Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Dawn Over Rapa Nui

16 May 2016 

We’re in Lima, Peru, at the moment. We needed warm weather as autumn (and soon winter) engulf the southern cone of South America. We’ll spend some time enjoying Lima again before heading somewhere warmer, though we don’t know where we’re going next. 

I wanted to finish our adventures on Easter Island. And I have to say that Richard and I are agreed, one week turned out to be not enough time there. We should have planned for a longer visit, and neither one of us wanted to leave. But we had flights and hotels booked, and it would have been too much trouble to make all the revisions. Plus some were the no-cancellation kinds of reservations. 
So, moving on.

I had a bottle of this delightful Rapa Nui water – here’s the story from the label: 

“Queen Vaiteka pont Icka received an inheritance in a dream, the words of her grandfather who tells her in the rain. She is one of the last descendants from the direct lineage of King Hotu Matua. So this queen runs through the field. It comes full of joy with delicacy and respect to a cave that is song for her life. Vaieka cave. Where she cries of excitement and prepares their future.

 “Vaiteka cave. It is happiness, is peace, is the pure and clear water. It is the source of life, magic, wisdom and purity of a people. The people of hiva.” 

 Don’t you love it? Magic water! Plus chocolate moai!!!! How wonderful but funny is that?!?!

The map here shows our second set of adventures, marked with the yellow stars.
(The red stars were our first tour around the island.) And the aqua star, labelled “S,” is for the sunrise adventure.

We rented a car
so we could visit a few other places around the island. Our first stop was at the Hanga Roa scenic overlook, with a view across the airport and the town of Hanga Roa beyond, and then the ocean beyond that. (Right by the airport.) And of course we had an informative sign at the “mirador” (Spanish for lookout or overlook): 

“From here, you can watch most of the Rapa Nui National Park that concentrates the biggest cultural and natural attractions of the island, and which is also UNESCO’s Historical Monument and World Heritage Site.“Rapa Nui National Part provides the unparalleled testimony of a cultural phenomenon unique in the world. Settled in this island by the tenth century CE, a society of Polynesian origin created amazing architectural and sculptural forms gifted with great strength, imagination, and originality apart from any external influence. “Until the sixteenth century, they built dozens of sanctuaries called “ahu,” and sculpted around one thousand “moai,” gigantic torsos made of volcanic material that gives rise to an unmatched cultural landscape fascinating the whole world. This is why UNESCO concluded that this park is a “unique testimony of a civilization.” “Beyond these tangible manifestations, the Rapa Nui National Park set out a universal statement about man’s capacity of adaptation and survival within adverse conditions.

“We recommend you to become familiar with Rapa Nui’s history and cultural heritage, and be
always accompanied by a local Tourism Guide to make the most of your visit.”

(I love the translations of the Spanish. The language is so much more descriptive and flowery that most English writing, with more superlatives. There’s just so much
more flair to the explanations!)

We continued on the road to Rano Kau, the largest caldera or crater on the island. (Yellow star #1.)
As I described previously, the island of Rapa Nui was created when volcanoes grew up out of the ocean, erupting and spreading lava. At first there were two islands, but then a third volcano came up, erupted, and joined the two smaller island into the larger island we know today.

And yes, Rano is the same word as
in Rano Raraku, the quarry where the moai were sculpted. Turns out Rano means “crater” or “caldera” in Rapa Nui – the people didn’t experience the volcanoes, so there isn’t a word for that in the language. They just had a word for the craters left behind after the most recent volcanic eruptions some 30,000 to 3 million years ago. (Which is how volcanologists know that these are truly extinct.)

Rano Kau is quite interesting. It’s a
HUGE crater, and rain water has accumulated in the caldera, creating a
micro-environment. The signs call it the “last haven for biodiversity in Rapa Nui.” It really is fascinating, seeing swampland in the middle of a volcanic crater! This is also one of the only freshwater environments we saw, since much of the island is now mostly for grazing or farming.  
“The microclimate found in Rano Kau crater creates favorable humidity and light conditions, also providing shelter to the plants from wind and salinity of the sea.

