It was my third trip to the Hawaiian Islands. The first time was way back in the late 1960s, just before I had found the sparsely populated and rarely visited Cayman Islands on the pages of my atlas.
Back then a much younger lad was I, spending my days riding the surf at Waikiki and my evenings performing at Honey’s Lounge singing country tunes to the mostly military audience.
My second visit was in the mid 80s with a day’s stopover on my return from the Cook Islands.
On that trip I reminisced about time spent on Oahu, a time in my life when I had not a care in the world; no business, no bills, no credit cards. As long as the sun and surf came up every day, I was content.
What really impressed me about Oahu on that second trip was the islands’ awareness of tourism. The people of Hawaii sure have their tourism act together and for them it means nothing but profit. Tourists drop some $4 billion to $5 billion into that state’s economy annually.
Every week is Tourism Awareness Week in Hawaii. Employees at the many hotels wear colourful island shirts and the female staff place flowers in their hair. In elevators, along the beach and on local radio stations, romantic Hawaiian music is ever present.
The cabbies aren’t pushy and the streets of Waikiki are free of tin cans and burger bags. I’m not one who gets turned on with tourist traps; I seek solitude, but I must admit I was impressed.
When the opportunity arrived for a third trip to the islands in the mid-90s, I jumped at the chance. Writing travel stories does not pay the bills, but tickets and room are usually free, so I packed my island shirt and shorts and I was off to Molokai, one of the laid-back, less visited islands in the Hawaiian chain.
Hawaii’s Cayman Brac
Molokai is the Cayman Brac of the Hawaiian Islands. For example, the island of Oahu has well over 200 lodging options, which are a mix of hotels, motels, condos and bed and breakfasts. Molokai, on the other hand, has approximately 40 places to stay. Molokai can best be described for what it is not. During my visit, there was no traffic, Wal-Mart, or any fast food restaurants other than Subway. Much of Molokai is rural and undeveloped. From what I hear nothing much has changed with the exception of local style entertainment at the Hotel Molokai.
About 7,000 people reside on Molokai as compared to Oahu’s 953,000. Of the 7,000, over 2,500 have more than 50 per cent Hawaiian blood. The island is a human time capsule; a sanctuary. What you see today is much the same as seen through the eyes of Hawaii’s chief’s centuries ago. In ancient times they called the island Puleoo, meaning “powerful prayer”.
Molokai is about 38 miles long by 10 miles wide. The physical features of the island are diverse. The western part is dry with rolling hills and pastures, where the eastern end catches rain clouds in some of the tallest sea cliffs in the world. Mt. Kamakou, for example, peaks at some 4,970 feet. Waterfalls are abundant on Molokai. Kahiwa Falls spills tons of fresh rain water 1,750 feet to the base of its valley.
In the late 1800s King Kamahameha of Hawaii, like most of the world, did not understand Hansen’s disease. All he knew was that lepers had to be isolated. Kalaupapa became hell on earth. Young girls, old men and children were put in cages, loaded in ships and then, after reaching Kalaupapa, the cages were opened and the people dumped into the sea. Many drowned. The unlucky ones made it to shore. Waiting for them were people who had become animals; people who had previously been abandoned by their families and friends then shipped to Kalaupapa. Old men were killed and young girls were raped. The lepers lived in caves or dwellings made of sticks and stones. They ate off the land when they could not steal from new arrivals. Surrounded on three sides by the Pacific Ocean and cut off from the rest of Molokai by 1600-foot sea cliffs, Kalaupapa provided the perfect environment to isolate the diseased. The area was void of all amenities. No buildings, shelters or potable water were available. Kalaupapa was a heaven, but only for Satan. In 1873 Father Damien de Veuster came to Kalaupapa and saw the lepers as children of God; God’s children who had a right to live and be treated with dignity.
