead as you wait in an orderly queue of red tail lights on a six-lane highway – that those in between moments are in fact the realest of them all.