This morning I was in a cage in the pacific ocean off the coast of Oahu swimming with Galapagos Sharks and Baracudas and tonight I am writing poetry sipping a tequila sunrise in a sports bar.
Life is weird. And amazing.
9 days ago I arrived on the island of Oahu, Hawaii for my first ever solo travel experience. (minus my little brother who tagged along, but I’m responsible for him so really, still solo.) I expected to see amazing sunsets, snorkel with exotic fish, go on 4 hour hikes in the rainforest, swim with sharks amidst 10 foot waves and do yoga on the beach and in the jungle. All of which I did. But I never expected the ultimate surprise of this trip.
I never expected the warmth. The hospitality. The aloha spirit of the Hawaiian people who will go out of their way to help you whether you ask for it or not.
I didn’t expect to find the nicest people in the world.
In a touristy beach town called Waikiki I was looking for an authentic rural Hawaiian experience. So after seeing incredible reviews with a company based out of waikiki called Sunset Yoga I booked a “Yoga Jungle Hike”. I expected it to be a commercial rather fake paradise yoga type of scene but I got the authenticity I was searching for and more. We started by doing some yoga at 9am on the lawn facing the beautiful Palm tree laden Waikiki beach. An hour and a half later, we regrouped to take off for our hike through the “secret hike path” as the website boasted. To my suprise, this was a very humble laid back experience, as our Yoga hike instructor Haylee would be taking us in her own vehicle which was a 15 year old beaten up beach car. No coach buses here. I loved it. There were only 5 of us including Haylee. Me, a pharmacist, her friend who said she was “chillin” when asked what she does for a living, and a mother of a 2 year old who toured with bands doing their finances for a living. And then there was Haylee, a Utah native who was brought to Hawaii because of her husband’s education. We were a varied group to say the least. We stepped foot into the bamboo forest, which was admittedly, off the beaten path for sure. (We were warned to watch for bamboo stumps which were apparently capapble impailing our feet). A few steps in we were asked to stop and circle around a stump Haylee stood on, as she revealed a little spray bottle of water with a refreshing eucalyptus scent which she sprayed into our cupped hands. She asked us to rub the water into our hands, smell it and close our eyes in a prayer posture while we set an intention for the rest of the hike: to stay present in the moment throughout and be curious and attentive to our wild surroundings. We moved on. We came upon some buds of closed up flowers that Haylee asked us to gently open. When I smelled the petals, I didn’t notice anything. Haylee explained that the flower produces a scent when you “give it air” or blow on it. All of a sudden I noticed the strong familiar scent of jasmine! As we moved through the hike, Haylee asked us to stop multiple times and take in the surroundings, and be grateful for the fresh air we were breathing, the blueberries we found and ate (and raspberries!) and it reminded me that hiking is very similar to meditation. You can’t really think about anything other than the task at hand which is watching each step you take making sure you don’t trip on anything. There is no paved manicured path in the jungle so as soon as you are not being in the present moment, giving full attention to what is currently happening, you trip on a wayward vine or a rock. It is close to clearing your mind entirely and there is even an emphasis on deep breathing as hiking is light excercise as well. Finally we reached a clearing where a vast valley awaited us. We decided to stop for yoga. We did a 20-30 minute standing practice involving warrior 1/2, suryanamaskars and tree poses. Not only was it the ultimate experience for a yogi to practice in the most beautiful natural place in the world but for the first time I felt a deep connection to nature that I just didn’t completely feel doing yoga in my room on my hardwood floor facing the window. I felt as though with every inhale and exhale, the trees swayed accordingly. And during warrior 2 where the support of the earth is very important to maintaining your balance, I felt truly supported by the hard dirt below me. After the yoga we moved through the thick jungle uphill towards the waterfall: our destination. When we got there we did a little meditation to the sound of the rushing water. After that it was time to climb. Again there was no path to climbing to the top, you just had some slippery boulders and trust in yourself. Surprisingly there was no debate in my head about backing out. I had some nerves about the height but otherwise I was surprised at how much trust I really did have in myself. So one foothold at a time I reached the top and took a victory picture before crab walking down and highfiving everyone. Me and one of the girls shared our awe in what we had just done. “I can’t believe i did that, I’m so afraid of heights” “yeah” she said. “but you did it.”
