Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Tale of Two Cities

I try to live a full life.  One that is organized, but spontaneous.  One that is faithfilled, but fun-loving.  But one that is balanced.

Not balanced as in stuck in the middle.  Balanced in the sense that I can be comfortable in a number of environments, even those in the extremes.

My most recent trip illustrates that rather ideally.  There can not be two more opposite places than Las Vegas, Nevada and Moloka'i, Hawai'i.  And I've been to both in the span of two weeks.

When traveling to Hawai'i, I like to stop somewhere along the way to break up the trip.  This year, a route through Sin City made the most sense, logistically.

No problem.  There's plenty to do that doesn't involve sinning.  At least, that's what I remembered.

Now, I've been to Vegas three times previously.  It's fun, it's loud, it's crowded, it's a non-stop assult on your senses.  Nice for a couple of days of diversion.  But this year, it was different.  In a rapidly declining economy, everyone was out to get my money.

It started with the taxi cabs, which were outrageously expensive for a drive that was so short that I could nearly have walked to the hotel.  Then, the penny slots.  But, they weren't really penny slots like they advertised.  Once they had your credit card, you learned that the minimum bid was, in fact, thirty-five cents.  I lost a total of eighty-five.  Cents, that is, which, as someone pointed out, is a win in Las Vegas.

But, that's not all.  I learned that every time someone was being nice to me, they were really just trying to get me to buy a condo.  Ticket prices to shows bordered on criminal, and don't even get me started on the solicitations for prostitution.  In a walk from the Venetian to the Luxor, we encountered at least - and I am not exaggerating here - seventy people promising passers-by that they could have "hot girls" delivered to them in twenty minutes.  This was not the Vegas that I had visited before. 

I left, bidding good riddance to my eighty-five cents, pretty confident that I hadn't done any sinning, and boarded a flght for the blissful beaches of Maui.

Of course, I got sunburned on the first day, but never mind that.  The rest of them were peaceful and perfect.

But, hey, it wouldn't be like me to not to find the other extreme.  If Las Vegas is the epicenter of glitz and greed, the remote island of Moloka'i is its prettier sister.

Moloka'i has been beckoning me ever since I was a child, when I first heard the story of Fr. Damien.  It was there, on a tiny place called the Kalaupapa Peninsula, that the then-Kingdom of Hawai'i sent its lepers.   The Belgian priest, hearing that no one would minister to them for fear of contracting the flesh-eating disease, volunteered to go.  "Suppose the disease does get my body," he said.  "The Lord will give me another on Resurrrection Day."  Now, what greater heroism is there than that?

Fr. Damien did contract leprosy, but not before building four churches, and working side by side with the people until his death.

Four times, I'd been to Maui.  And four times, I longed to travel one island over to see this legendary place.  The fifth time was the charm.

We left early in the morning for the old whaling town of Lahaina, now lined with dinner boats and cruise ships.  In our case, we were boarding a ferry for the two hour journey.

At least it wasn't for "the three hour tour..."  Moloka'i is exactly the sort of place that Gilligan and his friends might have been stranded on.

Moloka'i came into view quite early, but the only landing site was on the furthest side of the island, in the town of Kuanakakai.  Say that five times quickly.

"Town" might be a generous word for this bit of a street that contained a gas station and a couple of sad-looking store fronts.  It makes "small town America" seem positively cosmopolitan.  We rented an aging Expedition that was nearing 100,000 miles.  I put my hands on the peeling steering wheel and headed west on the "highway", where the speed limit was, at many points, twenty miles per hour.  And, did I mention that there is not one traffic light on this island?  Not a single one.  There's no need.  We could drive for miles and never see another car.  What we could see, on our left, were groves of palm trees that would tower over most buildings, positively throbbing with the weight of all their coconuts.  The ones laying on the ground were free for the taking.  A sign read, "Beware of coconuts" the way suburban signs would say "Beware of dogs".  But, it's a good thing.  You could get quite a bump on the noggin if one of them fell on you. 

Behind them lay the bluest sections of the Pacific Ocean that you could ever imagine. 

On our right were fields of plumeria trees, dripping with the fragrant white flowers that make up leis.  And, behind the fields, were mountains that were rippled with valleys carved eons ago from flowing rivers.  They looked like something from another planet, and they were spectacular. 

We crawled along until we turned right on 470, another "highway" that took us past sugar and coffee plantations.  The road led us to the other side of the island, no more than a ten minute journey.  This was the most narrow part.  We survived a few hairpin turns into Kualapu'u, another town that had precisely a restaurant and a corner store.  And, a domesticated black goat.  But, I digress.

The road ended in a forest that had more eucalyptus trees than the population of the island.  Although, that's not saying much.  A small trail cut through the trees, and the only sound was that of our own footsteps.  If silence can be a sound, it was deafening.  If Christopher Columbus had been wrong, and the world was flat, this would be the end of it.

As we came over a hill, the expanse of the ocean became larger and larger until we got to an overlook and could to not go any farther.  Far below us, I saw it.  My place of pilgrimage.  The leper colony, still in existence today, with about forty residents.  I was told that using the word "leperosy" has been replaced with the more politically correct term, "Hansen's Disease."  And yet, the signs lauding Fr. Damien (canonized last year) were clearly anti-PC. 

All alone with the silence, we stopped and prayed at this hallowed site.  But then, we took in the scenery.

Oh, the scenery.  Truly, neither of us had ever seen a more beautiful site in our lives.  Ever.  And my husband and I are both reasonably well-traveled.  The peninsula jutted into the ocean, with white-capped waves kissing its dark sand shores.  A lighthouse stood at one end, and a picturesque white church sat in the middle.  On the eastern side of the small landing, the land curved dramatically into the most spectacular cliffs that you could ever imagine.  They were green, lush green, and breathtakingly beautiful.  I took a half dozen pictures.  But they will never do it justice. 

Pulling ourselves away was almost physically painful.  We would have been content to stay there all day.  But, the ferry would not wait for us, and there was more of the island to see.

We ate lunch at a little place that was so primitive that they didn't even have a high chair or a credit card machine.  But they made a wickedly delicious loco moco, our favorite Hawai'ian dish of meat over rice, topped with eggs, and smothered in gravy.  Their spin added chopped tomatoes and green onions. 

Hopping back on the highway, and being bypassed by several snails, we headed to the east side of the island.  Only the state road signs were in English, which were supplemented and often replaced by handmade signs in Hawai'ian.  Were we really in the United States anymore? 

Surely not.  I mean, do we really have so many one-lane bridges in this country?  The kind where you need to honk your horn to warn someone coming around the opposite curve that you are coming?  But, that's a laugh.  In fifteen miles, we probably passed five cars.

Two churches (both built by Saint Damien's own hands), a billion palm trees, and many valley-carved mountains later, we turned around.  We wouldn't want to miss the ferry back to Maui.  Not that we would have shed many tears about being left behind.  Its lack of decent cell phone reception forced these two work-a-holics to take an actual day off.

We met up at the gas station with Helen, our point of contact for the rental car.  (Yes, you read that correctly.  We rented the car at a gas station.)  She led us back to the wharf, and we boarded the ferry.  Along with a bunch of locals carrying gigantic Igloo coolers.  Because, we found out, with a corner store being the only place to buy a few necessities, they needed to make a run to the grocery store.  On Maui.  Two hours away.  By water.

I couldn't live on Moloka'i.  I fear that its isolation would make me feel claustrophobic.  But I am already trying to figure out how to save for a little condo there.  For when I really, really need to get away.