Category: Travel

Aloha the Word

When you’ll land, you’ll notice that words are suddenly all different. Outside of Honolulu, most places and towns have names that are incredibly long and difficult to pronouce, and you wonder why anyone would choose such tonge-breaking complexities at all. Of course, if you spoke the language of Hawai’i, you wouldn’t think the names odd.

{moszoomimglink:Sun setting from the lanai}Take the name of the channel between Maui and the small island of Kahoolawe, called Kealaikahiki. That’s one mouthful or two for you. Yet once someone, say Michener, tells you how to break it up, you’ll have a hard time forgetting it. In this case, the breakup is: ke-ala-i-kahiki. That doesn’t tell you much, right?

Drive from the airport to Waikiki, and you’ll find first Ala Moana Shopping Center, then Ala Wai canal. The former refers to a section of the beach that is protected by a reef close to shore, creating a natural ocean channel. The latter is a drainage canal that separates Waikiki from the rest of Honolulu. Ala implies channel. Good to know.

If you hear a Hawaiian talk, you’ll notice that the ‘t’ and ‘k’ sound very similar. Both are explosive sounds, and merge together in this language in a way similar to the confluence of ‘v’ and ‘b’ is Spanish. Another way of reading ‘kahiki’, thus, is ‘tahiti’. Add ‘ke’ meaning ‘the’, and ‘i’ meaning ‘to’, and you get: Kealaikahiki = The channel to Tahiti.

{moszoomimglink:36 The first sign on the trail}Oh, speaking of Spanish: pronounce Hawaiian words as if they were Spanish, not as if they were English. Lihue on Kauai is pronounced ‘leehooeh’, not ‘leehooee’ (although locals use the latter, too). Maui is ‘mowee’ (and that second spelling shows up in more than one old map of Hawai’i). Notice that the ‘w’ was prounounced ‘v’ all the time. Nowadays, it is retreating to that pronounciation only after ‘i’ and ‘e’ (so they say). Still, you may be used to pronouncing the name of the state ‘huh-why’, but a local always says ‘huh-vy-eeh’.

There are not many words that you and I as a tourist will hear spoken in Hawaiian. Aloha is the only frequent one, and oddly enough I have encountered it mostly where the going gets really touristy. Sometimes a friendly checker will say ‘mahalo’ after you pay, which means ‘thank you’. The correct reply to ‘mahalo’, in case you wondered, is ‘you are welcome’. I asked locals what the Hawaiian equivalent would be, and I heard back that nobody would ever bother replying to mahalo…

Geography Lessons on the Fly

There is nothing as inconsistent as a flight from San Francisco to Honolulu. You’ll start miring at the beauty of the City by the Bay — look at Point Reyes, see the city wrapping around its famed hills, catch the East Bay towns with a glimpse of an eye. Then, all of a sudden, the endless ocean begins, and for hours and hours there will be nothing to see. If you are lucky, a lonely cloud will say hello and unerringly pass by. Sometimes you’ll catch the airplane rainbow hunting the shadow of the plane. But most of the time you’ll be forced to watch the omnibus movie.

And then, five hours later, the islands start appearing. First the Big one, if you happen to sit on the correct side of the plane (usually to the left), You’ll see a black something come into view, with two little white cones on top. That’s Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, the two peaks (and main volcanoes) of the Big Island. If you are very lucky, it’s night and your plane flies right on top of Kilauea, the most active volcano to the South-East. You could even see the lava shooting high up, or just flowing down to the sea in its rivers of red and orange.

Next comes Maui, another volcanic island. Look at how it is shaped: like a huge shield attached to a small rugged egg. After Hawai’i, Maui looks puny — and yet it is the second largest of the islands. See how nearby Kahoolawe, Lanai and Molokai almost touch Maui, creating what geologist think was one single island in the past.

{moszoomimglink:Many-master in Lahaina}Soon you’ll land in Honolulu, the only real city of the State of Hawaii. It’s not that much of a city, either, with a total population of about 400,000. Yet it is vibrant, with all the trimmings of a real polis, happy to be alive and kicking and tanning. It has its traffic jams, its crime rate, its slums. It has a university or more, a state Capitol, hospitals, supermarkets. All in all, Honolulu is the most urban town in Polynesia.

