May 20, 2008: Polynesian Cultural Center
As a rule, we shy away from guided tours. We prefer exploring at our own pace and, whenever possible, in our own space, rather than in the company of an elbow-bumping horde being shuffled around by a guide with a rote spiel. But when it came to the Polynesian Cultural Center, we were ready to make an exception. Sort of.
We could have ridden public transportation (The Bus) to the Center, which would have taken perhaps a couple of hours each way, as it’s way around on the north shore of Oahu. But we wanted to spend that time at the Center itself rather than commuting, so we thought it best to book passage on a tour bus to take us there and back. And this entailed having a guide on the bus who, we expected, would point out every blade of grass we passed on the way. But that was the extent of our buy-in; once we arrived at our destination, we’d strike out on our own, rather than sticking with the guide throughout the day.
This tour was the one thing we booked in advance of our arrival in Hawaii, as it’s the most popular paid tourist attraction in the whole state. It was also, by far, the most expensive indulgence during our stay; in fact, not counting plane fare, it cost about as much as all our other expenses combined, including food.
The Polynesian Cultural Center was established in 1963 by nearby Brigham Young University Hawaii, which over the years has offered employment opportunities to many thousands of its students. In other words, the Center is a project of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, otherwise known as the Mormons, and we can’t help noting the irony here: the Mormons began sending missionaries to these islands around 1840, and what missionaries do, to some extent or other, is alter and even supplant the cultures they come in contact with, for better and for worse. But now this same organization is very instrumental in helping to preserve those pre-contact traditions. Whatever their motives, they do an excellent job of it and they do so, as far as we can tell, without proselytizing. (It’s probably religious policies, however, which led to the unfortunate decision to keep the Center closed on Sundays, which would be the best time for many people to enjoy it.)
At 10:30 this morning, we caught the bus in front of the Hyatt, which is only about 3 blocks from our “hale” (home). Our guide was a handsome young Samoan in native garb (something akin to a tropical kilt) who called himself Gandhi, since his full name, which he also rattled off, unspooled from his mouth like a measuring tape. Gandhi capably narrated the entire 45-minute ride, and while we often prefer to soak up our surroundings in contemplative silence, we didn’t object at all to his commentary. In fact, it was quite entertaining and informative. He referred to himself as “Cousin Gandhi” and the bus driver as “Uncle Junior”, and he referred to other friends and acquaintances in his anecdotes as “cousin”.
Much of the territory that our route covered was already familiar to us seasoned passengers of Da Bus. (Hey, we’ve been riding it for a couple of days now.) But we did get a much closer view of Chinaman’s Hat. And we passed a street sign that said “Haiku Rd.”, which was the first time we’d ever heard of a street with that name, but it was quite fitting that we should find it in this rural Hawaiian region. It inspires us to compose a haiku of our own:
Coconuts on trees
Swell with milk along these roads
Instead of milk cows.
Not a great haiku, mind you, but hey, we’re on vacation.
Upon arrival at the PCC, we had to wait only a few minutes for Gandhi to obtain and distribute our tickets. Then about half the attendees accompanied him on a tour for the rest of the day, while we putted along on our own steam. Just inside the entrance we were welcomed by more of that endless supply of friendly natives, who decked our necks with more leis – this time made of shells. We wanted to avoid crowds, and one secret for doing that at an attraction of this type is to beeline for the very rear section, and then work your way forward. (Shh!! Don’t tell anyone.) It didn’t work out quite so well today, however, because we discovered that while guests had not made it to the rear yet, neither had the employees.
The PCC covers several acres, and is divided into “islands”, each representing a different Pacific island chain. Like Edo Wonderland in Japan, the facility portrays the architecture, arts, artifacts, costumes and customs of a bygone era – but instead of just one culture, it embodies half a dozen! And each “island” is staffed by costumed interpreters who are actual natives of that particular country.
