The Last Flight from Easter Island
Updated: Dec 14, 2020
On March 17, just before the world changed, I found myself on the opposite side of the world as Easter Island was about to "close". Here are my musings as I stood in the queue at Mataveri Airport, wondering if I was actually going to make it off the island or not. Some of the thoughts seem fairly naive now, but at the time the world hadn't gone into full lockdown yet, and the situation was just about to escalate to a level we had never imagined possible in our most dystopian dreams.
There's a queue longer than the terminal building. Everyone is waiting patiently - locals, tourists. After tomorrow, that's it. No more flights in or out for at least 14 days. There are two flights today. Or, at least, there are supposed to be. The whispers up and down the queue are saying that this is the only one coming. Those who can fit on board will leave, those who can't will have to remain. The carabineros are patrolling in masks and latex gloves. But there's no trouble. The morning squalls have passed and the sun is shining, the palms are swaying, and we're all still wearing the shell necklaces that the hotel staff gave to us with sad smiles, wishing us well, and hoping that we'll be back when times are better.
There are jokes up and down the line when a pick-up truck arrives loaded with rolls of paper hand towels - giant loo rolls in the era of panic-buying. If this were another country right now the driver would have been mugged.
The queue outside the LatAm office in Hangaroa has been running the length of the building and continuing around the corner and up the hill for the past two days. Chile closes its borders tomorrow, and the realisation that a holiday of a lifetime could turn into a much longer stay is hitting hard for some. But here at the airport everyone is calm, no one is trying to push in, people are polite and friendly.
The queue moves at a crawl. A man coughs. Everyone stares at him.
The camaraderie begins. Conversations start. People share stories. People share worries. Jokes. Nervous jokes. We look enviously through the windows at those already inside.
There's a crowd of people waiting at arrivals. They're always there to greet the two daily flights. Locals in tropical shirts with flower necklaces, and masks. And the closer you get to the door, it suddenly becomes apparent that this isn't just a welcoming party. It's a protest. A protest against those arriving on the island. They block the doors and won't let anyone out of the terminal building. There's shouting, shoving. The carabineros push their way through and make way for those arriving to leave. The protestors have a banner outside in Rapa Nui and Spanish - "No tenemos espacio en
el hospital". We don't have space in the hospital.
I suddenly realise just how different the world has become, and how we have a new responsibility as travellers. And it feels rather ridiculous to be on the other side of the world on a speck of land in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Centuries of colonisers brought foreign diseases to the New World. Native peoples died. The potential for a new disease coming to a tiny, remote island 3,800 km away from the nearest land mass must bring back ancestral memories. An island that relies on tourism, but that right now is afraid of those from outside.
This new era is a time of learning for everyone. Two weeks ago we all said "Keep travelling! Support the industry!". One week ago we discovered the term "social distancing". And just days ago we realised what this could actually mean - closed schools, closed restaurants, closed amusements, closed borders. Dog owners in France have to fill out a form to take their dogs for a walk. Fights break out in supermarkets. People are unable to visit family members in hospital.
Is it the fault of the 24-hour news cycle that panic spread so far and so quickly? Is it the fault of social media? Is it a global conspiracy? Is it our fault for not taking it seriously? Is the virus much bigger, much scarier than we wanted to admit? Time will tell, or maybe it won't.
I'm in a queue with Rapa Nui, Chileans, Brits, French, Spanish. A handful wear masks; most do not. A little girl is hugging her favourite doll. She's put a mask over her "baby's" nose and mouth.
Everyone has a reason for leaving and as we see more and more people enter the terminal building, we're all wondering "will we fit on that plane? What if we don't..?" And we won't all fit. I have a boarding pass for the morning flight in my hand. There are others in a separate queue waiting for the afternoon flight. But it's not coming. This is the last one.
The long queue winds its way through security. A hundred people or so have already walked across the tarmac and boarded. The next group walks to the plane, only to be turned back halfway.
What's happening? Who knows. Is the plane already full? No one will say. Have they handed out too many boarding passes? We don't know. Finally an answer. But not really an answer. "Someone on board needs help".
The paramedics arrive, in masks and goggles. A few minutes pass. 300 hearts collectively sink.
The paramedics disembark. And we're on board, greeted by flight attendants in N95 masks.
And we sit and wait. And wait. Apparently we're waiting for a passenger. A child starts screaming. The American man behind me starts to become agitated. He shouts at the flight attendant. "I'm going to miss my connection. You're making us wait for one person! This is not professional! I wanna go HOME!". There are locals on board heading to Santiago for surgery. Everyone has a reason for being here.
We wait a while longer. And then the final handful of passengers approach the aircraft, some running with a sense of urgency, others sauntering, another walking at a glacial pace as he texts on his phone. One final passenger emerges, being hurried towards the plane by ground staff, looking visibly relieved as she realises she's getting the last seat on the last flight off Easter Island.
The doors close. Finally. And just like that, we're away.