“Do you mind my asking? Are you Christian?”
“No, no, I’m Jewish.”
I smile and shake my head. “Ha, no, I’m a West Coast Jew. I grew up in California.” I’m not sure Norman knows what I mean by this. “I’m not practicing,” I say, by way of explanation.
“Have you been to Israel?”
“I have, I studied Hebrew, too, I used to be quite conversational. I was a kibbutz volunteer for a year and a half after high school.”
“I hope to go some day, before Jesus takes me,” Norman says, pointing up towards the breaking clouds.
Norman is a stocky, healthy looking man in his late 60s, perhaps. His hair is white, his eyes are blue, he has a neat little comb of a mustache. He’s wearing a tshirt that has the words “If all else fails, follow instructions” over a picture of the bible with a halo above it. He is our guide for the day on a tour of Kalaupapa, the infamous leper colony on the island of Moloka’i.
We are having this odd conversation as we stand next to a rusting old blue school bus. The bus says “Damien Tours” across the front. Inside, taped to the industrial green metal over the window is a sign that says “No taking pictures of the residents without written permission.” Norman has already tapped the sign and read it to the small group of visitors on the bus. I can count on one hand the number of people we’ve seen, up close or from a distance. Kalaupapa is dying, not of disease any more, but from isolation and old age.
The cemetery is the first thing we see as we drive into town. It’s an open grassy area on the edge of a cliff. It’s divided into sections by religion, there are little markers facing the roadside that show you where the Catholics end and the Protestants begin, where the Protestants end and the Church of the Latter Day Saints begins, and so forth. At the end, there are a handful of stones that are the square obelisks of Japanese cemeteries. It’s my own fault Norman asked me about my religion, as I’d asked him if there were non-Christian populations in Kalaupapa.There were Native Hawaiians, practicing their religion, but according to our guide, they all converted. There was a Buddhist shrine serving the Japanese residents, but it’s hasn’t been in service for a long time.
“It seems weird to me,” I said to Norman, “that everyone is apart, even in such a small place. If you’re not using your body anymore, why does it matter who you leave it lying next to?” There is a lot I don’t understand about religion.
“It just shows you what that they thought about separation,” he answered. “I hope that’s not the case in the next world.”
We stop at the mini-market. Not for the last time, I wonder if I’m going to punch through the rusting bottom step as I leave the bus. There are snacks and water for those who have forgotten to bring enough. I buy a few postcards — they are expensive at one dollar each — and a bag of Cracker Jacks. There’s a stocky brown auntie watching TV in the entry way and a little Siamese cat with a Groucho Marx face. I say hello to the kitty and Norman asks me if I can guess the cat’s name.
“Groucho? She has a Groucho mustache.”
“No, that’s not it. Who else has a little mustache like that?”
Before a treatment was found for Hansen’s Disease, about 8000 people were shipped off to Kalaupapa. Any children born in the settlement were promptly removed — if they were lucky, back to healthy families, if they weren’t, to orphanages where they waited for unlikely adoptions. The disease isn’t hereditary, but no one knew this at the time, so the kids were ostracized too, orphans with living parents. Kalaupapa was a heap of discarded humanity, the misunderstood and desperate dumped on the beach to fend for themselves.
I look at the cat and I look at Norman’s neat little mustache.
“Oh, no, it’s Hitler, isn’t it?”
“I didn’t name her,” says Norman, shrugging apologetically.
Norman is an expert on the missionary history of Kalaupapa. He can point to a row of pilings and tell you what stood there, how many occupants the building held, who ran it, where the borders of the property were. He can tell you about Mother Marianne and how she’d caught the eye of Hawaiian royalty, but she declined to go secular and stayed with her calling to minister to the sick. He can tell you about the saints who the churches were named after. He can tell you when King Kamehameha V signed the order to relocate patients with leprosy to the colony. He’s also got the movie sites down and he regrets that the local people who played roles in “Moloka’i, The Story of Father Damien” were not sufficiently credited.
In Kalaupapa, it’s easy to get the feeling history started on the day the missionaries arrived even though there are sites on the east side of the island that date back to 650 AD. Father Damien arrived in 1873. The bus parks near a heiau — Native Hawaiian temple site — but we don’t talk much about it and honestly, I forget to ask because I am knocked breathless by the view. The wind has blown all the clouds away and we are looking down the steep green cliffs of the east side. There are two smaller islands offshore, and then, across the channel, Maui. I wonder if Father Damien had the time or the inclination to appreciate the beauty of this place or if he was so overwhelmed by his work and the suffering of those around him that he could not see. The water is blue against the black stones, the color of the sky is reflected in the ocean.
We visit two churches. In one, the pews hold neat stacks of battered hymnals, boxes of Kleenex, odds and ends. On the back of a bench, above the little shelf where the books are stowed, there’s a typed note on browning paper, taped to the wood. “Do not touch or take anything from this pew. That means you… TOURIST!” Behind me, a statue of a saint holds up his rosary and casts his eyes towards the whitewashed ceilings. I feel completely unwelcome. What used to happen here? Did people really take hymnals as souvenirs? Did they hassle the residents for photographs and stumble into private gardens? We are tightly controlled for the entire duration of our visit, told where we can walk and where we can’t — the post office and the general store are off limits, we must not stray beyond the churchyard, the stone walls, and we have 15 minutes, only, for lunch.
There is a tiny bookstore where you can see a few objects that were customized for use by patients that were losing their fingers, their dexterity. At the back, there’s stamp station where you can get a National Monument stamp on your US Parks Department passport. Norman stands on the porch while the shoppers in the group buy souvenirs. When I come outside, he again asks me about my time in Israel and I give him the usual response I save for people I don’t know.
“It’s a very complicated place.”
“You know,” Norman says to me, “everything that’s happening there now was prophesied. It’s in the bible — both old and new testament.”
I blink at him, not sure what to say.
“We pray for Israel. It’s what we’re instructed to do.”
I hold my silence and wait. It has taken me a long time to learn not to argue complicated topics with strangers who have made up their minds.
“The Jews are God’s chosen people,” he says to me, insistently. “We pray for them.”
I am released from this awkward moment when one of the others in the group calls from across the lawn. There’s a mango tree bearing ripe fruit, the visitor wants to know if he can pick them. Norman gives him the okay and the tall man jumps up, grabs the branch and releases it. Mangoes fall to the ground around us. I pick up one up and take a bite. It is sweet and stringy. And then, I get back on the rusting blue bus. The step holds, one more time.
I was on Moloka’i as a guest of Hawaii tourism. My stay on Moloka’i – including the Kalaupapa tour was paid for by the Hawaii Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.