Wednesday, July 28, 2010

My Rapa Nui

Horses, horses, dogs
Green hills. cerulean sea
Waves pounding on rocks
That is the haiku that I wrote on my first night on Rapa Nui. One of the most remote places on earth -- Easter Island is some 2,000 miles from Tahiti and Chile. An archeologist's dream -- but will we ever really understand the culture that created the giant Moai. Perhaps more importantly -- do we need to?

I am particularly drawn to places where I can walk in the steps of those who went before me. I hate it when I can only look but can not touch -- or more importantly can't stand smack dab in the center of a space and imagine what it felt like to be of that civilization, of that time. How did the Christians feel as they waited beneath the coliseum and heard the roar of the crowd? What was it like for the harem dwellers of the Alhambra as they waited for the Sultan's call? Was being chosen a good thing or a bad thing?

How did Doris Duke feel as she built her own private Shangri-La on the shores of Oahu? A place where she gathered up treasures and encased them in a home that had the wide, blue pacific ocean as backdrop? Did she feel like a poor little rich girl or did she feel blessed to create her own private oasis surrounded by the art of the Ottomans? How did the Mayan ball teams feel as they took to the court at Chichen Itza -- knowing that the losing team would see death in its ranks?

I arrived on Rapa Nui with scant little to go on other than that it is the home of these mystical, monolythic statues left by a civilization about which we know little. The statues that I had been longing to meet, to come to know. Some have imagined that there were alien hands at play here -- how else to explain these giants? Others posit that the statues were created by humans and that they honor the dead. They surmise that the civilization "died" as a result of the devastation of the island's natural resources as trees were felled to move the Moai from the quarry to where they would stand guard.

This is my Rapa Nui -- a tiny green slice of paradise amidst a vast blue sea. An island where it is quite likely that everyone knows your name. A place where I could rent a car and get back in touch with the joys of driving a stick shift. The purr of the engine as I shifted up -- a sound that is hard to come by these days. The sheer excitement of setting off on one's own with my niece Julia to navigate. The memory carries the knee-jerk suspicion of being alone in a vast landscape when that guy on the motorcycle decides to stop behind your jeep for what turns out to be a sip of water. The kind of terror that comes from living amongst large crowds and hardly ever being alone. All of this to occur after a short orientation with a local Rapa Nui tour guide that included the most amazing lunch in his aunt's backyard. A home-cooked meal and good conversation betwixt and between seeing the sites of his Rapa Nui.

My Rapa Nui has waves crashing on rocks and sunsets that seem to go on for hours with each passing minute bringing a new color to the sky and a new shade to the ocean and the statues. It has a hotel with no tv and horses munching on plants outside your sliding glass door. It is a place where when you turn a corner, something new awaits you and where the cemetary lights up at night. A place where the whole island turns out to celebrate new year's eve on the westward facing coast and where one should really have a flashlight even if the moon is full for walking home from town after dark.
My Rapa Nui has horses, cows, and dogs wandering free. It is dotted with remnants of statues that were erected for who knows what reason. Statues that pretty much all had their backs to that beautiful cerulean sea when standing erect. Monoliths that mostly were toppled inwards with those same backsides to the elements as the next civilization swept in and destroyed that which they did not understand or that which they did not believe in. An early precursor to wars to yet to be fought -- humans at their most base.

My Rapa Nui is a place where I can imagine those that went before. I am the master carver who has toiled for days on what is to be the largest Moai on the island. Together with my fellow workers, nay my friends, we have seen this Moai start to take shape under our expert hands. A Moai that would never make it out of the ground. Never be erected to face inward because we started it at the end of a civilization that had destroyed my beautiful island to make these monuments. Yet, I loved this child and its brothers and sisters. They were my creations, my gifts to the island, my children. I am the master carver who survived the downfall of my culture by hiding in a cave below the cliffs with my family as a cultural revolution raged above our heads. I, together with my fellow carvers, participated in the birth of a new civilization even as we mourned the loss of our own.

My Rapa Nui is a place where I can take the threads of history and weave my own story as I criss cross the island in my little red jeep. It's a place where all the roads are less traveled. A place to feast on the sights and sounds of the present while dreaming of those who have gone before. That is my Rapa Nui.
Practical Aspects
All roads do not lead to Rapa Nui. Lan has flights out of Santiago, Chile that are generally full both coming and going. To get to my Rapa Nui -- skip the Explora ( -- that's kind of like staying in an African safari lodge with daily gourmet meals and tours with experienced guides. You need that in Africa but not on my Rapa Nui -- it's small and easily navigated. So stay at the Altiplanico ( or any one of the B&B's that are closer in to town, schedule a one-day tour just to be oriented, and rent a jeep (rent ahead so you are sure to get one). Do eat at the restaurants that are in and around the town of Hanga Roa and do ask which fish was caught that day and order it. Finally, remember to walk around and behind things -- you never know what you might find. Like the rare statue that was toppled face up and that lies dreaming of her Rapa Nui as her twin bears the brunt of the elements and slowly fades away by her side.


  1. Nancy, your pictures are extraordinary. And the writing is beautiful. I especially love the idea of following in the footsteps of Doris Duke. Wonderful.

  2. amy -- thanks. i really like the idea of trying to understand a place through the eyes of those who have gone before. i am missing my writing, this writing -- can't believe I haven't squirreled away the time to write for almost two weeks now. i did have "fun" with my camera this weekend -- gotta love central park at any time of year.

  3. I agree with Amy Nancy! Your writing is wonderful and, I also love all of your photos as well. You are quite talented and perhaps should think about giving a bit of professional writing a try....or even just begin your own blog, as Amy has.

    She and I actually first even met at The Writer's Club at K.P. when each of us was handpicked by the librarian there to become editors of the school's Writer's Journal or Magazine..and both of us just LOVED the experience as well as have even become friendly again after finding each other back out here. -mb

  4. Margo -- i like the memory of you and Amy being plucked out by the librarian at KP (better, I am sure, than visiting my mom in the nurse's office!) to edit the writer's journal. What did your first issue look like (that's probably a meory in and of itself!).

    thanks on the writing -- this piece was really fun to write and quite a difference from my work writing which is grants and memos and reports. and the photography -- while I can just get lost in that for hours on end. I think i have to figure out a better organization for my photos though.