ala wai canal 1920 to 1928

Photographs by Kypo Karamas


Saturday night, 8:00 PM, Kuhio Avenue, Waikiki: Riding in the back of a taxi, stopped at a traffic light, I am startled to hear my name being shouted from somewhere outside in the crowd. There on the sidewalk, grinning at me and waving, stands Rose, my friend and host mother, who generously welcomed me the last two summers to stay at her family’s home on the island of Kosrae, in Eastern Micronesia. What is she doing here? In disbelief I pay my fare and jump out to greet her, completely jarred by the presence of someone I, in my own touristic nearsightedness, never imagined to exist beyond the world of her family in that big seaside house overlooking the mangrove forests of Lelu, Kosrae. Standing in Waikiki in her white T-shirt, hand-sewn patchwork skirt, and rubber sandals, she is a complete aberration to me, illuminated by neon lights and overshadowed by the towering hotels, and yet she is perfectly at ease in her surroundings.

She triumphantly describes her situation: "I came for work. My son Isaac left Kapiolani Community College last month and now he’s working in the kitchen at a hotel, so I came to live with him, make money for the family…I just got my employee ID number and started my job!" What about the rest of the family back in Kosrae, I ask. "Oh, they’re fine," she giggles, "My sisters and mother are all taking care of the other kids and my husband." We walk together for a few blocks, through the throngs of vacationers brandishing purple leis and shopping for aloha shirts. They push past us at a fast pace, anxious they might miss any aspect of the Waikiki Experience.

"Come back to the apartment and see where we live," Rose says, and, grabbing my arm, she leads me down the street, away from all the nightlife. We walk up a side street to where it meets the Ala Wai Canal and turn left, finally reaching a building I must have passed numerous times without thinking. It is a crumbling concrete apartment building wedged between the new high-rise condominiums and the hotels. Passing through a rusted wrought-iron gate and climbing the cracking linoleum-covered steps, we encounter a large group of Kosraean children playing jump rope. Most of the doors of the apartments are ajar, and as we approach, Kosraean faces look back and smile at us. Rose chuckles as she tells me that mostly everyone in the five-storey building is related.