Laguna Chaxa lies at the end of more off-road fun, a few kilometres of track dug into the soft sand and salt of the salar. Here there are no bathing tourists, only pathways scraped in the blinding whiteness of the salt and the perfect smoothness of the water ponds in which the cordilleras mirror with such perfection that it’s hard, at times, to tell which one is the real version and which one the image.
Oh, and flamingos.
There are three species of flamingos in these lands, and all three are known to migrate. They shouldn’t be here this late in the season, with winter upon us; but a few stragglers remain, sifting through the brackish waters of the lagoons to feast on dense clouds of semi-transparent shrimps.
The scene lacks the grandeur of a BBC documentary, but what it lacks in impact it makes in its homeliness. A gaggle of pink-feathered birds is ambling about in the lagoon, much like worshippers on the parvis after Mass; some are feeding, others rest on one leg in an act of sublime geometric perfection.
A lone flamingo takes flight in a display of pure, distilled grace. A short run like a Jesus Lizard and, then, up it is, flapping majestically its wide wings before it soars higher and higher, effortlessly. As it passes above us I murmur a silent apology to the entire genus. No, these birds don’t belong to Don Johnson’s front lawn and neither to Pablo Escobar’s.
There are mountains to our east and, to quote Arcade Fire, mountains beyond those mountains. Past the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town of Toconao (claim to fame: a synthetic grass football pitch so green that it can be seen from space) ruta 23 climbs in leisurely turns before it reaches Socaire, altitude 3,600 meters. A Lays chips flag flies from a pole planted outside a convenience store with the same sense of pride and authority of a state banner outside a consulate. It’s a scene of such absurdity that only a sign warning that there won’t be any phone signal from now to Argentina causes us to stop giggling.
The road climbs up in splendid isolation. We stop, walk and sit on the central reservation. No traffic is visible from horizon to horizon. A couple of rheas, cousins of the ostrich that have decided to develop a striking resemblance to a juniper tree, idle around. Gold, white, grey and blue are the only colours.
It’s easy to wonder where everyone has gone; even easier to caress the idea of being alone, the only humans in this corner of the globe. But the truth is that we’re not alone; in fact, there’s a lot more people and they’re all on the dirt road leading to Laguna Miscanti y Miñiques.
Belo Horizonte-plated Mitsubishi SUVs, Chilean Hi-Luxes and tiny rental Peugeots (whose drivers will receive some bad news once they check them back in at Hertz in Calama) are all inching forward on a rough trail climbing up the side of a mountain at 4,000 metres. There should be only hikers and vicuñas, here, but instead it’s a maelstrom of whining engines, dust and noise. Once up, the rarefied air of the 4,000s is again perturbed by a motorcade of vehicles advancing bumper to bumper, stopping only to regurgitate a platoon of selfie-takers.
Shocked, we double-back on our initial idea of following the caravan and we ditch the car at the earliest opportunity. The air is thin and we feel like nicotine junkies after 20 years of 2-packs-a-day, but we’re effectively alone on the trails. No one, amongst the drive-through tourists, is venturing more than 30 meters away from their vehicles. Such is their dedication to the get-out-selfie-get-back-in routine that most fail to spot the fiercely wild and vulnerable vicuñas grazing nearby.
Drive-thru tourism, we call it. In town seemingly every other shop organises tours and tours will, inevitably, consist of a van driving as close as possible to every natural attraction. I doubt that these guys’ FitBits will get to the mandatory 10,000 steps on those days. Whilst being caught in the high tide of the drive-thru tourism can be annoying, the times between each arrival are blissfully quiet.
In one such occasion we climb higher and higher on ruta 27, sharing the road with a flock of llamas, two Carabineros on motorbike patrol and a small band of heroic Argentinian and Bolivian truckers. They’d braved the descent and now, laden with cars and pipes and other Chilean goods, up they go again, braving a road that gains more than 2,000 metres in altitude in less than 50 kilometres of hairpins.
The road to Argentina is a triumph of smooth tarmac and views so unreal that it feels as if God has given His toolbox to a bunch of geologists and told them “Alright fellas, do your worst”.
Volcanoes tower above the rocky plateau where Chile, Argentina and Bolivia all pile up in a jumble of borders akin to a bunch of footballers celebrating a goal. Peaks run in chains from left to right and viceversa whilst, closer to us, hills change colours with every turn: red to gold and back to ochre. Ponds rimmed by salt crystals and veined with ice run parallel to the road. There isn’t a single petrol station until some distance past the borders, but there’s half a dozen miradors.
Rock monoliths, Monjes de la Pacana, sprouting out of the sand like relics of long-gone civilisations, stumps of columns or perhaps, simply, rocks. Further down the road more vicuñas patrol the salar, vigilant and silent, keeping a close look on us until, defeated by wind and cold, we return to San Pedro.
Of all the traditions of this land, the one of erecting small monuments – half chapel, half tomb – to those involved in a traffic accident is the one I found the most unnerving. There’s something sobering in realising how many crashes had happened and nowhere this was more so than on the ruta 27 as it tumbled down the Andes and into the San Pedro altiplano. The temples went hand in hand with safety exits, long corridors of soft sand and white poles, making it quite clear that this is not a road to be taken lightly.
