Strange man in a strange land
Bradley L. Garrett recalls from a …’unique’ …perspective his time as an Archaeologist on a remote Hawaiian island…
As an archaeologist, a vocation that sounds cool but I assure you was mostly shitty, I sometimes had opportunities to experience places of rare beauty, to partake in moments of exotic encounter with things previously unknown. These experiences ranged from taking the time to smell a delicate flower while digging an excavation trench in the middle of the Yucatan jungle in Mexico, to shovelling stinking radioactive swampland soil in New Jersey in a hail storm, to being allowed to enter vast areas normally closed to public witness. This was the case in what ended up being my last research assignment in Hawai’i before I was ostracized from the Islands archaeological monitoring (i.e. watching people dig) on the Kalaupapa Peninsula of Molka’i Island.
After weeks of dodged phone calls, mixed communications and crossed signals, I was finally sitting on the edge of my bed on the Island of O’ahu at 5:00am, bags packed, the only thing containing my eyeballs being my eyelids which threatened mutiny if Icontinued to force them to stay open. But excitement (along with a large Americano) soon chased away the terrible possibilities proposed by my body – I was finally off to Kalaupapa, one of the least-visited places on the Hawaiian Islands.
The leprosy colony was established in the 19th century, but this was a place that ancient Native Hawaiians had populated long before, evident by the conspicuously placed Heaiu [Hawaiian religious buildings] that I eventually encountered there. At some point in history this place had been depopulated and then repopulated by exiled lepers marked for death; thrown from huge wooden ships to either sink and die in the breathtakingly beautiful bay or swim to the peninsula where their debilitating disease would preclude the possibility of climbing the three miles of treacherous cliffs required to get the fuck out of there. Or so the stories go. It was a place that, strangely enough, one of my old mentors, a nurse named Les form Arizona, had conducted immunisations in some previous decade, as well as the place where one of the only two Christians I ever respected lived – Father Damien, a Franciscan priest who condemned himself to death by going to the peninsula in 1873 to help the exiles construct community and rchitecture.
Hours after my pre-dawn eyeball crisis, I found myself packed into a plane with six people I had never seen before. I say packed because this was a sold out flight on a twin-prop jet. The plane skipped across the runway of Honolulu International Airport like a retarded June bug with a full belly trying to take off. I think my bucket was the issue: full of trowels, pickaxes, measuring tapes and field reports, which the pilot reassured me were “too heavy for this plane”. Or maybe it was my backpack full of books and raw fruits and vegetables that he never weighed. In the end, he was reluctantly willing to make exception on the weight limits for this trip on the promise of stories brought back from the field and some Lilikoi [passion fruit] picked from my house.
The flight only lasted about 40 minutes and as we descended from the “top-side” of Moloka’I to the tiny peninsula, my breath caught in my belly as winds pushing up from the sea and through folds of the ragged 1000-meter green accordion cliffs grabbed the plane and shook it, like the gods were wrestling this encounter with modernity descending from the clouds. I was sitting next to my future co-workers and wondered if they thought that it would be weird if we died together as well. A few of them were doing the actual excavation, Hawaiian construction workers with a propensity for bombastic rantings and constant calls home to their wives who they both called “Big Momma”. The other ‘scientist’ on the project was a guy called Mike, a large man from Virginia with a huge appetite both for food and life who was apparently doing soil analysis, though he seemed to spend the majority of his time cooking shit that he picked out of the jungle and complaining about the fact that he never stopped sweating.
Only later did I learn that the pilot was indeed the pilot, making him as much a part of the field crew as we were. This little soft spoken man, in what came to be known as his normal MO of inspiring sweet terror, pointed out a plane that looked frighteningly similar to ours in the water in front of the runway as we landed. He looked at me so nonchalantly and said, “He missed it a little.” At first I think “What the fuck does that mean?” but then I realize how this is possible when I see the runway which is smaller than the parking lot of my local post office, perched precariously next to a small embankment which apparently impedes aquatic erosion in one of the few places, I was told later, that there was no archaeological remains, forcing them to construct it there.
With bored eyes, the pilot tells us it’s a bit windy today (no shit buddy, my head hurts from hitting the roof) and that he has to time his landing with the waves hitting the rocks next to the shore. Brilliant. The odd man out on this flight, strangely enough, and the only one who wasn’t shaking and crying at this point, was a patient of the colony, a man who retained only his thumb and middle finger on his right hand, with which he used to pick at a traditional ukulele almost constantly. As we were bouncing around in the wind and skidding into the runway, sliding into the grass, this little tank of a man just kept playing cheery music, smiling like it would be some kind of sick celebration if we just kept coasting right into the ocean, making the two sides of the runway symmetrical with one plane in each bay. He was the happiest little fucker I have ever seen and apparently was one of the only remaining patients who dared to venture outside of the peninsula. In the cargo hold (a little area behind our seats), he had a painting collected from some great ancestor that had been rotting in an attic on O’ahu, which was apparently finding a new (or reclaimed) home on Kalaupapa. The plane skidded to a stop and we were picked up in a rusty Dodge truck, shown to our quarters 100 metres away, old dormitories used by patients long ago, now owned by the National Park Service as some sort of creepy living heritage project, and told that we needed to look around for sheets. Fend for ourselves, Houle beasts! I glanced at the others in the room with me and realized we lost happy man back at the airport. Shit. I decided that Mike, who carried a massive suitcase adorned with Hawaiian flowers that gave me the impression he thought he was on an extended vacation, might have the coolest forms of entertainment packed.