The island on which Honolulu rests is Oahu. Third-largest in the chain, it actually isn’t all Honolulu. If you drive out to the North, you’ll get into pineapple and sugar cane fields that extend as far as the eye can reach. To the East, you’ll get to Kaneohe, which is a town of its own. The West has the military bases and the stink eye, about which we’ll talk later.

The only island you haven’t seen so far is Kauai, which lies another half hour North-West of Oahu. And it’s a real pity, because it is by far the most beautiful of them all. Green and verdant on one side, dry and red on the other, it is a marvel of nature.

And far off to the North-West, more islands follow, in an uninterrupted chain that goes to Midway. Places you will never see, in all likelihood, but that nonetheless speak of the future of Hawai’i. Indeed, these tiny islets might have been once mighty giants that drowned under their own weight millions of years ago.

Discovering Aloha

Ever since, I have tried to visit Hawai’i as often as I could. It is a short hop from San Francisco, a mere six or five hours (depending on the direction) and here everything is so expensive that a vacation in Hawai’i is really not out of the question.

{moszoomimglink:Hula in front of the falls} I have gone back four times. Three times visiting Maui, once Kauai. And every time I think of the islands, the hardships of my life in the States becomes acceptable. Each island has its own flair, but all of them speak the same language of aloha, and in their collective love they engulf me, who is a bit lonely now.

When you fall in love, you rarely know why. It’s as if the fountain that is gushing within you kills all reason, as if by knowing what you love deeply, by understanding it, you’d chase the mystery away and be left with knowledge without heart.

Not so with my love for Hawai’i, for I can say with words what I love about them, without losing any of my passion. It is as if the magic that attracts me is final, tied to my destiny like the color of my eyes, or the charming habits that drive my friends mad.

{moszoomimglink:Marco and the Duke} The weather, of course, is the first thing most people associate with the islands. A gentle breeze from the North-East constantly wafts over the islands dispensing temperature that are temperate all year round. Without the trade winds, as they happen to be called, it would be warm and sticky – just like in Southern Florida or Cuba. It is a bit warmer in the summer, a bit cooler in the winter; a bit sunnier in July, a little rainer in January. All in all, though, it is paradise. You’ll find yourself happy no matter if you are running away from the heat or from the cold; and indeed, Hawai’i has its tourist seasons in the winter and in the summer.

{moszoomimglink:Jumping dolphin} I care a lot about the weather, but more still about the natural environment. Hawai’i is isolated and a biosphere on its own – with plenty different climates, valleys that are the only places you’ll find a particular bird or plant. You’ll find rugged coastlines, freshly born out of cooled magma, weathering in the surf the instant they froze. You’ll find long beaches, secluded beaches; red, green, black, white beaches; crowded pockets with hippies and empty half-moons where you can spend days watching whales call their songs.

{moszoomimglink:Canoe pageant} And then again, you can visit any island in the South Pacific and get similar beauty. But to make me endure an interminable immigration process, you’ll have to show me a strong community with a love for honesty, industriousness, care and compassion. And the unique blend of cultures you can witness on the islands is worth any wait, any visit. It is as if the best traits of the Chinese, the Japanese, the Portuguese, the Filipino and the Caucasian cultures all had shed their ugly sides in the mirror of aloha, the friendliness with which people in Hawai’i treat each other.


I sat on the plane, and somehow I knew I would be back soon. Every single fiber of my body wanted to come back and see the islands again. And yet, little did I know of them.

Aunts were very happy about the trip. So much so that they ordered a second batch, this time with my little brother (back then still unmarried) and myself. He threw a fit of hissy because I was invited a second time, and my elder brother wasn’t at all; but then again, I spent tons of time with my aunts and the other brother barely knew their names, so it was a done deal.

{moszoomimglink:Marco between the Polynesian masks} This time, we decided we would not do something fun every day. Instead, we would relax for one day, and venture around the other. We stayed two weeks, flew over to Big Island, saw the famous 1992 eruption and, I confess, had a lot of fun.

Doris amused us a lot. She had all these odd habits and eerie sayings: she warned us about baking bread in the new moon, called every Asian Chinese — in spite of her best friend, a Japanese! — and all in all amused us to death announcing that Italians didn’t know how to cook spaghetti, while she did.

