Saturday, October 24, 2009

Rapa Nui Rap, a Visit to Easter Island

Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, is one of the most remote locations on earth. It is about the same distance from the coast of Chile (which designated it a “special territory” sometime after annexing the island in 1888) as Hawaii is from the coast of California. That would be 2,300 miles, about a five-hour flight on LAN from the continent, the only airline to fly there from Santiago, Chile, or Papeete, Tahiti.

The people, who are Polynesian, apparently arrived by boat between 450 and 800 A.D. Some time after that, and experts vary in their opinion as to why, they began to carve giant heads, called moai, from the side of one of the volcanoes. Today there are close to 900 of them, from 15 to 70 feet tall and weighing from 10 to 270 tons.

Once the moai were moved to their permanent location (and how they did that still remains a matter of speculation) the massive statues were placed on ceremonial platforms, called ahu. One of the most dramatic sites on the island is the quarry where the moai were carved (Rano Raraku) where you can see several hundred of them in various positions.

Sometime in the turbulent history of clan warfare, the moai were all toppled. The ones that are standing today have been repositioned. Ahu Tangariki is the largest platform on the island with 15 moai, all of which were put back in their original position nearly 50 years ago.

Many moai are wearing their topknots or hats (pukao,) which were carved of red rock from a different quarry at Puna Pau.

The major landforms of the small island (approximately 15 miles at the longest point and 8 miles at the widest) are the three extinct volcanoes that form a triangle. The only town is Hanga Roa, where the Catholic Church is the dominant institution. We got to attend a lively mass and join in the singing of hymns in the language of Rapa Nui, which lives today.

One of the highlights of our visit to Rapa Nui was the cultural performance by the award winning group, Matato'a. This energetic and professional troop of musicians and dancers puts on one of the most spirited shows I have ever experienced.
None of the impressive sights of the island are far from the center Hanga Roa. They may be accessed by foot, organized tours, rental cars or motorbikes, or by arranging to ride some of the chestnut colored horses which graze all over the verdant island.