Friday, March 01, 2002

Easter Island, Isla de Pascua, Rapa Nui

Hola todos mis amigos y familia,

I have been delaying writing about Easter Island, because our experience was so rich and full, that I could not imagine putting it into words. We have been in Santiago, Chile for 5 days, and I have finally reflected enough on the incredible time that Dan and I had in Isla de La Pascua (Easter Island), that I am ready to begin...amazing, awesome, truly special.

Once again, we have been incredibly lucky. We had heard about an annual festival on this island, that celebrates the Polynesian - Rapa Nui culture. The guidebook said that the 2 week festival was at the end of January, early February, so we were sure that we had missed it. Well, 2002 was the year they randomly decided to change the dates, and to have the festival on the 9th to the 22nd of February. We arrived on the 18th, for the final days of celebration. The Rapa Nui festival is a competition between two large island families. Each 'family' chooses a woman who will be crowned queen of Isla de la Pascua, if they win. They have several daily competitions that showcase the various skills of the islanders - dancing, singing, fishing, canoeing, horse-back riding, wood carving, the pounding of fabric out of bark, swimming, etc.. The dueling families score points for these various activities, which are all tallied up at the final celebrations.

Dan and I arrived to this tiny, isolated, almost desolate island, with a population of 3000, unaware of our good fortune. We ended up staying in the Residencia Apina Tupuna, which housed one of the most important Rapa Nui families. Let's just say that we got a very up close perspective of the true island life, without the Chilean influence (Easter Island has been colonized by Chile, much to the chagrin of the indigenous peoples). My first impression was one of fear(?) - apprehension(?) I found the men to be feral, and did not immediately feel welcomed by the tough women. However, these initial impressions were only temporary. The men ARE feral, and the women ARE tough, but they were also friendly. A quick description of the men at Apina Tupunas (Pitaki and Manunui)- long, wild, tangly black hair, beards, and wild intense black eyes. Pitaki wore black leather pants, tied up the side, and a huge abalone necklace. He drove a monster truck and listened to Bryan Adams at top volume. Manunui wore urban camouflage pants or ripped jeans, and various shirts and material wrapped around his torso. He behaved like an animal! - grunting , moving erratically, and trying to scare the guests with loud bursts at any opportunity. He was the ganja-man, and loved to play Janis Joplin at full blast while drinking whiskey out of a gourd. What incredible characters of masculinity!

Our day of arrival, coincided with one of the most important competitions. We managed to hitch a ride with Pitaki, Mananui, Elvira (their mother), and little Tupuna (a young girl) to the other side of the island for the first contest... Absolutelyly loco. 14 men, painted in red, black or white mud, dressed in g-string, bark loincloths, and adorned in feathers, race down a very steep mountain on banana-tree logs! This sport is incredibly dangerous. Dan and I climbed the steep grassy hillside to the top, where we could watch the men prepare for the race, and get an awesome view of the immense crowd below. At the windy top, the men were finishing painting their bodies, calling on their various gods for strength and good luck, and making an offering of poultry, from a cooking pit. The 'banana boat' consisted of two logs, slashed and staked together. Before riding downhill, they tear off the bark on the bottom to make it more slippery, and then lie on their backs, holding on to two stakes on either side. One by one, they took their suicidal turns, racing down the mountain, catching air, and crashing back to land. Most men made it to the bottom successfully, but usually scraped up from the coarse grass and rough earth. A few of them, flew from the toboggans, and bounced down the hill, like speed skiers. It was scary to watch. We later learned that one man had broken his arm. I am sure that there were more injuries that we just did not hear about.

After competition number one, we got back in the truck to journey to another locale for the second meet. We entered the crater of an extinct volcano, now filled with a lake and bed of reeds. Here, another group of men tested their strength and stamina in something similar to a triathalon. First, they paddled across the lake in reed boats, then they carried two massive bundles of bananas over their shoulders, as they ran around the entire perimeter of the lake. Then, they dropped their loads and ran halfway around the lake, along a higher path, through ancient moai, where they collected a body's length of reeds. Then, they used the reeds like a surfboard, lying chest down, and swam across the entire lake.

All in all, we had a very impressive first day. We returned to our residencia in Hanga Roa, the only town on the island, with the roar and deep blue water of the ocean, across the street. The next day, we rented a Suzuki jeep, and began our tour of this mystical island. Isla de la Pascua has been stripped of the majority of its trees, and is primarily bare, but there are still some beautiful farmlands that are sheltered with eucalyptus and other trees. Most of the island is considered a national park, so it is preserved from development, and is truly stunning - in a natural way. We visited several restored moai (a huge statue of a torso and elongated head with thick brows, a sloping nose, thick lips and long ears, made of volcanic rock. These statues originally included a topknot/hat of red volcanic earth on their heads). Please see our photos to get a clearer idea of what these magical sites look like - we've taken more than enough pics! The moai are obviously awesome, even the more so when you learn that they still do not know how these humongous, heavy monoliths were ever erected. However, Easter Island has even more beauty and curiosities than just the moai. There are several caves, lush volcano craters, ancient remains of stone dwellings / villages (like Orongo), and beautiful white sand beaches.

