I Had Better Tell You Where I Am

Danielle Batalion Ola | Essays


Where the bakery opens at seven A.M. We’re late—nearly noon—and as my husband and I make our way to Komoda’s, I notice that the streets feel lived-in here. Three days on Maui, and it’s the first time we’ve made our way upcountry, a term that implies a lofted separation. Mount Olympus and its Gods. Makawao was a cowboy town back in the day, and traces of the paniolos remain stuccoed on the walls. Ten-gallon hats hang in shop windows. The buildings, built in the early 1900s, have the look of Hollywood Western saloons. In one shop window, there’s a hanging sign:







and it delights me. It’s my first time seeing it, and I’m surprised it hasn’t yet come to Kaua’i.

My mother would like it, maybe. She’s encountered a Karen or two, working in the fast-food industry all her life. She’s hardly fazed nowadays, weathered by countless customers railing against her for the cost of their meals. At home, she rolls her eyes and complains about their ignorance. How conveniently they forget about the cost of the meat and all the dollars it took to get there, all the feed and labor and jet fuel and premium gas. She hasn’t received a raise in six years and in their eyes, she’s out to hurt them. As if she could.

Upcountry, the people talk like they’ve raised me. They have that laugh in their accents, skirting the edge of bitter and cordial—that bounce. A boy riding in the back of a pickup truck sees us standing on the sidewalk, lime popsicle melting as it passes between our hands. Boy throws us a shaka. The bakery is out of malasadas for the day, but we weren’t angry. Okay thank you we’ll just come back tomorrow, we said, and moved on.


My sister didn’t plan on watching The White Lotus when I put it on, but the twee uniforms, marble lobby, and plants swaying in the thousands-of-dollars-per-night open air were familiar enough to draw her in. There, among the marble, Lani the trainee is going into labor, but Lani needs this job. She stands at reception taking slow breaths. Armond doesn’t notice, even when the water spills between her feet.

Our mother’s trying to hide the cracks in our leather couch again. She’s bought cloth covers for the cushions but they keep slipping. I fuss over the edges, tug at the elastic loops failing to keep them in place. Most of our family has worked in a hotel one way or another, the crooks of their necks forever marked by that pleasant if sterile hospitality scent. Lani is implied to be kanaka (which I, descendant of Ilokano sakadas, am not) but the role she plays in this web of industry is one our cousins play too.

Connie Britton on the beach. She plays Nicole, in the show. Designer sunglasses balloon her eyes until her face has the proportions of a bourgeois housefly. My sister spots a line of windmills turning in the distance, above Nicole’s shoulder. Sister knows the windmills, knows Maui when she sees it. It’s June 2023, and in this moment, I still haven’t been. We dare the show to name the place it’s set in, and it never does.

Cruising altitude

I like Didion, enough. She has that wit. Windowpane prose. I’m saying she has enough talent to keep me even when a lapse in self-awareness turns me off. I’m letting her tell me about the Royal Hawaiian on our way to Kahului, The White Album on my lap. She declares the hotel’s private roped-off beaches to be a matter of inclusivity, not exclusivity. “Anyone behind the rope will watch over our children as we will watch over theirs, will not palm room keys or smoke dope or listen to Creedence Clearwater on a transistor when we are awaiting word from the Mainland on the prime rate.” The flight attendant comes to give me the customary cup of Hawaiian Airlines POG (8% real juice). I sip and consider the matter of inclusivity. Joan is an intelligent woman, and I’m surprised—but not terribly—that she’s warped the word into one of separation. I have never palmed keys or smoked dope and have only heard one Creedence Clearwater song or two but were she to see me lurking beyond the ropes in a teal aloha shirt, she’d perhaps assume the contrary. Still, I am kept. This White Album Joan is very melancholy. She’s an excellent writer. An awful grief is coming for her. She’s only worrying about getting a divorce.