At the far back was the “island” of Hawaii itself, which at this time of day was totally uninhabited. But there was a dish of poi, the fabled foodstuff made from taro roots, placed on a table just waiting to be sampled once things got underway. At the moment, there was nobody around to dish it out, so we were off the hook. We decided to poke along to another “island” to see if it had come to life yet, and on the way out we met two Hawaiian ladies on their way in to assume their shifts at work, and they assured us that “you will have poi some time today”. We weren’t sure if that was supposed to be a promise, a prophesy or a threat, but we resigned ourselves to the inevitable.
Next to “Hawaii” was the “island” of the Marquesas, which also was abandoned. But in this case, the desolation is more or less permanent – “Marquesas” is closed until further notice due to the unavailability of native personnel to staff it. About a century ago, the Marquesas Islands boasted a population of around 100,000. Two noted French artistes took refuge there from the rat race, and are buried there within a few yards of each other: impressionist painter Paul Gauguin, best known for his vibrant interpretations of life in the Polynesian Islands (particularly Tahiti); and singer-songwriter Jacques Brel, best known for inspiring a Broadway musical, and for sparking what comedian Martin Mull called the “great folk music scare” in the U.S. during the Fifties and Sixties. But today, the Marquesas have only 5000 to 8000 inhabitants (depending on whom you ask), which means a tiny pool from which to draw personnel for the PCC – particularly if, as seems to be the case, having Mormon credentials is prerequisite or at least preferred for employment. But even though there were no islanders, the “island” itself still stands, and we were able to stroll through it like archaeologists stumbling upon a legendary lost civilization. [The Marquesas section, alas, is now closed altogether.]
Near the Marquesas ghost village is “Tahiti”, famous among other things for a hip-wrenching dance of jack-hammer intensity. But this exotic archipelago boasts other claims to fame as well. It gave us, for instance, the word “tattoo”; and in connection with that tradition, the exhibit offered guests a chance to obtain a temporary tattoo — which is the only kind to get, as far as I’m concerned. Oh yes, and it was their reluctance to leave Tahiti behind that prompted the crew of HMS Bounty to mutiny against Captain Bligh. What ingrates they must have been, to prefer frolicking in the surf with beautiful maidens in a tropical shangri-la, over sharing cramped quarters on a cold, dank ship with a bunch of sweaty old salts who snored and passed gas.
(Video of Tahitian dancing.)
Next on our voyage around the Pacific was “Tonga”, which was nicknamed “The Friendly Islands” by Captain Cook. (He didn’t know that some of the natives were secretly plotting to kill him. But notwithstanding that, it is indeed a congenial race of people.) Here we witnessed a lively drumming performance, accompanied by an even more lively dance, a sort of cross between the gracefully expressive Hawaiian hula and the hernia-inducing Tahitian shimmy. A female dancer demonstrated her version and taught it to the ladies in the audience who were game, and a male dancer did likewise with the men, and then the two of them combined their skills into one performance.
Also in “Tonga”, we participated in a spear-tossing contest, using some rather crude spears that didn’t exactly go where you threw them. Even so, we got surprisingly close to the metal ring on the ground that served as the target — we probably hit within 15 feet of it. And we attended a little class in weaving reeds. The woman teaching the session showed us how to construct a little “fish”, and when she saw the one I had crafted, she laughed heartily and declared it to be the most creative one yet. (Maybe she meant most ridiculous, we’re not sure.)
Next came “Aotearoa”, better known to most of us as New Zealand. It’s the only Polynesian nation that undergoes changes of season; the others only have tourist season, which never ends. New Zealand is home of the celebrated “stick game”, which Kimberly remembered playing as a child living on Oahu. It didn’t really start out as a game, mind you. It started as a military drill to foster coordination, reflexes and teamwork among soldiers. But eventually somebody realized that it was just too much fun to be a soldierly secret, so it was turned over to the kiddies. We happened to catch the young man who was teaching this activity at a moment when there was a lull in business. And thus he was willing and able to lead us through just about every stick trick in his repertoire, with just about every possible combination of partner pairings between the four of us.
