Day 15: first day on Rapa Nui (Easter Island)

We were originally scheduled for a full day tour on this day and a half day tour on the day after, but due to the threat of rain we switched the two days. When we came out of our room in the morning, a rainbow was visible over the ocean. We then went to a nice buffet breakfast in the hotel dining room. There wasn't a lot a variety in the food available, but there was more than enough to eat. I had scrambled eggs, corn flakes and milk, a small local banana, and fresh biscuit-like breads with jam. After breakfast we met our guide Ramon and our driver, and set off to explore one part of the island.

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As we stepped outside of our room on our first morning on Easter Island,
we were greeted by this rainbow out over the ocean.

We first went out to the coast to see some sample ahus. An ahu is a ceremonial burial platform that the moai statues were erected upon. A foot or two tall from the front (and several feet tall in the rear), the typical stone platform was rectangular in shape, parallel to the shoreline, and extending for many feet beyond the moai that stood upon them. The moai themselves were carved from the volcanic rock from quarries located elsewhere on the island, and somehow carried or moved across the island to their various resting places. To this day there is still no consensus as to how the moai (which weighed many tons) were moved by a supposedly primitive people. I won't go into all of the theories here (there are as many theories about moai movement as there are about how the Egyptian pyramids at Giza were built), but my personal theory is that the moai were moved with the help of "mana", a magical power provided by the priests. Old island tales describe the use of mana, which enabled the moai to "walk" to their destinations. I think "mana" is a lost ancient technique of temporarily defeating the force of gravity, possibly by the use of acoustics or the harnessing of some unknown earth energy. Edward Leedskalnin proved that he had discovered the secret behind this ancient concept/technology when he constructed the Coral Castle by himself in the 1920s. Unfortunately, the secret of mana was lost when the priests and rulers of the islanders were wiped out in inter-tribal wars and later Peruvian slave raids.

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A small example moai. They came in a variety of sizes (many
were much larger), and different styles of face and features.

There is also controversy over the origin of the islanders themselves. Most archeologists/anthropologists believe that Rapa Nui was settled from somewhere in Polynesia. However, others, like Thor Heyerdahl, believed that they had been settled from South America. Heyerdahl pointed to the totora reed (native to Lake Titicaca in South America) that had somehow found its way into the crater lake on Easter Island, as proof that Rapa Nui was settled from South America. The stonemasonry on a few of the ahus was also remarkably similar to ancient Andean stonework, which added further fuel to the fire. Personally, I think that the island was settled from Polynesia, but that it did have a definite influential contact at some point in its past with ancient cultures from South America.

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The backside of this ahu shows it to be one of the better built ahus that we saw. This was one
of the ahus that had stonework remarkably like that found in Inca walls in South America.

After investigating a few ahus, we went up to the rim of the most impressive of the three volcanic craters on the island. The Rano Kau crater was huge, and thoroughly dormant. It was filled with water, the surface of which was mostly green due to the totora reeds that grew there. The edge of the crater nearest the ocean had a large crescent-shaped section missing, enabling you to better see the bright blue ocean behind it. It was a very scenic spot, and we took a number of photos there. At the raised elevation that we were at, the seemingly ever-present wind was even more strong, to the point where you had to hang onto your hat and other belongings. While we were looking around, Ramon found a piece of obsidian on the ground, which he gave to us.

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The crater at Rano Kau.

The last main destination on today's tour was the ancient Orongo Village that lay near the other side of the Rano Kau crater. As we left the van to hike up to the village I noticed that the watchman's building at the base of the path had its windows covered with a wide variety of stickers. I decided to donate my Surfrider bumper sticker (that I carried on all of my trips) to Ramon at the end of the trip so that he could give it to them the next time he went there. (So if you go to Easter Island, take 'em a sticker or two.)

The Orongo village seemed to consist of a number of circular stone structures (now covered in grass) clustered together on a bluff near the ocean. The entrances were only a foot and a half square, at the base of each buildings. They were constructed of many rocks that were 1-2 inches thick and 6-12 inches wide, piled on top of one another (using no mortar) in a circular walled fashion. You are not permitted to go inside, and since they are unlit you would have to get down on your hands and knees with a flashlight to see anything of their interiors. The ancient natives of the island were also known to have used houses that were somewhat boat-shaped in appearance, but we didn't see any restored examples of these on the island while we were there.

