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Home > Countries > Chile > A Few Days on Easter Island

A Few Days on Easter Island

V. Demenina
K. Sapozhnikov

2002

It took us five hours to get to Easter Island by «Lan Chile» airlines It took us five hours to get to Easter Island by «Lan Chile» airlines flight Santiago-Tahiti. Everything looked so trivial that for a moment we doubted if the plane really goes to Easter.

The luck was with us in the weather, and without taking into account two or three turbulent zones, the plane landed without incident on the most mysterious spot of land in the Pacific Ocean. ”Hub of the Universe” - it was christened by ancient discoverers.

A general reader experiences specifics of Easter Island from the book “Aku-Aku” by Thor Heyerdahl. The vocabulary of the Hub of the Universe has assimilated such words as moai and rongo-rongo. After this enthralling literature masterpiece and adventures an unknown talented author composed a funny song that we sang enthusiastically in student camps: “A lover of an Easter Island girl was stolen by the tiger, the lover officially dressed was eaten under the banana tree”…

Easter Island – or Rapa-Nui would be more correct (it’s a native name) – was always hard to reach because of the distance from the global transportation crossroads. Asked whether there is a spot on the planet that he failed to visit, famous travel clubman Yury Senkevich answered: “Certainly, there is – it’s Easter Island” (his dream came true not so long ago). A spot of land, lost in the Pacific Ocean, used to belong to Chile, is in a 4000 kilometer distance from the Continent and in the similar distance from Tahiti.

A cheap air ticket fare to the Hub of the Universe was always much to seek among them. In hot traveling seasons the island is visited by not more than 20 thousand tourists, and they are mainly well off people that have tight-filled purses. That is why the news office employees did their best to use a short-time but generous “offer” of Lan Chile aircraft (Rapa Nui flights monopolist) during the low tourist season. The ticket fare price was cut down almost threefold, and, certainly, they had to be fast to react to be in the potential lucky men “quote” …

And here we are at last. And here we are at last. No, the advertising booklets did not overestimated, noting the “personified receipt” of tourists: everyone who came to the Mataveri airport was decorated by a flower garland. Then (before passing the customs and passport control) lithesome girls and young men made a sensible performance of sau sau dance right on the runway as if inviting the guests to forget the exhausting problems of the global community, relax, free their hands from the civilization, dive into the primitive simplicity of senses and sensations. From the very first steps on the Rapa-Nui we made sure that even the pagan idols make the landmarks in the island lifestyle. There are more than 900 idols and the major tourist routes are worked in the way that a visitor could see all remained moais.

There is a whole army of neo-idols created in the last decades. They are raised near lots of houses as symbolic guards to keep off evil spirits. Their design differs substantially with the tradition. That is why we can state that self-dependent integration of once strict canons of the past has led to formation of the modern sculptors school – “moaists”. There are idols to be sold to tourists – to suit every taste and of any size: from fifteen centimetres to two to three metres. By all means, that two-metre long moai could be bought to be erected at the country house porch. But as far as the transportation problems are concerned…

We were settled at the «Hanga Roa» hotel, located in a hundred metre distance from the ocean. It is mainly inhabited by grey-haired American old women, unusually robust, well-groomed, good-looking and curious. Almost every one of those is sure to have lots of diseases and malaises but they hold themselves perfectly in public radiating life optimism by their view and as become the happy citizens of the Stars and Strips Flag country. It would be useless to look through the hotel registration books in search of Russian tourist groups of the “third age”: our old men struggle diligently for survival, is it the exotic islands they are thinking of? But single Russian tourists do manage to fly as far as Rapa-Nui from time to time. They are pop stars, showmen, new Russians, those devoted to exotic sciences, ambassadors and charges d’affairs (the latter visited the Hub of the Universe within the hospitality events of the Chile Foreign Ministry programme).