In “Samoa”, we witnessed a fellow actually start a fire by rubbing two sticks together (You’ve heard about it often, but how many times have you seen it?) and demonstrate how to split a coconut deftly in half and extract the milk from the meat. He mentioned that he’d be performing a fire dance in the evening at the grand spectacle, and also exhibiting his paintings for sale. An all around talented guy, but above all he was a beefy hunk that Kimberly couldn’t resist posing with. He was assisted by another fellow who demonstrated the art of climbing a coconut tree without colliding with the ground, by use of what looked like a pair of sandals attached at the heels. (Video.)
After grabbing some lunch (which we’d brought along), we watched the “canoe pageant”, a parade on the waterway that flows through the park. The participating vessels were made of two canoes connected by a platform about 8 feet wide; and on this platform dancers from each of the “islands” offered a brief display of their talents. This included the islands we’ve already mentioned, as well as our first glimpse of dancing and costuming from Fiji, the one island we didn’t really spend any time in. Sorry, Fiji, it wasn’t a deliberate slight — it’s just the way our schedule happened to fall. We’ll make it up by visiting the real Fiji someday.
(Video of the boat parade.)
We also attended a screening in the IMAX theater of Great Reef Adventure, a dizzying documentary that chronicles the efforts of a diving team to assist in studying and trying to save damaged coral reefs. The amazing underwater cinematography shows some close encounters with sea life that you don’t normally bump into at your local swimming hole. In one scene, divers were practically rubbing fins with a large school of hammerhead sharks, who seemed to take no notice of them. (Contrary to Hollywood blockbusters, sharks don’t like to eat people, although they have been known to attack on rare occasions — probably because they mistake a swimmer, or more likely a surfboard, for something on their usual menu.) Even more jaw-dropping was one woman’s playful romp with an aquatic snake about 5 feet in length and marked with black and white stripes. The narrator stated that its venom was five times more deadly than the cobra, but it rarely bites humans, and that’s what the diver was “counting on”. We think we’d rather count on such a loaded reptile to observe its usual habits from a greater distance.
By the time seating started, around 5:00, for the luau that was included in our package, we were beginning to feel ready for it. We were welcomed at the entrance to the dining area, an open-air arrangement (roof but no walls) with another lei, this time of the traditional orchid flavor. We were ushered to our table and seated next to three very likeable male college students from Utah who seemed to be partaking of just about every imaginable outdoor adventure on their Hawaiian vacation: snorkeling, scuba diving, biking, hiking, parasailing, you name it.
It was still about an hour before the grub was served, and by then we were REALLY ready to luau. But in the interim, we were entertained with music and dance, some of it provided by a talented emcee who sang and played — what else — the ukulele. There was also a procession by the “royal court” of Hawaii in traditional dress.
And there was a pig, who neither sang nor danced, but merely looked roasted after being brought out of an “imu” (fire pit) before being invited to join the feast. This, we gather, was intended to be appetizing.
Finally, our host announced that it was time to began filing toward the buffet tables, urging us to “eat like Hawaiians”, adding that “we don’t eat until we’re full — we eat until we’re dizzy.” But first, he stated that he and his cohorts liked to sing a little “traditional song” before the meal, which they then did. It was in a language I didn’t understand, but having worked as a church soloist in a previous life, I recognized the melody as an old hymn. (It was the only time religion was hurled at us, and considering how frequently it’s hurled in American society at large, it was very minor hurling indeed.)
Only one of the 6 or so buffet tables — the one specially designated for children — had a vegetarian entree, namely some tasty chili. How do we know it was tasty? Because when we asked one of the attendants about snagging something vegetarian, she invited us to pretend that we were kiddies for the time being, and that’s what we did. But even without horning in on that table, there would have been plenty to enable us to “eat like Hawaiians”. Among other things, Zephyr and I got our first taste ever of real Hawaiian pineapple.
