Thursday, March 22, 2012

Santiago and Easter Island (Rapa Nui)

I’m not a big holiday person—except Thanksgiving and Halloweenbut I am a big history person.

So it didn’t faze me to hit a milestone when alone and on the road. I turned 40 while speaking at the international school in Santiago.

It was the first time I had a school visit on my birthday. The students sang to me and that night the hotel sent up a slice of cake and glass of champagne—plus I still get to celebrate with family and friends when I get back.

But between Santiago and home, another treat was on the horizon, one (literally) heavy on the history. My engagement in Santiago enabled me to tack on a side trip to a place I’ve long wanted to go but honestly thought I would never see.

Easter Island.

Long before I got to Chile, I saw two omens.

The first was in The New Yorker I looked through in the Washington DC airport:

The second was in a bookstore during my layover at the Miami airport:

When traveling, I document but I don’t take 11 photos of any one site. I typically take at least two or three, but later choose only the best to keep. (I blink a lot.) I also avoid taking “generic” shots of famous sites. Instead I position myself or a friend in as many photos as possible—otherwise they are simply the same images you’ve already seen in books and online. (I do allow myself to skip inserting the human element in some cases of striking beauty.)

Easter Island was my home far, far away from home from March 16 to 19. It was a transcendent experience, and it seems that everyone else who has visited there feels the same. The place fills you with hunger for knowledge we may never acquire—why? When exactly? How?

It is remote—in fact, one of the three most remote yet inhabited islands on Earth.
 It is uncrowded, it is simple but not primitive, it is adventurous without being dangerous (most of the time).

Someone called the entire island an open-air museum, and I agree—with one key difference. At most of the sites we visited, we were the only ones there, no matter the time of day, and you can get quite close to most of the ruins. (But as at other museums, no touching.)

Here are some of the highlights (and even though this may seem like a lot, I tried to be selective):

The airport. It has one gate.

Anakena beach:

One of these blockheads is not a moai.

This is after sunrise (though overcast) on a Saturday.
Besides my friend and me, only two others were there.


This site boasts the most standing moai (fifteen); it is the number one sunrise spot on Easter Island (and possibly the South Pacific, or some might say the world) and it is the largest ceremonial structure in Polynesia.

After daybreak but before sunrise.

Flip side of sunrise, flip side of Tongariki.

Under these circumstances, strangers become instant friends.
These were from Chile, France, and Brazil.
(They, too, met each other on Easter Island.)

Just beyond Tongariki is what looks like a bombed-out house.
No roof, no walls in parts, but indications that it was fairly modern.
There are literally no other houses for miles.
I'm going to try to find out what it was and what happened.
[4/9/12 update: British Honorary Consul of Easter Island
James Grant Peterkin explained: "It was due to be opened as a restaurant
about 10 years ago, which was contentious anyway given that it's pretty much
on National Park land. It was the project of a Belgian man and a local,
although the local man sadly killed himself drunk driving
(you might have seen a cross on the south coast
decorated with fish...he was a fisherman),
and when his family then took on the project, it caught fire before they could open.
Many felt that its location next to the statues was fairly unsuitable anyway,
and you can imagine all the theories here regarding their continued bad luck..."]

The entrance to Tongariki is guarded by the traveling moai;
he has left Easter Island (for museums and the like)
only to return to his post.
He knows a good thing when he sees it.


The most popular sunset spot on Easter Island.
This is currently the only moai with eyes, made from coral.
(They were added relatively recently though
the Rapanui people would insert coral eyes at times, likely for rituals.)

The top of the middle of nowhere.

Rano Raraku:

This is the quarry where the moai were mined and carved. It is widely considered the most absorbing site on the island. Whereas all the moai scattered along the coastline were toppled during tribal wars, the moai here have remained standing exactly where they were abandoned centuries ago. (Of the hundreds of moai elsewhere on the island, a bit more than 50 have been re-erected starting in 1955.)

Look closely at this moai's belly.
It eerily depicts a collision of cultures...a Spanish ship.

He's right behind me, isn't he?

Elsewhere on the island:

Alien landscape along our five-hour hike
from Anakena beach back to Hanga Roa, the lone town.

Face-painted with my longtime friend Seth,
who didn't know a moai from a Mai Tai
before I shanghaied him into joining me on this memorable trip.

On my last morning on Easter Island, I visited the main elementary/middle school. (There are apparently two others, both smaller.) I tried to contact them in advance to announce myself, but didn't hear back. However, when we showed up, they were most welcoming. They gave us a tour and I gave them three of my books (though most of their students don't speak English). As it happens, they are looking for an English teacher...

She is teaching the Rapanui language.

The cafeteria.

Easter Island is a mystical place. Much of what happened there remains a mystery. So it was apropos that, while there, I walked into a mystery of my own: how is that at Tongariki, one of the most isolated and sacred sites on Earth, I came across a stranger reading my book Boys of Steel?

And it only got more bizarre from there. Over at Rano Raraku, one of the moai had also gotten ahold of the book:

Perhaps I should not be surprised; after all, oral legends claim that when carvers finished a moai at the quarry, the moai would walk to its platform elsewhere on the island. Like many secrets buried at Rapa Nui, this one may go forever unexplained.

Lastly, speaking of superheroes, I often say that Superman and Batman are so popular, so pervasive, that you'd be hard-pressed to find a spot anywhere in the world, however cut off, where they have no presence.

That holds true for Easter Island:

1 comment:

Bob Buethe said...

Omens indeed! Just yesterday, I sent a birthday card to my cousin that had a photo of the Easter Island heads on the front. Inside, it said something along the lines of, "Do not displease the Birthday Gods. Have a happy birthday."