As a hopelessly addicted traveler, I've left my island birthplace and home countless times in search of new and farther fields. From the glaciers of Iceland to the ghats of India, from the pristine solitude of the Solomon Islands to lost cities in Peru, I've ventured for prolonged periods, at times nearly a year in duration. And yet, I've always inevitably returned to Hawai'i.
I stopped making comparisons a long time ago. It's useless really. You can't drive along the coast from Ka'a'awa to Kahuku and not think, "It doesn't get any better than this." You can't wake up in the early morning, body surf alone and naked with a rising sun at Makapu'u and not feel like you arrived at life's final destination. You could own your own island in the Caribbean, but have you been to Kaua'i lately? Like I said, I stopped comparing a long time ago.
But even though we might live on some of the most climatically optimal, friendliest peopled pieces of land on Earth, I still like to leave-to explore other cultures and locales and see how they do it. It's the street smarts way to learn about other ways of life, both from their successes and mistakes.
Recently, I spent nearly two months trouncing across various islands in the archipelago nation of Indonesia, once called the Spice Islands (the same a certain Christopher Columbus set out to find in the 15th century, but landed a little short and just off the coast of a place that was later dubbed America). Indonesia is the fourth most populated country in the world and first most populated Muslim country. Aesthetically, it can be paradise: thousands of tropical islands lined with empty golden beaches, seemingly infinite emerald valleys and mountain ridges terraced with lush and fecund stairways of rice patties. The rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo still shelter the last of our distant calabash cousins, the orangutans, which in Indonesian literally translates to "people of the forest." And to top it off, the archipelago's southern coasts consistently break most of the best surfing waves on the planet.
Upon delving deeper into the country beyond the idyllic, verdant fa®ade, it becomes overtly apparent what it means to live in a locale at max capacity. Pockmarked, broken roads are crammed with diesel puffing trucks, public transport vans and the overwhelming exhaust of motorbike traffic. Within two days spent in any given Indonesian town or city, you develop some kind of itch in your throat or wheezing cough from the relentless fumes. Walking on the sidewalks you see fruits and vegetables for sale, coated in dust and black soot from the traffic that perpetually passes. Between the cracks of cement that you walk upon escapes the acrid stench of stagnant, sitting sewage. There are no treatment plants here; if anything, the filth either flows into the river or into the sea. Meanwhile, before any rain propels the gutters to flow, the sewage sits and breeds mosquitoes, many of which carry malaria or dengue fever, both major killers in Indonesia. If one were surfing and looked back towards shore, they would see countless plumes of smoke arising amidst the palms of the jungle. These are all trash fires, for nearly all rubbish, regardless of paper, plastic, rubber or metal, is burned to erase it.
One might ask the obvious, "What are they doing? Don't they care at all about the environment, about their own home, their children, their country?" The answer is simple: Indonesia's population of impoverished people doesn't have the luxury to care. It would be easy to deliberate on how this island nation is an example of what not to do as another fellow united group of islands; about how lucky we are to live in a place as progressive as Hawai'i, where the push for sustainability grows stronger and communities take action. Bali is roughly one-and-a-half times the size of O'ahu, but with three times the population density. The people are more concerned with nourishing their sons and daughters than purchasing new CFL light bulbs for their shack that probably doesn't have electricity. And they're certainly not worried about their carbon footprint. Waste management is a problem and education about the crucial advantages of protecting their natural environment is, well, nonexistent.
But can we, as conscious citizens of Hawai'i, learn anything from them? Yes. Unlike many Americans, the majority of the population in Indonesia sadly know what it means to need. Inherently, they operate from a basis of conservation. When you live in a village three miles away from the nearest uninhabitable water source, a spring near the top of a mountain, not a drop of water is spent along your journey back to the village. I've seen families wash their clothes and then use the same soapy water to clean the dishes. Throughout most of the country water is not wasted washing excess utensils or dishes, because everyone eats with their hands from just two or three communal bowls and plates.
It goes without saying that "lucky we live" Hawai'i. And we truly do live with the luxury to care about fixing the problems human beings have created with our collective consuming. Along my travels I have witnessed age-old habits and customs that foreign peoples in distant lands have used for centuries, habits many Americans can learn from. While Indonesia might seem like an example to avoid, it teaches us that conservation comes from many levels and to not take for granted our common but vital resources. Think about that next time you rinse off with clean, fresh water at the beach park. For even in Hawai'i, resources such as fresh water, electricity, fuel and living spaceÜlike luck itselfÜcan run out.