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Not just any beach day.

My mom has been bringing home an interesting flower bud or two from her morning walks each day and placing them in water in a shallow palm-sized dish shaped and painted like a flower, provided by the condo. Neither plumeria nor hibiscis nor something yellow and pretty has survived until morning. The petals turn brown or the whole flower drinks up so much water it shrinks into a wet little ball. The flowers, the cats, the locals–no one wants to be indoors in Hawaii.

Today, we are going to the beach with the paved road, north of the “lava road” beach and farther from the airport. It’s also part of Kekaha Kai State Park, with its many little bays with difficult-to-pronounce names, and we hope this bay makes for a good beach. But we worry a little–if you don’t almost destroy your rental car getting to the beach, how great can it be?

It could be the best beach in Hawaii. 

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We love this beach!

The beach is like half of a racetrack, with sand and lava forming a natural embankment in a semicircle around water the color of five-star resort swimming pools in magazine ads. The center of the beach is a long, sloped sand bar, and it’s crowded with families. We’re drawn to the southern side of the beach, where old lava flows section off little plots of sand on higher ground. Only a couple of other adults are camped out near us. Our ocean view is of the lava that made its way to the coast hundreds of years ago from miles inland and was forced to stop in its path forever, with waves crashing up against it and the blue sea beyond.

Today, I have music. Specifically, I have oldies, which I love. My dad revealed last night that he has an extra iPod with him and I could borrow it. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner? There I was, all week, listening to exotic bird songs and calming waves and the bubbly giggles of small children, and having quality conversations with my family, when I could’ve been…” That is not what I said.

I can still hear birds and waves and children and my family through the likes of the Zombies, Chad and Jeremy, and Dion and the Belmonts, except now, the beach has a soundtrack. It’s vacation music at its best.

My dad interrupts our various playlists and points to the reef in front of us. “Do you see that shadow?” Not at first, but soon I do–the sand is so white and the blue water so transparent that I can discern a dark spot from the contrast created by the waves. “It’s a sea turtle,” he says.

I gasp. This could be the day that I swim with a sea turtle. Will it stay? Do I get in the water right now? If I rush in I’ll scare it. I watch it, captivated. It moves toward the lava reef in front of us, and I lose it until it breaks the surface of the water with its beak. It no longer stands out against its backdrop, and suddenly, as quickly as it came, it’s gone.

Now that I’m slightly less afraid of being sucked inside a sea cucumber the size of a tour bus, and I have the added incentive of maybe getting to swim with a sea turtle, I’m sort of ready to actually enjoy the ocean. Soon after the sighting, I get in the water with my dad in the more crowded and shallow part of the beach, and we think we see the sea turtle again, a shadow maybe ten feet away. I make the mistake of spilling my excitement over into a woman treading water nearby, who shares my enthusiasm and hastens toward it. The turtle disappears.

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Turtle!

Over lunch–ham and turkey with cheddar and honey mustard to the crust, and a Kona Longboard lager for me–I pester my parents. “Do you think it’ll come back? I bet it comes back. It seems like an active time of day for it. And it’s probably used to humans, since it feeds in this beach area. I’m sorry I said something to that woman. It’ll come back, right? Right, dad?” I love to speculate, and I only sometimes remember to tell people that I have no idea what I’m talking about. I get this from my mom–my sister and dad are a little more rooted in things like facts and reality. My brother is very much so, which makes it easy for him to take advantage of my mom’s and my gullibility with meticulously crafted, delightfully whimsical, and iringly pedestrian bald-faced lies. I like to think that we invest a reasonable amount of hope in that which is spectacularly implausible. She prays for her favorite sports teams. I enter vacation sweepstakes. It could happen.

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Soon after we finish lunch, my sister and I borrow our parents’ snorkeling equipment and set out. I’m a little nervous when I get the mask on, jerking around so I can see in every direction–on account of the eighteen-foot sea snakes that are almost certainly waiting for me and only me to enter the water–but then my body relaxes, and I’m horizontal to the velvety sea floor, and oh, there’s a tiny little beige fish that’s smiling at me.

We start out snorkeling on the side of the beach where we’re camped out, over the reef where the turtle had been. Here, the water’s maybe five or six feet deep, with massive lava flows defining the sea floor beneath us that occasionally make it even shallower. Small fish dart between caves with fist-sized openings and the undersides of lava rocks, oblivious to us. I swim in circles, hoping to see the turtle. No luck. My sister suggests that we cross over to the far side of the beach to see what’s there.

