Sometimes I don’t believe in traveling. The value of seeing the world, learning about new cultures, and gaining independence comes at a true risk when the sacred, the fragile, the irreplaceable aspect of what may seem mundane to one person becomes the plaything of the tourist. Inaccessibility is no matter. Pave a cement strip wide and long enough for a plane and tourists will begin to land.
Easter Island, called “Rapa Nui” in the language spoken by its indigenous inhabitants, has one such landing strip. The flight from Santiago crosses 2,334 miles of ocean in gorgeous planes: movie monitors, brown leather headrests, charming flight attendants, and elegant lunches on minimalist china. Passengers fight over window seats instead of aisle seats. All guidebooks insist that you’ll want that window seat to catch a glimpse of the tiny island – one of the most enigmatic specks of land in the world – before landing.
“There’s a round trip flight every day,” said our hotel clerk when she asked when we’d be returning to mainland Chile. My mother, bitten by the travel bug since birth, blanched, surprised. She had visited Easter Island in the 1970s when there was only one flight a week, one place to stay, and dirt roads that crisscrossed the small and sole city, Hanga Roa.
We examined a map of the island, the clerk circling rental car companies along the city’s main drag, paved to tarry smoothness to spare the transmissions of tourist rentals and local pick-ups alike. She handed us our room key. A busload of senior citizens shuffled past the front desk, heaving themselves on walkers and in wheelchairs towards breakfast. Unlike these slow yet transient tourists, the tourism industry had come to stay.
On the main street, we decided to rent a car to zoom around Rapa Nui National Park and stopped in one such shop, where a woman in a navy blazer and hiking boots greeted us. On yet another map, the woman frowned as she highlighted the numerous routes on which we tourists were not permitted to drive. The indigenous Rapa Nui residents have sole access to many parts of the island. The woman clicked her tongue: “You know, the Rapa Nui people, they think they own the island.”
Confused, I responded, “Don’t they, though?”
She raised her eyebrows and shook her head, as if revealing a well-known fact to us simple tourists. No. Todos somos chilenos. “We are all Chileans.”
Most of the park rangers are mainland Chilean in Rapa Nui National Park, which is managed by CONAF: the National Forest Cooperation of Chile. The park constitutes around 42 percent of the island. Stretching from coast to coast over volcanoes and fields, it encompasses the main attractions: over 900 enormous stone moai monoliths, the most visible remnants of the indigenous Rapa Nui culture that was almost completely decimated by European colonists in the 18th and 19th centuries. Standing tall in the island’s volcanoes and along its coasts on platforms called ahu, the statues are iconic enough to have inspired a moai emoji for the iPhone. Nevertheless, they remain sacred to the indigenous Rapa Nui people, as they are charged with a spiritual essence or represent ancestors. According to tradition, they are not to be approached nor touched by anyone except certain individuals, and especially not by tourists.
It was on one such volcano talking to a Chilean CONAF ranger that I wished to amend the rental car saleswoman’s original statement: Tourists think they own the island.
We had just hiked up the side of Rano Raraku, nicknamed the “Quarry.” One of three extinct volcanoes on the island, the Rapa Nui used to quarry their gigantic moai from here before transporting them to sites around the island. They carved their long faces and dense, erect torsos while simultaneously removing them from solid volcanic rock. Some moai remain incomplete, embedded forever in the volcano’s side. Other moai lay abandoned, scattered up and down the faces of the volcano. Many have especially pronounced features, such as enormous ears, long noses, or unique eyebrows. I imagined that some creative carvers decided to experiment but were not satisfied with the outcomes and left them strewn just outside the quarry. Some are shoulder-deep. Others’ noses and foreheads perch just above the ground, like a neighbor peeking over a fence. “You know, last time I was here, this moai’s entire body was aboveground. He had nice shoulders,” my mother pointed out. My favorites are those that have toppled onto their backs, peacefully gazing skywards as the volcanic soil slowly swallows them.
We followed rocky stairs up into the crater lake of Rano Raraku, one of the few sources of fresh water on Easter Island. There, moai form a lazy ring along the crater’s graceful slopes, facing – almost guarding – the small lake. A low fence constructed from wood stilts driven into the ground separates these moai from the tourist viewing platform. It meanders down from the crater’s edge to the lake, stopping short of the water. A break in the fence wide enough for a car to drive through accompanies a small sign nailed to one of the posts that reads in small, hand-painted letters: NO PASAR.
Under the branches of some stubby trees, my mother and I joined a young park ranger on a bench, recognizable only because of his beige CONAF jacket. He was the first ranger we had seen after four days on the island. We chatted amicably. He had moved to Easter Island from Santiago to find work and for the surfing and good weather, he laughed. It began to drizzle. The low trees provided poor shelter. The rain didn't stop for a long time, and neither did the stream of tourists.
From our perch, we watched as a family approached the fence. When they began to cross through the break in the middle, the ranger shot up and ran down slippery path, waving his arms and shouting.
The family spun around. Hearing the ranger’s words, they curiously examined the fence and sign as if seeing them for the first time. They stood with their hands on their chins, as if the novelty that a fence could act as a barrier was just sinking in. The ranger put his hands on his hips. The tourists innocently shrugged and sheepishly shook their heads.
