June 3-5, 2002
The Lan Chile jet droned on through the night, leaving the lush tropical air of Tahiti behind, crossing four time zones, and beginning its descent as the sun rose in the Eastern sky. It was the only time we would see that sun during our three-day visit to Easter Island, the most solitary isolated island in the world.
With us on the 727 were Jean-Claude and Claudie, who sailed with us on Pacific Bliss from Raiatea to Tahiti while awaiting repair of their gearbox on their vessel Makoko, and Gerard, whose Super Maramu is also under repair in Carrenage Raiatea.
The jet dove through the thick clouds and glided along on the extra-long runway, upgraded by NASA to serve as an emergency landing for the space shuttle. As we disembarked, I zipped my cold weather Pacific Bliss sailing jacket all the way to the neck, a comforting protection against the gusts of cold and rain that whipped at us in greeting.
The weathered wooden sign before the entrance to the terminal said, 'Eastern Island' with its Spanish translation, 'Isla de Pascua', engraved below. "They have added an 'n' to Easter," I noticed. "This shows how little attention even the islanders give to the name given to this place by the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen." In 1722, he sighted it on Easter Sunday, and that was the extent of his imagination. Today's Polynesian name for the island is 'Rapa Nui', dating from the 19th century. The Tahitian sailors had likened it to the island of Rapa 2400 miles to the west, but added the name 'Nui' meaning larger.
I prefer the ancient name for this mysterious place: 'Te Pito o Te Henua', the navel of the world. Whoever they were, those very first discoverers of this remote island miles from nowhere, they must have conceived of it, or developed it into, the spiritual epicenter around which their entire universe revolved. It is an island like no other. After three days of gazing up into the black obsidian eyes of the moai, winding my way down into dark 'cannibal' caves, trudging up to the peaks of windswept hills to peer down into still, reed-filled crater lakes, exploring an ancient quarry with almost 400 moai in various stages of completion, I dubbed this island 'the navel of nowhere'. I found this place desolate, sad, strange--and yes--even rather depressing.
Easter Island is isolated from the rest of the world geographically and culturally. It sits in the South Pacific Ocean, 2300 miles west of South America, 2500 miles southeast of Tahiti (where Pacific Bliss waits on the quay with Armin on board), 4300 miles south of Hawaii. The closest other inhabited island is Pitcairn, the tiny island where the mutineers of the H.M.S. Bounty settled in 1790, but even that island is 1260 miles away.
The culture here is has ties to Polynesia but in many ways the Eastern Islanders were different: the first explorers who settled here brought neither pigs nor pottery. Instead, they were obsessed with building monuments to honor their ancestral spirits and Gods. Other Polynesian cultures had mainly carved in wood; the Eastern Islanders carved in stone. In fact, they carved so many statues that they finally depleted the resources of the tiny island-a case of statue building run amok.
We had no desire to brave a sail to this remote island, but we always wanted to visit here, first, because of this island's intriguing statues and other mysteries, and second, because it will add to our understanding of all of Polynesia. The island is one of the key islands that form the vast Polynesian triangle, anchored northwest of here by Hawaii and southwest by New Zealand. Our plan is to fly to the three anchors and sail to much of middle. Living in California, it has been relatively easy to visit all of the Hawaiian Islands during various vacations. And the Pacific Bliss voyages take us from the Marquesas, to the Society Islands, (the heart of the triangle) the Cooks, Samoa, and on to Tonga-all a part of 'Polynesia', a word meaning 'many islands'. Next year, we plan to fly to New Zealand-another anchor--and tour there for a month. We want to attempt to understand the Maori culture that is part of Polynesia, before continuing our Voyage Three into the countries of Melanesia, e.g. Fiji, who embrace yet a different culture, language and land.
A word of caution to would-be visitors: Easter Island is certainly not a starting point for an understanding of Polynesia. I was grateful that I had some prior experience-including vacations spent in Hawaii, the Marquesas, the Society Islands, the Cooks, and American Samoa. I had explored marae, areas set aside for worship, and ahus, places exclusively for spirits and gods. I had examined the Tahitian wood carvings and the Marquesan stone tikis. I had visited numerous Polynesian museums. And through my reading, I had been in awe of the pioneering spirit and daring feats of the early Polynesian voyagers. These experiences set the stage for our visit here; they gave me an even greater insight into the remarkable achievements of the early Easter Islanders.
It is extraordinary how much world attention this small remote island--only fourteen by seven miles--has garnered! Anyone who has delved into the volumes written about this island becomes enthralled with its mysteries. We all recognize the photos of the giant stone images. They fire the imagination. Who built them and why? Where did these great stone architects come from and why did they leave? Then there are the mysterious Rongorongo tablets. Who were the master scribes that understood what they mean? What valuable information has been lost? Following that is the mystery of how such a remote island was discovered and populated. Did they come by raft from the Americas or did they arrive by Polynesian voyaging catamarans? Was there one wave of immigration or more? And as if that isn't enough intrigue, there are the legends: the legend of Hiva, the homeland of the gods, supposedly destroyed by a flood; the legend of the strange bird-man cult; and the legend of the red-haired kings from the east. Each enigmatic archaeological discovery fuels the world's fascination, yet fails to solve the mysteries.
Immigration was easy and soon we had the Isla de Pascua stamp in our passports. Martin Hereveri had arrived to drive us to our guesthouse, one of ten double motel-like rooms that he and Anita maintain. We found the couple very helpful as we adjusted to communicating in Spanish rather than French. They spoke both, and some limited English as well.
Gunter set down our soft-sided duffel brought from Pacific Bliss as we looked around the room: "It is rather basic," I thought. A double bed and two nightstands-one with a lamp. A bare light bulb centered in the ½ A-framed ceiling. A standing fan in the corner. No other furniture-not even a chair. Not one painting or photo broke up the expanse of light green wallpaper. But there was a bank of built-in shelves at the far end of the room, with a hanging area for clothes, as well as a private small bath with tub. Drapes with filmy white curtains covered a picture window looking out to the walkway umbrella'd with shade trees.
After unpacking, we walked through the courtyard to the dining area and asked for 'agua' to take back to our rooms. We were handed two glasses instead of a bottle, but eventually, we were understood. The pension could be charming, I supposed, on a sunny day. Orange-gold Canna lilies lined the paved walk next to white outdoor furniture. Rose bushes fringed the little garden.
The rain was continuing intermittently. We walked through the little neighborhood filled with simple unpretentious houses, past the stucco church and souvenir shop, then down to the town's center to find a restaurant. We liked the one we found-Restaurant Cuerito Regalon-which was a good thing, because we would dine there three times during our stay. It was the only one in town that was open most of the time.
Fortified with a hearty lunch of steak, fries and red wine, we finally warmed up sufficiently to brave the cold winds and rain again. We walked downhill to the sea, and stared there amazed by the first moai we saw, a lone 30-foot grey stone figure facing inward toward the village, with his back to the sea.
Exploring here is like visiting a vast open air museum: every corner
of the triangular island has an ancient archeological site. The only
other site in my travels that filled me with such awe was the Israeli
archeological site of Meggido (Armageddon).
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See PhotoGallery-Easter Island for More Photos
Moai at the Beach
They Swam to the Far Motu to Find the First Eggs