Editor’s Note: Last year, on a SURFING trip to Mexico, we met a writer from Omaha. Curious and worldly, “Nebraska,” as we’d come to call him, wasn’t your typical cornhusker. He was 25 years old, traveling for the experience and writing what he saw for an eventual book. So when we decided on the “first time” theme for this issue, we wondered, “What would someone who had nothing to do with surfing think of the North Shore?” Thus, we decided Nebraska would be the perfect person to send to Oahu to find out. We were right.
A Country and Its Mottos
I noticed many things while staying on the North Shore of Oahu, but what stood out most, like ubiquitous messages or, maybe, warnings sent from the cosmos, were the bumper stickers. Sure, there are countless treasures: lush mountains, Gauguin-dreamed valleys, an endless stretch of thundering surf. But with my affection for the printed word, it was the bumper stickers — these decals on the backs of lifted, rusting Toyota 4Runners and towering, waxed Tundras — that spoke to me. With the help of some North Shore natives, I translated these mantras in order to decipher their essence and to better understand the spirit of this land. Perhaps these mottos and maxims explained the place better than any novel or travel guidebook. My Pitbull Ate Your Honor Student, Fahkah Wat?!, Have You Kissed Your Keiki Lately?, Know Hawaiians, Know Aloha, Try Wait!, No Aku Birds, If You’re Gonna Ride My Ass at Least Pull My Hair. They weren’t even proper English, but oh, the stories they told.
Slow Down This Ain’t the Mainland
No, it is not the mainland. In fact the North Shore, for the most part, appeared unapologetically un-American. Flags don’t hang from the rafters of the quaint beachside cottages, nor from the balconies of the multitiered mansions near Pipeline. Many locals wave a foreign flag with Rastaphilic colors, propped and fluttering from the backs of speeding pickup trucks. Others drive down the beachside highway, waving the state flag upside down — a brazen symbol of a nation in distress. I mentioned this to a surfer I met, and he pointed out that even in the contests, Hawaiians and Americans are separated: Hawaiians are labeled as “HAW”; those from the contiguous United States are marked “USA.” And this, to me, was fascinating. Hawaii, and more specifically the North Shore, as its own country. It made sense, really. It’s already referred to by locals as “the Country.” And the place does appear to have its own language, its own systems of law and justice, its own code of ethics and centuries-old traditions.
Like the sticker suggests, one must also literally slow down there. Along the residential neighborhoods behind Sunset Beach, there are signs everywhere warning motorists. Slow Down for Keiki (Children). Speed Limit 5mph! This is, in fact, a safety precaution, but something even more. For there are repercussions for those that hurry. One day, while exploring the lane on Oopuola Street, I watched a resident in a large white Tundra stop a pack of visiting surfers crammed into a small sedan, equipment stacked and strapped to the sedan’s roof. The surfers had been coasting along the lane at a reasonable speed deemed excessive in this community, and the approaching Tundra turned into the center of the lane to block passage. The driver of the truck, a shirtless local in sandals and jewelry, hopped out of the truck, lifted his arms in a gesture of onslaught and approached the driver’s side of the sedan. The local man then pounded his open fists on the boards strapped above and rhetorically asked the driver if he’d like to get out of the vehicle and “get licked” in front of his friends. Ultimately, the man’s message was to slow down, for fear of hitting a child playing, and it seemed quite clear to the group, who now understood the warning. I saw a couple more incidents similar to this in my short time there, instilled by a forceful neighborhood watch. Nonetheless, children are safe along the streets of the North Shore.
But slowing down on the North Shore reaches far beyond a vehicle’s speed. It is an unmistakable pace of life. A pace its residents strive to maintain and protect. From my observations, no one is too hurried in this removed “Country.” For one, hurrying breeds agitation and disruption, something certain groups of visiting surfers are accused of and resented by locals for. In contrast, the mood of the Country is marked with perpetual present-living; it is defined by anti-hurry. It is bikes and strollers and skateboards rolling through residential lanes. It is countless cookouts and smoky barbecues in public beach parks. It is spirited conversation in parking lots and sunset-watching from every quiet viewpoint.
“Ainokea” is not a Hawaiian word or phrase, though the spelling would suggest it. Ainokea is the Pidgin English word for “I no care,” or rather, “I don’t care.” A fitting statement shared by North Shore natives and residents alike. This motto, however, is not apathetic or indifferent in nature, but rather maintains a sense of resistance. A resistance to, as the other mottos go: rapid modernization (I Stay On Island Time), further development (Keep the Country Country), the loss of culture (No Hawaiians, No Aloha) and many other modicums of change.
