On the island of Molokai, Hawaii is as it used to be


February 09, 1992|By Jeannette Belliveau

Timeless Hawaii perseveres in rural Molokai, a peaceful oasis with many Hawaiians and few tourists, snuggled between Oahu and Maui.

Hawaii's longest beach lies on Molokai's western flank. Perfect combers crash on Papohaku's 2 1/2 miles of white sand with nary a footprint. Then, as it follows the shoreline east, Molokai's lone highway passes Hawaiian families tending ancient fish traps, wading waist-deep in coves separated by stakes from the wider ocean.

From the central hills of Molokai, looking across the placid water, the lavender slopes of neighbor islands Lanai and Maui taper to the horizon like the backs of enormous sleeping whales. From the hills the road drops into Kaunakakai, Molokai's easygoing main town with mock Western shop fronts and no stoplights.

Forever marked by its tragic past as a leper colony, this little-visited and perhaps most Hawaiian of the main Hawaiian islands makes a deep impression on its smattering of visitors.

Its appeal lies in its rugged beauty, its rural charm -- and the inescapable and stirring memory of Father Damien, a Belgian priest who arrived in 1873 to ease the hellish lives of lepers. (Leprosy is a progressive disease that causes deformities and loss of sensation to the extremities of those infected. It is apparently acquired only after long and close contact by the small percentage of the population who are genetically disposed.)

If Oahu and Maui are the Tourist Islands, Kauai the Garden Island, and Hawaii the Big Island, now-peaceful Molokai is the Spiritual Island.

Preserving Father Damien's memory is the mission of a blunt, crotchety, third-generation leper named Richard Marks, who serves as tour guide, former sheriff, toastmaster, importer and local gadfly.

Via a jouncing school bus, Mr. Marks, whose disease is largely controlled by drugs and thus is not contagious, gives tours of the leper colony on Kalaupapa. The flat colony on Molokai's north-central peninsula at the base of 1,600-foot sea cliffs -- the world's highest -- is cut off from the topside, or rugged main landmass, of Molokai.

Kalaupapa is the main attraction for many of Molokai's 100,000 annual visitors, a tiny proportion of Hawaii's 7 million yearly tourists. Modern-day pilgrims must clamber down the cliffs on foot or by mule, or fly in to Kalaupapa from Honolulu or Molokai's airport. The cliffs make driving to the peninsula impossible.

A hiker by nature, I decided to tromp down the nearly vertical cliff face to the leper colony. The sheer, wind-swept trail zigzags 2 1/2 miles down 26 switchbacks, affording views of cliffs marching west along the ocean. Below and to the right spreads the aptly named Kalaupapa ("flat leaf" in Hawaiian) peninsula, bounded by rough Pacific waters.

My walk dispelled an impression that all of Molokai was a leper colony, a misconception dating to reading long ago a children's book about Father Damien. Now I could see the peninsula was only perhaps a square mile of the larger, roughly brick-shaped island, 38 miles east to west by 10 miles north to south.

A group of hikers waited in a meadow at the cliff base for Richard Marks to finish fueling a school bus. The Spiritual Island had drawn a different tour-group mix from that found along the boulevards of Waikiki: two Methodist ministers, two occupational therapists and six Korean Christians from a Honolulu church.

A stocky 6-footer with pocked skin, graying hair and large ears, Mr. Marks, 62, loaded us onto the school bus. He waved to a 70-ish Chinese leper, one of about 90 still left on Kalaupapa, who drove past in an aging sedan. Though the man's face had a hollow featureless look, his nose worn and his mouth an open "O," he was clearly grinning, the picture of innocent merriment as he hurtled at his top speed, about 10 mph, around Kalaupapa's rutted roads.

The school bus jounced over to the east side of the peninsula, known as Kalawao. There the forest-green sea cliffs of Molokai meet an ocean filled with small upthrust islands the shape of shark's teeth.

Kalawao's classic South Seas beauty is made terrible by the knowledge that here boatmen from Honolulu shoved lepers into these treacherous waters. Those who made it to shore lived as animals, lawless and without shelter for the remainder of their brief lives -- until Father Damien arrived.

A combination of nurse and no-frills carpenter, Father Damien built homes and churches and moved the lepers to the drier west edge of Kalaupapa, where their successors still live today. In 1889, 16 years after he arrived, he finally died of leprosy himself -- the only priest assigned to the colony to so succumb. Hawaii hopes that he will eventually be declared a saint, a move apparently delayed by Father Damien's habit of quarreling obstinately with church and government bureaucrats to gain lumber and medicine for the lepers.

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