A long gleaming corridor. Palm trees and piped-in music. Our shoes squeaked along too-shiny floors as we walked deeper, further down, following the faint beating of drums and the smell of roasting pig, down into the belly of the beast: the Hilton Waikoloa Village, Kona.
Nevermind how I ended up there. Nevermind the maze of hallways, the gift shops, the cocktail lounges and swimming pool complexes, the shuttle ferry that glided down the artificial waterway, disrupting the shadows of high-rises, floors and floors of cookie-cutter hotel rooms, windows all right angles and white curtains. Nevermind that I’d paid $90 to wind up at the kind of place an independent traveler has nightmares about: a psuedo-cultural event at a corporate hotel. Nevermind that I felt like a vegan at MacDonald’s.
I was there and, goddamnit, I was going to have a good time.
Going to a Hilton luau to experience Hawaiian culture is like going on It’s A Small World to learn about global diversity. Which actually isn’t that far off of a comparison, seeing as though the great minds at Disneyland were employed in the developing of the Hilton, Kona (which explains why we kept remarking how much like Disneyland it felt). Commodified, codified, packaged up and watered down as much as the “2 Drinks Included!”, the Hilton luau was about as authentic as, say, Polynesian tattoos applied by a sun-burnt white dude with a sharpie.
I’m all for cultural experiences. And truth be told, the package tourism experience is real and true in its own right—something in the center of modern-day Hawaii, its economy, its culture, its day-to-day reality. So, in a way, you can’t get much more authentic than the genuine inauthenticity of package tourism in Hawaii. When you look at it honestly, it’s not any prettier than the corrugated-tin shantytowns that surround big cities like Lima or Rio—but still a huge part of life, real life, that deserves to be looked at.
So, in the name of cultural anthropology (and of fuck-it-I-spent-the-money-so-I-may-as-well-enjoy-myself), I infiltrated the Other Side: threw on a plastic lei, ate 5 plates of mediocre buffet food, drank my sugared-to-shit blended virgin cocktails, watched the fire throwers and hula dancers and even danced along. Think Hunter S Thompson and the Hell’s Angels, only a lot less cool.
During the opening participatory hula dance, all I could think of was that scene in Dirty Dancing:
Through the course of the show, there was much hulaing, conga shell blowing, relating of digestible chunks of Pacific Island history, and audience participation. As the night wore on, and the Lava Flows kept coming, some folks got a little more into the Hawaiian spirit.
A curious element of the whole affair to me was the Young Hunky Native Boy aspect. Young guys—some appearing to be Hawaiian, others just really tanned white guys—trotted around in loin cloths, flexing and shaking and posing like Chip and Dale dances to a chorus of female cheers. The best was the fire dancer, a methed-out-looking white dude with a sleeve of tribal tattoos who punctuated the band’s high notes with his own ear-piercing hillbilly yoodle, in what could only be assumed to be a white trash mating call, hidden under a psuedo-ethnic guise (we were hip to him).
It made me uncomfortable, the way some of the women in the audience were responding, as if on cue, to the unabashed display of sexualized exoticism. If it had been the other way around, if the cheers had been directed at the female hula dancers, it would have been disgusting, deplorable. I wondered what made it different, more acceptable, when it came from women. It seemed to me to come from the same place, the same heart-breakingly exploitative place: “a young dark thing for my personal pleasure.”
They say tourism is the imperialism of the 21st century. They say Hawaii has prostituted herself to the whims of the West, that she’s syphilis-stricken and soul-sickened under that thick hair and pretty skin. I’m not really here to talk about all that. I just know that us Americans gasp at the idea of Chinese ethnic minority theme parks—but, um, Hawaii doesn’t seem too far off. And certainly not a luau at the Hilton.
We had a nice waitress. As we were gathering our things, she came to wish us a good night. It had come out, sometime during the course of the night, down on the other end of the table, where we were staying. The waitress grabbed my sister-in-law’s hand, “Oh, enjoy P.” Then, a little quieter, “You know, it’s really a great thing, what G did.”
Against the backdrop of the Hilton, against the gleaming stage lights and up-lit palm trees, the crackle of the sound system and the bustle of bus boys, she was right.