Worldwide with Wee-Cheng #6: Rapa Nui – Easter Island, Chile

#5: Rapa Nui, Easter Island, Chile:
A Detour to the Chilean South Pacific

Wee-Cheng The Nomad with Moai, Easter Island.

19 Jan 2002

Remember that movie Rapa Nui, starring Jason Scott Lee? It’s one of those films with a fantastic scenery and setting, but it failed miserably. The story was set in the mysterious Easter Island (or Rapa Nui in the local language), famous for its gigantic statues. The movie was about the struggle of some handsome-looking warriors from the ruling class and the servant class who strive to win an ancient equivalent of the Triathlon, the so-called Birdman cult, (which among other things involves jumping off a cliff into shark-infested seas to swim to an island to get the first egg of a kind of migratory bird with strange names) in order to win the overlordship of the island and as usual, the love of a local princess. No prizes for guessing who won the contest.

Easter Island, ruled by Chile as a province of its Region V, is one of the most remote islands of the world. Only about 100-odd sq. km, with three volcanos, the island is 3700km west of South America and 1700km east of its nearest neighbour, Pitcairn Islands, an even more inaccessible British colony inhabited by descendants of the mutineers of H.M.S. Bounty.

These days, Easter Island relies on tourism, made possible by the normally twice-a-week flight from Chile (three to four times in summer). Even then, this place is unusually remote and laid-back, and more Polynesian than Latino in character. Up to three years ago, islanders watched TV shows that were 3 to 4 days late, as Chilean TV programmes are recorded onto video tapes and flown to the island on the twice-weekly flights. Then they were played on Easter Island TV Station. These days, they have introduced satellite dishes.

I arrived in Santiago, Chile a week ago, after an amazing 30-hour bus ride from Asuncion, Paraguay, with two hippie girls across the Argentinean Pampas and the High Andes, passing the border into Chile near Aconcagua, the highest mountain of North and South Americas. On Tuesday morning I boarded the 4½-hour Lan Chile flight (excellent service!) to Easter Island.

Local surf boys.

Upon arrival, like other tourists, we were mobbed by local houseowners with garlands of flowers, trying to entice us to stay with them. Well, the decision can’t be easier. A group of us, backpackers from Austria, Netherlands, UK, Japan and Singapore, chose a nice pension by the coast – ok, most of the houses are by the coast. As we later analysed, our choice might well have been swayed by the presence of a most attractive Rapa Nui girl: well-tanned, well-figured, English-speaking; she was perhaps the best marketer at the airport that day!

E.I. is famous for its moai, hundreds of gigantic statues, each up to 9m tall. They stare blankly afar (tourism authorities would have you believe that all of them stare at the sea into the horizon, but in reality most stare inland, towards villages). Today it is a mystery how and why they were built, why they were pulled down later, why so many remained at the quarry, etc.

These, plus the fact that E.I. is remote and expensive to reach (the ticket cost me almost US$800, more than I paid for my round-trip ticket from London to Latin America), serve only to heighten the sense of mystery and romance about the island. To many tourists, it has been their dream to see the island, and people started snapping pictures the moment they landed. I took as many pictures those 4 days on E.I. as I had taken in the past three weeks of travel.

But E.I. is also a cool place to laze around. There aren’t many beaches, but it is enough to lie on beaches under the shadow of the gigantic moai and watch the beautiful locals. Most of them seem to spend the better part of the day swimming and surfing on the massive waves of the Pacific.

Watching sunset on Easter Island.

The people of Rapa Nui are Polynesians, who were masters of the oceans. They moved here thousands of years ago from Southeast Asia and settled across the islands of the Pacific. Handsome, well-tanned, muscular guys – the results of the time spent swimming and surfing – sometimes with dark blue, traditional tattoos of stylised mythological creatures, occasionally sport some dried leaves behind their long ponytailed hair. The girls, equally well-toned and tanned, sometimes have a flower behind their ears; they are equally generous in their most hospitable smiles. However, despite their prevailing presence of fish in their diet, any positive element is offset by the amazing quantities of sweet potatoes consumed locally, plus the introduction of chips and pork into the local diet, such that by their early 30s, local beauties sometimes balloon into the Pacific version of the Russian babushka.

It was a relaxing stay on the island, so idyllic, and yet so bizarre in some ways. The unfortunate events in the USA have also led to a big slump in local tourism. The prices of pensions have dropped from the usual US$25 to US$10, which in any case is still twice or more that of Mainland Chile. A basic meal cost $7 on E.I., compared to $2 in Santiago. Even then, this is lower than the anticipated $10 to 15 as quoted in the guidebooks.

I had a good time on E.I. I did a lot of walking (well, including a foolhardy attempt to walk up a volcano where the famous Triathlon was conducted – in hot sun, almost got lost… but thank goodness the island isn’t too big) and simple lazing around, people-watching, etc.

I was back in Santiago yesterday night. I will reassess my Bolivian visa situation, which is still in a mess. An online friend, also Singaporean, has just secured her Bolivian visa after 10 weeks. I would have to consider my maximum limit. Santiago is a cool city, but I can’t stay here forever. I will have to decide on Monday whether to move northwards to the Atacama Desert. Till then…

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