One sunny, Saturday morning, I found myself standing at the foot of King David Kalakaua’s statue in Waikiki with my Big Girl Camera hanging around my neck, an iPhone in my hand, and, perhaps, even, my waterproof point-and-shoot stashed in my backpack. On my face, I wore a blank stare. I did not see the kids with florescent pink and green inflatables wrapped around their mid-sections and waddling for the beach. I did not see the surfers with their boards balanced on their heads, their wet footprints drying on the hot pavement. I did not see the street performers acting as statues, the man with the five parrots, or the people handing out pamphlets for massages, meals and shooting ranges.
What I was trying to do was imagine what this visitor-friendly, retail mecca of Oahu looked like when Hawaii’s last king visited--you could say vacationed—in Waikiki back in the late 19th century, a time when the area was known as the playground of royalty—alii—and was made up primarily of beach and wetlands.
I imagined King Kalakaua may have done the same things I have done in Waikiki--watch canoe races, enjoy hula performances, and wade in the waters of Waikiki.
Before I got to the eyes-glazed-mouth-agape state, my morning had started at Outrigger Reef on the Beach with a young Hawaiian man named Kahoaka. The last Saturday of every month, Kahoaka leads guests of the hotel on Na Alii Walking Tour, stopping at points of historical note in Waikiki primarily associated with royalty.
There is the spot next door to Outrigger Reef on the Beach where King Kamehameha I is said to have first stepped ashore on Oahu with his hundreds of war canoes in his quest to conquer all the Hawaiian Islands. Today, this is the site of the US Army Museum. In front, in a semi-circle rising out of the ground, five kii, tiki, represent the Hawaiian warrior god known as Ku. There would also be sculptures and statues, a couple I had never seen before, on this tour.
Kahoaka, a young man taught in the ways of Hawaiian culture by his aunty, wore a kukui nut lei over a shoulder cape. “To show respect,” he explained. His smile was warm and his demeanor gentle.
There were two couples from Wisconsin and a woman--I think her name was Sharon--from California on the walk with us that spanned one end of Kalakaua to the other over nearly two-and-a-half hours.
Kahoaka told us about King Kalakaua, how the “Merrie Monarch,” the only Hawaiian king not descended from the Kamehameha line, built the US’s only royal residence--`Iolani Palace. Kalakaua dusted off his people’s culture of hula and encouraged men and women to tell stories with their hands. To celebrate his coronation, Kalakaua threw a two-week long celebration that included parades, fireworks, hula performances and a public luau. The event also marked his 50th birthday. But Kalakaua’s reign saw the rise of sugar barons, and in 1887, he was forced to sign the “Bayonet Constitution” that reduced his power to that of a figurehead.
There were more stories Kahoaka shared—about Queen Emma, Bernice Pauahi Bishop, Princess Kaiulani, and the healing waters of Kawehewehe, a place where an underground stream bubbles up into the ocean beside Outrigger Reef on the Beach. Here, hundreds of years ago, Hawaiian royalty, wearing lei of limu kala, seaweed, would come for healing. It was believed wrongdoing could lead to sickness, and in a sacred ceremony, the lei would be released in the ocean and forgiveness for past wrongs requested.
But before we got to that, as we stood at Kalakaua’s statue, Sharon leaned my way and said, “I just love learning this kind of stuff. Who would have known?”
One thing I’ve learned from 14 years of living in Hawaii is this: There is always more than meets the eye. I may be a woman who is firmly planted in today—as all the technology hanging off my body indicates—but I also enjoy looking back at how things used to be. A building is not just a building. A tree is not just a tree. A rock not just a rock. Just about everything in Hawaii has a story.
When I circled Kalakaua’s statue, I read a plaque that gave his birth and death dates. “Well, whadya know,” I said. “That explains the maile lei. Today is his 177th birthday.”
Kalakaua’s reign may have seen the loss of his people’s political power, but he managed to ensure some portion of his people’s culture. Kahoaka, in his kukui nut lei and kihei was proof of that. So, too, was the statue draped in lei made of a fragrant vine. “Oh, yes,” Kahoaka said. “There was a special ceremony yesterday.”