Saturday #17: Prayers at Ahu Tongariki

Another week has come to a close and it’s time to chronicle a few more highlights. The week didn’t get off to the best of starts but my semi-chaotic travel days on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday are now well behind me and I’m prepared to move on. One night in a swanky Santiago hotel will do wonders for frazzled nerves.

By 8:00 p.m. on Thursday I had landed on Rapa Nui (Easter Island), tracked down a backpack that arrived one day earlier, and was nicely settled into my simple but clean guesthouse. I was looking forward to immersing myself in the history and culture of one of the world’s most remote inhabited islands. At 3687 km off the coast of Chile, and 2075 km from the nearest inhabited land (50 residents on Pitcairn Island), this place is pretty damn remote.

I had booked two full-day tours and one half-day ‘sunrise’ tour with Green Island Tours – a local business operated by New Zealand-born Marc Shields and his Rapa Nui-born wife. I found them on the net, was impressed by Marc’s easygoing attitude during the booking process, and was really looking forward to learning about the island through the eyes of a transplanted Kiwi. As I was delayed in Santiago by one day and had to extend my stay on the Island by two days, I wasn’t entirely sure how my scheduled tours would be affected. “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you,” Marc said in a mid-week email.

My suspicions were heightened around 9:00 p.m. when I heard a man’s voice calling my name from the common area of my guesthouse. After waiting more than 10 minutes for a Facebook page to load on my laptop, I had dozed off with the laptop resting on my chest. I was still half asleep when the man introduced himself as Alvaro. He welcomed me to the island and delivered the news that Marc had asked him to take me for a tour the next morning. I suspected that Marc didn’t have enough clients to fill his van during the shoulder season and I was being pawned off on another operator. This was not what I had bargained for but I decided to go with the island’s relaxed vibe and wait a day before complaining.

Alvaro turned out to be a native of Easter Island, university educated, fluent in English, Spanish and Rapa Nui, and recently returned to the island after 15 years in Australia. And as a bonus, I was to be his only client for the day. I soon concluded that I could not have found a more genuine and imminently qualified guide had I tried.

Our first stop was at Rapa Nui National Park where I purchased a permit for about $65 CDN. Alvaro pointed to a photo of Hoa Hakananai’a – stolen friend – which was removed from the island in 1868 by officers and crew of the British Royal Navy ship HMS Topaze. Originally presented as a gift to Queen Victoria, it now resides in the British Museum in London.

Alvaro once visited the museum, and although it was some time before closing, an announcement was made that all guests had to leave that particular area of the museum. His ‘family-reunion’ lasted but minutes. From the heartfelt way in which he told this story, I could tell that Alvaro has a strong bond with the island, its people, history and culture.

My personable guide later mentioned that he is a descendant of two of the 111 people who were living on the island in 1877. At its peak there were 20,000 inhabitants of Rapa Nui, but when a number of slaves were returned to the island in the 1870s, and the islanders had no resistance to the “white man’s diseases” with which the slaves had been infected, the population quickly plummeted. It has taken 140 years to grow the population to its present level of around 6,500, 60% of whom have native blood. Alvaro explained that non-natives can live and work on the island but they are prohibited from owning property. This policy has kept commercial development in check rather nicely.

After attending primary school on the island, Alvaro moved to mainland Chile for high school and eventually Australia where he earned a degree in English. While training to work in the IT industry, he made a living by giving Spanish lessons to Australians. One of his early clients was Natalie Portman who was filming Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones in Australia. She was an exceptionally quick study, once memorizing 70 verbs in 15 minutes.

His work with Portman led to several jobs in the film industry, including credited roles in Babe: Pig In The City and The Matrix. He really liked two of the latter movie’s three stars, Hugo Weaving, Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne. According to Alvaro, one of the three actors screamed like a girl when stressed. I promised not to name names.

Four years ago Alvaro returned to Rapa Nui to help his aging parents run the hotel that his father built room by room in the 1960s. And according to online reviews, he’s doing a great job. Inaki Uhi Inn is rated 8.7 / 10 on and has a 96% approval rating on where 103 of 109 reviewers listed their experience as either “excellent” or “very good.”

I had previously booked five nights at a guesthouse located directly across the main drag from Inaki Uhi. Each morning I watched wistfully as Alvaro’s customers gathered for breakfast, having just enjoyed a hot shower and a few minutes on the hotel’s wi-fi. Neither ‘luxury’ was available at my hotel.

The first of my two full-day tours flew by and I was back at the hotel and in bed before 9:00. Thanks to the neighboring property’s rooster, I had been up for a good six hours by the time I met Alvaro and the five girls with whom I would spend Saturday #17. Let me just say that roosters are lovely birds and every pot of noodle soup should have one.

