In some articles, I have mentioned that my travels have taken me to desirable destinations across the globe. But I’ve never felt so deeply connected, touched, and welcomed as I did when visiting the Hawaiian island of O'ahu. The image that O'ahu brings up for many involves Waikiki and tourists donning orchid lei upon check-in at their beachfront resort. This is an aspect, of course, but it doesn’t even begin to capture the true spirit of the island. Hawai'i is alive with a powerful mana, or energy, that pulsates through the mountains, valleys, and sea. This sense is unique and unlike anything I’ve ever felt before. The people are alive as well, in more than the most basic understanding of living. Hawaiʻi’s people exude a certain brightness and a deep appreciation for the ʻāina (land) that can only be translated as aloha.

I was visiting the island to celebrate my 50th birthday and envisioned beachside relaxation and exploration of a new place. What I encountered during my stay was so much more: a glimpse at the rich culture of Hawai'i, a taste of the way the island gives and how its people give back to her, and an unshakeable understanding that this place is a living, breathing wonder. My trip was not orchestrated by a travel agent, nor by a checklist or guidebook. It felt as if the island itself moved me where I needed to go, sent me the experiences I needed to have, and cared for me along the way. I must confess that in my hidden soul of an adventurous hippie, I had planned to spend a night in a hostel on Waikiki Beach. But upon arriving in O'ahu, I reconsidered all options in a term we use in Venezuela: "As it goes out, we'll see."

When I arrived at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu, I began the usual process of deplaning, collecting baggage, and heading to procure a rental car. This part of the journey is typically routine and clouded by jet lag, but my experience in O'ahu was different. As I exited the plane and made my way toward baggage claim, I began to notice the stark difference between tourists and locals. The tourists were largely rushed, frazzled, and appeared eager to get started on their carefully curated itineraries. The locals, however, flowed through the baggage claim madness with admirable ease and patience. These people seemed to have a certain essence I couldn’t quite name. As I wheeled my suitcase outside, I was met with a pleasant breeze and a humid, but not sticky, climate. Even in the mix of airport chaos, I had already realized that this trip had something unique in store. And that's coming from my beautiful country, Venezuela, which has that coastal charm, crowned by spectacular beaches.

Aloha spirit

Aloha is more than a greeting and a goodbye. It is a value system, a way of living and treating others, and it is even written into law. The Aloha Spirit Law, enacted in 1986, states that everyone, from citizens to politicians, must act with aloha. Aloha, at its core, is comprised of five parts: akahai, lōkahi, ʻoluʻolu, haʻahaʻa, and ahonui. This translates to kindness, unity, agreeability, humility, and patience. From my initial observation of tourists and locals in the airport, to the time I was heading back to catch a return flight, I was surrounded by people who were actively living with aloha, and sharing the aloha spirit with others. It is contagious in the best way and is an integral part of what makes O'ahu, and Hawai'i as a whole, stand out from the rest of the world.

I first encountered Aloha in the car rental station at the airport upon my arrival. While talking with the desk agent, it came up that I was visiting to celebrate my 50th birthday. There was sincerity in her birthday wishes to me, and the agent went out of her way to upgrade my standard sedan to a cherry red convertible Mustang, the latest model. This simple act of kindness from a stranger was unexpected but started my visit off in the best possible way.

Myths, legends, and ʻAumakua, the ancestral spirits of Hawai'i

Hawaiian mythology is seemingly infinite, and their gods and goddesses are abundant. Take, for instance, Kanaloa and Pele. Kanaloa is the god of the ocean and ruler of the underworld and Pele is the famed fire goddess who is known as the creator of the Hawaiian Islands. But Pele and Kanaloa’s stories don’t even scratch the surface of Hawaiian mythology. Demigods and ancestral spirits are woven into Hawaiian legends and the stories they carry are alive and well.

In Hawai'i, there is a strongly held belief that spirits are present in every natural thing. The ocean and the mountains contain spirits, as do the different flowers that make up a lei and the lava rock from ancient flows. From my experience, I believe this to be true. I felt a different energy in each location I visited and quickly gathered that these spirits are not easily ignored. The presence of the islands’ mythology adds an element of magic that cannot be explained by words alone.

One aspect of Hawaiian culture that stood out to me was the belief in ʻaumakua. Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) families typically have an ʻaumakua, or ancestral spirit that protects and guides them through their lives. Hawaiian ancestors will embody a living thing, be it a shark, honu (sea turtle), or ʻiwa bird, and appear at poignant times to offer wisdom or protection. These connections transcend a generation or two and trace back to pre-colonization days. There is a cyclicality within ʻaumakua that reminds me of the Ouroboros. For Kānaka Maoli, the presence of their ʻaumakua represents a continual transformation within and affirms rebirth in a way.

Untouched natural beauty

O'ahu’s pristine beaches, world-class surfing, and towering mountain ranges draw in millions of tourists and are the reason behind the billions of dollars in revenue that the island sees each year. However, these sights are not tourist attractions. They are natural wonders, alive with mana and unfathomable beauty.

