Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Rapa Nui lesson in sustainable living and building ass calluses

Sometimes I like to do things, not just because they're cool, but also because they SOUND cool when you tell people about it later. Things like eating a guinea pig, or going caving with bats, or biking around Easter Island. So yes, I went to Easter Island, and it rocked. Sure, it's beautiful, the Moai are eerie and magnificent at the same time, the snippets of Rapa Nui that are overheard in conversation are fun, the water is like something from a photoshopped picture, and there is something magical about wild horses running free, but that's not all. It does something far more important than that, it teaches us what will happen if we treat the world that we call home with a sense of entitlement and forget about that little thing called gratitude and respect.

Easter Island, as we know it (or Rapa Nui as the native people know it, or Isla de Pascua as the Chilean people know it) is a pretty remarkable thing. It's just a tiny little spec of land in the middle of the Pacific. The weather is favorable for living, and thus it became home for people...people of Polynesian descent. With that said, one would expect that this island and it's culture would resemble that of other small islands that dot the Pacific.You know, the likes of Tahiti or Hawaii. I can't speak for Tahiti, having never been there, and at first glance it did kind of have a surface resemblance to Hawaii....but notably less green, lush and far less developed. Why is this place so much less green? Look at the history of this place and it becomes clear...the people that initially inhabited this island got so wrapped up in tribal warfare and exploiting all their available resources to out-do their competition that they, well, eventually cut down every last tree and mostly everyone died. You would think that somewhere in the process that someone in any of the tribes would have said something, "uh, dude, we might want to cut this shit out, we're almost out of trees..." but alas, they did not, and to this day the island is mostly grassland. The few trees that do dot the island were planted far after the fact, and if I understood correctly, are all non-native species.

But it wasn't ALL in vain. Minus cutting down all the trees and basically killing off the population of the entire island, they got these pretty sweet Moai out of the deal. Which,  I will admit, are pretty amazing to look at. Unfortunately the majority of them are knocked down, that was another part of the game. After fighting with one another, the winning tribe would knock over the losers Moai as a show of superior strength. It's a pretty significant feat, these things are huge. I mean, really, really big. To this day no one is entirely sure how they moved them about the island like they did, or how they got them to stand up. They are everywhere. For an island this tiny, it's basically saturated with them. They live all along the coast, mostly facing inland or face down with their hats removed and rolled a fair distance away. There is only one that doesn't follow form, it's a grouping that lives inland and faces the sea. Another enigma for us to wonder...why are these fellows looking the other way? There is a theory that it has some astronomical significance, because at the summer equinox at sunset they face the setting sun perfectly.

The horses too were an interesting thing to see. They are mostly wild. I can't say entirely wild because they are clearly not native to the island. A lot of them also are marked as if they belong to someone, but they just run free all over the island. Apparently owning horses are signs of wealth, so they go out there, mark a horse and then let it run around until it dies. It wasn't an unusual sight to see the carcass of a horse along the side of the road, or to see packs of horses grazing on grass around the ruins. Don't get me totally wrong, the people there ride the horses too and use them to work as well, but it seems that the vast majority of the horses are just free to wander as they please.

I had almost a week to explore the island. Before I left, everyone kept telling me that 3 days was plenty of time to be there and that I would have nothing to do after that. Maybe so, if you drive everywhere, take just long enough to snap a picture and get back in the car, or have something against sitting and admiring nature. The pace of things was so pleasant there. I liked being back in my tent. I liked having hours of not seeing another living soul. I liked being able to sit and watch giant turtles for hours on end. I liked the quiet or if it wasn't quiet, it was the sound of rolling ocean waves. Yeah, Santiago is a nice city and all, but it is still a city. A big city in fact. With lots of people and cars and buses and subways and noise and pollution and stuff to buy and things to see and places to go and the buzz of needing to go, go, go! After spending a month in my tent in Patagonia, it was like experiencing mild shell shock. So even though I had great hosts, a wonderful place to stay and met friends who made sure I had a pleasant experience, I couldn't wait to get out of there and back to a slower pace and the space to breathe and just sit still.

Right after I got to the campground and setup my tent I was invited to go with a group of french travelers on their quad and see some of the island. Heck yes! I would love to go! So the first day I got around the island on the back of a quad. It was fun, and dirty, but helped me get my bearings a bit. From then on out, I explored the island from the saddle of a mountain bike or by hoofing it. The majority of the time I was on a bike, which I feel was a great way to explore the island. It allowed me to cover a lot of ground and take it in. I calculated it out, and in 3 days I rode somewhere around 100 km. It hurt to sit, I mean the actual act of being seated was painful after that, but what the hell. I did, in the process develop a whole new sense of respect for my friends that bike a lot. To those of you who fall into that category, I think I got it. Yeah...it can be pretty fun, and there it nothing better than coasting down a big old hill after giving it everything you've got to get up there.

There is only one beach on Easter Island, Anakena. It is straight out of a stock photo beautiful. The entrance to the beach is grass and tall swaying palm trees...there are even a few Moai standing watch. The grass fades and is replaced by white sand and the white sand eventually gets covered over by vibrant turquoise water. Part of what makes it so incredible is that it is the only beach on the island, but also, that the rest of the island is rock, black lava rock. Where in the world did this white sand come from? I have no idea, but I spent a whole day just sitting there and admiring it. Getting there and back is no easy task. There is one town on the island, Hanga Roa, it is the only place on the entire island where you can stay and the only place that you can buy anything. It also happens to be on the opposite side of the island as the only beach. 16km one way to be exact. It's a pretty nice ride though, being the only real paved road in the town, it was a welcome change from the bumpy dirt roads with mud puddles, giant potholes and loose rocks. Most people it seemed would just rent a car or a scooter, and zip from one Moai ruin to the next or across the island to the beach. I actually liked being on the bike. For the most part the roads were empty, the weather was pleasant, and if the view was knock your socks off beautiful, I could stop the bike right there and drink it in. I did that a lot.

It was interesting to watch the weather roll in and roll out. You could see for miles over the ocean, and see that yes, the rain was coming. But you could also see that it wasn't going to last. It was almost like watching time lapse satellite photos on from the weather channel. Yup, here comes the the clouds and the rain moving over the island. The winds will be coming in west and the storm will follow, expect afternoon sunshine. Done and done. I don't think I have ever seen anything like it.

 After my week was up and it was time to go back to Santiago, I was actually sad to leave. I was thinking about the bustling city again, and comparing that to the calming sound of the ocean. In my time there, I had actually grown a fondness for that place and its quirky Moai, its horses, its giant turtles, its schizophrenic weather. I had to slap myself a bit, and remind myself that this is still just the beginning of this adventure, and that there will be other places that I fall in love with. Besides, when I get back to the mainland I have to scoot on over to the coast and see Valparaiso. For some reason Santiago people are always raving about Valparaiso and Vina del Mar. When I get there, I will be sure to let you know. 

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