Having not seen Moloka’i in almost twenty years, we went back in October of 2006 to visit during what turned out to be the earthquake of the century here in Kohala on the Big Island of Hawaii.
It was a strange reunion, memory serving only as well as imagination could vivify. The town of Maunaloa where we lived was completely altered. Gone were the funky plantation houses left over from pineapple days, with their termite-eaten walls and disintegrating iron plumbing. Moloka’i Ranch, savior or demon depending on your viewpoint (and ours skewed in favor of the demonic) had promised residents that they could purchase their homes back in the early ’90’s for a reasonable price, thus absolving the ranch of their responsibility in maintaining said dwellings. The locals saw it differently, as families could at long last possess a sort of pride in ownership.
Many plantations such as Surety here in Kohala simply gave former workers homes, leaving it up to them to move the buildings where they may. Slavery was illegal after all, but in all ways save in name, these folks were indentured to the plantation. From the company store to cramped living quarters, those who toiled while pineapple and sugar giants made untold millions deserved this, at least. Yet on Moloka’i things remained much the same. Conditions had not improved much since those corporate halcyon days. Promises made were rarely, if ever, kept. Some things never change.
Our return to “The Friendly Isle” was shocking. What was once the Sheraton’s west-end resort, replete with lush landscaping and shops such as The Laughing Gecko and Liberty House was now a rubbish-strewn ghost town. The swimming pool we once sat around watching Chris Isaak mix it up with a few local musicians brimmed with murky water. Signs were crudely stabbed into withering grass: CAUTION: NO LIFEGUARD ON DUTY. POOL FOR USE OF CONDO/VILLA OWNERS/RENTERS ONLY. We pitied those who purchased these high priced units, once the envy of mainland townies such as ourselves. Buildings were decrepit with chipped paint and obvious structural damage.
Maunaloa, once our eclectic red-dirt encrusted home town, had been bulldozed. In its place were several restaurants which had closed down, a movie theater (a movie theater?!), a slightly improved general store, and a smattering of Adventureland knockoff plantation houses, painted in three coordinated pastel shades. Rounding the bend into town, there rose a massive hotel and resort complex, the sole employer of most of the home ownership-deprived townspeople.
Absent were hordes of kids playing in the street. Gone were the carefully tended yards, backyard gardens, pigs in sheds and numerous mature trees laden with seasonal fruit. Only phantom traces remained of old men clutching their prized fighting roosters while playing cards in the pergola next to the tiny post office. Vanished too were hordes of stray and pregnant dogs of questionable breed. Maunaloa had been cleaned up.
Two years later, Moloka’i Ranch, to spite the vocal majority who gathered and marched in disagreement with their plan to develop the west end’s sacred La’au Point, shut down the resort. They closed the theater. In effect, Moloka’i Ranch did what it could to bully the local population and to flex their proverbial muscle: they shut down the town.