Every evening, once we’d finished braving hairpins or fording torrents that had washed away the bridges, we end in San Pedro’s plaza. The sun dips behind the cordillera as we sit at a table outside, with views on Licancabur at the end of the road, trying to make it normal to be drinking fruit juices out of beer glasses – no alcohol is to be drunk without eating something, as per regulation. A stream of backpackers parades in front of us; a Brazilian guy, one of those true wanderers you sometimes meet, offers to read us cards in a singsong Italian. His left leg is wrapped tightly in heavy bandages: he was burnt by lava in Bolivia, he says.
The bar has views on both the church, with its un-planked wood beams and thick adobe walls that reminded me of those of Isfahan, and the dusty ATM booth on whose window somebody wrote, in magic marker, that Carols Abreals’ credit card had been given to the carabineros, a testament of Chilean’s good faith and trust in their institutions. We drink our juice pints, feeling uncomfortably like born-again Christians that swapped beer for ice tea, while something – poetry, music – echoes from a bandstand hidden from view by some thick bushes. The trees above us would rustle in the evening breeze, people would walk by hand in hand, dogs would be scratching their backs and the sun would be going down whilst music and words filled the air. And that, we thought, was good.
Our hostal lies at a crossroad on the edge of town. Go right and it’s ruta 23, the lagunas, Socaire and, ultimately, Argentina. Go straight on ruta 27 and again it’s the Argentinian border, as well as the Bolivian one. Above everything, though, is volcano Licancabur.
It’s easy to feel a sense of recognition upon seeing the ‘Bur for the first time; after all, that’s precisely how I always drawn a volcano since I was aged 6. Almost a perfect isosceles, all it’s missing are an ominous plume of smoke, a rivulet of lava and an idling stegosaurus. Even the moon seems in awe of its geometric perfection.
South of San Pedro and its bubbling, life-giving stream, is the third largest salt flat in the world. Measuring 3000 square kilometres, 50 times the size of Manhattan, Salar de Atacama is many things: the biggest source of lithium in the world, a sanctuary for wildlife and a hostile environment for men and beasts. But, seen from above on the road leading to Bolivia, it looks like an immense white shroud abandoned on the tan earth, a modesty cover for something very old and, by now, very dead.
It’s almost a blessing that, as soon as you’re past the bubble of civilization that hangs around the few villages, phone signal and radio reception die out, the dum-dum-du-du-dum of the cumbias fizzling out to static; it’s a blessing because it gives me time to play tunes in my mind. And the music surely ain’t from down here: the thing is that the corner of my mind that isn’t paying attention to the driving is convinced that this isn’t Latin America. This is the Teneré and I’m ferrying the entire Imarhan band to the Festival au Désert and, guess what, they’re holding a jam session onboard.
I’m sure that our choice of ride has a major part to play in this daydreaming. A gargantuan chunk of red Japanese engineering, a growling diesel engine, low-range gears and a roll-bar wedged into the cab: all it’s missing is a sticker on the dashboard, above the glovebox compartment, proclaiming that the “Mullah Omar approves of this vehicle”. My inner six-year-old is ecstatic, and my 32-year-old self is also relieved of the laissez-faire attitude of the rental company towards bumps dents and scratches, which are legion.
The Sahara Blues clues become almost impossible to resist every time we take a right turn off the ruta 23: the roads almost immediately turn into gravel and the landscape slowly transitioned from trees to wispy bushes to just salt. The light is golden, the sky deep-sea-blue, we leave a trail of dust in our wake and it’s impossible not to feel a Terakaft-style riff and rhythm filling the cab of our Nissan.
Laguna Cejar is a brusque reminder that, no, we’re not in the Sahara. Three specks of water lie nestled amidst white salt and reeds, one dedicated to bathers who want to feel like Jesus walking on water, and the others to the observation of a wildlife that, evidently, has been scared away by vanloads of screaming Brazilians. It’s only bipeds around here.
Still, it’s hard not be sitting there, with Licancabur mirroring itself almost perfectly in the still water, and not losing track of time. Before you know it the sun is setting and everything looks as if, somehow, you’d slipped on Elton John’s stage sun glasses. There’s only a few bathers left and, the coast now being clear, a flamingo arrives, scampers about for a little while and then flies off again.
I’ve never understood why people like flamingos. Ugly, odd-shaped and seemingly apt only for tip-toeing on a freshly polished floor, I always thought that their environment of choice could only be Don Johnson’s Miami villa. Yet that single bird, elegantly taking off Laguna Cejar at sunset, whetted my appetite.
If only it wasn’t the wrong season for flamingo spotting.
It’s said to be the driest desert in the world outside of Antarctica. So dry that certain riverbeds haven’t seen a drop of water in more than 120,000 years, some weather stations have never recorded any rainfall and, even where they do fall, yearly precipitations would struggle to fill the shot glass in a Jägerbomb. It’s so dry that salt crystals are so ubiquitous to seem like snow.
