I wrote a long essay about Easter Island which is a fairly dry, matter of fact recitation of the history of the island. You could do as well reading the Wikipedia entry probably. We had many fascinating experiences on the island. The essay is dry because summarizing the unbelievable, once-in-a-lifetime experience is difficult. Easter Island is deeply moving. The island is 63 square miles that encapsulates so many profound human experiences: There one finds the human desire to explore and move given that the island was settled by people who had to come from at least 1,500 miles away by canoe. One can see the joyous triumph of art and engineering in the hundreds of stone Moai that were dug out and carved and then moved miles overland. One bears witness to the fragility of civilization and human life and the importance of managing resources responsibly. There is the terrible history of incompatible cultures clashing and the brutality with which people can treat others they view as other. And, finally, one can see the challenge of incorporating the modern world without destroying what is left of an older world we long to visit. And, on Easter Island, one can experience all of this while walking along a trail only hundreds of yards long while surrounded by a natural beauty that rivals the finest on the planet.
It was a good trip.
So, here below is a bit of a wooden description of what we learned. I’m third in line to a book on the island making its way around my students and I’m in no hurry to hurry them. If you are so inclined, you can skip the text and move ahead to the pictures.
Mary and I like islands. This does not make us unusual.
We also like long blog entries. This does make us unusual.
The Southern Cone program includes several “educational” trips which are a big part of the draw. I really shouldn’t put “educational” in quotes because they’ve been excellent and, well, educational. I’ve learned a lot and, in general, I’m more well read and knowledgeable about the world than the students. If they’ve paid attention, they’ve learned a lot, too.
Last week we spent parts of four days on Easter Island or, as it’s known in Spanish, Isla de Pascua. I freely confess this trip was a big part of the reason I elected to do this program. Easter Island is a place you read about and see in images from early in childhood. The “mysterious” inhabitants who stripped their island bare to build captivating and enormous stone statues, called “Moai”, that ring the island are intriguing to anyone who has heard of them. However, I had never seriously entertained the idea of going to Easter Island despite a keen interest and respect for Polynesian culture and ability to span vast areas of ocean in tiny canoes because Easter Island is seriously out of the way. It is a five hour flight from Santiago and Santiago is not exactly a common port of call. So when Wake Forest told me they’d send me there, I jumped.
We left for the airport Monday morning around 0600 which was hard on Mary as she had just landed the previous day at 0700. She was supposed to have arrived on Saturday morning but regular readers will recall that didn’t happen. We built in a cushion and it is a good thing.
Check-in went smoothly – Isla de Pascua is a domestic flight, after all – and we were sitting at our gate almost two hours before our flight at 0930. I watched Rogue One on the flight. I’m not sure anyone slept on the flight despite it being a very early morning for our plucky band of college students. We were all pretty giddy to see the island.
We landed and disembarked to a lovely, sunny day. Meanwhile, it rained all week in Santiago, which is quite the reverse of what we expected. The airport in Hanga Roa is one gate. The runway was lengthened by NASA in the 1980s as a…you know, I’m not going to relate the story here because I’ve heard several different accounts. One involves LBJ. One suggests it was the USA but more for Cold War espionage. Whatever the case, the United States, NASA officially, helped build the runway that led to a big increase in tourism. But it’s still a small airport with one plane in per day. It was a Dreamliner so it carried a lot of us but we dispersed quickly.
We were taken by coach to the hotel where we had the afternoon free before a group dinner. Mary and I headed out to the nearest Moai and walked a few miles snapping scores of pictures, hardly able to believe we were standing next to them. You can’t touch most of them, they being ringed by log outlines. Certainly you could hop over the tiny barrier and give them a hug but no one seems to do this (a good thing). It was a wonderful couple of hours and whetted our appetites for more. The ocean was also spectacular. Easter Island is a beautiful tropical paradise even without the Moai.
Dinner our first night was the only negative of the trip, in my opinion. Like most remote islands, food (and everything else) is expensive. We had a tuna steak and it was put in the oven a couple of days before we arrived. Dessert was odd and the complementary drink watered down. Seriously, that dinner sucked. No way around it. But the dinners the next two nights were outstanding. It’s pretty hard to cook tuna steaks for 35 people.
Ah, yes. Thirty-five. There were the 18 students from our program, Mary and I, a staff member from our local uni and then a group of students from another American university. Okay, 33. Still, that’s a lot of tuna steaks. I’d have probably carbonized them, too.
The next day – the next two days – we were up for breakfast (which was also outstanding, see the post about the Platano) and then out for guided tours of the island. Our tour guide was named Guido and was awesome. He had to contend with the fact that our group’s Spanish spanned from fluent to non-existent and corral all of us in two vehicles. Mary and I, along with three students ended up in his van with everyone else in a bus.
The tour started with the arrival of the Rapa Nui to the island around one thousand years ago and then systematically took us through the rise of their civilization and eventual downfall due to poor resource management, negative interactions with European explorers, catastrophic interactions with Peruvians and then assimilation into Chile.
