December 2013. An icy wind blew through Shanghai and made breathing the polluted air on the streets even more difficult and unpleasant. With every breath, it felt like being poisoned and you needed at least a cloth mask to force yourself to inhale, again and again.
How could people survive here in the first place? The traffic seemed to be an indefinable chaos; automobiles were honking everywhere, day and night. As a pedestrian, I was declared a target of absolutely every vehicle, whether with or without an engine, one, two or more wheels. Either way, everyone had more rights on the road than a regular person on foot. Small cars were presumed to give way to bigger cars, expensive cars took their right of way against beaters, and even if you thought you could cross the street in relative safety on a green light despite the rolling traffic, you still remained at risk of being run over by someone in a wheelchair.
I had traveled here with my husband – ironically so he could undergo Oxygen Therapy. A therapy that was offered in Germany as well, but at a price that was astronomically high in comparison with Shanghai rates. So, without further ado, we had bought two airline tickets, booked a hotel and off we went. Now we were about to find out whether two hours of pure oxygen could help improve someone’s health issues while breathing in polluted air for the rest of the day.
My friend Bianca had joined us for a week. She had to get out of her house for a while because living with her on/off fiancé had once again become unbearable. I welcomed her company since lots of things were just easier to handle in a group of three and moreover, walking around Old Town and quarreling with vendors there, was much more fun with her around.
Bianca usually stayed in bed until noon, while Gerd and I had breakfast in the dining room of the very well-kept hotel and then got ready for the treatment appointments. Gerd had to be at the clinic every day at one p. m. for his two-hour Oxygen Therapy so I had signed up for acupuncture and Chinese massage. Whenever Gerd’s condition allowed, we would take a taxi to the Bund or to Nanjing Road, one of the biggest shopping streets in the world. We also visited the Old Town where we haggled with the merchants over the price of chopsticks or simple wooden musical instruments.
Bianca always accompanied us on these excursions and, because her day started so late, she naturally didn’t want to return to the hotel with us as early. When Gerd got exhausted after less than an hour, she instead would go out on her own to explore the huge, glamorous malls, the exquisite designer stores that stood side-by-side, and also the shady alleys of Shanghai. And there were many of them. She bought stylish ensembles everywhere she went; here a sweater, there a piece of jewelry. She also often found something nice for her loved ones back home.
On one occasion she hadn’t returned by eleven at night and I began to worry about her. Of course I knew Bianca was a night owl and always found her way anywhere she went, but since most of the stores closed at ten and we happened to be, after all, in a city of millions, I slowly started to feel unsettled. Where could she be?
Just before midnight, she scurried into our shared hotel room; I could see that her heart was pounding. Happy and excited, she told us about what she had experienced, while strolling in the Xu Jia Hui shopping area. Beaming with joy, she suddenly held out a Prada bag she had just bought for me! Sinfully expensive, but just good enough for her best friend, she remarked!
Between doctor’s appointments and adventurous shopping, we had to check our emails once in a while, and that’s when it appeared; the newsletter from Jeanne Ruland, with a notice that she would be offering a seminar trip to Hawaii in August. Spontaneously I knew: I had to go there! So I instantly registered to participate although, at that time, there wasn’t even a list of applicants yet.
When my friend found out, she just said, “Hawaii is totally my thing. I’ve been thinking about traveling to the islands for a long time already, so I should definitely go with you!” Said and done; two registrations for the trip to Hawaii were sent from Shanghai to Germany. And why not? The month of August was vacation time anyway, so it should easily be reconcilable with work. But for Bianca, it was more than the mere thought of taking a vacation to Hawaii. Instead, she was dreaming of getting married on the beautiful island. So this was a great opportunity to check out the conditions in person and plan a wedding there! She was hoping for a ceremony right on the beach, wearing a gossamer white dress that ripples in the wind, with a wreath of flowers around her neck and bare feet in the warm sand.
