Mauka and Makai: Why people from Hawaii are so bad at directions

Mountains on the north shore of Oahu

One evening in Osaka, I found myself talking to someone from California. When I mentioned I was from Hawaii, they said that they had this theory about people from Hawaii and asked, "How are you with directions?" I burst out laughing because I'm actually terrible with directions, and I knew my response wouldn't do anything for the reputation of my state-mates. But if that's the general trend, I suppose it really does make sense.

In Hawaii, we do directions a little differently from people elsewhere. While we understand the concept of north, south, east, west (after all, how else do you decipher the surf report?), we tend not to use them at all when actually talking about places in relation to each other. Instead, we say something is in the direction of this neighborhood or that town (for people in Town, that normally means Ewa and Diamond Head) and whether it's mauka or makai, mountain side or ocean side.

This has a lot to do with the fact that for most of Hawaiian history (and I'm talking pre-white people history), the islands were divided into narrow strips of land stretching from mountain to ocean called ahupua'a. Each ahupua'a was essentially self-sustaining as it contained the bounty of both the land and the sea and were often shaped by the natural geography, split along the valleys. Although governance is no longer decided this way, many towns and neighborhoods retain the names of the ahupua'a that were once there. And so, when talking directions, people generally imagine themselves at a point on a circle heading towards another point along the periphery, and the easiest way to describe that is through relative locations. 

And these four terms are used basically as widely as the cardinal directions are elsewhere. Aside from place locations, you can also use them to talk about things like the way things are facing or which side of something you're referencing. 

So yeah, maybe people from Hawaii might not be very adept at finding places or giving directions on the mainland, but I bet you'd have a hard time deciphering our direction system at first, too. In fact, it almost seems like it requires a bit of a different type of spatial reasoning, and I think it'd be interesting to see if there was any way to look into that a bit more.