Finding the true meaning of Aloha…
WORDS: DANA BENNER
IMAGES: DANA BENNER & HARLEY ROSSELL
Dana Benner takes us to one of his favourite places – Hawaii. Bypass the tourist beaches to discover what Aloha really means to the locals of this tropical island paradise.
As I stood on the black sand beach at Punalu’u on the Big Island of Hawai’I I witnessed a truly breathtaking sight. Not one, but three honu (sea turtles) surfaced. As honu are sacred to the Native Hawai’ian people, just as it is in my own Native American culture, I considered myself blessed and honored. Perhaps Pele was looking favorably upon me.
For many people the Hawai’ian Islands are the perfect getaway due to its seemingly endless beaches and near perfect weather. Having lived in the islands for a few years and having visited numerous times since, there is something more that draws me back time and time again. It is the people, their culture and the way that this culture and the land come together as one. As each island is different, with different environments that range from tropical rainforest to high desert, it is impossible to cover everything in such a small space.
No matter which island you find yourself on, my first piece of advice is to get away from the tourist areas. That is the only way you will experience the true culture and in turn, the environment. Once you do that you will find the true meaning of “Aloha”. As you explore you will find how important “ohana”, or family, is to the Native Hawai’ian people and their culture. To be considered as “ohana”, especially as an outsider, is a distinct honour.
On any of the islands you are likely to find “heiaus”, or places of worship. They may only be a faint outline of stones, but they are still sacred places. Please show respect and don’t move or take any of the stones. Some of these heiaus were built to honor different “‘aumahua”, or ancestral deities. Sharks are considered ‘aumahua by the Hawai’ian people. The ‘aumahua can be likened to the spirit animals of my own ancestors and emphasis the connection these people had with the environment.
Almost anywhere you are likely to encounter wildlife, if you take time to look for it, in its many forms. From tropical plants to birds and animals, wildlife is everywhere. With the exception of the ocean, most mammals found in the islands are introduced species brought first by the early Polynesians and then by Euro-American visitors.
Life in the islands revolves around the ocean. Snorkeling and scuba diving are big, as is surfing. You owe it to yourself to have some fun. If you don’t do any of the previously mentioned activities, take a whale watching or dolphin watching tour. The Pacific Humpback whale and Spinner dolphin makes these waters home. If you are really lucky you may even spot the extremely rare and endangered Hawai’ian monk seal.
No trip to Hawai’i is complete without taking part in a lu’au or ‘aha’aina to the Hawai’ian people. While many lu’aus are geared towards the tourist, there are some that really stick to the true meaning of the event. ‘Aha’aina, or “gathering for a meal”, is a celebration complete with good food and storytelling. The stories of the Hawai’ian people are told through hula, or dance, and chants, or song. Some very traditional lu’aus are held at the Polynesian Cultural Center on O’ahu; the Old Lahaina Lu’au on Mau’I and the Legends of the Pacific Lu’au on the Big Island of Hawai’i.
The Hawai’ian Islands and the Hawai’ian people hold a very special place in my heart. A part of my mana, or spirit, never left. There is no word in the Hawai’ian language for “good-bye”. There is only Aloha. When you arrive Aloha means “welcome” and when you leave it means “until we meet again”.
Note: the word Aloha also means a lot more to locals – the deeper meaning is love, affection, peace, compassion, and mercy. For more on the meaning of Aloha, check out these three website sources: Aloha International, Hawaii Travel Guide, or Makana Charters and Tours
Images: courtesy © Dana Benner and Harley Rossell
Dana Benner has been writing about the outdoors for over 30 years with his work appearing in both regional and national publications in the U.S. He has a particular interest in wildlife, culture and the environment, and Native American history. He holds a M.Ed. in Heritage Studies and teaches Sociology, History and Political Science at the university level. Dana is based in the USA and is a regular guest writer for Our Planet Travel.
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