Nearly eight months later the time had come and the four of us were on a plane to Hawaii. Only our shared seminar/self-discovery trip had become a “family vacation” because Bianca’s sixteen-year-old son Max and her fiancé Roland spontaneously decided to accompany us, for whatever reason I honestly wouldn’t know. But Bianca explained, Roland was going there to golf and therefore they couldn’t possibly leave Max home alone for three weeks in a row.
The fact that we even made it to the flight on time was a small miracle because the day before, our travel agent called to tell Roland there was a storm in Hawaii and no flights would be departing for Big Island until the following Wednesday. I was just about to leave for Munich by train when Roland passed the information on to me, but I couldn’t and wouldn’t accept any obstacles so I decided to start my trip anyway.
After all, the flight from Munich via Frankfurt to San Francisco was still scheduled and, if I had to, I could spend a few nice days in California. I had wanted to go there for the longest time, so fate accommodated me quite nicely in the form of a storm in Hawaii.
As I checked my travel documents one last time, I suddenly realized, I didn’t even let my mother know. In fact, I did not tell anybody I was going away for three weeks. Why? Was I afraid they might talk me out of it? Or did I just not want to have to justify myself to everyone? Damn it! I was an adult after all and didn’t need anyone’s approval! But maybe it would have been prudent to say goodbye? So I instantly dialed my mother’s number. “Mom, I just wanted to say that I am flying to Hawaii now. My train leaves in 20 minutes. I will be back in three weeks. Take care!” So, that had been taken care of. Now, who would take me to the train station?
When I arrived in Munich punctually on Friday afternoon, my friend Bianca wasn’t there. She had insisted on picking me up at the train station, but now urgently had to buy elastic compression socks with frequent-flyer Roland at seven in the evening. There simply hadn’t been enough time running chores in the past few days. So I took the tram to Bianca’s, where Max had been given instructions to prepare dinner, but hadn’t. So, after shopping for over-expensive support socks, Bianca went to the kitchen and fried ravioli with egg to be served with a colorful salad. Hm, I didn’t know this side of her yet. Since when could she do housewife, too? Anyway, it didn’t matter, as long as there was delicious food for dinner!
On Saturday morning at six, the next crisis arose. The refrigerator was still packed full of organic yogurt, organic whipping cream, organic cheeses of all kinds. “Geez, Roland! Why didn’t you eat all of this good stuff? Now I’ll have to throw it all away!” Bianca whined and started tossing all of the organic dairy products into the organic waste bin. What a pity! But since when did Bianca have so much food at home in the first place? Interesting! The Bianca I knew preferred to eat bags of chips and gummy bears for living. Roland deftly ignored the accusation and calmly poured himself a cup of coffee.
Soon, our luggage was loaded and Roland’s son Chris drove us to the airport in his SUV: Max, Bianca and I were packed in the back like sardines with Roland’s golf bag on our laps and countless suitcases and bags at our necks. During a daring passing maneuver, our luggage took on a life of its own and threatened to pass our vehicle on its own power. My pulse increased and my mood worsened proportionately.
While saying goodbye at the gate, Bianca spat out a few biting remarks that no one seemed to notice and eventually we were checked in, with forty pounds of excess baggage, and sitting on the plane from Munich to San Francisco via Frankfurt. Roland sat with Max so Bianca and I could chat in peace. Thus, for the next few hours, I received intimate insights and was told unpleasant stories about a couple that wasn’t even married yet. I secretly wondered whether Bianca still wanted this marriage to happen at all.
In San Francisco, everyone was still talking about the massive storm on the islands, but the worst had apparently passed and flight traffic to Hawaii had resumed; so we had exactly five hours for a short tour of the city.
The idea of spontaneously taking a cab to Pier 39 was great, but we couldn‘t really move in the afternoon rush hour, so instead, we sat there, stuck in traffic, and only got to see the “back” of the Golden Gate Bridge from a construction site. The taxi still cost us more than 100 dollars. A postcard of the famous bridge would have been much cheaper to buy and might have given an even closer look.
