I am currently in Hawaii on vacation, over the New Year holiday period.
Last year I visited Hawaii for the first time, travelling to Kauai, the westernmost bit of land in the remote chain of volcanic outcrops that make up the Hawaiian islands (see my previous post: Seven Crappy T-Shirts). Apart from the minor inconvenience of breaking my ankle while hiking, I enjoyed it so much I thought I’d return, and this time to bring the kids along.
Often, travelling with kids can be tough (see Ten Real World Tips for Travelling with Kids). It also has its upsides though, and one of the great joys is being able to experience the world from the perspective of a child. Which is very, very different to the way we grown-ups experience it. As adults we approach new places and situations with a lifetime worth of accumulated experiences, learned behaviours and social conventions. These inevitably colour everything we see, hear or feel. Kids, by contrast, are unconstrained by any of this baggage, and so are able to experience the world with purity, filled with a sense of wonder and imagination that are hard to match.
So thanks to my kids, I didn’t just sit on the sand watching waves break onto the beach. Instead I watched the colours of the Hawaiian sea change as the sun descended in the sky, and was prompted to observe closely the myriad different shapes hiding in the clouds and waves – faces and dragons and lions and jet planes. A seal asleep on the beach became a baby seal with a whole life story to invent. Rocks on the beach were more than just rocks – they were blocks of molten lava, exploded from a faraway volcano, in a time when dinosaurs walked the earth. Where I saw tidal rock pools, the kids saw small fish and crabs, and multi-coloured bits of coral. Weird looking sea urchins were a source of endless fascination, three of whom were picked up and immediately named Filipo, Halfpo, and Big Daddy Claw, and so became our friends for half an hour.
But what seems to really catch the attention of kids are the anomalies – those small out-of-place details that as adults we barely notice, but when pointed out can suddenly seem quite glaring. And in the case of my children, it seems that not even the smallest anomaly goes unnoticed. Every difference they spot is relentlessly questioned, interrogated and analysed. Nothing is taken for granted and nothing is assumed, until it all makes sense in their uncluttered minds.
It makes for some interesting lines of questioning, to say the least.
Like when we were seated in the sunshine at a small outdoor restaurant in Hanalei, enjoying some Hawaii-style BBQ. In front of us was a platter piled high with shredded chicken and melt-in-your-mouth beef brisket that had been smoked for hours. I was talking to my two daughters, but my son, having enjoyed his fill of BBQ, was already heavily distracted by his shave-ice dessert creation (they say the apple does not fall far from the tree….).
While sitting there, a young woman – about twenty years old – walked past. Like so many of her generation she was covered in tattoos (see my previous post: Shale Gas, China, Cupcakes and Tattoos). A pair of angel wings decorated her back, peeking out from behind her sleeveless t-shirt. She had stars on her neck and various colourful pictures arranged all up and down her arms and legs.
As she walked by, one of my daughters asked: “Why does that girl have so many tattoos?” Not a question I had a ready answer for, and before I could think of one her sister chimed in matter-of-factly: “I think it’s kind of ugly.”
They said this just loud enough for the tattooed woman to hear, and for a split-second she half turned her head and glared at us. In response I put mine down and focused intently on the smoked beef, hoping that in doing so I might become invisible. Not so much from embarrassment, but more because I couldn’t argue with what the kids had observed. That is, this young woman’s tattoos had gone well past the cool and trendy phase, and to me her body now looked more like a dirty human scratchpad. It was not just ugly, but grotesque. Time and “good manners” will eventually teach the kids how to bite their tongue, but for now, they were just calling it as they saw it.
Then, as if to prove my point that nothing goes unnoticed by young children, my son lifted his head up from the bowl of ice and syrup he had thus far been intently focussing on. I had assumed the whole conversation had simply passed him by, but this was but clearly not the case as he now added his two cents worth to the conversation: “And when she is old all those tattoos will look really, really ugly.”
He’s an astute boy, that one. What is going to happen to all the millions of tattoos in fifty years from now, when the current fad for them has passed, and when once tight young skin becomes old and wrinkled?
Other brilliantly insightful questions from the past few days include:
– “How did we arrive in Hawaii before we left Melbourne?”
– “Why can’t everyone in the world drive on the same side of the road?”
– “Why do they put so much food on their plates in Hawaii – are they extra hungry here?”
– “If her mum and dad both have dark brown hair, how come that little girl is blonde?”
– “Why do American people talk so loud?”
– “Why are Americans so American?”
