Category Archives: Easter Island

Postcards from Rapa Nui (a.k.a. Isla de Pascua / Easter Island)

Although Easter Island was not on my wanderlust radar, I had the great opportunity of including it as a destination on my flight ticket at no additional cost. It turned out that I had quite an adventure – and – the dubious distinction of having visited the one & only Hanga Roa hospital.

Easter Island or natively-known as Rapa Nui, is a Polynesian island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. A 5-hour flight from Santiago de Chile, this island is an open-air museum that invokes the inner Indiana Jones spirit in this traveller: – be it combing the island on foot, on a bicycle or by car for the mystical stoneheads, sniffing out an odd pukau (the red-coloured “hair bun” that sits on the moais) that had rolled off on to some beach, trawling the quarry site at Rano Kau and marvelling at how come these stoneheads never made it to the final platform site, face-painting and drinking fresh coconut juice with the islanders, scrambling over lava stones whilst dodging horses (there are purportedly more horses than humans on this island) or feebly attempting to decipher petroglyphs / carvings on stones.

Detailed posts of my adventures and what I managed to learn about this mysterious island can be found here. In the meantime, I hope you’ll enjoy viewing these photos.

At the quarry site, Rano Raraku. June 2010

Hiking up and around the crater of Rano Kau. June 2010

 

The Moto Nui islets, once the site of the Birdman cult. Photo taken from Orongo on Rano Kau. June 2010

Ahu Naunau on Anakena Beach. June 2010

Ahu Akivi - the only seven moais that face(d) outwards, in the direction of the sea. June 2010

Ahu Tongariki. June 2010

Ahu Vai Uri, Tahai Ceremonial Complex. June 2010

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20.06.10 Rapa Nui – church, Rano Kau, Orongo

Was supposed to wake up early for church, but only managed to catch the last 10 minutes of mass. The service was in Spanish accompanied by Rapa Nui music. I remember asking the guide about religion yesterday and she said that Rapa Nuis practice a “synchronization” of both catholicism and traditional beliefs. The church is ornately decorated with wooden carvings that are typical of the islanders’ wood craft culture.

After stocking some snacks for lunch, I started walking in the direction of Rano Kau, the volcano that is nearest to town. Along the way, I passed by another bay and the Chilean army/naval post. Stopped to check with the naval Chilean officers whether I was walking in the right direction. I wondered how the Rapa Nuis feel about the Chilean army being here considering the various sentiments I have been hearing about “Rapa Nui is different from Chile” (depending on whose account you listen to, the annexation of Rapa Nui to Chile is either a voluntary or uneasy or unhappy one).

Walked past some villages with fishing boats docked at the bay. Then walked down a trail leading to a cave, which was more like a cliff with a slight concave at the bottom. Didn’t find that particularly special but the weather was good and the ocean in a spectacular colour of blue. Continued walking to the foot of the trail leading up to Rano Kau.

As usual I was busy taking photographs of plants that probably won’t matter to most people. But I find the plants were interesting and you probably won’t notice them unless you were on foot (rather than by bike or car), plus I was getting kind of bored by just walking. Another guy on the trail stopped to see what I was doing. Started chatting – and later on it turned out that we were the only 2 people on the trail.

Turns out he’s from France and writing a novel while travelling for a year in South America (already I have met a few people who are travelling for a year or more), and I am only the second Malaysian traveller he has met. “You mean in South America?” I asked. Apparently, EVER (the first he met was in Czech Rep. Could have joked whether that was me too). He’s staying on the island for 2 weeks! I was wondering how anyone could afford to stay here for that long. Later on it transpired that he’s camping (there is only one permitted camp site on the island for tourists).

It turns out that he was walking just as slowly as I was. And later on I realised why – he was spotting for petroglyphs – carvings on lava stones by the ancient Rapa Nuis. Courtesy of him, I also took some photos of the petroglyphs, which I have seen on some other sites, but these are not marked exhibits. The island is really an open air museum, and it is a bit peculiar that not more is done to protect these remains from erosion (or for that matter, a horse with an itchy back).

It took less than 2 hours to reach the rim of the crater of Rano Kau. Supposedly stable, the crater is now more like a lake brimming with fauna.

The surrounding landscape is interesting, in that there are no trees, except for a couple of odd clusters. Generally, growth is short and the slopes are covered with lalangs and lava rocks.

Decided to walk around the crater, and so did the guy. Took almost 2 hours (ok, was walking relatively slowly and being very snap-happy), just to reach the edge facing the sea to see a sign saying “no paseo”!!! I wouldn’t say that the route was wasted except that to get to Orongo I had to backtrack and circle the crater anti clockwise; Orongo was exactly on the opposite side of the crater!

Bidded farewell to the guy who decided to descend via another way and I gathered pace so as to make it to Orongo before sun down.

This time, I finally saw other people around the crater, a person painting, and another 2 visitors who came up by car. The weather today has been most lovely, and yet so few visitors. And that is the perk of coming to this island during low season; you can have the place almost exclusively to yourself.

