Kalaupapa – Enduring Spirit, Sacred Ground

6 Jun

For several days, I have mulled over the impact of the Kalaupapa peninsula and community on me and find it difficult to express their essence in words.    I am going to attempt to recount my experience upon the peninsula even though it might not jibe or seem adequate to those who were there and saw the experience differently than I did.

First, a bit of history taken from the National Park Service’s Kalaupapa brochure.  “Surrounded mostly by ocean and cut off from the rest of Moloka’i by 1,600′ cliffs, the Kalupapa

A portion of the peninsula from our final approach to begin our adventure
(RDS Photo)

peninsula has always been one of the most remote places in Hawaii.  Native Hawaiians live here for many centuries, but in the mid-1800s Kalaupapa’s remoteness secured its role as the setting for two tragic human sagas.”  …in 1865 and again in the mid-1890s, the indigenous Hawaiian communities were displaced and the forced exile of those afflicted with or suspected of leprosy was begun.  Isolation was done because it was believed just touching a leper could cause a person to get it. The isolation policy was not officially abolished

until 1969, but forced isolation ended in 1949 when medications were made available to help patients.  Patients who still live there (about 10) are free to come and go from the settlement, but they choose to stay there as it’s more in their comfort zone.  I heard that more than 8,000 people died at the settlement which is about the same as the present-day population of Moloka’i.

Father Damien ( St. Damien since 2009) arrived at Kalaupapa in 1873 and worked tirelessly to promote the dignity of the afflicted and to improve conditions for the patients.  To see what Kalaupapa was like in those days, a good movie to watch is “Molokai,” a story of Father Damien.  It was filmed at Kalaupapa, thus giving you an idea of what the peninsula looks like and the conditions those poor folks dealt with on a daily basis.

Today, Kalaupapa National Historical Park is administered by the National Park Service in cooperation with several Hawaii state agencies.  One of the park’s primary missions is to protect the lifestyle and privacy of the aging resident community.  In accordance with residents’ wishes and State of Hawaii Department of Health regulations, Kalaupapa is a closed community.  As members of a Sierra Club Service Trip, we received special permission to stay in the community for 4 nights and 5 days…something most people will never get to do.  I felt very privileged to be a part of this endeavor.

Our group consisted of nine people (two leaders, Ruth and Lynne; one cook, the VERY able Jan; six participants, Barbara,  Elyette, Puanani and my good buddies, Jan & Dick).  We arrived mid-morning of May 21, were met at the tiny airport and after signing in at the Park office were taken to our housing for the week.  We stayed in two historic buildings that were once housed a doctor and dentist.  They weren’t very clean at the beginning, but they were cleaned after a fashion and we settled in.  Jan fixed an excellent lunch and off we went to the nursery to begin our work week.

Luana helped me to understand local culture, some history and customs as well as some of the native plants

One of the goals of the Park Service is to replace the non-native plants (of which there are many) with native plants and the

Williwilli seeds
(RDS Photo)

Rise up Wiliwili fingers! (Click on this photo to get the full effect of the fingers)

nursery is the place where this process begins.  Luana was our first boss and she taught us what to do to help her expedite her efforts to achieve her goals.  That first day, we weeded out various plants, cleaned up the nursery a bit and sanded edges of the of wiliwili seeds.  It sounds weird, but we did this to give the seeds a faster sprouting time.  Yes, the seeds were small (a bit bigger than a navy bean), difficult to grasp and tough to sand off even a small spot.  We sanded our fingers and nails, too, giving rise to many jokes and puns.  The next time we worked on the wiliwilis, we taped painter’s tape to our fingers to try to make it easier and faster.

We finished our chores early enough that some of our group walked down to the harbor to go swimming and wash off some of the dirt.  Few boats/barges arrive in the harbor, thus leaving the water very clean and refreshing.  I swam there a day or so later and really enjoyed the warm water and outstanding snorkeling.

The next day was beautiful and we were up early to get ready for our day’s tasks.  Ruth, our fearless leader, instituted a Hawaiian word of the day after breakfast to get us thinking about the spirit of the islands and why we, as Sierra Club members, were there as volunteers.  We discussed the word, its meaning and what it meant to us.  I liked that approach and I did think about the daily words often as I was working on our assigned chores.

Leimomi shared her culture as well as her knowledge about Kalupapa with us.

