2007: Hawaii–Island of Molokai
A couple bits of trivia about Molokai: it’s home to some of the highest sea cliffs in the world (and is where the opening sequence of the film Jurassic Park was filmed) and it is home to one of the last remaining leper colonies in existence (the other one in the USA was located in Louisiana.) Yep, leprosy. Like the disease referenced in the Bible. It brings to mind images of people who are horribly disfigured, wrapped in bandages like mummies, their extremities being eaten away by disease and decay. Thankfully, with the help of modern medicine and sulfur-based drugs, things have changed markedly since then. The residents that still live on Molokai today do so by choice, not against their will–although that was most likely the very manner in which they arrived.
The only way to access the leper colony on Molokai is by a rocky trail that has been carved into the side of the cliff. No one other than residents and registered workers of the colony are allowed to be there unescorted. We took a guided “Mule Ride” tour in order to see it. The colony is located on this flat peninsula jutting out into the Pacific Ocean. Other non-Hansen’s residents that live on Molokai make their homes on the other side of the cliff, known as “top side Molokai.”
These are the famous sea cliffs that appeared in Jurassic Park.
In actuality, leprosy is now known as Hansen’s disease (named for the scientist who discovered the bacteria which causes it.) And it’s true: Hansen’s disease is caused by a bacteria which only around 4% of the world’s human population is susceptible to. However, the people who are susceptible can suffer tremendously. This microorganism causes lesions on the skin, which progresses to nerve damage, numbness, disfigurement, and ultimately loss of use.The good news in this modern day is that with the advent of antibiotic-type drugs which specifically target this certain bacteria, Hansen’s disease is no longer the contagious, life-threatening, isolating disease it once was. But when the leper colony on Molokai was established, there were no disease-fighting drugs available. The people with symptoms were separated from the general population, their homes, and their families (to prevent the spread of the disease) and sent to the island essentially to die. Other than the nuns and priest who served as relief workers on the island, the inhabitants were left to fend for themselves with what resources were already there.
Father Damien was the Catholic Priest known for his devotion to caring for the sick on Molokai. He eventually contracted Hansen’s disease himself, only after working with the patients for many, many years without the use of any precautions. This is one of the churches he built on the island.
Father Damien’s grave next to his church on Molokai.
Next to the church is a cemetery for the “prominent people” who worked and lived on the island, like the nuns who cared for the sick in the hospital. But it is the large, grassy field beyond the cemetery that haunts me. This grassy field contains countless unmarked graves of the residents who died of Hansen’s disease while living in seclusion on the island. Imagine how many people are buried there–too many names to list. Because everyone who was sent to the island was sent there to die.
The juxtaposition of heart-wrenching loneliness, sadness, isolation and death against the unbelievably beautiful, almost magical, scenery of this place makes Molokai feel haunted to me. It is one of the most beautiful, yet one of the saddest, places on earth. The spirits of those who had gone before were all around, aching to be heard…if only you were quiet and listened.
If you’re interested in learning more about Molokai, I highly recommend this book.
Tell me…where have you roamed?
Have you traveled to a place that has changed your life?
Spoken to your heart?
Where was it?