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Bob Cesca: "Hawaii is a State," Part One: Get Busy Living or Get Busy Dying

MEMBERS ONLY: The first in series of articles about real life in Hawaii. This week: When visitors ask me, "When are you moving back to the States?" I usually reply, "I'm in the States."
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Let's clear something up right off the bat. There are two things that invariably irritate people who live in Hawaii. The first thing is when mainlanders forget that it's a state. Seems weird, but these tiny islands out here in the middle of the Pacific Ocean are just as much part of the U.S. as Florida or Michigan or Delaware. There's a governor, U.S. senators and congressmen, taxes, interstates, federal laws, elections and, yes, the same currency used on the mainland. I can't entirely blame anyone for the gaffe, though, since Hawaii is geographically far away and parts of it are quite multi-cultural and exotic. But still, when visitors ask me, "When are you moving back to the States?" I usually reply, "I'm in the States."

The other irritating thing is when mainlanders assume that because I live here, I've either checked out of the world to grow a long beard, wear jewelry made of puka shells and talk to a volleyball; or that I don't have any right whatsoever to complain about life. My wife and I have just about given up posting anything negative on Facebook because there's only ever one reply posted over and over from our mainland friends: "You don't get to complain about anything in Hawaii! It's paradise!"

Sure, there are very few locations in Hawaii that don't look like postcards. Palm trees, hula dancers, blue surf, tropical drinks on torch lit lanais. It's all for real. Hawaii is possibly one of the only places in the world where people stop their cars on the side of the highway to either harvest tropical flowers or fruit, or to take pictures of sunsets. "Lucky we live Hawaii," the locals say here on those special occasions when the weather is perfect, the sun is setting and good friends are around. But there are also contradictions. I've never observed tent-cities of homeless people like the ones in Honolulu. There are million-dollar mansions next to mildewed shacks that look like a Hollywood set from an Appalachia-based horror movie. I've met working class people who can't afford electricity so they have no choice but to boil water using an open fire in their back yard. On the Big Island, where I live now, Breaking Bad's Walter White would make a fortune selling crystal meth.

"My friends on the mainland think just because I live in Hawai'i, I live in paradise. Like a permanent vacation -- we're all just out here drinking mai-tais, shaking our hips, and catching waves. Are they nuts? How can they possibly think our families are less screwed up, our heart attacks and cancers less fatal, our grief less devastating? Hell, I haven't been on a surfboard in fifteen years... Paradise? Paradise can go fuck itself."
--Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, The Descendants

As for me, I haven't been to the beach in three months, and I've never even touched a surf board.

When we saw Alexander Payne's award-winning film The Descendants, pitch-perfectly illustrating real life in Hawaii, and George Clooney delivered the above monologue during the film's opening moments, I had to restrain myself from standing up in the theater and cheering. Yes, Hawaii is beautiful. Yes, Hawaii is warm all year. Yes, there are beaches that are so heavenly, they take your breath away. Hawaii is the true realization of the American ideal of a "melting pot," with ethnic diversity unrivaled anywhere else in America. But no, I'm not on a "permanent vacation." No, I haven't checked out of life. And no, we're not immune to the trials mainlanders face in their every day lives. Indeed, there are all new sets of challenges on top of many of those existing ones -- challenges that no one knows about until they actually live here for longer than a week.

We have a refrain in our house about this place: Hawaii makes you work for it.

There's a reason why Hawaii is a destination for the super-wealthy. To move here, you either need significant personal wealth or the willingness to sacrifice many lifestyle conveniences and reprioritize where your income is allocated. It's impossible to move here and expect your household budget to remain the same. Due to the cost of living, your needs become more basic here, your financial priorities more practical. You have no choice, unless, again, you're rich and therefore can afford to transpose mainland conveniences onto a rock in the center of the world's largest ocean. Suffice to say, I didn't do it that way.

