travel :: belonging

musings, travel blog & musings

Brace yourselves, travel introspection ahead. Does everyone who goes to Hawaii come back and feel the need to write something in this vein?  Here’s Bourdain on Hawaii too, much more succinct than me. 

Often, my trips are colored by something very early on that sets the tone for how the entire visit will go. My last trip to Vienna was foggy from the moment I stepped off the plane: I was cold the entire time regardless of temperature. Southern Illinois roadtrip: started out hot & uncomfortable and stayed that way, on various levels. Beijing: first time my ankles ever swelled on a flight. The rest of the trip was in some way involving uncomfortable feet–downpours of rain resulting in sodden shoes, unexpectedly long treks to transportation, and a more difficult hike on the Great Wall than imagined (which I was delighted about). And so, this trip to Hawaii. What would it be? Here’s how it started:

Flew out of Minneapolis in the midst of one of the most beautiful spring mornings in memory.

There was NO line at airport security.

A fellow traveller at my gate was wearing a May the 4th Be With You t-shirt. Meaningful, because I was headed to Hawaii to help celebrate friend Carrie’s birthday on May the 4th.

My mom sent pictures of her new little barn kittens right before I boarded.

I had an exit row to myself on the flight to LAX.

I stepped off the plane in Maui & realized I was walking three times faster than everyone else in the airport–a reminder to just slow down already.

The drive to the hotel north of Lahaina had no heavy traffic.

A valet at the hotel actually yelled at one driver in the drop off area who was impatiently honking his horn “Dude, chill!”

The hotel had penguins. Penguins.


Molting penguin is looking at you!

By the time I had been on Maui for a couple of hours, I wondered if this was it–if this charmed beginning would follow me through my entire 8 days in Hawaii. Ease, a relaxed pace, penguins, no deeper thoughts or decisions necessary. Work had already fled my brain. Would work stay out or remain on the periphery, crowding enjoyment?

I slept fitfully that first night. Jetlag and the unaccustomed sounds of waves crashing on the beach were my distraction to sleep. At 4:30am I was awake for good, and not even cranky. If you’ve ever been around me when I wake up in the morning, you know this is out of the norm. I made  coffee, stepped to the lanai, and took in my first daylight views of this place called Hawaii that so many people rave about. People rave about it so much, in fact, it annoyed me to the point of specifically not wanting to visit. I’m not prone to visiting anywhere tropical. I have never enjoyed sitting on a beach in a swimsuit. Tropical locales are too hot, there is too much coconut, sunburns are not fun, and I get really tired of people talking about beaches as the best thing that could possibly ever be ever ever. Instead, more oft I venture to places of snowy mountains or really old cities. Places with thousand-year-old paintings I can read history in. I came to Hawaii this time because I wanted to be far away from what I knew, but not have to work to figure out communication between languages. And not do much if any planning. I didn’t know what to expect, but figured I could always just head to a hillside trailhead if all the people on beaches with shave ice were making me twitchy. But here, gazing at the West Maui Mountains and the Pacific Ocean in one sweeping glance, in an acceptably warm but not hot temperature, Hawaii was almost instantly winning me over.


We bided time until the day’s adventure was to start, eventually wandering out to find the pick up location for the Road to Hana tour booked for the day. Somewhere around 6:50 am the 12-person tour van pulled up to the hotel, the driver stepped off the bus and first words out of his mouth to check in the crew for the day was my name, loud and pronounced correctly. Now, my name is not hard to pronounce. It’s said just like it is spelled. But still, this correct & confident pronunciation never happens. There is always hesitation, switching up of syllables, a raised tone at the end signifying the person had no idea if that pronunciation is correct, or worse, a lot of “Daniel” instead of “Danielle.” This time though, it was my name spoken aloud correctly, and by a local. Again with the ease of this place. This day, this person, is what would lay the tone for this trip to Hawaii.


Because: this man, our driver, Keoni, is a native of Maui. 46 year old single father of four kids 13-26, and has never left the islands. Not only has he never left, he mentioned to friend Carrie (the girl with the airplane around the world tattoo on her shoulder) that he did not fully understand the desire to travel. This may seem narrow-minded, but I don’t think narrow-mindedness factored in to Keoni’s view of travel or of the world. It’s entirely possible he’s never had a chance to leave the islands or even think about traveling–single parenting in this expensive locale must be very hard to take a vacation from. And why, when you’re already in this beautiful, relaxed place.

I don’t understand not wanting to travel, just as he does not understand the desire to. So I ponder, during this day long jaunt and beyond.

