Noticing the Wisdom of Life’s Guides

As I write this post, the sun is rising over Honolulu, bringing the shadowy profile of Diamond Head and the long stretch of Waikiki Beach into focus under the brightening sky. This is our last morning in Hawaii and the song of birds comes to me on the gentle breeze blowing through the open door on our balcony while, 15 stories below, humanity begins to emerge seeking Starbucks, beach towels, and a casual start to their day. Ten days is more than enough to get away from it all and simultaneously foster an acute desire to return to it all.

The distance and duration of this particular trip demanded more preparation than our typical vacation; a noticeable by-product of which was a higher-than-usual dependence on certain individuals along the way. We are made for relating, within our relationships and, often, outside of them in the more casual encounters of our lives. This week offered many opportunities for such encounters and the time to contemplate their profundities. Some observations on special moments and individuals over the last couple of weeks:

  • Checking-in for our flight, we were greeted with a screen saying that our flight had been canceled. Angela from American welcomed us and got right down to business. “The flight from Phoenix to Kauai has been canceled. There is a national FAA outage and all flights are grounded for the time being. Let me see what I can do.” Feverishly typing, clicking, and making various “ahhh” “ah-ha” and “hmmm” sounds, Angela proceeded to get us completely rerouted. Dallas, LA, Maui, Kauai. She anticipated delays, suggested alternatives, and coached us on strategies at each step along the way. She was patient. She was kind. She was encouraging. She was effective. Greeting our traveling companions at the gate of the canceled flight, we realized how fortunate we were as the scope of the FAA issue became apparent and we learned that they had been told that their flights were being “reworked.” Taking the itinerary Angela had built for us, they were able to navigate their own changes that put us on Maui later that night. Everyone needs an Angel-a in their life. Lessons from Angela: anticipate the unexpected, be decisive & don’t delay, there’s always another path.
  • Our first adventure in Kauai was a kayak trip up the Wailua River and a hike to Uluwehi Falls. Our guide for this trip was Gabriel, a 26 year old Brit, who had come to Hawaii 4 years ago. He led us down the river, helping us avoid massive barges moving along the river and getting us to the trail safely. Barefoot and totally chill, he led us through the forest, pointing out interesting vistas, showed us edible plants, identified species of trees, and demonstrated how native Kauaians used to make fishing line out of bark. We discovered that the falls were secret and sacred to the line of kings who ruled Kauai and used them as the Queen’s birthing pool. Why did I trust this young man enough to eat flowers plucked off of exotic plants or to swim in an ice-cold pool of water at the base of a 100 foot waterfall? Lessons from Gabriel: trust is a form of surrender, there is wonder around every corner, and some of the best stories are the ones we create along the way.
  • Briana was a Native Kauaian who led our pack of adventurers driving Polaris RZRs across former sugar cane fields now owned by billionaire Steve Case, himself a native of Hawaii. Our expressive guide turned out to be a natural story-teller, regaling us with tales of Hawaiian myth, from Maui to Mount Haupu, Kauai’s guardian, and on to stories of Niihau, the Forbidden Island, owned by the Robinson Family. Brash and opinionated, the young mother of one son, shared perspectives on Mark Zuckerberg (not liked by Kauauians) and Steve Case (viewed as a good guy), thoughts on other Hawaiian Islands (no thank you Oahu!) and how to steer clear of dangerous things like underwater lava tubes and rock clusters containing bad “juju”. She was entertaining, unflinching, and unabashedly proud of her homeland. Lessons from Briana: stories matter, there is no place like home, progress isn’t always progress, and history & myths matter.
  • Our last major adventure in Kauai was a 4 hour catamaran trip around the west and north coast of Kauai. Kakoa was a native Hawaiian who told us his full name was 18 letters long. He was led by Captain Max, a mainlander who came to Kauai 9 years ago and had worked on the same boat since. Max’s introduction focused on the harsh realities of the unpredictable Pacific Ocean and the very real potential that more than some of us would get sick among the 2 story swells we would encounter on the open water. Brandon rounded out the crew with a sunny disposition, and wide-brimmed hat that, coupled with his wind-blown beard, reminded me a bit of a younger Kevin Kline. While Max piloted the vessel, Kakoa and Brandon introduced us to new levels of hospitality while deftly serving food and drinks across a craft that was climbing and dipping wildly among the swells. Their eagle eyes spotted humpback whales spouting, then breaching in the distance, while Max got us close. These men were young, but weathered more deeply than what I expected from guides on a tourist sail boat. Perhaps it was the Pacific or tales deeper than their young faces suggested. Along the way, they embodied confidence on proven sea-legs and retained the awe, wonder, and respect for the power of nature and its majesty all around us. Lessons learned: respect for nature and its power, the equal power of hospitality, service can be strong, and hardened can still be gentle.
  • My last example comes from our time on Oahu and a day with Chanh, a Vietnamese entrepreneur with a heart for service. We met Chanh when we summoned an Uber to pick us up after hiking Diamond Head, just outside Honolulu. As we were returning to our hotel, he mentioned that his van was available for hire and he showed us a list of points of interest around the island. We made arrangements to spend a day with him and our next adventure was born. The first thing I noticed about Chanh was his vehicle, it was spotless. The next thing I noticed was how patient and courteous he was as a driver and then as a guide. Chanh had come to Oahau 22 years ago and, now nearly 40 years old, had built a life supporting himself as a full-time driver and part-time guide. As a guide, he had the parallel gifts of timing and anticipation. His well-timed suggestions and anticipation of opportunities and obstacles became very apparent during our 8 hours with him. Chanh helped us avoid busloads of tourists at key points and guided us to prime spots at ideal times. He was quick with a smile and even quicker to be ready to roll. He told us stories of Turtle Bay and the surf culture of the North Shore. He even helped us navigate the Dole Plantation and food options in Waialua. He was able to get us to the important things and help us avoid mistakes of timing and potential pitfalls along the rocky shores. Lessons from Chanh: timing is everything, it’s not the crowds but how you navigate them that matters, patience is truly a virtue, and kindness + courtesy + anticipation are a killer combination for getting you where you want to go.

