Finding the “Real” Hawaii in Molokai’s Leper Colony

There I was, coming down the mountain like a kid on a playground, happy to finally be in the “real Hawaii”, and all of a sudden I realized that I’d arrived at a leper colony — one where people still lived.

Editor’s Note: Beyond Pearl Harbor, most of us don’t know squat about Hawaiian history. GP contributor Will McGough visited the island of Molokai for an education in the “real” Hawaii.

Three miles, 26 switchbacks, and 1,700 slippery feet later, I emerged from the rainforest at the bottom of the world’s tallest sea cliffs on the north side of Molokai. The 106-year-old Pali Trail is the only public land-access route to the Kalaupapa Peninsula (KA-LOU-PAPA), a 25-square-mile piece of land completely fenced in by the towering sea cliffs and a roaring Pacific ocean. Its beauty was overwhelming — the kind that punches you in the gut. As I came out of the forest I followed the coast north towards the tip of the peninsula.

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My arrival at the isolated Kalaupapa was the icing on the cake of an already tourist-free visit to Molokai, Hawaii‘s fifth-largest island. From the very beginning, the island has resisted tourism, and it doesn’t take long to pick up on that vibe. Look no further than the “No Cruise Ship” signs that grace front yards, or the island’s “Kingdom of Hawaii II” meetings, where extremists discuss daydreams for a return to a sovereign nation. Further proof is in the numbers: In 2013, 35 million people visited Oahu, and only 264,000 boarded the short connecting flight over to Molokai.

Molokai is described by locals as “the real Hawaii” or “old-school Hawaii”, not only for its lack of tourism, but also because the island is the birthplace of Hawaiian civilization. The western Halawa Valley was the original point of settlement in the Hawaiian Islands, and despite its undisputed beauty, Kalaupapa played its own significant, albeit dreary role in Hawaiian history, one that saw 8,000 people die in forced isolation over the course of almost 100 years. History is odd like that: there I was, coming down the mountain like a kid on a playground, happy to finally be in the “real Hawaii”, and all of a sudden I realized that I’d arrived at a leper colony — one where people still lived. The beauty remained there, but the mood, understandably, had changed.

The Kalaupapa Peninsula Leper Colony was originally established to prevent the highly contagious disease from becoming an epidemic and spreading throughout the islands. In 1865, King Kamehameha V and the Hawaii Board of Health created the colony at Kalaupapa when they signed the Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy that ordered all infected with leprosy to be quarantined off from society, “to secure the isolation and seclusion of such leprous persons as in the opinion of the Board of Health or its agents, may, by being at large, cause the spread of leprosy.” Kalaupapa, a remote peninsula encaged by the world’s tallest sea cliffs, was the obvious choice at the northern end of the lightly populated island of Molokai.

History is odd like that: there I was, coming down the mountain like a kid on a playground, happy to finally be in the “real Hawaii”, and all of a sudden I realized that I’d arrived at a leper colony.

Beginning with 12 “patients” upon the law’s official enactment in 1866, thousands of people, many misdiagnosed, would be forced into exile at Kalaupapa. Here, their new life began as part of a commune of their “own kind”. The odds of survival were not good, and most suffered from deformities, upper respiratory problems and nerve damage. Small amounts of dignity were afforded to the patients thanks to the work of figures like Father Damien de Veuster — who was officially canonized by the Catholic Church a few years ago in 2009 — in the form of treatment, comfort and community. Yes, he built churches, but he also built homes and inspired hope.

Kalaupapa’s doors would remain open for entry only for the next 80 years. Things changed in the 1940s, coincidentally between the time of the Pearl Harbor attacks and when Hawaii became a state in 1959. Forced isolation officially came to an end in 1949 thanks to the discovery of a cure for leprosy and a changing public perception toward those infected with the disease. In support of the latter, celebrities such as Shirley Temple and John Wayne visited Kalaupapa to spread awareness.

