5 Things I Miss About Living in Hawai’i

July 2010, at the US Embassy in the Philippines.

Visa Officer: So, you’re moving to Hawai’i to do a PhD? How long?
Me: 5 years. Hopefully less.

I felt dread. I was moving, ALONE, to a place I’d never been to before and where I knew no one. It took all the courage in me not to tell the officer to reject my application for an F-1 Visa. But I knew that if I wanted to finish my PhD, I had to get it outside the Philippines. I had with me an acceptance letter and a funding source for at least 2 years. I had to do this.

Unbeknownst to me, Hawai’i would turn out to be one of the best experiences I’d have (and will probably ever have) in my life. I found a place among friends. I called myself kama’aina, of the land. I had a state ID, I wore slippahs and shorts to school, and I loved my beach dresses. I enjoyed mai tai and I was addicted to lava flow. I would walk 40 minutes to the beach, swim for 20 minutes, watch the sunset and walk back home. I’m not a big coffee drinker, but I thoroughly enjoy drinking Kona coffee. I crave for poke, laulau, and malasadas. I cannot remember a time I was happier than the years I’d spent on island.  Now, almost 7 years since I first stepped foot on the island of O’ahu and almost 2 years since I went off island to take a postdoctoral researcher position in Denmark, I cannot help but yearn for the life I used to have. True, the island was LITERALLY in the middle of nowhere and it took 6 hours to fly to California; O’ahu was so small you could drive around it in half a day; and there were no cheap, no frills flights to other islands, but when you had almost everything that you needed, so what? I could stare at the ridges of the Ko’olau Range for the rest of my life and never get over how breathtaking it is, especially when it rains and the ridges become small waterfalls. *insert happy sigh here*

So, from someone who has spent the happiest 5 years of her life on the island of O’ahu, in the state of Hawai’i, here are the top 5 things I miss about the life I used to have. If you ever find yourself on island, remember these 5 things:

5. Rainbows

Hawai’i is not called the Rainbow State for nothing. Unless you’re cooped up in your room the entire time, it’s impossible to not see a rainbow (or a double rainbow). I saw a triple rainbow in Hawai’i a couple of times in Hawaii. I used to think that triple rainbows were such a wonderful, miraculous thing until a friend told me that every time you see a rainbow, there are actually an infinite number of rainbows there. I still think they are wonderful and miraculous, but I’ve accepted the tripleness as a fact. I no longer open my mouth wide enough for a fly to go in. But oh, rainbows make the most dreary of views rather amazing.

4. Sea, Sun and Sand

Who can deny the call of the sea? I know I cannot. 7 years ago, I thought the beaches of Hawai’i wouldn’t be so interesting to me since I came from a country with 7,107 islands. (NB: In the Philippines, you pay to access a nicely kept beach). There are white sand beaches, pitch black sand beaches, green sand beaches, red sand beaches, and beaches in areas that that used to be volcanic craters. The view can be breathtaking. When the surf is good, people surf. When the waters are calm, people take out their paddle boards. There are sunset dinner cruises, pirate ship cruise adventures, and submarine adventures. I enjoyed snorkeling and scuba diving, ogling at those large, delicious looking fishes. I loved lying on the beach under the afternoon sun, and feeling the sand between my toes. The best sunsets I’d ever seen I saw in Hawai’i. On Friday nights, I enjoyed the beach fireworks from behind the coconut trees.

3. Diversity

I’d never met so many people from so many different backgrounds until I lived in Hawai’i. In the graduate students’ dormitory where I lived in, I cooked and shared food with, conversed with, and kept in touch with individuals from over 100 different countries. It’s funny how, after staying on an island in the middle of nowhere, I can now say that I have a friend in EVERY country in Asia, North America, South America, and in many countries outside Asia. I like how welcoming Hawai’i is of individuals with different backgrounds. I am amazed at how individuals are culturally interested and sensitive. I like that I can just be myself in Hawai’i.