But wait a minute. What about the stuff you buy in your supermarket’s produce section or in cans? Doesn’t that come from Hawaii too? Well yes, technically it does. But because those pineapples have to be shipped great distances, they’re harvested before they’re fully ripe, while the ones sold here are left unmolested until they develop a lush sweetness that only the state’s residents and visitors are privileged to savor. And tonight we did. And now we can understand why Kimberly has always turned up her nose at the tart, immature fruit we’ve always had available on the mainland.
We guys also finally got our first taste of poi; and all we have to say is, it’s a good thing that only three letters of the alphabet were wasted on it. Not that it tastes bad, mind you, it just doesn’t taste at all. A bowl filled with poi equals a bowl. But something about the texture makes it feel uneasy in your mouth, and makes you feel relieved when you finally swallow it and get it over with. The most stimulating thing about poi is that it leaves you pondering whether it works better as a condiment or a glazing compound.
There was another item made from taro, however, that was infinitely more appetizing: dinner rolls. If the concept of purple bread doesn’t sound appealing to you, be assured that these little loaves were delicious enough to make a meal out of by themselves. They were so good that you could have dipped them in poi and they still would have been delicious.
Entertainment continued throughout the feast, with our emcee providing credible musical impersonations ranging from Louis Armstrong to Tiny Tim (and that’s one heck of a range). He wasn’t content to do all the work himself, however, but also got the audience in on the act. At one point he asked everyone having a May birthday to stand, and I (at Kimberly’s urging) sportingly obliged along with many other people in the crowd, only to be bombarded with the sound of everyone else singing “Happy Birthday”. And later, every couple having an anniversary this month — which also included us — was urged to come to the stage and indulge in a dance while the band played. (One couple gamely came to the edge of the stage and capered with the rest, even though the husband was in a wheelchair.) We really cut quite a rug and, we say, outshone the rest, even though we also continued our timeless debate about which one of us is the better leader.
The server who brought our beverages was a Japanese girl, and she was delighted to hear that we’d visited her country and loved it. She invited us to “come back to Japan any time”, and we assured her there was nothing we’d like better (except maybe to stay in Hawaii longer). Once she’d finished her duties, she returned to our table and stayed to chat for a while. But not just to us. She also seemed to be quite interested in the college boys from Utah, and they in her. When we left, she was still there.
Our final stop of the evening was Horizons, the song and dance revue mounted in a splendiferous amphitheater that rivaled any venue Disney has assembled. A backdrop simulating a rocky cliff featured waterfalls and even a volcano. The bill included exhibitions by performers from each of the island groups, and each set was outstanding. But the highlight was definitely the fire dancing. Well, dancing is an understatement. We saw guys twirl fire and walk on fire and sit on fire and crawl on fire. Don’t try this at home.
(Video of performance.)
Of the 5 or 6 daring fire dancers, the one who really stood out — the big soloist — was our old friend the Samoan coconut shredder. He executed a fantastical bit of fire twirling not only with his hands but with his feet. And just when you thought you’d seen it all, he hurled the fiery baton about 100 feet toward a “cliff” some 25 feet high, on which was perched one of his comrades, who caught the baton and hurled it back down. These guys give a whole new meaning to passing the torch.
At the end of the performance, which seemed all too short, we started making our way to the exit, after detouring to find bathrooms that weren’t booked up a year in advance. We passed the Samoan coconut shredder/ fire twirler, who’d stationed himself out front to sell his paintings — very realistic depictions of island landscapes that looked almost like postcard photos. Rain was beginning to fall, but not nearly heavy enough to threaten the artwork or the spirits of the crowd, just a delicate drizzle that cooled us off as we headed back to the bus.
The Polynesian Cultural Center is just across the street from one of Hawaii’s numerous free beaches — it seems that everything in this state is across the street from a beach — so we could have taken a break during the day and gone over to take a dip or a wade. But there was so much going on inside that the day just zipped by as it was; and there will certainly be other opportunities to indulge in beaches while we’re here. Now, taking the ride back to our hotel room — a ride without commentary this time — we marveled at the ocean that seemed to be next to us at almost every turn, and at the huge moon hovering over it as if about to make a soft landing.
Oops, better end for tonight. We feel another haiku coming on.