Luces de Rapa Nui,
Sunday 9:00 AM. From an old radio in the captains post, a traditional Easter Island song begins to come through the sound waves. It has been 13 days since we set sail from Valparaiso aboard the cargo ship Orlando II. Its cargo being 16 men, and 4 thousand tons of oil barrels, cars and food, which will replenish Easter Islands supply. Although we cannot see it on the horizon, we still know it’s there, because the same song can be heard on all the radios throughout the ship. The sound of guitars and the drums break the monotony of those days at sea. A feeling of excitement and impatience begins to propagate amongst the crew until finally “The Poike Peninsula” appears. One must be careful not to confuse the peninsula for the clouds that blanket it.
For the engineers Dany and Emilio it is the realization of a dream they have carried since their childhood. It is the same for first officer Rojas, who in 30 years of service with the army has toured all of Chile, except this island. However, for the Piolot Rivas it is nothing new; he’s made this island voyage 17 times, and declares that the only thing he desires at this point in his life is to be at home in Valparaiso. “It is the most boring trip in all of Chile, the endless sea and sky before you until you’re nauseated”. As for the commander, he is sitting comfortably on the couch intently working on his crossword puzzle. The arrival seems to produces a routine affect on him as well. “I remember arriving here for the first time. It was during the early ‘50’s when I was only a cadet. The navy ship would arrive once a year and it was as if the UFO’s had landed. The whole town would wait for us one on top of the other. I believe it was on that return trip, we secretly smuggled back a group of Easter Islanders who wanted to leave the island”.
As the distance between sea and land diminish, you begin to make out the southern coast, and the far off crater of the Rano kau Volcano. At 3:00 in the afternoon our speed holds a steady 5 to 6 knots as we pass between the islets facing the southeast. The experience is one of an impressive magnitude. We are all out on the deck, including Cookie the chef, who rarely venture outside the boundaries of him kitchen. The low clouds draw their shadows upon the sea and the 400 meter high Volcano seems to come right out on top of us.
This journey is also the realization of a dream for me. It has been one year since I last set foot on the island. This time however I had the unique opportunity to make the trek on a old rusty Russian cargo ship.
During the voyage, I amused myself by acquiring the position as a kitchen waiter, where I had the pleasure to wait on the tables of the captain, first officer, and head engineer. Somehow the soup always left the kitchen, but never made it to the table. Approximately 3 days is how long it took me to master the movement of the boat in relation to the oncoming waves. All this while in possession of a tray full of plates.
There was a generator that had become a nightmare for the engineers on board. They were enclosed all day in the engine room below, whose temperature remained at a constant 40 C. Not to mention that as a result of fighting with the generator, the alarm would be activated, adding a sound of chaos to an already problematic circumstance. Eventually, after much sweat and labor the engine restarted, and Oralando II regained its composure of silent tranquility.
On the third day the 85 meter long ship almost turned from the path of its destination. The force of the waves had undone some ropes that secured a truck on the deck, tipping the ship from its stable balance. Thanks to the captain’s grace under pressure, he had the compartments filled with water on that side of the deck whose nose was jutting out of the ocean. Once again the ship regained its previous composure from disturbed tranquility. But at the time, we were all in danger of becoming victims of the sea;
“Paparazzi, beware the horn of the bull!, screamed the soaking wet first officer and two seamen who were referring to the waves that threatened to throw us into the turmoil that was once a calm sea.
After a long struggle with the steel chain on one side, and the waves on the other, the 3 were able to securely fasten the truck. Then they had the luxury to calmly smoke a cigarette.
After such experiences under pressure, one begins to understand these people. People who cannot commit themselves to a life of ties and suits where they are enclosed within small cubicle office blocks. They are vagabonds of the sea who value the true nature of unconfined freedom. From the engineer to the seamen, up until the ship welder; the sea compensates for all the sacrifices of a tough job. The ship itself could be a museum with all its contents on display.
I surrendered to these reflections as the anchor was dropped in front of Hanga Roa, the only town on Easter Island. Quite a few fishing boats surrounded the ship as we reached the port. I noticed from a distance that they had paved a new path to the cemetery and that the number of crosses and head stones had increased. The place looked peaceful as on every Sunday afternoon.
