Sprechen Sie Deutsch In Waikiki?

4 min read

I love to travel but it can really mess you up.  No sleep, stress, the extreme pressure to enjoy yourself…. One can really fall apart in the middle of paradise. It’s no wonder that first, second and third responders at vacation destinations are always standing by to catch wobbly tourists. 

I love Hawaii. Sure, the Caribbean has better clouds. But the Hawaiian culture, their language, music, and dance put me in a spell. Who doesn’t love the honu – the Hawaiian green sea turtle, found throughout the islands. They are a symbol of good luck, a link between man and the sea, and legend says, protector of keiki (children).

Can you imagine a cuter word for children than keiki? (kay-kee)

I’ve been to most of the Hawaiian islands and I’m always scheming my return. The Big Island is my favorite but I’ll forget about the rest of this paragraph and bolt for the airport if you hit me with a ticket to Honolulu.    

Just the word Honolulu with its soft mirrored vowels is magical. And nearby Waikiki Beach – if that doesn’t sound like fun you need to work on your deep breathing.

My client was Marriot Hotels – we’d be shooting on Oahu and Maui. We had a busy agenda:

·       Diamond Head

·       Hula stuff

·       Sail planning on the North Coast

·       Hotel stuff

·       Cruiser Bob’s Haleakula Run

·       A Lavender Farm

·       Other artisan farms, restaurants, plus beaches.

It was a lot of work. I know. Boo-hoo… poor me. 

Trouble In Paradise

For some reason (cheaper flight?) I flew out of John Wayne Airport in Orange County, rather than close by at LAX - Los Angeles Intergalactic Airport.  I’m not complaining. But there was a little bump… and it happened going down the runway.  

I was booked on one of those Hawaiian airlines, the type that fly little 737’s all the way across the big ocean. So we’re accelerating for takeoff, like I’ve done hundreds of times – the plane is bowling down the runway when suddenly it’s like SCREECH!

We all snap forward, bent over by the G-forces as the plane rapidly decelerates. All I could think is another plane is in our path and the pilot is up there, jamming both his feet on the brakes for dear life. In an instant, we’ll collide and I’ll be headed for the big luau in the sky.

Now I’m not going to say being in this situation brought on a feeling of surrender and calm, as others have recalled in near death moments. However, in those few seconds I did feel something like acceptance. There was a definite letting go-ness to this instant.

Which vanished when we snapped back against our seats as the plane jerked to a stop. I took a breath, looked around and tucked away those existential feelings of oneness. My normal, familiar feelings of irritation assumed command. Crap. What just happened? We’re gonna be late….

From the sublime to the predictable.

Turned out there was no looming plane in our path. Up in the cockpit a light flashed, indicating a cargo door was open, so the Pilot aborted our takeoff. This, he told us in a cheery voice, adding that it was probably just a short in the system. 

Which it was. The bouncing on the runway shorted something, causing lights to flash at the wrong moment. We taxied back, the short was fixed and we took off properly this time. So we were a little late getting to Hawaii. So what?...  It’s Hawaii, man. Chill out – e malie. We arrived that evening.


My soundman, Davey, arrived early the next morning and joined us straight from the airport. This was not an usual situation in our business – other jobs, other commitments. I recalled flying all night to Turin, Italy, arriving for a breakfast espresso and then working straight through to midnight. This was how I came to have a photo collection of myself, fast asleep in public places… on six continents. Sometimes accompanied with drool.

I fell asleep all over the world

As I said, we had a lot of ground to cover on this first day of our shoot, from Diamond Head to Pearl Harbor. It was hot; we kept running and probably didn’t hydrate as much as we should have.

By the late afternoon wrap, I was pooped but Davey, youngster that he was said we should check out the beach – Waikiki.

So, we put on our suits, grabbed our towels and room keys. Then looking like a pair of boney-white tourists, we flip-flopped across Waikiki’s main boulevard, Kalakaua Avenue (named for their final king) and hit the sand. 

I have been to lots of Hawaiian beaches but for me, Waikiki was the original. Maybe because it was one of the first Hawaiian words I ever heard, like in the old Ricky Nelson song, ‘Travelin’ Man’.

Now gawking about on this internationally famous strip I took in the luxury hotels up and down the coast. The first of them were built in the 1880’s and Robert Louis Stevenson, author of “Treasure Island”, stayed here at the Sans Souci (“without worry”) Hotel. This is true.

In fact, Waikiki hosted Hawaiian royalty during this era and Stevenson became good friends with King Kalakaua, immersing himself in Hawaiian culture.

