April 10th, 2015


Easter Island! Easter Island!

We were on a relatively early flight so we had a rapid breakfast from an unremarkable buffet before taking the hotel's own shuttle bus to the airport. W withdrew Chilean cash from an airport ATM before we checked in for our domestic flight to Easter Island. Although we were travelling business class, there is no lounge in the domestic terminal so we sat by the gate on comfortable benches that felt uncrowded even as they filled up with a couple of young American families. I exchanged a nod with the eight-year-old boy who was also playing with a Nintendo 3DS XL on the opposite bench.

We had two hours to wait so I decided to fill some of this by returning to the ticketing hall to have my missing frequent flyer number added to my record of this flight. An escalator took me downstairs to the baggage claim hall. I then walked to the arrivals hall and pushed my way through the press of car drivers and taxi touts waving their signs. A big lift took me up to the ticketing hall and I was directed to a desk where a check-in agent reissued my boarding card with the missing number. This was the first time that I had received a boarding card on thin paper; I can see no reason why boarding cards need to be of expensive card stock but the flimsy stock came as a surprise.

The aircraft gleamed in the morning sun against the magnificent backdrop of the Andes. Aboard the plane we were in the two centre seats of a crisp fresh premium business class cabin with comfortable red seats. We watched our fellow passengers board as we sipped our drinks and nibbled the warmed nuts that were readily replenished. The passengers were a diverse bunch although few seemed to be anglophone and a large school party of Chilean teenagers made a lively appearance.

Because the cabin crew work individual aisles, W and I were served by different attendants. W's steward was a stereotypical hispanic woman with large eyes, pale olive skin, straight black hair pulled back in a tight bun, and full lips highlighted with strong red lipstick. She twinkled with laughter as she decided to help W to learn more Spanish over the next five hours.

The flight passed surprisingly fast with good food, some reading, and much playing of Animal Crossing (in which I continue to dive obsessively in my quest to catch a red king crab). W, meanwhile, practised her Spanish and luxuriated under a real duvet in crisp white linen. Soon we were descending the steps to the tarmac of Mataveri airport. It has a huge runway (extended to accommodate space shuttles but never used for that) between green volcanic hills. The terminal building is surrounded by a low wood fence painted with local imagery like the nineteenth century birdman cult figure and on the grass behind the fence stand several modern carved stones. The air was warm and the skies clear as we walked into the covered passage that leads to the arrivals hall where a single baggage carousel fills one end. We were standing quietly near the start of the carousel when we were surrounded by a horde of teenage schoolgirls impatient to move on. Impatience was no benefit here; the bags started to circulate but several tumbled off the belt and occasionally there would be a logjam that stopped the carousel entirely. Among the roller cases and backpacks there were polystyrene crates of chilled foodstuffs; many polystyrene crates of chilled foodstuffs. Fresh food is relatively expensive on the island and many people had advised us to take our own stock; advice that we ignored. The school party had clearly taken such advice to heart. There were literally dozens of polystyrene boxes for them. And these boxes screeched their way around the belt, tumbling to the floor, and piling up at every bend. Eventually baggage handlers recognised the problem and started to stack the boxes on the floor. Everything was slow and cumbersome but we were already familiar with Polynesian 'island time' and accepted the delay. While we waited W remarked that the National Parks ticket office had been shut and speculated as to where we might buy our tickets. The bouncing schoolgirls obscured my view of the belt but their bags arrived before ours and I had space to snag our packs and load them on a trolley.

Outside the terminal were a ring of smiling locals awaiting the arrival with leis. Our taxi driver had several names on his board but we were the only ones to arrive and we were alone in the car wearing our leis (and huge grins) as it pulled out of the small car park and turned left onto a road alongside the perimeter fence with trees, low houses and restaurants on the other side. We turned right by a single storey hotel with mock moai on either side of its corner entrance into a tree-lined street that forms the main thoroughfare of Hanga Roa, the only significant settlement on the island. The street is called 'Atanu Tekena' on some maps but this is a corruption of Atamu Tekena, which is, in turn, the Rapanui version of Adam Tekena. Adam is the baptismal name of Tekena, who was chosen to be 'king' of Easter Island in 1887 by the Bishop of Tahiti. The Chilean authorities needed someone to sign on behalf of the islanders when they annexed the territory. Tekena's only qualification was that the Bishop thought him to be particularly pious. He is now reinvented as a kind of freedom fighter. Before 1998 the street was Avenida Policarpo Toro but that name now applies to a street along the waterfront.Until Every street name seems to have a rich story behind it.

All the buildings seemed to be single-storey. On our right stood the whitewashed premises of the Chilean Navy, which managed the island (or 'ruled', depending upon your perspective) for part of the twentieth century. Nearby was the Gelateria Aeropuerto (the Airport Ice Cream Parlour). We turned towards the sea at a crossroads on which stood the LAN Airlines office. We were now on Avenida Pont, named after a Frenchman who came to the island in 1885 and, unlike most Europeans, stayed for the rest of his life and founded a locally important family. Finally we turned onto Calle Taniera Teave (the source of which name I never doscovered). Our hotel, Hotel Tupa, stood at a crossroads with Calle Sebastian Englert (named after the German Franciscan friar and priest who did so much to record Rapa Nui language and archaeology in the twentieth century; the local anthropology museum is also named after him). Calle Taniera Teave joins Calle Policarpo Toro (named after the Chilean naval officer who was largely responsible for Chile's decision to annex the island and then implemented that decision). A tupa is a small vaulted stone dome widely thought to be a mortuary structure for the display of human bones but also interpreted as a viewing platform. And that is quite enough Rapa Nui toponymy for now.

