Where the Roads Diverged
Travel Stories: After searching all her life, Catherine Watson felt she'd found home on Easter Island. Then she heard a whisper in her ear: Be careful what you wish for.
10.08.07 | 12:23 PM ET
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 during the previous 25 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 45-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 30s, 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.