Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Easter Island

At the risk of humiliating myself, I must make a confession:

Before I went there, I didn’t really think of Easter Island as an island.

Of course, I knew that it was a mass of land surrounded on all sides by water, but I never realized that it had a distinct island culture, complete with palm trees, sandy beaches and women with flowers behind their ears. 
I don’t know, I guess I expected it to be cold and harsh, wind-swept and wild, like Ireland, which, coincidentally, is also an island that I don’t think of as one. Despite the word “Island” in its name, and the fact that Easter Island is almost as close in distance to Tahiti as it is to Chile, I simply didn’t consider the immense body of water surrounding the land. 
So I was pleasantly surprised to be welcomed at the airport with a necklace made of flowers, to hear the soft beat of island music and to see fishing boats loaded with fresh seafood pulling into the small harbors around the island’s only village. 
That’s how daft I can be- I was surprised to find fresh seafood on a freaking island!

However, despite the significant South Pacific influence on the culture and the fact that most islanders consider themselves to be more Polynesian than Chilean, the tiny island is not just a tropical paradise. The 63 square mile (164 km) land mass can be rugged, the rocky coastline forbidding. Most of the island is uninhabited, with the vast majority of the 5,000-strong population concentrated in the village. It’s easy to find yourself completely alone on one of the dirt roads that connect all of the archeological sites and it’s even common to be the only person at the sites themselves.

Which is one of the reasons that Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, as the locals call it, was the highlight of our trip so far. 
Those the big head statues, the reason we were all there, are one of the most recognized sights in the world and there is just no one there to see them! Sure, there are a few tour vans that pull into the bigger sites in the middle of the day, but for the most part, there were never more than four or five other people at any of the statues, or moai, we visited. Oftentimes, we were completely alone to contemplate those massive faces that gazed right back at us like some eternal staring contest.

The moai merit their fame. They are hugely impressive- massive rock sculptures with their backs to the sea, some up to 50 feet tall. When you see them you can’t help but think of the people who made them and how much work went into building these enormous tributes to some nameless deity. Nearly all of the moai stand on the coast, scattered all around the island, and the majority of the statues have their backs to the sea as if they are surveying the island's interior. The result is that the views over the moai have the spectacular background of deep blue waves crashing against the black volcanic coastline. It’s breathtaking. 

No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't seem to look like a moai
Vincent got it right on his first try
Almost more impressive than these man-made wonders was the natural beauty of the island itself. Despite its small size, the island has a varied landscape, complete with volcanic craters, 150 foot-high cliffs that plunge into the aquamarine waters below, forests of eucalyptus, palm and pine trees, rolling green mountains and underground volcanic lava tunnels.
The volcanic crater
Watching the waves and narrating their movement with exclamations of "BAM!" and "POW!", complete with hand gestures
The island's tininess makes it incredibly accessible. Nearly the entire land mass can be visited in one day with a car, which is what most of the tourists we saw were doing: renting a car to drive from site to site, getting out at each to take a picture or two before getting back in the car and driving away. 

But that simply doesn’t do the place justice.

We spent four full days in Easter Island hiking, biking and, one day, renting a scooter to see all that the island had to offer. We hiked up to a massive coastal volcano to see its crater that was filled with fresh water and teeming with its own unique eco-system. The next day, we walked along the rocky coast, through fields with wild horses and along black volcanic rock cliffs, exploring ancient caves and spiritual sites along the way. We were the only people doing that particular path on foot and only two of about 10 people who were doing it at all.

The third day, we rented mountain bikes and rode through the island’s interior, passing small residences and protected forests until we arrived at Rapa Nui’s only beach, a beautiful, secluded stretch of fine sand, lined with palm trees and over-looked by seven moai, lined up right there on the beach.

The last day, we woke up before dawn and took our rented scooter to the east coast of the island to watch the sun rise over one of the most spectacular archeological sites in the world: a line of 15 moai on a platform, with their backs to the rocky coastline and the Pacific Ocean beyond. There were only about six other people sharing the view with us and we soon found ourselves completely alone, sitting on a rock, and gazing out into the soft pink-gray light on those solemn, elongated faces that we had seen in countless magazine photos. It was a deeply humbling experience, and was made all the more moving by the fact that there were no other tourists there to share it with.

That’s what made the place so amazing. Easter Island is like a big, open-air museum, except it’s completely open to the public and free of ticket lines, entry fees (except for two of the biggest sites) and crowds. It’s like Rome, with one ancient site after another, but without the throngs of tourists in their fanny packs, camera straps and socks with sandals. Visiting the island gave us a genuine sense of exploration. Despite our maps, we felt like we were discovering the place, getting to know the landscape and actually taking the time to appreciate the different facets of the island.

We saved the biggest, most impressive site for last: the quarry where the people of Rapa Nui constructed the moai before moving them to the various religious sites throughout the island. The quarry underlined the history of those people and the disastrous end to their civilization. The site is filled with huge moai- many upright, but partially buried from erosion, some only half-finished, and still others knocked down and broken- illustrating how those who made them still believed in the statues’ spiritual power when their culture was decimated. The statues jut out of the ground at strange angles, like neglected gravestones of the people who created them. The fact that the history of that civilization and its demise is still a mystery makes the site even more haunting.

While most tourists and historians are preoccupied by the ancient civilization of Easter Island, we were instantly smitten with the current one. The Rapa Nui people, with their open, friendly culture, their beautiful Polynesian looks and their mix of Spanish and Rapa Nui languages, are fascinating and absolutely wonderful. They were welcoming and curious and didn’t seem to have any overt resentment towards the masses of tourists that invade their little island every year. We experienced only genuine kindness from those with whom we came in contact, including one man who offered us a ride home from one of our hikes when I stopped him to ask for directions, and another, a local cowboy named Raphael, who rode next to us and talked with us for half an hour as we walked back down one of the mountains we had gone up for a view of the island. Raphael was from Easter Island but had lived in France for 15 years. He accompanied us as his friends rode ahead, asking us questions in French and Spanish about our travels and telling stories about his. 
Raphael, his banana tree cargo, and me
Raphael's friends (and, in my opinion, the most stunning picture Vincent has ever taken)
The combination of Easter Island's archeological wonders, natural beauty and lovely people has pushed it to the top of our list of trip highlights. It was as relaxing as Horcon, as historically spectacular as Machu Picchu, as unique as the jungle.

Of course, it's not fair to say that it's better than any one of those places- believe me, I tried, and Vincent yelled at me for it, saying it was arrogant and disrespectful to compare places that we should be grateful to experience.

So, with my tail between my legs, my chin down on my chest and in my most humbled, grateful tone of voice, I'll just say that Easter Island was awesome. 

And, surprisingly, an island.

1 comment:

  1. Que dire.... j'en ai encore la chair de poule et je suis tout a fait d'accord avec toi. Je ne pensais pas que l'Ile de Paques etait une ile! j'avais la meme image que toi et grace a toi elle a change!