Honolulu Overheard

Travel Stories: Pico Iyer takes in the Hawaiian city through its sounds

01.05.09 | 8:21 AM ET


A craggy man with leathery skin—from the American West, I’m guessing—is telling his slightly younger female friend about the world. I’m sitting at the next table from them at La Cucaracha restaurant in Waikiki, trying not to ask myself what Mexican restaurant, anywhere, names itself after a cockroach.

“I’ll have two enchiladas a la carte,” he says, when the waitress appears at their table.

“I don’t know what that means,” she says.

“Just on their own. No rice. No beans.”

She pads off, untroubled, towards the kitchen.

“I like her,” the almost-cowboy tells his friend. “She’s kind of cute. I like it when she says, ‘I don’t know what you mean.’ I like people who are direct, just say what they think.”

I’m a little less impressed: a waitress who’s never heard the phrase “a la carte” may not be cut out for this line of work, I think. But this is, after all, Hawaii, where America has stubbed its toe against Polynesia and created a perfect location for the Japanese. Things get lost in translation here.

Around me, the sound of ukelele and slack-key guitar, a gentle, lilting sound that evokes the splash of surf upon the strand, the rocking of a hammock between the trees, is deafening. An Elvis “impressionist” is crooning through the window of the restaurant next door. A woman’s cell phone is beeping angrily as she pays for her coffee at Starbucks with a gold American Express card. There is a sudden trill of “Kirei!” (or “How beautiful!”) as a group of Japanese young women translate a sunset into an image in their cute pink digital cameras, as tiny, each instrument, as a business card.

Perhaps, I think, on this trip, I’ll just try to catch Hawaii through its sounds. Enough already of the sights, even the smells (the frangipani and night-blooming jasmine that have bewitched generations of visitors, from Somerset Maugham to Paul Theroux). What can be more eloquent than the fact that the sun-kissed ukeleles are playing “Winter Wonderland”?

“The trouble was,” the friendly Kiwi, in his mid-30s, is saying, at the table outside Starbucks, “the guy playing Elvis was in something of a hurry.” It’s a few days before New Year’s Eve and the New Zealander, dressed in shorts and summer shirt, looks like an enterprising businessman on a holiday.

“It being Christmas and all,” he goes on, forgivingly. “So he was in a bit of a hurry. I had expectations, but he just rushed through all the songs.”

“That’s totally inappropriate,” offers a woman from another table, early 40s, perhaps, a dental hygienist, she will later acknowledge, from Alberta.

“Yeah, I was a bit disappointed.” Jeff, as I’ve dubbed him, is checking the classified ads in the Honolulu Advertiser for a 42’ TV to take back home. “Half the price. I mean, I go a lot to China, and they’re half price there, too. But the quality is questionable. Here, half the price, and it’s the same as home!”

“That is so, so inappropriate,” says Trudi, as I cast her, still rattled by the thought of Elvis’s name and image being besmirched, and revved up herself from having already made the three-hour ascent of Diamond Head this early morning.

“Yeah. It was—I think—sixty dollars. 4:45 you had to be seated. Then we were out of there by 7:15. He only played for an hour and a wee bit. So it was pretty short for dinner-and-a-show.”

People speak slowly in the Pacific, the way the elderly taking exercise along the beach in Waikiki run slower than most New Yorkers walk. The local alphabet, with its 12 letters, five of them vowels, tends to be filled with “u"s and “l"s, so you end up ululating languorously and lulling undulatingly. The gravestones I see in a local cemetery are the tersest I’ve ever seen, a name, not much more. It’s a language made for sashaying, and yet the names in the papers are “Froggy” and “Boogie” and “Oping,” and the nearest Chinese restaurant is called “Froggies.” The ads are for Make-up Artistry, Nail Technicians and Wellness Technologies.

“It’s two in the morning,” a dude reminisces on his cell, walking quickly between crowds lined up on the street outside Chili’s and TGIF, “and we’re sitting in a circle, throwing napkins at each other.”

“Like I wake up,” the girl working behind the counter at Starbucks announces, “and I’m still sleeping.”

“I know what you mean.”

The T-shirts say, “I’d like to help you but I just CAN’T FIX STUPID,” and represent a mock-paper called the Waikiki Beach Digest, with the headline, “SHARK ATTACKS SIX TOURISTS. TOURISTS ARE FINE.” The “mostly Greek” restaurant in the mall advertises “not so fast food.” In the phone book I see listings for Paradise Vows, Paradise Canyon Systems, Inc. Paradise Hair Extensions and Paradise Implants Inc. Paradise Sky Cap Service, Paradise Lending and Paradise Loans and Jewelry.

In the elevator at my modest hotel I am told I can enjoy a Cleopatra Wrap or a Cranium and Pelvis Correction. “My inner child feels so complete and fulfilled in this radiant chakra light,” the legend volunteers.

