We made the trade quickly in the lobby of the Hotel O’tai: one faded blue New York Yankees baseball cap for another hat embroidered with the words Rapa Nui.
“It’s a fair trade,” Yan had said. “I’m sure not many people in New York will have one of these.”
No doubt. It was 8:45 p.m. and I had stolen all of maybe three minutes on the last night of my visit to Easter Island, the fabled and remote island some 2000 miles off the coast of Chile. I had just returned from a delicious dinner with a local family and was off to see what would turn out to be a very bad B movie about the legend of the island’s two warring tribes: the Long Ears and the Short Ears.
I had spent the week at this small, friendly hotel where Yan worked the front desk. Each time I rushed through the lobby, I noticed that he was sporting a New York Yankees baseball cap. And I had rarely been without mine. When you grow up in the Bronx, you’re a diehard fan. You have no choice.
Still, running from one spectacularly silhouetted Moai to another, marveling at the Ahu (platforms), spellbound at the violent crashing of the waves along the rocky coast, the most I could do was smile. Who had time for conversation?
The trip had been nothing short of perfect. A group of nine Americans spending time with the island’s former governor and respected archeologist Sergio Rapu. Mr. Rapu had expounded on the island’s mysteries, identified the Moai he helped restore and enthralled us with anecdotes of his collaborations with William Mulloy and Thor Heyerdahl. He spoke of his work with National Geographic, his plans for a community college and soon to be published book on how the Moai, weighing an average 14 tons, were moved from the quarry to their places on the shore. But that is another story.
I confess that I was reluctant to part with my prize when Yan stopped me on a dash through the lobby one day and proposed the trade, quickly explaining that he collected the hats for his young sons.
“Let me think about it,” I said. It was my favorite cap and I had worn it all year. I still had another ten days in Chile and was loathe to part with it.
It was Jeff, the banker in our group, who set me straight.
“He’s been eyeing your hat all week,” he chastised. “I can’t believe you turned down the chance to spread some good will. Did you even speak to him?”
I was duly embarrassed, remembering the drawer full of caps I had at home..
I thought about the guy from Antarctica. And I thought about one of my own travel experiences some 20 years ago when a bubbly teenager named Christine invited me to her home in the tiny town of Kals, Austria after I picked her up on the road, staggering under the weight of a half dozen English texts. She had been studying the language in preparation for an eventual trip to the USA and was thrilled to have a chance to practice with a native speaker. I had a few hours to spare, so I thought, why not? It turned out to be the highlight of that trip. After family introductions and a wonderful breakfast, she ushered me to her room, beaming with pride as she showed me her USA bulletin board - a map, dollar bill, postcards from the various states and picture of some rock group whose name has since vanished from my memory. What could I give this girl for her collection?
Feverishly I trashed my luggage for something from NY and praise the heavens, there it was -a brand new New York Mets T-shirt (Yes, I had secretly been a fan when the Yankees had their slump in the 80s).
“They’re famous,” I told her. “They won the World Series last year.”
I had scored. She donned the shirt and invited me on a walk through the village, introducing me to the locals as her friend from America. Then, without much fanfare, she picked an edelweiss flower for me at the side of the road. It turned out to be the perfect exchange of gifts. And I still have that flower, carefully wrapped in tissue and pressed between the pages of a beautifully illustrated book about Austria.
Next time I saw Yan, I promised him the hat. Who was I to refuse such a simple request – one collector to another halfway around the world?
“My name is Wendy,” I told him as I dropped it off and ran out the door, promising to send another when I got back. No small talk, no photo, nothing.
I wish I had forsaken that dumb movie, one I could have seen anywhere. I wish I had spoken to him for a while- to ask out about his boys, his dreams, his life, his hobby of collecting Yankees hats. To find out how many hats he now had.