Flowers, fruit trees, and foliage in every conceivable shade of green erupt from all corners of the island without effort as a result of the mineral-rich soil, tropical climate, and reliable rainfall. The aforementioned rainfall creates exquisite, towering waterfalls, some complete with luxurious freshwater soaking pools. Every evening, spectacular sunsets explode over the vast Pacific Ocean—the collection of soft lavender, vibrant magenta, and bright orange hues commanding all attention. I made sure to respect these sunsets by seeking out a different spot to watch the grand show after each day of exploration.

Each afternoon, as the sun begins its descent toward the horizon, O'ahu's west-facing beaches transform into a spectacle of vibrant colors and captivating landscapes. It's a mesmerizing drive along Farrington Highway. From the serene Ko Olina Bay to the legendary waves of Makaha, each beach has its own charm and unique beauty that complements the stunning backdrop of the Pacific Ocean.

One of my favorite experiences was at Yokohama Beach, located on the remote western shore of the island. I found the entire setting astonishing, especially the lush greenery preceding the soft sands.

I spent my birthday evening on a tour among the beaches of Makua Beach, Makaha Beach, Aki's Beach, and Maili Beach. Making stops at each one as the sun was setting.

As the sun slowly sank toward the horizon, the sky ignited with hues of orange, pink, and gold, painting a celestial picture that seemed straight out of a dream.

But what truly made this experience unforgettable was the sense of peace and serenity that enveloped the atmosphere. In that moment, time seemed to stand still, and everything else faded away in comparison to the majesty of nature. It was as if the entire universe had aligned to offer a gift of beauty and tranquility to all who were willing to appreciate it.

From this moment, I have a photo of myself lying in the grass, with the sun setting at my feet on the horizon, thinking about all the steps I still had (and have) to take.

Several times during my journey, I stumbled upon an unexpected piece of the island and was awestruck by the natural forces that had to come together to create it. O'ahu's landscape is dynamic and beautiful, and the island possesses a certain healing power that sets it apart from typical beach vacations.

With its reputation as one of the world's most famous surfing destinations, I also drove along Kamehameha Highway to enjoy the North Shore beaches.

From the legendary Sunset Beach to the picturesque Ehukai Beach, every stretch of coastline on the North Shore of Oʻahu is a paradise for surf lovers and thrill-seekers. The waves crash forcefully against the shore, creating a breathtaking spectacle that draws surfers from around the world in search of the perfect wave.

My own experience on these beaches was unforgettable. Watching from the shore, I was amazed by the skill and courage of the surfers who gracefully challenged the massive waves. I believe the world of surfing has an energy that envelops a jovial vibe. I felt it on other trips, like the one I took to Costa Rica.

After spending the morning absorbing the excitement of surfing, I decided to take a break to enjoy lunch at a local spot. That's when I stumbled upon a charming food truck in Hauʻula offering a affordable menu of culinary delights inspired by local cuisine.

With some truly Hawaiian options, the Aloha Shrimp food truck menu had something for everyone. Although the poke bowl tempted me, I opted for a plate of giant shrimp with a spectacular local sauce. Simply sensational!

Living culture

O'ahu contains a multitude of cultures and racial identities that blend together to create a diverse community of people. Hawaii has strong Asian ties, and Oahu residents are largely of Japanese, Filipino, Chinese, or Korean descent. There are also numerous Polynesians and, of course, Native Hawaiians. O'ahu's racial and cultural composition creates an experience, from the visitor's perspective, of constant immersion in different cultures through food, sights, and quiet observation.

I didn't miss out on trying the poke bowl. In my drive along the H2 Veterans Memorial Freeway, through the heart of the island, I stopped at Poke Stop. This dish of raw fish, diced and marinated in a blend of seasonings and fresh ingredients, is undoubtedly a representative flavor of Hawaii.

In my journey, I also visited the Valley of the Temples and the Byodo-in Temple on the eastern side of the island. Carefully constructed, it was as if I had stepped into a portion of Japan on a Hawaiian island. The area is tranquil, lush, and nestled in the valley of the majestic Ko'olau Mountains. Hawaiian and Japanese traditions harmoniously intertwine in this sacred place, and I was moved by this serene oasis nestled deep in the mountains. As part of the tradition of the place, I rang the bon-sho. To sound this three-ton, six-foot-tall bronze bell, one must pull and release a wooden log called shu-moku, thus asking for happiness and longevity. Having crossed the threshold of 50, of course I had to do it!.

On all my travels, reflecting and releasing teachings is something I have always done. But on this particular visit, that didn't happen. I was just thinking about now, concentrating on the moment, and enjoying it.

But I think in the end, I did reach a point of learning that gave me strength when the Covid-19 pandemic locked down much of the world.

Instead of constantly seeking lessons or deeper meanings, sometimes simply being present and enjoying the moment can be the best way to enrich our lives. The aloha spirit, with its emphasis on kindness, friendliness, and respect for others and nature, often invites us to live this way: appreciating every moment and finding joy in the little things.

Reflecting on my journey through O'ahu, I am amazed by the cultural richness, natural beauty, and healing energy of the island. The aloha spirit shaped every aspect of my experience, from the warm greetings of the locals to the unexpected acts of kindness that seemed to unfold at every turn. I have a deep sense of gratitude for the experiences the island provided me and a profound respect for the landscapes, cultures, and spirits of O'ahu that welcomed me and shaped how I will forever see Hawai'i.