The management of the tourist services on the island is beyond all praise. Millionaires are sure to make acquaintance with Rapa-Nui in company of personal guides. Those less pretentious (as we are) travel within small groups from 10 to 15 persons in modern minibuses. Our guide Guillermo seemed to us to be a man of a mysterious fate. By his delicate hints we could get that he had come to the capital of the island Hanga Roa almost thirteen years before “not of his own free will”. He got married to a native girl, learned the Rapa-Nui language, engaged himself in truck farming and fishing to stay up somehow. When the tourist boom burst out, Guillermo re-educated to be a guide. To all appearances, he was sent to Rapa Nui after the army coup: being a criminal police agent he was not eager to pursue the Salvador Alende activists, and, as a result, he “walloped” to the island…

Guillermo consecrated us many secrets of the ancient civilization Guillermo consecrated us many secrets of the ancient civilization, paying particular attention to the main secret of the island: in what way the Rapa-Nui moved the multi-toned idols from the place of their creation on the slopes of the Rano Raraku volcano (the “moai factory”) to ancestral table-tombs. Some researches believe that idols were simply rolled over on the palm trunks, others state that islanders used a dodgy “swing” made of logs and ropes, with the help of those the moais metre by metre were “dragged over” to the destination point. Others stick to the opinion that Rapa-Nui pagan priests knew the secret of gravitation control and “the moais walked by themselves”. Guillermo showed us the moai “fabrication method”, and got into character so well that for a moment he seemed to be a skilled craftsman of an ancient Rapa-Nui professional technical college hammering evident facts into the heads of his foolish students. From time to time our guide changed his T-shirts. The pictures on them played the part of “illustrative material” to his stories.

The historical recollection of the Rapa-Nui people has mostly been lost. By no means that the fatal blow to the traditions, legends and development of the island culture stroke Peruvian slave-traders. In 1862 and 1863 they made not less than 15 raids to the island and brought back about 1300 islanders to work in the Peru mines. Those in resistance were butchered. Among those who were taken out and never came back were pagan priests, keepers of the historic wisdom of people, experts in the rongo rongo written language.

About a thousand years ago the Rapa-Nui shore was supposed to be moored by “transocean catamarans” of a Micronesia people in searches for “an island for themselves” to lead comfortable existence far away from conflicts and wars between tribes. They brought everything necessary for living with themselves – domestic animals and seeds of different crops. And, certainly, religious and reference literature – wooden plates rongo rongo with instructions by ancestors. There were not more than a hundred and a half of those discoverers of Rapa-Nui. They were happy that the fate saved them from certain death in the endless abyss of the ocean.

Gradually, the newcomers started homing in, realizing that it would be impossible to go back to the “historic native land”: the catamarans were destroyed and there was nothing to build new ones of as there were no palms of the necessary size in the island.

The lost native land nostalgia resulted in birth of a poetic and the most perennial cult of a human bird symbolizing the indissoluble connection of the Rapa-Nui people with the faraway land across the ocean. Annual migration of birds to their native land and their return was considered to be somewhat mysterious as renovation of their spiritual commonness with their native land. The human bird symbol may be found on the majority of buildings, it is also the prevailing motive in men tattoos.

The life of islanders was hard and rather primitive: “Stone Age” dragged on till the arrival of first Europeans. There were neither rivers nor lakes on the island. Cloudbursts, that the sky was generous to send, used to refill water in storages not made by human hands – they were craters of extinct volcanoes. But in what way did they make use of it? What did they keep it in? There was nothing to make crockery of, as we can see it. There was neither iron nor clay on the island.

The situation became better when another lot of vagabond settlers arrived. Who were they? Possibly the Andes people? There is a theory, shared in particular by Thor Heyerdahl, that it was that the newcomers were the first to build moais.

Before the first “settlers” it used to be a green paradise where birds never stopped to chatter. However, human exploration of the island led to no good. The island survived two catastrophes – ecological and human, i.e. genocide or, rather, self-genocide. Biological resources of the island were limited, its population rose gradually and, by some estimate, amounted to 10 to 12 thousand people. Social stratification started by degrees, leaders had to strengthen their authority, including “on the basis of” the next world. Pyramids could not be erected on the island: both the workmen force and building materials were limited. But there was volcano stone in abundance. Tuff was of great moldability, that was used to create “duplicates” of the dead leaders using both basalt and obsidian wafers or chisels. That was on the slopes of the volcano Rano Roraku that the moai idols factory was started, that were called upon to guard tribes and settlements “on account”.

Sculptors toiled for orders and in the process of work got everything for life, primarily – the greatest deficit – livelihood. The longer moai was molded, the longer the sculptor was fed. That is where the trend to gigantism comes from. And the customer was flattered by the “biggest” moai at that. But tribes in decay had to satisfy themselves by the idols of a smaller size which were believed not to be able to give reliable support in mundane affairs.

