Postcard from... Honolulu


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The Independent Online

On a beachside park just a mile or two along the coast from Pearl Harbour, 50,000 people are gathered on the grass and sand, watching a couple being interviewed on a big screen about their child.

"We're taking care of your soft toys," the mother says, addressing her baby. The boy is not here though; like many others at the event, this is a family grieving for a loved one who has passed away.

I'm at Honolulu's Memorial Day floating lantern festival, where locals gather every year to remember friends and relatives no longer with them. Most of the Hawaiians here in the throng are gathered in groups, each possessing a small, ship-shaped wooden block with an individually decorated cube of cardboard stuck on top, containing a candle. They bear the photos of those they wish to commemorate, with written messages. One woman appears on the screen smiling fondly and holding a boat for her late husband - or her "one and only grouch" as she has called him on her lantern.

A woman next to me approaches a man she has seen a few feet away, who is wearing a 'Vietnam veteran' baseball cap. "Hello sir, I just wanted to say thank you for your service to our nation," she tells him.

There are moments like this among the crowd where the military rememberance aspect of the public holiday shines through, but on the whole this is a civilian affair. It's also predominantly a secular one, despite the ceremony being led by a local Buddhist leader, and the diverse crowd include many Japanese residents moved just to see her speak to them.

As the sun sets and the sky darkens, people wait patiently to launch their lanterns into the bay, creating a floating sea of little lights, every one the centre of attention for one or more pair of tearful eyes watching them drift away.

After the immediate sombreness of arrival, suddenly finding myself amid so many people thinking about the dead, after a time I realise the atmosphere is instead one of warm community spirit - a very moving but heartwarming affair, as the crowds begin to drift away themselves, back into the city full of memories.