I had my first candlelit breakfast while working on a farm on Rapa Nui, or Easter Island.
Unlike the romanticized connotations of a candlelit dinner, a candlelit breakfast consisted of spilled coffee grounds, stepping on puppy tails, and living in 85% fear of when my next encounter with the cockroaches and rats hiding in the dark corners of our little farm shack would be. By the time work on the farm started, pre-dawn darkness on one the most remote islands in the world was replaced with sunrises that silhouetted the palm trees and brought life to the earthy colors in the rows of purple carrots, red cabbage, and green onion.
My co-workers on the farm were a group of Chilean ex-patriots who lived on the island for differing periods of months and years, and tried their best to speak a slower version of Spanish to me when instructing on their process of harvesting, washing, weeding, and the difficulties of growing on the island due to the winds and volcanic soil.They planned different island adventures each day after work was finished. They took me to visit the main town of Hanga Roa for fresh mango juice, the best empanadas on the island, and a swim with sea turtles in the bay, while children learned to surf in the ankle biting waves. Another day we spent all afternoon touring ancient sites of the island. We visited Ranu Raraku, the quarry on the hillside of a volcano where moai were carved out of rock. Later that evening we had the shores of Anakena beach, one of the only sand beaches on the island, all to ourselves for a sunset swim. We didn’t return home until 11:30pm that night to cook our candlelit dinner, starving, exhausted, and completely satisfied.Like the idea of cooking and eating by candlelight, a place like Easter Island was easy to idealize with its horses roaming through ancient moai and rolling volcanoes on an island referred to as the navel of the world. Beneath this exterior were tensions between the people of Rapa Nui and Chileans from mainland that arose in the spring of 2015, just months before I arrived on the island. While Easter Island is technically owned by mainland Chile, the independent Rapa Nui parliament claim that they never surrendered or ceded sovereignty to Chile in the treaty of 1888 and that the land was stolen from them. In the spring, the Rapa Nui Parliament shut down National Parks on the island and replaced them with makeshift gatekeeper stations flying the flag of Rapa Nui, which were still regulating visitors during my trip.
My Chilean ex-patriot co-workers on the farm explained that the situation was complicated as the people of Rapa Nui were dependent on mainland Chile for food, healthcare, and higher education. They cited experiences of these tensions extending into daily life on the island, from fights over who could dance with whom at nightclubs, or the farm owner’s inability to purchase the land for his farm due to the fact that he was born in mainland Chile. The future of the island for locals, tourists, and people from mainland Chile remained to be seen.On my last evening on the island, I went to visit Te Pito Kura. This unmarked circular rock stone steps from the ocean is sometimes referred to as the navel of the navel. According to Polynesian mythology, this circular stone marked the spot where the founding figure of Rapa Nui is said to have landed. Andrea, my roommate on the island, told me that the rock had a magnetic energy and it was believed that touching the stone guarantees your return to the island. I had felt at home with the pace of life, climate, people, and terrain. I loved waking up outdoors, hitchhiking to town in the afternoon, and running over the island with the dogs from the farm. The place felt sacred to me.I touched the stone and snapped a photo, but knew this place would continue to change. It’s nearly impossible not to think of the events on Easter Island in context with the island’s troubled past, most famously written about in Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Diamond wrote that the island society deteriorated, marked by a complete deforestation, extinction of animals, and a society that essentially collapsed into cannibalism. He wrote, “The metaphor is so obvious. Easter Island is isolated in the Pacific Ocean — once the island got into trouble, there was no way they could get free. There were no other people from whom they could get help. In the same way that we on Planet Earth, if we ruin our own [world], we won’t be able to get help.” While unsustainable development threatens everything from the most remote island in the world to the future of open, wild space in our own backyards, it’s tempting not to want to isolate and protect the places we consider sacred. Maybe the answer isn’t to close off borders. Maybe, in Easter Island’s case, it will take some readjustment and a shift in values in order to make forward-thinking, sustainable plans to preserve the health of both the people and the island that sustains them. And if the island exists as a perfect metaphor, as Diamond claimed, maybe we can apply this strategy in our own backyard.
Liz Gill is a writer based in the Bay Area, California. Her print and video work has been published in Weekend Sherpa, 7×7, Surfrider, Flotrack, and RanMarin.com. When she’s not writing, she’s an athlete, coach, and outdoor adventure guide passionate about encouraging more women to be active in athletics and the outdoors.