Still, life has found a way. Microbes thrive even in the most parched valleys, reaching such level of adaptation that, when once-in-a-millennium rains hit an area of Atacama three times in short succession (don’t you love fat tails at the end of a normal distribution?) they killed countless critters. But it’s not just about invisible bugs; larger animals also abound, but we’re not there yet.
As it often happens, the beginning of the journey is intimidating. Antofagasta is a town that Prince Philip could rightly define “Ghastly”. A jumble of condos and squat homes rolled towards a sea that was in a perennial state of upheaval. Dust blew everywhere, pushed around by the wind and, along the coast, cars paraded beneath lampposts on which sat, lugubrious, enormous vultures. Everything seemed to be saying “Go away”. Which we did.
It took only a quick, breathtakingly steep, ascent for everything to change. A wide plateau beamed under the shining sun and, above, the sky was dark blue. There was no humidity in the air and it felt that we could simply stretch our hands and grab the implements, most of them alien in their use or purpose – that peppered the desert.
There was no getting around it, the plateau wasn’t a place for poetic contemplation. Whatever romantic idea of caravans of camels we had was shattered at the sight of enormous machinery that ate the ground and spat out scoria and ore and of abandoned towns – such as Pampa Union – that died the moment the mine they supplied with manpower ran dry. Everything – houses, infrastructure, trucks – was rugged, utilitarian; at the wheel of a massive Nissan pick-up truck, 5 meters of metal and growling 2.3 litre Diesel engine with low-range gears, we felt as if we fitted right in.
Past the oasis town of Calama the desert dropped its Nine Inch Nails side and quickly wore a more flamboyant, prog-rock robe. A field of wind turbines filled the plain, their long blades turning silently in unison, in a scene that missed only a young David Gilmour playing “Us and them”. The radio burps only static and, quickly, the roads rises and dives into a background of outlandish rock formations, red outcrops and white fields of salt. The year is now 2213 and the planet is Mars. A sunset that you never thought could be seen in this planet paints the entire world crimson, purple and black.
There’s a worm-hole between the mirador Piedra de Coyote and the pueblo of San Pedro de Atacama, a passage through space and time from a Kim Stanley Robinson future to a Sergio Leone past. Adobe homes. Stray dogs. Dusty roads so rutted that cars’ exhausts drop off and doors go hara-kiri if only you attempt at driving faster than 5-an-hour. Somewhere amongst all the hippies and the indíos there must be Clint Eastwood, decked with poncho, hat and cigar, ready to mutter that his mule doesn’t like it when people laugh.
Much in the same way that those who learn a language end up with a much deeper knowledge and command of its grammar than the natives, it’s also true that foreigners can, if they live someplace long enough, get to know that country’s history better than the locals. In this sense it’s not that hard to believe that an Australian might be the author of one of the best books in Sicily, mafia and power that I’ve ever read. Sure, it helps if that Aussie is Peter Robb.
The mafia is a political problem, used to say a professor at uni. Eliminate the protection, the connivance, the quid pro quo that link organised crime and power and the mafia will disappear was his theory, and I subscribe to that. It’s impossible to talk about one without mentioning the other, and it’s impossible to talk about Sicily – or Italy in the 1980s and 1990s – without mentioning both. Robb didn’t shy away from either and what resulted was a compelling, courageous book. Perhaps, and I’m still surprised to say this, better than his “A Death in Brazil” that I hold in such high regard.
Those who love Robb’s photographic descriptions will find them there, as strong and vivid as ever. The Palermo markets. A cohort of transexuals. A visit to Leonardo Sciascia’s hometown of Racalmuto at nightfall. And more. There are also mouth-watering forays into cuisine and, as it’s his custom, in that grey area where art meets sex, religion and humanity’s many weaknesses. But the centrepiece of this book is, as it’s inevitable, the murderous tango between Cosa Nostra and the Democrazia Cristiana, DC for short.
I sometimes wonder why those American TV shows on intrigue and mystery are such a hit over in Italy. Compared to what went down in the 1980s and 1990s – the ascent of the Corleonesi, the famous kiss between Riina and il divo Giulio, the season of terror – “House of Cards” is as dumb as any of Donald Trump’s unscripted speeches. It’s a murky, convoluted, world made of things hinted, half said, half glimpsed. And dead bodies. More than 10,000, somebody calculated.
Making sense of it is hard: most, in Italy, haven’t even tried to. There are a lot of books on the subject: some are good, a fair few are rubbish, but most don’t venture in the darkest of the dark chambers of this palace, the one where Cosa Nostra and the DC (the party, let us not forget, that governed the country for half a century) shook hands, hugged and kissed. “Midnight in Sicily” does precisely that, in a style that is neither judgmental nor educational. As for his Brazilian chronicle Robb tells a story with his brains but, chiefly, with his heart. He chooses sides, he honours those that in his view are worthy of accolades and lambasts those who don’t. But, more importantly, he never stops professing his love for a land that many stigmatise, some make fun of but few really want to help.