The first humans that we know arrived on the island were Polynesian and came by boat around 1000-1200 CE. There is evidence that they were part of a great diaspora of Polynesians and may even have had contact with South America. Look at a map. Any humans arriving on the island without benefit of an engine are not folks who lack spirit and determination. They’re exactly the kind of single-minded people who would set about carving hundreds of giant stone statues for no apparent purpose. Clearly, they had a purpose, we just don’t have a great idea what it was. The Moai all face inland and the general idea is that they represent the deceased Rapa Nui who are there to protect the island from the spirit world. However, the Rapa Nui didn’t really have a written language, at least not one that can still be read, so much of what we know is conjecture.
The Moai are the most visible piece of evidence of a thriving Rapa Nui civilization in the early 1000s but there are others. However, devotion of so much of the island’s industry to production of Moai, extensive deforestation in support of Moai construction, the Polynesian rat and overpopulation of a tiny island led to collapse of that civilization sometime in the 100-200 years before Europeans arrived in the early 1700s. Loss of large trees to Moai construction and the rat was particularly damaging as the large trees were the Rapa Nui’s source of seafaring canoes. Without the canoes, the island was cutoff and unable to be support itself.
When the civilization declined, the Rapa Nui turned their backs on their Moai protectors by toppling the Moai and created the cult of the Birdman. The young men of the island would compete to pick a turtle egg from the sea between the main island and a small island off the shore. The Birdman would remain holy and in a governing for up to a year before another competition ensued.
Hey, before laughing maybe you should take a look around at your world today.
The Europeans, being Europeans, weren’t much help when they arrived. The Dutch were first to the island, landing on Easter Sunday (hence the name) 1722. They shot a few Rapa Nui by mistake and then were on their way. The Spanish came later and claimed the island. James Cook had a short visit. But the island was not of much interest or importance to Europeans for a very long time. Things got noticeably worse for the Rapa Nui when Peruvians arrived in the 1860s and enslaved as many as three quarters of the population. The Pope eventually intervened and ordered the slaves returned, which they were. During their enslavement, however, they contracted a multitude of diseases including smallpox and tuberculosis, which they brought back to the island.
At this point, the island was mostly owned and operated by private citizens for something like 20 years. One of the owners was a crazy, and not terribly nice, Frenchman and the other a reserved and relatively sane Englishman. Both men sought to make their fortunes in raising sheep and the island had a large sheep population by the end of their rule. Eventually, the Englishman sold his share of the island to Chile who incorporated it into their young country. They confined the surviving Rapa Nui to Hanga Roa and a private company operated a massive sheep farm on the rest of the land. Beginning in 1914, archaeological excavations were undertaken and many Moai unearthed. In the latter part of the 20th century, many were re-installed on their previous perches. A massive tsunami in 1960 re-toppled many of the Moai which had to then be re-re-installed.
On a personal note, this is the second place Mary and I have visited that was ravaged by the 1960 Pacific tsunami. The other is the Waipio valley on the Big Island of Hawaii. The tsunami was spawned by the most powerful earthquake yet recorded which was centered on Valdivia, Chile, about 500 miles from Santiago. The resulting tsunami effected essentially all of the Pacific Ocean.
Easter Island was more or less reopened to the Rapa Nui in 1953 and completely so in 1966. The new runway funded by NASA was completed in 1983 and tourism became the principal industry of the island. You will not be surprised to learn that Chilean ownership of the island is bitterly contested by a significant segment of the surviving Rapa Nui, a conflict which has occasionally turned violent. As recently as 2010, armed Rapa Nui held buildings in Hanga Roa.
And here we are.
You’re probably ready for some pictures after that, huh?
Mary does yoga in a field with the Moai of Ahu Tahui.
Where the Moai were made: Rano Raraku.
A lot of Moai were intentionally toppled when the Rapa Nui turned on their mythology but some simply fell over and broke as they were being moved from Rano Raraku to their intended mounting place. When this happened they tended to be left in peace.
The Southern Cone group in front of the fifteen Moai of Ahu Tongariki.
Mary and some students at the caldera of Rano Kau. This caldera was incredible.
Lupino flower on Rano Kau.
Mary among the lupino.
Ahu Tongariki at sunrise.
This caldera was at Rano Raraku. Also really cool. You should note, if you’re planning to visit the island. You have to buy a ticket for the national park. This ticket can ONLY be purchased at a few locations (airport, Hanga Roa) and is good for 5 days. HOWEVER! You can only visit locations with a ticket-taker one time per ticket. We tried to go back to Rano Raraku on our last day on our own and were turned away even with a ticket because we had already visited.
The class at the caldera of Rano Kau.
An impressive beehive in a cavern (lava tube) we walked through. I maintained my composure.
Enjoying a soda with a casual Moai.
Ahu Tongariki at sunrise.
Easter Island is a place that touches a number of nerves and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Of course, it’s a lot easier to get to if you’re already in Santiago or, at least, southern South America. But if you like islands, have a taste for history in your travels and would like a more rustic feel compared to the more modern islands common to tourists you should get there.