Friday, February 09, 2007

Easter Island!!! (oh, and Tahiti)

Written by Lynn

For probably the first time the title of this blog is truly apt - we are a thousand miles from nowhere. Welcome to Easter Island, the most isolated piece of land on earth. Standing in the centre of its largest (and only) town, Hanga Roa, you are 3700km to Chile, the nearest populated land mass, and 3800km to Tahiti. The island itself is takes up a mere 64 square miles amongst the huge South Pacific ocean. The land here is rolling and covered with waving grasses, inhabited by herds of feral horses and is floating on an ocean that is so dazzlingly, eye watering blue that you can't believe it's real.

Easter Island was "discovered" by a Dutch explorer on Easter Sunday, 1722. Until the arrival of Europeans to the island, the people of Rapa Nui (dubbed so by Tahitian sailors) had believed that they were the sole surviving humans on earth. They had landed on Easter Island (or "Te Pito O Te Kainga" - ie. navel of the world - as the natives had referred to it) sometime between 400 and 800 A.D. Where they came from still remains a bit of a mystery. It is a commonly held theory that they come from Polynesian islands in two waves. One brought the HANAU MOMOKO and the next the HANAU E'EPE, erroneously referred to as the "short-" and "long-ears" due to a misinterpretation of the word E'EPE to mean ears (EPE is the actual term for ears). Much of the art and culture of the island reveals a distinct Polynesian influence, though over the centuries it became highly evolved and unique to Rapa Nui.

The most amazing and recognizable aspect of Easter Island are the massive MOAI, or statues, that dominate the landscape. These megolithic peices of art stand anywhere from 1 metre to 10 metres tall, all of them placed on the edge of the ocean facing inland. The largest statue remains unfinished in the quarry and measures at over 21 metres and would have likely weighed 160 tonnes upon completion. Some moai even have large red coral "hats" placed atop of them.

The question that continues to baffle archeologists and laymen alike is "How?" How did the Rapa Nui people move these massive statues, some up to 25km, over rolling hills? Other cultures have created and moved large stone icons, but nothing on the scale of what is seen here. And the lack of trees that would normally have been used to transport such statues also creates a puzzle. As you stand next to a MOAI and gaze up at it, you can not begin to imagine the amount of focused community willpower it must have required to complete and move.

An equally puzzling question is "Why?". Certainly the Rapa Nui people are not the only culture to develop an extravagant and time consuming way of expressing their devotion to the gods and their ancestors (think of the pyramids of Egypt, or even the stone temples of the Incas). But usually these high cultures are developed under favourable conditions, where the excess of natural resources mean that minimal work is required to feed and cloth the people, leaving the time to develop creatively. Here on Easter island it seems to be exactly the opposite. In all direction is nothing but dry, scrubby grasslands, relatively flat other than three inactive volcanoes that dot the landscape.

It is told by the Rapa Nui that the original settler of the island was the king, ARIKI HOTU MATU'A, whose grandfather had dreamed of a land to send the people to in a time of great need. When their country, HIVA, began to sink, Hotu Matu'a went forth and found the island his ancestor had foretold. The original settlers brought to their new land several useful plant species, such as the banana, tubers, sugar cane and pineapple. They also brought in chickens (known as MOA), that became their staple source of protein, and were therefore carefully guarded. Prior to this it is believed that there were very few edible plants on the island, and minimal to no land fauna. The lack of reef surrounding the island meant that the natives could not easily access the ocean without sea going vessels (requiring trees to build), though some species of fish such as tuna could be caught from shore.

Recent core samples show fossilized pollen proving that at one time there was a forest of palm trees, many of them now extinct, that would have once grown on the island. This at least partially answers some of our "how" questions. But it seems that the massive numbers of trees that would have been required to assist in the movement of the Moai caused the Rapa Nui, in their obsession, to eventually denude the landscape.