I lied. I said that the last post was going to be the final one from Rapa Nui, but here’s another. The fact is that to go to Rapa Nui and not to be mesmerised by its skies is 100% proof that one has, to quote from former Italy goalkeeper Gigi Buffon, “A dustbin in lieu of the heart”.
Storm coming down.
From Orongo, looking east. 3,500 km in that direction is Chile. A bit closer for some rain. Storm Coming Down, to quote from the great Norse band The Devil and the Almighty Blues.
William Ashcroft endorses this view.
A late Victorian artist, William Ashcroft, painted his name into history with a series of sketches of Chelsea at sunset, the skies unusually glowing red thanks to the ashes blown worldwide by Krakatoa volcano in 1883. I somehow suspect that he’d have loved this view.
This is what Rapa Nui sunrises look like when looking in the opposite direction of the one where the main action is. It was in those moment that I caught myself thinking at the Akivi Seven, at the sunrises they must’ve witnessed in their voyage into the unknown.
Aged 5 I learned, from a nursery rhyme, that crabs walk sideways. 27 years later I found myself copying them – and, let me tell you, it wasn’t easy – on a rocky path running along the north coast of Rapa Nui. I did it because this was the view just off to our right.
One last sunset.
This was it. A Mahina beer, some music in the background, a light breeze and the end of the last day.
There’s only a beach on Easter Island: as it’s to be expected, it comes with a bit of tourist infrastructure. But stop that image that’s forming in your mind, the one with all-inclusive resorts and a W Hotel with unz-unz-unz music blaring out of the lobby. Ditch the banana boat too. What is there are a couple of shacks with potato sacks as sun screens, Mahina beer by the bottle and heavenly pescado del dia cooked in coconut milk. Coffee is available too, but only mocaccino flavoured Nespresso. “No llevaran en el avión” is the smiling answer when you enquire about a normal flavour pod. Still, there’s instant coffee to be had while chickens and cats stomp around in a strange feathered-feline alliance. And Rapa Nui’s answer to Jack Johnson schmoozes out of the speakers. Intermittently, Anakena beach is lashed by rain showers that chase the few sun-bathers away.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
Sunsets are a heart-warming spectacle everywhere on the island, but Ahu Tahai is the hotspot. A selected few – even a dozen makes a crowd here – come to witness the event, including two Rapa Nui chatting in their aboriginal language and another couple playing music. Not even two stray dogs having a very public romp can break the idyll. But what about sunrises, we wonder?
We drive through the night on the coastal road, swerving to avoid pothole and the occasional sleepless equine. A soft mist hugs the low bushes, a salty mist that can only be made of sea spray.
Photos taken – obviously – during the day, but you get idea. Just think it’s dark and you have a 10-watt torch in lieu of headlamps
I’ll cut to the chase. Sunrise at Tongariki is a failure. Besides Poiké mountain lying unhelpfully between Tongariki and the sun, the place is swarmed by noisy campers who never got the “silent contemplation of nature’s beauty” memo. Yet what happened before will forever remain in our hearts and there only because, unfortunately, I’m too ignorant to photograph it properly.
It was still dark when we parked some way off the entrance to the moai. There’s only one light around us, oozing from the gatekeeper’s lodge. A beacon flashes intermittently from a small lighthouse; besides that, it’s dark. Yet we can see where we’re going.
The Milky Way is above us, arching from horizon to horizon. The sky is dotted with stars, twinkling planets and slow-moving satellites; then there’s that massive white band, a streak of iridescent white caviar stacked against that absolutely dark dinner plate that is the sky. I’ve never seen such a spectacle. Standing against the spare wheel of our washing machine on wheels I had my own Pale Blue Dot moment. I’m not looking back in but, even from the other way round, I can just begin to understand the enormity of what’s out there. Cast against such a backdrop everything I know and see – the low rock wall, the silhouettes of the moai, the crashing waves – is irrelevant like a bee’s fart in a hurricane. It all matters shit and it’s such as refreshing thought: you, me, Trump, China, the Mueller report… it all equates to precisely the square root of diddly squat. Ah, it’s so nice.
We give up on Tongariki and drive on in the aurora. Te Pito Kura – once the tallest moai – appears like an unhoped-for saviour. We’re alone but for a few horses we can hear huffing nearby. The sun paints sky and clouds red before the rotating horizon reveals it, us and a swaying palm as the only witnesses. The wind smells of yellow-flowered bushes whose name I don’t know, and of eucalyptus. Today we will be leaving and there’s regret at that notion, but there’s also undeniable satisfaction. Satisfaction for having made it here and for the big trunk of experiences and memories we’ll be bringing back home. Thank you Te Pito o Te Henua, the Navel of the World.
The north coast is the remote corner of an island that’s already way out of the way. The further away from Hanga Roa the least passable the road gets, until it becomes little more than a rock-strewn goat path patrolled by munching horses lost in thought.
Waves and the rustling of leaves are the sole soundtrack of our trek. There’s another couple of hikers out, and we play a silent relay where no one reaches the other. We walk speaking quietly, completely forgetful of our own worries from out there. This island has the same effect of drinking from the river Lethe of the ancient Greeks.