“So we live in this little village,” the wife of a celebrated Japanese painter tells me, offering me directions to their house. “You can’t miss us. Our street is only one block long, and we’re the second on the right.”

I ask for an address, and she gives me a five-digit number, not what I expect from a one-block street (the first two digits, I later learn, refer to the whole district, and the final three are somewhat arbitrary).

“You know when you’ve gone too far,” she says, “if you hit the Assembly of God, this little white church. We’re just past the 7-Eleven.”


“Well, actually”—a pause—“I should warn you: there are two 7-Elevens in our village. We’re just past the first. Midway between the first 7-Eleven and McDonald’s.”

I’d told a friend I was coming to Honolulu, and she’d said, “I remember, when I traveled around the world, in 1960, as soon as I arrived in Hawaii, I smelled French fries.”

“But it had become a state only a year before.”

“Yes. But they got quickly to the fries.”

“You see, it’s really a multi-multi-melting pot,” the American Westerner is saying to his friend at the Cockroach, perhaps referring to the fact that Hawaii is the spiritual home of spam musubi, and cross-racial dating agencies are everywhere. “Now, I’ll bet that waitress was abused by her father.”

His friend laughs, a little uneasily.

“No, I’m serious. I bet she went through a lot as a girl, and now she’s working in this high-cost area. Even though she doesn’t know the meaning of ‘a la carte.’ I mean, there’s a story there. A young girl working alone says to me, she’s coming from a home that’s disintegrated. And how do they disintegrate? It’s usually because the men are abusive.”

On the beach, a teenager accosts her bikinied friends, strutting along the sand.

“What are you doing?”


“In this gorgeous world,” Paul Theroux, an 18-year resident of Hawaii, writes in Hotel Honolulu, “birds uttered long, meaningful phrases, and people spoke in flat monosyllables.”

Pico Iyer

Pico Iyer is the author of several books about his travels, including Video Night in Kathmandu, "The Lady and the Monk," "The Global Soul" and "Sun After Dark." His most recent travel book, The Open Road, describes 33 years of talks and adventures with the 14th Dalai Lama.

10 Comments for Honolulu Overheard

Eva Holland 01.05.09 | 11:13 AM ET

Thanks, I really enjoyed this!

Eavesdropping is one of my favorite things to do when I travel—something about people being away from home seems to make them forget (or simply not care?) that anyone might be listening. It’s always far more interesting than anything overheard on a city bus.

Sean 01.05.09 | 12:05 PM ET

Nice one and congrats to Pico, Jim and Mike for teaming up.  Sounds like he’ll be writing a column here?

Love reading these insights.  In Hawaii at the moment and some of these interactions resonate with me as well.

Happy New Year guys,

Enduring Wanderlust 01.05.09 | 12:12 PM ET

Beautiful piece, Pico. I guess you didn’t overhear any strategies from Obama during his stay there?

John M. Edwards 01.05.09 | 7:37 PM ET

Hi Pico:

I’m pretty sure we met once in London a long time ago before Video Night in Kathmandu came out.  I have a signed copy of that classic acquired from an attendee at one of your readings at the 92nd Street Y. All I can say is, you write like you talk, which is a compliment. You are the mellifluous and honey-tongued Shakespeare of the travel writing set.

I love stories that spy on all the other people at travel destinations, like the gecko on the wall. I too listen to the talk at nearby tables. A very witty piece. It must be fun to live in Japan, and spend New Years on Hawaii, making fun of our foibles.

John M. Edwards

AndreyM 01.06.09 | 4:20 AM ET

I like so much to read and hear such wonderful stories about trips and vacations! I hope and I to be there in such perfect place!!!

Hal Amen 01.07.09 | 11:49 AM ET

This is a real eye-opener for me in terms of the writing craft. I’ve been to Waikiki and seen and heard similar idiosyncrasies and exchanges, but it never would have occurred to me to process it like this.

Loved it.

Michael Yessis 01.07.09 | 7:25 PM ET

Loved the observations, the details, the uke in the background…pretty much all of it.

Bravo, Pico.

Emily 01.13.09 | 5:55 PM ET

Great story! What you overhear can certainly tell you a lot about a place, especially if you’re traveling alone, I’ve found. Wondering if you by any chance bring a tape recorder when you travel, or do you write by memory?

Sharon 01.13.09 | 7:04 PM ET

Love to read conversations that are overheard, especially when traveling because you never know what they may reveal. And as Emily asks, do you write by memory or bring a recorder?

Essay topics 01.17.09 | 2:37 PM ET

Ohhh….Pico! :)
Cant help myself stop hearing others when travelling and think it’s naturally ‘cause the very purpose of one’s trip is live communication (or conversation).... to get in direct or indirect :) touch with people who’re by chance got caught in the same time and place ‘da sein’ with you.
This is so mysteriously enchanting….
You’re the master in passing this mystery to reader

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