From the deck I saw Cacho, with a feather on his head and Pepeka in his arms. I had met him 4 years before on my first trip. He is called German Ika. Grandma Mamaru, the 4 children and his wife Viki had given me room and board on my previous visits. A couple of years ago their only daughter Pepeka was born with much happiness. I was fortunate to have been named her godfather. I clearly remember that day running barefooted to the church with feathers stuck in our hair.
My reunions with them are always charged with much emotion, not to mention the farewells. For the children, my return is not such a grand thing.
“Hey, did you bring me the water truck”, little Tanga asks me.
“Yes, yes”, I reply.
He cocks one eyebrow, and a big smile spreads across his face.
“Pehe Koe, how are you?, you’ve returned already?”
These are the repeated questions I hear when I disembark onto the dock. The firm ground is foreign and makes me feel dizzy. Also in my possession are 2 guitars. A valuable instrument for all the festive nights. And some bags of potatoes and onions for the complimenting feasts.
“The Rapa Nui have nothing to complain about, they don’t pay taxes”, say the people from the continent.
But on the island, one must take into account that merchandise costs 3 times as much; An onion, 400 pesos; 1,700 for a kilo of potatoes and 1,400 for a kilo of bread. Orlando Paoa, the first Easter Islander to have a cargo ship, can now travel to and from the island every two months. Thanks to that, some prices have dropped.
The winter is about to arrive and the tourists are beginning to leave. So when Viki received the produce I had bought in Valparaiso for no more than 4,000 pesos, there were tears in her eyes.
The arrival of winter meant less work and money for all. Fortunately, now Cacho, thanks to a project from CONADI, has a boat. Together, him and Kiri have made a living fishing for tuna at high tide, which sells for 2,500 pesos per kilo in town.
The island doesn’t have its own resources to export; that is why tourism is essential for island income. In the airplanes, the passengers who fly to Rapa Nui hear: “Thanks for choosing Lan Chile”, but in reality no choice exists. Lan Chile is the only option if you want to reach the island by air, and like a monopoly, it dictates the price. In 1990 plane tickets fluxuated between 60 to 130 thousand on a daily basis. The Rapa Nui organized a peacefully demonstration on the runway with tractors and horses as a sign of protest. In the end they met with the airline executives and the prices dropped. This agreement only lasted for a few days, because soon after the prices rose again. Today a flight from Santiago to Easter Island is the most expensive ticket in the world per Km.
Fishing is one of the primary resources; It is a job that the Rapa Nuis learn during their childhood. From the shore they attach a wire to a bucket, to catch the “pissiuie”. It is a sacred fish on the island that must be bitten on the head for the final kill.
“I’m not good at Fishing with the rod”, states Paka, “its through the wire my hands that I converse with the fish”.
Kiri just returned from the mainland with various meters of netting that they use to fish with. The net is brought on the boat and cast at night in front of Hanga Roa, then retrieved in the morning. Before retrieving it, they must circle around a few times on the boat, throwing rocks in the water and splashing with their feet to scare the fish towards the net.
Together with fishing, the countryside also offers another fundamental activity for the vitality of the island. Particularly in the summer, when it is common to leave town to go camping with the family. They utilize quarters in caves which are easily transformed into make-shift houses. The rocks on Rapa Nui are so porous because of the volcanic rock that absorbs all the rainfall that the formation of caves is common. There are almost 800 known caves.
Everyone has an assigned chore to do when they go camping; some fish, others gather shells for necklaces, while some look for firewood. The value of getting out of town has increased tremendously over the last few years. When I arrived in 1997, there were only 8 taxis. Now, in 2002, there are almost 80. The town changes month to month. “We are under a massive attack by the continentals”, Kay says regretfully, and he’s not the only one who says so. Now, in order to truly live and enjoy the island, one must escape to the countryside.
The never aging young Valentin Riroroko lives in the country. In his “Pae-Pae” house made of sticks and cans, he lives in candlelight and uses rain for his water supply. Whenever I return to see him, he’s always the same: working on his art and taking care of his garden of cucumbers, corn, sweet potatoes and small onions. Over the passing years, he has begun to modernize his house; the wood burning stove has been replaced by a gas one and there is a tank up the hill to send water to his crops. Valentin forever remains the same. I tell him about my journey out at sea and he too recalls his sailing adventure in the 1950, when he hid on a naval ship to get off the island. I discovered then that Valentin was one of the many Islanders who had at one point secretly left the island. That’s why the commander Ririoroko of Orlando II, had such a familiar ring.
