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.

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.

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. 

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 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, readers 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.

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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