11 Life Lessons We Learned While Living in Hawaii

11 Life Lessons We Learned While Living in Hawaii

When we first decided to try our hand at living in Hawaii by agreeing to a work exchange, it was hard to say what would come of it.

Surely there are certain features that Hawaii is known for—things like palm trees, tubular waves, and the art of hula. But actually living in Hawaii is of a completely different order.

A short Hawaiian vacation may teach you one or two life lessons. But I’d say that to really get the sense of being an islander, you would have to live there for a few months—if not more!

Wouldn’t that be nice?

Well, as it turns out, fortune (and perhaps some wanderlust) smiled in our favor. I found that the more time we spent living in Hawaii, it gently unfurled its life-giving lessons like the fronds of tall ferns adorning the jungle landscape.

When you first arrive, you may feel like a tourist. But I can assure you, the islands of Hawaii slowly change people. And when it comes time for you to leave, if you ever leave, you’ll have a variety of life lessons tucked away in that aloha spirit.

unfurling fern living in hawaii
The frond of a fern preparing to unfold.

Lessons from Living in Hawaii

How to make chickens like you!

Yes, I’m going to be honest here. We had a bit of an obsession with the abundance of chickens here in Hawaii.

Rumor has it that Hurricane Iwa in 1982, and Hurricane Iniki a decade later, destroyed tons of chicken coops and set the domesticated birds free. Since then, there have literally been thousands of wild fowl proliferating throughout the Hawaiian islands.

And yet, the already abounding population of wild chickens didn’t stop us from encouraging more to be brought to life.

When we first began our stint of living in Hawaii, the property we were staying on only had three chickens—one rooster, and two hens.

After a few months, there were 24 chickens!

Let’s just say that one hen started going broody shortly after we arrived, and then two other hens were later seduced by our rooster. 

To make a long story short, we kept the first group of chickens (the B1’s) in the coop for three weeks before we started letting them out every morning. Each day, we fed them from our hands and sat with them while we had our morning coffee.

At four weeks, we started letting them fully free range. 

By then, they were comfortable with us enough to jump on our shoulders and relax, enjoying the better view. Really, they probably just wanted food, but still…

Chickens can be really loving animals if you take the time to get to know them. While I will say that you probably won’t win over any wild chicken’s heart right away, give it time and it might just become your new best friend.

Don’t believe me? There’s even this story about a guy who sails the oceans with his chicken.

baby chick living in hawaii
A friendship in the making.

The many uses of a coconut!

It’s no secret that the health benefits of coconut oil have infiltrated the market for natural foods.

But have you ever really stopped to think about all the uses that a coconut may have?

You could actually live quite well on a deserted island if all you had was coconuts.

Of course there’s coconut milk, which we happened to make every couple of days. We reveled in how good it tastes. And in all honesty, coconut milk is an incredibly delicious and healthy alternative to standard dairy milk. 

The meat of one coconut also contains 1500 calories and thus, it makes for a seriously hearty snack.

There’s also coconut flour, coconut wine, coconut sugar, and coconut vinegar.

And that’s just from the meaty white interior!

From the shell, husk, and leaves, you can make brooms, doormats, ropes, planters, musical instruments, fuel, insect repellent, and skin exfoliants, among other things.

While we didn’t necessarily go the length of trying to make all of these things, it was certainly insightful to look deeper into the how those living in Hawaii might use the coconut. The tree itself also has a variety of interesting uses.

And by the way, if you want to impress your friends, the coconut is technically classified as a fibrous one-sided drupe, but it’s also sometimes regarded equally as a nut, a fruit, and a seed.

Check out the infographic below to see more of its many uses!

coconut uses living in hawaii

Living in an open air house!

Imagine living in a place where it’s constantly around 80°F (27°C) during the day, and comfortably around 65°F (18°C) with a slight drizzle at night.

Though it may seem too good to be true, that’s the reality for many people living in Hawaii.