Where we’ve booked our room calls itself Hawai’i’s Most Hawaiian Hotel, due to their long list of ‘cultural offerings’—including workshops about tapa, or workshops about poi. The face of our room keys are adorned with a sprig of ‘ōhi’a lehua. Their backs read, E mālama, e mālamalama mai. The island is named for the demigod. The reason why differs depending on the myth you choose. I have heard that it’s named for its shape, which vaguely resembles Maui’s hook. I have heard that it was named by Hawai’iloa, the navigator who first discovered the islands, who had named his son after Maui and named the island after his son.

Maui’s hook, a sad facsimile of it, hangs in our room. It oversees Husband and I as we discuss how strange we feel here—this new island, this side of it (so touristy), this Most Hawaiian hotel. It stays hanging after we leave, after the hotel is bought and renamed, after the fires come and Lahaina is gone. But this is Before by three or four weeks, and between the hotel and Kahului, the land is not yet ravaged, but mountainous and dry. I’ve always known Hawai’i to be a verdant land. Upon our arrival, I looked out onto this new-to-me land, the grass golden as oil, surprise withering to a murmur between my lips. It would only take one spark—

The White Lotus

Among Armond’s first lines is an order: “Wave, Lani. Wave like you mean it.” This precedes her labor. Her pregnancy is still a secret that neither the first-time watcher nor Armond is privy to. We only know that she is in training and Armond is her supervisor and she is lucky to have him, a true resort veteran who has invited her to the shady grove to greet resort VIPs and teach her how to wave.

ARMOND: Self-disclosure is discouraged. You don’t want to be too specific as a presence, as an identity. You wanna be more generic.

LANI: Generic?

ARMOND: Yes. You know, it’s a Japanese ethos where we are asked to disappear behind our masks as pleasant, interchangeable helpers. It’s tropical kabuki. And the goal is to create for the guests an overall impression of vagueness that can be very satisfying, where they can get everything they want but they don’t even know what they want, or what day it is, or where they are or who we are or what the fuck is going on.

Kabuki theatre is expressive, decorated, and magnificent. Its actors are adorned with makeup, not masks.

Presumably, Armond is referring to the Noh tradition. Even then, Noh masks were painstakingly carved to be unique. Artists descended from long lineages of craftsmen chip fine details into each face to signal the character’s key traits, such as age, gender, and class. When done correctly, the expression ripples with the tilt of the actor’s head, animated by the light. There are hundreds of distinct mask designs, all with their own names. It is ignorance or apathy that strips them of meaning, turning them to a muddle.

Maybe the irony of the scene is intentional. But Lani disappears like a raindrop. Another kanaka employee doesn’t shed their mask (and even then, barely) until episode four of six.

The Marriott, or Royal Sonesta, depending on where you stand in time

If our mother got a good bonus or our aunty got a good bonus or the aunty who didn’t need a good bonus fell suddenly into a generous or indulgent mood, we’d book a night at the hotel—or two. The Marriott’s pool is roughly in the shape of a flower. At its western edge, there are hot tubs you can climb into from the water. There are small waterfalls you can tread under, willing the torrent to push you down. Depending on where you sit or swim, there is a clear ocean view. Should you chase it, the shore is only a short walk away. We were long-limbed in those days, teeth silver and skin of teak. We leapt below No Diving signs. We used the whole cavern of our throats to laugh.

When I’m older, Husband and I take my family to Duke’s. There is an hour’s-plus wait to share dinner and a slice of hula pie among the Kahanamoku ephemera. We leave our names with the hostess and stray. Husband has not seen the rest of the hotel. He has not seen the small windowed exhibits in the halls, the pool or the replica canoe. My brother has dressed in a cream aloha shirt for the occasion. He walks backwards and pretends to explain the artifacts that pass, ups his accent as we push further down the halls.

It occurs to me that our weekends in the pool were precious to us because for once, we were given the chance to invade a space. We laid claim to a curve of a petal. The tourists did not encroach on us, whether by annoyance or respect. We were too drunk on joy to care about the reason why. Brother beckons us further, leading: Hele on, hele on. Walking with Husband, we’ve tricked the guests into believing we’re part of them. They give us distance and nod politely so as not to interrupt our tour.