Thus mindful of those whose spirits resonated in this iconic place - the last Hawaiian king, Robert Louis Stevenson and Ricky Nelson - we tossed down our towels and waded into the grey Pacific waters.


I say grey because the sky had clouded over and it had actually cooled down. But the water felt good and we were decompressing from the day. Our conversation ranged as it does when the mind is allowed to drift in places like the sea. 

Davey spoke about his life in Hamburg, Germany. I could only imagine how special this Hawaiian tableau would be to a kid raised in a medieval city dating back to the Holy Roman Empire.

We waded out deeper to that familiar place where the land lets you go and the water takes over, lifting you up with a push of its gentle power. It’s not that different from a plane taking off. Suddenly, a new set of molecules step in to take charge. Our bearings, our inner control mechanisms abruptly shift. We’re navigating with new rules. Our brains have to adjust quickly.

I swam a little and looked over to Davey. He stared at the sea but he seemed… unfocused. He was speaking but I had no idea what he was saying. So I swam closer but still couldn’t make out his words over the sounds of the ocean. He looked puzzled – definitely not having a good time.

I motioned back to the shore, but he was inert, almost asleep with his eyes open. With the next wave edging us back to the sandy bottom, I got a good grip with my toes and guided him back to the beach.

There, he promptly lay down, curled into a ball and went into a seizure.

I don’t know why this is, but I have witnessed a number of people going into seizures. It always frightens me but I don’t panic as I sort of know what to do. So I grabbed our towels to wrap around his shaking body and turned him on his side. I cradled his head in my hands.

I kept telling him everything was OK, as I knew he would be disoriented when he came to. In just a few moments he did, but my words meant nothing to him. He looked around and at me but there was no sign of recognition.

He spoke softly as he had done before but now I realized why I hadn’t understood him. He was talking in his native tongue, German and I had no idea what he was trying to say.  

English As A Non-Existent Language

“Davey… Dieter”, I said, going back to his German name. This was followed by a whole lot of nonsense syllables from me to him, judging by the look on his face. My words rolled right over him. He seemed to have completely lost his English. 

I spotted a group of locals not too far down the beach and yelled to them:

“Hey, call an ambulance!”

That set things in motion. They came running over, phones drawn -  multiple 911 calls flew out from Waikiki Beach. A lady who said she was a nurse, squatted down beside me and held Davey’s head. I was glad she was here.

Davey stared at us like a lost puppy washed ashore, all wet, wide-eyed and trembling. I could already hear the sirens approaching. Man, these Hawaiian responders were fast. They made our LA guys look like they were on island time.

In seconds the paramedics hit the beach.

“Sir, do you know what happened to you?”, one of them asked. Davey responded in German. I explained to them that his English was usually perfect, just not today. 

Davey looked from face to face, unable to grasp what was going on -  he couldn’t quite compute it.  The poor kid was fried. I half expected to see puffs of black smoke rising from the back of his head. 

So they bundled him onto a gurney and we sped off in the ambulance. No wallet, money, ID or phone. Just towels and some room keys.

I held Davey’s hand as we raced through Honolulu’s streets. Our bathing suits were wet and cold. Where were we going? How do we get back? Now I was getting disoriented. I could only imagine what Davey was thinking… in German. 

The Service In This Place Is… Excellent

But at the hospital they took us to the doc right away. The medical service in Honolulu was excellent. Perhaps they thought we were tourists.

The Doc examined Davey and tried to explain to him what had happened. But part of Davey was still stuck in Hamburg. I was worried that his English was gone for good. He’d have to go back to Germany to work.

The Doc said everything would come back soon, when he stabilized. This was great news - I nodded though we were both shivering from the ER's very able air conditioning. I smiled at Davey. He nodded. Things were slowly coming back.

“You had a seizure”, I told him.  He seemed to understand but wasn’t ready to try out his English.

The Doc said this was not unusual. He had attended several Japanese tourists who also were jet-lagged, dehydrated and they had seizures on the beach or in their hotels.

“It’s like the system is overloaded and the brain has a short.”, he explained.

I think I understood. Crossed wires. Warning lights.  

“We’ll have to keep him here for observation overnight.” 

I leaned over to Davey.

“Davey, I’ll come back for you in the morning. Do you understand?”

To which Davey simply replied, “Sure Jon. I’ll see you then.” He smiled.

This was a relief. My soundman spoke English again.

I gave Davey a pat on the arm and walked outside, onto a street somewhere in Honolulu. Looking up and down the busy thoroughfare, I draped the damp towel over my shoulders and caught up with my deep breathing. It had been a while since I remembered to breathe. 

Then I headed down the street, looking to find my way back to Waikiki.  

Jon Lapidese is a travel copywriter and blogger.