Editors' Choice

Easter Island: Where the Roads Diverged

by Catherine Watson

Finding your true home is one thing—staying there is quite another.

I was in Ecuador, on my way to a folklore performance, sharing a ride with two other tourists – a middle-aged Canadian woman and a young computer guy from California. They started comparing notes on their Latin American travels. I didn’t join in. I’d seen the continent edge to edge over the previous twenty-five years, but I didn’t want to interrupt their conversation by saying so. I just stared out the window, only half-listening.

Then I heard something that snapped me alert – something that made me feel as if I’d been kicked in the chest, as if my heart had stopped, as if I couldn’t breathe.

“You know the place I liked best?” the young guy said. “Easter Island!’’

The Canadian gushed in agreement. There was so much to do there! New hotels! The new museum! All the tours there were to take! And they’ve put so many of the statues back up....

My God, I thought, suddenly strangled by memories. My God, my God. They’re talking about Easter as if it’s a place. Just another place.

At the folklore show that night, I applauded when the rest of the audience did, but I wasn’t there. I’d been thrown a quarter century into my own past, back to a forty-five-square-mile triangle of black lava and wind-blown grass in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 2,200 miles from Chile, 2,400 miles from Tahiti.

La Isla de Pascua. Rapa Nui. Te pito o Te Henua. The navel of the world. “The place farthest from anywhere....’’

By any of its names, Easter Island felt like home to me, the only place in the world that ever truly did.

I had been under its spell since before I could read, ever since my father first showed me its pictures in books – haunting pictures of giant stone heads perched on grassy slopes, lips pursed, eyes blank, staring out to sea.

I was a shy child then, and I grew into a shy adult, ill at ease with people, lonely but most comfortable alone. I took refuge in daydreams – always about somewhere else, somewhere distant and strange, where a stranger like me might better fit. When I was old enough, I started traveling, trying to make my dream world real.

By the time I got to the South Pacific, I was in my early thirties, and I’d been looking for home all my life – for the place I really belonged, the place where I should have been born. I felt I’d found it on Easter Island, the instant I stepped off the plane. It was as if the island had been waiting for me, all that time, the way I’d been waiting for the island.

Yolanda Ika Tuki met me at the airport. Actually, she just met my plane, she and a pickup truck full of other island women, all hoping to rent out rooms to tourists. There were only a couple of flights a week from mainland Chile and not many visitors. Most of them were already booked into the island’s only formal lodging, a six-room motel, but the local women met the plane every time anyway, crowding up to the stairs before passengers had a chance to get out, piling luggage into the pickup and pleading for guests.

Yolanda met the plane, met me, met my eyes. It felt like fate.

Her small house stood on a shady, sandy lane on the outskirts of Hanga Roa, the island’s only village. She had one room to rent, a sunny, recently added annex that felt instantly familiar. The walls were varnished plywood, like a summer cabin up north, and the furniture looked like the stuff in the government clinic where my father worked – chrome tubing, green leatherette cushions.

The reason made me smile. Everything in that room – walls, furniture and louvered windows – was indeed U.S. government issue, liberated by the locals after our Air Force abandoned a satellite-tracking base on the island in the 1960s. Even the varnish smelled like home.

Yolanda was short and thick-bodied, like most of the older island women, with dark skin and black hair. She might have been 40 or 50 or even 60. I never knew. Yolanda cooked for me, interpreted the island for me, introduced me to her neighbors and friends, included me in her household. It felt like a family but wasn’t quite, so I fitted right in.

There was a quiet man I assumed was her husband, whom I saw mainly at dinner. A pretty little girl who was a neighbor’s out-of-wedlock child – Yolanda said the mother’s new husband didn’t want the girl around. And the child of another neighbor, a slender boy of about eleven whose history had a different twist.

He was half-American, one of about thirty youngsters that the U.S. airmen had managed to father while they were here. It was a noticeable number, out of a population of less than 2,000, 600 of them kids. The islanders loved children – people joked that babies were “our biggest product’’ – but this boy wasn’t happy. He yearned to find his father and go live with him in the States.

“I know my father loves me,’’ he said, “because he wrote to my mother once.’’ One day the boy showed me the precious letter. The American man had promised nothing, hadn’t included his address or even his last name. He was just saying goodbye.

This is what outsiders have always done in Polynesia, starting with the first European explorers and their crews – love ‘em and leave ‘em, down through the centuries. It made me feel ashamed, but the islanders didn’t seem to mind. All good stories, in fact, seemed to begin, “when the Americans were here....” They had brought the modern world with them – electricity, piped water, Coke in cans, movies, the airport. “We loved the Americans,’’ one islander told me.

Islanders didn’t feel that way about people from Chile, which has governed Easter Island since 1888. They said Chileans couldn’t be trusted, were lazy and given to stealing. Chileans said the same things about them.

