LETTER TO A STRANGER: EASTER ISLAND
BY SARA ALAICA
I hope you’re still angry. You were smiling when you agreed to drive me around Easter Island and show me the sights, but you boiled over as soon as we started talking, driving too fast through the small streets of Hanga Roa and out to the parched fields in the shadow of the volcano. You told me about how you left the island to follow a woman to Chile and that she broke your heart and that was why you had come back. The only good that had come of it, you said, was that you were finally back in Rapa Nui, back in your ancestral homeland that you had missed for so long.
And then you asked me where my home was. I didn’t know how to explain to you that my parents weren’t born in the same place that I was, and that I had been a nomad for so many years, so I just told you that I lived in New Zealand, for now.
But you wanted to know how long I would stay in New Zealand, and when I told you that I had no plans to leave, you turned and looked at me, saying that Aotearoa was the home of the Māori people, just as Rapa Nui was home of the Rapa Nui, and that while I could stay for a while, I really should leave it alone.
You were angry, and I was afraid to say anything. But I admired your passion and I was jealous of this connection you had to a place, this continuation of a line drawn a thousand years ago by your ancestors.
When we reached the first stop I saw only an empty field. But as we trudged out towards the ocean and you told me the history of the place, you got angry that the government hadn’t built anything to protect what we were about to see and that teenagers were able to climb on the ruins of thousand-year old houses.
“They don’t respect nothing,” you told me, shaking your head, pointing out where vandals had damaged the basalt slabs that had built the hare paengas. “This is a living museum.” And I was just as disgusted at this loss that I wished more people were as angry as you were, because then something would change.
You kept your bitterest vitriol for Hoa Hakananai’a. You took me to the cliffs of Orongo and pointed out the small island off the coast where warriors used to swim to collect tern eggs, braving dangerous rocks and sharks as part of the birdman ritual. Then you turned your back on it and pointed to a slab of rock overlooking the water.
“There is only one statue in all of Rapa Nui that has an engraving of birdman,” you told me, “and this is where it stood.”
I felt the slab glow red from your stare.
“The English stole him. Of all the mo’ai they could have taken, they took him. They don’t respect nothing!”
We stood staring at the empty spot.
“But this is his home,” you said finally, and then turned away. “He belongs right here.”
Several years later I went to go see Hoa Hakananai’a. I picked him out immediately when I stepped into the British Museum, his enormous brow towering over the lobby, his hefty weather-beaten stone out of place among the delicate china and glass.
I stared up into his face, the dark recesses of his eyes angled upward, and then I circled around to the birdman carving on his back, two beaks raised towards the sky and joined to support a tern. No one else stopped to look at him while I was there.
We were both a long way from where we belonged.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sara Alaica is a citizen of the world and a nomad. Her work focuses on her experiences living abroad in Asia, Europe, and the Americas, and has been featured in Vela, Cleaver, Spry, Switchback, andThe Tishman Review. She blogs at saraalaica.com. The place she talks friends out of visiting? Poipet, Cambodia.
Photo from Flickr creative common.