Father Damien bathed their wounds and built them proper shelter. Soon he started a trail that led to the top of the mountain. He climbed the trail often and slowly turned life around. Upon reaching the summit he would beg for clothing and food to help his people. One hundred and forty years later a trail is still being used. I had read many stories of the lepers and Father Damien so I searched for a way to visit.
“By mule,” suggested a bartender at my hotel. “Mule, you must be joking. I’ve never even ridden a rocking horse,” I replied.
“Yes, take a mule ride down the 1,600 foot mountain. You will never forget it as long as you live.” He was right!
My mule’s name was Hoku, translated to English it means Star. My guide’s name was Benjie; translated that means the same thing Benjie.
Benjie instructed me on the fine art of mule riding.
“The mule knows the trail. You need do nothing, except to stay on your mule,” instructed Benjie. “If you drop something along the way, stay on your mule, for if you don’t, Hoku will just keep on going and you’ll be stuck on top of the mountain.”
Hoku and Benjie had made the three mile journey often. You could tell by the bored expressions on their faces.
As for me, I was far from bored; the panoramic view was breathtaking. Once we started our descent the trail became narrower with every hairpin switch back turn. At times the trail was just wide enough for two mule hooves. The birds-eye-view of Kalaupapa is beyond description. Below (when I say that I mean almost 1,600 feet straight down) I could see two golden beaches and one black sand beach, green pastures and a white church steeple peaking through the lush forest. A far cry from what Hollywood portrays as a leper colony.
My guide napped most of the way down. Don’t ask me how he could accomplish this. At times the trail zigzagged so sharply that Hoku would stop, turn his front hoofs and then slowly turn his rear. One mule step further forward and we surely would have been smashed on the sandy beach below.
Jimmy met us at the trail’s end, he would now take over as tour guide; it was time for Hoku to rest. For the next few hours I experienced one of Hawaii’s most remarkable tours in a community hidden from the world for so many years. I learned about the leper colony, its people, incredible tales of struggle and human suffering, along with stories of courage and love. Jimmy came to Kalaupapa when he was but 10-years-old. He was taken from his home and family because white spots started to appear on his skin. More than likely (though back then there was no way of knowing) Jimmy did not have leprosy. The nurse at his school was taking no chances, so she shipped him off to Molokai. It sends a chill up your spine when he tells the story of landing at Kalaupapa’s dock without his mother or father, to be met by disfigured people who would now care for him. Jimmy did contract the disease but there is always the haunting thought that he was afflicted after his arrival. Today he is an official tour guide and in a most positive tone he tells the story of Kalaupapa as rare visitors stroll about in amazement and wonder.
The place is magical. White horses wander about freely grazing along rolling hills. Churches of different denominations are everywhere and the mood of the place is certainly different from what it must have been like before a cure was found for leprosy in the 1940s. Photos were allowed but not of the patients. Most Kaluapapa residence were not to be seen, for visits are only permitted duri
ng lunchtime when everyone stays indoors until the tours are done.
It’s a bit expensive to obtain a permit to tour Kaluapapa but it’s worth every penny and after paying for the mule and guide, the balance of the money goes toward the care and maintenance of park and patients. The highlight of my visit was to St. Philomena’s Church that was built by Father Damien. He himself contracted the disease after so much contact with the lepers and died in 1889 at the age of 49. With the advent of sulfone drugs in the 1940s, the disease was put in remission and the sufferers are no longer contagious. The fewer than 100 former patients remaining on the peninsula are free to travel or relocate elsewhere, but most have chosen to remain where they have lived for so long. The two hour mule ride back up the mountain was much more relaxing. By this time I had gained a lot of confidence in the sure-footed, well-trained animal. And the old saying “strong as a mule” had a whole new meaning. So was my naive outlook on leprosy. No, fingers and toes do not fall off. The inappropriate word of “leper” is defined in some dictionaries with the adjective “immoral and unclean.” Persons with leprosy are neither of these things.
I also have a different outlook of the Hawaiian Islands. If you look past the surfboards and high rise condos there’s plenty of adventure.