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Published: April 17th 2012
Meditation at Ahu Tongariki
A funny shot of my flying over the 15 Moai
I knew very little about the Easter Island except that a bunch of Europeans anchored their ship and pitched their tents there on Easter day a couple of centuries ago. I was aware of the statues that littered the island, but I think that was the extent of my knowledge. So, visiting this place with the goal of expanding my knowledge was enticing enough. Months ago I reserved my ticket (I was even able to fly business class cheaply on my way over there!). I settled into my obnoxious electrical seat that could adjust to accomodate my body up to a centimeter. Served with wine and delectable dishes, I wondered what this new world would hold. Or I could act crazy and hopefully be allowed to make the return trip to the mainland yet again in business class.
Well, as a woman, I was very pleasantly surprised by the Rapa Nui people. All I need to say is that Polynesian men are incredibly easy on the eyes. To boost they are tall. So are the women, which made me that much more comfortable with my 1.80 m frame. Elvira, the houskeeper of Residencial Ana Rapu led me and Pablo, another guest at the residencial, to our accomodations. Pablo is a diving instructor from Santiago that makes several trips out there to show people the marvelous underwater world of Easter Island. I am fairly certain he tried to get me to do something of the sorts. However, I have never dived before and I was not ready to have my mother pick up my body in this paradise. That would be simply too ironic.
Instead I met up with a friend of a friend on the island. Felipe, although Chilean, also did not fail to dissapoint. He gave me a brief history of the island while we walked to collect his horse. Felipe is a veterinary student who is doing his thesis on the island. Having lived there as a little boy, he has done everything since to try to get back to the island. Given that there is no veterinarian on the island, I think he has succeeded. His horse, Amasando, is a wild horse that he is breaking in. So, man, horse, and I headed to the Ahu (ceremonial platform with Moai statues) closest to town to watch the sunset. This was one of the picturebook cliche moments. There I was with a handsome latino watching the sunset on an exotic island while his horsey was munching on the grass. I'm not sure life could get any better than that. To cool off I took a swim afterwards and to wake up a little, just to check that everything was still real.
My arrival on this island was very timely, since, that evening, the town hosted a football match between the local team and the team sponsored by the airline LAN (it charters flights out to the island from the mainland). I settled in comfortably among the locals to watch the ensuing match. Hilarity ensued. The town strays kept running out onto the pitch while the announcer kept asking the non-existent owners of the dogs to come and collect them. So, players continued to adjust their tactics around the presence of the animals. I decided to try the local meat on a stick which was being grilled up right next to the pitch by a brusque native. Best six dollars I spent all week! Tangy pieces of pork and beef separated with crisp onions. I took a walk around the pitch, and, to my pleasure, one of the local players buen provecho'd me (bon appetit). Awesome! Still exhausted from my flight over there, I am afraid to admit that polynesian men presenting their physical prowess and long wild hair could not keep me awake for much longer. Instead I was lulled to sleep by the waves.
The next day I decided to buy an empanada and rent a mountain bike to explore a bit of the island. The guide books are not lying when they say that there is little to no shade on this island; this is one of the downfalls of Rapa Nui. In order to build their magnificent Moai statues, natives so decimated their lumber resources that they were unable to build boats, therefore unable to sail out to fish, and, as a result, suffered from famine and civil war. One of the practices during these wars was to pull down the Moai from the conquered tribe and to eat the flesh of thine enemy. This was not uncommon with other Polynesian tribes, such as the Maori on New Zealand. The difference here, however, is that people were so damn hungry that they could not let fresh meat go to waste. Child sacrifice eventually also developed and a culture that used to be based on religion and wisdom developed into one lead by physical prowess. So, in the relentless sun, I pedaled along the ruins of Ahu and toppled Moai.