“That was the first time I touched mainland” he retells, taking off his hat and running his hand through his gray hair.
“ They found us on the second day at sea and made us return on the next ship that set sail from Valparaiso. So I had to return and take off again going the other way”. Here Valentin is referring to the second time he escaped from the island, in October 1955, with 4 other Easter Islanders. The youngest was Orlando, who at the time was 15. Orlando now owns the cargo ship.
“He was the youngest and we treated him like gold. If something were to have happened to him, the islanders would have thought we ate him”, he tells me jokingly.
They traveled for 53 days in a life raft. The provisions they took ran out in no time. “At night I would dream that my mother was feeding me”, he continued telling.
“When we were thirsty, we would grab some lard and swallow it down to give us the sensation of freshness. On the 48th day we saw an island, but the wind changed our direction and we lost sight of it. After 6 days we anchored on Atiu island (one of the Cook islands), where we were received by the king. They offered us food, but our bellies were in too much pain for having not eaten in so long.”
“Did you ever fear that you would drown at sea?”, I asked him.
“Shit! If I fall into the water now, I get scared. But back then I was never scared of anything. We reached Panama on a cargo ship, and from there to Peru and then finally to Chile. There were journalists greeting us every place we went. We were big news! In the end they wanted to send us back to the island. I threatened the authorities that I would tell the journalists about our treatment back on the island. They let me stay”.
Life in Rapa Nui was not easy, up until a few years ago. The Easter Islanders lived enclosed within barbed wire fences on their own land. In 1895, Chile leased the island to the frenchman Merlet, who transformed it into a sheep farm. Instead of putting barb wire around the sheep, Merlet found it easier to put barb wire around the islanders. Here they were gathered into the town, were they lost all power and authority over their own territory. Some time after, the Williamson Balfour company took over and kept up the tradition initiated by the frenchman when they founded the Exploration Company of Easter Island.
In 1915, the 20 year lease that had done so much harm to the Easter Islanders finally expired, and the wait began for the Chilean government to take responsibility for the absolutely tragic situation in which the locals lived. This tragic state had already been confirmed by numerous complaints. In fact, the government passed the decree 1291 which states that “the abundance of information recently gathered makes it evident that the prevailing regime in Easter Island has reached the maximum capacity of their misery … it will be the cause of greater evils if it is not terminated at once.” This decree’s use of dramatic wording describes the reality of the situation on the island and lets one imagine the quick and efficient legislative response by the government. However let me point out a surprising turn in events. “The contract made with Mr. Merlet on September 3 1895 was nullified, but shockingly the following year they renewed his contract in the second article of the decree 712”. Plainly stated, the “decree” 1.291 of 1915, returns the island to the company for an indefinite period. Therefore perpetuating a problem rather than taking proper measures to make amends.
When the Belgian ethnologist Metraux arrived in 1935, he discovered that Rapa Nui was the colony with the worst living conditions in all the Pacific. “Not cared for by the Chileans and subjected to the negative influences of elements sent there (referring to those of the company). Easter Island did not decay, instead it simply rotted away in a misery with no remedy”.
Metraux stayed for 6 months, and when he left he took a Moai. “The Easter Islanders rise in clamor against the rape of their precious memories. With what right do they take their monuments and profane their most valued reference to their deceased.” writes Garcia Tello in the newspaper “El Sur” de Concepcion on May 23 of 1935.
The company stayed until 1953, and then the Armada arrived to take control of the faraway dominion. “ If I see a uniformed man I get the chills”, says Berta. ‘ They would hoard us all together, the elderly, children, brothers, grandparents to examine us for leprosy. A few marks were enough to send us immediately to the hospital and there they would rape us. One time, I burned a marine with boiling water because I couldn’t take it anymore”. Today, only one resident remains in the old leper colony. Papiano is the only proof of a terrible past, who awaits his hour in complete abandonment.
Relations between the Rapa Nui and the white man (the authority figure) have always been very difficult. Since the beginning, contact between them was not friendly, especially between 1862 and 1863 when 18 ships deported 1704 of the islanders. Then at the end of the century, Ariki Riroroko was “poisoned and his body was buried in a secret location in the mountains of Valaparaiso” (G. McCall). “Ariki” being the native word for King…
“From the moment I knew of the King’s death, I worked hard to end this dynasty and I believe I have achieved it”, writes Mr. Sanchez, governor at that time on the island.