Most Hawaiians don’t need to insulate their homes because almost every day falls within a reasonable temperature range. What more could you want in a paradise like this?

By living in an open air house, it’s easy to feel a deep connection with the outside world.

It’s possible to hear every tropical bird singing outside, and every raindrop that draws nearer to saturating the property. 

In the morning, we we’re woken up by roosters crowing. And at night, we fell asleep to the coqui frogs chirping. The breeze casually drifted through and provided a gentle rocking motion to the hammocks we spent our time laying in.

Fortunately, getting close to nature is made easy in an open air house by living in a rural area of Hawaii. If you lived, say, in an apartment complex in the middle of Honolulu, it probably wouldn’t be ideal to not have windows.

Nonetheless, where we had been staying, the only thing that separated us from the jungle outside, aside from the walls, were open air windows covered by animal wire and insect screening. 

Such an experience taught us to listen deeply to nature’s many melodies.

open air living in hawaii
The front lanai of our comfortable Hawaiian home.

Living with less!

To go along somewhat with living in an open air house, we’ve also learned what it means to live with less.

Ever since I was a teenager, the thought of living in Hawaii in a small shack on the beach seemed like an attractive dream. I now realize that, in many ways, that’s totally a possibility! 

Although the beaches are considered to be public land by the government of Hawaii, it’s still possible to purchase a cheap piece of property inland.

In many ways, Hawaii is truly the final frontier for setting up a tiny homestead.

Living with less means finding satisfaction in simpler ways of life. Whether that means learning to surf, or hiking through the jungle, or growing your own fruit. It also means that you don’t have to spend as much on entertainment.

Most days, we spent our time playing with the chickens, processing various fruits, and maintaining the yard. If we did happen to leave the property, we took our jalopy into town and spent on nutritionally satisfying foods.

At other times, we just went down to the beach to swim and watch the waves crash.

My point is, you don’t need a lot to live in Hawaii, and almost everyone on the island lives that way to some extent. Although we’ve always heard that Hawaii is expensive, we actually found the opposite to be more true. 

You don’t need a large piece of property, a fancy car, or the latest gadgets and gizmos. 

Sometimes living with what nature has to provide is more fulfilling than anything else man-made.

the jungle hut living in hawaii
We turned this tiny shack into a simple and cozy jungle hut.

How to harvest cinnamon!

One of the most incredible life lessons learned from living in Hawaii was the opportunity to harvest cinnamon. What a way to satisfy a childhood curiosity!

Harvesting cinnamon is actually not as difficult as it may seem.

If you weren’t already aware, cinnamon (the spice) comes from the bark of the cinnamon tree. 

There are two types of cinnamon. Cassia cinnamon is the type usually found in stores because it’s cheaper to harvest. Ceylon cinnamon, on the other hand, is more expensive to harvest, but is generally considered to be more authentic.

The property we stayed at had a Ceylon cinnamon tree, and we thought it would be a fun project to try and make our own cinnamon spice from it.

After chopping down a healthy branch, scraping off the bark, and scoring the inner bark to get the cinnamon, we successfully harvested the delicious spice. 

Once all that work was done, we dried the cinnamon bark and it curled up into rolls, ready to be sprinkled onto any dish.

Check out my video on how to harvest cinnamon if you’re interested in learning more.

cinnamon sticks living in hawaii
One of the most delicious spices of all time.

Humidity can be disastrous!

Aside from the usual slump that most people feel when the climate is too humid, there are some other effects to be considered.

Especially if you’re going to be living in Hawaii full-time, or at least for a couple of months, it’s good to be aware of the effects that humidity can have.

First, it’s not unlikely that clothes and other kinds of fabric will grow mold. 

That’s right! Even if that untouched shirt has been hanging in the closet, there’s still a chance it will grow mold on it. It’s not especially bad, just a couple of spots here and there. But it’s certainly a lesson to learn the hard way if you’ve never dealt with such a thing.