When I arrived in Kapolei, waiting for a bus transfer to our hotel I was waiting next to a cheery mammoth of a lady with gnarly arm tattoos and the bubbliest disposition sitting on the bus stop bench. She looked concerned and asked us “You guys okay? Do you wanna sit down?” getting ready to stand up from the bench she offered us. We politely refused, we’d been sitting down on a bus for two hours, we were fine thank you. A few minutes later a disheveled man with sunburnt skin and wild hair maybe in his 60s, stumbled around the stop looking confused. He was holding a bottle in a brown paper bag and carrying nothing else. The lady asked him where he was going and guided him to a different stop down the road. “That guy was getting a little too close to you guys”. We chuckled, admittedly a little relieved. “Dont worry though, aunty’s here, I woulda slapped the shit outta him if he tried anything”. We all laughed, instantly feeling safer. She then proceeded to strike up conversation about where we were from, business or pleasure, and then re-assured us we were taking the right bus and wished us good luck.
When we got off that bus, we were still a 12 minute walk away from our hotel on roads with no pavement all while our gps navigation kept telling us we were already at our hotel. Two suitcases in tow in 80 degree weather and no idea where to go, we were flustered and it must have showed. Because almost immediately, a burly man dark from life under the sun, leathery skin and a brilliant smile came riding up to us in a weathered golf cart asking “You folks alright?” We told him about the wonky GPS and asked if there was a Hampton Inn anywhere nearby. He scratched his head for a few moments and then turned around calling out to a younger man in his late 20s wearing a blue camoflauge navy unform who said he did know of a hotel by the new mall. And with that we took off, grating our suitcase wheels against the jagged rocks beside the railroad that was supposed to lead us to our hotel. A few moments later, the tanned man, the soldier and a little girl in dusty flip flops rode up to us in their golf cart that I was sure was 1 pound away from falling apart and insisted we let them take us to the hotel because it was quite a walk. They were right. The ride in the vehicle alone was ten minutes and with our suitcases and flipflops would have lost the bumpy battle against the sharp gravel. On the way, we chatted about New Jersey and the mild winter and climate change and were then invited to a historic Kapolei train ride that they ran on Saturdays. We thanked them excessively while they insisted it was no problem at all.
After Kapolei, we headed up to Haleiwa, a historic quaint town in the North Shore for my shark encounter. For someone with a deathly phobia of the ocean, going on a day with the roughest seas of the season was quite a cruel coincidence. In fact, the water was so choppy that the groups after mine were cancelled due to such gargantuan waves, and as soon as we came onboard, a crew member with long scraggily blonde hair and reflective sunglasses strapped around his head like a bandana warned us that 3 people on the last tour became seasick. I was confident I wouldnt hurl, that wasn’t the problem. Neither were the sharks. They were beautiful misunderstood animals that Hollywood liked to make a ruthless man killing machine out of. In truth, they were just like any other fish in the sea, looking for a bite to eat and humans were not on the menu. Unless they resembled their favorite food by paddling on a surfboard (from under the surface of the ocean, this can look like a seal, which sharks love to eat) which usually results in a bite followed by immediate regret and fleeing of the scene. Anyway, what I really feared was not the sharks or the motion sickness, but the ocean. The sheer volume of it combined with the cage being thrown around like a rag doll in the mouth of a rotweiler (or in this case, 10 foot waves), scared the crap out of me. I wasn’t a great swimmer and I had come alone, unlike everyone else in my tour. Everyone asked each other if they were okay, holding on to each other in the cage while they delighted in the amazing underwater pictures their gopro was getting. I had none of the support, and I was already terrified of the ocean. However, Chris, the blonde crew member from before took notice of my hesitation and nerves and repeatedly asked if I was alright. Later as everyone entered the cage one by one, I was the last to go. As I watched everyone descend into the miniscule box seemingly made of toothpicks that the vast ocean could easily snap in half, the captain also made conversation with me reminding me about all the stories I would take to medical school with me from experiences like this. I decided he was right, this is why I came. After the last person went in, I strapped on my scuba gear and stepped one foot at a time into water that would go miles before it hit the floor. The force of the waves was already shaking the cage violently around me and I looked for a bar to grab on to. I gave the captain a thumbs up but as soon as my feet were off of the ladder attached to the boat, I went into a full blown panic. I was breathing very fast and I knew I had to stop before I inhaled water, but I couldnt. Suddenly I realized how alone I was, that if I started drowning no one would notice, and I was a bad swimmer why did I agree to this, I couldnt breathe, the waves were so choppy and powerful they thrashed over me, into my snorkel I almost choked. I wanted out. But I realized I would never forgive myself for not giving this a chance. I came to see the sharks, and that’s what I would do. I secured the snorkel again and let go of my death grip on the cage’s bars to lower my head under the water and lo and behold the water was perfectly calm. It was war on the surface but a few feet underneath, it was serene and there I saw them. Galapagos Sharks swimming under the cage, a yard from my face, completely unbothered by our human presence. A baracuda appeared. Completely umovable despite the tons of force applied by the ocean waves, sitting still in front of me before whizzing away. It was unforgettable. I was the first one out and as I stumbled out to get hosed down, Chris told me to take a seat and look at land.