Monday, 27 January 2014

Days 303 to 309: Other Stuff On Easter Island

There's more to Easter Island than just a whole bunch of stone heads. We stayed there for six days and beforehand there was a smidgeon of concern that perhaps six days might be a little too much. Six days on a tiny island with just a bunch of stone heads for company: our reservoir of all five series of Breaking Bad might be exhausted. In the end, we could happily have managed another week: Easter Island was a pleasure; if you find yourself in the area (the closest inhabited island, Pitcairn Island, population 50, is just 2075 kilometres away), I heartily recommend stopping by.

The capital of Easter Island is Hanga Roa, and it happens to also be the only inhabited part of the island. Centuries ago, the population spread across the island in numerous little villages; these days, everybody is concentrated in one little town, nestled in a corner of the triangular island. It's a fairly sprawling little town - I don't think there's as much tightly-packed competition for prime real estate as, say, Manhattan - but eminently walkable. Most of the action is found on the main street, which runs directly from the airport, with the tiny harbour area and immaculate football pitch found by the shore one street down.

Tourism, clearly and obviously, is the main industry: restaurants, souvenir shops, and tourist agencies struggle for supremacy. But to the great credit of the island, tourism doesn't seem to have joined forces with cynicism. Easter Island is a very open and friendly place. In part this is probably due to the warm, pleasant climate and relaxed culture this seems to have fostered; in part, it's probably due to the tourists being a captive audience. All tourists arrive by plane and are on the island for a fixed time, and probably their only ever time. They will eat at restaurants, they will buy some souvenirs, they will go on a tour or two. For the vast majority, Easter Island is a once-in-a-lifetime visit: why waste the experience?

For our six days, we were staying in a simple but likeable "cabin" on the outskirts of town, about a 20 minute walk from the main street, a walk which took us past the seven stone statues of Ahu Tahai. The cabin was one of a row of four, with a communal terrace which looked out over a generous garden, some other cabins and grounds, then the ocean. For the first night, a Danish couple and a couple of guys from Santiago were staying in the other rooms but after that we had the entire place to ourselves. It was very tranquil. Sure, the shower veered savagely from hot to cold, and at night beefed-up steroidal cockroaches roamed around outside (and once managed to infiltrate the cabin. We opened the window and, like a true gentleman, he strolled right out), but the place was so peaceful that it didn't matter. It was a delight to sit outside, read, eat some food cooked in the cabins' communal kitchen, and drink wine. Most evenings were spent that way.

We did this by choice, but our hand was also forced: Easter Island can be damn expensive, and eating out nightly wasn't an option for us. Even buying the ingredients from the shabby little supermarkets was pricey. Given that the island is thousands of miles from mainland Chile, I suppose this isn't too surprising - everything has to be flown in. Easter Island doesn't even have a harbour big enough for anything beyond fishing vessels. And in fairness, for a regular holidaymaker the prices wouldn't seem too unreasonable; for a budget traveller though, it was tough. In fact, I'd rather not think about how much money we spent. Let's talk about something else, ok?


The only night we really went out, as pictured above, was both a hilarious and terrible experience. Back in San Pedro de Atacama, we'd got chatting to a couple from Barcelona, who were also planning to visit Easter Island. On our second day on the island, and on their first, we bumped into them. We got chatting, had a drink, and agreed to go to a traditional dancing show which also included a traditionally cooked meal. Now, let it be said that I am not at all a fan of going to traditional dancing shows or the like, and the Barcelona couple - Eva and Fernando - claimed not to be either. But we reckoned it might be fun. By "we", I suppose I really mean Danielle and Eva. Because watching a bunch of people dress up and do funny dances in front of tourists? Not really my thing, not one bit. But well, hell, why not? Maybe I'd be surprised.

It was only just before the evening show began that a thought occurred to me: what if the show is interactive? What if I had to join in the dancing?

You can probably guess what then happened.

The show began in a makeshift mini-arena, with everyone's faces being painted with traditional markings, which for the casual observer look a little like Maori tattoos. If you remember Mike Tyson's face tattoo, then you get the idea, although ours were a little more extensive. As the majority of the crowd were very mild-looking middle-aged white holidaymakers, the scene was truly ridiculous. A skinny 55-year-old Californian dentist in chino shorts (for example) does not, at all, suit war paint. Likewise, I can't imagine that I looked too fearsome.

The wooden seats and benches were arranged around our food-to-be, a bunch of meat and vegetables being cooked underground, baked by hot stones and insulated from the air. This was uncovered and talked about and I almost paid attention, and then some other stuff happened that didn't quite make my long-term memory. And suddenly the girls were asked, with no small amount of psychological group pressure, to dance.

Danielle seemed to quite enjoy this, with a pretend veneer of embarrassment, but I could take no pleasure in the moment as I knew what would be next. Me, dancing. No, in fact, it was me doing the "hoko", which I'm not sure if I'm relieved is the Easter Island version of the Maori "haka" wardance, rather than the popular childhood musical game, the "Hokey-Cokey". Myself and about twelve other mild-mannered tourists tried to mimic a wardance. It wasn't fearsome.

Fortunately for posterity, Danielle was seemingly so excited by the prospect she only managed a series of blurry pictures. If any of the American tourists filming it happen to read this, please don't get in touch.

