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

Easter IslandI 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.

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Catherine Watson is the former travel editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, a winner of the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year and the author of two collections of travel essays. This story was selected for the "Best American Travel Writing 2008" anthology.

12 Comments for Where the Roads Diverged

Tim Patterson 10.08.07 | 4:05 PM ET

Wow. Easily one of the best travel stories I’ve ever read.  Should be a no-brainer for Jason Wilson.  You created a mood with language that echoed the basic meaning of the words and made the story not only speak, but resonate.


- Tim Patterson

Edmundo Edwards 10.09.07 | 3:33 AM ET

Dear Catherine;
That was a very touching story. You should return, you would be surprised to find that not everything has changed as much as you might believe, and I am sure you will find old friends and enjoy your stay. On the other hand “change” is not something bad, on the contrary, now the people of Easter Island have many new chances to succeed and enjoy a better life. Today there are over 60 Rapanui professionals, and over another 130 studying at diferent universities in Chile, South America the US and Europe, most of them with the desire to return as their previous generation did. Most of the investment in tourism belongs to the islanders or to joint ventures with mainlanders. 

I hope to meet you one day so we can remember those times. I have lived for 42 years on the island and I came here the first time 50 years ago.

Kinderst regards

Edmundo Edwards

Amaya MelÚndez 10.09.07 | 2:34 PM ET

Hola Catherine, gracias for your story, it is very touching. 

Marilyn Terrell 10.10.07 | 6:09 PM ET

Now I can’t look at those mysterious giant heads without thinking of this story.

Christine Hume 10.11.07 | 11:59 AM ET

I loved this story! I too have felt that need to search for a “home”. I’ve also walked away from an island I loved.

Roland Raymond 10.11.07 | 4:54 PM ET

A very touching, vibrant story.  An easy but poignant read.  It makes me want to get up from this desk, call and tell my wife to get packed, and off we go!  The story from the follow-up visit would will?) be very much looked forward to.  Well done and thank you for sharing.

Stephen Houston 10.12.07 | 4:23 PM ET

Great read Catherine, thanks

Dawn Turek 10.12.07 | 10:02 PM ET

A wonderful story that gave me a pang for my own ‘home’. I can relate to the feeling of not wanting to ruin the memory of a treasured place. When I have returned to a destination, my wistful memories (usually) mix with the excitement of new discoveries.

Seria Dassing 10.16.07 | 5:28 PM ET

I loved your story.  I think you should go back to Easter Island, too. It will never be the same as it was on your first trip but it might be like watching your child grow up…...you miss the simpleness of childhood but can’t stop time and the changes-you love the adult child as much as the toddler.

Sean O'Neill 10.22.07 | 12:27 PM ET

This is a travel story with enough character and drama to become a fabulous novel.

Kerry Hurwitz 10.27.07 | 7:24 PM ET

Beautiful story.  Thank you for sharing it.

Beverly Dawkins 02.05.08 | 7:38 PM ET

What an amazing story! If it were a book I would not have been able to put it down.
Hope you aren’t home sick! Happy and safe travels!

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