The best way to remove mold is to let it bake in the sun for a while, and then throw it in the wash with some vinegar.

In addition to this, the humidity is especially prone to damaging certain electronics.

We had to deal with finding out that both of our car batteries had died within days of each other. Not the greatest thing when you’re running low on food (or toilet paper)!

I even kept my laptop tucked in a small plastic bin with a towel thrown over it for good measure.

The lesson here is that you always have to be mindful of the many variables during your stay in whichever environment you’re living in.

jungle living in hawaii
Even more humid than it looks.

Exposure to natural disaster!

Contrary to common belief, the Big Island of Hawaii is not really any more dangerous than the other Hawaiian islands. Although there are three large volcanoes (Kilauea, Mauna Loa, and Mauna Kea), they don’t pose a great threat to the island’s inhabitants.

With that said, Kilauea did erupt recently in 2018, destroying over 700 homes and leaving many more stranded.

And aside from the active volcanoes, there are also earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis to worry about.

We actually constantly checked the earthquake tracker during our time spent living in Hawaii, since they seem to happen so frequently. I certainly felt the occasional shudder underneath me.

And although there hasn’t been any significantly damaging tsunamis in the last 35 years, there were a few that completely changed the layout of the Big Island.

With all this in mind, it was pretty surreal living with the thought that disaster could strike at any moment.

It was really nothing to be overly paranoid over. But coming from quiet and docile Michigan, learning to live with the threat of natural disaster was pretty eye-opening, to say the least.

In the unlikely event that some serious natural disaster happened, the only way off the island is to take a plane thousands of miles across open ocean to reach the mainland. 

That’s surely a peculiar thing to put in the pipe and take a puff of.

open ocean living in hawaii
Only 2400 miles to the nearest mainland city.

When it rains, it pours!

Pardon the adage, but nothing seems be more true when you spend a decent length of time living in Hawaii.

Not only does the windward side of the island receive rain 40 times more than the leeward side, largely because of storm systems rolling through, but the mountainous volcanoes also create their own weather.

On the Hilo side of the island where we were staying, it’s pretty much expected that there will be at least a slight drizzle during the day or at night. 

Yet, when an ocean storm system comes rolling through, it rains hard.

I mean, it really rains hard.

But Hawaii also has 10 of the world’s 14 climate zones, and it’s not necessarily like that all over the Big Island.

When we first arrived in Hawaii, we didn’t expect that we’d be staying in such a rainy area.

We didn’t have any kind of rain gear to keep us dry and our shoes seemed to constantly have puddles in them. Amusingly enough though, we never ended up getting raincoats. 

We just got better at dodging the storms!

This taught us a valuable life lesson about preparation, for sure. But aside from this, we lived through some pretty nasty storms, and yet, we came out laughing once the storm was all over.

If that doesn’t say something about life, then I don’t know what does.

clouds living in hawaii
There's always a sunny day waiting behind any group of ominous clouds.

Invasive species completely change landscapes!

Maybe you’ve heard about how Hawaii has an invasive species crisis, and that it’s endangering the islands’ native plants and animals.

Invasive species negatively affect the natural biodiversity of any particular region. And unfortunately, most of them were intentionally brought to the Hawaiian islands by humans.

Most of the invasive species are extremely detrimental to the native flora and fauna of Hawaii. Mongooses, coqui frogs, veiled chameleons, fire ants, feral pigs, brown tree snakes, rosy wolf snails, and killer bees have spread throughout the islands.

The problem is that these nonnative, competitive species do not have any predators and therefore, their population growth is virtually unregulated.

The feral pigs tear up yards and eat fruiting trees. The mongooses and snakes eat tropical birds. The snails spread rat lungworm. And the coqui frogs have created an epidemic of incessant chirping. 

Some areas of Hawaii contain tens of thousands of coqui frogs all chirping at 90 decibels—each roughly as loud as a lawn mower.