The White Lotus

There is the matter of Paula. She’s companion to Olivia, the daughter of Connie, and by way of their friendship, she’s the only melanated visitor among the VIPs. Off-camera, The White Lotus is actually Maui’s Four Seasons, where elite suites range from nine to twenty-six thousand dollars per night. Paula is one of the few characters the average viewer is meant to align with, in that she comes from relatively modest means. Having gained purchase into this prosperous and prissy world, she and Olivia spend their days lounging, mocking the other VIPs, and getting gloriously high. Their mockery is of the social justice variety. They are liberal arts college cutouts. They read Freud and Nietzsche at the pool. They snipe at Olivia’s parents for their flimsy feminism and blind white privilege. Meanwhile Connie foots the bill for their playground—elite suite, roped-off beach, and authentic Native Hawaiian lu’āus. We’re meant to wonder whether their commitment to justice is as fruit to La Croix.

Paula’s presence is barely commented on, even in their shared family suite. For the most part, she lurks in the shadows of the other VIP’s concerns, so as not to tangle the plot threads. But at the height of the show, there is a moment. She looks Olivia’s father in the eye and asks, What do you stand for? The question stumps him, and just for a blink, you might think he’ll reply, Why are you here?

The road to Hana

We’re chasing waterfalls down the windy road. In my preparatory research for the drive, I’ve mistaken the word windy for the word windy—not winding but battered by gusts of air. On so narrow a path, a mere thread cut from the plunging cliffs, it’s a hop not a leap to believe the wind might blow our metal chassis into the mountainside or send us tumbling to the sea. Before I realize my mistake, I tell Husband, But look, there’s only a breeze.

Husband is a good driver. He likes the challenge. We trek with modest confidence. He does whatever the signs ask, slows at the hairpin turns. But car after car makes way for us, pulling onto the next shoulder when we approach. I’m not speeding. I’m not being aggressive. I don’t understand, he says. I think on it, and when the answer is revealed to me, out of my mouth falls a razored laugh.

They are being good visitors. They’ve read the guides. Please respect the people who actually live here, each instructs. They know this road so let them have it. When you see them, move aside. They have seen our brown faces blinking through the windshield and assumed. They think we’re locals, I explain, lowering the windows. I have a playlist named kong 93.5 and I blast it until the cars ahead scramble to the tenor of Kolohe Kai.

The road to Hana

An hour later, we are still chasing waterfalls. We only want one; there are allegedly fifteen. But Wailua is too crowded. ‘Ohe’o Gulch is closed. I’ve looked up one that is supposed to be perfect: lovely, accessible, and the swarm has not set upon it. But when we roll up to find parking, we see the sign. Cardboard, hand painted, warding off tourists in big red letters. It should be fine, Husband says, I don’t think it’s real. But I am not local to this island, am not accompanied by anyone who is, and it is not the first time I’ve stood before a warning like this but it is the first time I’ve visited an island without an escort. I am neither the warning nor the forewarned but at a diagonal, some angle in between. We let them have it and move on.

Twenty minutes down the road, a café serves as a waypoint. The woman inside is beachy and bohemian, skin attractively leathered. Her hair has taken on the color and texture of young sand. We order lemonade and taro chips. She tells us about how visiting Maui and then moving to Maui three years back changed her life. We tell her about our search and ask if there are any falls we could swim in, somewhere close. Eventually, we will find them. They will be quiet besides their own roar, freshly emptied of crowd. I’ll remove my shoes on the hike, relishing the press of my toes into the loam. Husband will marvel at this, how easily I find my bare-footing on the slicked rocks. The water, when we reach it, will be frigid. Still, I will my body to submerge and float.

But before all that, this woman’s lips part and round. Oh. She says, Oh. After living on this road and working on this road and catering to hundreds of visitors on this road for more than 1,000 days of her changed happy life, she says, Oh, I’m sorry. I don’t really know.

