Stones and Shadows

Trip Start Feb 14, 2006
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Trip End Aug 2006


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Flag of Chile  ,
Sunday, August 6, 2006

Our jaunt to Easter Island perhaps does not fit into this log. Though it's nominally Chilean Territory, that small scrap of land, surrounded by endless miles of cold sea, is entirely Polynesian. Its only Latin American features are the currency, certain bland food dishes carried over from the mainland, and the Spanish spoken by the islanders-but only when they aren't communicating in their native tongue or in English with the tourists.
In a way, this feels like a detached chapter, tacked on at the end to provide a breather before closing. And lucky for the rest of the trip, I'll judge it that way-as an isolated and disconnected event-because it was easily the most captivating location I've visited in the last five months.
Easter Island, a barren, 66 square-mile patch of ruins, would be captivating even if it were on the mainland-simply because of the famous mysteries surrounding the carving, transportation and raising of the statues ("Moai") that are now ubiquitous on the island. But Rapa Nui, as it's now known in the native language-originally it was called "Te Pito Kura," is also the most remote inhabited piece of land in the world. One must fly five hours from Santiago, over unbroken blue sea to reach the island, which comes upon you as stunningly quickly as it could disappear. Chile sits about 2000 miles east, the Pitcairn Islands (recently famous for a polygamy scandal among their inhabitants, British descendants, involving statutory rape) over 1500 to the west.
Nowadays, the almost-treeless, windy island is somehow reaping benefits from a past that was forever turbulent. I'll fragmentarily, imprecisely and insufficiently summarize it as follows. Polynesians appeared on the island at least 1200 years ago, and the locals credit their arrival to a legendary man named Hotu Matua, who arrived from the west on a massive seagoing canoe. He landed on the only sandy beach on the island, named Anakena, and began constructing a highly organized, hierarchical society. Life was difficult; Easter Island is too cold and windy for most Polynesian crops, the water to frigid for fish. Slowly, order was established and the people found a way to survive, but not for long.
An instrument of order, like in ancient Egypt and Greece, was the construction of massive public works, supposedly directed to the gods, both the living and the eternal-in this case, those statues and the giant rock platforms they sit upon. What developed is a seemingly classic mismanagement of resources-or at least a tragic ignorance of how fragile such island ecosystems are. The population grew, perhaps to even 20.000 people, and had to be fed, and resources had to be used to raise the statues (food for the workers and timber to roll the statues across, for example, were necessary).
Be it because of drought or human excesses, at one point all of the trees were gone, the land birds and seabirds eaten, along with even the rats. The people turned on their Gods. The hierarchy was broken. Different clans began to war with one another.
And that was the type of society Europeans first stumbled across. Lurching toward the island in their wooden vessels, they were regularly greeted by the islanders, who sped out in fast, light canoes and attempted to trade with the sailors. The first European to record a visit to the island was a Dutchman, Jacob Roggeveen-who spotted the island on Easter Sunday 1722. Captain Cook later visited the island. What they found were a ragged people, hardened by the weather and by depravity, and practically all of the Moai toppled. Remember, they were offerings to the Gods, and probably meant to resemble them as well-the same Gods that had left them in the middle of the Pacific to eat but rats and, eventually, one another. They turned to a strange form of cult worship, at one point, of birds-perhaps because they wanted them to come back.
Islanders were sold off into the slave trade. Disease killed many after European arrival and many more when, in the 18 and 1900's, Rapa Nui people were liberated from slavery and deposited back on the island-newly and unwittingly infecting their kin. Foreigners raised sheep on the island and proselytized the inhabitants.
As a result of Chile's War of the Pacific-in which the country took mineral-rich lands from Perú and Bolivia, cutting off the latter's access to the ocean, lost western Patagonia to the Argentina (back then, it just seemed like a cold desert, today it's rich in natural gas)-the skinny country gained extraordinary confidence and began to demonstrate its power over the region. Looking to expand Chile's territorial sea, in 1888, a Chilean naval officer overran the island and annexed it. Like everyone else, they tried to make some money off of it, and weren't terribly successful, but were terribly exploitative of the locals. Rapa Nui still carries intense anger toward Chile and Chileans, remembering how naval officers exploited their women and ran the island like a police state-their only credibility flowing from their firepower.
The island's history, thus far, appears to have been a series of glorious ideas brought down in spectacular failure.

