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Trip 26 -- Oahu Walk

Friday, May 7, 2021

Hawaii never lured me until recently. If I wanted sun and sand, I figured, I could fly from New York to any number of Caribbean islands in a third of the time, have the fun of exchanging currency, and not worry about people draping leis over me. I'll get there eventually, I always thought.

Well, the fact that it has islands well-sized for walking -- and doesn't mean scrambling for a Covid-19 test to reenter the USA at the end of the trip -- makes it a particularly good Abecedarian Walks candidate. But which island or islands? There are 137 recognized by the state, although only eight get any publicity.

Of those eight, the "Big Island" is too big, and Niihau and Kahoolawe can't practically be visited. Kauai and Molokai look promising for size but have forest reserves that make circumnavigation impossible. Lanai is tiny and could be walked but the lack of accommodation would require it to be done as a hub-and-spoke kind of routing. Maui is just about doable but would necessitate long walks on winding coastal roads, with several 30-mile days due to a paucity of places to stay.

So Oahu it is, with the decision earning an extra stamp of relevance due to the recent release of Paul Theroux's latest novel, "Under the Wave at Waimea." It's the tale of a highly respected surfer who suffers psychological turmoil after a car accident. Much of the action -- the biggest waves, literally and metaphorically -- takes place on Oahu's northern shore.

The book draws on the long-standing rift between the descendants of the native Polynesian population and the mainland or European white people, known as haole, a term derogatory enough to warrant being removed from the North American Scrabble word list last year. In a Smithsonian article from 2012, Theroux described Hawaii as "secretive and separated, socially, spacially, ethnically, philosophically, academically." Someone who has lived there for half a century may still be rejected as a local.

That impenetrability bumped Hawaii up in my list of places to go. I knew precious little about the state before planning the walk, didn't even know that Pearl Harbor was right by Honolulu's airport until I saw I'd be rounding it the first day. Other than a cheesy introduction to "Aloha" in grade school, Hawaii never got mentioned much in class. But its language is as mysterious as Greenlandic.

My devotion to the esoterica of frequent-flyer miles has taught me that a spectacularly cheap way to get to Hawaii on points is through Turkish Airlines' Miles & Smiles program; they charge only 7,500 points in economy class to fly on their Star Alliance partner United Airlines. Those points can be transferred to Turkish from Citibank's ThankYou program.

Turkish is notoriously fickle among frequent-flyer enthusiasts, however. I'd never joined the program, and my attempt to do so revealed that the online enrollment form was clearly programmed by someone two tokes shy of a dreamy galactic fantasy. My preferred language of English was listed twice in the menu, and for "Title" I was forced to choose between "Male" and "Female." Whatever your position on the gender binary -- and clearly the site could use an update -- no one is ever going to call me "Male Seth."

Then I picked my state of New York only to have to narrow it down from a list of municipalities. The city of New York was nowhere on the list; Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island all made the cut, but there was nothing for Manhattanites. I ended up picking Waccabuc, which is where the menu landed when I typed "New York" in. And there was no indication that the "password" must be six digits -- no letters allowed.

In the end, none of the above mattered, because the submission button didn't do anything, so I got to repeat the whole process on the app. This presented its own oddities -- the municipality list was out of order, starting with the F's; I ended up in New York Mills (which was followed by Austerlitz), and then I was supposed to pick an "area" within that municipality, of which the only option was "Other."

Finally my enrollment went through, and I then enjoyed the fun of trying to book a ticket. The Web site doesn't find most of the options, and most of the agents can't see them, either, even when a search on United's site reveals that there should be award space on certain flights available to partner airlines. So I kept calling, trying to hit upon the magic agent who somehow had access to the seats.

The automated system would repeat back my nine-digit Miles & Smiles number in the strangest of ways, three digits at a time rather than digit by digit ("Nine hundred seventy-four...") -- does any other system do that? -- before emitting a buzz like an unbalanced washing machine and then a series of crackles and creaks as it routed the call through the middle levels of the Mariana Trench. And yet a few seconds later, a representative would come on the line, where I'd feed her the United flight number and she'd tell me either that she couldn't see it, or it wasn't open for booking, or that I needed to book with United.

Finally I found the guy who could help me, and he transferred me to a couple of other automated systems so that I could pay the $5.60 ticket fee and enter my PIN to authorize the points deduction, each transfer resulting in a suspicious gap in the audio that was sympathetically copied by my heartbeat. But after just five calls and most of an hour, I finally had a ticket to Hawaii.

Booking the return proved to be impossible on the phone, so I threw e-mails out at a couple of the regional ticket offices with my specifics. The kind people at the Los Angeles office got back to me and put the itinerary on hold so that I could call in and pay -- they even replied with a "You are most welcome" when I thanked them -- and they didn't even charge me the $25 fee to reissue the ticket when I needed to change the date.

Then, of course, I had the pleasure of dealing with Hawaii's strict Covid-19 testing requirements. The state has few hospitals, so it's understandable that they need to keep the virus out, and because of that, they require a specific kind of test from one of their specific trusted testing partners. I was in Boston this week and booked an appointment for a PCR test 71 hours and 50 minutes before my flight -- just inside the 72-hour limit -- at the XpresCheck facility at the airport, which I figured would have the best chance of getting me my results in time.

I realized, though, that because I'd be visiting a friend on the Big Island for a couple of days before starting the Oahu walk, I'd need another test, as the airport test wouldn't be valid for my connecting flight. So I booked another test at Walgreens, one of the other partners, for the following day.

Both results came in yesterday, and of course Hawaii's Safe Travels site, which requires uploads of the certificates, told me that the airport test wasn't from a trusted partner and that the Walgreens certificate wasn't a negative result. The phone representative said that the airport test shouldn't have been a PCR test but rather a rapid test -- astonishing, since the PCR test is what all travelers have been scrambling to take for a year -- but when I read the contents of the certificate, all the way down to the disclaimers, she said that the test did in fact meet the requirements. Meanwhile, another representative from Safe Travels had proactively e-mailed me to say that the airport test wasn't in the correct format, and could I get the provider to reissue it with the Hawaii seal on it? (At the testing site, I had, of course, mentioned specifically, twice, that I needed the test for travel to Hawaii.)

I wrote back that the odds of them reissuing the certificate overnight were slim, and by the way, I also had this other certificate from Walgreens, and the person on the phone had said that I should just bring print-outs, and could you please confirm that that's all right?

And in a miracle nearly unmatched in the history of customer service, she wrote back a minute later saying that she had changed my result to an approved status in the system.

So I have spent the night finishing "Under the Wave at Waimea" and recalling the technical quirks that have led to this point, and by the time I board the plane I should be sufficiently tired to get through 11 unfed hours in United's economy class. And starting Monday, it will be time to walk.

Go on to day 1