Friday, July 15, 2011

To the Bellybutton Of The World

Rapa Nui. Isla Pascua. The Navel Of The World. Easter Island. How many names can a place have? Easily the most remote spot of my trip - it's claimed that Easter Island is the most remote inhabited island in the world and it feels every bit of it. The island is 3,500km west of Chile which translates as 4 and a half hours in a plane. Though technically speaking it's part of Chile, it's more Polynesian than South American. Called 'Easter Island' due to the fact that it was 'discovered' on Easter Sunday back in 1722, the island is tiny - 25km in length and just over 12km in width at its widest point. It's eminently possible to walk the length and breadth of the island and this is what I do in my 6 days here.
If you've heard of Easter Island it's most likely because you've seen photos of those magnificent statues which litter the island. And that's why I'm here - to see as many of the maois as possible and to learn a lot more about their history. Turns out that the maois are merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the history of the place and that this is a place with many stories to tell - there are caves, ahu, petroglyphs and a long tradition of wood carving. Of course the locals are only too happy to tell you that story, if only you could understand them. This may be Easter Island but it’s still part of Chile and attempting to converse with the locals means labouring under the same fog of incomprehension as you would with their counterparts on the mainland. The friendliness of the locals however is undeniable. They’re thrilled that someone has spent so much money - and it costs a hefty whack to get here - to come to their remote part of the world. All of my explorations on the island take place on foot but I lost count of the number of lifts I was offered to various historic sites. It appears that the recession is hitting hard here as many of the locals recounted tales of empty hotels and deserted restaurants.
That said, I thought that Chile was expensive, but it was a mere cornershop in comparison to the Harrod's that is Easter Island. You'll pay the same for a tomato here as you would a truffle. If you wanted a truffle that is. It is frighteningly expensive and so the only way to survive here is to bring supplies from the mainland and self-cater. I’ve also decided to camp here as, though it’s winter, the temperature rarely drops below 16 degrees at night, warm enough for the Irishman in me to want to run screaming to the beach, prostrating myself under the sun. Or the moon for that matter.
On arrival at midday on Day 1, I can’t wait to set off exploring in search of maois, and they’re easy to find. The first I see under an hour’s walk from the only settlement on the island, the town of Hanga Roa. They’re smaller than I’d imagined - varying from about 4 to 8m in height - and all are in various stages of disrepair. In fact many of them are exhibiting clear signs of cosmetic makeovers - The Swan for maois as it were. The island’s biggest draw, Ahu Tongariki, features 15 maois of various dimensions standing, their backs set to the ocean. Clearly a bad idea as back in 1960, in the aftermath of an earthquake, a tsunami skittled them. In 1992 they were placed back upon their original pedestal or ahu with the help of the Japanese.
Never thought that I'd ever write anything like this, but the island hums with an unseen energy. I feel unclean having written that but it's as indescribable as it is undeniable. 6 days here barely scratch the surface of what the island has to offer but it's a once in a lifetime trip and so I try and see as much as I can in that time. Most fascinating of all on the island is the quarry of Rano Raraku, once a volcano, from where the maois were chiseled. Each maoi took a team of 5 or 6 men a year to complete and the scale of the place is staggering. Many of the maois never made it from this 'factory' and lie there, many of them with the head only visible above the earth - it's completely surreal. Like the pyramids at Giza, much mystery surrounds the erection of the maois at various sites around the island. Ultimately though it's unimportant as just gazing at these monoliths with the sun setting behind is worth all of the time, energy and expense of getting here.

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