Aloha Shirts in Depth

They are not called Hawaiian shirts. They take that seriously in Hawaii.

To recap, Dear Husband and I got to go to Kauai and the Big Island of Hawaii for two amazing weeks in late April, early May. We brought back 15 pounds of souvenirs, per the weight difference in our luggage. I must confess that we went a little overboard buying aloha shirts. He got seven for himself, and, not to be outdone, I got eight for me. Oh, and our two dogs each got one as well. (I mean, who could resist?)

And here’s my first lesson of this post. They’re called aloha shirts, not Hawaiian shirts. They take that surprisingly seriously in laid-back Hawaii. Apparently, they have been called aloha shirts since at least the early 1930’s. This was news to me. I stand corrected.

I was hoping to write a post about the history of Hawaiian Aloha shirts, but it turns out there’s quite a bit of dispute regarding their origins. Entire books have been written on the subject. After my lazy Google research, I decided that this was a can of worms I didn’t want to open. For some interesting reading, check out this article and this one.

But here are some facts. Kind of. Sort of.

Aloha shirts came on the scene somewhere around the 1920’s or 1930’s. And yes, they originate in Hawaii, but there’s debate about the exact location. Originally, they were tailor made from printed cloth that was used for kimonos.

The popularity of these shirts has waxed and waned over the years. They were really popular around World War II, as US sailors brought them home. These colorful shirts also grabbed our focus when Hawaii became a state in 1959. And in the 1960’s California surfers made them cool again. (Oddly enough, The Beach Boys wore striped or plaid shirts during that era. Now you see them in aloha shirts all the time. But why, in my head, do I picture them young, wearing these tropical prints? Beats me.)

It was also in the 1960s that reverse print aloha shirts came into fashion. The vibrant color faces inward, and therefore the shirt has a more subdued coloring. We got a few of these. I wish they were reversible, though. Sometimes you want your colors to shine!

Celebrities made aloha shirts popular, too. Think Elvis in Blue Hawaii; Borgnine, Sinatra and Montgomery Clift in From Here to Eternity; The Brady Bunch Hawaii episodes; and Tom Selleck in Magnum, P.I.

Naturally, tourism to the Aloha State has kept this industry grinding out the shirts even in the less popular years. How do you visit Hawaii and not come back with a splashy, colorful, tropical acquisition? It’s practically a requirement. And wearing one of these shirts in Hackensack says, “Hey, I can afford to live a life of leisure on a Pacific island. Sorry. Not sorry.”

Here are the shirts we came back with.

When choosing aloha shirts, if you want to be authentic, go for cotton, and make sure the label says “Made in Hawaii”. Otherwise, you might be getting a cheap knock off from Thailand or China, made of a synthetic material that does not breathe at all, which is kind of the most important freakin’ thing when choosing summer wear, isn’t it?  (Lesson learned.)

I’m not going to lie, though. These shirts, if bought retail, can be ridiculously expensive. If you want to avoid the sticker shock, do what we did. First, hit up some thrift stores while you’re in Hawaii. Next, go to a Hawaiian Costco. They have a huge collection of these shirts at reasonable prices. Then, and only then, consider splurging on a really nice one from a boutique.

But attempting to do the latter nearly gave me a heart attack. I saw the aloha shirt of my dreams in a delightful little shop. I mean, it was love at first sight. The print was really unique, and would forever remind me of our snorkeling experiences. But then I was told that it was $120. Here’s a picture of it.

Never in my entire life have I worn a shirt that cost $120. I’d be afraid to move in it. I’d worry about staining it with soy sauce or sweat, or I’d snag it on a door handle or something. As much as I loved this shirt, I could not bring myself to pay that kind of money. I’m glad I was able to find a picture of it on the boutique’s website. At least I can gaze at it fondly. Two ships that pass in the night…

Oh, and another great way to get aloha shirts on the cheap is to have a husband who has lost disgusting amounts of weight. His recent acquisitions are in a smaller size, so I got some of his larger-sized hand-me-downs when we got home. Woo hoo!

Live vicariously through this blog. And while you’re at it, check out my book!