The Great Island Competition in idol-making in the time of the Developed Island Leadership resulted in Rapa-Nui material resources depletion, in the first place – forest, that was cut down in a predator way for logs to move moais to the distant places on the island. The most gigantic moai failed to be finished. Up to now it lies forceless on the back in the open air workshop on the slope of Rano Roraku. Upheavals burst out on the island. The impact – there was neither Leadership nor the Great Island Reorganization. All moais were prostrated: thrown down from the platforms, destroyed… The long Cannibal Period came: eat a neighbor to live a few more days. The symbolic remembrance of that terrible epoch is the wooden kava kava. An exhausted goatee old man, tucked up and shoulders dropped. You can count all vertebras of this humanized embodiment of death. And a piercing, death-bearing glare. Ecologists would rather take the kava kava character to market their ideals among those who do not want to attend to their warnings. When the ecocatastrophe burst out in full force, the privileged “golden billion” will fail to sit out in their palaces of electronics and crystal.

Our interpretation of the island history is a somewhat quintessence of the variety of Rapa-Nui legends. Guide Guillermo, finishing another story of the past, told us: “Do you have another version? Tell me, I will hear it with pleasure”. As if hinting: the story of Easter Island is building on inadequate sources….

Substantial contribution to the "rehabilitation" of archeological legacy of Easter Island made the Japanese. Reconstruction of platforms and return of idols to their “fair places” started after the expedition lead by Thor Heyerdahl in 1955. Substantial contribution to the “rehabilitation” of archeological legacy of Easter Island made the Japanese. Due to their efforts impressive ceremonial and burial complex Tonga Riki was revived: the massive multi-toned idols were returned to the platform again, calm, inscrutable, stern and authoritative. They are 15 all in all, their backs turned to the ocean, and unending pain is seen in their empty orbits. Once they used to have “seeing” eyes of mother-of-pearl huge shells. Many long years the aura of those shining eyes, that, according to the legends kept the soul of the dead leader, day and night used to guard the islanders and their dwellings. That is why during the wars the eyes of the idols were destroyed persistently.

I wonder, what moais would have said once the eye-sight had been returned to them and they had made out their people in “new historic conditions”?

Until 1888 the island was “derelict”. The “backyard” of the Pacific Ocean was not of any geopolitical interest to any country including the USA and Japan. Lack of competition on the part of the influential powers of that time allowed Chile to establish it sovereignty over Easter Island (some researches make use of the term “annexation”). Under the mandate of President Balmaceda the captain of the corvette Policarpo Togo carried out the necessary procedure, signing the Act on Sovereignty Handover between some leaders of the island on September, 9 1888.

German explorer Hermann Fisher made an attempt to write the history of Easter Island from the point of view of its inhabitants, not the white newcomers, looking down on the natives, but the islanders themselves. In his book “Sombras sobre Rapa Nui”1 he calls in question Togo’s words that establishing the Chile sovereignty over the island was “an easy affair”.

According to Fisher, the whole procedure of “voluntary signing of the act” was carried out in a fraudulent way. Togo arranged that armed sailors get off the corvette “Angamos”, gathered some leaders of the “unhappy Rapa-Nui people” in the church yard (at that time the population of the island did not exceed 180 to 200 people) and gave them the text of the Act, prepared beforehand, to be signed. The text was extremely plain:

«We, the below signed leaders of Easter Island, hereby state that we assign forever and without recourse full sovereignty of the specified island in favor of the Government of the Chile Republic, preserving our titles as leaders that we are vested with and employ now».

Out of 12 “leaders” that signed the document 9 had the name of Zoopal.

According to the contemporary islanders, there was never a family of such a name on Rapa-Nui. Apart from that, there are no names in the Act of really existed leaders and deans, without approval of those the “handover of sovereignty” could not be considered as fulfilled. The “Act”, plain from the legal point of view, was written by one and the same hand end-to-end. Judging by oral Rapa-Nui tradition, the ceremony did not leave out incidents. But the document was “executed”, and the Chile state was entitled to raise their flag on the island.

New toils started for the island inhabitants. They all used to leave on the territory of the present capital Hanga Roa. The new officials fenced off that territory with barbed wire and it was turned into real ghetto for the Rapa-Nui people. Up to 1953 all Rapa-Nui administrative affairs were with the English Company on Exploitation of Easter Island. Englishmen were the first to bring sheep to Rapa-Nui: many long years wool trading was a paying business. Colonial oppression flourished along with complete Chile non-interference. Those who were rebellious the administration of the Company announced to be “insane” and sent them to a more terrible island ghetto – the leper colony.