The road from Hana

We’re on the way back to our hotel but there’s a shit driver two cars ahead. Husband is the first to honk. They are master offenders, somehow too slow, too reckless, straddling the middle line when it’s there and struggling to navigate the one-lane roads. Our horn summons others, and soon there is the hungry rev of an engine several cars back. The pickup truck in our rearview is monstrous, deep blue. We know locals when we see them. We know the way they move.

The way it stalks forward is fluid, nigh feline. The cars behind us drive slower, cagey upon its approach. Husband and I watch as it climbs the line. We are coconspirators, falling back, letting the Tacoma pounce. Shakas spring up to thank us in the windows and truck bed. Woman in the driver’s seat, two boys and a whole field of kalo in the back. When finally leveled with the shit driver, their fingers fold and reorient themselves. With a final roar of their engine, we are suffering again and they are gone. Further on, we pass by the falls we surrendered to the locals. There is a family like mine, towels over shoulders and Billabong shorts, making their way past the sign. The kalo leaves in the truck bed cackled as aunties do, heads like hearts bobbing in the breakneck speed.

“In the Islands”

Honolulu belongs to James Jones, says Didion. No, really. “A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image,” she says. She read From Here to Eternity and found it so moving, “not only Schofield Barracks but a great deal of Honolulu itself has always belonged for me to James Jones.”

Joan is one in a long line of women with the audacity. She is not the first to perch herself above the heads of those who have lived in a place, claimed it, loved it fought for it lost it, and clucked her tongue: No, no, not for you. It has never been a matter of who claims what, but who’s able to do it loudest. She has a vested interest. Her literary legacy depends on how a myth is made.

Let her tell you that a stage is an inclusive space. There are those thrashing in the pit smoking dope and palming keys scrambling to climb it. Then there are those who get to speak into the mic.

The White Lotus

When Kai enters the scene, Sister and I go: I’d fuck him. Husband nods his head, supportive. Brother walks in and says, That’s Baby Aquaman. The show is family spectacle now. Brother’s already picked his favorites. He likes watching Connie Britton’s dickhead son chase the paddlers who wake him on the beach.

Even before we learn he’s played by Kekoa from Mililani, we can tell Kai of The White Lotus is one true local boy. Paula is taken with him, which is to say she has good taste. We see her sneaking glances at the handsome fire dancer conch blower waiter, I think? unspecified catch-all employee at every dinner. We don’t see proof of their tryst until episode three, when we see her sneaking off to meet him in (of all places) a storage hut. They migrate to the beach for their pillow talk, and lo: the local boy speaks.

He tells Paula of his childhood, pulling taro in his family patch, clearing waterways, feeding pigs, and searching for sunrise shells on the beach. There are people who live like this. Still, compressed to one minute and ten seconds of screen time, it is a bit much. But Paula is pleased by it, blushing to find that her hotel hook-up is so on-brand. What? Kai asks her as she rests her cheek against the curve of her hand. It’s just, she sighs, you’re just so real.

The conversation turns to the hotel, because it must.

KAI: They were the ones that actually evicted us from our lo’i, the land that was given by King Kamehameha to the konohiki. It was a sacred title. Can’t be broken. But the government, they terminated our lease illegally.

PAULA: That’s fucked up.

KAI: My brothers, they’re still trying to fight the county, but they can’t afford a lawyer. The good ones are too expensive. It’s a shit situation.

PAULA: And now you work for the same assholes that stole from you?

KAI: When my brothers found out that I took this job they were so pissed. But I gotta make a living, you know?

Paula resolves to help him. She thinks she knows the way. She tells him of a fine piece of jewelry in Connie Britton’s suite and convinces him to steal it, selling it to fund a good lawyer. They plan for Kai to carry out the heist when the family and Paula are out boating the next day. They do not account for Olivia’s father rounding back to their room.

