Lately it seems like the greatest achievement a traveler can attain is to seem like a local–to go where the locals go and do what the locals do. Well, Makaha is where the locals go. Of course, anyone can tell that we are not locals here in Hawaii. That’s why when we tell people on Oahu that we are staying in Makaha their initial reaction is typically surprise followed by one question: why? The answer is simple. Makaha is cheaper than basically anywhere else in Hawaii, and nobody can argue with that.
Makaha is a small town on the west, or leeward, side of Oahu. The city’s claims to fame are surfing and music. Makaha has been referred to as the birthplace of surfing, and hosted the Makaha International Surfing Competition for many years. It is still home to Buffalo’s Big Board Surfing Classic. Hawaii’s most well-known musical group, The Makaha Sons (and specifically Israel “Iz” Kaʻanoʻi Kamakawiwoʻole) also came out of Makaha. If you have ever wandered through a gift shop in Hawaii, you have probably heard their music.
The area has the highest percentage of native islanders on Oahu, the island’s largest homeless encampment, and essentially no tourists. Aside from some absolutely perfect and uncrowded beaches, Makaha does not have a lot to offer tourists. There are no gift shops, or really stores of any sort, aside from a thrift shop where you can actually find some second-hand souvenirs. There are a handful of fast food restaurants, a small grocery store, and maybe one or two bars in the area. We’ve grown quite fond of the local 7-Eleven, which offers steamed buns and bento boxes as opposed to the taquitos and corn dogs we’d grown accustomed to back home. It is a cheap place to stay, but pretty far from most attractions on the island.
Getting to Makaha is simple. Take Highway 93 out of Honolulu and keep going. Pass Pearl City and Kapolei and keep going. Eventually you’ll run into a group of small towns that seem to blend into one another: Nanakuli, Ma’ili, Wai’anae, and finally Makaha. Makaha is literally the end of the road. As Stuart Holmes Coleman put it in his book, Fierce Heart: The Story of Makaha and the Soul of Hawaiian Surfing:
“Locals in Makaha like to say, ‘There’s only one road in and one road out.’ The phrase literally refers to Farrington Highway, the sole link between the Westside and the rest of Oahu (and the world, for that matter), but it has other hidden meanings. The saying refers to how the road comes to a dead end a couple of miles before Ka’ena Point, the spear-shaped tip of the Island where Hawaiian mythology says the souls of the dead leap into the afterlife. But it’s also a subtle way of saying, “Be careful what you do and say down here, because this is the end of the road and you have to go back the same way you came.”
I wouldn’t know what the locals say. As a general rule, most locals don’t spend a lot of time talking with us. Everyone we have spoken to has been friendly, and Patrick has received many compliments on his green hair. For the most part, though, residents aren’t overeager to strike up a conversation with two silly tourists from someplace they don’t give two tiny mouse poops about.
Makaha is the kind of place where people sport t-shirts that say “Hawaiian by Birth: American by Force” and fly the ke hae o ka mana o nā kānaka maoli, the “flag of the native Hawaiians’ power” (also known as the “kānaka maoli flag” or “Hawaiian solidarity flag”). Makaha literally means ‘fierce’ and some of the people here are fiercely Hawaiian. The place also has a bit of a rough reputation.
Since arriving on Oahu we have been offered a few bits of advice about Makaha. The bus driver at the airport told us not to take our valuables to the beach. A young man at the bus stop advised us not to stare at anyone in the area because they might take offense. The cabbie who picked us up in Kapolei last week instructed us not to go out at night. For all of these ominous warnings, though, everyone insists that Makaha is not as bad as people make it out to be. If you generally act polite and mind your own business you’re probably not going to run into trouble.
We did receive one promising tidbit from our surf instructor in Waikiki. “Makaha Beach has the best lifeguards,” he said, “so you don’t need to worry about drowning.” Part of me wondered if he was scouring his brain for something positive to say about Makaha so as to ensure a decent tip, but, since I was battling the surf and trying desperately not to let on that I was completely physically exhausted at the time, I didn’t press the matter.
For the most part we’ve followed their advice. Although, we haven’t tested the lifeguards. Not a single person has tried to start trouble with us. Well, there was one woman on the bus who leaned in uncomfortably close and said, “Have you ever tried [insert a string of Hawaiian words that I cannot pretend to understand or recall]?”
Bewildered, we indicated that we had not.
“You should,” she grinned, “It’ll make you feel gooood.”
At the time I assumed she was recommending her latest drug of choice. In hindsight, I suppose she could have been suggesting that we should get the hell out of there. If it was a threat, though, it was the most cheerful one that I have ever been subjected to.
Makaha has been good to us, if not exactly the luxurious tropical paradise that we had imagined. One thing is quite certain, though: we are definitely haoles here.