Our second day’s task took us to a very large cemetery (I failed to write down the name, but it was used from 1887 to 1920 and had many unmarked graves) surrounded by a

Puanani, who knows much about local and native plants and their uses and shared her knowledge with us. I learned a great deal from Pua.

rock wall.  Other crews had been in to clear lantana bushes and other brush and stacked them in large piles.  It was our job to move the brush to outside the rock walls so that “the boys” (a crew of two could take it to the dump in dump truck)  We also raked leaves and cleared a lot of weeds and thistles.  Leimomi (aka Momi) was our boss for the day and led us very ably.  She worked right with us and got just as dirty and sweaty as we did. Before we even stepped inside the cemetery, we had a blessing to assure the spirits we meant no harm and that we wanted to please them by cleaning up their resting place.  One of our group, Puanani, a Hawaiian from Maui, sang a Hawaiian blessing with a rich, powerful voice.  Her singing really moved me.  After her blessing, the Doxology was sung in Hawaiian.

The air and mood seemed clearer as we moved into the cemetery to begin our work.  I thought at first that this was going to be a piece of cake… just putting brush on tarps and carrying it outside the cemetery and raking and weeding some.  I mean, after all, we working in teams, right?  Well, I got a sweaty education that morning.  Stacking, tromping, lifting, carrying and pushing all take a toll on one’s older body after a bit.  But we were pleased that the cemetery floor looked clearer than when we started and I think the spirits were pleased with our efforts.

Placing brush on a tarp

Haul it day

Carrying brush outside the cemetery to a wood pile in an area that used to be a dairy.

We had lunch at the Kalawao Lookout where the original Hansen’s Disease settlement was begun.  We raked up leaves and

Our group plus Luana and 2 of the “boys” around the skip loader used to put trash & leaves into the dump truck (RDS Photo)

At Kalawao Lookout

a bit of debris in the park that surrounds the lookout and sanded some more wiliwilis but had time to take at look at some of

Looking down into the Kauhako Crater with the pond in the bottom

the ruins and artifacts from that era.  We could also see places where boat would bring in new people to join the settlement.  Sometimes the boat captains would take them ashore in a small boat and other times they would force the people to swim for the shore.  I saw how rough that coastline and water could be and I don’t know how any able bodied person could make it ashore, much less a sick person with poorly functioning hands and feet.

The flat, leaf-like Kalaupapa peninsula of today was created by an offshore volcanic eruption at Pu’u ‘Uao that resulted in the remnant Kauhako Crater.  We had the opportunity to visit the crater after we finished our clean up job at Kalawao.  Wow!  It was stunning!  It’s a relatively small crater overgrown with thick vegetation and trees and with a pond at the bottom of it.  Someone told us that the pond’s bottom had not been found and I read later that it was more than 800’ deep.  Don’t know as I didn’t hike down to the water.  There were stone graves on the rim of the crater which must be wind blown every day and will some day be blown into gravel.  I was knocked off balance several times by the STRONG, gusty wind as I was gazing into the crater.  It was hard to hold the camera with the wind knocking me around.

Our third day saw us going to what I would call the Lighthouse Beach as it was a bit windward from the tallest lighthouse in the Pacific. (More about that later)  We were charged

The monk seals

with picking up as much trash and junk that we could as this particular beach is in the way of a lot of floating stuff.

Portuguese Man-o-War – so small but, oh so venomous
(RDS Photo)


Even some type of light bulb was found on the beach

found ropes, bottles, baskets, broken glass, light bulbs, boxes,  and much more.  I found a Portuguese Man of War jelly fish clinging to a rock.  I thought they were large critters, but this one was about and inch and a half long and was told they don’t get much bigger in the Islands.  I’m pretty sure it was dead as it was out of water, but was careful not to touch the tentacles.

Is that a hangman’s noose? Check out the white stuff. That is broken coral that will some day be white sand (RDS Photo)

I reveled in this day as I was at the beach enjoying the surf pounding on the black lava rocks, the wind was blowing my hair and the rain was spritzing on us…and yet it wasn’t cold.  I loved being out there picking up the stuff.  We filled the bed of a large pick up with the junk we picked up.  On the way back to our houses, we stopped by another beach to see a mother monk seal and her “baby.”  The baby was at least half or two-thirds the size of its mom.  but they were lazing on the beach enjoying the afternoon sun. A day or so later, a black tipped shark was seen cruising the little bay checking out the monk seals.  They make good meals for the sharks.

