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Molokai (Part 2)

by Alex Shih

Day 4: Molokai

My camera battery was still slow, and I grew concerned about whether I would have enough battery power left to take pictures for my three days on Molokai. Would I even be able to get lithium batteries on Molokai, the way people made it sound so rural? I sat at the airport and decided I was going to make up a list of "things to take when packing the last minute" so I would remember to bring extra batteries.

Coatal Blues, by Patse Hemsley
Coastal Blues
by Patse Hemsley
I flew into Molokai on a Twin Otter plane, with all the people heading to the ranch and the resort. I was the only one heading to the downtown Kaunakakai area. The plane circled the island of Molokai from the east and came in from the north, which gave me a spectacular view of the world's highest sea cliffs, as well as the Kalaupapa peninsula. Molokai from the sky was a big field of red dirt with patches of green. What would this mystery island turn out to be like?

The island was so small with so few roads that even I, someone born with a gift of getting lost, had no trouble finding my way to downtown in my red Dodge. The hotel turned out to be very quaint, and there were just a Native Hawaiian family, an elderly couple from the mainland, and me. Perhaps the travel agents on Maui were so used to dealing with world class resorts that in comparison, this hotel would warrant no stars. But it was cozy and clean, with the scent of Hawaiian ginger, plumeria, and the sound of water splashing gently on the shore. The water on the south side was rather calm, because it was surrounded by Molokai, Lanai, and Maui on three sides. The waves did not come close to the shore at all, and crashed far into the distance.

As soon as I walked to the water I saw why, at least this part of Molokai, was not attractive as a vacation/tropical island spot. The shores were of coral, and the sandy part was rather narrow, so there was no place to lie out on the beach. The water was shallow because of the gentle sloping of the coral, so snorkeling was not possible. But I am sure the lack of people's footprints made the sand crabs very happy, building their homes and dumping mounts of sand right on the beach, making interesting rows of little domes.

I took off for the west side to see the Halawa Valley for the afternoon. The drive was rather scenic, winding through the cloud-topped mountains on my left, and coconut tree lined coast on the right. For one stretch of the road, there was no one but me, as if it existed just for me. I realized that this was the perfect place I had been looking for to do my screaming. I was on a beautiful but deserted road, in a rental car with windows rolled up. I held back little, and screamed on top of my lungs "I deserve better! I deserve better! I want to feel complete again!!!" I had to hold back the tears that blurred my vision, as the road was windy. But I let out the bottled up voices inside me. I was not sure what to say, but I had to let something out that had pressed down on my heart for the last months.

Soon the road turned into one lane, and the coast was no longer sandy, but very rocky, with rough waves crashing. I knew I was approaching the west end of the island. As I headed downhill I saw the valley, deep green next to dark blue water. I drove until the road ended by an old, abandoned building, parked the car and walked onto the dirt road. It was late in the afternoon, and I wanted to see if I could find the trail to the waterfalls I had read about. I knew I would not have time to hike it, but since I was there, I wanted to see if I could at least find out where it was. I saw a family camping there, so I asked if they knew. One of the people who was there talking introduced himself and offered to show me where the trail began. I told him I was not going on the hike today, because it was late (didn't mention I was still in a lot of pain from the Haleakala hike, the day before), and he agreed it would be late, since it would be around an hour each way.

After showing me where the trail started, he invited me to see where he lived and the Hawaiian way of life. Cautiously open, I accepted his invitation and talked with him, as we walked, about his self-sufficient life, how long he had been there, and learned that he was a writer. I was still a bit on the alert side, but figured there were people all around, even with the thick vegetation, and I did not feel danger in my gut. But I took precautions and made it clear that people were expecting me to call, and, if I didn't by a certain time, they would "send the police to look for me," I joked. Soon we came up on a huge area "fenced off" by a row of banana trees. That was where he lived.

There was a shack, and he showed me a huge garden with different hybrids of hibiscuses that were fragrant, and different fruits. Soon my hands were full of oranges, papaya, avocado, gardenia, hibiscus.... He took down another papaya to share with me right away. I was again alert when he took out a big knife to cut the papaya, but my instinct told me there was nothing to fear. I had learned, over the period of "being in too much pain to think straight" the last few months, that my gut feelings were to be trusted. And I had become much more aware of them and followed them more.

