LETTER HOME: Living in the Navel of the World

By Alexandra Edwards ’95

It’s one of those days on Easter Island when the wind and rain argue against continuing to work outside. We’ve spent half the day wondering what to do, accomplishing other chores in the meantime and exhausting all of Plan B before lunch, when the unavoidable question arises, “Now what?”

I’m in this house in the country. “Country” here encompasses all that is not the village or the coast. I’m sitting on a beat-up mustard-colored couch that must have been its owner’s pride in the ’70s. Opposite me is a cinder-crusted pan on a rock next to a fireplace. The fireplace is in a wall that merges into the side of a cave that occupies half the house. The owners built it that way to save money. From the window you can see banana leaves framing Poike volcano, billowing grasslands, snow-peaked waves, and thunderous clouds approaching. The island is surrounded by a brown ring of water followed by an expanse of grey that spreads as far as the eye can see; a thick mist embraces anything more than 20 meters high. The island exudes something numinous. There will be a downpour.

We’re supposed to be registering petroglyphs of the island’s North Coast, by Hanga o Teo. We normally go out to look for them with an oil lantern by night and copy the drawings onto large pieces of plastic by day in order to complete an archaeological survey. In the early 1980s, a team of three archaeologists from the University of Chile and nearly a dozen Rapanui islanders began the survey and restoration that now includes 23,000 archaeological features ranging from house foundations to a ceremonial center with the many monolithic statues that are the trademark of Easter Island. I joined the team 13 years ago. The funding for the project we are now working on was granted to Siki Rapu by the National Council of Indigenous Affairs. Siki calls me taina, sister, in Rapanui, but she has a lot of sisters, being the daughter of one of Easter Island’s most renowned matriarchs, Ana Lola Tuki, with 154 descendants so far.

We often have animated discussions trying to figure out what some of the petroglyphs represent. But then, discussions about nearly anything become animated; this is an island of storytellers, after all. A wild assortment of people has gathered under this roof. Surprise guests include three outback-type locals who sit in a dark corner endlessly rolling cigarettes, two pretty Chilean journalism students (Easter Island, thesis paradise), and a French tango instructor. The stories start rolling.

We talk about Satawal, where children memorize the locations and movements of more than 700 stars so that as adults they may navigate distances of up to 1,000 kilometers in double-hulled voyaging canoes made out of wood tied together with coconut fibers, guided by nothing more than their eyes and the signs from the ocean and night sky. Every single habitable island in the 30 million square kilometers of ocean that encompasses this part of the Pacific shows traces of Polynesian contact. Not only did they voyage without using any navigational equipment whatsoever, but they also migrated, settled, and developed distinct identities, all Polynesian nevertheless. The stories go on. We go from Pitcairn and the mutineers to Palmerston, where hundreds of islanders all descend from the same man (and his many wives) and abide by a number of strange and confusing stipulations that their progenitor created to keep the family from squabbling over land rights.

One of the traditional names for Easter Island is Te Pito o Te Henua, often translated as the navel of the world, but for Polynesians the umbilical cord is also the nexus between the world of the living and the spirit world, which lay further east. This makes sense, for Easter Island is the easternmost of the Polynesian islands. We’re far from nearly everything here, but just as the currents wash objects upon the shore, I sometimes find a little bit of the external world in the most surprising places here—including talking to Jim Lacrosse ’57 overlooking a 1.6 kilometer-wide crater lake while he was on a tour! In the time I’ve lived on Easter Island, I’ve mostly worked in documentaries and archaeology both here and in the Marquesas, Society, and Austral islands. I’ve also worked as a flight attendant and I’ve done my fair share of translations, too. Next is an ethnographic expedition to Papua New Guinea. I guess I’ll do anything to stay here. Now it rains and everyone is in hibernation and it’s easy to feel isolated. But I like it. One thing I will never run out of on Easter Island is wonder.