Saturday, December 8, 2007

Loving the Rapa Nui Spirit

Photo: A lonely Moai at dusk.

For two days of travel (i.e. airplanes and airports and a Holiday Inn airport hotel) I’ve set my cameras down. And there is a feeling of melancholy that I can only attribute to my experiences on Easter Island. It’s the feeling a passionate affair of a simple nature but having to leave it behind, maybe forever. It’s probably how soldiers feel in wartime when torn from a moment of bliss.

There’s nothing fancy about Easter Island. What tears at your heart is the Rapa Nui, a tribe ancient as life, today as the latest t-shirt, with a mysterious history that may never be revealed completely (in spite of lots of opinions, legends and fantasies) but which has become a burden for the new generation (mostly mixed with Chileans) who want to be absorbed in the past, to share it with the curious, and somehow to protect it from the vultures waiting to squeeze into the portless bays and mount rubber Zodiacs to capture it for modernity, to, in other words, make money.

There is an indescribable spirit in the Rapa Nui, a small remnant of a once grand civilization of long ears (royalty) and short ears (workers) who almost died out, but are now reemerging in a world that may not give it what they are due, a tribe of people tattooed by fire now bungie jumping into a future, trying hard to understand a past they feel in their blood but are not yet sure of, and then having to deal with foreigners who use and abuse them. They have survived being kidnaped as slaves (when they would hide in underground caves for years before surfacing to see if it was safe), explorers bringing diseases, the tribal population being reduced to 160 people at one time, the planting of spreading trees in a place that was once treeless (its three volcanic hills were sheathed in grasses that gave it sort of fuzz feeling,) and now Chile claims it and invades it with tourists like me. (Photo: Nickolas, a Rapa Nui)

It's a good thing that Easter Island is one of the most remote places on earth, yea, even one of the loneliest places before explorers aimed for it. It is too far at sea, too distant for the average man, too natural for the luxury minded, too rocky and dangerous a shore to be able to build a harbor. It’s five hours by a Lan jet that flies only once a day a few days each week, and telephones, cells, television and internet are mostly on the blink and not working. The only ones who can own land on the island are the Rapa Nui themselves but the pueblo is not inviting. Crude shops are mostly filled with arts and crafts (tourist souvenirs), black pearls from Tahiti, Moai statues carved in every kind of rock, hand toiled walking sticks with birdman symbols, Hawaiian shirts and a few restaurants that profit on appetites of tourists. The only five star event on Easter Island is the new hotel being built by Explora, a Chilean eco-tourist organization. But it is managed by a shaman woman of the island named Mahina, who because she has so much family among the few indigenous folk, is a godmother of all, the soul of the island.

Photo: Bird Man Periglyph and the island of the eggs.

More than anything that gripped my heart was the presence of the Moai and when a stranger comes upon another fallen, leaning or standing Moai, the heart beats fast as if one had seen a bear in the Tetons or a tiger in Tibet. At least I felt that way. There are hundreds of them mostly on the ahu burying platforms like coastal walls and there are too many eyeless eye sockets of the Maoi ready for eyes that were not installed before the collapse of the quarry carvers in the 1500s. No one knows why, how or when the Moai industry died. Tools and half carved Moai were left behind as if the workers had been startled and ran; but these men owned a machine-like strength to move the impossible tons and existed nowhere else. Most rocks tell some story and have been carved with petroglyphic memories like that of the Birdman competition when the Rapa Nui leaped down crater cliffs, swam in reed canoes only wide enough for a pair of legs, and then had to wait for the arrival of the frigate bird to lay its egg on the off lying island, and return to the home base with that egg uncracked to give it to the leader of his tribe. What does it all say? What did the people believe? Can they hold on their culture in its purest form?

Photo: A rare female Moai.

I guess what I feel is the art of the red and black rock and what better to hold the secrets of history than volcanic rock which is timeless and durable. I breathed easily when finally I found the two female Moai that still exist and to learn that the red topnotches on the male Moai were abstract symbols for wives. I’m probably, now, a Moai groupie. The young Rapa Nui guides who enchanted my mind with the truths about the Moai and this island convinced me theirs was a tender, maybe infant civilization that needs to be coddled and saved. Here the men are really men and the women make the day function and babies smile. There are sufficient challenges for adventurers willing to wear out his/her hiking shoes, but also there is the challenge of modernity for this people of the lava rock who are bumping against new wave crime and disrespect that arrives with today’s guests. The little triangular island depends on tourist dollars, and offers up the rarest of experiences: eating raw tuna that was caught that very morning in the seas (while Japanese ships sneak into the Easter Island waters to illegally fish for tuna), or sipping through a straw fresh squeezed guava juice or strawberry juice or mango or cherimoya (custard apple), or swimming in waters so crystal clear you watch your feet wander among cellophane blue fish, or wandering through rain showers that surprise sprinkle from blue and white skies with rainbows cresting.

It’s all in the moment, and the moment happens in the purest of air, clearest of waters, and most blackened stone shores. The land may be overrun with foreign eucalyptus and Ciebo trees, and horses rubbing noses on Moai treasures, and memories of Peruvian slave pirates and the British who rented the island for a number of years to fill desires for a sheep trade, and maybe it is too vulnerable to documentary creators and media editors who visit the island, interview the people, and then declare, as if they had never listened, that the Moai were put there by aliens.

I hope the Rapa Nui governor and mayor will keep out the luxurious and scandalous elements so moneyed folk won’t get footholds on this small thumbprint of land at the navel of the earth. Thor Heyendahl wrote, "It is the loneliest inhabited place in the world." He’s right, the nearest solid land is above in the moons and stars. But the mana is there, the magic, the spirit of God, of Maki Maki and the persistence of fishermen and planters, who can squat on the soles of feet flat on the ground for an entire night of sleeping. Sadly, I sense a giant tsunami rising up to grab the island in a net. This is the evil and greed of the outside world. I pray God will keep safe his "Te Pitoo te Henua" (naval of the earth) and may the coral eyes of the Moai see quickly what is coming before it is too late.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

you are an amazing writer and I could only dream to experience you r travels. Thank you for sharing! I happened along your blog while helping my daughter google for her Rapa Nui project. Thank you so much... Be well, Michele