And yet, the second time around, the islands didn’t lose their fascination.

We flew back, and life went on. I miraculously got my degree, even though the final exams were a mere two weeks after coming back from Hawai’i. Then my brothers married, my mother got sick and I myself moved back to Germany, trying to force what I was not getting for fair.

In 1998, I was ready for a jump. My consulting business in Cologne was going strong, and it was time to think about expanding. I had finished a book, needed to proofread it and decided it was time for a break and took off for San Diego.

I loved California, and it told me that I really loved this country, America. As I got ready to go home, all my new-found friends were upset I would leave, but I explained that there was no way I was going to get a job and be able to stay.

Then, out of the blue, I received an email. A headhunter in Oregon wanted to know if I was interested in a job. He asked where I lived, and I said Cologne, Germany. He asked if I could talk with a few people from a company in Portland, and I agreed. A long and amusing story later, I had my visa and was in Oregon. And then in San Francisco.

We got there

The flight was uneventful. We stopped in Dallas, where the winter was not as clement as I now know it to be. A clear day, a cold day, and we were not prepared. The next flight was on time, more peanuts served, more desserts shoved over the seats back to me, unable to sleep for excitement.

It was night when we landed. And nothing distinguishes Frankfurt from Honolulu at night. The Germans even have a saying that goes: “At night all cats are grey.” Smart people, aren’t they?

{moszoomimglink:From Queen’s beach} But then we got out of the plane, and there was a gentle breeze that blew through the missing walls. The airport was open, and the fresh air of the night was swirling in the smell of flowers I didn’t know, but to whom I definitely wanted to be introduced.

Doris picked us up, a weathered woman in her — let me be clement and miss that little detail. She would host my aunts in her apartment, while I was going to stay in my own hotel room. The Outrigger Kuhio was just about the cheapest we could get, and yet it was about $75 a night. A nice hotel, in the way a $75 hotel can look and be on Waikiki.

Doris was a sweetheart, but a little too trying for us. I would show up in the morning, eat a papaya, spend the rest of the day with the three ladies, then retire around 6pm, after German dinner. That’s of course when my day started, and I would spend hours and hours hanging out in bars and discos and dancing my buttocks off. At two or three I would straggle home, cautious not to bump into any of the allegedly violent marines, and fall to sleep.

I would wake up at around seven, in my old habit, and walk down the street to Ala Moana beach park. I would lay my belongings on the beach and swim the Channel back and forth, then shower off, get dressed, and show up again for another day.

I was twenty-four and life couldn’t have been more beautiful.

How Did I Get There?

{moszoomimglink:Gisela und Marco, nettes Bild} It all began in 1992. I was finishing up my Master’s Thesis in Physics at the University of Aachen, and got a phone call from Southern Germany. My two aunts had decided they wanted to visit their friend Doris and needed a … well … guide and translator and caretaker and entertainer.

Since I was too busy to visit them during the year, they would use my services only for one week, and stay themselves for two. All expenses paid, though, and the trip would start in the middle of the dreadful German winter, lifting me away from snow and cold and dreary skies and catapult me into what I hoped would be a tropical paradise.

As it turned out, I started already feeling burnt out by Germany. I never quite felt I belonged there, with my dark skin and black hair. Store detectives would hunt me through the aisles of department stores, home owners would mysteriously refuse to rent out their rooms to me when they heard my name, and jobs would be mysteriously handed out to other, more German fellas.

{moszoomimglink:The Hohenzollern Bridge} It was in good spirit that we left on one particularly dreadful January morning. The 22nd to be precise. We took the bullet train in Stuttgart, heading for the airport in Frankfurt. A twenty minute delay on the train got my anxious aunts all upset — but there was really nothing to worry about, since everything was planned with plenty time to relax.

I was musing at the on-train schedule that had the train leave the station five minutes after dropping us off when we arrived. The central station in Frankfurt can be elegant at times, but that morning it was dark, cavernous, and cool. Sludge and sleet were heaped on the terminals, making our progress toward the underground train slow and panicky.

