June 30, 2009
Rapa Nui Redux
I go to Easter Island without my pith helmet. Without illusions that I will crack its wacky mysteries. I do want to see the sights (those really big heads!) But what I am really craving is to be far from everything, which should be easy with two–thousand uninterrupted miles of ocean in all directions.
I am obliged to do it on the cheap. I pounced on a half-price winter fare (US$566) and booked camping in at the island’s only campground with provisions in tow. Tropical winter should be the rough equivalent of Patagonian summer. Right?
The first day, wind and sideways rain trashes five tents, sending campers to bunk on the shelter’s floor tiles. I dream in tune with buffeting gusts and waves crashing—we are right on the coast. My Black Diamond bivvy (more on this peculiar creature later) stands firm. I take it as a sign.
On the second day, the sun comes out.
A group from the campground wave me into their already-full jeep rental. The crew hails from China, the US, Germany and Italy. We take the coastal route, stopping at moais, the giant heads carved from volcanic stone, with the sea sloshing behind them. We end at Anakena, a beach so Pacific perfect that we successfully goad a new friend to swim with us in her underwear. The tour groups gape. The locals glance, but only for a second. What else can you do when life is this good?
Because Rapa Nui is so remote, it’s an expensive place. Dinner or lunch out averages $20 US dollars. So instead we eat in, sharing bottles of gas station wine and pasta. Or eat seafood empanadas ($3) at food shacks. Instead of taking tours, I take long walks, hiking to the island summit, volcanoes and caves.
A museum exhibit explains how the moai made their destinations. Some theories have them carted with pulleys and ropes over logs. But their backs are not damaged, only their bottoms. This matches popular folk tales that claim, “they walked to their destinations.” And so do I.
The encounters are the kind that make travel. Total strangers confess their life stories: a Chilean woman who came here without a penny in the throes of a mid-life crisis, foreigners who stayed for (what else) love, a native who returned after decades on Long Island, who could strip the island of its modern landmarks (school, light post, post office), giving me the invisible tour of what used to be.
My theory (because everyone must have theories on Easter Island) is that, far enough from everything, people drop their outer shell.
Yet RapaNui are not convinced by tourism. Or archaeology. Why would they be? Their treasures are carted abroad. Few personally benefit having their homeland usurped as a national park (and before that Chile leased their native lands as a sheep ranch and confined the RapaNui to Hanga Roa by force). Without their ancestral land, many rely on expensive imports that even tourists can barely afford.
On Saturday night, tourists and locals alike pile into the Topa Tangi pub, to sweat and dance like the savages we wish we were. After the cultural ballet ($20 for tourists), grass-skirted dancers join grandmothers and German tourists grinding to Polynesian pop and rap. At 3am the party moves to a shabbier dance hall whose name in Rapa Nui means ‘tall grass’ (the local equivalent of the back seat). Polynesian reputations need no introduction.
Cut to my bivvy, aka, Tombtent, in turns cozy and in turns maddingly claustrophobic.
In a week I am absorbed into the fabric of island life, as much as I can be. Locals tell me how much they dislike the tourists, while offering me avocados and passion fruit from their gardens. I can kind of agree: of course I am here to gawk, while to explore the island is the equivalent of raiding their attics to paw their family heirlooms. I can't see that going over big at home.
On my last night, a family makes me roasted fish and sweet potatoes, grilled and eaten with our hands over the coals. My host tutors me to lick my fingers loudly, as they do. "She doesn't have to," his cousin says. "She's not from here."
So I do it anyways.