Sunday, July 11, 2010

Rapa Nui: An Enchanted Solitude

I've got a new article in the Georgia Straight this week just as a total eclipse of the sun passed over Easter Island (Rapa Nui) on Sunday.
“That’s the travelling moai—he’s been to the Osaka expo,” says our guide, Tuhi. She’s referring to Marotiri, the statue that greets visitors at Ahu Tongariki on Easter Island. Fifteen of his brethren stand apart from him, silhouetted against the Pacific Ocean on the edge of this island, which is also known by its indigenous name, Rapa Nui.

Thought to have been carved between the 10th and 16th centuries, the statues lay toppled over until 1992, when a Japanese company offered support for their restoration. Now all 16 have been successfully raised, some weighing over 40 tonnes and many standing nine metres high. As Tuhi, my wife Yuko, and I walk across the tawny field, the wind whips off the ocean and clouds obscure the sun. It feels like the elements are conspiring, like some magic is afoot.

Yuko and I arrived on the island the day before after a five-hour flight from Santiago, Chile. Located in the middle of nowhere in the South Pacific, Easter Island is one of those rare destinations that feels like an enchanted wilderness, tattooed with mysterious petroglyphs and stuffed with angular stone heads sprouting mid-thought from the ground. The next habitable island, Pitcairn, is 2,200 kilometres away. At 165 square kilometres, Easter Island is roughly the size of Salt Spring Island. At any one time, its population is approximately 5,000—half residents of Polynesian descent and half “continental” residents and tourists. There are plenty of hotels and B&Bs, ranging from luxurious suites to campsites, most in the vicinity of the village of Hanga Roa.

The current theory is that the island’s statues were carved as guardians or protectors, but were also considered to be sacred, totemic figures. Most were carved in a horizontal position out of tuff rock before being raised and “walked” from Rano Raraku to their platforms, which are located in various places around the island. There are about 900 statues in total on the island—not all standing, and in a variety of conditions.

Cut off from the outside world for centuries, Easter Island saw its first European explorers when Dutch admiral Jacob Roggeveen arrived with his expedition on Easter Sunday in 1722, giving rise to the name. Rather than a tropical paradise, he found a civilization on the brink. The splendid isolation that gave rise to one of the world’s most mysterious cultures has also been blamed for its destruction. (In his 2005 bestseller Collapse, Jared Diamond discussed the environmental devastation and internecine conflict the islanders wrought upon themselves.)

Outside influence proved to be just as destructive. The population was almost completely wiped out after European contact led to smallpox, syphilis, and forced relocations to Peru’s Chincha Islands and later Tahiti.

In recent years, there has been an influx of tourists. Last year alone, 70,000 tourists visited the island, a fivefold increase from just a decade ago. It has become so bad that last summer a group of locals shut down the island’s only airport for three days in protest. Much of the inhabitants’ discontent has to do with what they feel is a lack of control over their own destiny and the “Chileanization” of Easter Island.

Calls for a system to control tourist numbers are gaining traction. In 2009, UNESCO and then Chilean president Michelle Bachelet announced the creation of a sustainable-tourism program funded by the Japanese government to develop tourism strategies with respect to Rapa Nui National Park. But Tuhi worries that irreparable damage has already been done to the island’s precious cultural heritage. While we were there, we saw some careless tourists step on unfinished moai around the crater.

Later that day, we attend a dance performance in town by the local group, Matato’a. As we settle into our seats, a group of young men and women bound onto the stage and begin an energy-packed celebration of Rapa Nui culture. Adorned with native costumes, it soon becomes obvious that this isn’t your typical tourist pap. Sweat pours off their bodies as they put on a visceral and at times sensual performance.

When it ends, we emerge into the cool evening under a shimmering sky and head to our hotel. Walking through Hanga Roa we pass by the village’s lone moai, which the night has transformed into a darkened silhouette. Even after days of exploring the island, its stony silence still beckons us with its mystery.