I soon had to bid him good-bye, because I was being eaten alive by mosquitoes there (despite insect repellent). He said, not many people visited Molokai, and those who came simply drove and turned around once they reached the Halawa Valley or just hiked to the falls. For those who paused in the area, he tried to show them his way of life, a Hawaiian way of life, to surprise them. I guess I was the lucky one today. In a way, I still needed to figure out that line between accepting kindness from strangers and putting myself at risk as a single woman traveler. But this time my gut feeling was right.

I drove back to the hotel, picked up my beach gear, and drove to the west side, trying to catch the sunset on the longest stretch of white sand beach of Hawaii. I felt like the giant who chased the sun in Chinese mythology, whispering to the bright orange setting sun "don't set until I get there!" In my haste I drove past the sign that said Papohaku Beach, and had to pull my car to the side and wait for a truck to pass me, so I could turn around.

I came up on the beach and saw a row of surfboards neatly lined by the bathroom, and thought this would be a well-populated beach, since it was famous and close to the resorts. I ran past the green grass to the sandy beach as the sun began to set. I was alone. Alone on Hawaii's longest stretch of white sand beach. I stood there and enjoyed the sea breeze, the soft rays of the setting sun, the waves crashing onto shore, the palm trees rustling in the wind. What a way to end the day, I thought.

Then I looked around me, and from behind the sand where the green grass was came a person. It was the truck driver I had seen earlier when I turned my car around. He had turned back as well. A bolt of "alarm" went down my spine and snapped it straight. I was aware what I was feeling was not fear, but annoyance. How surprising, I thought to myself. I felt I could get out of this, whatever his intentions were. I was surprised at my own reaction, but took no chances. I gathered up my things and started heading toward the parking lot, making sure not to show any signs of fear. As he started speaking to me, I could smell the alcohol on his breath. It made me alert again, but again, no fear... as a matter of fact, I felt safer: "he's drunk. I can get out of this easier."

I detected the accent of a Spanish speaker and started speaking to him in Spanish. He was a ranch worker in the nearby resort. He was drunk enough that the conversation was disoriented, but he persisted in asking me where I was staying and how long I was here, and what my name was. I, of course, lied and I told him I was visiting a friend whose mother was dying and I was helping the family, and that they were expecting me home soon. I had hoped the story would deter any ill intentions he might have had by bringing up culturally sacred images such as god, mother, illness, family, and death. As soon as I was at my car, I got in and quickly locked the door as I pulled my seat belt on, while he stood there contemplating the last sentence I gave him. Then he approached the car and I heard the door handle. That was when I became nervous, that he wouldn't give up, and was glad I locked the door. He knocked on the window. I rolled it down just a crack and kept on smiling as I told him I had to leave. He kept on asking questions about where I lived. I shook my head and took off.

I turned into the first resort I saw and pulled into a parking area with people and cars to look for the manual, because I could not turn on the headlights. It was not in the car. I fumbled with the switches in the car, but nothing happened. Finally I rolled down my window to ask a guy if he could help me. Just as he walked over to help me, I saw the truck of the ranch worker turn into this road. I became extremely annoyed and also nervous at what he might try to do next. But, he obviously saw someone with me. He parked his truck at a dirt road right behind me for a few seconds, and then drove onto the dirt road and the tall grass and disappeared.

I spent some time at night wondering about being female and traveling alone, again, and really felt annoyed at the limitations of this good way to meet people. I forgot to wear my fake wedding band, and the last thing I wanted with me on this trip was my engagement ring. One more thing to add to the list of things to take with me on trips. I did not want to be paranoid, but I did not want to be naive, either. There was much to do in finding that balance, as well. I learned to trust my gut, and I will do more of that. As annoying as the experience was with the ranch worker, I felt empowered that I was able to safely get myself out of a potentially dangerous situation. All by myself!

When night fell, I went and sat by the water and watched the flickering reflections of the lights on the pier. Under the stars, with the constellations in different places than ones I was familiar with, I found peace and comfort, surrounded by the night and the gentle sound of the ocean washing onto the shallow shore.