The boundary of this side of the beach is defined by higher ground and also several large rocks that protrude from the water. As we cross the middle of the beach, the sand floor starts to slope down, and soon, we see the massive bases of the rocks and others that don’t reach the surface, each at least eight feet across at their widest. We can swim all the way around one of taller rocks, and it’s bustling with activity, like a craggy skyscraper with pert little fish stepping out for lunch without taking an elevator. I see the largest fish of the trip here, the kind that evokes the old “why the long face?” joke. I want to stay here and swim around other underwater skyscrapers, but they’re too close to the beach’s rock barrier, and the current and force of the waves are stronger there. I could get hurt. Or eaten by a mutant moray eel lurking under a shelf. We head back in.

I’m content with what I’ve seen. But no, I’m not. Neither Simon nor Garfunkel can take my mind off of the sea turtle.

Mid-afternoon, my dad takes his earphones off and looks around at us. “I’m thinking about going back in. Does anyone–”

“Me! I’ll go in!” I pounce on the face masks and flippers (like a hungry shark would stand a chance against my spunk) and wade out to the water, with both of my parents in tow. And, because I’m pretty sure a hungry shark would stand a chance against my spunk, I wait until they’re ready before I swim off. We flutter-kick off to the reef and swim in circles. Nothing.

To be fair, not nothing–I mean no offense to a sizable starfish or some spiny urchins–just no sea turtle.

But then it happens.

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With the turtle!

My dad comes up for air and quietly calls for my mom and me–we’re nearby–and I know he sees the sea turtle. I glide toward him, trying not to create any sort of commotion. We’re in water no more than six feet deep, where the sand and reef meet, and the turtle is below us on the sea floor, like a puppy sniffing around a kitchen for crumbs. It’s a green sea turtle. Its body is not quite three feet long, mustard and sage and cocoa, with playful eyes and a naturally downturned frown that looks awfully disingenuous on it. It notices us, and it doesn’t flinch. It seems to me like a little boy, brave and blithe.

The turtle doesn’t seem threatened by our presence. I watch him, and he eyes us, then he returns to his playtime and mealtime–his never ending scavenger hunt. This, to me, is pure bliss–I’m weightless with the feeling of warm water on my skin, I feel protected by my parents, and I’m interacting with one of nature’s kindest creatures. A big wave comes in, and the four of us flop over a few feet in unison toward a large rock barrier, then, together, we paddle away from shore. I have to lift my head above water and take my snorkel out of my mouth to get out a giggle at the sight of us.

Still, the turtle isn’t trying to get away. My parents and I form a sanctuary high over the young turtle, allowing ample room for it to escape, so as not to make it feel caged in. We’re able to sustain our positions with our bodies above it for a little while, without moving our arms or legs too much, but soon my feet, heavy with the weight of flippers when not in motion, start to sink, and I worry I’m going to scare the turtle. I’m over the sand, at least, which is a little deeper, but before I know it I’m vertical, and trying to keep my distance.

Suddenly, the turtle, which has been closest to my mom, turns around and takes off from the sea floor, coming straight at me! Knowing it’s illegal to touch sea turtles (and also guessing that he could bite if he perceives a threat) I swirl my hands like slow egg-beaters to back away from the little guy, and he turns before he even gets close, looking back at me with his big happy eyes, as if to say, “Gotcha!” Even then, he doesn’t swim away.

In all, it probably hasn’t been five minutes, but this brief encounter has meant the world to me.

Soon after we get out, we agree that we can call it a day.

For dinner, we go to Kai Lanai. Once a fast food joint auspiciously perched on a lush hilltop, the space was opened up, remodeled, and redesigned, resulting in a relaxing setting for authentic island cuisine. Chef Sam Choy is credited with introducing Hawaiian cuisine to the world (among a couple of others), and he enjoys statewide celebrity. Local press suggests little Kona felt lucky to have lured Choy away from Honolulu for this venture, and we would soon join them in their praise.

I have the duck–again–and I’m afraid to tell anyone that I like it better than last night’s, which cost quite a bit more. Choy’s is moist, sweet, salty, and more–it’s as though it’s been cooking for hours at a really low temperature, with everything but the kitchen sink getting absorbed into the meat.

But the highlight of the meal for us all is almost embarrassing to admit. If you have a favorite brand of mustard, hot sauce, mayonnaise, tomato sauce, or peanut butter, though, you’ll understand.

We are fascinated by the soy sauce. We spend a lot of time talking about the soy sauce. We eat all of the rice we’re given, more than a rice cooker’s worth, because of the soy sauce.

It’s called Aloha Gold, it is a “premium” soy sauce, and it has a faux-metallic plastic top and a neon orange sticker promising a “new and improved flavor,” and “no MSG low sodium.” Depending on who you’re talking to, and when, the soy sauce tastes like maple syrup, caramel, butter, butterscotch, movie theater popcorn, or kettle corn.

On our way home from the restaurant, we go to a grocery store to look for the soy sauce, but they don’t sell it. Tomorrow, the search for gold continues.

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