I step onto the tarmac at Easter Island’s minuscule airport, holding a copy of “The Separate Rose” by Pablo Neruda in my hand. Shortly before his death 40 years ago, the Chilean poet visited Easter Island and wrote this slim volume of bittersweet ruminations on travel and mortality.
As the American, Chilean, European and Japanese passengers from the plane funnel into the one-story airport terminal here, I recall the words that I’ve just read on the five-hour flight from mainland Chile: “We all arrive by different streets / by unequal languages, at Silence.”
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.
“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.
But I like this myth, which appears in William O’Daly’s English translation of Neruda’s book: A deity named Makemake created humans out of red earth. Wouldn’t it make more sense that, instead of sailing thousands of miles of uncertain sea, people simply came to be, as an antidote to the desolation of this secluded locale?
I can not only imagine but actually see how human forms sprang from the earth at Rano Raraku, the volcanic slope where nearly all the moai were quarried before being transported to their final resting places on every corner of the island. (How they were moved is another mystery: The most prominent theory is that, harnessed by ropes on two sides, the structures were rocked forward to “walk” to their destinations.)
No fewer than 397 moai still lie here in various states of completion, as if all the workers had simply vanished at once. Some are mere sketches, their silhouettes barely etched into the rocky slopes. A few lie on their backs, their elaborate fronts finished except for the eye sockets; others have already been cut from the bedrock, ready to be pulled upright, while many seem ready to start descending from the hill.
Made of tuff, or hardened volcanic ash, many of the gray statues have been largely obscured by centuries of erosion and landslides, with only their heads and their stoic faces exposed to the merciless sun. Their sheer size, which can reach 33 feet in height, is hard to fathom until I walk up close to an upright one and realize that its nose is about the size of my whole body.
Though Rano Raraku is one of the most visited sites on the island, all the tour buses have already left. As I amble up and down the slope, the statues obscure the few other visitors. At last, exactly what I came to Rapa Nui for: To be alone with the monoliths and take in the mystery that Neruda called the “kingdom / of the vast solitude, vertical / ruins.”
But instead of feeling joy, I panic. What if everyone else, like the stonemasons who abandoned the moai, really does disappear, leaving me stranded here by myself? Before coming to Rapa Nui, I wondered how prosperous and lavish this Polynesian society must have been to leave behind these engineering legacies. But as I gaze out at the ocean horizon, which stretches to no end, I begin to understand that perhaps it wasn’t excess but desperation that led to the creation of these artifacts. How lonely it must have felt, isolated by thousands of miles of sea, with no certainty that other humans existed beyond the craggy shores.
Wouldn’t I, too, spend my life carving eternal statues to keep my soul company?
The stone statues weren’t considered to possess mana, or spiritual power, until their eyes were carved and they were erected on the sacred platforms called ahu. I’m not particularly spiritual, but the largest ahu, at Tongariki, is such an awe-inspiring sight that I begin to feel something stir in me.
It’s 4 o’clock in the morning, and the full moon casts the shadows of the 15 colossal moai toward the sea. As I circle around Tongariki’s 720-foot podium, I’m reminded how small and inconsequential I am. I realize that what I’m feeling is not mana, but just humility. I could never build anything of this scale or permanence with my hands.
But no matter how grand they may be, all human accomplishments are fallible, and history hasn’t been too kind to this largest ceremonial structure in Polynesia. The islanders stopped revering the moai, and sometime during the 18th and 19th centuries, they toppled every single one of the nearly thousand on the island — an undertaking that must have taken as much effort as erecting them. Then, a 1960 tsunami swept up Tongariki’s fallen moai and scattered them about the island and into the surrounding sea.
Now, restored to their upright glory, the 15 moai at Tongariki are a magnificent sight. As the horizon glimmers, the statues’ silhouettes glow in pink and golden hues. This must be what made Neruda rhapsodize: “Statues that night raised / and threshed in a closed circle / so the ocean alone would see them.”
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.
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.
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.