February 5, 2004
On our first day in Easter Island, we met up with China, our tour guide from Kia Koe Tours. Before she arrived, we complained to the Taha Tai Hotel staff about the broken air conditioner in our room, and they very nicely allowed us to move to a larger room with a working air conditioner. We spent the morning scrambling to move all our belongings from one room to another. When China arrived to pick us up, we were a little harried, but glad to see her and ready to see some moai.
China (pronouced like "Tina") is a native Rapa Nui who was educated in Chile and had moved away for a time. China is not her real name, but her nickname. She said when she was born her eyes were small and almond shaped, like a Chinese person, so her parents nicknamed her China. She seemed like an industrious woman, who worked several jobs on the island, and had big plans for the future. She was friendly and talkative and seemed to know a great deal about the island history and people. Alexander warmed to her immediately, and the four of us set off on an all-day excursion to see the stone heads (moai), caves, and activities around the Tapa ti Rapa Nui fesitival.
We boarded China's red Suzuki jeep and bounced around the rocky roads as she talked about the history of the island. About a thousand
years ago, the Ariki or King Hotu Matua crossed the ocean from Hiva (probably in the
Marquesas Islands) and settled on the island with a group of other explorers. He called the island "The navel of the world" due to its remote location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, some 3700 kilometers away from the continent of South America. The island is small, at only 75 square miles in size. There aren't very many cars, and many people get around on horseback or by walking.
Easter Island was discovered by the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen on Easter Sunday in 1722, which is where the name Easter Island or Isla de Pascua comes from. The island was annexed by Chile in 1888. The island, the people and the native language are all referred to as Rapa Nui. In the late 1960s, the island started welcoming tourists and soon became one of the world´s leading cultural travel destinations, with an average of about 20, 000 visitors per year. Rapa Nui National Park was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.
We arrived in Easter Island in time for the annual Tapa ti Rapa Nui festival, where natives of the island celebrate their culture by re-enacting ancient rituals through various events (sports, fishing, arts, dancing, traditional dress). The ostensible goal of the festival is to elect a new Island Queen, who reigns for a year.
The contest is no ordinary beauty contest, as China explained, because the young ladies who vie for the honor have to use their organizing and persuasive skills to get people on the island to join their team for the week-long competitions. Some recruit family members, and others recruit friends and neighbors to represent her team in a variety of competitions, ranging from horseback riding to singing to crafts (including carving mini-moai), culminating in modified "birdman" competition that would wear out even the most fit Ironman Triathalon competitor. The prize is a college scholarship, a car, and great glory for the tribe. We were lucky to be there and be able to witness some of the competition.
China's Red Suzuki jeep darted through what little traffic there was on the road, and she occasionally honed at her friends and relatives walking along the road, waving at them. One of the things I like most about native guides is getting a sense of how a place really works. We ran into groups of tourists with Australian guides, and even though I'm sure the information they were presented was similar, it seemed to lack the authenticity and passion that China's narratives had. These were her people, and her history she was relating, not just interesting archaeological facts and figures.
Our first stop with China was near the ocean, at a long stretch of dirt road where a horse race was supposed to take place. Like many things, it was on island time, so even though it was scheduled for a 9:00 am start, when we arrived at 9:30am, it had not even begun yet. We saw horses tied to posts, just hanging out waiting for the action to start.
We met a man dressed as a Rapa Nui Chief, and took some pictures of him in his native headdress, loin cloth and feathered cape. Alex got a little scared of him, and didn't want to stand too close, in case he might turn into a bird and fly off or something.
After waiting around for about an hour for the race to start, we got bored and China suggested we move on. We wanted to see the race, but at this rate, we could be here all day and just see horses standing around. No one seemed to be in much of a hurry.
From there, we drove to the site of many fallen moai. It seemed like everywhere we looked there were heads or parts of heads, stuck in the ground, lying face down, lying face up, broken top knots, and other remnants of moai manufacturing gone terribly wrong. China speculated that these were broken in transit, as the moai were being carried or rolled or dragged down the mountainside from the quarry where the rock was mined to their final pedestals by the sea.
She took us up to Raro Ranaku next, which is the mountain quarry where Moai were made and dragged down mountainside to their final perches by the sea. We had to climb up the side of the mountain, up a narrow and slippery path. Alex didn't mind, and I was convinced that he was part mountain goat.
Unfortunately, Frank didn't inherit that mountain goat gene, and as we were climbing up, he suddenly went tumbling down the side of the mountain. It seemed to happen in slow motion, before I could reach out a hand to help him, he was rolling down. He only fell about six feet, but it was pretty frightening. He didn't get hurt, which he attributed to having akido training in his youth which taught him how to fall without killing himself. China said it was a good thing, because she once had a guest who fell down this mountain, broke his ankle, and it took four hours for an ambulence to come and get him. Frank, fortunately, got away with a nasty bruise, brushed himself off, and proceeded up the mountain.
We made it up to the quarry, which was really a big pit of rocks. There were various parts of moai lying around, as though they were abandoned before they could be finished, or people just got tired of carving big rocks.