But the best of the lot was when my son and I went into Hanalei town one afternoon, to rent some DVDs. As we were walking back to the car, he casually asked me: “You know how you can go back and forward with a DVD remote control?” I nodded, wondering where this was going.
“Well”, he continued, “imagine if you had a remote control and you could back-forward your life.”
A fabulous thought, especially when coming from a seven-year old. And perhaps it is because we are right on the cusp of New Year’s Eve, but for the last few days I have been unable to shake the thought planted in my head by my son: “imagine if you could back-forward your life”.
What would I rewind back to, and replay? What would I redo or delete? What would I fast forward over and skip, to get to a more exciting part sooner?
I guess in a way that is what New Year’s Eve is all about. Underneath all the parties and fireworks, people all over the world use this opportunity to look back and take stock of the year that has been; and then look forward to plan, to dream and to hope for the year to come.
Indeed, “back-forwarding” was why 1 January was initially designated as the start of the year. In 46 BC Julius Caesar decreed that the first day of January was New Year’s Day, as part of the self-titled Julian calendar he introduced to keep the working year in sync with the cycle of the sun. His choice was in honour of Janus (hence the month of January) – a Roman God with two faces – one that looked back to the past, and the other that looked forward to the future.
Today, in many Spanish-speaking countries it is customary to eat a dozen grapes just before midnight on December 31, to symbolize one’s hopes for the twelve months to come. On New Year’s Eve in Italy some people traditionally eat lentils; in America it is black-eyed peas; in Austria and Portugal it is pork; in Scandinavia it is rice pudding. Each a different food but each ultimately the same thing: a closing of the year that has been, and a symbolic wish for prosperity in the year ahead. And in some parts of the world folks eat a New Year’s Eve cake baked in a ring-shape – a reminder of not just the new cycle about to begin, but also the old one that has just ended.
For many of us it is as simple as making a list of New Year’s resolutions – sometimes on paper, or more often just a mental list in our head. Things we are going to do differently, unfulfilled goals we are going to achieve, dreams we intend to bring to life in the coming year.
So how would I “back-forward” my 2013?
Well, I covered a lot of ground, that’s for sure. I moved countries, from Singapore to England. I travelled to the United States (Hawaii, California, Arizona, Texas and Florida), the Bahamas, Great Britain (England and Scotland), France, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, The Netherlands, Norway, Iceland, Lithuania, Poland, Israel, Turkey, Singapore, China, Thailand, Indonesia, and New Zealand. Not to mention back and forth to Australia to see my family, as often as work commitments have allowed.
In and amongst this I met some fascinating people, and did some unforgettable things. I threw tomatoes in Valencia, Spain. I ticked Iceland off my bucket list, in the process eating some of the weirdest foods I have ever encountered. I went to Lithuania, in search of my family roots. There I traced my grandmother’s early life, and found the house my grandfather was born in more than a century ago, on the very day of his birthday, no less. I found a small country church filled with exquisite Chagall stained-glass windows, I experienced the magnificent isolation of Broome in Western Australia, and the raw beauty of the Scottish Highlands. I’d probably fast-forward the Loch Ness Monster part if I was doing it all again. And I’d probably fast-forward Houston, Perth and the Bahamas, too.
Yet with all the territory covered, I find myself at the end of 2013 in much the same place I was a year ago. Which is to say still slightly unsettled, and still feeling a little bit lost in the world. Like I am floating through a disjointed landscape of airplanes and random hotel-rooms; of unfamiliar places and fleeting experiences. I am thankful for the life I have, yet I feel trapped in it as well, and often wish I could find a different way. At times I love that I am able to constantly move around, and experience so much of the world in a way that few others can; at other times I hate it, especially the sense of emptiness and transience that comes with it all. I miss having my family near me, or having any sense of permanence or connection to any one place. It is as if this past year I have been on a continuous quest to find an elusive “something”, but also to escape from it at the same time.
Being in Hawaii on New Year’s Eve means I will be one of the last people on earth to say farewell to 2013. I will have an extra few hours to “back-forward” the past year, and to work on my list of New Year’s resolutions. Hopefully in 2014 I will travel a little less, be a little more “present”, and in the process move a step or two closer to finding whatever it is I am meant to find.
In the past twelve months of travel, writing this blog has been one of the few constants in my life, and is something I enjoy doing more than you can imagine. So thank you for reading, for your comments and feedback and encouragement, and I wish you all the very best for 2014. As they say in Hawaii, Hau’oli Makahiki Hou – Happy New Year. I hope that 2014 is nothing but a sweet and prosperous year for you, and that whatever your dreams for yourself, they all come true.