“In addition, it
provides a safe place against human, cattle, and fire action.

“Its interior keeps a rich flower diversity that is unique in
the island, since several native and endemic species grow here naturally.

“This is why we can say that the crater is like a gigantic manavai
or wild greenhouse that currently plays a major role in preservation of Rapa Nui’s native flora.”

Rano Kau is at the southwest corner of the
island, facing into the prevailing winds. So the southwest section of the crater is subject to erosion from the winds, rain, and possibly really high seas during major storms. Even though this crater seems to have harder rock (it looked like basalt, rather that tufa), it’s still eroding at that SW end.
We drove on to the end of the road at the old village of Orongo. (Yellow star #2.) And this is one of the stranger, but still fascinating, aspects of Rapa Nui culture.

Okay, archaeologists and anthropologists have pretty much
agreed that ancestor worship was a big part of life on Rapa Nui. The megalithic statues, the moai, are considered to be representations of either chiefs or illustrious ancestors. They may even have been considered to have been statues of deified ancestors. We really aren’t sure.

By the sixteenth century, island society was making fewer moai and replacing the physical expression of ancestor worship
with the cult of worshipping the Make’Make god, who was related to fertility, spring, and migratory seabirds.

Orongo was basically a
ceremonial village on the edge of the Rano Kau crater, used a few weeks each year, only at the beginning of spring. There are the remains of 54 stone houses, many of which originally had petroglyphs (stone carvings) and frescoes of birds. (Sadly, many of the frescoes were removed by European explorers, and are now either in private art collections or in museums.)

The ritual held at Orongo each spring was called the “tangata-manu.” Chiefs or their representatives, each from
different tribes on the island, competed to obtain the first egg of the sooty tern. This seabird arrived each spring and nested on a small island off the coast near Orongo. During the competition, the participants would climb down the cliff and swim to Motu Nui, the island where the sooty terns’ nests were found. The competitors would stay on Motu Nui for days, even weeks, waiting for the seabirds to arrive and begin laying eggs. The first competitor to find an egg and swim back to Rapu Nui successfully was endowed as “tangata-manu” or birdman (although this had to be a chief; if a representative obtained the first egg, the honor of “tangata-manu” still went to the chief he represented.)

This was a fairly dangerous competition, with occasional drownings, or participants being attacked by sharks.

The winner, the “tangata-manu,” was considered sacred for one year, and lived in ceremonial reclusion until the following spring. The last competition took place around 1867.

There was only one moai found at Orongo, unique because it was carved of basalt and had many petroglyphs carved on its back. This moai was removed by the British in 1868 and was taken to England, where it was presented to Queen Victoria.

This moai has been named “Hoahakananai’a” by the Rapa Nui; the name means “stolen friend.” It is housed at the British Museum in London and, like the Elgin marbles, is considered British property. The Rapa Nui have petitioned the museum for the return of this stolen moai, but, well, also like the Elgin marbles, the statue hasn’t been returned. Nor Rapa Nui ownership even acknowledged. The British tend to be like that, refusing to return items they stole from other cultures.

Onward to Anakena Beach again, yellow star #3. We relaxed, had lunch, played on the beach. The water was too cold for swimming by our standards, although other people seemed to think the temperature was just fine. (Even though oral history says that this sole sandy beach on the island is the landing place of Hotu Matu’a, the first king, the oldest settlement excavated thus far is near the airport. So the oral tradition doesn’t mesh with archaeological evidence.)

Then on our drive back to Hanga Roa, we stopped at Ahu a Kivi, sometimes written Ahu Akivi (yellow star #4). This is an ahu, or platform, with seven moai looking out at the ocean. This is one of the very few ahu where the moai do not look inland, nor is the ahu located close to the coast. These moai were found at this location, obviously face down in a direction indicating they looked toward the sea. No one is sure why the look in the opposite direction from most of the other moai on the island. They just do.