Only in 1966 the Easter islanders were legally acknowledged as Chile citizens…


From the information booklet for the tourists from the English-speaking countries that decided to make a trip on the island: «Typical islanders are tall, of solid build, many wear tattoos, enjoy smoking, beer and strong drinks in large quantities. Smiling, enjoy posing and flatter, speak Rapa-Nui, English and Spanish. They refer to unemployment to cover their inane laziness. Many marry to foreigners, because of that the latter have access to land, its sale and development, taking into account that the government gives land title only to the natives. And finally, many islanders devote their pastime to exploration of either local energy or spiritual force that moais and the island itself are said to be radiating. Possibly that is why many foreigners having come to the island find the quiet of the mind, energy and complete happiness that they have never experienced before».

So it is in that way. The mysterious inhabitants of the mysterious island.

It is here that the UFO should be noted. The “unidentified flying ones” are spoken about on the island even more than the mystery of moais and their levitation. The national Chile TV channel devoted a special program to the burning problem for the Rapa-Nui: Easter Island (and its ocean neighborhood) “almost for sure” is an intergalactic “landing ground”. We recorded that programme and re-watched it attentively before coming to the island: is it a programme made for order? Do the travel agency owners want to urge interest to the island?

If so, the authors of the programme “UFO on Easter Island” would get convincing materials. Dozens of talks with eye-witnesses, and not only the Rapa-Nui but with military pilots, captains of sea crafts, foreigners living on the island – they all have seen, attended, felt the manifestation of “unearthy – intergalactic, earth control means proof”. “All those UFO, that fly to Southern America and are sometimes seen in Chile, Peru and Ecuador, make a stop on the underwater base near our island”, - stated with conviction one of the deans of the island.

Let’s take a trust in him, for all that he is a dean. UFO and Easter Island go in combination quite well. These are magnitudes worthy of any esoteric and ufological fantasy.


Not long ago a first asphalt strategic road was started Today Easter Island has a civilized view – not long ago a first asphalt strategic road was started. In a few years it will be a ring road. Many comfortable hotels have appeared, made in tropic style, that well wed with the landscape. There is an airport with all modern infrastructure built in 1962 by the American NASA experts: they needed a base in the Pacific Ocean to watch space launches and a reliable runway for emergency landings of astronauts. Then electricity came to the island. But Americans had to leave Rapa-Nui. The Chile community made protests against the USA presence on the island. There were rumors that “yanks have brought atomic weapons there”.

In the capital of the island (and its only inhabited locality) Hanga Roa the sewer system was laid on, there is also a post service, and even an Internet centre. About three years ago the National TV programmes reception was tuned. The greenery of the island is rehabilitated step by step. In this context a careful hand of the National Corporation of Forests (CONAF) and Air Forces of Chile come into view: it is the military pilots that were the first to bring Chile palm-trees, close relatives to those that used to grow on Easter.

Construction of a modern port in on the waiting list. Strange as it is the island has never had one up to now.

Much attention is paid to education of young Easterners. The island school does not provide full study circle, that is why to study up and to get a higher education they have to go to the continent. The base town in this context is Valparaiso, where Easter Island is registered at administratively. Even the telephone numbers of the island are included into the reference book under the «Valparaiso» section. The islanders are not satisfied by that “registration”. “It used to be better”, they say. “Our affairs were dealt with in Santiago directly and all urgent problems were solved quickly”


The compatibility problem of islanders and “conti”, i.e. the Chileans really exists and it is discussed publicly from time to time. There are lots of sufficient pretexts for that.

For instance, the islanders react painfully to disrespectful treatment of their relics. Great scandal aroused when the Chile grape vodka “Moai” appeared on the market. Agricultural company developing pisco «Elqui Limitada», located not on Easter Island but on the continent, started sales of its 35-degree products in dark green bottles imitating a moai, a sacred cultural, religious and historic symbol for the Rapa-Nui people.

Florentina Hey, a head of a cultural association on the island («Pae-Pae Here Taine»), sent an indignant letter to the editorial office of the newspaper “Mercurio”, asking: “What would be if we start producing something of the kind? Say, packed as a crucifix? Vodka “Moai” is another display of haughtiness of those who vulgarizes our past to their own benefit”...