The limited natural resources, combined with a burgeoning population (estimates place the peak numbers at about 9,000 people, though the numbers had declined to about 6,000 by the time Europeans discovered the island) created many warring factions. This is likely at least somewhat responsible for the second great mystery of Easter Island. You see, several decades before Europeans arrived at Rapa Nui, work on the Moai just suddenly stopped. Today when you visit the quarry at RANO RARAKU you can see half finished statues, ones that were just beginning to be sketched out and completely carved moai that they had begun to move, but were abandoned and allowed to sink in to the earth. In total 397 statues remain here. The have been 883 Moai identified on Easter Island, 288 which had made it to their final destination and were mounted on AHU, large stone altars, and had their eyes carved open and defined with ellipses of carved coral and obdisan. It was believed that until this was done the statue was just stone. Once "awakened", MANA would infuse the Moai in the form of a spirit of the ancestors to watch over the villages. All of these Moai were toppled and had their coral eyes removed. And no one knows why.........

Certainly the Rapa Nui people were an advanced enough culture that they had developed a written language, called RONGO RONGO, which likely documents at least some of the history of the island. Sadly a combination of disease brought by the Europeans, inter clan warring and slave trading had reduced the population of Easter Island to around 100 people by the end of the 1800's. Unfortunately, no wise men survived and rongo rongo is now a dead language. As well, the introduction of christianity to the island meant that many of the rongo rongo tablets were destroyed at the behest of priests. Many attempts have been made to translate carved tablets that have been found, but have been for the most part unsuccessful. Without the benefit of a verifiable historical account, only theories can be raised as to what happened.

One commonly held theory is that there was a upheaval in between the ruling and conscripted working classes, resulting in an overthrowing of the people ordering the construction of the Moai. Another possibility could be several consecutive years of environmental stress, such as drought. It is estimated that even as little as 5 years of poor crops would have forced the population of such a resource limited society to the brink of collapse and created a crisis that would have precipitated such a sudden turn in religious practices.

All that is known for sure is that the Rapa Nui suddenly stopped creating Moai and instead began to revere the birdman, MAKEMAKE. Much of the worship of the birdman centred around the religious sanctuary of ORONGO, situated high up on the edges of the volcano RANO KUA. Every year a competition would be held where the chosen men of each tribe would have to descend from Orongo down to the sea and swim out to one of three islands through shark infested water. Once there, the young men would have to collect a MANUTARA, one of the first eggs of the year laid by a sooty tern. This egg would have to be brought back, unbroken, and placed in the hand of the competitor's clan leader. The first to recieve an egg then became the ruler of the island, called the TANGATA MANU, until the following year. All over Orongo are stone petroglyphs of the birdman, and several can be found on other areas of the island. This culture was still alive even into the 1800's, and it appeared that the population of the island itself was recovering from what ever massive upheaval had caused their reversal in religion.

Cannibalism was also practiced on Easter Island, many people having the dubious claim of having ancestors who were KAI TANGATA (man eaters). It is also true that cannibalism was not practiced for religious or ceremonial purposes, but rather just because of a simple liking of human flesh as there was no other large land mammals available at the time. The ultimate insult for someone would be to say "your flesh between my teeth" and in ancient times was enough to incite full scale clan wars.

These days, of course, Easter Island is a peaceful oasis, where you can sit before the re-erected Moai for hours on end contemplating the enormity of the task the Rapa Nui had accomplished. The people here are incredibly friendly and are truly happy that you've chosen to visit their home. There is also opportunity to go out and wander on ocean side cliffs, amongst the generally uninhabited fields filled with cow and horse herds, some branded to show ownership, others feral, but unafraid of people. There is the two beaches and various popular surfing spots to go to, and scooters and cars can be rented to motor out to the various historical moai sites.

