Why the long face?
Trip Start Jan 28, 2011
19Trip End Apr 29, 2011
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We loved it here. Only plane we´ve been on with a massive round of applause on (a perfectly fine, non-bumpy) landing, and a party atmosphere at the airport. Met by the lovely Raquel (with flower garlands) to drive the 50 yards to our cabins.
Rapa Nui has a population of about 4400, and is technically part of Chile. Apart from the first language being Spanish, many empanadas and the heavy (for the population size) carabineros presence, you wouldn´t know it though. This is definitely Polynesia.
We explored on foot, with dog, on bikes, in jeep and in ocean, enabling us to see pretty much the whole island.
And the main thing to see is the massive heads, or Moai as they are properly known. Lots of mystery still surrounds them, but the basic story is that they are images of villagers´ ancestors (those with the most mana or importance/status) that overlook each village.
At some point, they were all pushed over. Different theories about why and exactly when, but probably due to tribal conflicts over resources. The rise of the Tangata Manu or Bird Man cult at around the same time suggests that the Moai were rejected as cultural/religious icons in favour of the Bird Man. The main Bird Man cult site is Orongo, a ceremonial village on the edge of the crater of Rano Kau volcano right by the sea (which looks like a ginormous lily pond due to a strange micro climate thingy). We walked up here, escorted the whole way (2 hours uphill in the midday sun) by a very persistent and smelly stray dog with no sense of personal space.
The abandonment of nearly finished Moai at the quarry where they were all made (Rano Raraku) suggests some sort of sudden, seismic change happened. This is properly weird. The quarry does look like it was abandoned literally overnight. The only ones that are standing now were re-erected by archeologists and locals since the ´60s. Most of the 800ish Moai on the island are fallen down, unfinished or never made it to their village. About 300-odd are still in the quarry at Rano Raraku.
The biggest collection of standing Moai are at Ahu Tongariki on the Eastern side of the island, quite close to the quarry (an Ahu is a ceremonial platform where the Moai were erected). The figures really are awesome: sombre and wistful in the daylight, and proud and majestic in the dying light. Magical stuff.
We drove round the island in a beaten-up jeep with the instruction from the hire lady "No Fast!" which Helen reminded Pete of as often as was necessary (VERY OFTEN). The presence of hundreds of wild horses and the occasional herd of cattle, plus the fact that our jeep (and many other jeeps/scooters/horses) turned out to have few functioning lights, kept the driving interesting. No fast!
On the North side of Rapa Nui is a lovely beach, which could have been in any Polynesian or Carribean resort, apart from the big Moai behind you. We had a swim here, as well as at the tiny beach at Hanga Roa, where we saw giant turtles swimming nearly right up to the shore and giving us the occasional wave. The water was so warm even Helen was not pathetic about getting in.
Our visit coincided with the annual Rapa Nui cultural festival, which involved lots of dancing, drinking, eating and near total (for men) nudity (if you discount the thin covering of mud). Tourists and locals join in with the dressing up and parading down the main street. Pete was initally disappointed to have arrived back too late to get involved in the face/body painting. This wore off as it got later (and the g-stringed muddy white men got drunker). Not everybody can carry off Rapa Nui traditional dress. Particularly the portly, bespectacled, hairy-arsed white man.
Food highlights - local fish with Kumara (sweet potato), butter, bacon and walnuts- yum; meat on a stick at the festival; and the empanadas prepared by (surely) Rapa Nui's only transvestite chef. Food, like everything else in Rapa Nui is pretty pricey (nearly twice as much as in Chile). Because everything is imported 2000 miles across the Pacific, the cost of the weekly supermarket shop for the average Rapa Nui-an would make your eyes water. And still no-one eats the horses.
Our hosts were fantastic and we were able to communicate in a new hybrid language of Franglish (French with bits of Spanish and English thrown in for fun). All in all, a wonderful place to visit and a real once-in-a-lifetime for us.