Make no mistake, this is the greatest time of my life. I love living here, I love the climate, I love the woman who lured me to do something I never once conceived of prior to meeting her. And I will miss Hawaii terribly when we inevitably move back to the mainland one of these days. But like a loving marriage or a lucrative partnership or a great journey to parts unknown, the going isn't always smooth. Someone once told me, "An adventure isn't always fun when you're having it." Here, the fun parts are tremendous and the memories are indelible, counterbalanced with horror stories that I'd prefer to never relive, ever.

Many people move to Hawaii after it's too late -- after they're too old, broken down and cynical to truly enjoy the experience. Good fortune has provided me with an adventure that I never planned for, but which I'm young enough to completely appreciate. Hawaii has made me work for it, but I wouldn't trade the experience for anything in the world.

For this series of posts, I'll be covering exactly what it's like to live here -- not just the mai-tais, surfboards and sunsets, but also the real life struggles and weird, quirky things that are unique to this strange place. The intention, though, isn't to bitch and whine about living here, regardless of whether I'm allowed (paradise!). The intention is to present an entertaining and realistic take on life in Hawaii as an outsider and in a post-Great Recession economic world. I assure you, unless you've lived here, you will learn things you won't find on a resort website or an Elvis Presley movie.

And throughout the series, bear in mind that it all happened inside the United States, with all of its commensurate problems and more than a few others you probably didn't know about.

* * *

Nearly four years ago, I moved to Hawaii from Reading, Pennsylvania, an old, decaying town in the exurbs of Philadelphia. In the span of several months in late 2010, I filed for divorce from my wife of seven years; met a beautiful woman online through mutual Facebook friends; packed up a car-load of my belongings, tossed them into a self-storage shed; put my on-the-brink-of-foreclosure house on the market and moved, initially, to Honolulu. The distance from my previous geographic location is both symbolic and practical -- symbolic insofar as I was moving as far away from Reading as possible while still remaining in the U.S., and practical insofar as the woman I met and fell madly in love with following my divorce had spent six years of her childhood here and had just happened to have moved back here a month before we met to resume her post-graduate work at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

My marriage to my ex-wife had been failing for several years, and when I finally mustered the sack to call it quits, I didn't figure I'd meet someone else so quickly, nor did I anticipate that she'd live in a place like this. Frankly, I would've followed her to Siberia, but the fact that Joy lived in Hawaii was an incredibly fortuitous bonus to accompany meeting an extraordinary woman, with whom I have so much in common. Following too many years in an unhealthy marriage, and after enduring literally every terrible downside of the Great Recession including but not limited to two failed businesses, a bankruptcy, a short sale, a foreclosure, two vehicle repossessions and finally a divorce, I felt as though I had earned this.

You know that scene in The Shawshank Redemption (SPOILERS!) when Andy DuFresne crawls through a river of shit and escapes to the white shores of the Pacific? The most harrowing time of my adult life led me to the blue waters of the Pacific, and the legendary ending of Shawkshank took on all new meaning for me. I was bugging out of a life of despair for a woman I adored and would eventually marry in a land of perpetual warmth and natural splendor. Until the day I die, I will consider December 9, 2010, the day I first arrived in Hawaii, to be the greatest day of my life.

The decision to move here was almost incidental. While talking with Joy on Skype late one night, I practically invited myself: "I think I'll move to Hawaii. Yeah, I'm moving to Hawaii." From there, the extensive planning began in haste, and the accompanying stress of a major move was augmented by the aftershocks of a rather contentious divorce and the unloading of a house in the midst of the Great Recession and a collapsed housing market. I had to get my place ready to sell (it never did); drop the news to my parents and brothers, convincing each that I wasn't going insane; salvage whatever possessions I could fit into a five-by-five economy-sized storage space to be shipped to Hawaii at a later date; abandon everything else I owned; get my dog all of the required medical treatment in order to be allowed into Hawaii (more next time); and make sure I had the cashflow to make it all happen. In two months.

Get busy living, etc.

So, by the time my flight landed on the evening of the 9th, it really felt as if I had escaped from prison, crawled through a tube of crap and arrived clean on the other side. Paradise, finally. But still in the United States.

When we resume next time, "Renting In Hawaii With Dogs."