In The Middle Of Nowhere

Out here, on Easter Island-one of the most remote places on earth-you get the sense that you are as far away from reality as you’ll ever be in your lifetime.

And you’re right: It’s a place on earth that is farthest from any other place on earth.

No one comes to Easter Island by accident.

To land here by airplane, you look for a little dot bobbing in the middle of nowhere five hours off the coast of Chile and then you aim for the runway.

On the way to your hotel, you look for Amelia Earhart, or signs of a shipwreck or a pirate with a wooden leg because this place is the stuff that strange tales are made of.

The first people to paddle here and create a society were Polynesians in 400 A.D. I can’t fathom their surprise when more than 1,000 years later, giant wooden ships sailed up and men like Captain Cook spilled out and came ashore.

Over the centuries, the islanders were awakened from their slumber: The first time they saw a man on a horse, they thought it was a two-headed, six-legged creature and they ran up the green, rolling hills to hide from it. But it didn’t take long for the islanders to see the wisdom in having horses: They could help work the land and provide an easy source of transportation.

Today these horses have been replaced by cars, and they run wild now across the subtropical, volcanic landscape, their manes blowing in the wind. They are beloved for their beauty but they’re no longer a necessity and so no one has the heart or the inclination to rein them in.

After the sailors came the archaeologists. They were here to explore this barren island for its hundreds of human-like statues that line the coast. Called Moai, they range in size but the largest among them stand between 32 and 65 feet and can weigh up to 270 tons. Why were these natives so driven to build these statues and how did they move them from the quarry? Why did they abandon their statue building and why were the statues eventually toppled?

In this outdoor museum, visitors are here to explore those questions.

My most pressing question, however, is how I’m eating Argentinian meat when the supply boat hasn’t been here for two months.

And I’m wondering what it’s like to live with 5,000 other people in such a beautiful but unforgiving environment.

In 2006, a plan was hatched to build a casino on Easter Island, which enraged its local residents. After all, these descendants of the first inhabitants had lived through their share of hardships: westerners spread their diseases; slave ships had puttered through and kidnapped their people; and the onslaught of tourism brought both the good and bad of modernity.

The casino plan was scrapped, but I wonder how long this place will keep the outside world at bay.

Today, the national airline, LAN Chile, flies here daily carrying tourists, and then there are the charter flights and cruise ships. A lot of the profits made from these touristic ventures end up on mainland South America because Easter Island has been a special province to Chile since 1888. The islanders have had enough of Chilean rule and wish to govern themselves.

There are an increasing amount of issues to tend to: How to generate electricity to keep up with the demand, where to store the ever increasing amount of garbage, and how to keep from overtaxing the resources of the hospital and schools. Another consequence of tourism is that the island has become dependent on the mainland for supplies, and its residents eagerly await the cargo ships that come ashore each month.

Amid all the uncertainty, one thing is true: The first islanders prospered well on this speck of volcanic land, and created a sophisticated and dazzling civilization that was able to carve, transport and erect the island’s famous stone statues – which were entrusted with protecting the living. Until Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen named the island after a Christian holiday in 1722, Easter Island remained a secret to the outside world.

Despite the prevalence of tourism, I am able to feel completely alone on the island by walking a short distance from town. Etched cliffs dramatically jut up from the ocean, a lone statue head stares out to sea, and secluded sand beaches await sunbathers.

I think about the dichotomy of needing the outside world and yet fearing it at the same time.

Despite its tumultuous history, Easter Island is alive and still full of mystery. With any luck, tourists will come to help unravel those mysteries and not to gamble away the island’s future.