I had the good and bad fortune to grow up poor in an interesting place. Hawai'i. My childhood home was in Makiki, a neighborhood of Honolulu. I grew up in a very old house that was condemned to be demolished. Instead of being torn down, it was tied up in probate court for most of my childhood. Our home was a sprawling, stilted, British Colonial-style bungalow, a large, one-storied structure overhung by a single, low sloping roof and suspended about five feet above the ground on stilts, with deep, shaded verandas wrapping half the circumference of the building and double doors that could open until virtually the entire house was one huge outdoor porch, like something you might see in the Bahamas. Over a hundred years old the day we moved in in 1960. Once beautiful, now decrepit.
Of course, we didn't own it. We barely paid rent on it. We, my parents, myself, and my siblings, occupied the house to keep it from being vandalized. My parents paid a nominal rental fee, plus utilities, which they sometimes could not pay, thus plunging us for weeks into a non-electrified or gassified lifestyle. These were strange days and stranger nights. As we moved about with candles in the darkened rooms, it was as if our ancient house was pulling us backwards in time, trying to regain its lost youth by severing our connection to the world of speed, light, access, and efficiency. It was like we were our own ancestors.
We were barely aware of the cliche suburban childhoods our classic baby boomer peers were experiencing, my brothers and sisters and I. Our experience was colored by being in Hawaii, and by the tragic circumstances that kept us there. No one ever said "poor." It would have been as if a huge balloon, filled to the bursting point with hopelessness, had been pricked once too many times. We weren't India poor, which I have seen, and everyone who ever pitied themselves should see. Not even as poor as my Depression-era dad, who grew up in a drafty one-room basement next to a whorehouse in East Omaha after his family lost their farm. But poor enough. We hid from bill collectors. We ate donated food. We received well-used and edge-worn gifts for Christmas. As stated, we sometimes went without electricity or gas. We learned to always blow through a straw before you drank through it, to clear out the baby roaches. While it was happening, it was just how things were, how I thought they would always be. It was that life that makes the smug and comfortable always say,"I don't understand why they don't just...blah...and blah...and blah...and another impossible thing that can't be done." They're right. They don't.
Our condemned house was wounded by time, but it was far from dead. It was more like haunted. Resonant. Literally. The termites had eaten through every corner long since, leaving behind their empty roccocco hallways and channels in the walls and floors. The dining room still had the huge, black-oak Jacobean-style table and chairs that had probably sat there since the house was built in the 1850s. The table was so eaten through, so hollowed out and termite ridden, that I, as a six-year-old child, could push it around the room like a cardboard box. On the property was an old stable, a derelict servants quarters, and a carriage house with a Surrey carriage still sitting in it, a banana grove more. We ate from this yard, guavas, bananas, avocados, breadfruit, the eggs from the chickens in the stable, and finally, the chickens, when there was no other food. It was a storied place, redolent with age and tales and mystery. In the huge yard were places too scary, too dangerous, too forbidden, for us to visit. By our secret transgressions into these places, we marked our own growth from babies to kids.
The Makiki stream ran out of Tantalus mountain behind us and right through the yard, canalized in the mid-nineteenth century with ballast stones from the countless ships that came and went once O'ahu was established as the hub of the Pacific. The rotting stone walls were precarious and unstable, but, if you perched along the edge you could stare down into the clear waters of the stream, where exotic fish, dumped from generations of aquariums, swam in the shallows. The rot attracted life. Mynah birds chattered in the sprawling dome of the monkey-pod tree, so huge it covered over half the yard creating a permanent shadow in the distant corners, where serpentines of night blooming cereus slithered over the lava rock walls. Hibiscus, lantana, and cup-of-gold erupted in florid uncontrolled cascades around the house. Ten-inch centipedes, cane toads, geckos, and swift elusive skinks made their homes in every corner of the disheveled estate, not mention uncountable legions of unusual insects, like the crab-sized spider who used to perch in a corner outside the kitchen door.
One day in a dark part of the yard where I almost never went, I was rooting in the leaves beneath a wild hedge of unkempt hibiscus, hunting for lizards. Leaf litter had accumulated for decades beneath this dense frenzy of red flowers, its loamy smell hanging in the still air. As I tentatively pushed and prodded under the bushes, trying to flush a sleek, copper-colored skink, I uncovered a stone step. It was not a casually laid paver, just stuck into the ground and forgotten. It was ashlar, a cut-stone step flanked on either side by a low cut stone edge, not much different than the stone stairs in front of Maryknoll church. The step disappeared into a deep mulch of mouldering leaves, dropped for decades by the untended bushes above. I cleared the wet mat of leaves away. There was another step. I used my slippered feet to push that one clear. There was another, leading downwards under the hibiscus. And another. And more. Soon, I was pushing a wall of matted leaf litter my own height, which was heavy, slimy, and crawling with disturbed earwigs and roaches. It collapsed before me, on the other side of the dark twisted hedge, to reveal the ruins of a formal garden. A real discovery.
I was a seven year old Hiram Bingham, stumbling into my own Macchu Picchu. Sunlight beamed down, illuminating my secret kingdom. A bird bath, now cascading with ferns, sat in the center of the garden. It was attended by a pair of curved stone benches with swollen Italianate legs, hidden in a sea of tall flowering grasses. Paved pathways curved amidst the wild excelsior of weeds and remnant flowers and a green wooden bridge, not unlike the bridge in Monet's garden, arched over the Makiki stream fifteen feet below. Even I, a child, could see that the bridge was too rotten to cross. But beyond it was more garden, and the backside of an abandoned Victorian home, it's blank, black, empty windows staring back across the unbreachable divide, daring even further exploration. We never went, because that house was haunted, and ours merely haunting.
I shared this garden with my sister only. The other siblings were too young to come to this part of the forbidden zone, so near the crumbling walls of the canal. There, we could lay in the sunlight on the curved benches as lacewings and butterflies floated around us, and forget what lay beyond; the clinics, the hospitals, the grand-mal seizures, the smoke-filled, bill-paying nights when our parents huddled impotently over a cluttered table trying to parse between food, electricity, and medicine, the broken brain inside our brother where all the normal drained away and left us, a Swiss-Family Robinson-Rohde, stranded on the shores of strange. That was childhood. At the time, I often hated it. But now, looking back, I see that all I am is predicated upon this beginning. Of course, it makes sense now, processed, ordered, and put into sequence. It's a story. That same life that looked so chaotic and fraught with mischance when viewed at its commencement, now seems as inevitable as gravity. It leads to Mongolia as much as it leads to my career with the Disney company, manufacturing beautiful, meaningful, and structured realities.
I grew up in disorder, disjunction, and marginalization. So, to me adventure travel is not so strange. The discomfort that keeps you aware and awake, the unexpected and unplanned waiting for you after every choice, the sight of poverty and the ingenuity of those with few means, the struggle that makes a moments rest like a whole vacation, the heedless rhythm and uncaring beauty of a nature that disregards your individual plight completely, and yet reassures you with its own steady constancy, the slow, softening decay of forgotten things, and the pricelessness of a moment of joy, of awe, of contentment. Adventure does not feel to me like going away. It feels like going home.