Monday, 31 March 2008

A Dot in the Pacific

Rapa Nui is the definition of remote. Over 3600km from mainland South America and over 2000km from its nearest inhabited neighbour, Pitcairn Island (Population 50), it exists on the margins. Its enigmatic history is fascinating and its modern existence is precariously dependent on the thousands of tourists that visit from mainland via Santiago or on the cruise ships that swing by en route across the Pacific. As a Chilean dependency, it is supported by the central government and, as such, has all the facilities you would expect to see in a frontier town: a hospital, bank, post office, satellite communications centre, etc. However, all its cultural references derive from Polynesia: Rapa Nui language is 80% the same as Maori and the song and dance take cues from Hawaii, Tahiti and Micronesia. It is thought that the island may have been originally settled both East and West and this is evident by looking at the physical characteristics of the people. Although Polynesian in appearance they are distinctly taller and more slender than their Western Polynesian cousins. When Thor Heyerdahl was conducting research in the 1950s he heard stories of there having been two distinct ethnic groups on the island with one displaying Caucasian characteristics such as red hair and pale skin.

Although almost 163 square kilometres in area, over 90% of the c.3800 people that call Rapa Nui home live in the few square kilometres of the main town, Hanga Roa. The island is formed of three extinct volcanos and is triangular in shape. At its highest point it is just over 500m high and the landscape undulates with grassy hills cut through with the remnants of a volcanic landscape: lava tunnels, basalt rock faces and showers of tuff (compacted volcanic ash). Most of the coastline either consists of steep sided basalt cliffs or rocky shore, the legacy of lava flows now being eroded by the pounding waves that roll in, uninterrupted over thousands of kilometres of open ocean. Only one pair of white sandy beaches exist on the North side of the island but these are certainly the epitome of the Pacific island beach idyll; gently curving coconut palms and tufts of coarse grass giving way to fine, silver sand.

It is not, however, the physical geography or remoteness that makes Rapa Nui so famous, but the unique Moai. These giant, monolithic sculptures stand guard over the island and need to been seen to be believed. At one location on the South East coast a line of fifteen Moai stand on their ceremonial platform (Ahu), gazing in towards the island. Rectangular in structure, with angular facial features, recessed eye sockets and bulging bellies they cut an imposing shadow against the sunrise. Originally, it is thought that they had oval eyes make of white coral and jet black obsidian, however only one now remains, reconstructed at Ahu Ko Te Riku. No one knows for sure why the Moai were carved or how they were moved from their nursery at Rano Raraku, however, it is thought that they were used for ancestor worship before the introduction of the birdman cult. This cult centred around an annual ceremony that saw young men of each tribe competing to return the first egg from the Sooty Tern rookery on Motu Nui. They had to descend a steep cliff before swimming the shark infested waters to the island a kilometre of so off shore. There they would wait until the first egg could be found before swimming back to the mainland to become the venerated ‘birdman’.

Modern day Rapa Nui seems to be indicative of many of the Polynesian island in its battle to retain cultural distinctness whilst balancing the comforts and trappings of modern life. Cars abound on the island although few seem to be driven outside of Hanga Roa. The islanders all work in tourist related activities either in guest houses, hotels, restaurants or tour agencies. However, there is still a strong sense of cultural identity with the local language still used in preference to Spanish. The islanders sing and dance for the tourists but you get the impression that they would do so even if they weren’t getting paid to do it. On the flip side, however, all the pitfalls of island communities abound.

After several months on the mainland it has been great to see an entirely different place. We are so far removed from South America here that you may as well be in Asia or Africa. The four days that we have spent here have been relaxing and fascinating and have given us a taste of the South Pacific. I would love to see more of the islands further West in Micronesia and Melanesia but that will have to wait for another trip. For now, we will take the memories of this unique island back to Santiago and on to Argentina. In a few days we will be heading for Mendoza to celebrate Sarah’s birthday in the vineyards of Western Argentina. We are approaching the one month countdown to returning but still have a lot to see on the final leg of our South American odyssey.

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