When I think of northeastern Oahu, if I think of it at all, a sense of isolation along a desolate seashore of coral reefs is evoked. This area of the island seems even more removed from “the Waikiki mentality” than where we are staying a short distance away to the north at Turtle Bay.
It was to Laie for supper in the real backcountry of Oahu that we drove on our last night in Hawaii. The drive from our condo rental is only six miles in physical distance. But, to me, it is much farther in mileage of mind and spirit, much like traversing Oahu’s backwater towns on the west coast.
Most guests leaving Turtle Bay for a night on the town, make a right turn out of the resort and steer west 12 miles to the North Shore’s bustling epicenter of Hale’iwa.
Taking a right to the east and going to Laie, then, was akin to going back in time, to the 1950s in rural America where I grew up.
It was dark by the time Nebra piloted our rented Elantra into town, past the village of Kahuku, the tires squishing on the pavement under a burst of rain.
I had driven through here three or four times before on the Kamehameha Highway, that narrow two-lane road that arcs around the eastern part of the island to Kailua and on down to Honolulu. The Kam, as it is called, can drive the impatient visitor to insanity with its 35 mph speed limits and double-yellow, no-passing center lines. Get stuck behind an old smoker of a vehicle and it may take hours to reach the big town of Kane’ohe just 20 miles south. That 20 miles, by the way, is what I have called “the hidden Oahu.” One good thing about the Kam. I have yet to see a semi-truck on this stretch.
I pronounced Laie as “lah-ee-aye,” but have since learned that is not quite right. It is, I read, “LAH-ee-yeh.” Whatever, it is a lot more exotic than saying “Ter-tle Bay.”
Most visitors know Laie as home to the large tourist attraction on the south end called the Polynesian Cultural Center. Some days you find almost as many tour buses in the parking lot as cars.
But the first thing you realize about this town when coming in from the north is the presence of the Church of Latter Day Saints, or the Mormon Church. The large Temple rests a few blocks west of the Kam. It is lit up this night like a star, more gaudy than godly.
The Mormon presence has been here for many years now. The church purchased this former plantation land in 1865. The Temple itself was the first ever built outside the continental U.S. and dedicated in 1919. About 60 years ago, the church constructed a college campus here too, Brigham Young University-Hawaii. The school’s enrollment is said to be 2,800. Their athletic teams, appropriately, are known as the Seasiders. The Pacific rolls in a half-mile east.
In town, I had Nebra pull into the first shopping center I saw. I was hungry, and even though it is a small place with only 6,138 residents at the last census, I did not want to spend the rest of the evening looking for the perfect restaurant. My eye caught familiar signs from corporate America. Pizza Hut, Subway and Starbucks. They mixed in with several local businesses. An ice cream parlor, a burger grill et al. We opted for Chinese at “Liae Chop Suey.” A sign painted on the glass door said, “Serving the Community Since 1983.”
Liae Chop Suey was humming. We took the last available table, by the door. As I looked around the room, I discovered we were the only Caucasians in the place. The others looked Hawaiian. And they all seemed to know each other. As a new male patron entered, he would go around the room clasping hands with friends. A family of six sat at the big center table. A hefty older woman seated nearby with two men, eyed us curiously, I thought. It was like she could not believe two haoles would dare venture in to a local ethnic environment. But on second thought, I wondered if she resented us taking up space that other locals waiting to be seated had more right to. I let the thought drift and concentrated on the meal.
I made the mistake of ordering the “Dinnerplate,” a sumptuous serving of just about everything the restaurant offered. My first choice of “Shrimp Chow Mein” would have been more sensible with a lot less food for the same $8 price. Nebra and I shared a pot of hot tea. In all, it was an evening well spent, our only rubbing of elbows with the people who actually live here year-round, and they the very ones who, in varying degrees, resent mainland tourists who threaten their fragile environment and way of life.
It is this edginess between the old world of the Hawiian culture and the constant pressure of new development that makes Oahu such an appealing destination. Tranquil this island may seem. But poke under the surface a bit and it is quite different. And then too there is the sad history of the U.S. military here at the start of WWII.
Leaving town in a tropical shower that obscured the Kam a bit, we turned into road that led up to the Temple, and stopped at the now-idle traffic circle.
Two young kids, a male and female, sat talking softly in the darkness nearby and paid us no attention. I pulled out my Canon and took a long distance photo of the Temple shining so brightly 100 yards away. I wanted to get closer but the gate was closed and, I assumed, locked. A fence of iron ran around the property. Strange, I thought, that a church would lock out the world for even a night.
As we drove off, I checked the photo taken in the dark just to be assured it did not have a blurry image. It was OK. But one thing. The Temple glowed in a more brilliant white than what I saw with the eye. I stared at the surreal image for a while and soon came to feeling that the photo was a symbolic rendering of what I felt. That on this night, in some small way, I had been illuminated about the Hawaiian culture and not been intimidated by it.
I hoped the patrons in Laie Chop Suey did not see us as arrogant mainlanders, the “ugly Americans” of a 1958 bestseller. To that end, I made one silly yet sincere gesture.
The “Dinnerplate” had proven more food than I could eat in one serving, or maybe in two. Rather than seem wasteful, I asked for a container and pushed my left-overs into it with the chop-sticks I had used to eat. I knew I would not eat the food later. We were leaving Turtle Bay early in the morning to catch a flight back to Phoenix. Yet I wanted to make a statement of some kind.
That was the best I could think of. Aloha.