Aloha Rotary

Bea squeals at the waves crashing near the rock she’s perched on, spattering us as tongues of water lick the shoreline. “Oh yeah, there’s a big one!” she shrieks, beckoning the water. “Come by me!” Meanwhile, Del Green, the 2020 Host Organization Committee chair, is pointing out the green sea turtles underwater, backlit as the sun shines behind the waves. The excitement is contagious, and I scream too as I see an occasional flipper or head peek out of the water. “They bring out the child in all of us,” Green admits.

We’re on Laniakea Beach on Oahu’s North Shore, often called Turtle Beach for the green sea turtles that feed here. The turtles, called honu in Hawaiian, reach lengths of 3 to 4 feet and weigh in at 200 to 500 pounds. You can’t miss them at the Honolulu convention: They’re featured on the convention logo. (For more on Hawaii’s honu, see “Convention Countdown.”)

We’re midway through our circle tour of the island with Green, a member of the Rotary Club of Downtown Honolulu, and his girlfriend, Diana Doan, who’s a member of the Honolulu Pau Hana club. When they picked us up earlier in the morning, Green and Doan greeted us by kissing our cheeks and putting purple and white flower leis around our necks, a welcome we encounter several times on our trip. Hawaiians seem to give leis whenever they have an excuse: as a greeting, a thank you, or to recognize an achievement — “to share your aloha,” Green says. Lei shops can be found in Chinatown and at the airport, and the adornments can be made with not only flower petals but also nuts, shells — or dollar bills. The host committee, Green says, is planning to have Rotarians help make the world’s largest lei out of paper money from their countries, with the proceeds to go to End Polio Now.

As we drive from Honolulu, Green explains that people here don’t use the words “east” and “west” as directionals, as they do on the mainland. Instead they reference geographical landmarks: “Diamond Head” for east and “Ewa” (pronounced eh-va, for Ewa Beach) for west. And then there’s mauka and makai, which mean “toward the mountain” and “toward the sea.”

Along the way, we’ve passed so many gorgeous beaches that I’ve run out of colors to describe the water: It’s aqua and shimmering at a lookout past snorkeling hot spot Hanauma Bay — “Whoa, it’s like the water is glitter,” Bea exclaims — and the turquoise of a Blue Hawaiian cocktail at Sandy Beach Park, famous for its daring, and dangerous, bodysurfing. By the time we reach the Mokupu‘u lighthouse, where visitors can take a short hike up a paved path, I’m asking around for ideas. “Cerulean?” Craig suggests.

Between the beaches, we admire the majestic Ko‘olau mountains, verdant cliff faces with wrinkly folds like fingers that have soaked far too long in the tub. It’s just before lunch, and in the midday light the mountains look almost two-dimensional, as if they were a backdrop for a movie. (In fact, they were the setting for Jurassic Park, among other films.) Even Green, a local, stops midsentence at least three times during the drive to admire them. “Aren’t they beautiful,” he exclaims. We pass a parking barrier painted with the phrase “Aloha is a lifestyle” — a sentiment the people we’ve met on our trip fully endorse.

After we fly home to wintry Wisconsin and Bea goes back to school, her kindergarten teacher asks her to write in her journal about our trip. This time, it’s not the beaches, the ocean, or the incredible weather she recalls. Instead, she writes about our day hanging out with Del and Diana. Even my six-year-old recognizes that, as many natural wonders as the islands have to offer, the best part about a Rotary convention is the people you meet.

• This story originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of The Rotarian magazine.

• Top image: On Oahu’s South Shore, Diamond Head overlooks Waikiki Beach and the Pacific Ocean.