Details: Easter Island
Yes, my fellow travelers and I arrived from different walks of life. But where is the silence that Neruda promised? As the aircraft’s engines whir, I follow the excited chatter of the other travelers to the airport’s arrival hall. Easter Island may be famous for its unique and enigmatic stone statues, but the scene at baggage claim is no different from what I’ve seen at many a tawdry tourist destination around the world, with touts trying to outdo one another to lure me to their establishments.
I came all the way here in search of complete solitude, naively fantasizing that every moment on Easter Island would be like poetry.
In the beginning
“We get 70,000 visitors coming to this island every year,” says Sergio Rapu Haoa, the amiable owner of my hotel, as we chat in his garden.
That number may sound negligible compared with Hawaii’s 7 million. But Hawaii has nearly 1.5 million residents, Rapu points out, while only 6,000 call Easter Island home. That means that Easter Island gets more than 11 visitors per resident every year. To provide for the tourists, Rapu says, Easter Island has to constantly bring in cargo ships full of supplies, making the island all the more dependent on the mainland.
Rapu fascinates me with his seeming contradictions. A U.S.-trained archaeologist who has made a significant contribution to unearthing the island’s history, he eventually served as provincial governor of Easter Island, which is a special territory of Chile, in the 1980s. But now, at 64, he runs the modest Tupa Hotel overlooking the main town’s cove. I ask him how he reconciles his ambivalence toward tourism with his choice of career as an hotelier.
“Very easy,” he replies. “It’s a matter of humanity. You cannot appropriate your culture as only yours; it’s everyone’s to share. In both archaeology and tourism, you’re dealing with conserving heritage.”
Easter Island, or Rapa Nui as it is known in the native language, certainly has an intriguing heritage that needs to be preserved for posterity. It remains a mystery how humans came to set up the world’s most remote settlement, although according to local lore, a Polynesian chief named Hotu Matu’a, inspired by his priest’s dream of “the navel of the earth,” led his family and crew to this 63-square-mile landmass more than 2,600 miles east of Tahiti.
Of course, as an archaeologist, Rapu has a different take: The superb seafarers of the South Pacific could have easily traversed the Pacific in their wooden outrigger canoes, reaching Rapa Nui around 400 A.D. (though some estimate the date as late as 1200 A.D.). The islanders prospered on the pristine speck of volcanic land, eventually developing a dazzling civilization capable of carving, transporting and erecting the island’s famous moai, stone representations of ancestors entrusted with protecting the living. Until Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen named the island after a Christian holiday in 1722, Rapa Nui remained a secret to the outside world.