When the ranger returned, I asked, “Why can’t the fence be closed and reinforced?” If the fence was closed, the ranger told me, the Rapa Nui people could not freely access the sacred moai. Yet if the fence remains incomplete, tourists can approach the moai as well. Erecting the small sign was the best CONAF could do to warn tourists but also avoid infringing upon the Rapa Nui’s right to access their heritage.
“Tourists do not respect anything,” the ranger said. He regaled us with horror stories from his experience on duty. A man once stuffed gum inside a moai’s mouth. The previous year, some tourists lost control of a fire they illegally lit and damaged moai inside the crater.
“The cars rented in Hanga Roa are also a problem. Now tourists can drive and explore any part of the island, even places they shouldn’t be near,” he said.
I guiltily recalled earlier that morning when we’d parked our car on the side of the road somewhere on the eastern coast. We had bungled down a slope over scattered boulders and slippery shrubs towards the island’s edge, the wind threatening to blow us into the ocean. Rounding a boulder, I barreled into a woman and a man in a wheelchair. They said they were preparing for a family gathering just as a pickup truck rounded the bend filled with people and food. The man told us that his family had been planning gatherings on the island once a month for generations, always in different locations “so that nobody knows where we are, and so our traditions remain pure,” he assured us quietly. Understanding, we graciously said goodbye.
Back on Ranu Raraku, I appreciated what our ranger meant: the island’s treasures were being exposed and sold for the price of a rental jeep. Soon, no part of the island would be untouched.
Yet, as we came to realize, the Rapa Nui are fiercely protective of their island and traditions, arduously managing to balance tourism – the main source of their income – and preserve their culture and history. This delicate balance emerged the following day, when my mother and I met two Australian men on a rocky outcrop overlooking an inlet. They were visiting Easter Island to publicize its surfing potential and had been filming and photographing surfers all day with lenses longer than my arm.
“Is this the best place to surf?” I asked, admiring the violent waves and jagged volcanic cliff that juxtaposed the curved beach and pastureland across the inlet, dotted with horned bulls and cows, grazing.
“We don’t know,” the photographer shrugged. “The islanders won’t tell us.”
On our last day on Easter Island, we hiked up the road along the island’s western edge. Near Hanga Roa, we passed tourists smothering coastal ahus of moai. Further up the road, my mother and I walked alone through herds of wild horses and admired standalone moai until the sun began to sink. As the road lacked street lamps, we turned around. Halfway back, a grimy pickup truck heading in the opposite direction stopped directly in front of me.
“Hey, miss, are you walking alone? I can take you wherever you’re going,” the driver offered.
I was about to decline when my mother – always the happy-go-lucky globetrotter – stepped out from behind me and accepted his offer, not seeming to realize that he was driving away from Hanga Roa.
With me in the back and my mother in the front, the truck rattled up the road. I kept waiting for our driver, Enrique, to turn around towards Hanga Roa. Instead, he told us that he needed to pick up some other passengers. He jumped out of the car to unbolt a rusty green fence that blocked a dirt side road.
“This is how it ends,” I grumbled.
Three women flagged down the pickup truck. Enrique leapt out and kissed them each on both cheeks. I decided to sit in the bed of the pickup with the younger woman and allow the two older women to climb into the back seat.
“How do you know Enrique?” I asked the young woman, Bárbara.
“We don’t!” I must have made a face, because she laughed and continued. “We know his wife, the first and only Rapa Nui concert pianist, Mahani Teave. They are constructing the first music school here. We just arrived and wanted to see it.”
The pickup stopped at a hilltop. We jumped down and wandered into the construction site of a building formed from objects that might have been plucked from the sea: smooth, bleached eucalyptus beams offered structure to white stucco walls, embedded with glass bottles in flowing, rainbow-colored arches. I opened a wooden door paneled with distorted glass. From the inside, the eccentric structure looked like a work by Antoni Gaudí. More doors lining the edge of a circular atrium led to practice rooms and classrooms, like petals off the stamen of a daisy. In each room, more glass bottles filtered the sun’s rays, spraying the white walls with vibrant circles in multicolored waves. The central atrium’s ceiling narrowed into a sinuous, incomplete funnel upwards, reminding me of a glass wine decanter. Through the unfinished ovular hole at the top, I could see pink and purple clouds.
I exited through another door and onto a covered patio with a view of the western coast and ocean, overlooking a garden and orchard bursting with pineapples and fruit trees. Enrique and the other women had migrated there, speaking quietly. I stepped closer and gazed west, encircling my arms around a silky wooden pillar, and listened. Enrique was saying that an American architect designed the site on land donated for local children. As deforestation – a result of the tourist influx and construction projects – was an issue, the school would cultivate indigenous crops and trees in addition to teaching music.
“The island has its problems, but the Rapa Nui people don’t wait for the Chilean government to solve them; we do that ourselves,” Enrique professed with pride.
“What types of music will you teach here?” I asked.
He smiled at me. “All types, but especially Rapa Nui music. All we can do is teach our culture and hope.”
We fell silent and watched the sun. After a minute, as if voicing an afterthought, Enrique whispered, “The most profound changes take time.”
The sun finally dipped into the ocean, staining the Pacific sky and clouds. Its final rays seemed to emanate from the moai lined up along the ahu on the beach before us. We remained on the patio, gazing westward until their outlines blurred and became indistinguishable from the dark water behind them, slowly dissolving into the night. The first stars flickered. It seemed as though there were neither tourists nor anyone else but us and the moai on the island.