Kai escapes barely, and not without a fight. Tearing off the bandanna he’d wrapped about his mouth, heart racing and knuckles bruised, he rushes away from the scene and hopes his uniform is enough to hide him within the kabuki muddle of employees. But it doesn’t take long for the authorities to find him, his presence pronounced now that the resort’s interests are at risk.

Before he’s captured, Kai texts Paula for help. Olivia catches sight of the blue bubbled message and confronts Paula for her complicity. It is then that our intrepid audience surrogate swallows every ounce of righteous rage she had left. It’s not that the power between them has shifted—it’s that Paula’s reminded that the power has only ever been Olivia’s.

I don’t despise Paula. Paula was well-intentioned. Paula tried. She tried and failed and left Kai for dead and how lucky for you if you were surprised by this, that you’ve come this far without realizing that is how good intentions tend to sour in the end.

The two girls go on—Olivia protecting Paula’s secrets—calling themselves friends. Regarding Kai’s lonely message, Paula never responds.

Mike White, director, owns two multimillion-dollar homes in Hanalei. He wrote the show with an empathetic heart, hoping to criticize the realities he saw on Kaua’i’s north shore. In writing, I fear I am him, or I am Paula, my good intentions turning real people into political accessory.

The road to Hanalei

Before The White Lotus there was Coco Palms, a resort destroyed by hurricane Iniki in 1992, closed ever since. It has been beset by fires in the decades past. What’s left is char, haggard beams and wrenched open rooms. Throughout my life I’ve turned to stare as we pass it, this relic overseeing all our drives north.

Elvis stayed there, Grandpa said, Mother said, as they all said, whenever they caught me looking. The Hawaiian Wedding Song, Mother would add, as if I’d heard it before. This is the moment, she’d croon. But she’d always end there, leaving the rest of it all mist.

Elvis stayed there. So had Bing Crosby, Rita Hayworth, Liberace, but in my family the legend was always The King. Coco Palms was Blue Hawaii. Blue Hawaii was Coco Palms.

I always wanted them to rebuild it, the resort. The memory. If not a resort, I thought, maybe, it could become a sort of museum. It was unconscionable to me that our island could waste a legend, and I felt it was important to remold the ruins into a space that honored what was lost.

But there are other legends along the Wailua River. The land Coco Palms sits on has always been a seat of royalty. The crooning King preceded by real kings. Thrones of Ali’i serving as the nucleus of a cluster of heiaus. These histories—I didn’t know the details of until well into my adulthood. The hotel grounds have seen more lawsuits than fires. After the son of King Kamuali’i died in 1849 without an heir, his estate—including the land Coco Palms was built on—was wrenched from the royal family by the man who assumed presidency of Hawai’i after the coup. One Sanford B. Dole.

In elementary school, our teachers would walk us to a portable classroom where our Kumu would share histories, traditions, and myths that preceded us. The many uses of a kukui nut. How Maui tore the limbs from the sun. Most of our class was local, but not kānaka. Still, she spoke, urging us to remember the learnings of the first people who made a home of this land, those before us, the very first.

I am at an angle again. I must sit with this, my impulse to reify a gash.


I don’t want to make a myth of things, but I fear it’s inevitable.

“In the Islands”

She didn’t even write about island—s, plural. Even her scope of O’ahu is limited. Most of the essay is set in an army base and Waikiki.


I don’t want to make a myth of things, but I’ve already begun.


At dinner, I tell friends how odd it was to visit Maui. I admit we stayed in Lahaina, and how this necessarily narrows our perspective to needlepoint. We played tourists for the weekend, claimed our petals. There was so much money, I told them, but we didn’t see it in the infrastructure. Others have told us that this is what makes Maui feel as if they are visiting a real island. The benefits aren’t reaching the people who live there, is what I meant.

I always scold Husband for speaking bachi, but I’ve been away from home too long. A few hours later, after I’d dropped off to sleep, the fires broke. I’d forgotten about all the curses curled beneath the soft muscle of my tongue.