When you first get to the Easter Island airport the first thing you realize is just how small the island really is. Presently there is only about 3800 permenant residents, though it is visited by almost 40,000 tourists a year. These numbers have multiplied rapidly since the first commercial flight actually landed on the island in the 1950's (using a dirt runway the islanders built themselves). These days Easter Island is a common stop over for people coming from Santiago or Tahiti. Several cruise ships will make one day stops, ferrying the passengers around to the more important archeological sites before they load them back up on the ships and take off. Many group tours fly in and fly out again within 24 hours, staying at the large, Chilean owned hotels. My recommendation - wait until you get to the airport and find a family to stay with. Everyone there knows everyone else and can direct you to a place to bed down. We stayed at "Chez Oscar" and everywhere we went, when asked where we were staying for the purposes of scooter rentals or just out of curiosity, people automatically knew who Oscar was (of course he was a bit of a flamboyant character, but still, it was great to see how close knit the communty is). We also, just by chance, landed on Easter Island the day before their biggest festival of the year, Tapati Rapa Nui, began. This festival, celebrated since 1975, is used to help maintain and highlight many of the traditional dances, sports and cultural skills of the Rapa Nui. It draws in a large number of tourists and is held annually during the first 2 weeks of February. During the next 17 days there would be daily shows of dancing, singing, wood- and stone-carving, and various sporting events. The sporting events would include everything from regattas to a traditional triathalon (involving swimming, paddling on a homemade reed float and running around a lake carrying a pole with banana bunches balanced on either end). There is also spear and fishing competitions, and the making of MAHUTE (barkcloth). One of the most amazing and unusual sights is the HAKA PEI - a race involving men dressed in HAMI (loincloths) and body paint sliding down the side of a volcano on the trunks of banana trees. During this suicidal run the competitors can reach speeds of up to 60km/hr, and the one who flies the farthest is declared the winner. All of these events are used to collect points for various clans. Each clan has a beauty queen contestant, and the one with the most points at the end of the two weeks is declared the winner. The entire festival is then closed with a massive carnivale style parade.

We were lucky enough to see song, dance, carving, regattas and the not to be missed Haka Pei. Were it at all possible we would have stayed to see the carnivale. We were also unfortunate enough to see the local accordian competition, but, hey, they can't all be winners. I think one of the most amazing aspects of this competition was the fact that the talent pool was drawn from such a small population and, for the most part, was excellent. If you're planning on visiting Easter Island, I would highly recommend coming in February so you can catch at least part of this festival, and I usually avoid tourist high season like the plague whenever possible!

During the day, between performances, we rented a scooter to motor around the island and see the various highlights. These sites included not only the ones previously mentione, but also
PLAYA DE ANAKENA - the red coral beach, site of AHU ATUNE HUKI, some of the first Moai re-erected in 1955 by an American anthropologist, William Mulloy, who dedicated his life to reviving the dead culture of the Moai
AHU TE PITO KURA - the largest of the complete Moai, never re-erected

AHU TONGARIKI - 15 Moai stand here, re-erected in 1992 by a Japanese crane company. These ones were particularly hard to stand upright as the toppled statues had been shoved inland by a tidal wave in 1960.

TAHAI COMPLEX - one of the closest to the city, showing the different stages of developement in the facial features of the Moai

RANO KAU - a volcanic crater on the edges of the sacred village of Oronga


We also took one day to take a "bitty" trek around the south point of the island, recommended by our host, Oscar. Too bad for us we got a bit lost and ended up wandering for about 5 hours in the wide open fields, in the hot sun, with not near enough water to drink. Luckily for us, it is impossible to get completely lost on this island as it is so small. While on our little walk we did see many horses, cows, beautiful ocean vistas and several partially or completely decayed livestock corpses. Curious, I asked a few locals what the deal was. Turns out, in a fine example of human interference with a pristine environment, the problem lies with a noxious plant, called Cho-Cho, introduced onto the island.

