Tropic of Skin Cancer

I’ve been back in San Francisco for a week now. Last Friday’s entry on the topic was a rush job, barely scratching the surface of what I wanted to talk about. If you care to know more, read on.

If you’re look for the natural splendor of Hawaii, Waikiki is not the place. Other than a thin strip of beach and the endless expanse of ocean to the south, high-rise hotels, restaurants, and retail stores fill this corner of Honolulu.

It is a safe haven for mainland tourists who yearn for a tropical getaway but don’t want to endure the sort of third-world dysfunction one associates with such climes. Shopping, dining, and baking in the sun can be achieved without incident.

Locals are by and large pretty laid-back, rarely getting their panties into bunch about anything, but still manage to get the job done. Service is prompt and courteous despite the leisurely pace. It is a foreign world for those of us who use stress to battle inertia, but it seems to work for them.

Since I traveled alone, I spent the bulk of my time just wandering around. It took me a while to get comfortable with the fact that I wasn’t actually required to do anything. Of course that’s the very idea of being on vacation, but I spent the days leading up to the trip convincing myself that I was destined for the kind of excess and degredation of which legends are made.

In the end, I found that I had neither the inclination nor budget for such behavior. My social interactions were blissfully limited and even my booze intake was moderate. I was perfectly content to neither chat up nor throw up on anybody.

I suppose I could have indulged some sordid island fantasy with the help of an escort service. Many of the women I saw were nothing short of breathtaking, and those were just the amateurs. However, all my budget had already been slated for airfare, hotel, food, and drink. The only illicit dalliances I could afford would have come from the bargain basement of whoredom, likely a septuagenarian Molokai transplant known as “Leper Belle.” I decided to give that a miss.

One thing I did manage to accomplish was hiking to the top of Diamond Head. OK, we’re not talking an ascent of Everest here. The summit is is only about 900 feet and reached by a clearly marked and often paved trail. Still, it was worth doing.

I remembered The Diamond Head Game show from the 70’s, where contestants stood in an Adolf Eichmann-esque glass booth and frantically grabbed cash blown around by air jets in the floor. Even though there were no paper-cut fatalities during its on-season run, the program left a lasting impression. Could mere nature live up to the magic of television? I doubted it but wanted to see for myself.

After breakfast at the Wailana Coffee Shop near my hotel, I set out on my journey. I walked to the far end of Waikiki, past the zoo, and across a lovely beach park with shady trees overhead and the refreshing absence of crowds. From there, it was a long uphill schlep along a shoreline boulevard with ritzy homes on either side.

I was glad I decided to go on foot. I needed the scenery and solitude. Every so often, a cloud from the north would dump rain on me, but it quickly dried. It took almost two hours to get to the entrance of Diamond Head Park and my feet hurt, but I was happy.

Diamond Head is not actually a mountain but rather the highest point of a ridge surrounding a long-dormant volcano crater. To get to the top, you start on a cement path that turns into a dirt trail with switchbacks.

There is also a long, poorly lit tunnel, which I thought would give me some relief from the tropical sun. I was wrong. There is next to no ventilation and most of the oxygen inside has already been breathed by the throng of people who preceded me.

The summit was once used as a place for human sacrifice by indigenous folk and later as a lookout bunker by the US military. Now it is encrusted with wheezing, sweating tourists enjoying the splendid view.

Fortunately, there is no real risk of collapsing and dying up there. A rescue helicopter runs regular sorties between the base of the crater and a landing pad near the top. Those requiring emergency assistance are administered first aid, choppered back to their hotels, and deposited poolside with a mai tai drip.

I spent about a half hour up there taking it all in. To the east, small towns dotted the lush hillsides. Straight ahead was the Pacific, huge and awe inspiring. And to the west, miles away, lay Waikiki and the rest of Honolulu, an urban sprawl of hundreds of thousands of people who made a little slice of paradise their home. Seeing that made me realize something very important.

I realized that there was no way in hell I was going to walk back all that way. I took a cab instead.

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