Women of the Ship Canal

I love being a bridgetender. Especially on the day I wrote this. (I usually write my entries several days in advance.)

Today, women controlled much of Seattle. It happens more often than most people realize. The transition is so smooth that it would be easy to overlook, but oh, yes, women rule.

You see, there is a man-made canal that runs through the center of town. That canal is crossed by 3 drawbridges operated by the City of Seattle, and then there’s a lock that lets ships out to Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean.

Today, women were operating all three of those bridges, and a woman was coordinating the crew that operates the locks as well. But never fear, Seattleites, we’ve got you covered.

It’s an awesome responsibility. Every day, millions of dollars’ worth of goods and services transit Seattle’s ship canal. If it didn’t exist, there would be a huge impact on the local economy. Not only do fishing vessels and barges pass through continually, but tour boats and sailboats ply these waters as well. This canal facilitates commerce as well as tourism.

Without the bridgetenders and the lock master, all of this would come to a grinding halt. And if the bridges aren’t properly operated, street traffic gets backed up for miles. People are late to work and school. Emergency vehicles are held up. The drawbridges and locks are the very heartbeat of this city. But on this day, it was women who kept this city’s heart beating.

So, yes, on days like today, I’m especially proud to do the work that I do. I’m even more proud that very few people even notice that there’s a difference. Because there really isn’t one. I want to live in a world where it’s normal to overlook these things, where gender isn’t an issue. That’s as it should be.

Ship Canal

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Would You Travel to Cuba?

With the negotiations for the normalization of US/Cuban relations, there’s been this huge spike in Google searches for Cuban vacations. It’s controversial, of course. Just because the borders may open up to us does not mean that human rights violations won’t still be in full force. Just look at China.

So yeah, I did that Google search too, but not without a certain level of guilt. But if I had to agree with the governments of every country I travel to, I’d never go anywhere. Frankly, I couldn’t even travel locally if that’s the litmus test. My government just voted that Global Warming isn’t the fault of human beings. I couldn’t disagree more. Does that mean I have to stay on my couch? I do not look at people the same way I look at governments. God knows I don’t control what happens with my own.

And let’s face it, the embargo didn’t ever work. All it did was cause a great deal of suffering for the people of Cuba. The government itself did not budge at all, even when they stopped being propped up by Russia.

I genuinely believe that the earth becomes a much more peaceful place with increased interaction and exchanges of points of view. I believe it’s harder to hate someone you have gotten to know. I believe that even though most travelers won’t see the “real” Cuba, staying well within the tourist zone, they’ll still have an impact. Things will change. People will change. And not just the Cubans. We could all do with a broader worldview.

Even so, I think I’ll hold off a few years and wait to see how all of this plays out. I’d also like there to be a bit more tourist infrastructure in place before I go jetting off to parts unknown. I suspect that it’s not quite time to be passing out Cuban cigars. But my fingers are crossed for the near future.


[Image credit:]

Karma’s a B****

Back in the 80’s I must have been the only Floridian who didn’t realize that Waldo, Florida was a speed trap. I got a ticket. This little town is in the middle of nowhere, and after going through miles and miles of, well, nowhere, you suddenly enter their town and the speed limit quickly drops down in increments of 10 mph no less than 4 times within blocks. And the cops just sit there like vultures and pounce on every unsuspecting tourist who makes the mistake of driving down that stretch of highway.

It’s been like that for decades, but they’ve gotten away with it because they mostly preyed on tourists who were passing through on their way home from Disney World and found it easier to just pay the fines and go back to their part of the country, chalking it up as yet another vacation expense. Even the AAA website warned people of this area. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair. It was just the way it was.

So imagine my joy when I read today that the city council of Waldo has voted to disband its police force for these unethical practices! Apparently the fact that the town’s seven police officers wrote 12,000 speeding tickets last year became something that people could no longer overlook. Think about it. That’s 1714 tickets per cop per year. If they work 5 days a week and get two weeks off for vacation a year, that’s nearly 7 speeding tickets per cop per day in a town with a population of just over 1,000 people. What a crock!

