Remoteness Does Things to People

Rapa Nui (25 – 28 November 2013)

If my visit to Nazca and Machu Picchu had been a dream, then my visit to the next destination was a wild fantasy.

I had to catch an evening flight out of Arequipa to Santiago via Lima. Everything was supposed to go smoothly until I went to check in at the airport. The employee told me that I had to show proof that I would leave Chile. I told him that I had a flight home from Buenos Aires. Obviously if I were to take that flight I would have to leave Chile. No, that was not enough. He consulted his senior and she told him to check me in for my flight to Lima and then let the guys at Lima handle my issue. I was absolutely appalled! It was sheer madness and worse than any government bureaucracy that I have had to handle before at home. It did not look like a smart way to do things at all!

Fortunately I had done my research before and knew how I would get out of Chile. I was going to take a bus from Santiago to Mendoza and even knew which bus company to book my seat on and the time I wanted to leave. Seeing that time was running out and I really did not want to miss my flight, I decided to quickly book my bus ticket instead of arguing with the employee. I also did not want to bring my fight to Lima and I wanted my seats on both flights confirmed then and there. Fortunately there was wifi in the airport cafe and someone there was kind enough to share the password with me so that I did not have to join the long queue to buy something in order to get the password.

To be fair though, I have to say that the employee at the check in counter was a very helpful guy. I am sure his hands were tied by stupid policies and he did his best to help me. He even printed out two copies of the bus ticket confirmation for me on his own volition and I thought that was really nice of him.

I hate being treated like a potential illegal immigrant and I hate stupid red tape that help no one. On the other hand I think the encounter taught me that I needed to be as prepared as possible for everything when travelling to other countries and was also a lesson in my overall patience training.

I reached Santiago Airport way before the sun would rise. There was about 6 hours to spare before my flight to Hanga Roa Airport. In a bid to be more efficient with the use of my time I had planned this mad itinerary. I paid for it by sleeping on the airport floor since all the benches were taken up. I was not able to fall asleep at all though and it was very distracting to have people walking by me all the time.

There are only two places from which a flight can be caught to get to Rapa Nui. One is Santiago and there are flights from there almost everyday once a day. The other is Tahiti once a week. Only LAN operates flights to the island. I was surprised though that flights could get booked up so easily. One reason that finally spurred me into action to book my South American journey was the flights to Rapa Nui. When I realised that there were only business class seats on the date I wanted I decided that it was now or never.

But I clean forgot that I had booked a business class seat. And so I got quite a shock when I saw the word “Business” on my boarding pass until I checked my e-ticket.

The flight took less than five hours. In my business class comfort it felt even shorter than five hours.

The reason I had come to Rapa Nui, better known as Easter Island, was to see those giant statues called moais standing tall on their ceremonial platforms or ahus all over the island’s coasts. I had seen so many pictures of them, and even one real moai taken by the British and kept in their museum now, but it was different when I finally saw them in the flesh in their original settings after having travelled to such a remote spot on the planet.

Although the Rapa Nui people are Polynesian, their sculptural tradition is different from that of the other Polynesian peoples which is mainly based on wood and do not involve such massive stone statues. Nevertheless, the first moais are said to have been carved from wood although not a single one of these exist today.

The moais were almost all placed near the sea and except for one group all faced inland. The island was a volcanic one and so good materials for the statues were readily available for the ancient Rapa Nuis. The moais were most likely erected to honour deities or great chiefs. To erect one moai, which weighs tonnes, required great effort from the people and that says something about how they felt about their deities and great chiefs.

From Hanga Roa the Ahu Tahai group of moais can be reached after a short stroll.

Ahu Ko Te Riku with restored eyes

Ahu Tahai with Ahu Vai Ure in the background

The other prominent moais however are further away and to reach them either a vehicle or a long trek is required. I joined a one-day tour organised by my hotel to see the harder to reach moais and other cultural features of the island.

Ahu Tongariki

The fifteen moais of Ahu Tongariki are perhaps the most distinctive. The particular moai with the hat or pukao is about 8 metres in height and weighs over 70 tonnes. A friend of mine thought that he was sporting an afro.

The highest concentration of moais can be found on Rano Raraku, an extinct volcano on the island. This was the quarry from which the moais were created and then dragged down to wherever the moais were meant to be erected. Today it is still possible to see moais in their various stages of creation strewn all over the slopes on either side of the crater.

On Rano Raraku

On Rano Raraku

Tukuturi, a unique kneeling moai on Rano Raraku

It was fascinating to see how the ancient Rapa Nuis created the moais. They started off by carving the statue directly on the face of the volcano until eventually the whole statue could be chiseled out.

The beginning of a moai

There was clear evidence that the ancient Rapa Nuis were attempting bigger and bigger moais before they stopped entirely.

A whopper of a moai that would have stood more than 20 metres tall

The same whopper behind those visitors

Having to drag the moais down the slope of the volcano meant that mishaps could happen. The moais themselves could get damaged in the process. Imagine spending all that time and effort to create this huge masterpiece and then having it damaged just a few metres away during transport.