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The ancient village of Orongo.

As you continued to walk down the cliff-side path through the village you come once again to the edge of the Rano Kau crater. To your right, at the edge of the cliff going down to the ocean, are a couple of piles of large rocks, all of which have been carved with petroglyphs of the old Rapa Nui culture. The cult of the Birdman and other significant concepts and gods are shown in raised relief, though you have to already be somewhat familiar with the designs to be able to discern them on the rocky surfaces.

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The petroglyph-covered rocks near the Orongo village. Offshore you can see the three small islands which played an important role in the island's culture. The largest one is Motu Nui, and once a year there was a competition to see which clan's representative could swim out to it and be the first to come back with a sooty tern egg. The winner's clan would be top clan for the rest of the year. If you want to get an idea of what the competition (and the rest of the island's story) is all about, rent the movie "Rapa Nui" (which was filmed on the island with native actors) and watch it. Though it takes a little Hollywood license with the facts, it's probably the best movie available to get a true feeling for the ancient ways of the island (especially if you never get a chance to actually go there).

That was all of the tour for the day, so we returned to the van, and drove back towards the hotel. On the way we stopped at a convenience store in town and picked up a couple of large bottles of water, since the hotel did not provide any bottled water. I don't think there was the danger of catching "turista" from the local water on Rapa Nui (like there is in Central and South America), but we decided to play it safe anyway.

After making a quick stop at our hotel room we set off on foot towards town to get some lunch and do some shopping. There was a road that ran around the edge of the island just behind our room, and we used it to get started. We passed the nearby Chilean Navy base (which seemed to consist of one building and one boat), and continued up the road until we came to a restaurant next to the ocean that looked like a good place to eat. We had a nice lunch in the nearly empty dining room (I had some sort of chicken/pineapple/rice meal) while we watched the ocean waves through the glass-enclosed restaurant patio.

We continued up the road after lunch, and after fifteen minutes or so reached a building that was a local artisan's marketplace. The building contained two wings, each of which were filled with stalls full of locally-made goods to sell to the tourists. There were the usual t-shirts and postcards, as well as the more unique Rapa Nui cultural items like miniature carved moai statues and Rongo Rongo boards.

The Rongo Rongo boards are small replicas of the boards that were found on the island by the first Europeans to arrive there. They were covered on both sides with the unique Rongo Rongo script, whose meaning is now lost to time (all of the islanders who knew how to read them died off centuries ago). It is not known if the Rongo Rongo characters are an actual alphabet, or a form of mnemonic reminders used to help a storyteller remember a complex tale. Whatever the purpose, the symbols (which contain fish, birdman characters, "trees" and other items) are mysterious, though pleasing to look at. Unfortunately, almost all of the real Rongo Rongo boards were burned by the natives (who used them for firewood after all the trees were used up moving the moai), with the remainder being destroyed by the Christian missionaries who saw them as evil since they recorded the island's religion and culture. In any case, during our shopping Sue bought a replica Rongo Rongo board for her collection (and later bought one for me too), while I got a t-shirt and a keychain for a friend.

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My Rongo Rongo board, which Sue got me for my birthday. It is made of mahogany, and is 10 3/4 inches long. Note the Rongo Rongo characters, which cover both sides. Every other line is upside down, forcing you to continually turn the board round and round as the lines are read. The actual Rongo Rongo boards were larger and had much finer characters, but neither of us would have been able to afford a board that was a true replica, even if they sold them.

Not all of the vendors were there that day, so not all of the stalls were open for business. Due to the market getting ready to close we decided to come back in a couple of days, so that we could spend more time and do some more shopping. We took a different path through town to go back to the hotel, which was a nice walk of about 20-30 minutes.

After watching a little of the one television channel available on the island (some mainland Chilean channel in Spanish), we had a very nice dinner in the hotel restaurant, and turned in early because we had a lot of hiking to do the next day.