In recent days, my mind has been awash in a cascade of Hawaiian saudades, a phenomenon that has occasionally accompanied me since the 80’s, when American television networks forced their viewers, even here in Europe, to choose between tropical miniseries. The Love Boat, Fantasy Island and Magnum P.I. battled weekly for supremacy in the working man’s (and woman’s) escape fantasies of life in tropical paradise. The Love Boat and Fantasy Island were utterly crap shows, of course, and Magnum, Rick and T.C. holding it down maneuver-style in Ferraris, helicopters and waterproof wristwatches under the mandate of the elusive Robin Masters was, when all is said and done, the only real game in town.
But back briefly to saudade, a word the BBC has labeled as the “7th most difficult word to translate.” Of saudade A.F.G. Bell writes in his book In Portugal,
The famous saudade of the Portuguese is a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness.
So there you have it. And over the past week as I’ve scrawled my name and opinions on the walls and bridges here in Vigo or watched the fishing boats arrive in Cangas or suffered Celta’s first defeat of the season last Sunday in Balaídos, I have found myself mentally back among the Filipino and Japanese pidgin-speaking shop owners and universal state-funded health care feeling the grit of Hawaiian sands between my toes and washing my feet in warm Pacific currents. And the words of legendary Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira, who has played on massive jazz and jazz fusion recordings such as Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and many others, ring in my head. Airto, who has lived in Los Angeles for decades and has witnessed what he calls it’s rise and fall, said in an interview ceded to Wax Poetics magazine that if you want to find soul in the United States today, it’s not in LA – one can only find it New York City and Hawaii.
Disko planted the seed for me about longing for isolated islands and idealizing the serenity and community there when he told me about growing up on Tristan da Cunha. In 1961 a volcanic eruption forced the evacuation of the entire population to England, where they lived in a disused military compound for almost 2 years, all the while being exposed – most for the first time – to all the amenities and temptations of modern British life. In 1963 almost every single islander chose to return to Tristan da Cunha, unimpressed with what they found of “modernity.”
But as Buddha found out while sitting peacefully in meditation under the banyan tree in Bodhgaya, no place is truly ideal and there are always demons to crash the party. Like when you’re sinking a knife into a perfectly ripe avocado and you’re reminded that the word avocado is actually derived from the Aztec word for testicle (ahuacatl, which was also what they called avocados) or when we marvel at the moai on Rapa Nui and then remember that competition among islanders to construct more and more impressive moai led to the deforestation of the island and ultimately the near annihilation of its native inhabitants (the population was reduced to 111 people in the 19th century).
So back to Hawaii. The islands were first populated by ocean-borne Polynesians in the first centuries CE, were dubbed “The Sandwich Islands” by James Cook in 1778 (he was later killed by the Hawaiians) and were oft-visited by Moby Dick-hunting whalers in the ensuing decades. Ever since 1893, when a group of wealthy Euro-American business owners created “The Committee of Safety” to overthrow Queen Liliʻuokalani who had the audacity to propose the creation a new Hawaiian Constitution, this snake-less tropical paradise has maintained a sometimes strained but generally symbiotic relationship with the haoles (the Hawaiian word for foreigner, i.e. the white man).
So today as I sit atop O Monte do Castro watching the heavily-laden cargo ships sailing from my port of Vigo toward the horizon with my saudade-filled heart in tow, I’m reminded of one thing:
Whether Ahab or Ishmael, we’re all haoles on the Pequod, me bredren.
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