After being enclosed within barbwire for 75 years, kidnapped, raped, and deprived of their religious practices, one cannot say that the islanders ever reacted with violence,…. despite having every right to do so. One time, a drunken marine tried to solve a dispute with an islander by inflicting a knife wound to his stomach. This occurred in 1896, and the diary of governor Sanchez could shed more light on the unraveling of events.
“The indigenous people remained calm that night. The next day they came with their King, dressed in his royal uniform to meet with me, and ask for the custody of the assassin until the arrival of the ship that would take him to his mainland jail. The King gave me his word that nothing would happen to him….I let them take him but not without feeling concerned”.
The marine, a young man of 24, did not hesitate to make friends with the islanders, teaching them to read, pray and speak in Spanish. Nothing ever happened to him, and at the end of a full year, a ship arrived to take him away.
During all these years, I have formed many good friendships among the Rapa Nui. This is the case with Kai, who is more or less my age and has taught me much in regards to life on the island. When I was a young boy I amused myself by watching animated movies about monkeys on TV. Kai had to pick up Cow manure and dispose of it in such a way that once it was set on fire it would last like coal. The quality Cow excrement possesses to stay afire despite wind or rain is a known fact. Little Kai’s work was to construct a path of manure serving as an eternal lighter far from home, far because of the toxicity of the fumes. Now he dreams of reclaiming the land that was once owned by his ancestors but was lost with the arrival of the Exploration Company.
The Easter Islanders have confronted numerous changes, but above all in the last few years. But they have never lost their sense of humor.
When television reached the island in the 1970’s, the TV series “The bionic man” was featured. As a result various islanders tried jumping from trees, causing the hospital to fill up with cases of broken legs. A certain indignation arose from the islanders who felt the television taught only “lies”.
Among those who go to the countryside every weekends, are a small group of Rapa Nui who (since March of 2001), have been working to restore old archaeological sites such as; Hare Moa (gallineros), Pipi Horeko, (the edge in the earth), Humu Pae (horns of stone), Mana Vai (protection for planting).
For the first time, the Rapa Nui are committed, on their own, to reconstruct their past. In the last forty years they have restored various ceremonial centers, and lifted dozens of Moai. Yet due to the magnitude of the this task, they have always needed expert archaeological supervision and large amounts of money.
As for the repair of the hare moa, they didnt require cranes or money, because a group of Easter Islanders, headed by Cacho, decided erect the structures themselves. Some archaeologists lividly protested.
“How can a group of women, children and fisherman work as archaeologists!; You must not move a stone without the supervision of an expert”, they said.
“Where have the experts been all this time?”, responded Cacho.
Even the government supported the project, when they saw the surprising results. “ Its better they spend their time doing that than fishing for Tuna”, they justified.
The small gang grew larger and the tour guides began to include the restoration sites into their stops. Between March and May of 2001, 15 Hare Moa were reconstructed, dozens of Humu Pae, and a large amount of Mana Vai were planted with some pineapple bushes. When they finished their work, the Rapa Nui felt positive about their accomplishment and their spirits were satisfied.
The Rapa Nui wanted to show that they could have a new relationship with their culture. They protested against the pisco bottles who took the shape of Moai.
“ Its like putting whiskey inside a cross’, they said.
They protested so much that the initiative to install a new control tower in the form a Moai in the Mataveri airport was never completed. Now they want to build a 5 star hotel with a golf course in the Vaitea estate. That would provide a lot of work for many families, but for how long will the lack of respect for this culture continue – something that cannot be found in any other part of the Pacific? Two beaches in 160 square kilometers is not a Tahiti or Hawaii.
Cacho dreams about a small village.
From his wheelchair, Pai transmits his energy every day through the municipal radio station to the whole island,… and dreams of unity.
“There is a big lack of unity amongst ourselves. That’s the problem”.
This lack of unity became stronger with the arrival of large pools of money. Paka recalls, “before, if you had to construct a house and the owner asked for help, then everybody would come out and help without a second thought. Amongst each other we cooperated with much harmony. Now people greet each other differently, they look at each other differently, and if you want them to help you with something, even if they are family, you have to pay.
Up to a short time ago you could live on the island without money, but now that has changed. I asked a child once “ How much is one plus one?”. The child did not know the answer. To appease him, I took a moai made of wood and I said: “If I take one of these moais that your father makes and I grab one more, how much is that?. And without thinking the child responded “50 dollars!”.