At the end of my tiring excursion I went hunting for food. Certainly there were several touristy cafes along the way that charged you thrice of what they should. Unlikely to invest in that business venture, I headed for the back streets. Eventually I found some sort of a hole in the wall hugged between an internet cafe and a second hand clothing store. After interrogating the waitress as to what they had, we finally came to the conclusion that the only thing with meat (very important to me) that she could prepare was a completo. A completo is a very Chilean dish. It is a regular hot dog, but topped with a guacamole spread, tomatoes, an obnoxious amount of mayonaise, and mustard and ketchup if you'd like. My hunger was so great at this point, that this calorie loaded concotion seemed like the thing for me. While Jaquelin was preparing my feast, we got to talking. She is only a year older than me, already has three kids, and only left the island for the first time last year to travel with some girlfriends to Brasil. It made me wonder how different my life would be if I had three kids rght now. I certainly wouldn't be on the Easter Island chatting with Jaquelin. I regret not writing down the name of the location. I would recommend going there if you were looking for a very cheap meal on this overpriced Island. I took my hot dog to go so that I could catch the sunset over the Moai again. People watching was spectacular that evening. The experience was accompanied by two Rapa Nui playing the guitar, ukelele, and singing while the stray dogs each laid claim to a tourist.
The following day called for a cliche tour of the island with All Black, Mark, the owner of Rapa Nui Green Tours. One of the other tourists actually personally knew the professor I worked with during my undergraduate career (Dr. Roy Ritzmann at Case Western Reserve University). I think it's much less than 6 degrees separation...
The first item of the day was sunrise at Ahu Tongariki. Ahu Tongariki used to consist of a set of more than a dozen toppled Moai that had been pushed inland by a Tsunami that hit the island in 1960. A Japanese crane company, in conjuction with the islanders, worked to restore 15 of the Moai between 1992-1995. This Ahu is likely the most complete on the island and probably the most impressive due to its sheer size. It also displays the largest standing Moai. However, the largest Moai ever made, but not completed, can be found in the quarry more central to the island. This Moai is 22 m long and weighs several tons. These Moai are first carved out of a mountain consisting of the solidified ashes of one of the three inactive volcanoes that form this triangular island. The backs of the Moai are then removed from their birthplace and tilted into a hole so that its back and tooshie can be smoothed out before being transported vertically to its designated Ahu.
So why carve an enormous statue that depletes your limited island resources? The Moai represent tribal leaders or other honored members of the community, male and female. The bones of the individual represented are buried underneath the Moai. Except for a seven Moai located inland, all Moai were placed on Ahus facing inward from the ocean. It was believed that the spirit of whom the Moai represents, otherwise known as the Mana, was taken up by the statue. This Mana could then continue to protect the tribe of which it was a part. Depending on the time at which the statue was made, the Moai became larger and more elaborate. Some even had petroglyphs carved on them. But all things eventually came to an end during a civil war on the island in the early 1800s. So did my desire for Moai hunting. Luckily at this point we were destined for Anakena beach. The only really good sandy beach of the island that is safe to swim in. The other beach has strong currents and it is not as sheltered. This beach is surrounded with non-indigenous palm trees and it is believed that the first polynesians landed here, headed by their king Hotu Mata. I would agree that this place is fit for royalty. I basked in the water until my hands were pruny as can be.
On my final full day, Orongo was the next national park that beckoned. It is one of the three volcanoes that comprises the island. Several thousand years ago, these guys breached the sea level, unlike many other aquatic volcanoes in this pacific range. One of the three is a crater lake located near the quarry of the Moai. However, Orongo carries great cultural significance to the islanders. Other than being the royal residence of King Hotu Mata, and the presumed place of his death, island culture was centered around this southwest corner of the island after the civil war. As mentioned earlier, the civil war literally toppled the religious culture of the Moai. Much like American high schools, a jock-like tradition based on your strength and the size of your package was adopted instead. Each year there was a physical competition between tribal chiefs, or their substitute warrior. In order to determine the chief of all of Rapa Nui for the following calendar year, the strongest, toughest, dummest (my words, not theirs) men swam out to an outlying clifflike island to collect the first egg of the Sooty Tawn. The one who returned the first egg to the mainland received the honor of being birdman that year and honoring his tribe with the title of "The Island's Big Cheese" (again, my words, not theirs).