Among themselves, he islanders spoke their own language; it was soft, rounded and full of vowels, like all its cousins across Polynesia. With me, they spoke Spanish, the island’s second language and mine as well. But while I heard about local problems – feeling discriminated against by mainlanders was mentioned often – no one dragged me into them. I think it was because I was under Yolanda’s wing – not a part of the community, but not an ordinary tourist, either. She treated me more like a daughter.

Sometimes, when she called me for breakfast, she would come in and perch on the foot of my bed and chat. She also gave me advice. It wasn’t always wise, but it was always the same: Disfrute su vida, Catalina, she said. Enjoy your life, Catherine. And I did.

I began to exist in the present tense, as if I had no past regrets and no future fears. It was something I’d never done before. That, and the incredible distances surrounding us, lent me an exhilarating freedom. I likened it to hiding in a childhood tree fort with the rope pulled up. “No one knows where I am,’’ I kept thinking. “No one can find me.’’

My days quickly fell into their own gentle rhythm: Go out walking after breakfast. Explore a cave, a volcano, a vista. Take pictures. Talk to people. Go home for lunch. Nap or write or poke around Hanga Roa. And in the late afternoon, walk over to Tahai – the row of giant statues, called moai, that stood closest to town – and watch the sunset paint the sky in the direction of Tahiti.

After supper, the island’s only TV station went on the air, and I joined Yolanda’s household around the set. The programs, flown in once a week, would have been odd anywhere, but here in the uttermost corner of Polynesia, the mix was especially peculiar: decades-old “Beanie and Cecil’’ cartoons, a British-made series of English lessons (“Why are there no onions in the onion soup?”), a quiz program on Chile’s fishing industry and American reruns, subtitled in Spanish – “The Six Million Dollar Man,” “The Rockford Files.”

“Is there a lot of that in the United States?’’ an adult asked reasonably after one of Rockford’s chronic car chases. The children thought the Six Million Dollar man was real. I couldn’t get over the station’s signature logo: three dancing moai, wiggling their world-famous bellies on the screen.

One evening I stayed in my room, writing. Between gusts of wind that rattled the trees, I caught gusts of soft music. In the church down the lane, people were singing Polynesian hymns. If I’d known nothing about this culture, that music alone would have told me they’d been seafarers. There was a canoeing cadence in it, like the throb of waves or the steady beat of paddle strokes.

There was distance in it too, and a touch of sadness. It made me think of the complicated, crisscross navigations that populated the Pacific in ancient times, and the vast emptiness that early voyagers sailed into without knowing what lay ahead, and how many must have been lost before others happened upon this tiny fleck of land.

“Wind and music and nothing to do,” I wrote in my journal that night, “Sunday on Easter Island.’’ But it didn’t feel like Sunday. It felt like Saturday. Every day on the island felt like Saturday.

I knew what my favorite place would be before I saw it – Rano Raraku, the extinct volcano where the giant statues had been quarried and carved. They were already old friends. Face to face, they looked exactly as they had in the books of my childhood – an army of elongated heads frozen in mid-journey down the grassy slopes.

This was where, in the late 1600s, the ancient carvers put down their stone chisels and never picked them up again. The reasons aren’t fully known, but shrinking resources likely led to warfare, devastating the old culture.

The heads at Rano Raraku were the ones that never reached their destinations, travelers stranded in mid-trip. Islanders said these moai were blind. They had not yet received or gotten their stone topknots, and they would never stand on an altar like Tahai’s.

The cylindrical topknots – like top hats the size of corn cribs – were quarried at another volcano, Puna Pau, where the lava rock was rusty red instead of grayish black. Abandoned topknots lay on the ground like giant red boulders. They all had been hollowed out inside, the better to fit onto a statue’s head. One afternoon, I curled up inside a topknot and spent an hour watching white clouds drift across brilliant blue sky, over a landscape of yellow grass; it reminded me of a Kansas prairie.

The weather reminded me of Hawaii – frequent showers, followed by clearing skies and rainbows. But the resemblance stopped there. The island was a big pasture edged by cliffs. It wasn’t tropical, and it wasn’t lush. Outside of gardens and protected valleys, there were almost no trees, and the beaches were black rocks.

Yolanda told me there was another American on the island, a woman about my own age. I ran into her one sunset at Tahai, and we struck up a friendship. She had visited the island before, drawn by its archaeology, but she was back this time because of a boyfriend, an islander. She wanted to see where that relationship was going to lead. I soon knew what she was wrestling with.

One night, Yolanda took me to Hanga Roa’s little disco – about half the village was there – and I found an island boyfriend too. That meant I was swept into another extended family – parents, sisters, cousins and armfuls of little nieces and nephews. There were more gatherings in homes, lots of talking, loud card games that I usually couldn’t follow. Their favorite was a complicated four-person game called “bree-hay’’; it turned out to be bridge, pronounced in Spanish.

