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Hawaiian insights

Think you know Hawaii? Chances are, unless you were born there, you indeed only think you do.

By ROBERT N. JENKINS, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 5, 2003

It is one of the most famous vacation destinations in the world.

Conventioneers wearing name badges gulp down mai tais at the nightly luaus. Tourists with colored stickers on their shirts giggle as they try the hula. Pro and amateur surfers paddle their boards into its legendary waves.

Frail veterans of World War II make the long journey, across the distance and back in time, to view the inspiring memorials at Pearl Harbor and to pay respects at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.

It is also the most popular destination for Japanese honeymooners.

Hawaii seems to have been in our minds for so long that we may think we know it, even if we have never been there.

After all, scenes of Honolulu were shown in nickelodeons in 1898; we heard Arthur Godfrey broadcast his radio show from Waikiki in the late 1940s; we have viewed the islands as background in at least 16 TV series. Nearly everybody from Perry Como to Brittany Spears has staged televised concerts from there.

But even if you have visited, you cannot know all of Hawaii. Island after island holds secrets that only the locals know.

To learn about them, you need to talk to the kama'aina (kah-ma-EYE-na), residents who are native-born. Read an insider's guidebook such as Maverick Guide to Hawaii, which Oahu resident Bob Bone has updated 20 times since he wrote it in 1976. Or Hawaii Trivia by kama'aina, and now St. Petersburg Times marketing director, Ed. Cassidy.

Of course, people have to work for a living in Hawaii, but many islanders see tourists as something more than walking dollar-signs. Hawaiians typically are open and friendly. They may even treat a visitor as a friend they haven't made. You may often hear references to ohana (oh-HAH-nah) -- family -- because the extended family and reverence for elders is still a guiding concept there.

Islanders know they live in a special place.

They often joke about being on Hawaiian time, which means taking a moment to watch the dolphins play offshore, or to enjoy the frequent rainbows.

Every desk clerk has learned to greet guests with the ubiquitous aloha. As with all those images gained from watching movies and TV shows, we mainlanders may think we know what aloha means, hello and goodbye. But it is more than that. The word comes from the Hawaiian alo, which means to come face to face, and ha, the breath of life. So aloha also can signify a greeting of affection or kindness. Bumper stickers implore you to "Live Aloha."

That spirit of aloha is something you will not gain from looking at postcards or movies. Visit the islands to enjoy a different state of mind.

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