A moai with its place of birth in the background

Four of the moais on Ahu Nau Nau with rare well preserved markings on their backs

The people’s affection for the moais did not last however. During probably the 17th century an event the locals call the Huri Moai happened. The people started toppling their moais. No one knew for sure why it happened but one theory might have been that the people finally lost faith in them. It might also have been a result of warfare. Most of the moais that are standing today are actually re-erected. Those standing on Ahu Tongariki were put back onto their ahu with the help of the Japanese and a big crane.

Toppled moais

A toppled moai

Despite the apparent iconoclasm however, it is still considered disrespectful to walk onto the ahus today. I wonder why that is so if no one believes in the moais anymore. In any case for conservation reasons, all visitors are required to maintain a respectful distance.

After the moais lost favour with the people, the birdman cult became the religion of the day. It is unclear however whether this religion replaced the one based on the moais or they had in fact coexisted. The centre of the birdman cult was the ceremonial village of Orongo.

Restored houses in Orongo

Looking inside one of the houses it is obvious that the ancient Rapa Nuis do not stay in their houses much

Orongo is situated remarkably between the lip of the crater of Rano Kau, another extinct volcano on the island, and a precipitous cliff with a sheer drop into the Pacific Ocean. The village was only occupied when they held the annual race during which competitors sought to become the first person to collect the first sooty tern egg of the season from the islet of Motu Nui off the coast at Orongo.

From front to back: Motu Kau Kau the sea stack, the smaller islet of Motu Iti and the bigger islet of Motu Nui

The competitors do not actually do the dirty work themselves however. Each competitor would appoint a hopu to do all that for him. The race required the hopu to climb down the cliff, swim across the sea to the islet of Motu Nui, be the first to collect an egg and then swim back and climb up the cliff before giving the egg to the competitor. The hopus had to risk falling off the cliff, drowning or get eaten by sharks while their patrons waited at the village.

Once the hopu won the physical race his patron won everything else. The hopu would be allowed to linger on Motu Nui for a while until he felt spiritually ready to return. I suppose he would also have his patron’s gratitude. Upon receiving the egg from his hopu, the winner would be declared Tangata-Manu, or Birdman, and with the egg in his hand he would lead a procession down to Anakena (if he was from the western clans) or Rano Raraku (if he was from the eastern clans). The Tangata-Manu was considered sacred for the next five months and he would allow his nails to grow and wore a headdress made of human hair. He was also given a new name, entitled to tributes of food and other good things and his clan would get exclusive rights over the season’s eggs and chicks from Motu Nui. The Birdman would however also go into seclusion for the whole of his year-long stint in a special ceremonial house.

Not everyone could sign up to take part in the race however. The competitors were revealed to prophets in dreams.

Once the Christians came along, the religion was suppressed.

Petroglyphs associated with the birdman cult at Orongo

 Other traces of the birdman culture can be seen elsewhere on the island as well. It is possible to see paintings associated with the birdman cult in one of the many lava caves on the island.

Wall paintings in Ana Kai Tangata

The caves and tubes formed by lava flow on the island are special places for the Rapa Nuis. In the past they were used for religious rituals and also as shelters in times of trouble. Nowadays some of the caves are used like holiday chalets. Families would pick one and stay in there for the weekend.

A cave with a barbecue pit outside

From the holiday chalet cave

An isolated cave

The moais and other historical relics and places are all protected as part of the Rapa Nui National Park. This national park mostly consists of a thin strip around the perimeter of the island. Besides the moais and relics of the birdman cult, there are other cultural and historical relics that are interesting.

Rapa Nui chicken coop: There are holes in the rock pile to keep the chicken. Each hole can be blocked up by a piece of stone. The chicken would be let out in the day and then put back in at night.

Foundations of a former house (Like the ones in Orongo these houses are only meant for sleeping)

Rapa Nui is not merely all about the history though. The scenery of the island is also really beautiful. The only real settlement on the island is at Hanga Roa and this is also where the airport is and where most visitors stay at. The animals most commonly seen on the island were cattle and horses. There used to be sheep but not anymore now.

Street in Hanga Roa

Rapa Nui Parliament: there is talk of independence from some quarters on the island

Roman Catholic church in Hanga Roa

Inside the Roman Catholic church

Cemetery in Hanga Roa

Horses outside Hanga Roa

Horse rape

Cattle

I wonder whose bones they belonged to

Despite lying in the subtropical zone, the island is eerily devoid of forests. The current tree cover, if there is one, was recently planted. Scientific research however shows that there had been forests on the island. It is likely that the deforestation was linked to the moai culture since large amounts of wood could have been used in their creation and transportation. The lack of trees created a sort of grassy landscape not expected of a Pacific Island at that latitude.

By the coast

Inland Rapa Nui

Crater lake of Rano Raraku

Crater lake of Rano Kau

View of Hanga Roa from the slopes of Rano Kau

Along a country lane

The name Easter Island had always evoked images of shipwrecks and marooned sailors and being stuck on a deserted island till death with only giant statues for company. It seemed so difficult to get to and sounded more like a place meant for documentary makers. Having made the effort to get there this time however made me realise that the island was remote yet hardly inaccessible. It also gave me the pleasure of being on an island so rich in not only history but also natural beauty with its green grassy lands and seas of deep brilliant blue.

Being able to visit Rapa Nui was a wild fantasy come true for me.

Rainbow over Hanga Roa

Sunset in Rapa Nui

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