Hot lava. This is a smoky, spicy, garlic salt. That’s what the label says. I still have a bottle of it sitting on my kitchen shelf in Kolkata. It promises to add zing to salmon, steak, shrimps, scallops, even sliced tomatoes. An impulse buy from a gift shop in Hawaii, I use it sparingly, partly because I rarely have salmon, steak or scallops in Kolkata but also because I want to savour the memories of an idyllic Hawaiian holiday.
But now when I look at it I feel a pang.
My social media feed has a lot of lava these days, real lava, not touristy sea salt. Friends in Hawaii have been posting updates about a dozen lava fissures, earthquakes and home evacuation orders as Mount Kilauea erupts on the Big Island. I see photographs of shattered glass in their homes after a 6.9 earthquake and cracks in the highway. I follow the nail-biting tension as they figure out whether to stay put or leave their homes. Black smoke billows as smouldering lava spills on to the roads and trees blaze like matchsticks. One of the islands I visited, Kauai, is also recovering from 50 inches of rain in 24 hours. They are calling it the most severe rain event in Hawaii since records started being kept in 1905. Climate change is clearly no academic debate on Pacific Ocean islands.
Floods. Lava spills. Fissures. Fire and brimstone. It puts a whole new perspective on the idea of a tropical island paradise. Hawaii certainly is paradisiacal as are so many other honeymoon-special island destinations — Tahiti, Bali, Bahamas. After hours of flying over empty ocean, the airplane curves over the islands and it is so ridiculously breathtaking, the blues so blue and the greens so green, that it feels Photoshopped. We land on these islands and everything seems like a new and exciting adventure far removed from our mainland lives. We feel like Robinson Crusoes venturing on to a mini planet suspended in its own blue cosmos. Aloha, beamed my host as I stepped out of Honolulu airport. She had a lei to welcome me with.
I remember driving through a canopy of eucalyptus trees, a tree tunnel of sorts to a park in Kauai where I watched the Spouting Horn blowhole spit spumes 50 ft into the air. On the wet rocks nearby, overlooking the frothing ocean, an iridescently colourful chicken poked around daintily. Kauai is full of wild chickens, running around supermarket parking lots, scuttling across the highway but I had never seen a chicken on a cliff. Then I looked down and saw a mossy green sea turtle swimming around in an inlet. It could not get more magical than that I thought. As the sun set and the sky turned burnt orange and the palm trees turned into silhouettes, I felt I had been transported into a childhood crayon drawing of a sunset.
That’s the astounding beauty packed into these small islands. At one moment, you are on the beach looking at miles of empty sand and the next moment, you are up in a lush tropical rainforest, dense with ferns, rain-soaked foliage and clouds wreathing the top of a volcano. I got on a tiny six-seater plane that took us for a spin around the island. The air pockets made me queasy but the views were breathtaking — the shadows of coral reefs in clear aquamarine waters, crescent shaped beaches, the clean white-gold sand, then suddenly the red rocky crevasses of the Waimea canyon, all giving way to the soaring corrugated emerald folds and razor-sharp ridges of the Napali coast, reachable only by boat, air or King Kong.
Yes, King Kong roared here. Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs roamed in these forests. Burt Lancaster kissed Deborah Kerr from here to eternity on these beaches. Kauai’s Mount Makana became the musical South Pacific’s mysterious island of Bali Ha’i, always visible but never reachable. Even Kilauea spreading lava and devastation on the Big Island had its Hollywood outing in the Paul Newman-Jacqueline Bisset disaster movie When Time Ran Out.
No wonder Hawaii feels magical. It is preserved in Hollywood’s soft focus. But the volcanos, the rainstorms, the spouting blowholes are as much part of that picture postcard perfection as the plumeria flowers, the leis and the rainbow-coloured shaved ice. I read about “lava boat tours” that ride the choppy ocean to take tourists close to where a fissure has opened up on Big Island and a lava stream meets the sea. It’s supposed to be an incredible sight like a waterfall on fire amidst clouds of steam. But we are tourists, we see the spectacle from a safe distance and leave and post the video on social media. We go back to our hotels on the beach for the two-for-one mai tais during Happy Hour while a local plays the ukulele and a long-haired Hawaiian woman sways in a grass skirt, a flower behind her ear. We do not live with the danger of a river of lava flowing into our neighbourhoods. We do not have to deal with runs on respirators at the local hardware store when volcanoes rumble. It’s easy to forget that some of the very things that make these islands so beautiful for those who visit, also render those who live there all year round utterly vulnerable.
No matter how enchanting, sooner or later we leave, laden with bags of macadamia nuts and loud flowery shirts we will never wear again. That act of leaving preserves the island’s allure for us, its mystique safe in our vacation memories. As my plane took off from Lihue airport, I looked out of the window and saw the ground staff, in their pink shirts and tan shorts, all standing in a line on the runway and waving goodbye as we took off into the gathering clouds. “How perfect” gushed the woman behind me.
It was perfect indeed, a perfect tourist fantasy where hot lava is only a spicy salt.