Our self-guided world tends to put a premium on individual initiative and foster the notion that we’ve got it all well in hand. The people in moments that often move us, frequently elude our notice even as they protect, anticipate, warn, teach, and guide us in unseen ways. We are prone to take much for granted and miss so much along the way.

Our guides over the last couple of weeks made me think of other guides placed in my life, many of whom, I failed to notice, failed to heed, and failed to thank. Of course, no one lives on high alert for the profound, it takes energy and receptivity that is often more than we can bring to bear. However, we can all do better to foster better habits that make us fully present, ready and able to receive, when the wisdom comes.

This week, let’s work to be a bit more attentive to the Angela’s, Gabriel’s, Briana’s, Max’s, Kakoa’s, Brandon’s, and Chanh’s who appear along our paths, ready to accompany and guide us. They move about our days, often uninvited, working to share their experience, heart, skills, and wisdom with those who need it and possess enough awareness to receive it. Thank you Hawaii, you leave me a little better than you found me.

  • Dawn Sparks

    Wonderful post, Phil! I love Kauai! Your day on the catamaran sounds very much like one my family and I experienced a few years ago. In fact, I’ve often referenced that trip when encouraging clients to consider the peak-end rule when designing customer experience. Toward the end of our day, after hours of sun and snorkeling and taking in the wonder of dolphins and whales at close range. As we were already feeling the disappointment of the end of the trip and missing our newly made friends, the very same crew members who had snorkeled alongside us and steered the boat around the rougher waves, came around and served everyone on the boat warm macadamia cookies right out of the galley oven. It was one of those small and surprising gestures that cemented that experience in our minds forever. It sounds like you had several of those moments!

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