For all those who ever loved ‘The Doors’, you would have heard the story about a bunch of fans who were in denial about Jim Morrison’s death. Their theory was that he mysteriously sailed away with a guitar to Easter Island, in hope that no one would find him. I was a hopeful member of this club and that was my first tryst with Easter Island.
An island that attracts theories not just to do with dead rock stars but its very own existence, it stands 3500 kms away from the coast of Chile. As the south-eastern tip of the Polynesian triangle, Easter Island or Isla de Pascua, as it is called in Spanish, was given its name by Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, who discovered it on Easter Sunday in 1722. It also goes by the Polynesian name Rapa Nui, which represents the mysterious civilization that existed here, the miniscule population that currently inhabit this island and the exotic language they speak. Famous for its giant monolithic stone figures called the Moai, the island can be described as a natural open-air museum of a distant and unknown culture that people are still trying to understand.
Isolated, it has always called out silently to the travelers with the spirit of Indiana Jones and a loaded wallet. I had the spirit but lacked the money. Drinking lovely Chilean red wine with my Indian friend and her Colombian fiancé in the comfort of their apartment in Santiago, I debated my long standing dream to visit Easter Island and the unaffordable monetary implication that it came with. ‘So near yet so far’ was the best way to describe the situation I found myself in. When would I ever come back to Santiago, let alone find myself in Tahiti, the only two locations in the world that operated flights to Easter Island. It was time to indulge. A few glasses of wine, a little encouragement from my friends and my credit card number were the three ingredients that went into cooking up this impromptu getaway.
A five hour flight and a rather incredulous landing in a narrow runaway with a view of the aquamarine waters, I walked out of the small baggage claim area of the Mataveri airport, only to be greeted by a Polynesian man with a lovely pink and white garland. Having stayed only in youth hostels or cheap backpacker accommodations, I was not used to being received at the airport anywhere. I was pleasantly surprised considering that I had booked the cheapest accommodation in Easter Island – a tent at Mihinoa Camping. The garland around my neck and being escorted to a jeep, I realized that Rapa Nui took their hospitality very seriously. I already liked the Rapa Nui.
Settling into my tent, which had a beautiful view of the ocean, I poured over the map of this small island and planned my week ahead. My knowledge on the island was restricted to internet research and small chapters in the guidebook and I felt thoroughly under prepared on the cultural history. To overcome this knowledge handicap, I headed to the museum, the library and indulged on a wonderful book ‘The Mystery of Easter Island’, by Katherine Routledge, a British woman explorer.
Renting a scooter for the week, I rode around the triangular shaped island, a lone explorer. With a single road, navigation was hardly an issue. The topography, characterized by three large extinct volcanoes Terevaka, Poike and the most impressive Rano Kau with its blue green natural crater lake, presented a perfect natural setting. Not as large in size but significant for its contribution is the central Rano Raraku whose volcanic rock was used to build the Moai, one of the first places I visited in the island. Walking amidst the hundreds of Moai that jutted out of the slope and awestruck by the size, I couldn’t help but imagine how they were transported from the location where they were sculpted to various parts of the island. Around the island, erected on ceremonial platforms called Ahus, the Moai have distinct eyes, long ears and rectangular torsos, some of them even sporting hats, made from red volcanic rock. Known to the world only as Easter Island heads, people love to debate who they represent – Gods, Kings or the common man. But, figures they are, with souls.
Be it the stunning sunrise at Ahu Tongariki, the site with 15 Moai’s, a lazy afternoon with the Ahu Akivi in the centre of the island or a tranquil sunset at Ahu Tahai, the sights are nothing short of breathtaking. You may be surprised to find yourself totally alone with these gigantic figures, not another human being in sight, making the moment even more solemn and surreal. Sneaking away from the rich history, I managed a hike to the beautiful volcanic crater of Rano Kau and a swim in the white sandy Anakena beach. An evening at a cultural centre watching the Rapa Nui men and women perform their tribal dance was a feast to the eye, but the most exotic treat was a 40 minute discovery scuba dive, my first underwater experience.
Spending my week there visiting and re-visiting the Ahus, I felt like I was walking through chapters in a history textbook, that had just been discovered. Curious about the birth, life and the death of this civilization, I quizzed every Rapa Nui I met. Believed to have existed between 800 and 1200 AD, Rapa Nui civilization was apparently destroyed by the evolution of another cult called the Birdman’s cult, which was responsible for toppling all the statues in the island. The beautiful stone houses and intricate petroglyphs in the Orongo ceremonial village, rock paintings tucked away in caves around the island and the mysterious Rongorongo script were the result of the Birdman’s cult, every little detail I absorbed as I explored the island. I felt emotionally moved when I heard that everything came to an end with Peruvian coloniz
ation of the early 19th century, leaving behind a rich historical jigsaw puzzle.
The week in Easter Island may have been the longest time in my trip that I spent on my own, away from other travelers, from the hustle bustle of a large city, from what we call civilization. But, I remember reading something about the island – ‘It is not alone, it is just far’ and it made perfect sense. I was not alone. I was just far away, in the heart of a civilization, believed to be dead, but alive for those who have learnt to talk to the stones and hear whispers in the wind.