Later that day, I went swimming and snorkeled some.  The water was perfect and the colorful fish were abundant.  It was like being in my own little world with no cares to think about.  All of us went to the local volleyball court to play some games with the locals…those being mostly park employees who

The volleyball game

play every Wednesday afternoon.  Ruth and I played some but the wind (the ever present wind) was blowing so hard that it misdirected the ball a lot and we felt silly missing it or not making a good play.  Some of also visited the local bar to get a beer or soda.  We would call it a hole in the wall at home, but I really enjoyed going there to chat with the folks in there as well as to have a $3 Heineken.  I think that’s the cheapest beer on any island or even at home!

The local (and only) bar at Kalaupapa

Dick, Jan and I chatted with Edwin, a patient who had been at Kalaupapa for 70 years.  We had seen him before when he drove his white pickup with the dashboard filled with little stuffed animals.  We always waved to each other and felt a comradeship.  He served as the referee for the volleyball games and confessed to us that he cheated sometimes to help teams.  He was quite a character.  Rain was threatening as we trooped back to our houses and received a big surprise.   Leimomi came over and shortly after, Moke, another Park Service employee came with his ukulele.  He played and

Moke and his ukelele. What a sweet voice he had

sang with a beautiful sweet voice.  We sometimes joined in and even beat out some rhythm on some makeshift percussion instruments.  The aloha spirit and camaraderie was so strong that it brought tears to my eyes.  It was a grand evening.

Thursday’s word of the day was “kokua” meaning to help.  That was certainly apropos for our week as we were trying to help the settlement as much as possible.  Ruth had asked us to think about what we expected from our time at Kalaupapa and I had said something about spreading aloha spirit…thinking about giving.  But I didn’t really expect to receive as much as I did.  I truly believe that I received and learned much more than I gave.  This feeling is very difficult for me to express adequately.

We were given a tour of the new archives building just across the park from our houses.  This was a real treat as we got to see many artifacts, hear more stories and see more old

The noni fruit

photos.  We also got to see a PowerPoint presentation on grave restoration.  Many of the gravestones need to be repaired and/or restored and our presenter (whose name I can’t remember) was the one who did that work.  He also had several stories and many pictures to show us his work.  We were also able to see more of it when we walked through the cemetery later.  We then worked outside the building weeding and making it look a lot nicer.  Puanani got stung by a yellow jacket just as we were finishing up our chores.  She asked us to get some noni fruit and leaves from its tree to help take the sting and swelling down.  She had been telling us about this tree and that many natives use it as a medicine cabinet to help cure many things.  That night, she and Lynne wrapped my knee (that was sore that day) with heated noni leaves and then wrapped it in plastic for the night.  It did help relieve the soreness, but it kind of stunk like tobacco.

The doctor’s house where 6 of our team stayed

Speaking of our houses, here are a couple of pictures of them.  The white gate is a symbol of a hedge and fence that prohibited

The dentist’s house where we stayed. I’m not sure what Jan’s doing here. Maybe she saw the mongoose that lived under our house.

patients from just knocking on the door of a staff member.  They had to ring a bell and ask for permission to enter.  The gate and fence were the same at all staff houses. Our rooms were pretty Spartan with just a mattress and springs on the floor with not much light available.  We all had to wear red Visitor’s tags to identify us to the patients and employees that we had permission to be walking around the settlement.  There were no problems and it wasn’t a big deal to wear the tag.

My quarters. Plain but it was closest to the bathroom 🙂

The red tag ready for the next adventure

Luana and the “boys,”  Rick and Albert, took us out to where part of the original settlement was at Kalawao so that we could see where the patients had to “swim for it.”  Part of this

Looking out to the rough sea. Click on the picture to enlarge it and check out the billowing pants and shirts

area was also where the “Moloka’i” film was made.  So rugged and unprotected from the wind that I wonder how people survived, especially when they were sick.  We saw two turtles (honu) off the coast and it seemed to me that even they were having troubles negotiating the rough water.  We then made our way over a rocky trail to the “Old Ladies” cave.  We were told that people lived in the cave (a lava tube) that opened out to the ocean and served as lookouts for strange canoes and/or

Looking out from “Old Ladies” cave

sailing ships.  It used to be a very long tube going back to the Kauhako crater that we had visited on Tuesday, but part of it caved in when the US Navy used that part of Kalupapa for target practice during WWII.  I wondered how much more indignity could these people handle?  I guess no one was hurt but it just seems to me that it would have been a bit too close for comfort for me.

