As I rode on the back of a scooter down the dark streets of Hanga Roa, the quiet island came alive in a stream of colours, sounds and wind whizzing by. I hadn’t expected the scooter – it occured to me later though that Raquel, the owner of the three cabin residencial where I was staying, had a form of transportation ready for every occasion. On this night, as she drove me to the playhouse where her family put on a traditional Kari Kari show, the scooter must have seemed most appropriate. The sensations felt on a scooter were not altogether different from the colours, sounds and fire whizzing by as island natives dressed in traditional aboriginal garb danced and sung the night away.
I was scheduled to leave the next day, and this immersion into ancient culture seemed the best way to cap off an amazing four day stay on Easter Island, or Rapa Nui as the locals know it. Famous for it’s massive stone statues of human-like heads with no arms or legs spread around the island, it’s a place like no other. Many people look at it in different ways. With the nearest landmass over 3000km away, some consider it to be the most isolated place in the world, the perfect place to get away from it all. Located nearly perfectly in the center of the Pacific, others consider it to be the naval of the world. Still, others consider it to be a hotbed of extraterrestrial activities, believing the statues to be left by alien visitors long ago. No matter what you think the island represents, it’s allure is obvious.
My first encounter with a moai, the large stone statues that anthropologists most likely believe were tributes to ancestors lost, was downtown Hanga Roa, near the water. The big man in stone looms over the town, sitting like a guardian while island life occurs around it. Across the road, a soccer game is in full gear. One wonders if the stone man would pick a side, cheer for his team. After a while on the island, I started assigning names and personalities to the figures, eager to interact with them. The things isolation can do to you…
I saw many more moai over the course of three days, as I covered the island by foot and bicycle. Some moai are still standing, others have been restored, but most are unfinished or in a state of disrepair. Though very little of the history of the island is known, it’s believed that most of the statues were knocked down during tribal wars on the island, which is a shame considering that most of the islands resources were consumed in the building of these wonderful statues (while the island wad once believed to contain a luscious jungle forest, it is now a barren land, with few trees to go around). But nevertheless, the moai, or remnants of them are everywhere including at Anakena Beach, a white sand beach as nice as any Caribbean beach I’ve ever seen, believed to be the original landing place of the first settlers to Easter Island.
It’s interesting to note, with one exception, all the moai face inland away from the ocean and many are placed with astronomical meaning, including the one set of moai that the coast and are directly aligned with the sunset during the summer solstice. But how were these massive stone structures created, and then moved? We will likely never know the answer to this question but it all adds to the mystery and draw of the island.
At the Orongo Ceremonial Village, sandwiched on a ridge between the crater of an extinct volcano and the Pacific Ocean, houses still remain where willing participants prepared for the Birdman Competition. In this unique contest, each tribe selected its strongest, most athletic member to compete. Competitors had to climb down a steep cliff from the crater to sea level carrying a reed raft on their backs, and then swim through shark infested waters to a nearby island where the sooty tern (a bird) lay its eggs. They had to collect an egg, and bring it back to the village unbroken – the first to do this won the right for his tribe to rule the island for a year until the next competition.
More than any other place, I find it difficult to describe my experience on the island. It’s a place that needs to be experienced. Standing among giants, you fear they may come alive at any moment, like in a children’s fairytale. I feel very fortunate to have had the chance to visit this far away place that few people ever get to experience. Watching the sun set behind the moai is a sight of pure beauty that I will never forget.