Keoni told us tales of life in Hawaii as he drove, tales I want to believe. Tales that also seemed a little crazy. Not a surprise, as amongst other tattoos, a prominent one on his neck ready “Krazy.” Sure, he had our 12 lives in his hands for that day on a narrow winding road with precarious drop offs, but you know you’re safe with a person who spells crazy with a “k.” It’s the ones who spell it with a “c” you have to watch out for. (Side note. There is no C in the Hawaiian alphabet, so this rule may not apply. Too late to worry about now though.) His tales were of surfing every morning. Tales of being the troublemaker in class as a youngster, pulling flowers off of trees and squirting the liquid inside at the teacher. Tales of racing on Maui’s curvy roads at night, roads he knew every inch of having grown up on this island. Tales of boar hunting. Tales of saving tourists from dangerous  waves crashing on sharp lava rocks. Tales of swimming and fishing and feeding sharks the fish out of his fishing bag, knowing the sharks just want the fish and would not hurt him. He also knew everyone we drove past–the hang loose sign was flashed at about every local we passed the entire day. The conclusion I came to is this: Keoni is a part of the island, the island is a part of him. He belongs here. To this land, this air, this water. If you have a sense of belonging to a place so completely, why would you ever need to leave that place? If you left, you’d be lost. There, you know who you are.


Top left picture by Carrie. Me headed down a hill, Keoni watching another one of our crew, Matthew, scramble down same hill. Top right, sharp lava rocks & waves. Bottom, part of the Hana Highway. Forgive the photo quality please, I brilliantly forgot my better camera’s memory card at home.

Where I live currently and have for 15 years is 10,000 lakes lovely. I have a good life, interesting job, great friends & colleagues, but I’m not rooted to anything in the history or landscape. I was born in Montana, have lived in Nebraska, Iowa, Italy (technically) and Minnesota. My family is in various places elsewhere. Travel has always for me been a chance to see how other people in this world live. To explore & understand more about different cultures. To widen perspectives. To build compassion. To learn. To see the history, and yes also to see pretty things and take pictures and strike a pose to eat lots of food and to escape from everyday life at home. And tell stories of later. Some places I want to go back to constantly, some places I’m perfectly happy not to set foot in again. But always am glad I had the opportunity to see.

Maybe I’ve been missing a part though. Maybe the desire to travel is also a person searching for belonging. Wandering the world until they happen upon the place they feel rooted. My view of the world changes in bits all the time–but the part that stays the same is seeing that everywhere, we’re all just humans, trying to get along and navigate life with what we have. Some rural, some urban, some poor, some privileged, educated or not, but we all get up at the start of our day, do some kind of work, sleep, and do it all over again the next day. We’re all just  trying to make a life. We just need to find the place where we make sense, where we belong.

I was in Hawaii for 8 days. I stepped off the plane & felt calmer. The landscape is more than just beaches–it’s mountains and rainforest and volcano and more. Sitting in the backseat of a van on winding roads wasn’t so great for motion sickness, but worth the scenery. Scrambling down rocks and slipping into a pool was worth it. The arid windy back backside of Haleakala was stunning, as was the lush rocky east side. The coffee was great. At one point I may have even high-fived someone, a bit out of character. The rattle of bamboo sounded like a midwestern fall, a taste of more varied seasons in Hawaii’s own spectacular way. Waterfalls are beautiful. The cliff divers were fearless, I wanted to join them… well, maybe that’s an adventure I can work up to. But the thing is it seems plausible, not out of reach. I took to this island lifestyle pretty well for being initially uninterested. Even confronting a fear (not a huge fear mind you, but a fear nonetheless) of the ocean. I greeted other runners on two morning jogs, like any runners do anywhere. I talked to all the animals. I was amazed at how sparkly the stars were. I drove winding roads. I hiked. I scrambled up a muddy hillside, further than anyone else on the trail that day who turned back before me, the Kauai mud becoming one with my shoes and socks and legs. I surfed. My contacts were swept away in Hanalei Bay–a piece of me left there. I ate the fish tacos, I slurped the fresh fruit smoothies. I took no lava rocks. I cringed at the price of dairy products.


Windswept Kaupo, the expanse of Haleakala crater above the clouds, a partial view of Mt. Waialeale through drizzle, halfway up the breezy Pali trail.

I waked through towns and visitor locales, watching people interacting with this place. Some loved it, and some were just going through the motions, looking for the next golf course. I had conversations with locals, new transplants, and old transplants. Several locals or longtime residents told me I looked really familiar. Some told tales of why they moved to this place. Reasons of needing change were most prevalent, followed by “it was my dream.” Some people thrive, some people don’t. Everyone I talked to also told me to come back. One woman told me this is her paradise, but perhaps in the most sobering thing I had heard since landing, she also told me “there are jerks everywhere,” as a reminder that nowhere is perfect. There is homelessness. There is unemployment. There is alcoholism.