We continued our rocky ride around the north side of the island to the beach that we cleaned up a couple of days before.  We picked some acai (not sure of spelling or even the name)berries for Luana to transplant to other parts of the peninsula.  I felt sort of like a bear looking for food to eat.

Picking the acai berries about 50 yards from the beach that we cleaned up

Up close and personal with the berries

The Moloka’i Light Station…all 133′ of it

From the beach, we turned around and saw the Moloka’i Light Station towering 133′ above us.  It is the tallest lighthouse in the Pacific Ocean and is now 102 years old.  Actually we didn’t just turn around…it was very obvious that it was there.  We were all very excited to get to clamber up the stairs to the top of it to see what we could see.  It was a stupendous view of pretty much the entire peninsula and the pali.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get any good pictures from that vantage point because I couldn’t hold the camera steady enough.  I think the wind was blowing about 70 mph up at the top where we went outside.  Lynne’s watch blew off her wrist and Dick’s glasses blew out of his vest.  So it was an expensive trek up those stairs.  I felt good about going around the top without getting too scared but once I got back inside where the light was, my stomach began doing flip flops.  So I decided that I ought to descend to the ground once again.  It was very exciting for me to do that knowing that I have some acrophobia and that I conquered it to some degree.  I was proud of everyone else as they did it too.

Several of us swam in the harbor that afternoon and enjoyed the array of fish one more time.  It was great!  Then we went home to a great dinner of chicken, rice, green beans and 2 kinds of ice cream!  Yum!

Our last morning saw us going back to the nursery where we helped Luana tidy up the nursery a bit more.  Tables were moved, equipment

Helping at the nursery

was stacked neatly, weeds were pulled and more mangos picked up.  It was just enough work to get us pretty hot and sweaty again.  After lunch, I trekked with Ruth and Elyette up the Kalaupapa trail.  I don’t know how far we went, but that climb gets to one’s knees after a while…particularly going back down.  The Moloka’i mule train had left just before we began our hike and, of course, left evidence of its

This trail is how many of the Park Service employees get to work Monday mornings. They usually stay and then go home up topside on Fridays.

passing.  I discovered that I’m allergic to the mixture of dust and dung, that it makes a rash on my ankles.  Such a bummer, but it didn’t itch, just looked bad.  That’s another reason not to hike that trail.  We saw and hear a white-rumped shama, a member of the thrush family that sounded like a mockingbird to me.  He had such pretty songs.

The white-rumped shama

We had just enough time left for a short swim in the harbor before dashing up to the house to shower, change clothes and finish packing for our flight back to Maui.  I’ve talked about the ever present wind, sometimes like a gale, oftentimes not.  I grew to embrace it because it blew allergens out of the air and I had practically no nose-blowing for the entire week.  That was a gift!  We all enjoyed the quiet of Kalaupapa.  The two primary sounds I remember were birds and the wind.  I liked that sense of peace.

None of us wanted to leave this beautiful, idyllic place filled with so many stories and so much adversity, strength and courage as we had all enjoyed our brief time at Kalaupapa.  Robert Louis Stevenson said Kalaupapa is a land of “beauty springing from the breast of pain.”  I think it was fitting that our little airplane took off into a double rainbow which to some represents a transformation or something wondrous or amazing.  Such feelings were abundant in my head as I bid my farewell to Kalaupapa.

My priceless room
(RDS Photo)

Ruth and me playing volleyball in gale force wind. Not easily done.
(RDS Photo)

Our group at the last night’s dinner table
(RDS Photo)

4 Responses to “Kalaupapa – Enduring Spirit, Sacred Ground”

  1. Dot Demmin June 7, 2012 at 3:06 am #

    Cora, Thanks for the tour. I almost feel as if I heard the birds, and played in the water. What a great gift you gave to the community. Thank you. Dot Demmin

  2. Ruth June 10, 2012 at 4:58 am #

    Thank you, thank you, Cora, for sharing your Kalaupapa experience!

  3. Connie Raub June 11, 2012 at 3:56 am #

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, pictures and details of your adventure. This is a gift in true Aloha Spirit also the Spirit of the Buzzard.

  4. Miss Mary June 11, 2012 at 10:55 pm #

    Thanks so much for sharing and for all the photos! What a breathtaking, indescribable, and amazing time!! 🙂

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