Featured, Travel

A Tropical Prison

The Kalaupapa Peninsula, Molokai, Hawaii

Submitted by Jessica Hettwer upon her return to Alaska from the island of Molokai, Hawaii –

It actually was a dark and stormy night in 1866 when nine men and three women boarded the ship that took them to their new home. Kalawo, Molokai. An isolated peninsula, cut off from the rest of society by daunting sea cliffs that tower thousands of feet above sea level. These twelve individuals were the first of over 8,000 to start their new lives on a tropical island. They did not choose this life. It was chosen for them. They came from different age groups, social status, gender and eventually race. The one thing that separated them from all other Hawaiians was Leprosy. Now known as Hansens Disease. These very sick and weak people were the first to be banished to the approximately 5 square mile Kalaupapa Peninsula. There they would live out the rest of their life away from family and friends.

I was extremely fortunate to spend two months in the Kalaupapa settlement. I would like to share some history about the misunderstood disease and the people it affected. It is a living history. There are 13 patients that are alive today. Nine of them still live in the settlement. Hansens Disease is neither fatal or highly infectious. Many peoples’ knowledge of the disease is misguided at best. Someone I spoke with recently said they knew about the settlement, because they saw a South Park episode. I don’t want to assume everyone has seen that episode and South Park may have left out a thing or two. So here are somethings that I learned during my time in the settlement.

The Hawaiian name for the disease is Mai Pake. The english translation is “The Chinese Sickness”.
It is a chronic illness caused by a bacteria called Mycrobaterium Leprae. There is a minuscule number of people on the planet that can be infected. Ninety-five percent of the population have a natural immunity to it. According to the US Centers For Disease Control and Prevention approximately 100 new cases are reported in the US each year. In the 1940’s medication was discovered that was effective against the disease. It is curable and limbs do not fall off.


The effects are slow to appear. Symptoms may take 3-5 years to manifest after being infected. If not treated, sores will appear on the skin. It also affects the upper respiratory tract, the nerves of the extremities, and eyes. Loss of feeling in the hands and feet are an indication of the disease. It is spread through long term contact with a person who has the disease, but has not been treated. It is transmitted by nasal secretions or droplets. Strangely enough armadillos can transmit the disease. So if you come upon an armadillo resist the temptation of taking a selfie with one.

Present day Kalaupapa is a very special place. There are 80-100 State and National Park employees who work and live in the settlement. It became a National Historic Site in 1980. 100 visitors a day are allowed to take a tour of the settlement. The only ways to access Kalaupapa is by plane or “The Trail”. The steep yet scenic trail is a 1,664 foot descent over 3.1 miles. Some visitors fly in while others choose to ride mules down the trail. The patients that remain are now free to come and go as they please. Up until 1969 they were not allowed to leave. Some left, but most chose to stay. Patients started to travel and Las Vegas quickly became a favorite destination.

Many patients fell in love and got married. The women who became pregnant gave birth to their babies only to have their child removed at birth and given up for adoption. It is a dark and troubling history that is still being written. What started out as a dreary and isolated place slowly turned into a sacred place. What once may have been considered as a tropical prison is now a place where the patients choose to live out the remainder of their lives. Things in the settlement have improved remarkably from the first days when the patients were dumped off on the beach.

The isolation is no longer looked at as a bad thing. No longer cut off from family and friends, time slows down in the settlement. It is a place with a strong sense of community. A place where people stop and talk with their neighbor while swapping fresh avocados for a bundle of bananas. Where overwhelming kindness flows freely. A place and people that you don’t change, but where you are changed. If you find yourself in the lovely Hawaiian islands it is worth a visit to Kalaupapa. If you are interested in seeing and learning more “The Soul of Kalaupapa” is a well done documentary.


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