I reached Orongo with ample time to spare. Orongo is a preserved and partly restored site of an ancient Rapa Nui tradition, involving the Birdman cult. There you will see how the houses built (by a unique stone stacking system) and the islets where the Birdman ritual is performed. Although ticket-controlled (only 2 sites on Easter Island requires ticket: Orongo village and Rano Kau, an exorbitant US$60 for foreigners and US$20 for locals for both sites, which is a steep increase from the previous price of US$10. And in spite of the hefty price, theoretically you are only allowed to enter each site once), I didn’t realised how fragile it was:- there is a vantage point with the petroglyph-carved rocks perched over the sea which used to be sacred site and I was the only one there initially, taking my own time to sight see and take photos; then, a tour group (incidentally, they were the same group I was with the day before) came and I realised that the guide only permitted 5 people to stand at that point at any one time.

Interesting.

It was about 5.30pm by the time I made my descent. I was to walk another 2 hours before reaching the inn. My legs were so tired from walking since morning and I was to walk again to town to meet ling for dinner after taking a quick shower. Walking alone at night is not a big problem, but it can be very dark. Suddenly, I was startled by a sound from the back, and I couldn’t make out what it was… until I realised that it was a galloping horse!

Had a big tuna (fresh ones, not the canned stuff) sandwich generously smothered with avocado and home-made mayonnaise as we exchanged stories about our day. Turns out that ling met a couple of Rapa Nuis who asked her to go fishing, but she turned them down because she was meeting me. Aww so sweet but told her she could have just called the inn and dropped a note for me (neither of our mobiles have connection on this remote island). As it turned out, by the time we finished and paid for dinner, one of the Rapa Nuis whom she met earlier, happened to drive by and spotted her. After exchanging introductions, he invited both of us to a “festivity” which we had absolutely no clue what it was but decided to just go with the flow.

This turned out to be a party or gathering of sorts at Mau’s home, with a few other Rapa Nuis and Mau’s girlfriend from Santiago. There, I had my first pisco sour, mixed with coconut juice poured from a coconut that Mau just smashed opened on a stone on the front porch. That kicked off an unusual night.

After a few drinks and a somewhat heated conversation with Mau (through translation by Maria though it is not her fault), Mau offered to do face painting for ling and I. It’s supposed to be a spiritual experience, although I didn’t quite feel it the way ling did. Took a group photo with the flag of Rapa Nui (please do not say that the symbol on the flag looks like an empanada as the people are very proud of their flag).

While the guys partied on, it was then just us girls chatting, although ling gave way and fell asleep on the bed! Had a very interesting conversation with Maria, with some curious interjectures from Mau who was wondering what his girlfriend was talking to me (in English) about. He obviously didn’t like it although he toned down later on. Incidentally this behavior had something to do with what we were talking about too but too complicated to explain here.

Soon it was almost 4am. I had a tiring day and was wondering when and how were we going to go back to town (Mau’s home is in the middle of the woods). Everyone seemed to think it was a good idea to stay over. Anyway there was talk of catching the first sun of the winter solstice at 6am (?). As I dozed off with ling with our face paints, the party was still going on.

The next morning, we woke up at close to 8 (whoever was thinking of getting up early for the first sun was sadly mistaken).

Still groggy, I decided not to join the rest for the day. Plus I originally had plans of my own. Mau dropped me off at the inn, and thus starts another day of adventures (or perhaps, misadventure?)

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.

18.06.10 – Rapa Nui a.k.a. Isla de Pascua a.k.a. Easter Island

After flying over half the expanse of the Pacific ocean, I landed in this isolated but world-famous Easter Island (Isla de Pascua in Spanish) or Rapa Nui as the locals call it, with a plane full of people, some returning home while most are tourists like me. The size of the airport is roughly that of Kota Kinabalu’s budget terminal.

Greeted by Pat from the inn with a garland of flowers! I noticed at the airport that returning people get flower garlands from their family members too. What a cool polynesian tradition.

After settling down at the inn (beautiful place with several cabanas), was very tempted to take a nap on the comfy bed. But given the sun was shining when weather forecast said it would rain, decided to check out the nearest moai and the museum.

I chose this inn simply because of its proximity to the ocean and some moais, which are the famous big-headed statues. The inn has a lovely garden, overlooks the ocean and the cabana I got was spacious and comfortable. Right in front of the inn is a cementery facing away from the ocean, but it is so quaint and beautifully decorated with flowers.

At the first moai, Ahu Tahai, met a chinese girl from London. There we met a park ranger who tried to get us to give written feedback about the park – of course our feedback was very positive and in exchange, we got precious maps of Rapa Nui that are notoriously difficult to get. Thereafter, we went to the museum together. If ever you go to Rapa Nui, I would recommend you to visit the museum first as the information provided about the origins of the moais and the island’s traditional culture are pretty comprehensive. The signs are in Spanish, but booklets in various languages (including japanese) are provided.

Thereafter, decided to walk further up along the north west coast to check out the next moai. There is an unpaved main road, but decided to take the semi-definitive trail along the coast, amidst low-lying shrubs, grazing horses and lava rocks, with the view of the pacific ocean. But after walking for more than an hour and a half, there was no moai in sight! We were of course worried that the sun may set soon, and the other girl didn’t bring a torch.

So we decided to turn back and this time, walked on the road instead, which was obviously a lot quicker. Before sundown, we reached town and went for dinner.

The inn is about a 10 minute walk from town, and part of the area doesn’t have streetlights. But the moon was shining high under the star-dotted sky.

Back at the cabana, I was immediately lulled to sleep to the sounds of chirping cricket and crashing ocean waves. It has been an exciting and tiring day.