Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Easter Island daze

Well, Easter Island was exceptional, the fulfillment of a dream, truly awesome. It has a remote, natural feeling about it, unspoilt by tourism. Though researchers and academicians have come to know a lot about the rise and fall of its first civilization, there is still a mystic, mysterious feel, and a quiet spiritual longing in the toppled, face-down moais and indeed in the people.

I read a few articles about the history of Easter Island, including one of the chapters in Jared Diamond's Collapse (same author of Guns, Germs and Steel, but I stopped after a few chapters because I dislike his writing style, I find him both pompous and insecure, and his English grammer is not at all inspiring.) His focus was the zenith years of Easter Island, the time during which giant, carved statues (moais) were created and erected, around 1550's.

Apparently, the religious faith of the Rapa Nui people led them to build about 850 moais (some gigantic, over 30 feet tall, weighing over 100 tons! some with hats, many in an around the quarry not completed). We now understand due to academic research and that in lieu of modern construction equipment, moais were excavated at one quarry at one location on the island and transported across the island to various destinations by wooden rollers, i.e., tree trunks. In building, transporting and erecting the moais, the people denuded the island of trees which, together with inter-tribal warfare, led to the rapid destruction of the island's ecosystem and the dramatic depopulation of the island due to starvation, war and later disease and the inability to defend against maleviolent intruders in the form of humans and diseases.

Easter Island has been a part of Chile since the late nineteenth century. Though beset by more than 40,000 tourists per season, the island has a feel of vastness and relative seclusion. The tourist information is good (though we did have a problem with a semi-fictional road map!) and widely available, and it is easy to get around on foot or bicycle, horse, scooter or car. People are very nice, inhabitants and tourists (mostly Chilean at this point) included.

I arrived with no reservations as per usual in the shoulder season of Easter Island (Isla de Pascua in Spanish and Rapa Nui to the original inhabitants, believed to be of Polynesian descent, reflected in similar coloring of skin, hair and eyes.) As I expected, guesthouse owners know the flight schedules and await incoming tourists at the airport, so a place to stay was easily found (and at a rate less than my research led me to believe). Another guest, a Chilena also traveling solo, arrived on the same flight, and so we joined forces.

On the first day, we did the light hike to Rano Kau, the largest of the 3 extinct volcanos at the triangular island's 3 corners. The island is home to many friendly dogs, including those with homes and strays. Horses and cows wander the island as well and they own the road and do not respond to polite honking. While walking, two dogs we named Mateo and Toto became our guides. They showed us the way along the sometimes not so obvious trail, however, as the sun climbed the sky, their more prominant motivation became shadow seeking, and so our roles reversed (and we were their water-bearers as well).

We arrived at the crater rim and glimsped its placid inner lake reflecting both the sky and the volcanic ash. We continued hiking the wide crater rim to Orongo, site of the annual Birdman contest which awarded to the fastest and most agile swimmer and climber who could retrieve the first bird egg of the season leadership of all tribes.

Afterward, we found good food -- freshly caught tuna at an atmospheric little restaurant that didn't mind that we long overstayed their siesta (which most businesses in Easter Island observe). (And while on the topic, let me say that while food is relatively expensive for budget travelers, $9USD for a nice sandwich with fresh tuna, special bread and nice trimmings, it's very high quality and that seemed to be true everywhere on the island.)

The next day, we rented a car to see more of the island, including the quarry at Rano Raraku, truly amazing and haunting place. Driving was difficult due to both road and car (not driver, heh heh) -- the island's gravel roads, sometimes trecherous, require a 4WD vehicle, and so we had a jeep, our jeep came with some dents, manual steering, and somewhat insufficiently functioning breaks. All in all it was very much worth it! We climbed up to the top of the volcano rim (which in the end required a wee bit of scrambling) and later cooled off with a swim at Anakena beach.

The third and last day for me ended prematurely upon my hat flying off my head and me reaching for it rather than keeping both hands on the bicycle handle bars on a steep downhill, gravelly, cratered road (oops). So with a few scrapes and bruises and the look of incoming rain which later produced a downpour, I spent the doing mundane things and passing time with friends we made at a local empanada restaurant (the best on the island by far!)

Clearly, I could have happily spent more days horseback riding and seeing more sites that we missed. So for any traveler thinking of coming here, I recommend at least a week during the shoulder season for time out of time at this other-worldly place.


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