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                This morning I wake up at 5:00 and quietly sneak around the room, grabbing the things I need and trying not to disturb Adva as I get ready to go on my hike. I’ve only reserved the hike the night before and as I open the voucher on my phone for the first time I notice that you’re supposed to call to double check the reservation. Immediately freaking out, I call and email the company pleading ignorance and hoping the car will show up and get me.

                As I sit outside of the Marriott I hope I will see others going on the same hike, in which case they’ll have to stop at my hotel, but I don’t see anyone. On the voucher it says to allow 25 minutes of leeway for the driver. In my head, I’ve already planned which bus route to take if and when the driver doesn’t show up to meet them at the base of Diamond Head Volcano.

                From the map on my iPhone I look up and see the Oahu Nature Tour Bus. Thank god. There’s a very friendly, smiling man standing outside of it with my name on a clipboard and he promises me I’m in the right place. I hop into the bus with an older couple celebrating their 40th or 50th anniversary and an Australian woman who is on this trip for her birthday, and as a celebration of having lost 90 pounds.

                We’re happily chatting away in the car when the driver returns and we head off toward the volcano. He has an enormous amount of knowledge about plants and the things that are indigenous and otherwise to Hawaii and he tells us all about it as we drive. When we reach the base of the mountain he takes our pictures in front of the Diamond Head sign and begins his spiel on this volcano. “It has erupted once and only once,” he says, “and it’s not the kind of volcano you typically picture. This volcano was an underwater explosion and the edges of the crater you see today are the pieces of land that have since settled.”

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                We begin our hike up the side, aiming for the highest point. It is pretty cool this morning and we’ve each been given a water bottle to hydrate along the way. We’re told to shout out if we need to stop or take a break, although I think that is intended mostly for the other guests. The view is magnificent even from the lower parts of the mountain and we start walking on paved areas. Eventually the path will become more rocky and uneven and eventually pretty steep. Probably most surprising to me, however, are the stairs and tunnels. The Australian woman is none too happy about the tunnels, and takes quite a bit of convincing to make it all the way through in one go.

                Finally we reach the top and are rewarded with a stunning view of Waikiki beaches, lighthouses, and other mountains in the distance. Scratch that, we’re told that, what looks like a mountain range, is in fact a shield volcano of which the top chunk slid off into the water about 1 million years ago. We enjoy the view a little longer and continue back down. Down is a lot easier. We’re at the bottom before we know it and being handed out certificates for our climb and pamphlets of information. I hand the guide a $5 tip when he drops me back off. Pretty proud of myself for passing off the handshake-money slip that I’ve seen my parents do so many times.

                Back at the hostel I recollect myself and prepare for the Polynesian Cultural Center. Once again there is some bus confusion as I try to get on a general bus, when in reality I’m supposed to be on a special minibus. Eventually I end up in the right place with Uncle Henry (a cheerful, older Somoan man driving). He tells us all sorts of stories on our 50 minute drive to the center as we pass breathtaking views of the leeward side of the island. We pass some Lost beaches and Jurassic Park shooting sights as well. He talks to us about how we are all family and how we can start by treating our neighbors at home as family. He talks about peace. He’s funny too. The ride is very enjoyable and we make it there in what seems like no time.

                I enter the Cultural Center and call Cy  Bridges, the cultural director, for our interview. When he doesn’t answer I move onto the Somoan Village to begin my tour of the place. There is a Somoan man showing people how to get coconut milk and juice as well as how to climb a coconut tree. He’s quite funny too, in a dead pan way. He jokes about words in different language. “Coconuts have three holes,” he says, “two eyes and a mouth. You say your cameras are watching us, well our coconuts are watching you.” He thrives on the laugher. Later when I talk to Cy he says that they’ve had to talk with him many times. Cy says it’s important for the Cultural Center not to be a comedy show, but to be something authentic and personal to the cultures.

                Next I speak with Cy for about 40 minutes and record the interview on my phone. Boy, did I get a lot of information from him and some wonderful stories. After the interview he encourages me to look around.

                I head off for Tongo where there is a drum show. They use comedy there as well as men are pulled up from the audience to perform on the drums next to the professionals. One man leads the audience in a rousing rendition of “Who Let the Dogs Out,” to which the performer replies, “that was lovely, but…this is my show.”  The show is very entertaining and the rhythms are fun to listen to as well. I don’t know how much more culturally knowledgeable I feel after this stop, but I enjoyed myself.

                As I wander around I see groups of people in Tahiti learning to do the hula. The cultural center is somewhere between Disney’s World Showcase and a history museum come to life. There are small villages all over the place with people from those native countries there having performances and showing the tourists how they make their food and goods.

                The most exciting moment of the day was the canoe show. Each of the islands came out on the lagoon in a canoe and performed their native dances where everyone could watch. I sat next to two women from Texas who were very friendly and afterward I headed to the Hawaiian Village for a little hula lesson. They were also offering ukulele lessons there.

                By far, my favorite of the villages was New Zealand. They perform with so much passion and a kind of goofy, scary anger. They make crazy eyes while they perform and are famous for tattooing their bodies and dancing with poi balls. At their village we see a procession that would accompany an important dignitary if they came to visit. They lead an older man, I’m guessing a veteran, across their lawn with a chant and we all follow them in to a replica of a church. Inside the church they share with us some of their native chants and dances and some that came after European contact which allowed for things like harmonies.

                By the time I go to get the dinner buffet I am almost shaking with hunger. I’ve forgotten to eat lunch in all the excitement and I have to eat a small salad before I can even make it up to the buffet line without falling over. I try some interesting Polynesian food, although not all of it because much of it is not gluten free (I think the Polynesian cultures would have cooked their food gluten free, though, since wheat was a European and American import, but I digress). Probably my favorite thing I try is the pineapple pork. Holy cow. Whose idea was that?

                Eating dinner I do feel a little lonely for the first time. Probably because the Cultural Center is so community and family oriented I feel pretty isolated at my single table. I pride myself in being able to savor my surroundings in moments like that, but while I was still a little shaky with hunger and at my table-for-one I did finally remember I am here alone.

                I sit by the lagoon after dinner and write some postcards in the down time as the sun starts to set. At 7:45 the show begins in an ampitheater. It’s called “Ha: Breath of Life” and it follows the life of a young boy who travels through the Polynesian Islands and discovers what things give his life purpose. They mine as well have called it circle of life. I didn’t think it was a very objective show, but it was spectacular for sure. There are dances from all of the different cultures and the stereotypical fire dancers in the finale.

                Oh and one other thing. All day, and I mean every 30 minutes or so without warning, they have been trying to sell us this pineapple, mango, Hawaiian ice cream thing. They passed behind the canoe show in their own canoe holding up ice cream, they showed up at some of the performances with ice cream and they are there, without fail, at intermission. At this point I have to try it. Boy am I glad I did. It is delicious. Sweet, but not too sweet and filled with pieces of fresh fruit.

                After the show we return to the bus. Uncle Henry has taken a tumble and has been rushed to the hospital so instead we have a somewhat grumpy young father who has been called in on his daughter’s first birthday to drive us all back to Waikiki all the way across the island. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bus go so fast before, nor have I felt the busdriver’s feelings through his driving, but this guy was pretty frustrated. By some stroke of luck we make it back safely. Headed to bed soon to get up at 6AM for Kailua tomorrow. 

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