The mystery of its culture, its remote location in the middle of the Pacific, the Thor Heyerdahl book I had read as a youngster, all these factors and more had contributed to my really looking forward to visiting the Easter Island – the navel of the world, as the Rapa Nuis call it.
A very comfortable five-hour and 3700 km flight from Santiago – LAN has advanced to being my airline of choice at the moment – and a pre-arranged pick up by the hotel owner’s daughter made getting to the modest bungalow I had chosen a cinch. As we left the airport for the seven-minute drive to the hotel, Patty gave a brief tour of the sights: this is the main road, this is the main intersection, uphill it goes to the church, downhill to the sea, there is no way you can get lost, no matter which way you turn, you will always eventually come back to your starting point – no wonder, the entire island only has a surface of 163.6 sq. km.
By early afternoon, I had my walking shoes on and was off to explore the neighboring area. A warm breeze reminded me that this island enjoys a sub-tropical marine climate and, even though it was just as much winter as on the “Conte” (short for continent, as the mainland is referred to around here), cold means about 18-20 degrees during the day.
Just outside the hotel compound is the local cemetery – cheerful almost, with its many plastic flowers, white-washed grave enclosures and conglomeration of Christian crosses and stones with traditional Rapa Nui symbols. While I was there, two young women came and visited with their dearly departed; over the next two days there always seemed to be someone visiting and in the evening the area was aglow with little solar-powered white, yellow or red lights.
Just a short walk upshore over natural lawn and volcanic rock stood the first Ahu (ceremonial platform) with five Moai (the famous carved stone heads). A little ways off is the only restored Moai with “seeing” eyes (white coral for the iris and obsidian for the pupil). And all this literally within steps from my hotel!
In order to see the sights at leisure, I rented a car from my hosts. One of the other guests, Vicky from Auburn, California, readily agreed to come along. Armed with a perfunctory map and the knowledge that “we couldn’t get lost”, we set off early morning. The weather gods were merciful and, though ominously cloudy, held back their rain.
The paved road, potholes and all, that services all the major sights is practically empty. We encounter more ambling horses and cows than turists. This is one of the great advantages of travelling off-season: Easter Island has a permanent population of approx. 4500 but there are about 50,000 tourists per year, most of whom crowd into the high-season months of December through February.
The flat road hugs the coastline and I am often tempted to just get out and walk on the black volcanic rocks, getting splashed on by the fairly rough sea. Instead, I drive on toward the
Ranu Raraku volcano and its treasure of Moais along its slopes. There are many that were cut from the stone and presumably rolled down the hill once finished. Although they seem like just large heads, they actually have full torsos; to the uninitiated (like myself) they all look alike, except for the very few who kneel or have salient features.
Finally, we arrive at Ahu Tongariki. This is the world famous one with the 15 Moais all in a row. What a thrill to be able to get up close and feel the power emanating from these larger-than-life stone figures! The majesty of these ancestral sculptures, with their simple lines, having survived over centuries make us feel humble and unimportant. Instinctively, I want to pay hommage to these witnesses of history and quietly sit in front of them for some time. In the distance, I see a young Rapa Nui man, in traditional (un) dress sits atop a boulder and gaze into the distance … until his friend comes by on a motorcycle and whisks him away. So much for getting back to reality!
Driving on, we stop at the Anakena beach cove. With its fine, soft, white-coral sand, statuesque palm-tree grove and an elevated Ahu with three Moai, it is the epitomy of a kitsch-postcard. But so much better because it is real life! There is little garbage as only a few visitors and bathers enjoy the weak Sunday afternoon sun. So far, there have been absolutely no restaurants or refreshment stands since we left Hanga Roa about three hours ago – souvenir stands all selling the same merchandise, yes, food or beverage, no. Only here at Anakena do we find two huts, both belonging to Gladys, an outspoken Rapa Nui lady and obviously the reigning personality in these parts, with three cats and several chickens roaming around and a typical half-barrel barbeque going. Gladly do I overpay her for a delicious meat kebab and a coke. It turns out that the young Rapa Nuian in traditional (un) dress we had met is her grandson. And a very good-looking chap he is, as are so many Rapa Nuian men and women. By his own admission, he lives free as a bird, doing as and what he pleases, living simply and happily with practically no money and no clothes on. His grandmother is well aware that nowadays, he can still live this way, but there may be a time soon when social laws and conventions put an end to his free lifestyle.
The next day I visit the local museum, set up by the Father Sebastian Englert. Here, set out in easy to read (Spanish) presentations, are the various theories of how the Moais – of which there are still over 800 – had been made between the 5th and 13th century, how it is thought they were transported to their various sites, how many questions are still open as to where the inspiration came from to sculpt them this way. It seems established by now that the figures represent ancestors and that the major Ahus upon which they are placed served as ceremonial, religious, cultural and political centers as well as crematories in some cases.
It also seems certain that a combination of factors, such as overpopulation by the late 17th century, contact with the “white man” and his diseases as of the 18th century, soil erosion and deforestation as well as tribal warfare, slave trade and the consequences of colonialism in the 19th century contributed to the decimation of population, so that by 1877 there were only 111 Rapa Nuians left. From that date forward, population did increase; there are anthropoligists who argue that, because of the few survivors left in a basically oral history society, a great deal of cultural knowledge has been lost since that time.
Although Chile annexed the island in 1888, the Rapa Nui people were only granted Chilean citizenship in 1966. For over 60 years previously, specifically until 1953, the island was basically a sheep farm, rented to the Williamson-Balfour Company; during that time, the islanders were confined to living in the only town, Hanga Roa.
Nowadays, Easter Island is being governed as a province of the Valparaiso region, awaiting enactment of a special charter passed in 2007 by the Chilean government. As a special concession, Rapa Nuians don’t pay sales tax. This is a small concession, since it hardly makes up for the added freight costs. For merchants, depending on the size of their orders, these costs add between €.50 to €1.40 per kilo to the imported goods.
Why is the Easter Island a “paradise in peril”? The succinct impression I gathered in speaking to quite a few people who live there is that, although the collapse of the ecosystem that had occurred by the end of the 19th /mid-20th century has been halted and it is being partially restored through re-forestation and other active programs, it is not enough. There is little good topsoil for cultivation of crops. Potable water is available through bore holes (with gorund water levels sinking), rain water or imported from the mainland. Getting enough power has been a long standing problem: due to generators that are too few and/or too weak, cuts in electricity have been common. Currently, the newest in a series of generators is being installed; solar energy panels are practically non-existant yet because they are too expensive. Waste management is a crucial issue: Plastics, glass and metals are shipped back to the continent for disposal there – again. It seems that not long ago, the government had refused to take waste back based on fears that it might contain larvae of the mosquito responsible for Dengue fever. In the meantime this policy has been overturned because – and here I heard two differing stories – it has been established that these larvae cannot survive in the cooler continental climate or there are no Dengue-carrying mosquitoes on the island.
Although only Rapa Nuians can own land and although they have successfully averted a casino being built on the island, how long can/will they hold out until “big tourism” arrives? So far, only one exclusive luxury 30-room “all inclusive” hotel has been set up but already a 5-star hotel with 75 rooms is being built.
Turism is the main source of income and it shows: goods and services are grossly overpriced for the visitor, even taking the everything-must-be-imported-to-the-island factor into account. In plain English, I had the feeling of being ripped-off with a smile several times, and no one likes that. By the accounts of its own residents, Easter Island has stopped being the laid-back, happy-go-lucky community it was 10-15 years ago and is now growing up, evolving to the next stage. May it benefit from global ecological awareness and programs and not become another Cancun, Mallorca or the like!