Only a wooden sign and a low stone wall mark the village of Te Peu. A rock-strewn meadow where the flotsam of human activity is still very much visible: the foundations of a long house, stones aligned in neat lines, drill-holes filled with rainwater; a manavai mulch garden; the ruins of an ahu platform.
Moai lie face-down in the grass. A head, decapitated in the process, has been rolled up and now eyes the back of the platform on which it once stood, hollow eyes still obstinately refusing to even cast a sideway glance at the sea.
It’s funny how moai, this island’s alleged party-piece, are the last hook in the longline of attraction that has fished me out of the sea and has landed me here, unwilling to leave. They’re Rapa Nui’s biggest attraction yet I think I’d still love this place even without them. Still, they puzzle me and if there’s a place where to sit down and ask oneself why, then Te Peu it is. Not really to ask why they were built – why did we erect the Parthenon, the Pantheon, Taj Mahal, Süleymaniye Mosque? – but why they were torn down. Uzbeks toppled Lenin from Tashkent’s main square for a reason; Iraqis did the same with Saddam’s statues: their time was up. Was it the same for Rapa Nui? I look around for answers but there’s only a cow beside us and she’s sworn to bovine secrecy.
Up until the 1960s no moai stood on the island; they all lied face down in the grass. Now a handful of sites have their moai back up, a move that would perhaps cause horror amongst archaeologists – who, now, thinks that painting Knossos’ palace was a good idea? – but that, personally, I’ve no problems with.
Akivi is the closest such place to Te Peu and, perhaps, the most peculiar of all. Seven moai stand to attention in a neat row between a thicket of eucalyptus and a ploughed field, the lawn on which they stand descending gently towards the blue sea. The Akivi seven are the only ones facing that direction.
Legend has it that these are the seven original explorers, the seven men that king Hotu Matu’a sent on the voyage of exploration that culminated in the discovery of Rapa Nui. As we amble about the place I try to conceive a journey of thousands of kilometres into the unknown, the excitement of discovery, the return and then doing it all again. In an age with no compass, no maps, no GPS. In a sea with no natural features but the stars at night and the sun. Finding an island a tenth of the size of London in a stretch of ocean vaster than Latin America. These guys have all the rights to be as smug and proud as the Mercury astros in that famous picture. Funnily enough, those Mercury astronauts were seven too.
The Akivi seven are all different. Some are tall and slender; others are short and bulkier, though all seem to be caressing a beer gut with more than a hint of satisfaction. One of them has a head so much bigger than the rest of his body that I’m sure he inspired Peter Adolph, Subbuteo’s original designer.
The moai are depiction of real people, I tell myself as we leave Akivi. They aren’t idealised representations such as those Roman generals that all had a six pack, plump Crassus included. Tongariki, where fifteen of them (moai, not Roman generals) stand, backs to the sea, reinforces that idea.
You can see Tongariki from far away; precisely from the slopes of Rano Raraku. The old quarry, littered as it is with broken, half-done or complete moai is a perfect view point and a puzzling experience at the same time. Imagine you’re entering a car assembly line, expecting people to be working, robots to be buzzing, the noise and smell of production. But there’s no one. The assembly line is empty: half-finished vehicles lie abandoned, tools and equipment left where the workers – on strike, perhaps – have dropped them. This is what it felt to enter Rano Raraku. Moais ready for shipment stood at odd angles; other lied on their backs, evidently broken in transport. Some still were embedded in the mother rock, signs of chisels all around them in the soft tuff. What happened? Did the work crews really down tools, sung a Rapa Nui version of Inti Illimani’s “El pueblo unido jamás vencido” and left the bosses scratching their heads? As a cherry on this cake of oddity a lady walked a pig on a leash.
Click on any of the photos above to start the slideshow.
I got side-tracked. I was planning to talk about Tongariki. For a few, blissful minutes on an overcast afternoon, we are alone there with the two rangers. The Fifteen sit in the shadow, the kr-umph of waves chatting amicably behind them. We sit in front of them thinking of how lucky we are in being there. Spiritual people might be thanking some higher being.
Click on any of the photos above to start the slideshow.
I rummage in my backpack and fish out a photocopied number of Rapa Nui Journal. In it is the translation of the poem He Moai by David Menezes Salvo, winner of the second place of a 1991 poetry contest.
Moai, when will you tell us the truth?
How many stories do you have to tell us?
Moai, where are you looking at?
The Tongariki Fifteen remain silent. Two more tourists arrive. From far away the wind carries the barks of a dog.
Some trips are born in the heat of the moment. Others come from way back, originating from yellowing books, B&W films or stories told by elder relatives a lifetime ago. This is one of them. But yet again, it shouldn’t be a surprise: I doubt that many people arrive at Rapa Nui by accident. You don’t fly here on a whim.
On paper there are enough reasons to be disappointed with this island. It’s not a beach destination: in fact, there’s only one stretch of sand in the whole place. There’s also a distinct lack of other tropical must-haves: a coral reef, blue lagoon or cinematographic views that would command a place on the cover of Condé Nast magazine. On top of that there’s only one luxury hotel, itself at the centre of an ugly spat – but more on that later.
