Monday, December 11, 2006

Molokai, My Favorite Isle (Part 2)

I wake up an hour before sunrise. This is quite an unusual wake-up time for someone on vacation. But I booked a mule ride down to the leper colony on the north side of Molokai. And the mules leave early.

I stop by a coffee shop/gallery in Kaunakakai. It is the only business open at this early hour. Its interior is quite modern (more so than 99% of the retail establishments on the island). It feels out of place. For some reason unknown to me, it is almost completely full of customers. I grab my obligatory double espresso and plop down on the computer to check my email. It is still dark outside.

After sipping my dose of caffeine, I head out to the stables. Of course, the paniolo behind the counter tells me he does not see my name on the reservation roster. All the mules have been spoken for. I'm SOL.

The leper colony is situated on a flat, low lying peninsula. On a map, it juts out of northern Molokai like a tiny, sharp, speed bump. There are three ways of getting there: by sea (this only happens twice a year, when a supply ship delivers LARGE items like generators and motor vehicles), by air, and by land via a mule trail. Though the colony is connected to Molokai, it is separated by a 3300 foot tall, 60 degree steep cliff.

The three mile trail down is steep, slippery, and contains 26 switchbacks. If I start too late, I will have to follow a trail of mule poop. I am committed to seeing the colony so I switch my mindset from being a mule rider to a hiker. I start walking down.

For the entire way down, I can see the colony in front of me. The mist smears my glasses. My increased body heat fogs up my glasses. The tall cliff is an excellent barrier between the well and the ill. Between life and death. Psychologically, the infirmed who lived there must have assumed that they have been banished to a no-man's land for the rest of their tortured lives.
After about two hours, I finally reach the bottom. The ocean is rough and unrelenting. The semi-annual ships that bring supplies oftentimes have to turn back due to the violent waves. Because I did not come with an official tour, I am not allowed to visit the compound. Rather, I find a bleacher on the outskirts of the colony and rest up before I head back up the cliff.

I am joined by random people who have also wandered down the cliff. One is an agriculture student from Iowa. The soil of Molokai is so fertile, researchers grow corn year round. Another is a Japanese tourist who has an admirable obsession for Father Damien, the Belgian priest who oversaw the leper colony. We all came here for our own reasons.

Patients still live here, voluntarily. I never got to meet them. I don't know if that's a good thing or not. For my sake and for their sake.

I climb back up the cliff in record time. For the next week, my legs and back are sore. I have no idea how lucky I am.


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