Brits Caroline and Hannah were travelling the world like me. Marithé hailed from Columbia, had spent a few years in Chicago, and was now seeing a part of the world that was a bit closer to home. Sun Yee had just completed a two-year contract with Samsung in Lima and decided to visit Easter Island before returning to South Korea. Florida-born Lexi was coming off a one-week tour of Chile as part of her MBA program at U of F.

On Saturday morning we piled into a six-passenger van for the girls’ first, and my second, full day tour. Our first stop was the island’s only gas station. It was closed for refilling. Alvaro calculated that we would be okay heading to the furthest part of the island with about 1/16th of a tank of gas. “If you have to push, it’ll likely be on the downward side of the volcano,” he reassured us.

So, off to the Rano Raraku volcano we went. Virtually all of the island’s 887 moai were carved at a quarry near the volcano. Their “poaku” or red stone caps were quarried at a separate location. The giant carvings were then separately transported to their final destinations throughout the island, the maoi placed on large flat platforms known as ‘ahu’, and the poaku hoisted atop the moai. Each moai, carved between about 1300 and 1500, was made in the likeness of a deceased person and most would mark that person’s final resting place.

There are many theories as to how statues were moved between the quarry and dozens of locations around the island. Alvaro believes they were rolled on logs, others theorize they may have been ‘walked’ with the assistance of ropes, and some claim the island’s slippery-when-wet clay soil must have played a role.

What we do know is that by the late 1800s the majority of the moai had been toppled by warring factions and even Catholic missionaries who believed them to be false gods.

The Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl was conducting research on the island throughout the 1950s and was introduced to Alvaro’s grandfather who by that time had been the mayor of Hanga Roa for three decades. Heyerdahl had previously made a name for himself through his Kon-Tiki expedition in 1947, in which he sailed a hand-built raft some 8,000 km from South America to the Taumotu Islands.

In 1956 Heyerdahl challenged Alvaro’s grandfather to raise one of these giant stone carvings using only manpower and items readily available on the island in the 1300s. Alvaro’s grandfather said he could get one of the moai upright in 18 days. The challenge was on.

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Here Alvaro points to a photo of his grandfather directing a crew who used long poles and strong muscles to raise the fallen moai. Rocks and soil were packed into the void below the moai while it was being raised inch by inch. After 18 days of hard work, the team had one of nearly 900 moai standing upright for the first time in several hundreds years.

Alvaro grew up in an era when one plane per week touched down on Rapa Nui, and that was primarily for refueling on the long run between Santiago and Tahiti. There were rarely more than five or six tourists on the island at any one time. None of the statues were cordoned off in any way and kids like Alvaro and his cousins would freely explore the island’s many caves, petroglyphs, and even climb on the moai. Occasionally they found human bones and skulls that had been buried under the moai. These were turned over to the government and eventually reinterred.

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After a tour of several caves, some amazing petroglyphs, a quarry, numerous groups of moai, and not one but two volcanic craters, it was time to head back to town. According to the gas gauge, we were running on fumes. Thankfully the last stretch of road was downhill.

On the way back to town we stopped at the sacred rock near Ahu Te Pito Kira. Many believe this round, smooth rock has the power to heal. That may or not be the case but as a magnetic rock it certainly has the power to send a compass into a tizzy. Alvaro leaned on the rock with each knee and prayed that one day he might be able to resume running. Most of the girls in the group prayed that we would make it back to our hotels without having to push the van.

After a seaside dinner of ceviche, whitefish in coconut and pineapple cream sauce, and several very girlie drinks, we capped the night with a trip to the Kari Kari show. This local dance troupe performs several times a week for tourists and locals alike. While each song and dance seemed scarcely different from the one before, there were no complaints from the four of us seated at front row, centre.

As I write this on Sunday morning, I have nothing planned for the rest of the day. Early on Monday morning I will meet Marc for a sunrise visit to the sacred site of Ahu Tongariki. I plan to pray at the base of each of Ahu Tongariki’s 15 giant moai. Should Doug Ford be elected Mayor of Toronto on Monday night, and my kneeling in front of 15 large rocks was all for not, I can promise you I won’t show my face in Toronto until at least 2018.

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2 Responses to “Saturday #17: Prayers at Ahu Tongariki”

  1. Tamar Granovsky

    thank goodness ford did not get in. otherwise — you would have to change the name of your blog!! thanks for all of the posts. i’ve been keeping up, mostly!

  2. Tamar Granovsky

    thank goodness ford did not get in. otherwise you’d have to change the name of your blog! keeping up with your travels, mostly… good stuff! thanks for the peru train video.


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