Yet, despite all this, many come, as I did; many also long to return, as I do. We stayed as long as we could and it wasn’t enough. I wished it was for longer. I wish I was still there.
Why is that? What makes this place so captivating that so many, from King Hotu Matu’a to the French man who owns our hostal, arrive and don’t ever leave?
The best explanation I’ve been able to give is that Rapa Nui has something. There’s something here, however resembling of Kurt Russell’s The Thing this phrase sounds. A colleague at work defined it nicely: it’s an answer. An answer to a question you haven’t yet figured out how to pose.
You’ve arrived at the end of the road and it really feels that. According to some theories on human migrations Rapa Nui was one of the last outposts where Homo Sapiens arrived, everything else having already been conquered by our ancestors. Every now and then this idea hits you and when it doesn’t the distances do: it’s 2,500 km to the next inhabited island (Pitcairn, population 50); a further 1,000 for Chile. All there’s around is sea, sea so open and multi-coloured that it’s easy to think to be on an ocean-going vessel.
And yet you aren’t. This is an island, an island with a quaint little town called Hanga Roa: bumpy roads and trees, churches and tourist shops, flowers and small supermarkets with notices for the arrival of fresh milk and salads kept in refrigerators.
Liking Hanga Roa comes surprisingly easy; getting in tune with its rhythm requires even less effort. Give it a day and you’ll find yourself driving slowly into town, windows down, head bobbing to the reggae tunes aired by Radio Rapa Nui. Unconsciously you’ll copy the attire of those you’re meeting on the street: shoes splattered with the red mud of this island. Utilitarian trousers. A well-washed T-shirt. Let your hair be coiffured by the wind, get suntanned, don’t shave. Just listen to the music and wonder what all the tropical places listened to before Marley. A crooner from the 1950s come on. Perhaps that.
Not everything is hakuna matata here. Rapa Nui’s Chilean government is enlightened enough in letting a Parliament of sorts exist on a clearing not far from City Hall, a Parliament proclaiming the right to self-determination. I’ve a feeling that the French would be a lot less permissive in Polynesia. Yet the Carabineros were a lot less laissez faire in the way they cleared the Eco Village occupation a few years ago.
There’s a road, Apina I believe, running between the two small ports of Hanga Roa. Along it are the Navy barracks, a number of commercial exercises – a bank, a couple of restaurants – and, then, a fenced building with a démodé sci-fi look, something out of Space 1999. It’s the luxury hotel I mentioned earlier. The views there would be splendid if only one was willing to ignore the dark banners fluttering from poles and the many sheets of corrugated metal. Whoever managed to turn modern minimalism in Genghis-Khan-meets-Mad-Max is a visual genius.
It doesn’t take much to figure out the reasons for such a powerful protest. The signs say it all: a case of alleged land-grab perpetrated with the connivance of the government. The squatting occupation that ensued was ended with excessive vigour from the Carabineros, who used pellet guns and rubber bullets to evict the protesters, wounding many.
Better to turn to the sea. Here the Pacific’s long waves are crashing on the rocks under the stoic eyes of a horse whilst two dogs decide to follow us. We walk through the small port where a class of teenagers is learning how to paddle canoes under the eyes of teachers and of the local fishing community. The colours are bright to a level never seen in London.
If there was a way to condense Rapa Nui’s irresistible pull then the trail leading to the top of Rano Kau’s caldera would be it. It sneaks through tropical gardens, palms are bordered by white rocks, before climbing uphill through a lush scenery of thick bushes yellow with flowers visited by slender, industrious bees. We sweat professionally, the sun and red earth bringing back echoes of Dee Dee Bridgewater’s eponymous song. A stop for water is an occasion to look down on Hanga Roa and the north coast, with the four little freighters moored offshore. A gentle breeze is enough to wash the sweat away.
Woods, here as elsewhere in the island, are mostly made of eucalyptus. Botanical purists might gasp in horror at the choice but there, under their shadow, smelling their delicate fragrance, it was pure bliss. A little further uphill and we’re on the rim of the caldera, looking down to a perfect circle of swamps and a team of three stray dogs who have taken it upon themselves to escort us to Orongo.
We arrive at Orongo, the village whence the yearly Tangata Manu challenge took place, and the weather had changed again. Gone are the Bermuda vibes, wiped away by a cold wind and clouds that are more reminiscent of the Isle of Skye. A few steps away from us the coast falls precipitously towards a graphite sea; surf breaks on Motu Nui islet where the young clan champions had to go to fetch the eggs of the first migratory manutaras.
Today no one braves the rocks and waves to capture an egg. We walk sombrely around the village while, above us, three birds are playing in the riot of thermals that must be swirling, unseen, above our heads. A Kyuss song, evidently written for places and moments like this, bubbles to my mind.
I’m standing alone on the cliffs of the world No one ever tends to me Sitting alone, covered in rays Some things are so my mind can breath
Back in my university days there was a book that passed hands with the same speed as No-Global leaflets, only with more enthusiastic reviews. It was Collapse, by American geographer and historian Jared Diamond, author of that Guns, Germs and Steel that our faculty’s dean said we all had to read if we wanted any hope of understanding the world.
