Hawaii was an absolute treat for the senses, where almost every single day we witnessed something that was breathtaking: be it the sun setting into the infinite expanse of the orange horizon, the warm saltiness of the sea water on the skin that’s just cool enough to alert the peripheries, or the chirping of countless coqui frogs going in and out of synchrony while the jungle leaves rustle peacefully under the backdrop of the star-lit night. Words are not enough to really convey these perceptions, and to be honest, neither are pictures, but we tried anyway. One idea that cannot be conveyed without words, however, is the feeling of our minuteness I got - both me personally and human lives in general - when I witnessed just a little more of the world around us.
Traveling to new places is always an eye opening experience, especially when immersed in the ecology and culture of a foreign place. This was different, though - it revealed to me something that I foolishly thought I already knew intimately - the world in which I live. It’s like this: imagine you’re about to visit someone’s house for the first time. It’s cool, because you know you’ll see things you’ve never seen before, or at least how the same things might be arranged differently, so it’s an expected kind of novelty. Now imagine sitting on your own couch at home, with an abundance of familiarity surrounding you. Everything was either put there by you, or it’s been there for so long that it might as well have come with the place. All of a sudden, someone whispers a few words into your ears and you watch the familiarity in front of you unfold into an entirely new experience, realizing for the first time that there is so much more to your home than meets the eye. Hawaii gave me that feeling about this “world”, “my” world, and not just through its exquisite wild life on the surface, but extending from the depth of the ocean to the stars above. The whole two weeks were full of moments like those, but I will just describe a few things that happened over a span of 48 hours on the Big Island (Hawaii Island).
The Earth shaping itself
The state of Hawaii is a chain of islands formed by underwater volcanic activity. I knew this, and it makes sense. How else does a chain of islands emerge in the middle of the ocean? I didn’t know, though, that there are active volcanoes on the Big Island. That fact seems routine enough when you read about it, but being there and witnessing it is another thing. We visited the Volcano National Park, where the Halemaumau Crater spews out a thick stream of never-ending smoke during the day, and transforms into a scary demonic pit at night. The park itself is a huge area of land that surrounds the crater, as well as the aftermath of some of the more explosive eruptions from a few decades ago. The landscape is incredibly eerie. It simultaneously makes me appreciate the wrath of Mother Earth, fear her swiftness in taking life away, and marvel at the incredible youth of the land beneath my feet and its newly sprouted inhabitants. When I think of a young Earth, I think of spring and budding greens. But here, youth is charred black, porous, and honestly looks kinda deadly and downright alien.
The youthfulness of the land was further exhibited the next night, when we went to the edge of the park where lava is pouring out down the slope of the mountain and into the ocean. The feeling that we are standing there and witnessing NEW EARTH BEING BORN is truly incredible. Land is literally being formed around us, and the rocks we stepped on were younger than any of their visitors (and there were some hardy toddlers braving the lava rock hikes in the pitch black night). It was a sublime reminder that the world around us is dynamic, constantly morphing, swallowing itself and rebirthing itself - not only do plants and animals cycle through life and death, so too does the Earth they stand on.
Shit I never ever think about.
The world outside of our world
I’ve always lived in crowded places with extremely dense light pollution. Among those, La Jolla is probably the only place where I can regularly see more than a handful of stars at night. I’ve heard of friends going out of the city to star gaze, but have never done it myself, nor have I ever really camped in my life (I know). So imagine my awe when we went three quarters way up Mauna Kea (9300 ft), which is the dormant volcano on the Big Island and peaks at almost 14000 ft!!! There a lot of cool little tidbits about this mountain, one of which being that the base of it is actually deep under the ocean, so deep that if you measured from the base to its peak, it’s just slightly taller than Mount Everest at 33,000 ft. Driving up to observatory altitude is the embodiment of “0 to 100 real quick”. I think we went from beach to 9300 ft in about an hour? On the way up, we had to drive through a layer of super dense condensation (aka clouds), and it is a local saying that many people hit the invisible cows on the way up and down the mountain because visibility around the foggy area is no more than about 10 m ahead of you. But beyond that, the sky above feels like it reaches the depth of the universe. After nightfall, it’s as if we were transported to another dimension or planet outside of our own, because I’ve never ever seen that many stars shining so brightly. Apparently, from Mauna Kea, one can see every star available in the northern half of the sky, and about 80-90% (?) in the southern sky, because, you know, it’s a tall ass mountain.
Standing under that diamond studded ceiling, we got to see a lot of astronomical phenomena firsthand, through our own eyes (and sometimes through a telescope). For example, there were guides at the visitor information center that set up small telescopes for the crowd to take a closer look at the stars, and I actually saw for the first time Saturn and its ring. It looks like a miniature, cartoon version of the Saturn I’m used to seeing in books and films: a small tilted ring encircling a smaller dot, both unicolor with a gray sheen. It was pretty neat. We also saw the ISS racing through the night sky in a perfect broad curve, and several shooting stars. By far the most indescribable feeling, though, was the smallness of humans and our planet under such a majestic sky. Standing on top of the cold peak, it was like the universe and all its mysteries were suddenly opened to me - I am directly experiencing, for the first time ever, how vast the space is out there and how little we really knew.
It wasn’t quite a religious moment, but that was as close as I’ve ever gotten to marveling in the creation of some higher being.
The world within our world
I’ve posted this before, and I have to post it again. I’ve watched this video myself about 20 times now, and every time I do, I can’t help but have a big stupid grin on my face. There are just so many completely spontaneous opportunities to witness animals enjoying themselves, be it a manta ray tumbling around, a family of sea turtle surfing the current, or a pack of dolphins playing hide and seek with us in the bay.
As a surface-dweller, my idea of life is mostly concentrated around my altitude and on dry land. Rarely do my thoughts venture out into the other 70% of this planet. The waters around Hawaii, though, really made me feel that there is life all around us. Perhaps they’re different, and look a little strange, but life nonetheless. Breaking through the thin surface of the water that separates two worlds, you are instantaneously immersed in another storyline, like an invisible fly on the wall with the special privilege to witness the completely normal lives of all its characters. In those moment, I felt acknowledged and welcomed, and I hope I can do the same for them one day. It really makes me question, even now, the extent of other kinds of cognition, beyond our simply human ideals.
After all, we are but a thin layer of existence in a much, much larger whole.