Have you ever tried shave ice? That's right, shave ice - that snowy, powdery treat served around Hawai'i. Some shops even use homemade flavors extracted straight from local fruits. It's a great antidote to the heat and humidity.

So let's say that you're giving me directions to a worthy shave ice shop. Here's a map for you. I'm here and the shop is, oh, right around... here. How do I get there? Whether or not you're aware of it, the way you answer that question says a lot about how you've been taught to speak about directions in your language.

Take two direction systems: cardinal directions and relative directions. If you're American, European or Chinese, cardinal directions are probably second-nature to you. You imagine a map with a fixed north at the top, east and west towards the sides and south at the bottom. So, you tell me to go North two blocks and then East until I see the storefront.

There's another way to get me there. You can direct me from my own point of view instead. This also gets called egocentric direction. Putting yourself in my shoes, you'll tell me to turn to my left, then go forward, then make a right turn and go straight again until I've arrived.

So far I'm not telling you anything you don't already know. But you're in Hawai'i now, and the language here lets you get around without these systems. The main directions are mauka (towards the mountains) or makai (towards the sea). Ma- means "towards", uka is "land", and kai is "sea". So the shave ice is mauka of the library and I'm currently makai of the shopping center, so I need to walk mauka to get there.

Notice that the mauka/makai system isn't egocentric. If you're standing here and the sea is here but the mountains are there, this way is mauka no matter which way you turn. It's unlike cardinal directions, too - north is north no matter where you are on the island. But makai and mauka depend on your current location. So, mauka and makai are unique geographical directions.

This is one of many unique quirks I've found in my journeys. Check out more of the Eavesdropping Traveler's travel vignettes on words and places, and thank you for learning with me!