Guns, Germs and Steel grappled with the age-old question of why certain nations achieve prominence on the world’s stage; Collapse, instead, tried to explain why others didn’t, finishing discarded in the great dustbin of history. Chief amongst the many soundbites that peppered the book was the notion of “ecocide”. Ecological Suicide, in Diamond’s view, was the fact of destroying one’s habitat through carelessness or sheer mismanagement with results that were more or less always catastrophic for the society in question. One such community, he maintained, was Easter Island’s. By cutting all the trees, the Rapa Nui effectively ended their megalithic civilisation and descended in a hellish situation of starvation, famine, warfare and cannibalism.
Or did they?
To quote freely from Mark Twain’s response to his own obituary, today we think that news of Rapa Nui’s descent into cannibalism are exaggerated. They rely on assumptions that are being challenged by modern researchers drawing from the notes of those who first visited the island as well as from science. This post wants to be a summary of the state of the art of research, a brief foray into academia: don’t worry, travelogue and nonsense will return soon.
A peaceful society.
Central to the concept of ecocide is war. Once resources grew scarce, Rapa Nui clans turned one against each other in a bloody civil war that left only one “long ear” alive. This is dramatically in contrast with the diaries of the three expeditions that, first, brought Europeans in contact with the island.
When he arrived on Easter Day 1722, Dutch explored Jacob Roggeveen made no mention of weapons. Forty-eight years later in 1770, Don Felipe González claimed the island for Spain (who subsequently forgot they had it, much like – true story – Silvio Berlusconi forgot to have bought a yacht in the Bahamas); a bit of a buddying anthropologist, González’s chief pilot Don Francisco Antonio de Aguera y Infanzon – who, for brevity, I shall call Don Pancho – gave a bow, arrow, knife and cutlass to a Rapa Nui that had swam to his ship. The Rapa Nui, who bore a scar that Don Pancho thought was the result of a war wound, turned to be comically unaware of the purpose of these weapons: he wore the bow on his head and neck as a jewel and held the cutting tools by their blades and not, as it’d be normal, by the handle.
Rapa Nui society was seemingly made of peaceful people who were wholeheartedly enthusiastic of their unexpected visitors. For instance, flint blades, until considered as weapons, have been found by Hawaii’s Bishop Museum researchers to be used to cut fibrous plants such as potatoes and taro. The only problem mentioned by the first visitors was Rapa Nui’s nonchalant attitude to liberating their property: a Dutch sailor in Roggeveen’s landing party shot a few locals that seemed keen on nicking his arquebus. Captain Cook, who visited in 1774, remarked sadly that, although “friendly and hospitable”, people were also “addicted to pilfering”. Hats in particular seemed all the rage and disappeared quicker than cheap TVs on a Black Friday sale.
Abundance of food.
All three explorers left descriptions of the Rapa Nui that, it can be argued, don’t quite fit with the ideal type of a starving person. “Tall, well-built and proportioned in their limbs” was Don Pancho’s one-liner. Cook wrote in his journal that they had “Not disagreeable countenances” which is as passionate as upper-class Brits will ever get, even today. Roggeveen must’ve had a knack for dentistry for he remarked that the Rapa Nui had “pearly white teeth so strong that could crack nuts”.
It doesn’t end there. The Dutch remarked that agriculture was widely practiced with bananas, yam and potatoes, whilst chickens roamed around. Another Spaniard in Don Felipe’s crew, Don Juan Hervé, walked the length of the island and saw plenty of crops which his crew took extra care not to ruin. Modern-day analysis of Rapa Nui skeletal remains highlighted a fairly rich and diverse diet where seafood was surprisingly present, covering 35% of their diet and up to 50% of their protein intake. But wasn’t deforestation meant to be causing erosion and depletion of the topsoil? How did the Rapa Nui manage not to starve?
The answer lies in the concept of “lithic enhancement”. Much unlike our fields where every pebble and stone has been eliminated, Rapa Nui’s are littered with black volcanic rocks. The rocks were used to replenish those mineral nutrients, such as nitrogen, that were depleted by successive crops, thus keeping yields high. Additionally, every village had one or more manavai or “mulch gardens”, a ring of rocks surrounding and protecting crops from wind and excessive sun whilst at the same time retaining moisture. As a result, estimates now put the maximum potential population of the island between 3 and 29 thousand souls, with 17,500 as being the most likely option.
Who cut all the trees then?
It’s undeniable that deforestation took place and, as a result, life changed on Rapa Nui. It’s also undeniable that deforestation happened relatively quickly, in a matter of a few centuries from the arrival of king Hotu Matu’a from the Marquesas. Yet, it mightn’t have been all down to humans.
According to Oregon University archaeologist Terry Hunt, Hotu Matu’a’s fleet carried some stowaways under the form of rats. As the men and women arrived at Anakena beach so did the pests which found a virgin environment without so much as a predator. It must’ve been rat heaven and the results did not wait to arrive: estimates put the peak mice population to be numbering in the low millions, all gorging themselves on the rich forest around them. Palm nuts showing rat gnaws have been found all throughout the island, showing that humans had a four-legged helper in the destruction of the primeval tree cover.
