I would have liked the mule ride.
As the plane swooped along the coast, I saw the zigzagging trail sloping down the cliff face. It’s a two-hour ride each way but April’s rain had washed away the trail so now the only way in was by plane.
Our little four-seater airplane flew over the cliffs and on to the other side of Molokai: it would be quicker to just pick up the other guy now, our pilot explained.
Our group grew to four; seats were swapped to evenly balance weight and we were back in the air for just a few minutes before gliding down past a tall, thin lighthouse and landing in a patch of field.
We met our guide in the Kalaupapa Airport—a building the size of my living room—and waved goodbye to the pilot as he pulled the plane across the grass and out the way.
“It’s rush hour!” The guide whistled through the gaps in his teeth as a truck wobbled along the road past us. He threw a shaka towards the truck driver and then it was just us as far as I could see.
Our near empty school bus carried on along the road, past several cemeteries: the overflow cemetery; the Native Hawaiian cemeteries; the cemeteries where most of the headstones had been washed away by a tsunami.
We made our first stop at a store and bar—though alcohol can only be sold after 4pm. The guide pointed out an old photograph of Kalawao at the time of the leper colony and we petted a cat named Hitler.
“It’s irony,” said the third visitor, an optimistic man from Washington. “You take something terrible and turn it into something happy.”
Mentally I tried to make the connection to our visit to a former leper colony, but it didn’t fit. Looking at the cold shop assistant, I didn’t get the feeling that this had turned in to something happy. The man from Washington looked pleased with the thought, though, and I turned and left him petting and cooing at the cat.
Onwards; past former hospitals and separate residences for boys and girls. On to Saint Francis Church where there was singing; the church hall where there was more photographs and stories, and past the Post Office and General Store—off limits for visitors, out of respect for the former patients who go about their daily lives here.
We got back in the bus and started our way across to Kalawao. A truck passed us and the guide couldn’t resist repeating the joke: “We’re coming into heavy traffic now!’” He grinned. I caught a flash of a girl sitting in the back as the truck drove past. I noticed highlights in her dark hair and it wondered what it would be like to be a young woman here.
We stopped for lunch at the edge of the peninsula, looking out towards the massive cliff faces and conical islets. The driver had been carrying around a tub filled with cat food; he shook some out onto the ground for the kitten that came up to us as we stepped off the bus.
“There’s no children here,” he said, “so the animals become family.
You can’t even visit Kalaupapa if you are under 16.
We sat at a park bench for lunch, the man from Washington tore pieces of his to give to the kitten, petting and coddling it. I thought that animals were family for him too.
I walked away from the others for just a minute and took in the silence. It occurred to me that Kalaupapa is silent. The two locals we had interacted with hadn’t said a word, not even when making a transaction with the others. I considered that Kalaupapa was inscrutable; it wouldn’t breathe a word of its secrets.
We moved on to the neat, simple church, locked now because a recent visitor had removed some artifacts. We stood by Father Damien’s grave–containing only his right hand—then made our way back to the little airport.
As we neared the airport the driver slowed to point out a monk seal; flopped out all alone on his long empty beach.