Time to clean house. Sometimes justice prevails. Now, who do I see about getting my money back?


[Image credit:]

My Favorite Place in Florida

I shouldn’t write this blog entry, because right now only Floridians seem to know about this beautiful place, and I’d kind of like to keep it that way. Tourists don’t flood it. It’s not surrounded by restaurants and food vendors and tourist attractions and hotels. Much of the year, in fact, it’s deserted.

I think what saves this place is that it’s waaaaaay out in the middle of nowhere in the center of North Florida, where no tourist usually bothers to go. Only a true lover of Florida nature will make the effort. So I’ll take the risk of telling you that the most gorgeous place in all of Florida, without a doubt, is Ichetucknee Springs State Park.

This natural spring, which winds through pristine forests, stays a constant 72 degrees, so it can, in fact, be quite crowded in the summer months. It’s the perfect way to beat the heat. But the rest of the year it returns to its natural, calm, peaceful state. Even the tiny concession stand is only opened from Memorial Day in late May to Labor Day in very early September. The rest of the time your admission fee is on the honor system, there are no shuttles to take you to the head of the spring, and there’s no food to be had for miles around, so you’d be well advised to pack a picnic lunch. But oh, it’s worth it!

What I like to do is wait until I’m sure school has started back up in September, then take two cars. Rent an inner tube or an inflatable raft from an area vendor, then leave one car at the south entrance of the park, and drive the other to the north entrance to the head spring, thus effectively shuttling myself and my guest. From there you can float for hours on the crystal blue water, observing a variety of birds and raccoons and deer and fish and turtles, and you’ll be hard-pressed to remember that civilization even exists.

If all humans other than me for some reason disappeared off the face of the earth, I would make my way to Ichetucknee Springs and spend my last days floating, floating, slowly floating down the river.

tree ichet ichet Ichetucknee_Springs

Big Jim—Jacksonville’s Longest Running Tradition

A friend of mine calls our city, Jacksonville, Florida, “a truck stop that got out of control”. Actually, he has a point. Jacksonville is a sprawling monstrosity of a city with, frankly, not much to recommend it for its size. Tourists generally drive right on through here on their way to Disney World. They don’t even stop to eat. We have the square acreage, but we don’t have the confidence or courage to be a “real” big city. Things are getting better in recent years, but we still have a long way to go.

Jacksonville was originally called Cowford because we’re located at a narrow place in the St. Johns River where cows could cross. We used to be known for our paper mills, but fortunately that stench has been replaced by the delightful smell of the Maxwell House Coffee plant. But basically, we’ve never really shaken our factory mentality.

Because of this, it doesn’t surprise me that our longest running tradition is Big Jim, a steam whistle that has been marking the hours for factory workers since the 1890’s. It blows every day except Sunday at 7 am, Noon, 1 pm and 5 pm. You can hear it from 10 miles away.

It also blows to mark new years, and except for a 15 month period here recently when it was struck by lightning, it’s been going strong without respite, for over 120 years. It also marked the ends of World Wars I and II, and was the only warning signal during the city’s Great Fire of 1901.

I happen to like the sound of Big Jim, but only because I don’t live anywhere near it. If that thing woke me up every day at 7 am whether I liked it or not, I’d probably lose my mind. But to me, Big Jim is the perfect symbol of our city. We are plodders. We have our routines. We are set in our ways. We’re kind of rusty. And to the outside observer it may seem as if we don’t really have aspirations.

Big Jim is the epitome of the status quo, and so is this city. But maybe there’s a certain amount of comfort and charm in that after all.

big jim

Big Jim

[Image credit]

Travel Sounds

Have you ever noticed that a sound or a smell can instantly transport you back to an experience in your past? A certain song always reminds you of your first kiss. The smell of baking bread takes you back to your mother’s kitchen when you were a child.

I love it when this happens.

Unfortunately, there’s really no efficient way to collect smells. But you can collect sounds. And one day it occurred to me that it would be lovely to collect sounds that I associate with my travels.

As tourists, we all seem to scurry around, desperately taking pictures because we want to remember this experience. Travel is often the high point of our lives, made even more poignant because it is so rare due to its expense. So why not collect sounds in addition to photos?