Along the path to the hotel entrance stood a vivid hibiscus tree within sight of the deep blue of Pacific Ocean under a clear blue sky. By the car park, a horse crunched the grass in a small paddock. We passed through cheap hardwood doors over a polished concrete floor past a dining room laid for breakfast overlooking the ocean. A Rapanuian man in his mid twenties introduced himself as Esteban and gave us a well-rehearsed briefing in idiomatic English on the hotel and the island with the aid of a board onto which was pasted a large map of the small island. Essentially, he could provide anything that we needed during our stay. He was on duty in the small reception office from 08:00-23:00 every day and a night porter would take care of us overnight. The national park sites were affected by a strike but this was more likely to eliminate access charges than it was to hinder access. Esteban was not clear about the issues behind the strike nor about its extent but, clearly, he expected us to have been made aware of the local events in the international press.

From the map we could tell that the island was a little smaller than Jersey or half the size of the Isle of Wight that was so big a part of my childhood. Esteban told us that there was very little crime because with just 6,000 inhabitants everyone knows everyone else although I had read that petty crime is a recently growing phenomenon.

We took our room key and followed a corridor to Room 16. It was reasonably clean and adequately provided with basic furniture, an en suite toilet and bath, and a small refrigerator. The overhead fan did not work but a freestanding electric fan was provided. On the bed our towels had been shaped into a pair of swans. Sliding aluminium patio doors with an ill-fitting insect mesh opened onto a tiny patio with a single chair. It was not luxury but it was entirely adequate to our needs.

With the afternoon being so clement we went for a walk, retracing our taxi ride to Atamu Tekena and continuing along this main street to a relatively major crossroads. We passed bars, cafes, hotels, grocery stores, car rental lots, and clothing stores. Everything was low-rise with a rustic feel. Ahead was a signpost to the museum but the houses petered out only a little way along this so we returned to the crossroads and walked downhill to a small harbour with a couple of dive shops and more cafe-restaurants. This bay was the place that James Cook came ashore in 1770 and departed with an unenthusiastic report of the island that shaped European opinion for over a century.

On the harbour wall stood our first two moai. Like every standing example of the characteristic great stone upper bodies on Easter Island, these had been restored. Nearly a thousand moai were toppled by the islanders in the nineteenth century leaving not a single monument upright. Every standing stone has been raised and, since most topplings involved breaking the statue necks, most restorations involve reattaching the head and in some cases inserting coral whites into the eye sockets. It is now thought that none of the moai are portraits but each represents a dead powerful person. They were set to look across the settlement that they protected or with which they were associated. The rows of statues seen in so many photographs are stood on ahu: ceremonial dry stone platforms used as mortuary monuments. Single moai are also prevalent and seem to mark territorial boundaries. The moai nearest to Fisherman's Wharf was brought to its quayside location from further inland in 1938.

The waterside road runs between the moai and a full size football pitch with a pavillion, bleachers, and an all-weather surface provided by the Chilean government as one of its recent investments in the island. Another was the resurfacing of all the islands roads but many locals remain cynical about the government's commitment to education, health, and trade.

The football pitch is heavily used with a local league of eight men's teams all with their own unique strips. A row of three small cafes overlook the bleachers at the southern end of the pitch. They are quasi-permanent carritos; food trucks around which have been built verandas that make it impossible to move a truck without wrecking all the business premises in the row.

At the end of the small quay stands a painted plaster statue of St Peter, the patron saint of fishermen. We looked out to sea and enjoyed the afternoon sun for a while until the dive shops gave W an idea. She thought that she would like to go diving again after an interval of over ten years. We went into Mike Rapu Dive Centre where a happy enthusiastic stoner called Gonzales explained all the schedules and pricing, described some of their dive sites, and ascertained W's level of experience. A charming woman called Denise with gentle eyes and a soft smile took a small deposit and W's name was written up on their dive schedule whiteboard for two dives.

Estaban had recommended that we watch the sunset of Tahai, a complex of three ahu and an assortment of other archaeological remains on the coast about a mile north of Fisherman's Wharf on the edge of Hanga Roa. We wound our way past single moai and modern carvings of the tuff stone used for almost all moai and of the softer red volcanic scoria used for pukao, the hats or topknots atop some moai. Beyond the walled cemetery filled with memorials decorated with unique blending of Roman Catholic and traditional Polynesian symbolism the grassy land was littered with stone structures and occupied by horses, dogs and people with cameras waiting the sunset. On the scarp above the gentle slope a row of gazebos sheltered a busy bar. The sun went down amid clouds that obscured any pink flares in the sky.

We walked back towards the settlement in the dusk and chose a bar just north of the Wharf that thrust out into Pea Bay on piles. Pea (pronounced 'Peya') is a surfers' bay and the bar is eponymous. We ordered pisco sours that were even better than those in Santiago and watched our drinks go down with the light. The food looked good so we ordered dinner and I sampled one of the local beers; a light amber ale called Porter from Mahina, the island's only brewery. We shared a trilogy of ceviches (raw fish marinaded in lemon juice with variations of herbs and spices). It was glorious. For dessert I had poe; the traditional polynesian dish like a bread pudding made from spiced plantain. It was odd to see this resolutely vernacular dish presented formally with a drizzle of fruit syrup and garnishes.

Walking back to our hotel along the ocean road we passed an al fresco restaurant with candles on every table. “What a nice place” we said, tritely, so naming it 'the nice place' for the rest of our stay.

As we collected our room key we had a long chat with Esteban, who gets lonely stuck in his small office with few guests in the low season.