Ahu a Kivi is near the center of the island, an area that has been reforested. When the first people arrived, the island was covered with vegetation. The only animals on the island were birds and insects. Seafood was plentiful, and as the communities developed and grew, dietary restrictions were established. The kings and leaders were the only ones allowed to eat fish such as tuna, because this was more difficult to catch. Any tuna caught belonged to the king or chief of the village. Common people were allowed to eat seafood that could be caught without fishing, such as shellfish living on or near the shore.

Trees and bushes were cut down – scientists believe they may have been used for moving the moai, or to build boats, for firewood, or to create farmland. There is also speculation whether the humans were responsible for the eventual lack of trees, or the birds living on the island, or the rats that came on the boats with the humans. Seeds were eaten, new trees didn’t grow, and as the population of humans grew the living conditions became more and more difficult. There was competition for the decreasing resources. The destruction of the ecosystem was parallel to the growth and development of the ancient culture.

Oral history and archaeological evidence speak of major crises and internal wars during the later periods on Rapa Nui. The several centuries before contact with Europeans were characterized by overuse of resources and the environment, abandonment of community work (such as building ahus and creating moai), and the invention of a new cult, the birdmen. Additionally, the internal wars became class wars, with the common people rising up and overthrowing the kings and chiefs; this is when some of the ahus were destroyed and the moai knocked down.

And of course, by the time Europeans started arrived, the culture was in a disarray and had no defenses against the guns carried by the explorers. Which is part of the reason why the Europeans so easily raided the island over the next century or two, stealing treasures as well as kidnapping people for the slave trade.

Such a sad history.

The Rapa Nui people have adapted to the continuing changes, as have their ancestors. Tourism may be the largest industry on the island. I’m not sure how the island became Chilean, other than Chile annexing Rapa Nui and claiming it as part of their country. Over the years, the Chilean government has become more helpful, contributing a greater portion of revenues to the island. (It seemed to us as if the Rapa Nui people are treated better than the Mapuche on the mainland, but I’m not sure.)

Anyway, one of the big tourist things is to go to Ahu Tongariki for sunrise. This ahu faces east, so at certain times of the year the sunrise is directly behind the moai. This is late autumn, though, so the sun rises a bit north of the ahu. But we decided this is one of the things we should do, see Ahu Tongariki at sunrise. (Aqua star labelled “S.”)

Now, Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, is about 2300 miles (3700 km) west of Chile. You’d think that would be about three time zones. For some reason, it’s only two time zones. And Chile is in the same time zone as Argentina, despite being quite a bit to the west. So while sunrise in Argentina might be at X time, sunrise in Chile is 45 minutes to an hour later – even though both countries are in the same time zone.

Which means that Rapa Nui is still middle-of-the-night dark at 7 AM. Sunrise was supposed to be about 8:40 AM. We got up about 6:30 AM, and headed out across the island, maps in hand. Driving is slow, there are wandering dogs, cows, and horses who don’t pay attention to cars or roads. We reached one straight section of road, far from everything, with no lights or trees. So we pulled to the side of the road to look at the stars, which were incredible. Millions of twinkling diamonds in the velvet sky, all that poetic description overhead. The Milky Way looked like it was a glow from our car’s hazard lights, I kept expecting to see my shadow against the white glow that looked close enough to reach out and touch it. This was just one of the incredible parts of the morning.

We drove on, trying to find and follow signs to Tongariki. We saw few cars, and weren’t sure if we were even on the right road.

And then suddenly there it was, just a shadow of dark looming statues standing out blacker than the sky! We parked on a side road, and Richard went over to the entrance to Tongariki, where most of the crowd was hanging out – right in front of the statues, expecting the sun to rise behind them, as in the postcards we saw.

But I had been told to stand on that side road. So I did. The sun didn’t rise exactly behind the moai, but off behind a hill to the side. I still got some great photos of the sunrise, the moai, and the back of Rano Raraku, the quarry crater. Plus wild horses wandered by. And I found a chunk of obsidian.

I’ll end the narrative here, and continue with enlarged photos of the sunset. So gorgeous, constantly changing behind the megalithic moai who, somehow, are never changing, who are constantly standing vigil over this amazing island.

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