Right then, I saw a man packing his suitcases (five in number) onto the train we had just left. He just had grabbed the last one when the five minutes must have been up, for just in time for him to throw the suitcase onto the first step, the doors rushed closed and the train left. German efficiency, I would guess.

At the airport, we proceed to the United counter, where my aunts pushed straight ahead, while I was waiting behind them. Once in a while I would overhear bits of conversation, the pretty young and pretty clerk explaining in detail what was going to happen.

My turn! I step forward, and the very same lady that had so fluently conversed in German with my aunts, automatically starts addressing me in a foreign language. I was so baffled that I just handed over passport and ticket — but then realized she had just talked to me in English.

At first, I thought it rude. Then I realized she had probably thought I was American. And then and there I decided that if people felt that I was a natural American, that I then would likely want to live in America! Just try it out, maybe, one day. Who knows if you’ll like it, with all the awful things people tell you.

And If I Get Sick?

Nobody ever wants to get sick, and for sure not on vacation. But if you are in trouble, you will want to have read what to expect in advance.

Western Europe, to which Italy belongs, is highly civilized. This means the medical system is very well established, with the usual structure of first aid services, local hospitals and major health centers that we know from the States.

Treatment is usually quite good, although nurses are severely underpaid and traditionally rely on the families of patients to pitch in with the assistance. Rarely will you find anything that doesn’t look right or feel right. And if you do, try to get out of the place and get into the next one.

The list of medicines you can get over the counter is much shorter in Europe that in the States. To you this means you should try to get all generics you will need, and try to get prescription for OTCs you typically use.

Food is as safe as at home (even when it looks funny). Don’t eat raw meats or fish, as Italians wouldn’t (the thought of sushi is a bit icky to most Italians, say). Anything else is free for the biting.

All in all, don’t forget: even if people talk funny and act funny and drive like madmen – it is one of the cradles of civilization, still one of the most civilized and proud nations on this planet. And you can feel just as safe as you would at home – save pickpockets, of course!

Talking With Your Hands

Or: A Primer On Non-Verbal Communication

You’ve all heard that Italians talk with their hand. Now if that’s not a tourist-friendly way of communicating! Just learn to do as Italians do, and the language barrier is something for the myths of community college courses.

As any old culture, Italy has its very own style of communication. You will have a much better experience if you know what the little tell-tale signs are (gestures and actions), especially if you are not an extrovert person to begin with. I have had friends coming back telling me that they hadn’t met anyone in Italy, as much as they tried. But it turned out that they just had not known how to approach Italians.

Italians are fundamentally educated to be friendly and outwardly. It is considered to be extremely rude to show your back to anyone, since it creates a barrier to communication. Well-bred people (and that could include you, now) turn around in a restaurant and apologize to the neighboring table for showing their back. Cute, isn’t it?

The second bit of information that will turn out to be useful is that Italians prefer the step-by-step and give-and-take approach. This is particularly important in a romantic context, so watch for the little steps and answer them with equally small steps. Eventually, you’ll get to meet each other, and if you do it the Italian way, both parties will know that there is mutual interest.

Mind you: Italians will typically give up quickly if you do not respond to their signs. To an Italian, that would show lack of interest, and it is not in the nature of Italians to pursue someone that indicated disinterest. So if you are just being coy, or shy, or even just preoccupied; in the end, you’ll miss out.

Next: And if I get sick?

On the Road

Or: Traveling in Italy.

Personally, my favorite way of experiencing Italy is by bike. You can travel leisurely, purposefully and get a workout at the same time. And the distances are not too daunting: you can do the Milan to Rome race in just two weeks.

Ok, that was a nice joke, wasn’t it? Cars, let’s start with cars. Sincerely, you have to be quite an aggressive driver here in the States to like the traffic in Italy. Cars zip around ignoring speed limits, rushing boldly into each other at intersections. Soon you won’t wonder any more why so many cars are dented all over. My advice: stay away from the cities, but take a car whenever you need to visit the countryside. Car rental companies abound, and you’ll get decent prices if you book ahead of time. If you just show up at the airport counter, it is going to be a real pain for your bank account.

