Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Kalaupapa Tour





It’s hard to write about Kalaupapa. An amazing, beautiful, desolate, isolated, weather-and-sea-ravaged chunk of land where people with leprosy (now known as Hansen’s Disease) were exiled until death. Beginning in the mid 1860’s mostly native Hawaiians, from every walk of life, the very young to the very old, were snatched from their homes and sent alone to die, never to see their families and loved ones again. In the beginning, most of them arrived with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, and in spite of illness and infirmity, and without medical care, were expected to work to provide their own shelter, food, and clothing, in a wild, harsh, and unforgiving landscape. It took decades, and the work of dedicated humanitarians for conditions to improve and they did, though mandatory exile remained in effect until 1969, and the advent of drugs that arrest the disease.

Though the official “colony” no longer exists, and all former patients are free to leave, there are more than a handful, somewhere around fifteen if I remember correctly, who have chosen to remain in the only home they’ve really ever known. As it should be, they have a “life estate,” with all their needs provided for. It is now a national historic park administered by the federal government, and the only way to visit the peninsula is as an invited guest of a resident or as part of an official tour; the only access by mule train or hiking the dramatic switchbacks hacked out of the mountainside, 1700 feet down and 1700 feet back up.

Or the sane choice… by air.

There are two distinct areas of the peninsula, Kalaupapa on the west side, and Kalawao on the east. Kalawao is colder, wetter, wilder, heavily forested, with trickier ocean currents, and it was this side that was home to the colony in the early days. Not until sometime near the turn of the century did the settlement move over to the calmer, warmer, and more hospitable (relatively speaking) Kalaupapa side.



My sister and I visited six days before the canonization of Father Damien, now Saint Damien of Moloka’i, who arrived in Kalaupapa in 1873, and became an integral part of the community, bringing compassion and desperately needed humanitarian changes before eventually succumbing himself to complications from leprosy in 1889. He is a true hero here, and over 500 people from Hawaii, including most of the former patients still living in Kalaupapa, traveled to Rome for the ceremony.

It’s another touching aspect of a tragic and yet strangely moving saga. Given its history, we weren’t sure what to expect or how it would feel to be there, on the very ground where for nearly a full century such isolation and suffering occurred. Yet what we found was a peaceful and quiet community of small homes, churches, and gardens in a setting of exquisite beauty. The energy felt positive, easy-going, and life-affirming, and we marveled at the capacity of the human spirit to thrive even in the darkest of times, the greatest of miseries.

Nowdays daily supplies are airlifted in several times a week. For all other supplies, a barge arrives once a year, in summer. Included on the barge is a year's worth of gasoline, and the price is set that day and remains in effect for the entire year. Imagine... once a year the only opportunity to receive anything too big to fit into a small plane.

Our day there was beautiful. Warm and sunny while on the Kalaupapa side, then pouring buckets of cool and wonderful rain while we sat in the covered pavillion on the foresty Kalawao side eating our lunches, staring through the maze of drops out at the trees and the ocean beyond. We were moved, humbled, and in awe, and it was truly, one of the most amazing experiences either of us has ever had.

With Aloha, from Moloka'i

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