A touch of reality in the banyan tree.

I spent a couple of days on Kauai. I stayed in Princeville because I could use a timeshare for free. I did no planning for this island. The timeshare had a concierge on duty, so I stopped in a couple of times to find help making plans for the day. Enter Kai–one of the concierges, and a Kauai native. She has lived all over the world; a gymnast, contortionist, equestrian, botanist, but keeps returning to her beloved Kauai. She lives an adventure lifestyle when not sitting behind a desk as a concierge to pay the bills, helping people like me navigate their way through her island. The stories she tells of surfing with whales & handstands on rocky ledges…I’ll group her into the ranks of “krazy.” She travels, but always returns to Kauai without question.


Hope you’re enjoying my contacts, Hanalei Bay.

Here in Hawaii I felt good. I felt healthy. I felt happy. I felt decent, comfortable in my own skin. All things that had been noticeably missing in degrees for months preceding this trip. This could be explained away by saying it was from the remaining high of training for & running a 5K a week before travel. You hear it all the time & it’s true, exercise is the worst enemy of anxiety. Or, it could be simply and most logically be because I was actually on vacation after a long stretch of insanely busy time at work and after a gray midwest winter. This happens on vacation–you’re happy & everyone around you is happy, just by the fact that you’re away from real life pressures. There is time to relax and re-engage in relationships with actual humans instead of computer screens and emails. Is this place possibly real life or just suspended happiness, a bubble to reach on vacation, soon to burst. In a tourist economy, people’s jobs are to give tourists the best time they can where they are, and get good tips doing so. The trick is to separate a temporary high from reality of being.

I know I enjoyed my time in Hawaii and am almost constantly dreaming up schemes to get back there. Some plausible, some not so much. Daydreaming I am very good at. But. Belonging, on these isolated islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean?  With the krazies like and Kai and Keoni? Where my name is pronounced correctly the first time? In Hawaii I felt settled, for the short time I was there. Do I belong there?

Dunno. Maybe I haven’t been to enough places yet.



Slightly oddball tips for a great travel vacation. (AKA, things I’ve learned by doing or observing or by having common sense.)

travel blog & musings

In no particular order, and not all-encompassing. Accompanied (mostly) by pictures from a recent trip to Maui & Kauai. Also perhaps not all oddball… that could just be me.

Hawaii_1 NIKKOR VR 30-110mm f:3.8-5.6_215

1. Schedule super busy time at work for the 8 months previous to vacation so everything seems magical just by virtue of not working. Or, schedule vacation right after your busy time at work so everything seems magical just by virtue of not working. Or if you’re always busy at work, just go. If there’s never a good time, just go. You need to go. Do NOT say you’re too busy to go. Downtime is essential for being a good human. You can’t have a great vacation if you don’t take one.

2. Just go.

3. Bring an extra pair of contacts if you wear contacts. And your glasses.

4. Monochromatic or all complementary colored non-wrinkly wardrobes makes packing so easy. Especially if you’re throwing things into your bag an hour before you take off to the airport.

5. Consider hiring a driver/guide for a day or schedule a day tour with guide for whatever interests you. Like this one on Maui or these people on Kauai or this guy in Beijing. ONE day. Unless you have an unlimited budget. Seriously. Tours can feel canned if you don’t get the right one (I’ve been pretty lucky with getting the good guides!), but it’s a day when all you have to do is sit back & observe nice-looking things (like the scenery. Or your guide/driver) and not make any decisions or hunt down food or need to pay attention to road safety. After your previous months of super busy work leading up to your trip, this easy day is nice recoup time to gather energy and information for the rest of the trip. And is a day when you won’t need to pay for a rental car, if you’re a rental car type of person. Especially recommended at the beginning of your trip, since it does help you get acquainted with the area to plan activities for further days or give you a chance to pick your guide’s head about awesome things to do. (But know what you’re signing up for. Don’t be expecting to be hiking all day when you sign up for a driving tour. And vice-versa.)

Hawaii_iPhone 5 back camera 4.12mm f:2.4_003

(This is the only picture I have of our tour van & guide on the Hana Highway on Maui. This was a 12-person vehicle. The largest group I would probably ever recommend going anywhere with. Any larger, you spend more time getting on & off the bus than seeing anything off the bus.)

