Had history been kinder to the Hawaiian people, Kalaupapa likely would have far more positive associations than it does today. An isolated peninsula on the windward side of Molokai, it is as strikingly beautiful as any place on the Hawaiian islands. With sheer cliffs limiting access, the peninsula and its small Hawaiian fishing community probably would have stayed out of harm’s way, joining the ranks of similarly situated idyllic Hawaiian communities too far off the beaten track to garner much interest or development.
Instead, facing an imported leprosy epidemic in the 1860s, Hawaii’s king turned the lonely outpost into a leper colony. It didn’t matter that leprosy is actually among the least contagious diseases of all communicable diseases. At the time, all people knew was that it could spread through human contact, and when it did, the results were horrific.
The following 100 years represent a sad chapter in Hawaii’s history. Around 8000 people, mostly Hawaiians were sent to live and die on Kalaupapa before the practice ended in 1969. Underscoring the tragedy was the work of the Belgian priest, Father Damien, who spent 16 years attending to the sick on the peninsula only to eventually contract and die from the disease.
Scientific advances in the 20th century brought a cure for leprosy and a better understanding of how the disease is transmitted. However, they could do nothing about the disfigurement that leprosy survivors had to live with. So when the practice of quarantining leprosy patients at Kalaupapa ended, the state allowed residents to stay.
Kalaupapa is now a national park with the community administered by the Hawaii Department of Health. It was through the Health Department that I came to know the Kalaupapa director, who invited my wife Eddi and me to celebrate New Years on the peninsula, an offer we gladly accepted.
There are basically three ways to get to Kalaupapa – fly, walk, or hire a mule. We flew. The flight over the cliffs of northern Molokai was an adventure in itself, complete with a hair-raising decent into strong trade winds that tossed the plane as it navigated Kalaupapa’s tiny air strip. Kalaupapa staff met us at the airport and drove us down the guest residence, where we spent our nights.
The director gave us access to a community jeep, which we used to visit different parts of the peninsula during the two days we were there. These included the Moku Puakala cemetery, which overlooks the spectacular cliffs of windward Molokai, and is where Father Damien and other former residents are buried. We also drove out to some of the more inaccessible parts of the peninsula, spent some time in the community, and swung by the local beach, which we pretty much had to ourselves. Feeling energetic, at one point we jumped out of the jeep and climbed the three-mile trail that connects the peninsula to topside Molokai. Not for the faint of heart, the trail climbs 1,600 feet and is littered with mule droppings.
But we were there primarily to bring in the New Year, and for that the community was having a party at their social hall. It’s not every day that you get to party with leprosy survivors, so we didn’t quite know what to expect. As it turned out, we didn’t need to be too concerned. The community in Kalaupapa is so tightly knit that, at this point in their lives, they probably feel sorry for the relatively isolated lives many of us lead. Residents were kind, gentle, and for the most part not terribly self-conscious. We drank some cheap wine, danced to Hawaiian music, and got caught up on the latest soap operas, of which residents were well versed. At midnight celebrations were limited to a few firecrackers, and it seemed residents were happy to leave it at that. History hasn’t been kind to Hawaiians, but for this small group of survivors, it has managed to provide some measure of peace.