Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
A couple of weeks ago I went to Easter Island. The southeastern tentpole of the massive portion of the Pacific Ocean that is Polynesia, Easter Island is as removed from other landmasses as it looms large in the popular imagination. In fact it is over 2,000 miles away from the country of which it is legally a part, Chile. But the local language is similar to Maori in New Zealand, where I grew up, giving the island an unexpected feeling of familiarity.
In January of 2011, Jonathan Franzen, Great American Novelist, traveled alone to Alejandro Selkirk Island, also part of Chile and not nearly as distant from the mainland, but far less known and thus far more remote in our imagination and more difficult to reach. Alexander Selkirk was the Scottish sailor marooned there who was the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe. Chileans usually still call the island by its old name, “Mas Afuera,” “Farther Away.”
I had landed on Easter Island in a plane full of tourists — the price of being well known. But they seemingly dissipated like fog when I got out of the airport. Next morning when I marched out of the only township, Hanga Roa, to hike a circuit on the west coast of the island and find some Moai statues, I was entirely alone for almost the entire day.
Franzen had gone to Selkirk to get away from it all after a grueling book tour, a problem that I would love to have. He had spent too much time repeating the same stories at book signings, and now he wished to be alone. And to mourn, belatedly, his friend and fellow novelist David Foster Wallace, who had hanged himself in 2008.
As I hiked along the coast, the impossibly azure ocean waves turned snowy as they lapped against the rocky shore, and the morning sun slowly climbed over the trees and hills on the east. And I couldn’t stop thinking about Franzen’s trip. Which is perhaps another way of saying that I couldn’t stop thinking about being alone.
Franzen and Wallace were both of the school of thought of American literature that we read to know that we are not alone. But Wallace must have felt terribly, tragically, transcendently alone in his final days. And Franzen had specifically gone to Selkirk to be alone. Unlike Easter Island, which is small enough with just a few thousand residents, Selkirk Island is actually uninhabited. He had gone there specifically to contemplate loneliness. Sure, he brought a copy of Robinson Crusoe, which, if his view was correct, would’ve kept him from feeling genuinely alone. But Robinson Crusoe is also the story of a man left entirely to himself.
I have been traveling for one year and nine months, alone for almost that whole time. I made some friends along the way — in Romania, in Estonia, in Morocco, in India, in Uzbekistan, in Argentina, and most recently in Antarctica. But what are the odds that I’ll see most of them again? I say that I travel alone in part by choice, because I do prefer it in many ways: no one to argue with about where to go for dinner, no blame to assign when a mishap happens. Oh I missed the bus? Guess I’ll take the next one. But I’m also traveling alone out of necessity. I don’t know anyone among my friends who can take off for a year or two like that, or at least is willing to live with the consequences of doing so.
On Easter Island I was mostly alone, even outside the deserted western circuit. I took a cabin near the cemetery and made breakfast for myself in the kitchen. There were roaches in the kitchen. But the woman who ran the place had a month-old puppy, and he was as cute as you’d imagine.
My next-door neighbor was an English woman in her 60s with that British reserve that made her unlikely to say much more than hello and how are you. “Well, I better be getting on,” was the classic English refrain. She, too, had come here alone. Hearing that I was from New Zealand, she volunteered that she had a “big birthday coming up” later this year and was considering going to New Zealand and driving around the country — by herself again. Divorce? Widowhood? I didn’t want to pry as to why she was traveling the world alone at her age. She was English, after all, so asking such a private question would simply not do. So we left each other alone like ships passing in the night.
Besides, an ex-girlfriend had honeymooned here a few months earlier, which made Easter Island an even more fitting place to contemplate the nature of loneliness. As I hiked a female dog decided to accompany me for much of the day in exchange for belly rubs. I started calling her Amy, after the ex, and chuckled at my own irony.
As for the Moai statues — they were remarkable things, but they were literally silent stones before which a person had little to say.
Aristotle once said that to live alone one must be an animal or a god. Nietzsche added an addendum: or a philosopher. I didn’t feel like any of the above. And yet here I was, living alone for the better part of two years now.
I found the row of Moai at Ahu Akivi, one of the more inland shrines and the highlight on this west-coast circuit. After that it was going to be just a long trek home without too much to engage my interest. I began plodding along, one foot before the other, down the dirt road.
But then a pickup truck stopped beside me. The family inside — bothers- and sisters-in-law, and “grandfather” — asked if I wanted a ride back to town. I said sure and jumped into the back. Also in the back was Tristan. Shirtless and a red, half-drunk can of beer in hand — Escudo, the cheap brand — he asked if I also wanted a cerveza. I said why not. He got me one from the backseat.
“Salud,” I said, raising my can even as I thought I’d fly out of the truck on the bumpy road.
He raised his as well. “Salud!”
And then in these small moments I was no longer alone.
And I’m writing this, after all. How many of you will actually read it? No matter. If we read to know that we’re not alone, then we also write to reach other human beings, to not be alone.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."