Sun, Sea and Giant Stone Heads

Turns out Easter Island does have fast internet access, just one of my assumptions about this place I´ve had challenged.

I wasn´t convinced about coming here. Firstly, for reasons our travel agent will be asked to explain on our return, we have to go on to New Zealand via South America (check an atlas – this is not a direct route). More importantly, I see the history of Easter Island as a testament to man´s folly, a warning our culture would be wise to heed, but no doubt won´t.  You have a stable affluent society; it flourishes whilst becoming increasingly obsessed with an abstract concept which reflects the power the minority have over the majority (they called this thing Manna, we call it Money); eventually the population becomes too large for the environment to sustain it and the obsession with Manna (or money) over-rules all other needs, and all common sense; society disintegrates as neccessary resources (like food) become scarce, and war ensues. And all this happened before Western culture arrived with such useful imports as Smallpox, Christianity and Slavery to make things even more difficult.  

My preconceived image of Easter Island, the classic shot of the half buried stone head on a grassy hillside under a lowering sky, turns out to be doubly wrong. For a start, the skies round here don´t so much lower as burn. It´s a tropical island, complete with sapphire seas, palm trees and open fronted cafes to watch the dramatic sunsets from.  Hanga Roa, the only settlement, is a sprawling village of low buildings in large gardens. Even though tourists provide the income to keep those bungalows looking good, it´s relatively uncomercial, just one street of cafes, tat and car hire shops, and has none of the desperate hardsell we got used to in Peru, though we did have an odd encounter with a couple of local stoners out on the coastal path who wanted to sell us some carved wooden implements (´Rapa´Nui salad tongs, man´). Stoners aside, the wildlife is mainly imported: as well as the ubiquitous stray dogs, horses roam freely everywhere (in a place with mainly dirt roads and no garage for several thousand miles, horsepower makes sense). The sparrows were a surprise, especailly as their preferred habitat seems to be the coconut palm. Native species include furtive lizards, a hawk whose name means ´stealer of meat´, a sparrow size grey bird which makes a noise like a dog´s squeeky toy, and some humungous scuttling bugs (possibly cockroaches) whose habitat seems largely limited to our hotel room. Most of the life is in the sea, with even the rockpools having more tropical fish than the average aquarium. Our encounters with the deep sea fish were mainly in pan-fried or grilled form, though we did go snorkelling in 50m of clear blue water, where I managed to have a close encounter with a jellyfish (as the dive instructor said: ‘Is big sea, is small jellyfish, how come you get stung?’ Just lucky I guess)

The island has only one classic tropical beach, the rest being dramatic volcanic spikey rock, but this beach does have all the required elements, being a sheltered cove with white sand, clear seas and overhanging palms. Plus, uniquely, it has a large platform of carved stone figures just above the tideline.

About those statues…well, they´re called Moai, and they aren´t just heads, they´re entire torsos. The ´head shots´were taken at the quarry on the slopes of an extinct volcano where at least 400 statues lie or stand. They were buried delibertately while the workmen finished the fine details; each one represented a real person, and provided it was completed while he was alive, it embodied and trapped his Manna for his entire tribe. When things went wrong, the quarry was abandoned. Before that, most of the Moai had already been moved out to the villages where they had black and white eyes and a red stone topknot fitted, and were set upright on stone platforms to watch over the people. During the War (when they talk about the War here, they don´t mean WWII), almost all the Moai were pulled down and smashed, so the ones the tourists see today have been reconstructed from fragments. Which doesn´t stop them being damned impressive. And they´re everywhere: beside roads, on cliffs, in sheltered valleys. Even in Hanga Roa itself, still watching over their builders´ descendents. And given that people like me pay plenty of Manna (I mean money) to see them, perhaps the ancestors weren´t so stupid after all, as their excesses of self expression have now given the people the means to live comfortable lives. At least, for as long as our money-worshipping culture survives.

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