Tuesday, June 5, 2012

A Visit to Easter Island

December 24, 2007

Today, on the day before Christmas, I was going to visit Easter Island.

I woke up at dawn and made my way up to the top viewing deck of the M/V Pacific Princess as  she made her approach to the island.

      Easter Island is a piece of volcanic rock in the middle of the  trackless Pacific Ocean in which some forgotten race carved and raised giant stone statues and proceeded to plunder their home to extinction. Easter Island is usually held up as a microcosm of the world warring and eating itself out into oblivion. On a traveler’s must-see list, it rates a ten.

      Dawn was breaking behind the dark mass of land that had all the features of a volcanic landscape. Cone-shaped mountains, their tops eroded to mere nubs, rose here and there. Lava cliffs reared up from a rocky shoreline beset by turbulent breakers. Towards my right I discerned a fang-shaped rock springing out of the sea several yards from land’s-end. 

That must be Birdman Rock, I thought. From my reading, I gathered that young Easter Islanders in the distant past swam out to this rock and clambered to the top in a contest to gather the first sea bird’s egg of the spring. The first one to retrieve this egg was proclaimed king or some kind of exalted personage. Many died in this endeavor. I had seen this kind of rock before. In Capri it’s called Faraglione (Lion’s tooth), in Australia Ball's Pyramid,  in Martinique Roc Diamant (Diamond Rock).  Except for the fact that it was virtually treeless, Easter Island looked like a typical volcanic island attended by outlying fang-shaped rocks.

      Easter Island’s romance lies in its extreme isolation. It belongs to Chile, but is two thousand miles away from  mainland South America. Heck, it’s thousands of miles from anywhere. I would say it is much nearer to Tahiti than to Chile itself. Research have shown that  there were several waves of boat people who found their way here, and the first wave was the one responsible for building the moai, the giant volcanic statues for which Easter Island is famous. One school of thought, of which Thor Heyerdahl was a proponent, suggests that the first settlers of  Easter Island came, not from Polynesia, but from South America, specifically Peru. They base this thinking on the fact that the Incas were much more inclined to do stonework than the Polynesians, and many of the statues featured certain characteristics, such as artificially elongated ears, that were typical Incan beauty marks. The last wave of settlers, definitely Polynesian, was responsible for the cultural, political, economic and ecological fall and decimation of the island.

      I had read intermittently  about Easter Island from the National Geographic. Then, back in the seventies, while browsing through the bargain bin in a bookstore in Manila,  I  came upon a book by Thor Heyerdahl recounting his experiences excavating and researching in Easter Island. The book’s title was “Aku-Aku”. His descriptions of the statues and the secret caves of the natives made for exciting reading and fired up my imagination. Of course, the possibility of actually visiting  Easter Island never crossed my mind. It was too remote and too far away.  Even now, its remoteness keeps it from being visited by any great number of travelers, even the most adventurous ones.

      Fast forward  to December 2007. After many years working on cruise ships, I was finally getting my chance to visit Easter Island. My ship, the Pacific Princess was going on a world cruise, and Easter Island lay in its itinerary. The ship was going to make landfall at precisely 24 December 2007, Christmas Eve. She would be making only two visits to the island. Even then, actually setting foot on the island was not a certainty because Easter Island does not have  a port that can accommodate cruise ships. The ship’s tender boats must ferry passengers to shore. Herein lies the problem. In order to get into the wharf, the tenders must negotiate passage amid treacherous reefs  and unpredictable Pacific swells. In bad weather, doing this would be dangerous and the visit would have to be scrapped. This happened several times before. It could happen again.

      So here I was, growing ever more excited as the ship approached  the dark hulking mass of mysterious Easter Island, the one Spanish explorers called Isla de Pascua and the ancient  Polynesians Rapa Nui. In a few hours time I’d be standing face to face with the enigmatic moai. I hoped and prayed that the mighty Pacific would not throw a tantrum and  dash my, and other passengers’ hopes, of seeing these giant statues. I figured that, on a scale of important places to visit, Easter Island ranks right up there with the Parthenon, the Coliseum and the pyramids of Egypt.

      I need not have feared. The Pacific Ocean decided to be nice to us. The  tenders made it safely to shore.

      There was another dilemma that I had to deal with. Our time ashore was limited to barely two hours. The ship had to sail  in the early afternoon because the build-up of sea swells late afternoon would make tendering difficult and unsafe. It would be a mad dash if I were going to make anything of this visit.

      The town – the main, and only, one on Easter Island - on which the pier is located is called Hanga Roa. Less than a thousand souls lived here, on the leeward side of the island. The bulk of the moai  resided on the eastern  side of the island. The whole of Easter Island has been declared a national park, and a world heritage site, but  of course people still lived here. Nobody is allowed to live on the other side of the island, although there seemed to be a couple or ranches and at least one hotel there. I would suppose the main industry here was fishing and cattle, though tourism must be bringing in a considerable amount of income to the populace. There is regular plane service by LAN Chile, which has ended the isolation of the island from the rest of the world. I imagine ship services  would be limited. I wished I had more time to explore the island.