Front Street

Husband and I seek out sunscreen before sunset. I am afraid of aging, he is afraid of burns. I tell the woman at the register we’re visiting from Kaua’i. No one who actually lives here ever visits the other islands, she says. I’m a hypocrite, and I agree. Husband finds a mineral option that smells of coconuts. With the coral reefs dying, the mineral stuff is all Maui will allow. When he joins us at the counter, Aunty’s face scrunches as she gestures at the bronze of our skin. Whatchu need sunblock for? No need.

We seek out the oldest living tree on the island. It’s a banyan, over a century old. Its canopy sprawls over an entire courtyard, the air bark-veined. Standing beneath its branches feels like what church chases. We nestle into the crooks of the tree and the photos don’t turn out.

We report to our dinner reservation when the time comes. We are celebrating our first anniversary—that’s the silly, wonderful reason we’re here. Mindful of the occasion, Honu Oceanside gives us a sunset view. Light on one cheek, sun sinking, I look out to the waves. The water is what I’ll remember of Lahaina. It is such a deep, bruised blue.

After the fires, Husband and I will think of the banyan. When I learn that it has survived—how beautiful that it survived—I will nearly weep. What is a myth to a record. Nothing I could possibly tell of this town could mean more than what it has always had—its people, its seas, the histories marked by 150 years worth of rings.

In the islands

There are mines pinpricked across Kaho’olawe. There are toxins pouring from Red Hill. My mother swears off politics but has never hesitated to declare how little They care—the county, country, the state. There is, rarely, the faint memory of Grover Cleveland, the most milquetoast of presidents, shaming the U.S. agents and citizens who overthrew the kingdom—declaring they seized the kingdom—but no one talks about that. There is a woman whose boyfriend’s family once owned land in Laupahoehoe but then there was the tsunami and then there were the sirens but the wave came on April Fool’s Day and so they all laughed and then there was only the water. The land remains, its value out with the tide. When Lahaina’s land burnt to ashes, the Emergency Management Agency claims that they didn’t sound the sirens because they were meant for that—tsunamis—and they feared the people would mindlessly flee mauka, into the wall of flames. There are those parched plains from Kahului to Lahaina, once wetlands. Plantations needed land, so they cleared it. Plantations needed irrigation, so they rerouted natural waters and streams. Foreigners introduced grasses that had evolved to reseed after wildfires. It was those grasses that spread when the sugarcane left, their tongues ready and waiting to catch a spark. That woman whose boyfriend whose family whose land tells me some believe the tsunami was the result of a test detonation gone wrong. Military-made. Too many tragedies have been manmade. In the islands, there is conspiracy and there is history and there is possibility, sprung forth from the cleft between the two.

Here, the desk

When I began writing this, they’d yet to start searching for bodies in the water. Missing loved ones turned to a long list of names. Not a week after the smoke cleared, Hertz bemoaned their own list of cars waiting to be rented and beckoned visitors back. Business is a wasteland, They said. The county warned that tourist rates were as low as when COVID came down like night.

When airlines dropped their ticket prices to evacuate fire victims who were only visiting, hundreds of hopeful tourists bought tickets, unable to resist a good deal. We are told that tourism is a tonic, necessary for recovery. Tourists help the economy. This is the unfortunate truth. Tourists will travel and I will travel and Paula will never text Kai back and my friends will tell me that show on HBO made them feel quite guilty to travel but they will, and for any place deemed Paradise, that is what they depend. Their world has been wrenched, reshaped, crafted that way. We’ve been convinced that luxury is a chlorinated pool when we have the whole sea.

I am thinking of my mother and her labor. Meals before their slaughter, the birds and farms and grain. I am thinking of the delicacy of foie gras—that word, delicacy. The hands that grip heads, fingers prying at beaks.

I want to know if the workers stroke the feathers as they do it, what care they show to those we mean to consume. I believe in the goodness in people, but I know their audacity, too. If birds could talk, there are those who’d demand them to thank us for the feed.