In 1982 the plant, Crotalaria grahamiana (cho-cho), was introduced onto the island to help prevent erosion. A few years later a large number of cattle and horses began to die from a wasting disease that progressed rapidly into a stumbling, neurological deficiency and then onto death. Due to a lack of veterinary care on the island, it was assumed the animals were undergoing an epidemic of mad cow disease, and farmers were resigned to losing much of their livelihood. In 1998 it was discovered that the actual culprit was the cho-cho plant, which contained a natural source of pyrrolizidine alkaloids. These alkaloids were hepatotoxic (killed off liver cells) and potent carcinogens (caused cancer). Most of the livestock were dying of cirrhosis (liver failure), the neurological symptoms related to a consequence of this called hepatic encephalopathy (brain dysfunction caused by the build up of toxins in the blood). Unfortunately, by the time this was realized, cho-cho was a widespread invader of the island. Measures taken since then to limit the exposure of livestock to the plant have reduced fatalities, but not completely eliminated them. There also remains come concern about whether or not human consumption of animal products (such as meat and unpasturized milk) on the island will result in an increase of liver cancer, though not enough study has been done to support this theory.

Back on happier topics I can say that I completely enjoyed our stay on Easter Island. Never have I had such an amazing 5 days, filled to the brim with amazing history, beautiful scenery, awe inspiring sights and a festival that was completely fascinating. It was sad to leave Easter Island, but the time had come to pack up and move on to Tahiti.

Now most people were a bit jealous when they heard we were going to Tahiti, and I'm sure that for some the experience is amazing. For us, not so much. First off, Tahiti is one of the most expensive tourist destinations on earth. The "cheap" rooms on the main island cost around $150 a night. We landed on the island at 11pm, and were through customs by midnight. Given that we were planning on catching the 6AM ferry to another island, called Moor'ea, we decided it would be easier to just sleep in the airport. So with about 15 of our fellow backpackers we pulled up a peice of marble flooring (sadly no soft carpeting or sleepable chairs) and got what sleep we could. The next day we were off by bus to the ferry.

The town of Papeete, the capital of Tahiti island, is a bustling, overcrowded and dirty place, surprisingly. Many people go to Moor'ea, first off because it is cheaper, secondly because it is more untouched with pristine natural beauty. One of the nice things about Moor'ea is that about 200m off shore, encircling the entire island is a reef. Within this protective circle the water is calm and only about 4 feet deep in most places. Abundant coral grows here and a variety of tropical fishes abound. Just off the shore of our hotel we went snorkelling and saw many vibrant and colourful coral and fish. Unfortunately, visibility was not that great as it was rainy season, which brings me to the second problem we had with Tahiti - it rained, and I mean poured, for about 48 hours straight during the 3 days while we were there. Confined to our the porch of our little cabin for the most part we just chilled out and made quick trips to the grocery store between down pours. We couldn't afford to eat out (meals at restaurants costing anywhere from $25-50 a person), and many of the activities were not only overpriced, but would not have been particularly enjoyable in the wet (eg. dolphin watching, touring Cook's harbour, scooter rentals). So we hung out with the hotel's cat, read a lot, caught up on some sleep. Two days later it was back onto the ferry to Papeete. We had to take an early afternoon boat to make sure we got back on time (ferries stop running at 4pm), but our flight didn't leave until 3AM the following morning. Faced with another typhoon like downpour, and burdened down with our full backpacks and empty wallets, we decided to pass the hours at the airport - all 14 of them................

Conclusion - Tahiti would be great if you had enough money to afford one of the fancy resorts, but all in all we wish we had just spent the extra days at Easter Island enjoying more of the Tapati festival. The one thing that I am very sorry I missed was the Tahiti Marathon, which ran just 2 days after we left on Moor'ea. Not, of course that I would have run it (are you crazy!), but it would have been great to see. Nice flat course, beautiful scenery. Pretty hot, but it starts at 4:30AM, which would help with that (though would be a major deterrent to spectators). Oh well, maybe next year.

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