Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, is the most remote inhabited place on Earth. Spending three weeks there helping with research was not something I really planned or even imagined doing, but that’s what I did this summer! I applied to this program through my university just on the off chance that if I were to be accepted, it would be pretty cool. The dean of the Honors College is Dr. Terry Hunt, who has been doing cutting-edge research on the island for 20 years (Read his book) and takes a few students there every summer.
Rapa Nui is an amazing place to visit and unique in the world. It got the name Easter Island from the Dutch explorer Roggeveen who landed there on Easter Sunday 1722. Prior to this, the islanders built hundreds of statues known as moai, which were moved all across the island from the quarry where 95% of them were carved. Over 300 are still at the quarry and were not moved further for various reasons – some fell and others may have simply been abandoned when Europeans arrived. Since 1722, the island’s history has been complicated and often violent, but many indigenous people are still living there. Coming to the island as I did, I had a unique chance to meet people and participate in daily life, while also helping with research and seeing the island.
Most land on the island is part of a National Park (so maybe I should list this under that tab as well). The local heritage association, Ma’u Henua, oversees all of this today, and researchers have to get permission from them to conduct research. This meant that we were able to fly drones on the island to take pictures, which is otherwise strictly prohibited. We were primarily looking at sources of freshwater on the island, something that is incredibly important since there are no permanent streams. While the research is mainly focused on studying pre-historic life and how people used to get water, it’s also useful to the future. The island is at the beginning of a drought, which is expected to worsen with climate change, so knowing where they can find water is important (an abstract).
Three weeks on such a small island can almost seem like too much – few tourists stay longer than a week, and most are only there for 2-3 days. In the time of my visit, I of course saw many famous moai and stood at the top of all three (extinct) volcanoes. But I think staying for so long was a really important part of this unique experience. I’m intrigued by community governance and projects in places that have no choice but to face tough issues. Easter Island then was a really good place to go: the economy depends on tourism, but tourism puts the island at risk. The island is remote and dependent on the mainland but also has political problems with the more powerful mainland. Besides that, there are the simple ecological issues of drought, sustainability, and the frustrating problem of trash from the South Pacific gyre washing up on the coast. In visiting the island for just a couple days, some of these problems may be apparent, but they matter less when you know you’ll be flying out in two days. (Link to a great documentary on environmental problems on Easter Island)
Easter Island is a world heritage site that now receives about 100,000 visitors per year. There have been proposals about limiting tourism, but, of course, this would also hurt the local economy. Besides that, there really is something marvelous about standing in front of these massive statues but crowds of people taking selfies can diminish that wonder a bit (further reading). Personally, my favorite parts of the trip were the moments without people. The big ahu (platform) Tongariki with its 15 moai is impressive, but I much preferred a rainy afternoon at Tahai where I could sit quietly without needing to take pictures and just think about the long history of the island and its people and the way history has moved all of us. I loved walking along the cliffs at Tepeu with just the rest of my group – five students and three actual adults – and marveling at the ruins of a settlement and its fallen moai, still breathtaking in front of an endless expanse of Pacific blue.
There’s a phenomenon known as bucket list tourism where people have to travel to particular spots in order to say they’ve been there – the Great Wall of China, the Colosseum, the Pyramids in Giza, Easter Island. These are amazing places, and there’s a reason they’re on the bucket list. Traveling just to take a selfie and name-drop the place into a conversation though can, I think, diminish the value of it and how incredible that once-in-a-lifetime trip can be. Tourism is a complicated issue – it helps economies but can harm the very heritage it seeks to celebrate.
It’s exciting that the world is opening up and more people can travel and learn about the world, but simultaneously we have to be mindful about how we travel. For example, are you going to a place to say you’ve been there or do you have some connection to or specific interest in the place? Are you going to certain sites because they’re The Places to Visit or because this particular place relates to an interest of yours? And when you are in a place, are you being respectful of both the history and the people who currently live there? Travel is exciting, and I love it, but Easter Island really helped put in perspective how important it is to travel mindfully, even just by supporting the local economy by going to local (not chain) restaurants and visiting stores that aren’t just souvenir shops – artisan and craft shops are a great place to find a souvenir that supports the community, even if it costs more than a plastic snow globe.
More than anything, respect is what matters – for people, for history, for the world. We all share the Earth, and it’s the only home we have. The beauty of travel is not just the excitement of flying or the awe of standing before megalithic statues that walked across an island in the Pacific hundreds of years ago. The beauty is also in talking to a local artisan who helps you pick out the perfect gift and tells you about how she made the things she’s selling. It’s going to a restaurant where they’re out of tuna because the waves were too rough to catch any that morning. It’s picking up trash on the beach even when it’s not yours and making friends you would not have met otherwise. Respect for where you are and the people who are there is what really makes travel amazing.