Personally, I had only one experience of renting, and it was half-good, half-bad. The car was supposed to be a mid-class sedan, and turned out to be a smallish Volkswagen Gold. Foolish choice (of the rental company), since that’s the car most Italians love to steal. And while it survived the parking lot in Pompeij and even the downtown spot in Naples (quite famous for theft), it was gone in Rome within a day. Parked on the street in front of the downtown hotel and gone before morning.

The formalities were quite unimpressive. I had to go to the carainieri, the police and file a report. Then I had to go to the rental company, where they made a big fuss, charged me for the extra day between the theft and the filing of the police report, charged me for the gas that had been stolen at rental car prices (all in all the gas bill alone was $150!) and left me with a clear impression that it was quite the wise choice to insist on theft protection. If you are caught without, your fault.

Much more leisurely and quite as fast is the train, if you are traveling anyway on the major train routes. As a matter of fact, everybody rides the train. It is very cheap, sufficiently reliable and gets you downtown in no time. Unlike those pesky airplanes, that save you a lot of travel time, but make up for it by forcing you to drive through the worst traffic to get anywhere you’d like to go.

I don’t have current details, but last I visited the speed train from Rome to Milan (stops only in Florence, and then you have to zip around to scramble in or out) was the best connection between the two cities. The ticket includes a meal, and the trip is a pleasant three hours.

Buses do the trick where the train can’t reach. The less densely populated South is criss-crossed with a network of buses that reminds me of a tiny version of the Greyhound system. Buses are not as high-tech and high-comfort as they are in the States, but they are functional and are used by a wide cross section of the people. You’ll do fine in them: Italians love company, and Americans (so they say) are good company. In any form of public transportation, you’ll make new friends if you just keep smiling at people.

Inner city transportation is the exclusive domain of public transport. If you are lucky, there is a decent subway system. Otherwise, you’ll have to cope with buses that are usually crowded. Tickets are to be bought beforehand and typically stamped at a small machine inside. Beware of pickpockets at all times; it is cramped, and in the blob of people, it is just too easy to sneak in a hand and make something disappear.

Let’s talk about walking a bit. Cities are smaller than in the States, and you can actually walk to the major attractions of any city except Rome in a reasonable amount of time. Just make sure you have good, sturdy shoes and a decent amount of patience. And let the traffic not fool you: crossing an intersection is somewhere between sport and art form, but after the first frustrating attempts, you’ll master it just like the people around you.

Last and least, flying. Airports are slick for the most part, and they have those wonderful duty free shops. But for travel inside of Italy, they are quite useless. Exception being travel to the islands, Sardinia and Sicily. As said, the airports are far from the cities and so any gain in speed is lost by having to crawl around. On the other hand, the main connection (Milan – Rome) is served with the regularity of a bus system, and planes leave at about 30 minute intervals during commuter hours.

Next: Talking with your hands

A Little Activity

Oh, what fun it is to play beach volleyball in Rimini! Especially as a possibly blond(e) American! The crowd will be in awe of the foreigners, the americani, and will lift them to the skies win or lose.

Sporting activities in Italy are like everywhere else. There are fewer golf courses and tennis courts, and they are quite expensive. But if you want to bike – what better place than the hills of Tuscany (ask you legs after two weeks, and they’ll tell you a hundred better places!)? If you want to swim – aren’t the waters of the Mediterranean too invitin to resists?

If you are into watching, remember that none of the sports that are so popular in the States is a big hit anywhere in Europe. Italy knows little about basketball, virtually nothing about baseball and football is so incomprehensible that even after four years I don’t have the slightest clue of how a game works.

Italy is about soccer. As simple as that. I got bored to smithereens every Monday, when everybody else was talking about the latest soccer rivalries. Not much better did I fare on Friday, when the crowd was choosing the winners for the government betting. Legend has it that Italy chose thirteen as the lucky number because there are thirteen games of soccer each weekend to play on. Having a thirteen is a lucky thing, a very lucky thing.

By the way: seventeen is unlucky. So much so that my father was forbidden to get married on September, 17th on strict orders of my grandmother. They waited two more weeks and got married on the 1st of October. Miracles of superstition.

If you are in Italy during any major international competition, you’ll get all the news you want. The coverage is excellent, and nobody seems to sleep during the Soccer World Cup or the Olympics.

Next: Some tips on trips