It can be often heard on the island: «We are another people», «We are being Chilenized», «We must live free». The islanders boycotted the celebration of 100 years anniversary of Rapa-Nui inclusion into the Chile state. The city authorities in Hanga Roa changed the names of the streets, named after those who played part in the doubtful history of “sovereignty handover”. Policarpo Togo Street was the first to disappear from the city map.

“Our brothers live in Tahiti”, can be often heard from the Rapa-Nui citizens. Trading, economic and cultural links with this island are being developed in great progression. Tahiti was visited by almost all islanders (they are about 3 thousand now).

The land matter is a principal one. Their position is as that: we are the native citizens, all the land, small as it is, is ours, “conti” are newcomers, that is why there must be no loopholes and legal tricks for the lands in the course of time to have their owners changed (“what used to be yours, now is ours”).

In July 1998 the Chile Senate rejected the government plan on modification of the so-called “Indian Law on Land” in the part relating to the title to land of the native islanders. The draft law contained the characteristic features of the “native Rapa-Nui” and title to land was given to them exclusively. The former law did not satisfy the islanders by the fuzzy wordings, the possibility of land transfer to “conti” married to an Easter girl.

The amendments were not adopted because of the opposition of the right conservative senators. “We all are Chileans, regardless where we live either on the continent or on the island, no difference in our rights is possible”, that was their point of view.

The island contains 16 thousand hectares of land, including – 2 thousand within the islanders’ use, 4 thousand – within the national Corporation of Forests (CORFO), the rest belongs to the National Park. Islanders lay claims to the state-owned 4 thousand hectares, stating that alienation of that territory was conducted with violation of historic rights of the natives. The E. Fray government treated their demands intelligently and took to gradual allocation of the land between the “protesters” (260 families in total). The President R. Lagos Administration pursues the policy of their ancestor.

Undoubtedly the land problem is the core for the future of Rapa-Nui taking into account hard relationships between “conti” and islanders.


An interesting episode to establish cultural understanding between “conti” and islanders has become the TV series “Iorana”2, that was filmed in Rapa-Nui. At first some conflicts aroused. For instance, members of the Dean Council No. 2 demanded that the TV men should pay a substantial amount for the right to make films on the background of historic monuments. The TV men revolted at first, but then realized that it was a matter of principle: when in Rome do as the Romans do. The compromise was reached.

The natives took part in mass scenes with great pleasure and later on became the most emotional and pretentious audience. The main character of the TV series is the former director of the museum of local lore, history and economy in Rapa-Nui who is alleged of stealing of unique exhibits and selling them to rich Japanese collectors. To save himself from the requital Balbontin leaves the island. In many years he returns incognito to redress an injustice. The genre for the TV series may be defined as a lyric comedy of disguise. Balbontin acts under the plot in three representations: dying from the incurable illness (that is why he is back, to heave the last breath on the native land), “personal doctor” to the patient and a harmless Frenchman, the owner of the luxurious yacht.

By all means, «Iorana» is one of the luckiest Chile TV series of the past decade. Vivid characters, twisted intrigue, exotic landscapes, esoteric undertone as if reminding – everything is possible on Rapa-Nui… We walked through the places where the filming took place, never stopping to wonder in what way the TV screen transforms lifestyle routine. Everything is as we see it, but where the festiveness, vividness, hidden magic of banalities come from?…

If any Russian channel acquire this TV series, it will not doomed to lose.

…Leaving Rapa-Nui we started the very student song about the island in low voices: « A lover of an Easter Island girl was stolen by the tiger»… A funny, sorrowful, melodramatic song like Latin American TV series of the last decade. Now after a few days on the Hub of the Universe we knew that the unknown author could not imagine exactly the routine island lifestyle: Banana trees appeared on the island not long ago, there were no tigers up there ever and rare officials were so poor that had neither full-dress nor uniform. Coming back to Santiago we sent the cassette with recordings of that song to our guide Guillermo. Who knows, may be, some day, it will be absorbed by the song folklore of Rapa-Nui3

* * *

1 Hermann Fisher "Sombras sobre Rapa Nui", Ed. LOM, Santiago, Chile, 2001
2 Iorana – greeting in the Rapa-Nui language.
3 For picture report from the Rapa-Nui island see
http://www.tiwy.com/pais/chile/isla_de_pascua_(rapa_nui)/eng.phtml


In case of any reproductions, reference to the site www.Tiwy.com is a must.

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