Interestingly enough, although the patients were made free to leave in 1959, many decided to stay. The scenery is an easy explanation as to why, but more to the point was the fact that Kalaupapa had become a place for these social refugees to call home, a place where they felt accepted, welcomed and understood.

When the Kingdom announced the end of forced isolation, they included a rule: once a patient left the colony, they could not return. Stories told today at Kalaupapa reveal that many patients who decided to leave regretted it after only a few months. Once outside the Kalaupapa community, they were greeted in the “real world” by a public that, despite the efforts of many, was still wary of being close to someone with leprosy. Today, nine patients still live at Kalaupapa.

The community dwellings are small, plantation-style homes that sit in the shadow of majestic, breathtaking scenery, seemingly frozen in time, complete with decaying old vehicles and a school bus that doubles as a tour bus. I was at the colony only a half day, but it doesn’t take more than a few minutes to be overwhelmed by the charm and beauty of Kalaupapa. It’s easy to see why those nine patients decide to stay, despite the awful memories they must have. It’s a golden cage in a sense, maybe the prettiest prison you’ll ever see in your life.

How to Get There

To visit the Kalaupapa Peninsula, you must obtain a permit. There are three options: Hike a 3-mile trail down the sea cliffs (recommended), join a mule tour, or fly in on a scenic flight from Molokai airport. Regardless of how one enters, everyone joins the same daily tour, which goes around the complex in an old yellow school bus (seriously). For more information on access to Kalaupapa, go here.

I will admit that my visit took me through a roller coaster of emotions. First, it was the beauty that overwhelmed me. I will say quite honestly that when the guide was talking about the 8,000 who died there, I felt the slightest hint of romanticism creep in. Looking at my surroundings, I heard a voice in my mind’s eye: What a fucking privilege that must have been. Of course, it was not a fucking privilege, and a lot of suffering took place, its impacts disseminated through nearly 100 years of angst, torment and rejection. But it’s that pretty.

After the tour, I walked east along the beach, my boots leaving imprints in the soft sand. The water was too rough to swim in, and I could feel the power of the waves. Looking up at the cliffs, I thought a lot about a number that was thrown out by the guide as we parted ways: 101,112. It’s the number of people that visit Kalaupapa each year. I wondered what that looked like when compared to, say, Pearl Harbor on Oahu. There were about 40 people on my tour that day. How many had paid their respects to the USS Arizona Memorial that same day? When I got back to my room that night, I checked. In 2013, the Pearl Harbor Memorial received 1,786,024 visitors.

The cold-hard fact is that history lessons for tourists in Hawaii typically start and end with Pearl Harbor. It’s understandable given the magnitude and implications of the event. It officially invited the United States into World War II and affected the lives of millions of American mainlanders. And it is certainly a part of Hawaiian history; the attacks undoubtedly impacted the local Hawaiians.

But after experiencing Molokai and learning more about its role in Hawaii’s history as a kingdom, its low number of visitors really began to develop significance for me. Has US history in Hawaii completely overshadowed Hawaii’s story as a once-sovereign nation? The details of December 7th, 1941, are a no-brainer for most of us, yet how many mainlanders realize that Hawaii wasn’t even a state during the 1941 attacks by the Japanese?

Many people are quick to point out that the fault of visitors knowing next to nothing about Hawaii’s actual history falls in the lap of Molokai and its resistance to tourism. Let people come and see it, they say, and Hawaii’s history as a sovereign nation will get the exposure it deserves.

My two cents is that Kalaupapa welcomes all who arrive, and it’s not Molokai’s job to bus in tourists and shove its history down their throats. That quest is what separates travelers from vacationers, what distinguishes a trek for truth from a day of distraction. Stepping onto the trail, I started my climb back up the Pali Trail. When I got to the top an hour later, I felt like I had the map to a hidden treasure in hand. I pass it on to you here, hoping you’ll follow.

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