If you were to ask me where my favorite place on earth was, I’d give you tons of different answers. County Clare in Ireland. Vancouver, British Columbia. Seattle, Washington. A little house at the mouth of a valley in Abel Tasman National Park, Aotearoa (New Zealand).
But if you were to ask me which of these places touches me most deeply, which is the one place I could never do without, it would and will always be the Big Island.
I know I’m home from the second I step off the plane. The air smells different there. The trade winds feel different from all the other winds in the world. My skin has this sense of knowing. I’m home. I’m here. I’m connected again to everything.
I grew up in a little plantation village about 20 minutes north of Hilo on the wet side of the island. There are less than 600 people in my town, but there’s a beautiful waterfall just a little ways up the mountain. This town isn’t where my Native Hawaiian ancestors are from — our family is traditionally from the Ka’u district farther south — but it’s the place I always return to. Old buildings still standing from the days when the sugar mill was running, now with paint peeling from their sides. The same people sitting on the benches outside of the general store drinking coffee and reading the paper, keeping track of the goings on and sharing the news with familiar faces. My grandmother, who can still recall the names and locations of the plantation camps from when she was young, some of which have been swallowed now by pasture lands and untended cane fields.
Nate and I went back for a quick visit a few weeks ago to see my family, to see the islands, and to see one of my oldest friends get married.
The first day we arrived was my grandmother’s birthday, and it meant so much to be able to spend most of the day with her, and then celebrate her at a dinner out with my entire family. It’s always fun when the 15-17 of us get together because, as Nate always says, we’re kind of a crazy bunch. We’re definitely always the loudest in a restaurant, there are usually kids going in between our tables to talk to an aunty, Nana or Tutu Pa, and I can always count on at least three instances when someone in my family will know either a member of the restaurant staff, or other customers. So I was completely unsurprised when we heard “Uncle!” shouted out as we’re walking in to be seated and my dad turns around to see his niece standing there, or when my grandmother started chatting with a woman in the buffet line who turns out to be someone she’s known for three decades, or when my older sister leans over and points out a guy who’s on her husband’s soccer team and who also sold her their current car. This is something I’m proud of, really, since at heart I am nothing if not a small town girl.
The rest of our week was spent intentionally slowing down and hanging out with family, something I’d been missing for months. We made it to the beach on a particularly sunny day to clumsily (but hilariously) try some paddle boarding, Nate went throw net fishing with my brother-in-law, I couldn’t miss going to the Merrie Monarch Craft Fairs with my sisters — so many amazing Hawaiian makers and products, and I’ll be sharing my favorite purchase a little later this month! — and watching the Merrie Monarch Festival itself of course. And then we made our way to Maui for an amazing wedding.
Being home is always a reminder to me that, though I seem to forget this often enough, life doesn’t need to run at a breakneck speed. I don’t have to be on all the time, producing, producing, producing and never stopping to rest until I have no choice. In fact, turning off and tuning in turned out to be exactly what I needed after weeks of feeling a bit run ragged back in the mainland.
I know that my version of Hawai’i — a good amount of rain, a few great beach days, a sleepy rural town, lots of naps, hanging out with my mom’s cats — isn’t necessarily what we tend to think of when we think vacation, but I think it might be pretty similar to what lots of people think of when they think home. I always come home in search of something, and always leave feeling filled up again (and, yeah, pretty homesick). It might be being around family. It might be physically reconnecting with this particular island after so many months away.
But it’s probably a bit of both. Family and connection — always what I need to re-center. It’s just one of the many reasons I’m so grateful to call the Big Island home.