Because Hawai’i is so culturally diverse, the food choices are also very diverse. I might enjoy a locomoco for breakfast, a dimsum for brunch, a bibimbap for for lunch, sushi and shave ice for midday snack, and a pho for dinner. *Yes, I eat a lot. Don’t judge!* The most preferred way of spending time with friends is over food, with a potluck, where every person brings a cuisine his or her country specializes in. My taste buds were happy in Hawai’i, and my heart was content.

2. Mountains and Hiking

There are two mountain ranges in O’ahu: the Wai’anae Range to the west and the Ko’olau Range to the east. They are equally picturesque; although if I were to be perfectly honest, I would say I find the Ko’olau Range the more breathtaking of the two. In fact, one of my favorite past times in O’ahu was driving through the Pali and enjoying the view of the Ko’olau.

I also enjoyed “conquering mountains”, which came as a surprise to me because I was never really fond of hiking when I was in the Philippines. It was too hot, I didn’t have the proper outfit, and large proportion of the population was obsessed with getting paler. But in Hawai’i, I didn’t care. I liked that I was getting exercise while being one with nature, and enjoying it. I was getting darker, but I no longer cared. I loved hiking. I especially loved rainforests hikes, which either took me up on mountain tops or to some hidden waterfall with a swimming hole.

1. Aloha

And, of course, Aloha. Aloha is what makes Hawaii the best place to live in on the planet (my opinion). I miss the friendliness and the welcomeness. I miss the sense of belonging. I miss the community. I miss the spirit of Hawai’i: island life, friendly, courteous, respectful, compassionate, affectionate. I miss the hula and the Hawaiian chants. I miss hearing Hawaiian words being spoken and sung.

So friends, when you’re on island, please remember me. And send some aloha my way. I am thinking of you, and of Hawai’i, always.

March 19, 2017 | Copenhagen, Denmark

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First Time Baltic

It seems like most of the travel I’ve been doing lately are spur of the moment. I see a cheap fare, I buy it for the cheapest dates, I put it aside until a week before I travel, and then I start going crazy researching for accommodations, important sights to see, and must-try food places.

This month, I’m taking a break from traveling abroad to collect my thoughts and write blogs, to possibly explore my current country of residence more, and because 2 groups of friends are visiting in late March. Just thinking of all the things I need to accomplish in March makes me wish it was April already. Too many extra-curricular activities, and I know I really need to work on getting papers published if I want a shot at keeping this lifestyle I currently have.

Last month though, I had an amazing time in Kaunas, Lithuania. It’s my first Baltic country and I did not really know what to expect. Unlike hyped up western European countries, there was nothing that I knew of Kaunas off the top of my head, except that it was once part of the Soviet Union. So, like the good researcher that I am – a few weeks after buying a spur of the moment ticket for Andrew and I to Kaunas – I went online and googled for places to see and places to eat in Kaunas. I told Andrew it was going to be a relaxing vacation, as opposed to a hectic touristy vacation. And just like the seasoned travelers that we are, we packed our bags, took a train to the Copenhagen airport, and waited for our flight to Kaunas.

The mood was dreary when we first landed. The sky was overcast, there was a slight drizzle, and it was cold. Since it was a RyanAir flight, we had to walk for a few minutes to the main airport building after disembarking from the plane. The Kaunas International Airport (KUN) was small and vaguely reminiscent of the airport I landed at in Bishkek, except I didn’t need to go through immigration.

Since Andrew and I did not have any checked baggage, we headed straight to the bus terminal. Airport buses that take you from the airport to the city center run daily. They have buses for the earliest flight out of Kaunas and for the latest flight into Kaunas. I find it quite amazing that they have this. A single journey bus ride, no matter how long, costs 0.80 EUR. For those who want to travel conveniently (although, I don’t see how traveling by bus in Kaunas is inconvenient!), there are cabs available right outside the arrival exit. Normally, a cab from the airport to the city center costs 15 EUR. Make sure the meter is flagged before the cab goes. Or, if the cab driver refuses to use the meter, make sure you negotiate your fare +/- the average cost to the city center.

