Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Walking to Kalaupapa

     Alternately, mules haul tourists down then back up the pali trail. They don’t seem unhappy about it, but I’d still rather walk even though going down is hard on the knees and up turns calves and thighs to quivering jelly. Or it did mine, I can’t speak for the mules. There’s also a small airstrip, but the hour or so hiking down the trail impresses the mind with the true distance between Kalaupapa and the rest of the world. As the elevation drops and the small quiet town gradually comes into focus there is a sense of going back in time, a reversal of history that cannot be measured in miles, vertical feet or number of switchbacks. The sign at the bottom will tell you all that, but it might be better not to know. There’s a photo postcard of the cliff face showing the switchbacks. I kept it for a long time hoping to hike the trail one day. I didn’t know it would actually take several more postcards to show the whole trail and the walk to town.
      Stepping over the sea cliff threshold to begin the descent the mesmerizing expanse of sapphire ocean is merely a base jump away. The first residents of Kalaupapa peninsula, the Hawaiians, built extensive rock walls (lo’i) and stone platforms (heiau), a shadow of villages now gone. When Hansen’s disease (leprosy) arrived in Hawaii the next wave of residents arrived involuntarily. People showing evidence of the disease were rounded up, loaded on ships and tossed overboard near shore to literally sink or swim. Initially little was done to for the sick and dying, beyond the free boat ride. If a person made it ashore they soon found they had landed in a version of Lord of the Flies. But where there is human suffering there are people with equal capacity for compassion who are willing to serve. In Kalaupapa the first people to answer the call were the family and partners of the sick and priests and nuns of the Catholic Church.  The history of Kalaupapa is a line on a pendulum that swung from the apex of overwhelming suffering to the epitome of selfless dedication. Both extremes require time to contemplate and comprehend. Kalaupapa gives anyone who can find their way there by foot, beast or plane the opportunity to understand the trials faced by the early survivors, a chance to sense the isolation and time to marvel at some mighty fine scenery along the way.
      I was able to spend the day in Kalaupapa because a friend sponsored my visit. I wasn’t restricted to the tour bus with regular stops and limited time, although the tour is very good. That was my first trip. Kalaupapa is a National Park, but with highly limited access because Hansen’s disease survivors still live in the sleepy town. I’ve done some paintings of Kalaupapa and St Damien (hanging at the Molokai Airport) and I’d like to do some more.  
     We joined a birthday party for one of the residents. Over cake and ice cream a group of National Park employees (how is it they all so young, fit and good looking?), Nuns (with incredibly serene faces), Hawaiians singing and playing ukuleles (no gathering in Hawaii would be the same without song), residents who survived Hansen’s disease (becoming fewer by the year), archeologists, painters, stone masons and the workers who keep the town going sat around tables in one of the town meeting halls. The outpost with time worn roots in horror still draws an eclectic group of people together to marvel at the mystery of life. Birthday cake hit the spot too.     
     I was taken to the top of the lighthouse for photographs of a heiau built in the shape of a dog. The stairs up the inside of the concrete tower made the pali hike not seem quite so steep, but I still panted like an obscene phone caller while climbing the switchbacks at the end of the day. My friend, about to turn 60, shouted words of encouragement to keep moving as the daylight faded. She stopped to wait (too often) as I lagged behind. When we reached the top, wringing wet with sweat, she said, “Auntie that was fun, but let’s not hug okay?” 

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