To a surfer — the majority of loyal, perennial tourists that frequent this shore — the sentiment appears the truest. The North Shore does not cater to its guests, does not seek ratings or advertise its exploitedness like other global destinations. I have seen no complaint box, no “How might we better serve you next time?” cards at the Foodland grocery store. There’s no information kiosk with a helpful attendant. No one handing out free leis. And from what I could see, there’s barely any police presence should a problem arise. And indeed, problems arise. Mainly larceny. Walking the beach paths I’d hear the stories of the latest home invasion. Camera equipment, laptops, towels, swim trunks, sandals, hats, bags and of course, the most heartbreaking loss of them all — surfboards — gone, gone, gone. Never to return again. And so the North Shore giveth and taketh away. One of the company surf houses I visited during my stay, GoPro, even hired massive local security guards to watch over the house bounty. I met one of these men the other day in the early morning at Ted’s Bakery while getting a coffee. Weirdly enough, he was wearing a T-shirt that read “Ainokea: I do what I like.”
There is a clear and apparent institution of power on the North Shore, and all abide. Those who do not are dealt with swiftly. It is a common law not based on democracy or elected officials or even fairness. It’s a code of ethics grounded in all facets of the term “respect” and instilled with a fist. One such motto embodying this way of life, which I saw sprawled across the back of a parked and lowered mid-‘90s Nissan flatbed, was “NoAkUp.” Meaning, “No act up,” or rather, “Don’t act up.”
To act up, or to step out of line, appears to be something that most visitors fear most, even more so than the deadly surf or creatures that lurk beneath it. It’s not difficult to witness this code regulated in broad daylight by respected, local enforcers. Enforcers whose names are spoken under hushed breaths. Whose names are of living lore. Watching the surf from the shoreline at Rocky Point, for instance, altercations can be seen and heard quite clearly. Twice from this vantage point I saw transgressors struck by enforcers in the water and/or directed to exit the surf. I was been told by many that, at the more formidable breaks like Pipeline, when fights occur in the water and bleed onto land, lifeguards will not break them up until the brawl is over. And when it’s all said and done, that the assaulted rarely press charges.
Yet how does one make the fateful and, at times, ambiguous mistake of acting up? The answer to that seems a varied array of indiscretions. I myself was threatened with violence for walking too far into the center of the 6-foot-wide shaded bike path, parallel to Ke Nui Road. I was run off of an unsigned, though apparently private, beach path that led to the shoreline, when moments earlier, others passed through freely. Once, when my gaze strayed too long during a greeting, I was asked, “Da f–k you looking at?” But I suffered only a bruised ego — a small price to pay, considering the stories that float about this stretch of shoreline. But on land I began watching the visiting surfers’ behavior. How they negotiated this strict code of ethics. It was practically a case study in subservience, in humility. Along the pathways to the breaks a visitor’s gait is reserved, guarded. One acknowledges the other with generous smiles and head bowing and reserved waves — but eye contact doesn’t linger. Necks shrink into shoulders like animals slinking through unknown territory. Often it seems like some elaborately choreographed play. The visiting surfers negotiating their parts, knowing their roles, and, ironically, acting.
Lucky You Live
On one of my last days on the North Shore I walked north past Sunset, past Ted’s Bakery, to V-Land, a surf break in front of a wealthy gated neighborhood called Sunset Colony. Parked near the gate, the last in line of about a dozen cars was a decrepit, maroon Honda Accord. On its corroding black bumper was a sticker that read, “Lucky You Live.” More specifically, I discovered this meant “Lucky you live Hawaii,” or rather, “You are lucky to live in Hawaii.”
I walked down the path toward the sea. It glowed a brilliant and metallic emerald in the afternoon sun. Lovely mothers of all nations strode by with their bronzed and giggling brood in tow, carrying surfboards and walking pit bulls. Surfers, locals and not, glided by on wide-tired beach cruisers. They smiled and flicked a chin or brow “hello.” I politely smiled “hello” back. Where the trail met the shore, dozens played in the surf, in the green peelers that sucked along the reef to my right. The beach, like most North Shore beaches, was vast and idyllic, the sand the purest alchemy that time could ever meld. Certainly, there was some kind of luck to live in such a place.
I glared at the ocean, which began to shimmer beneath the waning afternoon sunlight. A million silvery winks, beckoning me to enter. I stood up to walk toward the shore break, when suddenly I saw a large local man sloshing out of the water, yelling something. He was huge and for some reason looking straight at me, hollering, “Eh! Eh!..” The whole beach fell silent around me, waiting to see what my next move might be. This was going to be my story, and I braced for more than a bruised ego. He stomped right up to me, still speaking loudly and said, “Eh! What, brah — how much you lift?” I had never lifted weights before and had no idea how to answer such a query so I took a stab with my own mass and said, “Um, ‘bout 150, more or less?” He was well within my personal space, still sizing me up, so I followed up, “What about you?’ And he replied, thoughtfully, “Ho, ‘bout 250, 275…” And then there was a short but defining pause, after which he said with a smile, “Ho, brah, you be safe out there, yeah? Have fun and aloha my bruddah!” And then he walked away.
I thought about this bizarre interaction. It seemed to illuminate this week and my impression of the North Shore. How perhaps everyone’s first impression of this place is, in some form or another, a version of this. Intimidating at first glance, but come to find, sweet beneath the skin. This Country, both terrifying and beautiful, or some kind of strange and delicious concoction of both.— Vincent “Nebraska” Harrison