Opinion: A journey to Kalaupapa: Ten students and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity

I felt like a flying squirrel, leaping from one stair to the next, speeding down the twenty-six switchbacks along the 3.2 mile hike from the topside of Moloka’i to the village of Kalaupapa.

The village is surrounded by the vast ocean, 2,000 foot sheer cliffs, and is part of Kalawao county. In 1866, King Kamehameha V passed a law requiring citizens with leprosy to be sent to Kalaupapa. In the beginning, this inescapable area seemed like a prison; however, it soon became a place of refuge in which everyone was just like each other and developed into a place of love, care, and support.

My Winterim group, chaperoned by Tony Haleakala (who happens to be quite the master chef and lead in the preparation of our extravagant dinners) and Asha Francisco, reached the bottom of the hike in a little over an hour, and we eagerly awaited our unique opportunity to explore the former leprosy settlement. We could feel the excitement in the air like we could feel the ache in overworked calves.

We were welcomed by a woman named Emily who shuttled us into the colony and dropped us off at our houses. The girls stayed in the old doctor’s home while the boys stayed in the old nurse’s quarters. Within the first five minutes of exploring our home, Hana discovered the coconut trees lining our walkway and began throwing the coconuts at any angle that would get them open and ready to drink (this began a highly competitive competition in which Destin became the coconut master).

On the first night of our stay, we went to their movie theater: a big green building in the center of the community housing tons of wooden chairs set up like a regular theater and a projector. Our guide, Miki’ala Pescaia, presented a movie called “Soul of Kalaupapa: Voices in Exile,” which gave us some background on the community and interviewed the patients.

One of the scenes that really stuck with me was an interview with a woman who had been sent to the settlement by her doctor. As a young girl, she had been abused by her stepmother after her own mother had been sent away to the colony. Miki’ala explained to us that the doctor must have known about the young girl’s suffering and had sent her away in hopes of reuniting her with her mother. Once at the site, the young girl discovered her mother had passed away and was adopted into the girls school where she was welcomed with arms wide open by all of the other little girls. She explained that she had never felt so loved and welcomed by a community and began to pray every night to God to give her leprosy so she could stay with her new friends.

During our downtime the group bonded over card games taught by Alissa. Over the next few nights, the games would grow extremely competitive as everyone would discover Destin’s cheating tendencies and make bets in which the stakes were as high as having to carry another player’s pillow back up the twenty-six switchbacks.

The schedule for the next few days consisted of service in the morning, a lunch break for cards and sandwiches, some more service and then the rest of the day was ours. We cleaned debris from the fields, planted native plants at the nursery, cleaned one of the prettiest beaches I’ve ever seen and sorted stamps for the museum.

In our free time, we would adventure down to the pier where Alissa, Will, and Destin fearlessly tossed their bodies off the dock into the energetic sea or down the street to swim in the pools of the white sand beach.

One night we immersed ourselves in the community and spent the night at the local bar (which is really just a bunch of tables and a refrigerator for beverages and ice cream) owned by a patient, listening to the locals sing all kinds of songs together. Ms. Francisco even joined in and got on the microphone to sing for us all. I really began to understood how close and loving this community is. Everybody is welcome, and they all just sing together in harmony. Another night we attended a local volleyball game where Ian demonstrated his skills.

During our stay, I learned a lot about community. I felt our Winterim group became a sort of strange family, and we all bonded over sharing such a special experience together. I watched my classmates—as well as myself—come out of their shells and have fun together. I watched Alissa, Destin, Will, and Hana bond over their fearlessness in the water. Angela and Tess conquered every challenge, from card games to the milk challenge, head on. David and Ian participated in the coconut throwing, and Sierra pushed herself to her limits in our volleyball game. Even Ms. Francisco made it back up the trail after feeling the after effects of the hike for multiple days. Our group was fearless, courageous, and willing to learn while seeking adventure.

In another way, I discovered the beautiful familial essence of Kalaupapa; how everybody works together to take care of both the patients, themselves and the beautiful town in which they live. The dedication of these people is admirable, and it is easy to tell that Kalaupapa has become a safe haven rather than a prison.

The journey into the settlement brought amazing memories, a greater understanding, and a new appreciation for the people who sacrificed their lives to prevent the spread of leprosy and were sent to Kalaupapa. On Wednesday, after a hour and a half of heavy breathing back up the switchbacks, I reached a point where you can see the settlement from topside. The small town looked so peaceful against the awesome blues and greens of the sea. We all felt so happy in this moment, after having experienced the opportunity of a lifetime. My favorite moment was gazing off the lookout, backpacks in tow, and simply smiling at each other as if we all knew we were experiencing something magical.