I’m not a very religious person, but I had a spiritual awakening along the Na Pali Coast this spring. It was my fifth day in Kauai, and I was on a catamaran in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I’d been talking to one of the captains of Kauai Sea Tours, a drifter who arrived in Kauai with his wife that November.
He never intended to stay on the island (a common refrain), but also saw no particular reason to leave (another understandable sentiment). He wasn’t too concerned, however. He was probably off to Spain in the summer anyway. His son was a spectacular soccer player, he and his wife would accompany him for a tournament in Madrid.
The trip to Europe wasn’t planned yet, however. Or even finalized. He would adapt to wherever he ended up, whichever continent that may be. He had been enjoying his stay in Hawaii, and was taking his life day by day. His wife had found work in Kauai, running a business cleaning the vacation homes of the island’s wealthy, seasonal residents. I was surprised and impressed that he was married, a happy husband and proud father—this traditional role within a nuclear family appeared so at odds with his wandering, seemingly carefree lifestyle.
When he shared that he’d always dreamed of being a writer, I immediately began advising him on how to begin his freelance career, eager to provide my own sense of misguided direction. When I wrapped up my long and short-term plans for his (hypothetical) future, he laughed appreciatively: “I’ve been pondering my next move, but you’ve got me figured out. That’s why I love you New Yorkers. You’re always so direct.”
There was no hint of sarcasm or reproach in his reply—he genuinely seemed touched that I was so invested. But I would realize how little I actually did have it all figured out moments later, when the Hawaiian mountains came into view.
After merely a few hours in Kauai, I’d noticed the spirituality, the attitude—or rather, gratitude—of the people I met. It reflected a different lifestyle, different values, shared amongst the locals and recent transplants like the captain. There was a kindness, an openness towards other people—everyone treated each other like equals. Or, I certainly didn’t notice the subtle class snobbery on display hourly in New York City.
You worked to live, you didn’t live to work. You treated friends like family—and some actually would become family. The Hawaiian term hanoi means to adopt someone into your family. A Hanoi family is your second family—they treat you like a blood relative, and you even share ancestors. It’s unsurprising to me that there is no translation of hanoi into English.
I was most moved by the ancestor element—your connection is so strong in the present that it reshapes the past, indicating a certain fluidity of experience, an active role in the greater cycle of life. It’s no coincidence that Aloha means both ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’: there are no real endings or beginnings. This connection to things bigger than ourselves, our own lives, must be related to the overwhelming beauty of the environment. It lends an appreciation of the earth and spirituality.
Another friend I met, born and raised in Hawaii, told me that—although she was raised Catholic, she now believes there are many gods, and you just find the one that has the most meaning for you. I wanted to believe in that too, but I wasn’t sure I was enlightened enough for such mystical wisdom. But when I saw the rugged mountains come into view from the catamaran, for the first time in my life, I was rendered speechless. I felt immense gratitude—that this place exists in the world, that I was alive to see it—and it also made me feel humbled and small: an oddly calming sensation.
As the tears welled up in my eyes, I realized I was also experiencing another revelatio—I was turning into my mother, who cried whenever she saw the Grand Teton mountain range in Wyoming. The more I was connecting to the distinctly Hawaiian feeling of gratitude and spirituality—unique, in my experience, to Kauai, for I’ve never felt it anywhere else—the more I was connecting to my own family, my own pillars of existence.
“It’s moments like this that you can truly believe there could be a God,” she told me once.
We were floating in a glacier lake, below her beloved Rocky Mountains. I didn’t understand it then, but I do now. It’s not that there is a god, it’s that there could be. That sense of smallness is the gratitude. My mother is also not a religious person, but she was overcome with a feeling of connection to something larger than herself.
Of course, this bliss evaporated the second I arrived home in New York City (finding myself locked out of my apartment), but I reminded myself of that moment on the coast, of the last moment I really and truly felt alive in the world. But it wasn’t just the land that made me feel this way, it was the people I met. Sometimes, you really are traveling and meeting new people just to get to know yourself.