The lesson here is to be mindful of how we create environmental impacts while we travel. If these invasive species hadn’t carelessly been brought here by humans, many aspects of “old Hawaii” might still be flourishing.

Take, for example, rapid Ohia death, the obliteration of one of Hawaii’s remaining native hardwoods.

I will say, the only invasive species that most people don’t seem to mind here is the Gold Dust Day Gecko. They’re incredibly cute and a joy to watch.

gecko living in hawaii
Originally from Madagascar, the Gold Dust Day Geckos are cool with me.

The effects of tourism!

The previous point about humans carelessly bringing over invasive species brings me to another lesson learned while living in Hawaii.

Tourism completely changes social landscapes.

Before I get too far into addressing the issues of missionary work and government exploitation, let it suffice to say that these two occurrences almost completely overthrew the traditional lives of native Hawaiians.

Missionaries were mostly undefeated in clothing the natives in modern garments, banning them from dancing the hula, and coercing the Hawaiians to become newly practicing adherents of Christianity.

Aside from this, the sugar plantation owners, especially Sanford Dole (the pineapple guy) completely demolished the Hawaiian monarchy, subsequently reshaping the entire social fabric of the island. 

Dole declared himself president of the new Republic of Hawaii in 1898 and began overhauling the island to produce only sugar cane. All the while, tourism was increasing on the island year after year. 

Up until the Second World War the authentic traditions of Hawaii had been so far suppressed that they practically became nonexistent. Eventually, this led to the more marketable, faux culture of the aloha image we know today.

So how did we turn this aspect of living in Hawaii into a lesson?

I finally got to feel what it’s like to experience racism as a white male. The native prejudice is subtle, but it’s certainly there. And yet, I can hardly blame the native Hawaiians who have seen so much pain in their ancestry because of white colonizers.

Therefore, while you’re living in Hawaii, try to learn some of the Hawaiian words. And remember that the five-star resorts, tiki shirts, and helicopter tours are mostly for the malihini (newcomer) and not necessarily the kama‘āina (child of the land).

hula living in hawaii
Hula is the Polynesian dance form developed by early Hawaiian settlers. It is usually accompanied by chants and the dance portrays the chants in visual form.

Slowing down!

Finally, the most rewarding and long-lasting life lesson we learned by living in Hawaii was the time we had to slow the heck down.

All of our lives, we’ve been running, trying to chase some distantly obtainable goal. Although, it always seemed like once we achieved that goal we’d move onto another distant goal.

Living in Hawaii has changed that.

While we still have aspirations for our lives, and things we want to accomplish, the Hawaiian lifestyle has taught us a lot about living on island time. 

It simply moves a lot slower than in the mainland.

Before we came to Hawaii, we endured many months of working overtime. Because of that, our entire time spent living in Hawaii was done through savings. 

We did work here and there as online English tutors, but most of the time we caught up on some much needed periods for relaxation.

People don’t operate the same here like they do in the mainland. Everything is much more casual, everyone is much more laid-back, and once in a while it’s possible to really sense what it means to have no obligations.

Life itself, and whatever may come thereafter, is just one great flowing river.

We go from one sensory experience to the next, drifting along, never really needing to paddle hard to get anywhere.

Living this in practice has been one of the most eye-opening and joyous experiences we could happen upon. While this sensation certainly needs continual nurturing to establish, it’s a blessing to know that you really don’t need to do anything to fully experience existence.

All you have to do is just lay back, let the hammock rock, and listen to the waves expand and collapse upon the shoreline.

Thanks for Reading

If you liked this article, let me know in the comments section. It’s not only pleasing to hear feedback, but it also encourages me to continue writing articles like this one.

If you haven’t already, you can read more about our experience of homesteading in Hawaii.

If videos are more of your thing, check out my short film about living in Hawaii.

Be sure to follow along on Facebook and Instagram to stay up to date on the travels.

And as always, thank you for reading.

Shane

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