From Maui to Manhattan by Kelly Luis

by Kelly Luis on



This Hawaiian proverb superimposed over the silhouettes of two people standing near the sea at sunset: "We cannot own land or the ocean. The land and ocean own us."

The swerving traffic and the bright lights of New York City can sometimes be suffocating for a small island girl like myself. Moving from the island of Maui to the island of Manhattan for a college education, I had such a difficult time finding spaces where I can unwind and breathe. The numerous people and whizzing traffic can be overwhelming for a person that grew up with no public transportation and zero skyscrapers.

In my homeland, the crashing waves and the smell of a light salty breeze in the air immediately calms me.  I’ve tried smelling the Hudson River to see if could be nostalgic, but I do not suggest it if you are hoping to find serenity. Also, sometimes if you are in a place with tons of traffic in the city the whizzing cars can mimic the sound of crashing wave, just hope you do not stumble upon obnoxious taxi drivers blaring their car horns.

Surprisingly, last year I declared myself as an environmental science major in a city without a natural environment. Sometimes I think I majored in environmental science just to find peaceful environments I can find solitude and happiness in. Yet, the academic expectations and standards I need to meet on a daily basis can be incredibly overwhelming, which intensifies the feeling of suffocation.

 Luckily with the help of a few my college friends in New York, I found two places in the city that helped me unwind and breathe: Cherry Walk at Riverside Park and the Battery Park/ Staten Island Ferry area. In both places, the enormous buildings and blinding lights can’t interfere with my view of the calm waters and my view of the sky.  The hushing sound of water meeting the rocks alongside Cherry Walk is so soothing and observing the white foaming water whip along the side of the ferry is so mind numbing and relaxing to me. In the tossing water of the Hudson River meeting the Atlantic and in the reflection of the sunset over the waters, I find a little piece of my homeland, Maui.

After Hurricane Sandy impacted Lower Manhattan, I couldn’t fathom the effect it had on my fellow community members. I didn’t understand the depth of each person’s heartache and fear as they lost their homes and possessions because I was luckily tucked away in upper Manhattan. All of my material possessions in New York were safe. Yet, I couldn’t comprehend the effect Sandy had on my places of solitude, peace, and happiness because the same waters that bring me peace of mind and happiness birthed fear and terror in the hearts of other New Yorkers.

I wish I were able to show New Yorkers and other victims of the beauty I find in the soothing sounds of the Hudson or the Atlantic Ocean. I think it could help console their heartache and fear, but these were the sounds they heard the moment they lost all of their material possessions.

My heart is in conflict because in the islands of Hawai’i I have been raised to be a steward of the land and its ocean. Elders, educators, and my culture have ingrained into me the Hawaiian proverb, “We cannot own land or the ocean, the land and the ocean own us.” It is one of my highest and most important responsibilities in this life to be like my ancestors and be a steward of the land, ocean, and its resources. My Native Hawaiian ancestors had such a sacred bond with the environment and I have always promised myself that until my last breath I must pass on their knowledge about the environment to my children and future generations.

Yet in a climate changed world, how do I teach my younger siblings and children about the winds and tides that brought our ancestors from Tahiti to the islands of Hawai’i when these same tides and winds destroyed the homes and lives of our relatives in the Philippines with Typhoon Haiyan? How do I teach them about their responsibility to such an unpredictable weather systems that has wreaked so much havoc in New York City? How do I preserve the sacred bond between the environment and people when many islands in the Pacific and many areas in New York City are vulnerable to events like sea level rise?  I simply do not know, but I have to keep persevering and find solutions because my ancestors, the environment, and future generations are dependent on me. 



Kelly Luis

Kelly Luis Profile
Kelly Luis, "Rethinking Home" NYC Project Member

"Rethinking Home: Climate Change in New York and Samoa" is a Museum Connect Project sponsored by The U.S Department of State and The American Alliance of Museum.   Kelly will be traveling with us to Samoa in May as part of the Rethinking Home project!