Posts in: travel

In my notes from Honolulu I downplayed how much better the food was there — for the price you pay — compared to what you can get back home.

Case in point: returning from Diamond Head (an easy trek, highly recommended) we took a Lyft ride back to our hotel. The driver, “L.J.”, turned out to be Ljubiša from Novi Sad, Serbia. Needless to say, we had a good conversation, which led to food, which let to us making a pit stop at “the best doughnut place on the island”. Selling Portuguese doughnuts, of all things.

The box, the interior, and the signage all screamed mid-century modern. Looking at when it was openned, it checks out.

Photo of a pink box with "Leonard's Bakery (since 1952)" written in blue letters.

I don’t know if they were the best on the island, but they were better than anything we’ve had in DC in our seven years here!

Chris Arnade walked through Japan again, and his notes are as good as ever.

In both cases, the working and middle class Japanese and English are forced by a lack of options, to develop their own sense of self. Which includes lots of hobbies.

They are not inflicted with the US-style careerism, where you’re never supposed to be satisfied with what you have. Where the belief that you can, with the right amount of dedication, move up into ever and ever higher classes, presumably with the intent to reach a materialistic nirvana. Which I guess is a five-bedroom home, with a four-car garage, and a big lawn. A big lawn you pay someone else to take care of, because who has the time for gardening?

That’s why I came back to Japan, and that’s why I walked England twice, and why I will keep coming back to both.

And I’ll keep coming back to Chris’s newsletter!

Notes from Honolulu

Four years and a few months after our trip to Maui, a conference brought us back to Hawaii. It was an exclamation point that capped a year full of beach travel. But this was emphatically not a beach vacation.

  • My biggest fear was getting there and back. I’ve had bad luck with air travel recently and was fully ready for us to get stuck on a layover or loose baggage. It ended up being the smoothest ride both ways, and all four flights were early to their destination. Delta from National via JFK and United to Dulles via LAX, in case you were wondering.
  • My first impression of Honolulu was paved paradise. It required much skill to turn tropical heaven into a commuter nightmare, but there is nothing the Americans can’t do. Then I remembered that it is first and foremost a military base, so of course there would be “interstate” highways — marked Hfor all those defense needs, and more roads led to more cars which in turn led to most of downtown Honolulu being congested.
  • But the weather and the beaches and the food are all so nice that tourists won’t mind crossing 8 lanes of traffic to reach their destination, or get a good shot of that mural. Resilience!

Photo of a blocky statue of a priest in front of a brutalist building. Statue of Father Damien in front of the Hawai'i State Capitol, Honolulu.

  • Then there is the brutalist bug, which has spread to Hawaii’s State Capitol and which, surprisingly, I didn’t mind as much as e.g. Boston City Hall or L’Enfant Plaza. The brilliant statue of Father DamienSaint Damien of Molokai — helped, and I was sad to see that the artist who made it, Marisol Escobar, “became world-famous in the mid-1960s, but lapsed into relative obscurity within a decade.” so the statue, made in 1969, was close to the end of her brief career.
  • But concrete caskets are not the ugliest thing humanity visited upon the island. There is also glass and steel, because nothing makes more sense to build on a tropical paradise than a greenhouse.
  • Of course, it is not all gloomy — far from it. The more ground-level the building was, the nicer it was to be around (funny how that works), and even in the nooks and crannies between the brutalist behemoths you could find livable spaces. They also tended to serve great food!

Photo of the entrance to the Wasabi Bistro with the restaurant interior visible between wood slats. Wasabi Bistro, Waikiki, HI.

  • Which is a segue into all the marvelous food we had on Oahu, and usually in unassuming places: from Korean BBQ at a shopping center food court, to Waiola shave ice in a bit of an urban desert, to shrimp at a North Shore food truck. Admittedly, it was nothing you could not also get in DC: four twice the price and with half the quality. Also, as good as shave ice was, bao bing was better.
  • Ube and taro have been a family favorite ever since a visit to Mt. Pleasant’s Purple Patch soon after we moved to DC, so we were happy to see it used everywhere, including an ube-flavored Melona you could get at a gas station. So clearly we went twice to a restaurant that served both pancakes and waffles made with ube, and of course the next step is to start making them at home.
  • This is all good food, but for the food/atmosphere combination Wasabi bistro was best by far, and I am a bit worried for our waistlines and wallets both if and when we go to Japan.

Photo of a beach catamaran. A chihuahua wearing a pink sweater is standing on its bow. Mana Kai catamaran just before leaving for Turtle Canyon, Waikiki, HI.

