In my travels to many places, I have never been anywhere that felt so much like a waking dream—not just now, as I write this, from a distance of several months and 8,000 miles, but also while I was there, experiencing it. During the long mornings and longer afternoons of the antipodean summer, we'd wander across the cliffside meadows and craters of dead volcanoes. Accompanying us, often, were a guide and a few other guests from the lodge. But, somehow, I still always felt alone. Our fellow travelers, oversize though some of them must have seemed in any other setting—the Chilean billionaire's daughter, the New York online-media tycoon—appeared to shrink here against our shared backdrop. It was like standing at the bottom of a bowl that contained the entire world.
The young, locally born guides from Explora seemed themselves almost to be part moai, with angular, beautiful faces and heavy-lidded eyes concealing semi-secret thoughts. "Some people say you can see the curve of the earth from here," Jojo told us.
That was the evening that the Explora guides took us hiking out to the far southwestern tip of the island, where the rim of the extinct volcano Rano Kau looms above the sea. Here, in centuries past, the young men of the island performed the ritual of the Birdman, a phenomenon almost as strange as the moai themselves. Elders would sponsor competitors, who raced one another down a 1,000-foot rock face, then swam across more than a mile of open ocean to bring back the egg of a sooty tern from an offshore nesting island. The elder whose racer was the first to return with one of the fragile eggs tied safely in his headband became the island's Tangata Manu, or Birdman, for the next 12 moons.
Today, the island's culture and people seem poised between the prehistoric and the postmodern. With surprising speed, increased connections to the outside world have brought a degree of sophistication. Hanga Roans knew enough to be impressed a few months ago when one of the creators of The Simpsons sojourned on the island. Yet they get only two channels of television via satellite from Chile, plus a local station. And when young islanders strip off their Western clothes to swim at one of the palm-fringed beaches, they reveal bodies tattooed with symbols of ancestral gods, as in the days of Melville's South Pacific.
As an emblem of this odd counterpoise, I found Easter Island buzzing with talk of reinstating a version of the Birdman race—only this time, it would be under the corporate sponsorship of Red Bull, the beverage manufacturer. Jojo—who boasted of his prowess as a swimmer and climber—seemed equally excited about winning tribal glory and becoming an international soft-drink flack. More alarmingly, the 4,000 residents were also abuzz over a local businessman's proposal to build a casino on the island. Ultimately, the plan was rejected (it failed to get the necessary approval from Rapa Nui's council of elders), but there is little doubt that it would have changed this place profoundly, bringing commercial glitz to an island that doesn't even have a movie theater.
For now, as we stood at Rano Kau, such possibilities felt remote. The lodge had prepared a picnic for us there, but I strayed off alone to the edge of the lake-filled crater. The sun was sinking beyond the thin rim, setting the rippling Pacific aflame. Within the hollow of the dead volcano, the water already lay in shadow, its surface shifting black and opalescent. An ocean of darkness, side by side with the ocean of light.
Our home base was an unpretentious, one-story house on the outskirts of Hanga Roa, the island's lone village. Explora opened it to guests only last year, as temporary quarters, to use while the company prepares more luxurious accommodations at a spot a few miles away. (The new lodge is set to open in late 2007. Construction was delayed while Explora waited to see if the proposed casino would become a reality and thus threaten its high-end, eco-friendly operation; they have now begun building.) We'd come back there in the late afternoons and sit on the patio with cocktails. The everyday life of Hanga Roa jostles up against the edges of the small property, and often, as we sat and sipped, we'd be able to watch a woman hang her laundry on a clothesline strung between two palm trees, or a barefoot boy lead a horse by its halter across a field.
One Saturday, we went into Hanga Roa to check out the island's nightlife, which we'd heard—albeit with some skepticism—would be worth the walk. And indeed it was. At our first stop, the Topatangi pub, a small band was jamming hard—Polynesian music with a bluegrass rhythm. One local explained to me that the American soldiers who were stationed here during the Cold War left behind a permanent love of country-and-western music among the islanders. We danced with the Chilean tourists, with the local girls, and with a woman in a towering blond beehive who was rumored (we never found out whether this was true) to be the wife of a European head of state.