Just then, I remembered it was Sunday, which meant my ex was back in town, and if he meant what he said, he would call the other woman. That thought, surprisingly, stirred up nothing in me. I did not feel anything, it was so matter of fact. The feeling of "lack of feeling" was so plain and so simple, it was beautiful. Was I getting better? Was this all going to change after I got back to Los Angeles? I stopped myself from thinking further. I wanted to enjoy that peacefulness in my heart. I didn't think I would feel peaceful again, at least not this soon. It was at that moment I knew, I could heal back to be whole again and not just pieced back together.

I had not been feeling good about myself, because I was told I brought the affair and the pain and all the hurtful treatment afterwards upon myself. He further argued that my feeling the pain was a sign of weakness and unwillingness to open myself up to love him, that I was intentionally hurting him by being difficult. But I knew better. I did love him with all my heart, and to appease his insecurities and possessiveness, I gave in beyond what was reasonable and healthy for me. And, if that was not enough, he would not stop until he completely isolated and owned me physically and mentally (and then belittle me for not being independent enough, which has happened, to keep me feeling inferior to him and needing him), then why feel bad about myself for not being able to be what he wanted? I was me. I wanted to be back to the old me, before all these subtle grating that ground away my independence began.

Day 5: The meaning of leisure

Slept through a very quiet night, and woke up to a very noisy morning with sounds of nature. It was my day to relax. I visited an organic macadamia nut farm that used cats rather than pesticide, then took a couple of short hikes over by the Kalaupapa outlook area, making sure I took it easy because I was still sore from the Haleakala hike. The trails were quiet and fairly secluded; I was again the only person there. The ground was covered with needles of this tree I was used to seeing at summer camp as a kid. As I walked the trail the scent and the sound brought back yet again comforting memories of independence and joy with others. I drove leisurely and enjoyed the scenery, the silence in the valley, and just took it all in. It was my day, my leisure day.

Molokai was... the countryside of Hawaii. Now I know, as I drew my own conclusion in my journal. Even the people there speak with a slight rural accent, but there was a definite simple, earthy feeling to the interactions. Yet, from reading the local papers it appeared alcoholism and domestic violence were big issues in such a small community of 7,000. That reminded me of the reservations for the native people in the United States and Taiwan, and I started wondering why there were similarities... and told myself stop being a researcher and go back to enjoying my vacation.

I found a shady spot under the big banyon tree to write my postcards. There was constant, soothing breeze that kept mosquitoes away. I sat there in a daze for a long time. The wind, the sound of the water rippling, the sun going west, lighting up the golden sand far away, the coast line, the island of Lanai in the distance... the setting was just mesmerizing. No traffic, no traffic lights, no phone in the room, no TV. I was separated from the rest of the world. I could relax, mind my own business, or do nothing at all. I had found peace, peace that was blank, away from the hustle and bustle and deadlines and having to do things. Leisure. For the first time, the word made sense to me beyond the dictionary definition. I FELT what leisure meant. Time seemed to have stood still, or had no meaning, or a different meaning.

Day 6: The Mule Ride and Kapakahi

Started my day early and went to the stable at 7:00 a.m. for the mule ride down to the Kalaupapa peninsula, the former leprosy colony. I drove up first to the outlook again to look at the peninsula. It was sunny and quiet. The only sound there was the waves crashing far down below. I said into the air, "I am going to heal. I can do it." I could say that now. It was not that I wanted to, but that I could. I headed back down the hill for the mules.

The owner, Roy, serenaded us with his guitar and introduced us to the staff. I was assigned a little mule called "Kapakahi." They told me it meant "crooked". As we headed down the switchbacks I began to sense why my little mule was "crooked." Oftentimes it would go a path different from all the mules before it. However, it was a cautious one that would stop and gauge where to go, pause, then do it quickly and very well. At first I thought it was just me seeing things, but as I watched other mules starting as soon as the one before it started to move, and tracing basically the same steps as the ones before it, I knew I was riding on one that walked its own path.

Kapakahi also held its ground and its place in line. Once, the bigger mule behind me wanted to pass and stuck its head forward repeatedly, but Kapakahi took its time and stood its ground. When the other mule did not give up, Kapakahi let out a big, loud fart, which made me burst out laughing... laughing out loud was something I had not done for too long. In a way, I felt I knew Kapakahi. It was such a sure-footed but gentle animal, yet with a will and an opinion. It kind of reminded me of the old me, friendly but strong willed, self-confident and walked my own different, but carefully chosen paths. I wanted that back.

