19.06.10 – Rapa Nui: Ahu Tongariki, Rano Raraku

Decided to join at least one tour, to get an overview of things and hopefully more information about the island.

Instead of going from one shop to another to enquire, I signed up for a tour randomly with the inn-owner’s daughter, without asking what were the terms and conditions (e.g. is the guide english-speaking, size of group, name of tour operator) apart from the price. Considering how back home I can spend more than 24 hours in total in Ikea contemplating what furniture to buy, this is unusual; I had completely switched off the city dweller mode while on this idyllic island.

But it turned out to be fine: the group was less than fifteen, with two guides, one spanish speaking and one english speaking. And since I was the only one on the bus speaking english, in effect I had a private guide.

The famous big-headed stone figures, or moais, are known to be erected in the images of important people in the past, such as kings or the best man in his craft. Therefore, contrary to popular belief, each moai is distinct from the other. All the moais on the island had at some point in time been toppled by the Rapa Nuis during internal wars that arose from depletion of resources, and those that are standing today (apart from those in Rano Raraku) are restored on the original sites. In fact the deforestation and eventual decline in Rapa Nui has been used by certain theorists as a cautionary tale to the rest of the world on the effects of over-consumption: the early polynesians were said to have sailed (from where is still in debate) to this island and deforested land in order to build villages, for agriculture and maybe for transporting the moais, with no replanting scheme in place. Today there is hardly any thick forestation on the island and most wild plants are short and low-lying. However, that doesn’t explain why the number of Rapa Nuis had declined; rather at one point in time, quite a large number of them, including the literate elite, were kidnapped by Peruvians to be slaves. When a handful were subsequently released back to the island, they unfortunately brought small pox back with them, causing more deaths in the population.

Apart from causing a dwindled population, the kidnapping resulted in more mysteries, such as the rongo rongo, a unique writing system, the decipherability of which died with the literate elite.

The moais erected along the coastline, with the exception of Ahu Akivi, all face inwards to the land rather towards the sea, and it is said that this is so that the spirits will look out for and protect its people.

Seeing the toppled moais and their pukaos (the reddish cylindrical stone that sits on top of the moais – again a subject of debate as to what they represent, though locals believe it is the hair knot, which some Rapa Nuis still fashion today) presumably tumbled along the coastline, or some nearby grass patch evokes a strange sensation: though not as spectacular a sight as the restored standing ones, I can’t help but wonder why was so much effort carve something so big (the tallest one is said to be 21 metres high) with not much effort put into grounding it: the moais apparently sit on their weight and the pukaos sit on top of the moais, without any glue of sorts. Impressive craftsmenship, but perhaps not so much of architectural stability?

While none of the original moais were toppled by forces of nature (remember? they were toppled by Rapa Nuis themselves during internal conflicts) one of the restored ahus, the Ahu Tongariki, had to be restored twice, as a big tsunami in the 60s swept down the first restored version.

On the day of my tour, the weather was strange, with occasional rain and occasional shine. But as a result, I was blessed with complete perfect rainbows, the first of which I saw at the site of Ahu Tongariki: it is quite a sight to see the 15 moais standing in a row with a full rainbow right next to it. I didn’t take out my camera as it was still drizzling then but that was an image that will be imprinted in my mind for quite some time. I was to see another SEVEN full rainbows throughout the day!!!

I always think that the best images can’t be captured on camera, since each camera has its own limits, and yet the human notion of perfection is without boundaries. And that was true of my favourite site of all, Rano Raraku. This is the volcano (not live) from which the statues were carved and removed to the various sites all over the island. In other words, this is the workshop. In my head, I imagine the ancient craftsmen coming here everyday, sculpturing these impossibly large statues, some of which are still left in Rano Raraku till today, presumably en route of transportation, some partially submerged in soil due to erosion. Hence these moais were not sacred like those that have been erected. But today, they are treated with respect, both by archaeologists and Rapa Nuis, some of whom believe that the statues represent their ancestors.

Another peculiar thing is seeing half-broken moais lying on the ground, presumably broken into two during transportation. Imagine building such heavy giants out of extremely fragile rocks. It was also one of the reasons why I didn’t buy the mini replicas made by the locals for souvenirs as I don’t think they will survive the months’ trip.

I also can’t help but wonder whether the Rano Raraku volcano may have been “bigger” before the carving and eventual removals of moais (there are more than 800 known moais on the island, and perhaps more if excavated). The landscape of ancient Rapa Nui must have been a very different one.

Yet, stones were an important part of Rapa Nui culture, perhaps because there were simply so much of it. Stones were used to build houses and chicken shacks (partially restored ones can be seen on some sites), stablised not by glue of any sort but solely by a system of stacking. Stones were also used as markers for resources such as water (interestingly, there is no river on the island, and the ancient islanders relied on underground water resources). Today stones are also used by the islanders for ring fencing their homes.

The tour ended earlier than sunset and I took the opportunity to walk around town, Hanga Roa, in the occasional drizzle. Rewarded by sightings of more full rainbows. Sat by the ocean, just to be startled by a herd of galloping horses being shooed by its herder. Then walked further up to Ahu Tahai, found a piece of flat rock which doesn’t look like it is part of the archaeological remains (indeed, while roaming another part of the island on the next day, I realised – with some help – which rocks are archaeological remains and which are not) and sat in the drizzle under an umbrella and watched the motionless standing giants against the backdrop of the golden sunset.

Met up with the Londoner I met yesterday for dinner again. We splurged at a restaurant (almost US$28 for just main course – but then everything on this island is expensive) but the locally-caught medium rare tuna fish steak with lumpy mashed potatoes and side vegetables in coconut sauce were yummy.

Both of us were too tired to check out the local disco and we bidded farewell. As I walked back in the direction of the inn under the starlit sky, I bumped into the owner of the inn who just came out of a restaurant with her family. They invited me to join them in their van. There were more people in the van than I had seen before around the inn and I wondered who they were (I found out a couple of days later).

Another eventful day.

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