Lessons I Learned from Nate in Hawaii

November 05, 2019 – Ryanne Co

Hawaii is slow. It is laidback and relaxed, charming, a retirement home on an island. Everywhere you look, there are palm trees, senior citizens, and tourists in bathing suits. Planes and helicopters are constantly flying overhead. There are blue skies everywhere and the rain is a drizzle that lasts but a minute. This is Honolulu, Oahu, Hawaii.


My first time to the United States, I’d flown ten hours on a direct flight to Daniel K. Inouye International Airport. I’d sat on a window seat and watched as we took off from Manila and landed in Hawaii. Looking through the window and struggling against my seatbelt, what struck me most was how clear the water in Oahu was. From ten thousand feet in the air, you could see the coral reefs along Mamala Bay, how the water changed from emerald green to ocean blue: an ombre rainbow against the rising sun.


Although I hadn’t thought much about it, I realize now that plenty of my Hawaiian experience was a cliche. That is solely my fault: if you don’t step foot outside of Waikiki, then you couldn’t possibly know the rich history that the island has to offer.

For a week I lived off Hawaii and understood it as a giant tourist trap with four main components: ahi bowls, mai tais, tiki torches, and hotel receptionists in hibiscus print tops. I marvelled at Waikiki beach, spent a couple of afternoons there and on Magic Island. But that is simply one of the many faces of Hawaii, the one it presents to tourists like me, people looking for a quaint vacation or pictures to print on postcards to be sent back home. I can’t be too harsh on myself; all these realizations are made in hindsight. It was after all, my first solo vacation.

All my life I’d waited for this opportunity. In my mind, it was a coming-of-age milestone: “watch me prove myself, see how independent I could be”. I’d gone out of the country before -- even as far as to Europe -- without my parents or a family member nearby. But those had been different. They’d been school-sponsored trips, with chaperones and teachers. I wanted to go out of the country alone in what I deemed to be a necessary, glamorous, and painfully expensive mission to find myself. And I had to lie about it.

There was no way my conservative, untrusting family was going to let me fly halfway across the Pacific by myself; partly because they didn’t trust I had enough street smarts to get by, partly that they didn’t trust the outside world in itself. So I lied. I told them that after the conference I’d be attending (with my university thesis adviser and my thesis partners), that my professor would stay behind with me for some post-conference work. They agreed to “let me stay with her”, didn’t think twice about it. That’s when I started looking for rooms on Airbnb.


Nate was one of my housemates in the three days I spent sleeping on a couch I’d rented on Airbnb. I remember sitting outside with him on my first day, reading under the 4pm sunlight. He sat on a beat up leather chair, smoking joints rolled from cigar paper, reading a book about hip hop.

In the time I spent there, I could always count on finding him sitting outside on that beat up leather chair. It sat adjacent to a wooden beer pong table, the one he used to roll blunts with. Every day, there would be something different sitting atop that beer pong table: a hardhat, a bottle of Johnny Walker, his can of kush. There would be pens and pencils, highlighters, playing cards, a lighter. But always, ​always​, there would ​be his cassette radio. “It’s how the good, old-school hip hop was meant to be played.”

That first night, the first night I’d spent over at his house as an Airbnb guest, I’d come home with a paper bag from 7/11 with a cup of instant noodles and a bottle of water. It had been a long, lonely day and I’d wanted to eat a simple dinner. It had finally sunk in that was I alone on an island of a million and I had felt like the smallest person on earth. That morning, as I waved goodbye to everyone I knew, I’d felt like I was drowning. Here I was, alone for three days. What had I gotten myself into?

I’d walked up to the table where we’d read our books earlier that day and asked if I could eat there. “Go ahead,” he’d nodded. That’s how we’d started talking.

I don’t remember exactly how the conversation went, or how we got around to talking about some of the things we did, but I remember a lot of what he’d said. As I sat next to him slurping on my Nissin cup noodles, he told me something I knew I had to learn about life: ​fuck what everyone else thinks​. “You know what I say to all of them?” he asked me. “Prepare to apologize because...” he trailed off, shaking his head slightly and giving me a look as he puffed away on his cigar. I never knew what he meant to say afterwards, but I knew that he was right.

He told me about how he always had a theory, for everything. For hip hop (it controlled the world), for aliens (“they’re here, for sure”), for the waves he surfed. He told me how the ocean was alive, that it reacted to humans the way every living creature did. I asked him about the other guests he and his housemates had had and he told me about the reptilian couple that had stayed with them for a while, the cyborg that had snuck into his room. It was a fascinating perspective, one that was completely different from my own. I’d attributed some of his conspiracies to the weed, but a lot of what he said made sense.