  • I am burying the lede here, which is that the water and the beaches of Oahu are absolutely fantastic, and though busier than Maui’s they are busy for a reason, which is to say better in every way (sorry, Maui). An East Coast beach vacation requires chairs, food, toys, and other implements to keep you busy because let’s be honest, you don’t want to spend too much time in the cold, turbulent waters, and if you aren’t anxious about rip currents because you don’t plan on swimming, there are all those sand holes to keep your thoughts occupied with death and gloom. And no, it’s not all that bad — we keep coming back, after all — but it can’t hold a candle to Waikiki, where you don’t even need a beach towel because the weather is so nice that air drying is actually pleasant even after a sunset swim.
  • But wait, there is more: for the price of a mediocre dinner you can get on a catamaran and go snorkeling with turtles, among other things, which isn’t quite like paying next-to-nothing to a Thai fisherman to take you to a coral reef, but then again Koh Samui doesn’t have a Costco (let alone two that are on Oahu). Some of the lifeguards on our boat looked like they were no older than 16 and what a life that must be, though of course I imagine you have to leave Hawaii for higher education at some point, unless you plan on becoming a marine biologist.
  • To see Honolulu from up high — and you should! — the first place that will come to mind is the Diamond Head crater which is easily visible from any Honolulu beach and easy to climb and of course you should go not just for the views but also to check out a pre-WW1 bunker that is nestled on the top and is now the foundation of the observation deck. But there is also the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, which in addition to the views will also teach you a few things about the naval battles of WW2 and beyond — or rather what the US military would like you to know about them. Educational either way!
  • Not every activity was good: the Dole plantation was a bit of a tourist trap. I imagine the target audience is a busload of people taking a day trip from their cruise. Also, everything in that store and the ubiquitous ABC stores is grossly overpriced. Good thing there is a Costco.
  • That last point is also why Honolulu may be on our list of places where we could maybe work for a year or two — apparently they have a cancer center — but not live long-term. While restaurant prices are on par with DC — at much higher quality! — groceries were much more expensive, and I can only imagine what the real estate market looks like. There is also the Groundhog Day effect that a friend who lives in Honolulu remarked upon: when every day is perfect and the weather never changes, days tend to run into each other. Also: the island is small enough for things to get claustrophobic rather quickly.
  • But it is a great place to visit, which, duh, of course it is, but it is also nice to have confirmation from time to time that not everything we have been told and shown on TV was a lie.
Photo from an airplane window showing the wing and a rainbow arched across the low white clouds.
A rainbow to great us shortly after departure from Oahu, and how much more ridiculously cute can it get?

I agree wholeheartedly with Alan Jacobs that “it is always better to light a candle than curse the darkness” but the self-help section of this LAX bookstore is so impenetrably dark that a candle just wouldn’t do. Maybe a 100,000 lumen LED torch?

The self-help section of the LAX Terminal 7 book store. Look on these works, ye enlightened, and despair.

Photo of a bookshelf with dozens of different self-help books lined up.

Surprised that some airlines still ask us to stow away “large electronic devices” but keep using iPhones and tablets in airplane mode. So it’s OK to use the 13 — sorry, 12.9” — iPad Pro, but not the 11” MacBook Air? Or even smaller Chromebooks? Someone hasn’t thought this through.

I have a full day of flying to look forward to so probably no big posts today, but here is a photo of where the magic happens. It’s from Green World Coffee Farm on Oahu, and it is absolutely delicious.

Photo of a lone red coffee cherry on a coffee shrub.

On flaneuring


A French noun referring to a person, literally meaning “stroller”, “lounger”, “saunterer”, or “loafer”, but with some nuanced additional meanings (including as a loanword into English). Flânerie is the act of strolling, with all of its accompanying associations… Traditionally depicted as male, a flâneur is an ambivalent figure of urban affluence and modernity, representing the ability to wander detached from society with no other purpose than to be an acute observer of industrialized, contemporary life.

Flânerie has been anglicized into flaneuring, a term I first saw when Nassim Taleb described his strolls through Belgrade but which is popular enough to have had its segment on the Today Show, plugging a book that looks like something that I would never in my life touch, but hey, the concept is sound! Take a leisurely walk through the city without a destination or a particular plan. Don’t wear headphones. Do have a partner or two to share your observations.

It is exactly what we have been doing in Honolulu for the last few days and I mentioned off-handedly to my wife the Taleb post and the term. It clicked instantly, like “premium mediocre” did back in the day. What was once premium mediocre has become an unbridled luxury To keep the Talebian theme going, this is as clear of an example of the Lindy effect as any. — thank you, inflation — so we don’t mention the phrase much, but as long as there are cities there will be flaneuring.

Flaneuring goes hand in hand with good food. This is Waiola Shave Ice, Honolulu, HI.

Photo of the Waiola Shave Ice (literal) hole-in-the-wall storefront.

The non-touristy parts of DC — which is most of them, actually — would probably be in the US Top 5, which is damning with faint praise because the competition is so bad. It is a shame that it wouldn’t be the clear number 2 — with New York being the obvious number 1 — but DC is fairly small, and Chicago is even better for flaneuring than NYC for 3 months of the year. Of course, if we started taking weather into account Honolulu would soon rise to the top and overtake all; but as we are not effective altruists, let’s not.

Accompanying the spouse to a conference is always good, but doubly so when the conference is in Honolulu! There will be a more detailed report after we are back; in the mean time, here are a few murals, from delightful to bizarre.

Mural of a young man holding a flower, facing falling raindrops. Made by @kahiau_tattoos.
SALT, Honolulu, HI
Photo of a long mural with two octopuses tangling their tentacles to form a heart.
Ala Moana, Honolulu, HI
Photo of a shiny metal trailer in front of a mural depicting a fish hook.
Ala Moana, Honolulu, HI
Mural of humanoid createures with mishapen, spade-like heads forming a circle.
SALT, Honolulu, HI
Mural of three broken black and white faces superimposed on one another with colorful fractal crystals shooting out between them.
SALT, Honolulu, HI

Duvel would certainly have been my favorite beverage if it weren’t for the existence of coffee. It’s hard to come by in DC, so imagine my delight when I found it at a random grocery store in Maui.

Kihei, HI, 2019.

Photo of belgian beers on a grocery store shelf.

The sun flares up the sky over Lake Mead, then at a record low (note the white strip just above the water), which was soon to be broken.

Lake Mead, NV, September 8 2021.

Aerial photo of Lake Mead at sunset.