While these Polynesian meatheads were duking it out, the rest of the island watched from the high cliff wall of the craterlake volcano cheering on their champion. As the years went on, they built ceremonial houses that were only used during the competition for fans. These houses were even more stable than the usual due to the strong winds up on the wall of the volcano. Entirely made of slate rock, they were only used to sleep in. So here's the logic: make your temporary homes of slate rock, of which there is plenty, and your permamnent homes of scarce wood and banana leaves. Who am I to judge? It is due to this competition that only the fittest, handsomest, among other characteristics, genes persevered on this beautiful Polynesian island. Sadly, however, Peruvian slave trade removed about 1000 Rapa Nui when Peru claimed the island. Abolitionist Britain pressured Peru to return the inhabitants to their home, but at this point 90% of the captured islanders had already died in Peru. The remaining 100 were eventually shipped back. To further add to this tragedy, small pox was present on the homeward bound ship. Being highly contagious, all but 11 Rapa Nui died on the way home. The diseased further ravished the island's existing population until only 100 inhabitants were left. This was not only an enormous loss of human life, but a loss of tradition and culture. The petroglyphs scattered on the island can no longer be read and archalogical evidence of cultural practices can no longer be explained. Yet despite their challenging circumstances, I found the Rapa Nui to be a strong, fierce, and kind people.
After that day's excitement I went to look for some nourishment. I had been invited earlier to a fish fry by the guy whose wife runs the residencial I was staying at, but being a cheap traveler, I had hiked all day and was desperate for carbohydrates. Four hours of waiting was simply out of the question. Sketchy shack on the shoreline here I come! This seemed one of the favorites of the locals as it had ran out of food two nights ago when I stood on its steps after my epic bikeride. Today I was there earlier and certainly luckier! The large polynesian women made me a freshly fried empanada filled with cheese and shrimp. One even came to my dinky plastic table to ask me if I was Rapa Nui. Surprised, I responded in the negatory and asked why on earth she thought that! I am white, tall, have light brown hair, and grey-green eyes. Well apparently my description fit that of one of her cousin's kids from the continent whom she hadn't met yet. I was feeling pretty chuffed that evening. Apparently my sundburn looked more like I had dark skin. Me, a Rapa Nui. I could live with that.
Full of pride I head over to my fish fry after packing up my bags for my early morning flight. Upon arrival, I saw a bunch of young people in the kitchen peeling mangoes. Aparently Papa Teto got hungry and started his barbecue much earlier, but they saved me a piece. I attacked that fish like it was my last all the while trying to make sense of crude jokes made by one of the Rapa Nui in our circle. Satisfied, I got my own knife and spent the rest of my evening peeling and cutting mangoes heading for the blender to make juice. I was several times invited to go out clubbing with these kind Rapa Nui, but I, my friends am a piss poor dancer. I have two left feet and an awkwark, mis-proportioned, gangly body. I can only barely disguise a decent salsa technique, but that is the extent of my skills. Therefore, shaking my money maker that evening was out of the question. I never loved having the excuse of walking the 2 km to the airport at 5 AM in the morning more than I did then. I just don't like dancing. It's an uncomfortable ritual universal worldwide. I love music, but dancing to music is confined to the presence of my home while my doors are locked and my blinds shut.
Cycling across the treeless landscapes of Rapa Nui gave me time to think and opportunity for epiphany. With the heat of the sun I got to pondering how I can enjoy the moment. When you are traveling to some of the coolest places in the world, you oftentimes do everything that a tourist should do. You have a checklist of things you want to mark off. The worst is if you are working the list just so that you could tell people you did. Personally, I love lists. As a student, I enjoy being able to cross off the assignments my professors gave me and the errands and chores that I assigned to myself. But this is no way to travel. I decided that I was only going to do what I wanted to, not what I should do. For example, I did not want to cycle up the mountain to Ahu Akivi. So, I didn't. I didn't want to watch a traditional polynesian dance, because the excessive sexuality of the ritual I had seen online made me incredibly uncomfortable. So, I didn't go. This will be my motto going forth. I will do what I want to. Just because I can. Maybe I really was just hallucinating, but I like this perspective so far.
Tot: 0.043s; Tpl: 0.017s; cc: 13; qc: 50; dbt: 0.0099s; 1; m:saturn w:www (22.214.171.124); sld: 1;
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