Thursday, May 20, 2010

Land of a Thousand Heads

Rapa Nui ... you probably know it better as Easter Island (Isla de Pascua, to Chilenos).   It's also called Te Pito o Te Henua (the "navel of the world" -- which begs the questions, if Easter Island is the navel, then what does that make Australia?)  Any which way you refer to it, it is a tiny, isolated speck of land in the middle of the Pacific Ocean -- just 24 km at its longest point and 12 km at its widest, and nearly 4,000 km west from the mainland of South America, and nearly 4,000 km east of Tahiti.  Only Pitcairn Island is closer to Easter Island, and it's still nearly 2,000 km away (and has less than 50 inhabitants).

In other words, a long way from anywhere.  But it`s got something no other place on earth can offer:  those magical, mysterious, marvelous moai, the giant carved statues that no one can really explain.  That`s why I travelled 5 hours and two time zones.  (Well, that, and the promise of hot and sunny weather.)  There aren't quite 1,000 heads, but the total comes pretty close.

How people got to Easter Island in the first place, much less why they started carving those moai in the first place, is the subject of much debate.  How the island itself came to be is clear:  some overactive volcanos (3 primary ones and 70 secondary, all now extinct) eventually created a spot of land above the surface of the ocean.   Best current guess is that people arrived -- somehow, from somewhere -- between 700 and 1100 AD,   They may have travelled all the way from the Marquesas Islands, although one famous dissenter (Thor Heyerdahl) theorizes that they came from mainland South America.  Either way, they would've had to travel in flimsy canoes over a vast distance to a speck of land they had no way of knowing was there.

But they were here long before the Europeans first arrived.  First was a Dutch sailor in 1722, landing on Easter Sunday (and thus giving the island its name).  Captain James Cook also landed here, and a member of his crew was a Polynesian from Bora Bora who could converse with the inhabitants of Rapa Nui, as their language was closely enough related to his own.  By the time the first missionaries arrived in the mid-1800's, the Rapa Nui people were still here but their traditional culture was dying and their island had been nearly deforested.  What happened before then is the great mystery.

They carved moai out of volcanic rock in a quarry at the Rano Raraku volcano, and somehow transported them from there to sites all over the island, probably to represent deified ancestors who acted as guardians over the villages; moai always faced the village, with their backs to the sea, and were installed on altars called ahu.  How did they manage this?  No one really knows, although the most common theories include the use of sledges and log rollers; keep in mind that these statues in some cases weigh as much as 90 to 100 tonnes!

As more and more moai were carved, resources became more and more depleted:  more trees cut down to use for transport; more topsoil exposed to air with nothing to anchor it and blowing away in the wind; fewer and fewer acres of productive land to grow crops as soil quality deterioriated.  Warfare broke out among rival groups as they fought for scarcer resources, and in the course of this civil war, moai were toppled and ahu destroyed.  Some moai were left at the quarry, partly finished, never to be used for their intended purpose; hundreds of them still remain, blank eyes gazing solemnly at the visitors walking past in awe.

Why did they destroy themselves?  This is what I really wonder.  The person who cut down that last tree must have known it was the last, yet he cut it down anyway; all of their society must have been able to see the devastation to their island, but they didn't change their way of life.  It strikes me as an interesting parallel for our times:  surely anyone who sees and breathes and smells can tell that our way of life (for "our", read North American in particular, although it's not just us) is spoiling the water and destroying the land and eating up the resources of the planet faster than it can replenish them.   And if the rest of the developing world -- billions of people -- catches up and starts living the way we do, then God help us all.

Yet we continue to drive our SUVs to the corner store and live in our 5,000-square-foot mansions, heedless of the kind of earth we will be bequeathing to our children.  My sister used a quote on Earth Day that I really like:  "we do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children."  We would do well to remember this more often.

All right, I'm stepping down off my soapbox now.  But even today on Easter Island, there are hardly any trees, and no fish off the shores or seabirds careering through the sky; tuna fisherman have to go 3 miles out to sea to find anything to catch.

But it's green, and lovely, and dramatic, and the weather was as hot and sunny as I hoped.  I spent the first day on a bus tour, which took me around to all the major island sights, but spent the next two days hiking up the coast and south of the city.  The landscape is almost eerily quiet:  no traffic, no sounds of birds, no signs of human civilization much beyond the boundaries of Hanga Roa, the one and only city.  I met more horses than people in my rambles; they outnumber humans almost 2 to 1, and the domestic horses are often used as transport instead of cars.  The wild ones roam around freely, striking terror in the hearts of hapless hikers brought up short to let a herd gallop by just inches in front of her.  (I don't know if you know this, but horses are very large animals.  Twenty of them coming at you at once is an awe-inspiring sight.)

The hostel was pretty quiet, as it's low season on the island, so I had the huge outdoor patio all to myself at some points.  I sat there the second morning, gazing at the view, thinking what an awesome place it would be to sit and write for a while; an hour later, I was still staring idly into space, daydreaming instead of writing.  But sometimes you need a little space and time to let your mind just wander.

So I found a little bit of peace and relaxation, on that tiny faraway dot of land, and remembered why I was travelling in the first place.

P.S. my peace of mind evaporated just as quickly once I got back to the mainland, but that's a story for another time.  See you in the next post!

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