I was eating a ham sandwich in paradise. Squinting through the sun, I sighed contentedly at the imposing beauty of the world’s tallest sea cliffs. I could live here, I thought, setting down the sandwich to dig into a bag of chips. But would I really want to? No way, not with Kalaupapa National Historic Park’s dark history.
The Makanalua Peninsula juts out into the Pacific Ocean acting as the Hawaiian island of Molokai’s dorsal fin. It was formed by Kauhako, a smaller volcano that emerged after the creation of the rest of the island. Fast forwarding more than a million years, the Hawaiian Islands – including Molokai and the peninsula – were inhabited by Polynesians who crossed the sea around 650 A.D.
Hawaiians cultivated the land and fished the waters by outrigger canoes for hundreds of years. They were forcibly removed, though, in 1865, making way for the first Hansen’s Disease patients to arrive in 1866. The leprosy, which had likely come from China, was spreading at an alarming rate. Fear of the disease followed in its wake. Not knowing what to else to do, the victims of the disease were isolated on the peninsula.
The first 12 people arrived on January 6, 1866. Approximately 8,000 others followed through the years. Some went peacefully, still ripped away from their family and friends yet willing to accept their fate. Others who fought were sometimes tossed into the violent ocean, forced to swim ashore or drown trying.
I stared out at the ocean, imagining not just what people went through in getting to the peninsula, but also what they had to do to survive if they made it to shore. People like Father Damien and Mother Marianne responded to pleas for compassion and help. It was hardly enough, though. Life on the peninsula was not the paradise I witnessed over lunch. It was often times violent and rarely ever pleasant, as residents had to suffer with their disease and find ways to adapt to live.
Our Molokai Visitors Association tour of the colony stopped at a small bookstore and museum near the edge of town. Items from past residents – such as dining utensils with straps to attach them to the person’s wrist, unable to actually grasp them with their damaged hands – were preserved for educational purposes in glass cases here. The ingenuity was impressive, albeit dark and disappointing in the respect that people were forced into these situations to survive.
Medical advancements in the early twentieth century and the discovery of antibiotics have virtually wiped out Hansen’s Disease. Treatment today is largely considered to be an outpatient procedure. The reason to isolate anyone to a peninsula, even one as beautiful as this, is thankfully unnecessary. Yet it doesn’t mean that the disease is gone.
We had set out earlier in the morning on an old school bus to tour the colony. It is a necessary transport, not just due to the distances involved on the peninsula, but also to protect and respect the privacy of the eleven remaining residents of the settlement. Six other registered patients have the right to return, but are currently receiving treatment in Honolulu. That treatment cannot be offered by the 70 medical staff or park rangers who live at and maintain the colony today.
We stopped to tour not only the small bookstore and museum, but also two churches and the grave of Mother Marianne. They were solemn moments – no one was laughing or running around making noise – when we gave pause to reflect and pay our respects to those who called the area home. It was unquestionably difficult, regardless of the beautiful land, and everyone on the tour knew it.
The tour over, I began to make my way back up the trail. I had opted to skip the mule ride and instead hike to and from the settlement. Not only did I not meet the weight requirements to ride the mules down the approximately three mile trail, but I preferred to hike and better appreciate what any colony residents would have had to experience had they wanted to visit with family or friends at the top.
At the end of the first switchback I was cursing this decision. Down was definitely easier than up. I was already hot and tired and I had 25 more switches to go. But I couldn’t complain. At least not a lot. I huffed and puffed and tossed out the occasional gripe, but there was nothing behind it. I was simply complaining for the sake of complaining, not because I had anything worthwhile to groan about. Not after learning about what 8,000 people had to deal with to survive at Kalaupapa.
I reached the top of the cliffs the same time as the mule riders. I had left shortly before them, but still felt proud of my achievement. I was the fifth hiker to the top, sweaty and tired from the climb, and was pleased with my accomplishment. But I could not take too much heart in it.
Sure, I patted myself on the back a little. But my one climb to the top was hardly noteworthy. Living life through such hardships and neglect as the residents of Kalaupapa did was a true accomplishment. They survived against odds, working to create a society when the greater one rejected them. And I sobered to this as I looked back down on the peninsula from a nearby overlook, examining the colony one last time, again saddened by its dark past yet also impressed by its indescribable beauty.