I have amassed quite a few of those sounds over my lifetime of travel.

Nothing says Puerto Rico like the sound of the Coqui frog.

And the beautiful, profound, haunting Muslim call to prayer instantly transports me back to Istanbul.

Fog horns remind me of the cold and isolated coast of Saint-Siméon, Canada, the farthest north I’ve ever been.

I had amassed quite a travel sound library, but unfortunately it went the way of my ex-boyfriend. This makes me think rather less of him, since I made it a point to make sure he got copies of all the photos.

But I have every intention of starting afresh. Along with my camera, I will always bring a recording device when I travel, and on those quiet nights at home when I feel the urge to reminisce, I will close my eyes, turn on the sounds, and travel back in time to some of the happiest moments in my life.

Saint-simeon, Canada

Saint-Siméon, Canada on a day without fog.

[Image credit:]

Traveling in my Mind

Since travel is my reason for being, and since I can no longer afford to do so, I’m forced to content myself by reliving trips I have taken in the past, and imagining where I would go if my fate were different and my choices hadn’t been so ill advised. So, without further ado, here’s a poem I have written about one of the journeys I’ve taken in my mind. Be gentle. I haven’t written a poem in decades. In fact, I’ve never felt so vulnerable about a blog entry. Maybe that’s why I’m posting it on April Fool’s Day–if the general consensus is that this poem is unbearably cheesy and horrible, I can tell everyone it was just a joke.

Traveling in my Mind

I sit upon the Spanish Steps,

observing tourists

as they ebb and flow,

fueled by gelato, sticky hands,

and photos we’ve already seen.

Italian heat and aching feet,

and dusty souvenirs galore.

The surface merely gently scratched.


But I wish to delve deeper still,

live secrets that no tourist knows.

Through boredom and routine

to go the paths of every man.

To have “the usual” each day,

and know the postman by first name.

Hear gossip, scandal, local myth,

and revel when their guards’ let down.


I give myself this gift of time,

for steady observation’s sake.

This tedium and ennui apace,

peel back the cloak and must expose,

a life mere tourists cannot see,

and don’t suspect or even heed.

What treasures lost!

But not to me.


Washington Slept Here and Other Informational Tidbits

The Clara Barton House Marker

Unless you’re the most unobservant American on the planet, chances are you’ve seen at least one of these historical markers in your lifetime. They’ll usually sneak up on you while you’re playing tourist. Often they’ll be on a street corner or in front of a house in some historic neighborhood, telling you that someone famous did something or other that was special, right here on this very spot, or that some battle was fought or some disaster occurred. Sometimes they’re quite interesting. Just as often they’re deadly dull. I’ve noticed that for some reason the interest factor seems to be in inverse proportion to the length of the text.

It’s fun to spot the spelling or grammatical errors in these signs. There almost always is at least one. I suppose that if a government has gone to the expense of creating and erecting one of these markers, they’re hesitant to start over. But it always makes me wonder if some fact is incorrect as well. Was it really 1863, or was it, perhaps, 1868? I’d never take one of these markers as a source of fact without a second opinion.

But markers that fascinate me the most are the poorly placed ones. Some are on lonely stretches of highway, often half covered by vines, in a location where it’s impossible to park your car. The text is so small you can’t read it from a moving vehicle, and if you come to a stop you’re likely to be rear ended by a semi truck. I once saw one in the median of a particularly busy stretch of a state highway. Seriously? How many people are willing to die for historical knowledge?

These badly positioned markers are historical teases. Driving past them on a daily basis and never knowing what they say is an odd form of torture. I mean, for all I know, I’m driving over the spot where the Ark of the Covenant was last seen, and I’m being deprived of this insight! Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad people are taking the time to preserve history. But for the love of Mike, can’t you put some thought into our ability to bear witness without causing a 10 car pileup?

I want to see the historical marker that says, “On this spot, the very first historical marker was made” because without a doubt, they have been the source of many an unexpected travel detour since their inception, and that, after all, is what makes the acquisition of knowledge the adventure that it is.