I’m not sure how long our conversation lasted, but I tried my best to eat slowly so I’d have an excuse to stay out longer. I wasn’t sure how much he wanted me sitting there, invading his space, but I liked drinking everything in: the warmth of the Christmas lights that hung above us,

the gentle evening breeze, the sweet smoke from his rolled up cigar. But eventually the food ran out and I grew sleepy. There had been a silence and although I hadn’t felt like I’d overstayed his welcome, I knew it was time to head back inside. I got up, fixed my trash, headed in. He stayed out, rewinding his cassette tapes, smoking on his cigar, feet still propped up on the beer pong table.


“I like to be thrown straight into the fire,” he’d told me on my second night. It was 9pm, I was back where I was the previous evening, sitting next to him, eating a takeout bento box from Don Quijote. It was shit.

“Being thrown into the fire forces you to adapt. Then, it wouldn’t be a choice.” I looked up at him from the soba I’d been eating and tried to imagine myself being thrown straight into a fire, right in the eye of that metaphoric storm. I didn’t like it. Neurotics like myself usually don’t, but I couldn’t argue with the logic. I played around with my noodles a little bit and wondered how to respond. He sat there smoking away and I couldn’t help but feel a world of difference between us. Here was a guy who’d come all the way from Rhode Island: hopped on a plane and moved to Hawaii, without a plan, without a job, without family. How could he do that? How could ​anyone​?

But then I realized that for the three days I spent alone in Hawaii, I was just like him. Only a couple of friends knew I was here by myself; I’d told my family a different story to get them to let me travel alone. In a sense, I had pushed myself into the fire--jumped into it, actually--and, just as he’d said, here I was, ​adapting​.

“What did your family say about that?” I asked, referring to his decision to move to Hawaii.

“Well, they didn’t think I’d actually do it,” he chuckled.

We talked about our fears afterwards. I’d asked him what he was afraid of and he took a moment to reply. “That’s a good question,” he’d said, looking up at the ceiling, trying to remember. He stayed quiet for a while, just staring at the space above him.

I watched his face, tried to read it, then thought of my own fears, everything that had scared me since graduation. ​Losing my friends, being jobless, being alone. ​I didn’t want to talk about those, talking about it seemed to make it real, make it an ​actual ​possibility.

He thought for another moment and spoke. “You know that missile threat, in January?”

I nodded, recalling the day I woke up to headlines about a ballistic missile headed straight for Hawaii. “So, you’re afraid of death?”

“Not exactly. I just remember that I heard about about it while I was on the toilet. I kept thinking ‘Dear God, don’t let the missile come while I’m on the damn toilet’.”

I burst out laughing. “How can you not be afraid of death but be afraid of dying on the toilet?”

“Because that was it you know,” he replied, looking genuinely serious for a moment.. “I was on the toilet and I thought: ​this isn’t the way to go​. I didn’t want to die like ​that​.”


I didn’t eat dinner with him on my third night. I’d wanted to, I’d even bought a sandwich from Subway for takeout. But when I got home, one of the other housemates was sitting across from him, where I usually sat. They were both talking intently and it just felt rude to interrupt. So I went inside instead, ate my sandwich on the living room floor, and started packing my bags.

I went to sleep that night thinking about how I’d probably never eat under those Christmas lights again, never see that poster of a girl in her bikini staring at us from her place above the wooden table. I thought about how amazing it was to hear stories from someone so completely different from myself. I didn’t have nightmares about being stranded anymore, like I did on my first night. I didn’t even think about how the next day I was going to be back under the humid Southeast Asian sun, the air reeking of smoke and congestion: Metro Manila. I fell asleep thinking about how strange it was to be one on an island of a million, completely insignificant, but still somehowthere​.

When I woke up, the house was empty. All the lights were off and there was no one there to say goodbye. It was so lonely. I sat in the darkness, sunlight streaming through the window slats and just drank it all in, tried to etch everything on my mind. I walked outside and took one last look at the way things were thrown atop the beer pong table, the way the shadows played around all of them, all the holes and patches on Nate’s beige leather chair. But it was different, somehow the sunlight took away some of the magic; it seemed almost invasive now.

I called an Uber to bring me to the airport. My driver was a middle-aged Korean lady who played Hawaiian music in the car. By 12pm, I was up in the sky again and taking my last look at Honolulu. I still couldn’t get over how blue the water in Mamala Bay was. Everything that I’d seen from four thousand feet when I landed still awed me at ten thousand feet when I left. I stared out the window as the island receded from view, the outline of the mountains disappearing until all that was left was the Pacific.

The stewardess told me to close my window soon afterward. I had no choice, so I did. I took one last glance at an ocean of blue--just blue, a world of it outside my window, of clouds and sky and sea--and pulled my shade down, all the while thinking to myself: “​Mahalo, Hawaii.”