The last days of a one-time leper colony
Kalaupapa—“Funeral tomorrow for Lourdes Taghoy,” Karameli shouts from behind the wheel of her pickup truck. The eighty-two-year-old’s death has brought the remaining number of patients in Kalaupapa, Hawaii’s former leper colony, to thirty-one. Helping out, I write a notice in big block letters on the community chalkboard in front of a palm tree. The service will take place at St. Philomena Church, where little rectangular holes along the floorboards once allowed patients to stay for the entire service, spitting through long, rolled-up palm leaves. “Ashes spread at crater to follow,” I add, before hopping into Karameli’s truck.
From 1866 to 1969, more than 8,000 people with leprosy (now known as Hansen’s Disease) were shipped to this isolated peninsula on the island of Molokai. Along the treacherous windward coastline, the earliest patients were thrown off boats and forced to swim to shore, where death was an almost daily occurrence. The current population (average age seventy) remembers the 1946 introduction of sulfone drugs, which significantly improved patient health almost overnight; the 1952 Kalaupapa Dodgers baseball team; and visits from John Wayne and Shirley Temple. When a change in government policy ended admissions to Kalaupapa in the late sixties, many patients, including Lourdes and Karameli, chose to stay.
Time moves at its own languid pace in Kalaupapa, where the “recommended” speed limit ranges from five to twenty-five miles per hour. This makes for a somewhat long drive with Karameli, who drops me off at my national park sponsor Rosa’s house without saying good-bye. Outsiders, marked with mandatory “Visitor” tags, are treated with caution in Kalaupapa. On a previous visit to the peninsula, Karameli allowed me to attend a small gathering at her house out of a sense of obligation—Rosa is her niece.
Rosa and I were seated at a table in Karameli’s furniture-filled garage, where husband Randall’s plaid shirts hung from a laundry line overhead. Ivy, who is also related to Karameli and works for the state health department, soon arrived carrying her papillon dog, Cheryl, bringing the total number of animals that would spend the evening licking my legs under the table to seven. Karameli sat at the head in a blue rocking chair, massaging the pain in her legs and shooing the animals away with a sawed-off fishing pole.
“We miss being around children,” Randall said, breaking the silence as we ate the feast Karameli had prepared. “That’s why we love our animals.” (Children under sixteen are not permitted on the peninsula, an issue that regularly resurfaces at the settlement’s monthly meetings.) The party hit a high note when dessert was served: green bananas cooked in coconut milk. This fruit is a luxury in Kalaupapa, even for patients, who get first dibs on the groceries flown in weekly. Accessing such treats is only slightly easier for the sixty resident health and park staff, who can always take an eight-minute flight—or climb the 2,000-foot sea cliff—to visit Topside Molokai’s Friendly Market. At the end of the meal, Ivy rubbed her belly and moaned, “Those bananas took me away.”
Once Karameli had retired, Randall and Rosa reminisced about the settlement’s rowdier days, when parties at the pool hall (which was originally a funeral parlour) spilled off the back deck onto a lawn overlooking the Pacific Ocean. “We’d drink until the supply was out,” Rosa laughed. Randall shrugged, “Everyone is dead already.” Yes, Rosa agreed, pulling a cat onto her lap. “The party animals are gone.”