We returned to our accommodation and joined the preparation for tomorrows parade. We were invited, along with several other tourists, to participate in dressing up. We worked on making grass/ palm skirts, bark loincloths, feather arm and leg bands, crowns, and necklaces of seeds. The next day, after more exploration, we began to get ready for the evenings parade. This was a 4 hour process. Dan and I were not quite sure what we were getting ourselves into. Somehow, we ended up being the first to get painted - this requires a public stripping down to your underwear. One of the head women of the family, insisted that we be authentic. Dan was to dress like the men we had seen at the downhill competition, as was I. This meant that I was to go topless, a la island style. I'm not sure how I braved this experience - peer pressure, but I allowed myself to be covered in black mud, and then have a local, traditional artist, carefully paint white detailing all over my body. I was VERY thankful to have my face painted, and mud in my hair, because I was not recognizable, and therefore anonymous. I wore a crown of crazy palm leaves, and a g-string of pounded bark, adorned with white fluffy chicken feathers, and a shell necklace. That is all! Dan (like most men) had said he would never be caught in public in a g-string, had to eat his words. Bare-assed he was! (butt oh so nice...dg?) As more people began to get ready, I quickly realized that not all the women were going to be suckered like me. Most of the women opted to wear a bikini top, painted with mud. There were only a few other women, who went topless - all of us hoping there would be others like us at the parade. During this experience, we met two German sisters, Birgit and Marion, who ended up becoming our companions while in Isla de la Pascua. Marion got drafted by Pitaki to join him on one of the parade floats, while Birgit walked with Dan and I. The parade was incredible. Each family built elaborate floats, with massive wood carvings, moving monsters, ship replicas, and had large groups of marching dancers in coordinated outfits, including very young kids. There were more people participating in the parade, in full regalia, than spectators. Most of the onlookers were tourists - Dan and I must be in a 1000 photos. I shudder to think of what websites or guidebooks I might appear in. The raucous, dancing, singing parade down the main street of Hanga Roa, culminated at a soccer field, where there were many performances and further festivities. This aura of celebration and joy continued through out our stay. The next night, our residencias family had scored the most points and crowned Carmen Tuki the queen of Rapa Nui, in a beauty pageant style show. We learned that they had garnered the most points at the parade, because they had more people (including tourists), who had dressed in costume and walked with their floats. We stayed up late, eating meat skewers, drinking pisco sours, staring at the stars.

Another day, we rented a car with the German girls and went touring around the far end of the island. We stopped at several toppled moai sites, on the way to Rano Raraku, a volcano that is known as the nursery of moai. This was the same place that the triathalon was held, but we now had the place to ourselves. We wandered around the outside, where there are upright moai, buried to their shoulders, gazing across the grassy slopes. They look like they are being born from the mountain side. Some moai were carved, but still attached to the mountain side - ancient works in progress. The largest moai ever made is here, 21 meters (I'm not sure how many feet that is, but it is huge). We also visited perhaps the most famous site - Ahu Tongariki, which is the largest site, and has 15 reassembled moai. Eventually, we ended up at the islands two best beaches, Ovahe and Anakena, where the water is a deep blue green and the sand is white. Anakena is also flanked with moai, and there are palm trees which have been planted nearby.

On our final night, the family of our residencia hosted a traditional crowning of Carmen Tuki, without the glitzy, spanish t.v. show presenters. They reenacted the arrival of people to the island, sang and danced, carried Carmen in a high chair, and had fire dances. The entire show was held in front of glowing moai, in the night.

Dan-(for all you surfers) With one excuse after another(the scooter mishap, no waves, no boards) I managed to visit several world famous surf locations without ever 'getting wet'. I received ridicule from some of you and I deserve it. Finally, in Easter Island, of all places, my favorite experience had to be surfing. Everything came together, a overhead swell, off-shore breeze and 74 degree water. I rented a board and was able to get two sessions in.(It's been a long time since that happened) I shared the waves with some really cool locals and got to see the island from a whole new perspective. Staring at the moai, huge and stoic, as I turned around to see endless lines coming in. Sarah took some great pictures, unfortunately she couldn't tell from where she was standing and took them all of a local shredder. I didn't tell her they weren't me so she still thinks I rip!...don't blow it.

Now, we are back in 'civilization'. We have been staying in Santiago, with relatives of my father, for the past week. We are being treated very well, and have seen a side of this city, which the typical traveler never comes close to. I will try to elaborate in a later email.

I hope all of you are well. We both send our love,
Sarah and Dan

P.S. Our photos are posted at


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