We stayed at Hotel Ibis Kaunas. It was less than 50EUR per night with free breakfast for two people, 10 minutes walk from Akropolis (the big shopping center), and 30 minutes walk from the city center. The Kaunas old town is 45 minutes walk from our hotel, but one can easily take a bus for 0.80 EUR. There is a bus stop right beside the hotel that takes you to the city center, the old town or back to the airport.

Since our trip was a relaxing vacation, we decided NOT to leave the city of Kaunas (although we could have very easily taken a train to Vilnius or a bus to either the Hill of Crosses or the Curonian Spit). We stayed in on the day we arrived and on our third day, consuming our free breakfast and either ordering room service or walking to Akropolis and getting take out. We visited the city center and the old town on our second and fourth days. We left very early on the morning (as in, freakin’ 3:45am bus ride to the airport!!!) of our fifth day.

Our second day started off with a lunch at Berneliu Smuklė at the city center. Berneliu Smuklė is a highly-recommended restaurant chain that serves traditional Lithuanian cuisine with servers dressed in traditional Lithuanian dresses (sorry, I don’t remember seeing male servers). I ordered a Kiaulienos Išpjovos Kepsnys Su Traškia Skrudinta Rûkytos Šoninės Plutele (Barbeque Sauce Glazed Bacon Wrapped Pork Tenderloin) for 6.90 EUR while Andrew ordered a rabbit stew (Smetoniškai paruoštas triušienos troškinys). Both were delicious and filled us to the brim. I was so full that I just wanted to go back to the hotel to sleep. I should have recalled this feeling for dinner that day. We had dinner at Medziotojai at the old town. The restaurant was decorated like a hunter’s lodge. Inspired by the decor, Andrew and I ordered a meat cocktail and a beer each and surprisingly, paid less than 20 EUR. At the end of the meal, suffice to say we decided to walk back to our hotel that night, intent on burning all the food we binged on.

We walked most of the day too. After lunch, we walked to the nearby garrison church of Kaunas, St. Michael the Archangel’s. It was fascinating to be in a Roman Byzantine style church built in the 1890’s and used as a Russian Orthodox garrison. The church has also been used as an art gallery and is now used as a Roman Catholic Church. St. Michael the Archangel marks the start (or the end, however you look at it) of the Laisvės alėja, one of the longest pedestrian streets in Eastern Europe. The street is lined with shops on the both sides and trees in the middle. Charming. Picturesque.

So we walked the entire stretch of the street, entering interesting shops every now and then while Andrew repeatedly asked where all the people were. Kaunas, during the time we were there, was a sleepy town. Even though most stores were open, we hardly saw people out and about.

We visited the Devil’s Museum, unique for its collection of art pieces and home furnishings with depictions of the devil. A block away from the museum was the Žaliakalnio funikulierius, an old funicular that takes you up to the Christ’s Resurrection Church where you can pay to go up to the terrace and get a lovely view of Kaunas. All worth it. 0.50 EUR for each funicular ride and 2.50 EUR to go up to the terrace using the elevator (cheaper if you take the stairs :p).

We also walked through old town’s Vilniaus Gatvė, an old medieval road that used to be all wood and later replaced by red bricks. Very charming, with its cobblestones and quaint houses. On the street is the Kaunas Basilica Cathedral built in the 1400s. It’s the largest Gothic structure in Lithuania and the only church built with a basilica floor structure. It’s intricate and amazing; maybe even awe-inspiring.

Our fourth day was spent visiting Kaunas castle and the House of Perkūnas. Both were interesting places. I can imagine how charming Kaunas used to be before all the houses were burned down. Too bad. I wish all of that got preserved. 🙂

On our fourth day, we also unintentionally rode the wrong bus from our hotel and ended up doing a city tour. Tired, after our unplanned escapade, we decided to eat a very late lunch at a Chinese restaurant and dinner take out from Akropolis. Akropolis is an amazing mall. The grocery store is flooded with all sorts of Lithuanian chocolate sold by weight. It also has cooked food and more grocery choices than Denmark will ever have!

Now, back in Copenhagen, this is what I have to say of Kaunas: sleepy, charming, very very cheap, friendly people, good service, great public transportation. I will definitely want to come back again. 🙂

March 05, 2017 | Copenhagen, Denmark