Now we had less than 30 minutes to grab something to eat at a café at Fisherman’s Wharf, but since we were in such a hurry, we had to sit inside without even a scenic view of the ocean. As Roland had paid for the taxi, I insisted on paying for lunch. It was important to me that Roland would not see me as an annoying and expensive tag-along, but as a fully invested partner on this trip. Naturally, I had already paid my share of the travel costs and I wanted to assume my own personal costs during the trip. As I shared my point of view at the pier, Roland looked at me strangely, but then accepted that I was going to take the check. So far so good!
The friendly officers at the airport called after us in a good mood, “Watch out for the storm” they shouted out and, “Stay safe”. I waved them off, smiling, because at that time, I still thought they meant the weather conditions and not my relationship with my travel companions. But the spirits of Hawaii were already awaiting us, in anticipation.
After another five hours of flying, we landed right on schedule at the Kona airport of Big Island and that was when I finally realized I had completely surrendered “control” of my seminar trip and didn’t have a clue of any details. While I had seen it as a nice gesture on Roland’s part that only he knew the flight route and held on to all four of our boarding cards, which were issued to him when we first checked in, it was now becoming apparent that he was the only one who had all of the important travel information, while Bianca, her son and I had to follow him around like underage children. Roland was completely in charge.
The rental car had been booked with Avis, in his name of course, while no second driver had been registered, and only he knew the address and directions to the hotel. He had booked the entire trip for the whole group and only forwarded one or two emails to me. I had not received the final travel documents and hadn’t even thought to get them.
For some reason beyond my understanding, he had not paid for a navigation with the car so we set out, from Kona by night, to find a hotel all by ourselves somewhere on Big Island. I did not even know its name yet but it wouldn’t have made a difference anyway, since I was sitting with Max in the back seat of the Ford SUV with Roland’s golf bag on my lap. And as it was already dark on the island, Max and I couldn’t see our surroundings at all. Very well. After all, we didn’t know where we were going when we were on the plane either; as long as the pilot knew his way, things would turn out well.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case now. We had already been driving around the island for more than an hour. The weight of the golf bag was starting to get uncomfortable and I was already envisioning myself on the beach with bruised thighs, and there was still no resort in sight, at least not from the back seat. So I finally started praying for an angel to help Roland find his way and eventually, we arrived and found ourselves in front of a lowered gate at the hotel. It turned out, there were detailed directions to be found in the booking documents together with a code for the gate and a PIN for the safe at the reception for late arrivals where we could collect our apartment key. How nice that Roland had been given all the information, he just wasn’t aware at the moment.
It was almost midnight when we finally got to our apartment and were awarded with a huge, tastefully decorated, beautiful flat with a gorgeous covered balcony that stretched across two sides of the apartment. The balcony was accessible both from the living room and the master bedroom and of course, that master bedroom was reserved for Roland. Who else? “I can’t expect Roland to sleep in a smaller bed!” my friend murmured.
So I moved into the second bedroom; but where would Max sleep? He could hardly share the room with his parents or me, since the second room only had one queen-sized bed. Quickly, Roland came up with the idea to buy an extra bed at Wal-Mart the very next day and until then the boy could sleep on the sofa.
But now Bianca used her excellent organizational abilities and suggested she would share my room for the first night while Max could move in with Roland. I was not fond of the idea and clearly Roland was not thrilled, either, but restrained himself with great difficulty and Bianca got her way.
The next morning, Bianca got up early and went into the living room. A new side of her again; normally, she would stay in bed until noon. I remembered well her habit from Shanghai a few months earlier. Whatever. Suddenly she reappeared and smiled at me, embarrassed though, and closed the bedroom door behind her. What did that mean? Very soon I realized Roland was “exerting his matrimonial rights” now and required his partner in the kitchen for a little while. Turned out, he could sleep well alone, but hated to wake up all by himself. Somehow I got the feeling Bianca’s decision to share a room with me was merely her fleeing from Roland, not proof of our friendship. Unfortunately, her escape came to an end in the kitchen. Well, she would know best; after all, she wanted to marry this man, preferably in Hawaii.
