Friday, March 13, 2015

The Outcomes of Isolation

By Conor King Devitt

It’s going to be a marathon. Our expedition to the Galapagos begins on Friday evening with a 1.5 hour cruise north to Spokane. At 7 the next morning, we’ll fly three hours to Minneapolis, where we’ll change planes and soar 2.5 hours south to Atlanta. From here, we’ll hop on a 757 and jet 5.5 hours down to Quito, Ecuador. After spending a night in Quito, we’ll fly an hour to Guayaquil, Ecuador, where I assume we’ll be swept of invasive species and fumigated before our last leg. From Guayaquil it is a two hour hop to the island of San Cristobal, our toilsome final destination.
I’ve experienced grueling, cross-hemisphere travel before, and I’m thankful this time I’ll be going with a partner – one of the college’s skilled senior videographers, Marc Wai. The last time I didn’t have that luxury. The last time, I went alone.   
Weirdly, this will be the second occasion in two years I’ve embarked on a lightning-paced trek into the South Pacific. My first trip was a whimsical journey of self-discovery, an adventure that led me to another one of the globe’s most iconic and storied islands.
It was the summer after sophomore year, and I was working 85-hour weeks as deckhand on a small cruise ship that paddle-wheeled its way up and down the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. I was making good money – more than I had expected, and realized I would have some splurge-worthy income sitting in my bank account by the end of the season.
I started looking into different travel opportunities. I wanted a prize – something that would keep my eyes focused and forward. Twelve hour days of manual labor under the violent, southern sun often made it hard to not think about quitting, and a non-refundable treasure at the end of the hunt insured I wouldn’t act on those impulses.
I also needed a purifier. Like others working in fishing industries, coal mines, aggressive car dealerships or anywhere were the balance between work and life is skewed, our social existence was a rollicking, unhealthy one, burdened by riverfront booze and fueled by nicotine and scorched coffee. After a summer of harsh living, I needed to get away, clear my head and cleanse myself in wholesome adventure.
I chose Easter Island, a location I’d been fascinated by for years. I wanted to gaze at the stone head statues, bathe in the extreme isolation and surf off of the sandy beaches. Known as Rapa Nui by the locals, the island is home to the most remote airport on Planet Earth, more than 2,300 miles west of the coast of Chile.
A few weeks of work and four plane rides later, I was there. And it was everything I hoped it would be. Amazing people, eerie history, majestic views and wine-fueled Polynesian dancing.
On my third afternoon, a few fellow travelers and I rode horses across a northeastern strip of the island. Accelerated by our tongue-clicking guide, who would spur us on by whipping a slim stick into the rumps of our steeds, we loped up the biggest hill on Rapa Nui. The highest point was marked by a rock cairn, and every degree of the circular view around it was dominated by an endless wall of sapphire ocean water.
You could see the whole island, green and barren. Maoi statues, facing inward, looked over sites where settlements once stood. Patches of young trees formed a few small stripes over otherwise empty grassland. The isolation was overwhelming. It was an island stripped of its resources, stark and independent in the sprawling desert that is the Pacific Ocean.
Rapa Nui was once the proud home of 15,000 Polynesian inhabitants and a vibrant, powerful culture. Using logs to roll gargantuan pieces of rock down from a central quarry, the islanders managed to construct some of the world’s most awe-inspiring, pre-industrial wonders – the Moai statues, towering stone heads that guarded the civilization and displayed its prominence.
However, construction of the statues eventually led to the decimation of the island’s natural resources. Civil wars broke out, violence and poverty reigned true and the population plummeted. By the late 19th Century, historical reports account for little more than 100 natives living on the island, all clinging on to the last threads of a civilization that metaphorically (and, by some reports, literally) ate itself.  
Comparing my last Pacific island destination with my future one presents a sharp contrast of symbolic irony. One is a haunting showcase of the indomitable human desire to consume and conquer, a contained and cautionary tale of the apocalyptic gluttony of our own species.
The other is an exhibit of isolated natural harmony, where species and plants show off the vibrant results of evolution free from human and continental influences. It is a place of both beauty and biology, where the field of evolutionary science has made great strides observing an ecosystem at lonely peace with itself.
Despite that harmony, Darwin’s islands are also places of great fragility. As the archipelago becomes exposed to modern travel capabilities, and the resulting boats and planes full of hungry tourists (of which I am one) introduce harsh continental realities to its shores, many have become worried. Thousands of minds in the fields of science, politics and money have joined together to prevent and repeal the devastating biological invasions introduced by humanity. They work because they have a fear. They do not wish to see the tortoise and finch-clad hills of the Galapagos evolve into the treeless, statue-dotted grasslands of Rapa Nui.      


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