Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Rapa Nui: More Frequently Known as Easter Island

I'm a planner, and as a result, should I ever have a time in my life where a big disaster truly strikes me down hard, I have a list of glorious places that I would go to recover in peace and solitude. I've just added Easter Island (Rapa Nui) to that list. 

The only moai with his eyes.

Each one of us enjoyed the island, and wished that we'd made plans to stay longer.

The obvious attraction to Easter Island are the moai, or what we might call, the famous heads and statues. They definitely draw people to the island. And they are impressive and fabulous, but the history of the island drew in me in far deeper than the moai on their own ever could.

In a nutshell, the long ears arrived from Polynesia to a land that is thought to have been lush as a result of the rich volcanic soil. The king landed at the beach with the intention of staying. They stayed. They built the moai to worship ancestors and honour each village chief. The short ears came. The long ears permitted them to stay, but more as "helpers" who lived inland, not the important ones who lived along the coast building bigger and better moai as the generations passed. 

Soon, there were thousands (as in 10,000 to 20,000) people on this tiny island of only 163 sq km (63 sq miles). The thought is there were suddenly too many people for the now too few resources and the tribes started fighting over these dwindling resources. The fighting continued. The moai eventually were all toppled over during these wars - every single one of them. So what we see standing today was put back sometime over the last few decades.

Toppled moai.

The theory is that the dwindling resources, which included the disappearing trees, led to soil erosion and the inability of things to grow. There is some thought too that the sheep farming in the early 20th century contributed to that, but I'm ahead of myself here. 

The nesting birds also took a big hit. They went from a high of 25-30 species (or maybe it was 20-25 species) to just 4 or 5 today. People got the eggs, as did a Polynesian rat that was introduced to the island. 

Then the Peruvians came looking for slaves. They took a lot of people. Eventually, they had to return them. The few that came back brought small pox with them. We know from our own history the effect that dreadful disease has on an indigenous population. Then there were only about 100 Rapa Nui people remaining on the island. Slowly it has built up over the years.

That's a super simple history of the island, and leaves out a lot, but it's what totally captivated me. We sit around and talk about the destruction of the environment in various parts of the world, the negative impact that humans can have, the world's growing population that may not be sustainable as if these are new problems. But, with Rapa Nui we have the perfect example of a group of people being hard on their environment and seeing the tragic outcome. Though certain zones are being rehabilitated by the re-introduction of native or near-native species, the process is long and slow. In the meantime the barren landscape continues.

The desolate landscape

But don't get me wrong, the moai were fantastic. They are massive and impressive. It's so hard to believe that they were carved at the quarry, and then moved to their final destination.  Though again, what I found more interesting was not that they were moved, but rather, that the carving and moving of them suddenly stopped in progress. There are many still at the quarry partially carved, and more surprising, just abandoned en route to their final destination.

The quarry: These aren't just heads. They are full bodied moai that were abandoned at the quarry and never moved to their intended home. We can only see their heads because their bodies have been covered by a couple of hundred years of blowing soil. They excavated one a few decades ago, and then buried it again to preserve it. The volcanic rock from which they are all carved erodes quite quickly.

The moai represent the tribal chiefs and let the tribe worship their ancestors. So naturally, what did the newer chiefs do? Insist on bigger and better moai of course. People really are the same everywhere and throughout time. It explains why the moai left in the quarry are so enormous.

Rockin' the top knot

My favourite part of the moai were the ones with top knots. They look like hats, but they aren't. They represent the hair pulled up into a bun, or the topknot. Let me just say now, and this point may be made again in a later post, but some men can pull off the man-bun and some can't - most can't. But every local we saw with a man-bun totally pulled it off. Every single time. But I digress...

As time progressed, and the wars continued, a new group formed, the Birdman Cult. The top warriors from each tribe would train for an annual contest that involved going down a 300m cliff, swimming in shark infested waters out to a nearby little island (the flat one in the photo below), climbing the cliffs of that island, and then looking for a frigate bird egg. Once the egg was found, the warrior attached it to his head and headed back to the start line. The first to arrive with an intact egg won, and his tribe became the ruling tribe for the year.

The Birdman Cult

I'm not really sure of how the timeline with the wars, toppling of the moai, the Birdman Cult, and the slave trade all fit together. But maybe that's because no one really knows.

A petroglyph of the Birdman. There are petroglyphs everywhere, but unfortunately they are slowly wearing away as erosion takes its toll.

In addition to the moai, Rapa Nui offers a glorious laid back lifestyle. Cars drive around with cardboard "Taxi" signs in their windows, but to be fair, some taxis do have what we would consider proper signage. The police don't seem to have too much to do - at least from a tourist perspective. Five minutes means anything from 15 minutes to a half hour. Things happen when they happen.

We went to a dinner and traditional dance show. Jorge, our hotel owner, made the arrangements and said that we'd be picked up around 7. We stood waiting outside the gates. He saw us, came over and chatted to us, and said if no one was there by 7:15 to let him know and he'd call. Shortly after 7:15 he called to say they were running about 20 minutes late. At 7:50, a taxi came by to pick up a worker from the hotel. He didn't speak much English, but we certainly understood him to say that by 8 if no one came, no one was coming. Sigh. Disappointment all round. Then a few minutes later, the van rolls up. 

Being the uptight people we are, we were convinced we missed the face painting and dance lesson - the two things Meaghan was most looking forward to. We prepared her that it might just not happen since we'd be arriving about an hour late. Sigh. We were so disappointed.

But then, we arrived, and were stunned to see our van was the first to arrive! 

The show, by the way, was terrific. The dinner was just ok, but the singing and dancing afterwards was quite glorious, and Meaghan sat on the edge of her seat the entire time. As for the dance lesson before the show, Meaghan's hips move far better than mine, and Eamon made a great little warrior. Sadly, we have neither photos nor video. Sometimes you just need to enjoy the moment and let your mind capture the memory. But we do have photos of Meaghan posing with the dancers. When they offered photos, Meaghan leapt right out of her seat and bounded up to the stage.

The island also has a great beach at the north end of the island. It's about a 20 minute car ride away. You can take a taxi out to the beach, but we decided to rent a car from our hotel. Jorge rents out his two vehicles. Easily, this rental is the most stressful rental we will ever have: there's no insurance on the island! No vehicle has insurance. We asked Jorge what do locals do if there's an accident. He shrugged and said people just work it out. Fortunately, we were ok and arrived back to the hotel safe and sound with the car still in tip top shape. We never did hear what would have happened if we'd been in a collision. Sometimes it's best not knowing the answer.

So happy we got our cute rental back to Jorge in one undamaged piece.

Back to the beach. It was fantastic. Warm water. Some exciting, yet safe, waves. Beautiful sand. But best of all, the half dozen moai just at the end of the sandy area. So fantastic. I don't have a photo though. I'm trying hard to let go of getting photos of everything and focus on living life instead. On this day I lived life, swam with the kids, and enjoyed glorious view. But I did get one photo of the kids building their sand castle.

Chances are I will never return to Rapa Nui, but I'm so glad we made the effort this year. It's so much more than a bunch of heads. And no Mr. Tourist-at-the-Airport, when you've seen one, you haven't seen them all.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating post! I think we should do away with the Canadian electoral system and use the Birdman Cult system from now on. I can think of a few politicians who I would like to see swim through shark-infested waters.