After a short conversation with reception, we were ensured an air mattress would be set up in our apartment the next day – right in the middle of what, until then, had been a very generously sized living room. Well, that shouldn’t be a problem for the nicest three weeks in the year … The fact that Max spent his nights on the computer and his days sleeping when we all wanted to use the living room and terrace to hang out and dining was less than ideal but somehow it should work out for sure.
Now we needed to get something for breakfast first since the refrigerator was still completely empty. So, on Sunday morning, Bianca and I were actually allowed to take the SUV and do grocery shopping for our basic needs at the nearby supermarket. I spent more than 100 dollars on eggs, ham, cheese, coffee and milk! The supermarket was on the resort grounds and demanded high prices accordingly. The average Hawaiian certainly wouldn’t have shopped here. But, at the moment, we didn’t really care.
Together we prepared a delicious breakfast and enjoyed the fantastic view from the terrace while eating and making plans for our first day of vacation. The weather was beautiful and I was expecting a wonderful trip.
Off we went, exploring the island by car. I wanted to drive to the beach right away, but Roland somehow managed to only take roads that led straight through lava rock without a single glimpse of the ocean at all! I had sworn to myself I wouldn’t spend a single day away from the water and therefore decided to take a walk to the beach later; it shouldn’t be that far away, I believed.
Our first stroll eventually ended up at a supermarket and exactly now Roland came to life and purchased several bags full of groceries. Somewhere inbetween the aisles, Roland held a giant bag of frozen shrimp under my nose and asked, “Do you like these?” “Sure I do, as long as I don’t have to cook them myself!”
Meanwhile, the golf equipment was stored in the trunk, so Max and I had to carry the bulky grocery bags on our laps all the way back. Certain inconvenient details just seemed to stay the same.
Back at the apartment, I wanted to change right away and find my way to the beach. But now Roland made himself comfortable on the sofa with his iPad and demanded Bianca and I to cook! I looked at him, flabbergasted. Why should I cook dinner now? I hadn’t even seen the ocean up close yet! Bianca remained completely relaxed and calmly explained to me in a very sweet voice that Roland had to eat out on the job so often that he preferred home-made meals when he was on vacation! Well, it was quite the opposite for me!
I didn’t want to risk disturbing the peace right on the very first day, so I decided to grin and bear it. I summoned all my patience and assumed we would go out to party after dinner or at least have a drink at a nice beach bar. But no, Roland needed to rest now; after all, he had been driving all day. So again I wanted to head out and walk the mile and a half to the center of town all by myself.
Just as I was walking out the door, Bianca hollered that she was coming with me. After all, she didn’t want to go stale on the couch with this old guy. Had he heard that? He most certainly wasn’t deaf. I felt pretty uncomfortable, but of course appreciated my friend accompanying me.
We set out together, strolled through the little shops, looked at the various handcrafts for sale and, of course, Bianca didn’t miss the Tiffany’s store. With great enthusiasm and a touch of envy in her voice, she told me a friend of hers from Munich wore a Tiffany bracelet and, based on the euphoria Bianca displayed telling her story, I figured Bianca would also soon call something from Tiffany’s her very own.
To come straight to the point, the day we flew out, my friend Bianca was, of course, wearing a necklace from Tiffany’s around her neck. But I am one hundred percent certain the purchase of this showpiece was not nearly as romantic as it was in my favorite Audrey Hepburn movie when her true love had the ring from the cornflakes box engraved for Miss Holly Golightly.
Anyway, we spent a wonderful evening together, laughed and joked until we finally walked home to our apartment in a carefree mood. But, instead of enjoying a bottle of wine there, Bianca immediately disappeared into the master bedroom to join Roland. When I heard loud voices snapping at each other, I instantly knew she wouldn’t be coming back out tonight and therefore I would go to sleep myself. What a pity. I tried to console myself believing that this was just our first night in Hawaii; we still had almost three weeks together ahead of us and many evenings to come, on which we could go to the beach together or relax on the terrace watching the sunset.