Pico Iyer Journeys

Honolulu Overheard

A craggy man with leathery skin–from the American West, I’m guessing–is telling his slightly younger female friend about the world. I’m sitting at the next table from them at La Cucaracha restaurant in Waikiki, trying not to ask myself what Mexican restaurant, anywhere, names itself after a cockroach.

“I’ll have two enchiladas a la carte,” he says, when the waitress appears at their table.

“I don’t know what that means,” she says.

“Just on their own. No rice. No beans.”

She pads off, untroubled, towards the kitchen.

“I like her,” the almost-cowboy tells his friend. “She’s kind of cute. I like it when she says, `I don’t know what you mean.’ I like people who are direct, just say what they think.”

I’m a little less impressed: a waitress who’s never heard the phrase “a la carte” may not be cut out for this line of work, I think. But this is, after all, Hawaii, where America has stubbed its toe against Polynesia and created a perfect location for the Japanese. Things get lost in translation here.


Around me, the sound of ukelele and slack-key guitar, a gentle, lilting sound that evokes the splash of surf upon the strand, the rocking of a hammock between the trees, is deafening. An Elvis “impressionist” is crooning through the window of the restaurant next door. A woman’s cell phone is beeping angrily as she pays for her coffee at Starbucks with a gold American Express card. There is a sudden trill of “Kirei!”s (or “How beautiful!”) as a group of Japanese young women translate a sunset into an image in their cute pink digital cameras, as tiny, each instrument, as a business card.

Perhaps, I think, on this trip, I’ll just try to catch Hawaii through its sounds. Enough already of the sights, even the smells (the frangipani and night-blooming jasmine that have bewitched generations of visitors, from Somerset Maugham to Paul Theroux). What can be more eloquent than the fact that the sun-kissed ukeleles are playing “Winter Wonderland ?”


“The trouble was,” the friendly Kiwi, in his mid-thirties, is saying, at the table outside Starbucks, “the guy playing Elvis was in something of a hurry.” It’s a few days before New Year’s Eve and the New Zealander, dressed in shorts and summer shirt, looks like an enterprising businessman on a holiday.

“It being Christmas and all,” he goes on, forgivingly. “So he was in a bit of a hurry. I had expectations, but he just rushed through all the songs.”

“That’s totally inappropriate,” offers a woman from another table, early forties, perhaps, a dental hygienist, she will later acknowledge, from Alberta.

“Yeah, I was a bit disappointed.” Jeff, as I’ve dubbed him, is checking the classified ads in the Honolulu Advertiser for a 42’ TV to take back home. “Half the price. I mean, I go a lot to China, and they’re half price there, too. But the quality is questionable. Here, half the price, and it’s the same as home!”

“That is so, so inappropriate,” says Trudi, as I cast her, still rattled by the thought of Elvis’s name and image being besmirched, and revved up herself from having already made the three-hour ascent of Diamond Head this early morning.

“Yeah. It was–I think–sixty dollars. 4:45 you had to be seated. Then we were out of there by 7:15. He only played for an hour and a wee bit. So it was pretty short for dinner-and-a-show.”

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