The meal, a buffet extrapolated from the aforementioned buried food, then took place. It was perfectly enjoyable and utterly forgettable and wholly overshadowed by dance no. 2. During the meal, each of the three tables were asked if anyone had any special occasions to celebrate. Eva slyly mentioned that Danielle and I were on honeymoon. Even though this is true only in the most tenuous of ways, it was enough. Joined by two other relucant couples, we had to dance in front of the diners, for some entirely inexplicable reason. Fortunately, in this case, we were allowed to freeform, meaning I could just twirled Danielle around a little rather than wardance the hoko.

The true dance extravanganza could then begin. An hour (or more? I entirely lost track) of barely-clad people doing supposedly traditional dances for our cultural education and entertainment. If you love this sort of thing, I don't doubt it was wonderful. If you are me, it was like being in school, being forced to watch supposedly traditional dances for my cultural education and entertainment. Although it's true there were a number of barely-clad women which made proceedings more tolerable, it's also true there were a number of barely-clad men, whose pelvic thrustings appeared to be a source of great revelry for Danielle and Eva but far less for myself, and I guess Fernando (I did not discuss the matter with him).

Alas too, the matter of audience participation was not to be forgotten, and dance no.3 for me awaited near the end of the show. A barely-clad girl ran up to me and gestured for me to dance on the stage, along with (mercifully) another ten or so people. For a moment of horror, I thought I would have to dance with her, a girl who danced for a living: in boxing terms, this would be like me trying to batter Mike Tyson, but mercifully she also pulled up Danielle to share my nightmare. Showing me how to sway my hips - sorry lady but my hips don't sway, I didn't quite have the courage to tell her - I performed a mockery of a probably-fake traditional Polynesian dance in front of Danielle and an audience who had actually paid money for this. Again, if you filmed this, please don't get in touch.

Dancing shows, fortunately, only took up the single night, and with luck will never feature again in my lifetime. Most of the time was spent relaxing at the cabin, chasing stone heads, or meandering about town. Easter Island has one proper beach, and on the day that we hired the quad bike we ended up there for a ghastly hour, sitting on sand and doing nothing at all except feeling too hot: really, I don't understand beaches. But at least the day of the quad bike opened up the island to us. As I say, the population is concentrated in one corner and it's not difficult to see why. Most of the island is very dry and covered in a grassy scrub. It's rocky too, the island seemingly formed from a hard, black rock that is jagged underfoot and especially noticeable near the coast. None of this adds up to a particularly luscious landscape, and driving around the mostly treeless island the scene is quite barren. Not unattractive, just not the tropical landscape exploding with palm trees that you might expect from an island that sees scorching sunshine regularly puncuated with torrential (but never thunderous during our week) rainstorms.

Despite being a single tiny island, Easter Island has three volcanoes, not a bad effort I'm sure you'll agree. They are all, for better and for worse, extinct. On our quad bike day, we visited one, which was a key part of the cult of the birdman, the religion and society that replaced the stone head religion a couple of centuries ago. It has been described as one of the only forms of government based upon competitive sport, with the sport in this case being "collect the egg". Every year, a certain type of bird called the sooty tern would nest on a tiny island just off the coast of Easter Island, on the corner where Hanga Roa is today, which happens to have an old volcanic crater. Whoever swam to the island and successfully collected the first egg of the year won the prize - they were the new leader. In case you think this sounds like a terrific way for modern politics to go: you're right. The leader would go into seclusion for a year in a special ceremonial home. I wonder if 650 MPs would fit?

Easter Island has many more quirks that I don't really have time for here. It's filled with wild horses, roaming the island, crapping everywhere. Occasionally a couple of them would wander into the grounds of our cabin, whereby the two dogs belonging to the owners of the place would go absolutely mental and chase them out. This was always amusing. The island's time was also out of sync. In what I guess is an effort to not stray from Chilean time too much, Easter Island is just two hours behind despite being a five hour flight away. This meant it got dark very late, got light very late, and the heat of the day wouldn't peak till around 5 or 6pm every day, which felt strange. It was all perfect for staying up and having long lie-ins however - Easter Island has got this one right.

Perhaps though a simple photo represents tells a fuller story. Easter Island is the sort of place that allows cows to stroll along its runway.

If you like Easter and you like islands, then you should simply go to any island in the world with a church during Easter. Easter Island doesn't have a monopoly on the festivity. But if you like giant stone heads, volcanic craters, tropical weather, cows on runways, a tranquil and friendly lifestyle, wild horses, lots of tourist facilities, and nothing else for thousands of miles, then I wholeheartedly recommend Easter Island. Dancing optional.


  1. Perhaps they say to themselves "Right, we have another captive audience for a week - what cringeworthy things can we make them do this time?". And then they vote on it, with one of them them saying "I propose that we include the clown costumes this time, and perhaps accopanied by some Benny Hill music", followed by some murmurs of "Hear, hear" and "Motion accepted".

    Joking aside, it seems like a fantastic place (well, obviously apart from the interactive dance spectacles). I think that the row of stone heads that you described in your previous article really are worthy of being included in your list, based on (in my opinion) their originality. There are many great gothic cathedrals, classic skyscrapers, and palaces of all kinds in this world. Rows of giant stone heads? Not that many.

    1. Agreed, originality is the main attraction. This is a micro-civilisation that effectively formed in isolation - it's incredible that a community of around 10,000 people created something so utterly distinctive. Or perhaps not - perhaps the lack of outside influences ensured they would inevitably create something unique. How many societies remain free of outside influences?


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