The most beautiful spot on the island was one I’d never heard of – Orongo, the place of the birdmen. My islander borrowed horses – much easier to borrow than cars, because there were more of them – and we spent a day riding up there and back.

Orongo was a fringe of low stone huts on the lip of a high, sheer cliff, with the blue sea crashing at its foot. Seabirds nested on the cliff front, and in the past, island men used to risk their lives to climb down and gather eggs each year. The rituals they performed at Orongo didn’t die out until the 1860s, and the cliff was still dangerous. There were no protective guard rails, just the stone huts, a rim of grass and that sheer, dizzying drop to the limitless sea. Standing up there was like being on the edge of the world, or the prow of a ship.

From the beginning, Yolanda had been urging me to stay longer. I’d only planned on a week, but as plane day got closer and she kept talking, I weakened. Yolanda was right, I decided. There was really no reason to leave so soon. The only thing waiting for me was a small internship on a newspaper in Buenos Aires, and the start date was more than a month away. Besides, there was no penalty for changing my reservation. What harm could it do to wait?

I missed one plane. And then another. And another....

And while I waited, my newly simple life grew complicated. I was enmeshed in a love affair, all right, but it wasn’t exactly with the man I’d met. It was with Easter Island itself. My island.

I could see a different future opening up for me here, and every time I cuddled one of the little nephews on my lap, it seemed more real, more possible. How many people, I wondered, get to live their dearest wish? How many people really find paradise? How many dare to stay once they find it?

That was the biggest question, and the longer I stayed, the harder it was to answer, and the less like paradise my paradise appeared. I loved the “wind and music” part but I was no longer sure about “nothing to do.’’

I watched the men and began to understand why every day felt like Saturday. It was because so few of them had real jobs. I watched their wives and noticed that the idle men didn’t help them with all those babies. I saw how few options there were for everyone, even the children, and wondered how many options there would be for me.

Yolanda kept on telling me to enjoy my life. But my Minnesota conditioning had begun to kick in. Be careful what you wish for, it whispered in my ear. Be careful....

My American friend confided that she and her island boyfriend were having problems – sometimes he drank too much, and then they argued. It scared her. It scared me too, and I started to undermine myself with questions:

What would I do when the magic wore off? Who – what – would I turn into if I stayed? Could I really grow old here? Would days of childcare and evenings of bree-hay be enough? This wasn’t just some other town – this was another world. It had taken me a lifetime to reach it. What if it took that long to get away?

I couldn’t tell whether I was being realistic or just a coward, didn’t know what I wanted to do, let alone what I should do. Maybe I preferred daydreams to reality, after all. Didn’t I, on almost every trip, imagine what it would be like to live there? And didn’t I always go back to normal, back to family, house, job, no matter how tempting the place was? Yes. Yes, I always went back.

And now I did again.

I made the final decision fast, on almost no notice so I couldn’t be talked out of it by my boyfriend, by Yolanda or even by myself. I must have said goodbye to the people I was leaving behind, but I don’t remember doing even that. All I know is that when the next plane left, I was on it, and when the clouds closed behind me over Easter Island, whatever future I could have had there vanished into mist.

Everything I have written since then – every story in this book and a thousand others – has come from that decision. Leaving Easter Island broke my heart, but it also turned me into a travel writer.

It’s a nutty way to live, really – a kind of paid homelessness, a career dependent on permanent exile: Go away, have experiences, find stuff out and then come back to tell it to the folks at home. It means always being on the outside looking in, longing to stay and never staying. I was perfect for it.

I still looked for “home’’ when I was on the road, and sometimes – on other islands, in tiny towns – I found it for a while. But never again with the same fore-ordained, consuming clarity I felt on Easter Island. I wasn’t surprised: All acts have consequences, and you can’t defy destiny without paying some sort of price.

I have never gone back. I can’t. When asked, I say it’s because I don’t want to see how the island has changed (all those hotels, all those tours...)

But the real reason is that I don’t want to feel like an outsider there. I don’t think I could bear being just another tourist in a place where once, however briefly, I belonged. And I don’t need or want another look at the path not taken; I’ve been seeing it, ever since I caught that plane.

Over the years, people have asked me about what I do. One question comes up again and again, usually from women in full stride, doing the great American juggling act – husband, children, home, career: “Aren’t you afraid,” they say, “traveling around the world alone like that?’’

No, I tell them. Leaving home’s a cinch. It’s the staying, once you’ve found it, that takes courage.


For many years, Catherine Watson was the award-winning travel editor for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. This story won the Silver Award for Travel Memoir in the Second Annual Solas Awards. The piece originally appeared in Home on the Road – Further Dispatches from the Ends of the Earth, Syren Book Company; copyright Catherine Watson, 2007. It also appears on www.worldhum.com as of Oct. 8, 2007. Rights remain with Catherine Watson.


About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.




Read more from Catherine Watson, Editors' Choice

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