Today, though, most people would be hard-pressed to tell you where Easter Island is. They've seen the statues, yes. But in a world where even Americans would have to search long and hard for Hawaii on a globe, Easter Island is mused at but rarely visited.
And that plays right into the hands of those who visit it. Rapa Nui's extraordinary isolation means that only accessible from two airports-Santiago, Chile and Papeete, Tahiti. Usually only a flight a day lands there, carrying at most 300 and some people. Outside of high season, you can get the statues to yourself for long periods of time.
For dad and I, it was a stark contrast to Perú, where foreigners were easier to find than locals and where street vendors and waiters constantly attempted to corral us into their businesses, hounding us in broken English.
Perhaps the memory of the trip is taking a rental scooter out to Ahu Tongariki (dad drove, I stayed warm on the back), the largest of the Ahu ("platforms," this one with 15 statues atop it), at sunrise. Through a cold morning wind, we dragged ourselves up the south coast, avoiding potholes and squinting in the dark at stark silhouettes, long shadows and a glint of golden sky. And all morning, for over an hour, we were the only humans to be seen. Half an hour through the wind, an hour alone with the fallen gods and only two days from home. Feeling that, I believe, is why we flew thousands of miles over endless water.
The trip, of course, consisted of many other things. The first day, we biked across much of the island, resting for a few hours at the beach and dragging ourselves up the last few hills. We took two full-day tours of the island-one showcasing the Moai, the other that later "Bird-Man" cult-with the Australian husband of our hotel's owner, a Rapa Nui woman (only Rapa Nui are allowed to own land on the island). He came to the island in the early nineties as, and now I hope I'm getting this correct, the head carpenter for the movie "Rapa Nui."
The local gene pool had grown too small and all of the women were looking to marry off the island, and he lived like a rock star for the first few months. The movie, partially funded by Kevin Costner, brought quite a bit of money to the island, and certainly aroused interest in it among tourists. After a series of odd tours in broken English, Bill was more-than-welcome-well read, pensive and engaging, the tours were the best of all my five months down south.
(The film, by the way, is atrocious. Perhaps that's harsh ... but the lead actor is Japanese, and the main antagonist is named Esai Morales-I guess anyone with brown skin can go for Polynesian in Hollywood. The movie itself is full of twisted facts used to build a generic plotline that fails to draw you in, but masquerades as an artistic representation of decades' worth anthropological data.)
We even saw some Polynesian dancing, performed by a group of guys who were really into it and a group of women who were generally gorgeous. The guys slapped their chests and stomped around, and the women shook their hips the entire time. You know what I was staring at the whole time. Afterward, I wondered if it wasn't all a bit exploitative, but said to myself that, hey, I got my $20-worth of booty shake, so I had no reason to complain.
The people of the island are a strange group. One Polynesian man with long hair tied up in a bandanna, walked around in a camouflage jacket, blue jeans and combat boots. Rapa Nui Rambo, I called him. Dad bought a t-shirt from a pretty obvious Rapa Nui Drag Queen and we purchased lunch from another-whose hands had grown wrinkled, dry and thin over the years, and seemed out of place without a cigarette scissor between the middle and index fingers.
Leaving from the Easter Island airport on the 5th, I felt that the process of going home had truly begun. I had yet to say goodbye to a few friends, and to collect my things from my host family (in a civil manner). But I was heading in the right direction. Sitting out in the sun, waiting to board the plane, I caught a whiff of new beginnings.

Perhaps I should give you more, but I'm ready to close out this journal. One more entry and you'll be done with me, and then we can both begin something new.
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