It is as if the moai have risen out of the darkness, slowly succumbing to light. Yes, perhaps this is mana at work. I’m ready to believe. . . . And then someone’s camera flash explodes, jolting me out of my reverie.
As the sun rises, I realize how numerous we are. Eleven tourists to every local sounds about right — well over 150 people watch the sun climb above the 15 moai.
Into the future
Not that Rapa Nui feels crowded. Far from it. I don’t see a single stranger while I take in a violet sunset at Ahu Akivi, the island’s only moai that face the sea, or exploring the four miles of chilly underground caves at Ana Te Pahu. Not one sunbather dots Ovahe beach when I descend onto its pink sand, and I don’t run into anyone while walking the rim of Rano Kau’s crater for an hour. Even the road remains mostly empty, save for the herds of wild horses that rule the island.
Yet tourism seems to permeate every part of Easter Island. Take Merahi Pate, a stout 29-year-old whom I meet when I try to ask for directions in the hinterland, far from the paved road. Covered in fine dust on her porch, she says that she’s been carving souvenir moai for 12 years now. She’s eager to have a picture taken with me, because she wants to start a new business teaching tourists how to carve miniature statues. A photograph with a foreigner would come in really handy for the ad she’s planning to take out.
Then there’s Andrea Tuki, a young shopkeeper in the main town of Hanga Roa, who surprises me with her flawless English. She returned home after studying early childhood education in Valparaiso on an academic scholarship. She seems to be the kind of bright young talent that Rapa Nui needs to educate its young people. So what’s her dream? She wants to start a bike tour company.
But as I talk to more people, I realize that there’s more to Rapa Nui than tourism. When I inadvertently trespass on Titaina de Pont’s family ranch, she invites me to sit down and have coffee with her. She tells me that she, too, worked as a tour guide — for three months. “Then I realized it’s not the tourists who need to be taught about our culture,” she says. “It’s our children.”
Today she works as a radio producer for educational programs in the native language. She recognizes that tourism is an inevitable part of Rapa Nui’s present. She just wants young people to know their heritage before facing the avalanche of outside cultures.
From magic to reality
As far as airports go, I can’t imagine a place more pleasant than Easter Island’s outdoor waiting area. I sit on the grass and the sea breeze teases the palm tree above me, sending a kaleidoscope of shadows flickering over my legs. I take out my fatigued copy of “The Separate Rose.” My return flight won’t start boarding for a while, and it’s a short read.
“Goodbye,” Neruda bids Rapa Nui, “let the great sea protect you / from our barren brutality.”
But now I must respectfully disagree with the Nobel laureate. The people of Rapa Nui don’t need the sea to protect them: They’ve already beaten the odds by surviving in this inhospitable location, nurturing an inimitable civilization and rebounding from a dark era when forced labor and smallpox reduced the population to just 111 in the late 19th century.
I came ready to exalt a magical place that’s completely cut off from the rest of the world. But while its past may remain shrouded in mystery, Rapa Nui is very much a real place, alive and changing. I’m no longer disappointed that there are other visitors. It comforts me to know that no matter the geographic distance, we’re connected in our flawed but cohesive world. It just feels much less lonely that way.
Kwak is a travel writer based in San Francisco and Berlin. He writes about his travels at www.kwak.in/motion.