The trail was built following the ancient Hawaiian foot trail. It was hike-able, but the benefit of riding on the mules was that you would not have to worry about stepping on mule poop and pee. Some of the trail was literally paved with poop. The ride down was a bit scary, because the mules liked to take turns very close to the edge. But the scenery was breathtaking all the way, despite the ride's being a bit rough on the tender tush.

When we got down to the peninsula it was even more beautiful. The beach was pristine, just a smooth stretch of white sand against green cliffs. The ocean was turquoise blue, so clear that you could see the bottom, but the water was obviously treacherous. The whole scenery was so beautiful yet so merciless.

We met up with the big blue bus by "Damien Tour" and visited the church and heard the legacy of father Damien. The place and the history showed the beauty of human compassion, but also the ugliness of human fear and prejudice. I felt a wave of sadness of what human beings could do to other human beings, all the good and the bad, the strengths and the weaknesses. All that was meshed together here. One could see the beauty of human compassion that built the existing community, but that all came out of all the ugliness and all the pain and suffering. And as I thought that, I realized the irony of this phrase... my given name in Chinese was "beauty." Would beauty arise out of the ugliness of human nature and the pain it caused, just like the colony?

I was a bit tired but exhilarated. After returning to the inn, I sat underneath the shade of the banyon tree and just napped. This was leisure... what a life! I later had dinner in the open air dining area by the banyon tree. Afterwards, I just sat there and listened to the water and watched the sun set. Then I went to the water to write my journal. As I looked east, I saw a thin slice of white cloud separating the sky, and on the top it was baby blue, and on the bottom it was baby pink for the dusk sky. I knew I could not have captured it on camera, even if I wanted to. This was my last night on the island, on the islands. Next time I came back, I would not have a broken heart. I had let go of wanting to repair or have any sort of order back into this relationship. I've let go of trying to regain some control of things. It was gone. I could love again and was looking forward to a loving, respectful relationship in the future.

Day 7: Aloha, Molokai.

Got up really early and went downtown to the bakery to buy some fresh Molokai bread. I asked the owner what the difference was between this and the bread on the Big Island. She smiled shyly and said, "I don't know, I've never been to the big island." It was a revelation to me. I had thought of it before, but this was the first time I heard it... that the world was really so simple and so small for some people on the island. I wished I had more time to hear what that was like.

Once I finished packing, I took another stroll by the beach. The sun had risen above the clouds, and the quails were cooing. The delicate scent of the plumerias still permeated the air. It was low tide, and the water was still as glass. The land was visible under very shallow water for quite a stretch out toward Lanai. It was simply peaceful. I did not feel sad or reluctant to leave. I knew the image of peace and tranquillity had been etched in my mind from the few days in Molokai, and I could close my eyes and see the sunshine coming through the leaves of the banyon tree and hear the soft wind blowing. Leisure was now an image, and I could relive that when I needed it. I was content.

I bid the ocean and the islands good-bye, knowing I would be back. Next time I would spend some time early in the morning to walk farther into the water during low tide, and hike down to Kalaupapa, so I could hang out on the pristine beach longer.

I was so at peace. No sadness, no great emotions. Maui and Molokai turned out to be just right for my first solo trip. I would be back to Molokai to hike the waterfalls and see the heiaus (temples), and there was still the scenic road to Hana on Maui. When I arrived in Los Angeles, I spoke to Mom and told her I brought no gift home except a daughter who felt peaceful at heart. She said, "that is the best gift of all."


Prior to earning her Ph.D. in educational psychology, with focus on social and educational issues of disadvantaged adolescents, Tzymei Alexasia (Alex) Shih taught junior high English/history to language minority students. She is also a Fulbright alumna (Mexico), and had done volunteer English teaching with "Volunteers in Asia," organization similar to Peace Corps, based in Stanford University. Following the unegagement, she decided to postpone her career and academic work for a while and make up for all the traveling she had not had the time to do, while contemplating her future directions. Prior to the expedition Alex spent 6 months in Taiwan researching Chinese literature to prepare for her children's book project, and is currently using that project as an excuse to hang out in Taiwan and China. She can be reached at


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