Hawaii, US: The real meaning behind the Hawaiian greeting Aloha

"Give me a hug," says Beautiful and we embrace as passengers file past. When we eventually release our grip on one another she eyeballs me and says, "that's part of it", then she gets back behind the wheel. It's what can happen if you ask a Hawaii bus driver what Aloha means.

The Hawaiian Islands were first settled around AD400 when Polynesians from the Marquesas Islands canoed north to this remote volcanic archipelago. A new culture evolved and the word Aloha became part of a now critically endangered language called Olelo.

In Honolulu, the capital of America's Aloha State, the word is on billboards, shop signs, street art and road names. People wear Aloha shirts, "the spirit of Aloha" is on everyone's lips and the shaka is always just a thumb-and-pinky jiggle away – especially between drivers.

Aloha is used for hello and goodbye yet means neither. Some say it translates as "love", "presence", "share", "essence of life" as they try to cram it into a nice box. What became clear, as I start asking locals (and mainly Native Hawaiians), the meaning is as deep as the Pacific and as individual as a face.

For Waikiki Beachcomber's General Manager, Ike Cockett, "Aloha is caring for everyone the way you'd like to be cared for. We live Aloha. We don't just talk about it. It's our lifestyle". Hotel security guard, Mavis Tigilau, says it's "inviting you to become part of our family so everywhere you go you can fit in".

Acclaimed surf photographer Zak Noyle, born and raised on Oahu, tells me "Aloha is something one feels. It is in the spirit of the people but to me it's not just limited to Hawaii. It is global and it's helping others [and] caring and welcoming others into one's home and world".

Local artist Erin Ibarra recognises Aloha is the lifeblood of Oahu and, without hesitation, defines it as "genuine joy". This self-identified European mutt grew up everywhere never feeling she belonged anywhere. Until Hawaii. "I know I have a place here. That has to be Aloha – it has to be."

Dustin Kalei, of Executive Chauffeur Hawaii, sees Aloha as a lifestyle. "Sure, it has many different meanings but, in the end, it's your attitude to life and how you can spread that. It's also how you treat other people, how you take care of yourself, how you take care of this land we have the obligation to pass on."

After our bus hug, Beautiful tells me Aloha is "something you cannot buy and sell. It's a thing you give to one another". When a Native Hawaiian hugs you, she explains, it's a real one because they take time to give it.

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This generous extension of Aloha to everyone who turns up to these islands seems profoundly gracious given what Native Hawaiians have been subjected to since James Cook first set his entitled foot on Kauai in 1778. Though, Aloha does serve to educate and protect. As was Cook's final discovery.

When entrepreneur Jonathan Rotmensch moved to Oahu in 2007 with money on his mind the message, he said, was clear: live Aloha or leave. "Basically, do good or f--k off". Rotmensch has since founded Hawaiian Aroma Caffe and this thriving Waikiki business constantly partners with non-profit organisations such as AccesSurf Hawaii.

"If everybody had Aloha for each other," Kalei says as he delivers me back to the airport, "oh man, the world would be a whole lot better place".

TRIP NOTES

Elspeth Callender was a guest of Waikiki Beachcomber by Outrigger.

MORE

traveller.com.au/hawaii

gohawaii.com

FLY

Hawaiian Airlines flies daily from Sydney to Honolulu; Melbourne passengers transit in Sydney. See hawaiianairlines.com.au

STAY

Waikiki Beachcomber by Outrigger is located one block back from the beach and has rooms from $195 (plus tax) for a double. See outrigger.com

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