I opted to bunk with him.It proved to be a mistake because, although Mike did have a DVD player and a laptop loaded up with a bunch of video games, he snored like a goddamn pit bull hallucinating on sedatives. What’s more, I realized that being his bunkmate, he felt pretty much entitled to grub on the food stash that I had carried in my gym bag from O’ahu. He was also, finally, a man prone to posing hypnotic, controversial existential relationship questions to me late at night while we were lying there listening to nocturnal birdcalls and fish launching themselves out of the cove with satisfied plopping aquatic re-entries.
This was not, in the end, necessarily a bad thing, as my relationship with my girlfriend was more fucked up than I knew and Mike loved hearing about it. I spent 5 weeks on Kalaupapa, coming home to my girlfriend on weekends in a transparent attempt to be a committed partner, though we both had a clear case of wanderlust that was eating away at our eternal commitment attempt. She ended up fucking some guy in Oregon two years later and leaving me to go work on the same peninsula full-time in some sort of strangely sadistic and beautiful irony of fate. In my time there, I watched these Hawaiian guys dig a massive amount of trenches with these little yellow backhoes that were shipped in on the one week last year that a ship could get into this tiny stormy harbour. What was exciting was the stuff that came out of the ground. Mind you, none of it was spectacularly archaeological, you know, broken ceramic pottery sherds, cut horse bone, old nails and pieces of shattered wine bottles smuggled from neighbouring islands. One time I spied a subterranean wall and made them move the pit, but the excitement for me, after standing there sifting the back dirt from the trenches through a screen I had constructed out of an old boat laying in the harbour and some chicken fencing week after week, was that I was connecting with the people who had lived there… because I now lived there. I had become part of this tiny little group of rogue Kalaupapians who had the strange fortune/misfortune of living in this petite little place that felt like it was floating around the Pacific Ocean, sure at any mo ment to smash into the coast of California so I could walk to my parents house for dinner. They were also, at the time, filming the TV show Lost on my home island, and my memory of watching the show and then running into cast members at the organic corner market made it feel even more like I was stuck in some beautiful time/space/mind warp.
After some period, the artefacts stopped coming out of the ground as we moved into localities further from sites of historic human habitation, and I eventually found myself diving off of the empty docks into the crystal clear harbour instead of working, day after day, forgetting why I was there or what I was supposed to be doing. I even forgot to keep photographing the experience, which I later regretted. Kalaupapa became my playground. I floated on my back looking at the stars at night, snorkelled out to a shipwreck that could be seen from the shore to pull myself around on its rusty bits of metal protruding from the water, getting stabbed by it every once and a while. I read countless books; laid out in this little shelter I found where a tree had grabbed a boat and tangled it up in some erotic attempt to reclaim its own wood. Soft grass completed my little summer hut. I did my work, yes, and did it well, but I realized that without a computer, an internet connection or my Playstation 3, I had so much time to do nothing. It was reliving. It was so human to be away from humanity.
After a month or so on the peninsula, I departed Moloka’i with a heavy heart. As well as taking away stories and photos, I left behind remnants of my existence in an attempt to claim space in the time of the place, including a massive tome by Neil Stephenson that I read while I was there, destined (I hoped) to excite and confuse the next unwary passerby who found it. I also left little pieces of my time on the peninsula in all of the excavation trenches we had put in. Cherry Coke cans smuggled in next to my trowels and brushes in the bucket, tubes of oil they used for the backhoes, artefact bags with poetry written on them, you know, normal stuff from the age. In one, I even left a small flash drive which contained all of my photos and writing from the trip, as well as a video of me dancing with the memory of Father Damien on an empty Tuesday in the church he constructed during his short life there.
Perhaps one day, some unwary archaeologist working for National Parks Service (who will administer the park in the years to come) will dig it up. A digital time capsule from circa 2007, the end of an era on Moloka’i.
Confused by this article about an archaeologist who leaves behind Cherry Coke cans in excavation trenches ? So were we. We dug up the aforementioned video, it doesn’t help clear the defendant.
Bradley L. Garrett recalls from a …’unique’ …perspective his time as an Archaeologist on a remote Hawaiian island…