6. Face some sort of fear. Which may include but is not limited to: The ocean. Surfing. Talking to people you don’t know. Sitting in the back of a tour bus on hairpin turn roads. Driving those roads later yourself. Haggling. Meditating. Skiing that black diamond. Spending part of a day on a beach & eating shaved ice.

Hawaii_iPhone 5 back camera 4.12mm f:2.4_058

7. Don’t be afraid to get dirty. Hotels have sinks to rinse mud out of clothes. And shoes are meant to be in dirt.


8. Fancy sandals not needed. Leave those at home, bring the walkable sandals instead.

9. Train for a 5k or sporting event of your choosing, as long as it requires self-propelled physical motion, before your trip. Run your race/event 1-2 weeks before vacation so you reap the benefits of the energy this gives you during vacation. And vacation will also seem like vacation away from more than just work–you’re taking a break from work AND training, making your time away doubly magical.

(UNLESS your vacation includes an activity such as climbing Kilimanjaro or running across Liechtenstein–then train for that, of course, up until that part of your trip.)

Side note: who wants to climb Kilimanjaro or run across Liechtenstein with me?

10. Bring a book to read or something to do, but if you don’t get to reading it, not a big deal. You’ll have it there if you want to read it. Point is, don’t feel beholden to preconceived notions of what you HAVE to do on a vacation (things with large monetary deposits excepted). Do what moves you at the time. Don’t over-schedule.

11. Don’t spend your entire time shopping. Memories & experiences are souvenir enough, you don’t need kitsch too (I’m not saying don’t ever shop. Just not ALL THE TIME. If one of your friends is being kind enough to watch your pets while you’re gone, please do get them something.)

12. Talk to the animals you see! (From a safe distance. Beware, they’re not all friendly. Like wild boars and long horn sheep. Not particularly friendly. Cats in Istanbul = friendly.)


13. Try the local foods. Try them. There is very little excuse. (except for, ya know, deadly allergies. And belief systems.) You’re in a new place for a reason. Try the local culture.

14. Realize the culture of the place you’re visiting is different than your own & respect that. Even if you don’t agree. Just respect. Be a good human. And if you can’t respect, you don’t need to return on vacation. (If you want to enact social change, that’s a whole different ball of wax. And also not a vacation.)

15. Tell someone you don’t know that you really like their TARDIS phone case, or similar sentiment. And make a friend for a day.

16. Have a thing you do. Mine usually involves dance moves—throwing down waltz steps in Taksim Square, or having bad attitude in various places:

(which I completely forgot about in Hawaii. Hence the picture on the Great Wall. Perhaps I’ll just have to go back to Hawaii to remedy this.)

Or sometimes even running in new locales, dependent on what shoes came with me on the trip. This was my view for a couple of morning runs on Maui:

Hawaii_iPhone 5 back camera 4.12mm f:2.4_054

17. Wear a flower tucked behind your ear all day if the opportunity lends itself. If someone gave you the flower for one reason or another or if the smell is lastingly delightful, even better.

18. Coffee, no matter how delicious & no matter how delightful the small farmstand it came from & no matter how jetlag is hitting you, shall not be consumed on an iffy stomach while riding in the back of a small tour van driving roads with many hairpin turns. Ever.

19. Luck out & get an exit row to yourself on the flight there. Since we all have such control of that.

20. Get inordinately excited about something small. Like the coelacanth you just found out was in the museum you’re going to. You will always remember this as a happy moment.

21. Wherever you go, notice & enjoy the light. The light can be amazing.


22. Pack light. You hear it all the time. This is not slightly unrealistic–more necessary. And is actually my #1 travel tip. Other than have an open mind. So maybe pack light is #2 after have an open mind? Whichever. Have an open mind & pack light. Enjoy where you are, don’t get caught up in the stuff you have with you or what you don’t have.

23. Figure out if you’re a picture taker or not, and be that. If you ARE a picture taker, for the love of whatever you believe, BRING YOUR MEMORY CARDS. They’re expensive to buy on trips and it’s just really annoying to have to take time to find one.

24. Embrace the idea that you will likely forget one major thing on a trip, and only realize it right after the airline door closes or when you first pull out your camera for pictures and realize your memory cards are at home next to your computer instead of in your camera. You will forget something. And it will be ok. And will give you a fun workaround story later. (Unless it’s your meds or your passport or one of your travel party. Make sure you have those.)

25. Don’t rely completely on your smartphone for directions, itineraries, confirmations, etc. Those batteries can die before you realize it. Even if you’re prepared with a backup charger.

26. Just GO.

27. GO, and experience. Don’t impede your own enjoyment.