And what about the moai?
Today we see most moai standing on top of their ahu platform. However, until the 1960s all of them had been knocked down, many in bits. The vulgata tells stories of tit-for-tat vandalism in the framework of a civil war that is very hard to imagine (Bishop Museum’s researchers found that only 2% of skeletons showed signs of a violent death). Additionally, it goes against the observations of our explorers.
Roggeveen saw the moai all standing on their ahu and witnessed clear signs of devotion from the islanders. He mentions how people lit fires in front of the statues and venerated the megaliths by crouching before them and by moving hands up and down in adoration. Don Pancho agrees in defining the moai as objects of worship.
Things were evolving when Cook passed, four years after the Spaniards. On the east side of the island he saw three ahu which, originally, hosted 4 moai each. Two ahu had no moai standing and, as for the last one, one moai had already been toppled. He also mentioned that, based on his experience, the statues weren’t object of devotion “however it might’ve been in the days of the Dutch”. He rather thought that the moai were being used as burying places as he saw a skeleton lying beneath one.
It’s anyone’s guess why the Rapa Nui decided to topple their statues. It was done with a certain degree of care, for most have been put face down and most of their faces – long noses included – haven’t been damaged. But what led them to do this? I like to think that the moai had been built for a purpose or that they were expression of a belief and that, when the Europeans arrived, either that purpose had been accomplished or the belief had been proved fundamentally wrong. Imagine if we somehow had irrefutable proof of the existence of God, but also that he’s neither Allah or Jehovah: would we still need mosques, churches or synagogues?
The real catastrophe.
All evidence, both historic and scientific, seem to point towards an island that had changed drastically but whose civilisation managed to evolve and to keep its vitality by the time of European contact. What happened after the first, relatively benign visits was, however, much worse.
Ships began kidnapping Rapa Nui, culminating in the devastating 1862 Peruvian slaving raid where approximately 2,500 islanders were captured and led to the continent where they succumbed to forced labour and illnesses. The entire clan leadership was wiped out; then a missionary descended on the few, wretched, survivors. Eugène Eyraud, a French priest, came to Rapa Nui to carry out the proselytism that many of his kind were already doing throughout the Pacific. In doing so he helped wiping out a culture that existed for centuries. A sheep and cattle station was established soon afterwards, being discontinued only in the 1950s.
Can Rapa Nui still teach us a lesson?
Absolutely yes. Whilst we can’t fully buy the ecocide narrative, it’d be wrong not to take heed from Rapa Nui’s deforestation. Without trees the islanders couldn’t manufacture ropes or use wood and, therefore, had to give up on their megalithic industry almost overnight, as the Rano Raraku quarry seems to show.
Our civilisation is in the same situation with many materials that are rare or in short supply. I’m talking about yttrium, coltan, lithium and many others: without them we don’t have LEDs, mobile phones or Toyota Priuses and, right now, it seems to me that there isn’t a lot of care on how we manage this finite stock of resources.
Another important lesson is our approach to aboriginal – or uncontacted – civilisations but, alas, I’m afraid that we’ve well and truly missed that train now.
1. João Vicente Ganzarolli de Oliveira, Culture and Isolation in Easter Island, in Rapa Nui Journal Vol. II N. 4, December 1997
2. Whitney Dangerfield, The Mystery of Easter Island, in The Smithsonian 31/03/2007
3. Jago Cooper, Easter Island: Mysteries of a Lost World, BBC4
4. L. Jarman, T. Larsen, T. Hunt et al, Diet of the Prehistoric Population of Rapa Nui Shows Environmental Adaptation and Resilience in American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 2017; 164 343-361
5. Cedric O. Puleston et al, Rain, Sun, Soil and Sweat: A Consideration of Population Limits on Rapa Nui Before European Contact, in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, July 2017, vol. 5, article 69
6. Ship Log of 1770 voyage of Captain Don Felipe González, retrieved easterisland.travel
7. Ship Log of 1774 voyage of Captain James Cook, retrieved easterisland.travel
8. Herbert von Saher, Some Details of the Journal of Jacob Roggeveen, in Rapa Nui Journal Vol IV N. 3, Fall 1990
9. Zuzanna Jakubowska-Vorbrich, Chilean Report on Easter Island, 1870: From Science to Politics and Prejudice, Institute of Iberian and Ibero-American Studies, University of Warsaw, 2018
10. Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Penguin, 2011
The sun is setting on a scene I’ve waited 26 years to see. There’s people around me; for some, this is one of many such sunsets; for others it’s as new as it is for me. But I doubt that many more are feeling that same sense of satisfaction, of wholeness, of meeting your childhood hero and discovering that he’s every bit as great as you thought he’d be.
The sun sets to a remote West where it’s already tomorrow. The sun sets, the wind picks up and I’m reminded of a song from The War on Drugs.
And I’m thinking of a place
And it feels so very real