Kapu! Things to NOT do when in Hawaii

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Hawaii’s culture and history evolved separately from the rest of the United States, so it shouldn’t be surprising that there are social conventions and norms that you won’t find on the continent.

Besides culturally sensitive issues, there are also conservation efforts in Hawaii that visitors should be mindful of, in addition to regular advice that every traveler should keep in mind.

Poliahu Heiau on Kauai. A Hawaiian temple, the rocks arranged here are sacred and must not be moved.
Poliahu Heiau, Kauai. As this is a sacred place, take care to not move or disturb the rocks.

Here are a few things to avoid if you’re a visitor to Hawaii.

Kapu

Throughout the islands, you might run into warning signs that say “kapu.” This Hawaiian word is related to “taboo,” a term found in various forms throughout Polynesia.

The simplest definition of kapu is “forbidden,” but the root of the term has a deeper connection to Hawaiian history and culture.

Prehistoric Hawaii operated under a kapu system which was a universal code of law. The kapu system dictated everything from politics, to religion, to social and gender roles, to even how and what a person may eat.

The highest penalty for breaking the most sacred kapu was a death sentence that could only be avoided by running to a pu’uhonua, or place of refuge. If the offender was able to reach the pu’uhonua before being caught, a kahuna would perform a ceremony purifying the offender of their transgression, granting them pardon and allowing them to return home safely.

Statues greet visitors to Puuhonua O Honaunau
Puuhonua O Honaunau, “Place of Refuge” on the Big Island

The kapu system was abolished by King Kamehameha II, who broke kapu by eating with the women of his royal court. Under the kapu system, men and women were not allowed to eat together, so having the ruling monarch break kapu in this way effectively abolished the system for the entire kingdom.

Today, the word kapu is used to refer to things that people should avoid, whether or not it is part of Hawaii’s law.

Nature

Hawaii is blessed with one of the most biodiverse environments in the world. In addition to its rich tropical climate and varied geography, Hawaii is home to very few natural threats to human beings.

A hiker in Hawaii doesn’t have to worry about mountain lions or poison ivy, for example, nor do residents have to worry about snakes or venomous insects.

A silversword plant flowering on the slopes of Mount Haleakala
Ahinahina (silversword): a critically endangered plant found only on Haleakala (pictured) or Mauna Kea

In fact, Hawaii’s biosphere is so safe that the biggest threat to it is posed by human beings.

Historically, human beings have brought a lot of threats to the indigenous creatures of the islands, from the first Polynesian settlers bringing pigs that dug up fragile plants, to later Western sailors bringing mongooses and mosquitoes.

Today, humans are still a real threat to the natural environment due to pollution, development, and simple negligence.

While there are major efforts being made to study and conserve Hawaii’s unique wildlife, every individual has a part to play in protecting the environment.

Something as simple as properly disposing of your trash goes a long way in keeping the environment clean and habitable for all of Hawaii—whether plant, animal, or human.

An endangered Hawaiian monk seal sunbathing
The endangered Hawaiian monk seal often comes to shore to sunbathe. Attempting to interact with these cuddly creatures is against the law.

In addition, be mindful of wildlife when out in nature: species such as the Hawaiian green sea turtle and Hawaiian monk seal are endangered, and must not be approached or disturbed, especially when resting.

In general, listen to and heed all instructions when doing nature tours, and be mindful of signs and warnings in your area.

Folklore

Like any other place, the locals of Hawaii have superstitions and folklore that inform what they can or can’t do. In Hawaii, a lot of this folklore comes from Hawaiian traditions and beliefs. There are a few superstitions that visitors should be aware of:

red sand beach
The vibrant red sand of Kaihalulu Bay. Look, touch, but don’t take it home with you.
  1. Don’t remove sand from the beach.

    • A small container of sand sounds like a cool souvenir, especially if taken from a black- or red-sand beach, but doing so is considered bad luck. Moreover, sand is a natural resource that takes years to form, so removing it harms the environment. Lastly, sand is coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere—do you really want your “souvenir” accidentally popping open and spilling into the rest of your luggage?
  2. Don’t take any lava rocks from Volcanoes National Park.

    • Removing lava rocks from the volcano is considered bad luck. The lava is property of Pele, and taking a rock for yourself is tantamount to stealing. Trust me, you don’t want an ancient Hawaiian goddess angry at you.
  3. Don’t take any pork over the Pali.

    • If you’re on Oahu and want to visit the East side via the Pali Highway, make sure there isn’t any pork (or other pig-related meats) in your car before your drive. This piece of folklore is still commonly shared, but traces its root to Hawaiian legends. The Pali is the realm of Pele, goddess of lava, who had a turbulent relationship with Kamapua’a, the pig demigod. Since the two hate each other, bringing pig (representative of Kamapua’a) into Pele’s domain is sure to draw her ire. Again, you don’t want an ancient Hawaiian goddess angry at you.
  4. Don’t bring bananas on a boat.

    • This one isn’t Pele-related. Probably. The myth is that bringing a banana on a boat will prevent you from catching any fish. There isn’t a single origin of this belief, but it seems to be present in some fishing communities outside Hawaii as well. Note that some fishermen also include banana-based products (chips, muffins), and a few even include anything with “banana” in the name—so avoid “Banana Boat” brand sunscreen if you plan to go fishing!

 

Most of the advice in this post boils down to one thing: respect.

If you show respect to the land and people of Hawaii, you’ll have a good time.

If you don’t respect the culture, laws, or environment, you won’t have a good experience, and you’ll also be making the experience worse for every traveler that comes after you.

 

If it’s your first time coming to Hawaii, you might be surprised at how different it is from continental US. Is there anything else you want to know before your first trip? Are you visiting and curious about local customs? Sound off in the comments section; we’d love to hear it!

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