      Ashore I made a quick decision to hire a four-wheel jeep with driver. The driver’s name was Carlos. The fee for the jeep was $80, an exorbitant sum in view of the fact that the other side of the island was less than 20 minutes away. I was in no position to argue, since I saw no other crew members with whom I could share the ride with so off we went.

      Carlos  was  Hispanic. Not an iota of original Easter Islander blood had he. The current population is mainly a  mestizo breed, transplants from the mainland. Still there are some who claim to descend from some great clan back in the heyday of Easter Island. Heyerdahl’s book is full of accounts of locals who trace their bloodline to either the Long Ears or the Short Ears, so-called because one class of people, a type of ruling class, possessed artificially elongated ears, and the others, a kind of sub-class, had normal ones. The principal links the current Easter Island has to its past are the statues and Polynesian place-names: Rapa Nui, Ranu Raraku, ahu, moai, Hanga Roa.  There is a kind of runic writing passed on by the ancient islanders that is virtually indecipherable, so details of who did what  where are mainly passed on by collective memory and oral tradition.

      The main event in all stories that current Easter Islanders recall as part of this collective memory is a Great War that culminated in a great  island-wide conflagration that consumed huge swaths of the island from which it never recovered. Even Carlos spoke of it in a somewhat haunted tone, as if it happened only yesterday.

      A well-recorded fact exists that there used to exist on Easter Island and on it alone a tree, the toromiro that was used to build boats, houses and palisades. By the time Heyerdahl arrived on the island, only one toromiro remained standing, and that has now disappeared.

As the jeep made its way past the town, I noticed military barracks, an airport with a LAN Chile plane parked on the tarmac, a school, and a corner café. Then we turned a corner and it was open country populated by grass and stray eucalyptus trees. A distant ridge sported what seemed like a tree farm. The rest of the undulating country was brown and dry. It terminated  on a rocky shoreline framed on either side by towering lava cliffs. Interspersed in the landscape where the remains of dwellings, temples and statues that were so numerous that one had difficulty discerning which was natural and which formed by man. The plain next to the sea was absolutely bare of trees. The emptiness of the land was haunting. The scenery was  spellbindingly beautiful and dramatic, a kind of  Arizona by the sea. Just fill in tropical foliage and wildlife, and you would have had paradise here, a paradise that is no more.

      Nothing but grass and desert plants grew here. They seemed to provide good grazing for cattle and horses, which hove into view from time to time. In fact their aroma  tinged the air.

      Our first stop was Ranu Raraku, the quarry. This was the gigantic nub of an extinct volcano from which the statues were hewn. Scores of them remained here. Some were left standing, finished and ready to be dragged down the mountainside. Others had fallen, left where they had been pushed down in some ancient conflict. Others remained unfinished, still attached to the mother rock. Few tourists (mainly ship passengers) were
visiting this site today so  I contemplated  this unfinished work in tranquillity. As an artist, I could not help but empathize with the unknown, unsung Michelangelo who tried to wrest out a statue from bare rock.  Who was he, what motivated him to wield whatever primitive tools he had ( he had no steel or iron) to apply himself to chiseling out  this statue? Was he forced to do it, or did he do it out of some sense of obligation?

Because I had very time left, I decided not to go to the caldera, which was viewable from a nearby ridge, but went down and asked Carlos to bring me to the most spectacular moai site of all, Ahu Tongariki. Here, the ancients had erected fifteen moai all in a row. They were supposedly the first and oldest moai created on the island. Curiously they faced, not the sea, but Ranu Raraku. Ahu Tongariki was a temple  with a plaza and remains of auxiliary buildings. I can only imagine what sort of celebrations and sacrifices were held here. Some of the statues still had eyes and topknots. The oval-shaped topknots were made of a special red volcanic stone that was quarried form some other place. This strange feature was added on because  some of the Easter Islander’s rulers had red hair. It is tantalizing  to speculate that Vikings made it here, somehow, via Peru. Or were there any redheaded Polynesians at all?
As we headed back to the ship, passing through the same desolate landscape, I fantasized  going back here driving my own jeep, encountering no traffic and gazing out at the sea as the sun was fading. No tourists, just me, the sea, the sunset, and the mute, enigmatic  statues  of EASTER ISLAND.


      It is still very difficult to get to Easter Island. Firstly, you have to fly Santiago, Chile then take a LAN-Chile plane to Easter Island (roughly 5:40 hours,  farther even than Los Angeles-New York!)  Thereare also flights from Tahiti (which means you have to go to Tahiti first.)  Tahiti is one of the most beautiful and most expensive places in the world, so flying from there is not so cheap. You can also take a world cruise, on which fortunately I was on, for free. Thor Heyerdahl wrote an exciting and absorbing book about his and his team's experiences in Easter Island well before it ever became a tourist destination. You can still buy the book (used) on Amazon.com. It is called AKU-AKU. I highly recommend this book. I still have it somewhere in my home ilibrary. If you can't go to Easter Island (few people do), this book will get you a famous adventurer's look into the civilization of Rapa Nui.

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