Thursday, March 12, 2009


  After working a half day on January 23rd, I dashed home and packed for my trip to Easter Island with only two hours to spare until my flight out of DC. I bulged out the sides of my worn blue suitcase with an array of photography and dive gear, chucked it into the back of my Jeep and roared off. The first leg of the trip was two-and-a-half hours of clockwork, and the pilot set us down in Miami like he was landing in a field of cotton candy.
  Things suddenly took a different turn, though, when I discovered that my flight from Miami to Santiago, Chile had been cancelled. All the legs of this trip were so tightly scheduled that a ripple of this magnitude could endanger the entire thing.
  Between the LAN gate attendant’s broken English and my admittedly rusty Spanish, we worked it out and got me onto another flight that would put me in Chile only an hour later than originally planned. After a raucous trip through the international security gates, complete with barking dogs, I had three hours to wait in the freezing terminal and then I was on my way.
  The nearly nine-hour flight wasn’t altogether unpleasant, save for a few long minutes of violent turbulence in the middle of the night. The plane was clean and well outfitted, the food was decent, and I got to practice my Spanish a little more with a painfully cute Chilean flight attendant.
  As the sun came up and we began our descent into Santiago, I strained to see out the window, but the view was completely hindered by clouds and fog. Finally, as we made our way under 1,000 feet, the sky cleared and gave way to the beautiful lush Chilean countryside. In the distance, jagged peaks thrust up from the landscape, and I began thinking about my long-delayed trip to climb Aconcagua. Even in this small glimpse, I got a sense for how beautiful this country was, and it made me all the more determined to return someday to explore it further.
  The Santiago de Chile airport was, to put it succinctly, a mess. An overly-long terminal walk finally dumped me into the waiting lines of the immigration checkpoints, where I paid the surprising sum of $130 for an entry visa.
  In the line next to me, three women were in a bit of a panic over possibly missing their next flight and were asking the visa agent about their departure to Easter Island. “I’m on that flight, too,” I said to them, and we decided to join forces.
  After a quick jaunt through the passport station, we made our way to the baggage claim, where we had to re-check our bags for this final flight. Thankfully, my bag came off immediately, as did the bag of one of my new friends, Fleur. She suggested that the group split up and maybe she and I could hold the plane, since it was due to taxi in just a few minutes.
  We had a bit of a problem initially convincing the security personnel that we could still make the flight, but they ultimately conceded and took our bags. From there, it was a mad dash across the deceptively large airport, aided in part by a helpful gate agent. Fleur had a little trouble keeping up, and I looked over my shoulder every once in a while to make sure she was still with me. After demanding a tip, the gate agent told me to run to gate twenty, with emphasis on the “run.” Fleur had fallen hopelessly behind at this point, and I decided I had better just beat feet and get to the plane. A quick check of my watch revealed that the official departure time for the flight had come.
  Moments later, I had gate twenty in sight just on the other side of a pair of glass doors. To my instant horror, I found the doors locked. I pulled on both of them again, hoping they were just stuck, but it was no use. I pounded my fist on the glass to try to get the attention of anybody nearby, but I was sharply ignored. As I turned to run back through the entire terminal to find another way to the gate, I heard my name called over the intercom. It was a final boarding announcement. I cursed under my breath and had just started to break into a run when I noticed that the announcement was being delivered from gate twenty-one. Tip-grabber had told me the wrong gate number. I whipped out my boarding card and stepped up to the jetway entrance just as Fleur came into view over my right shoulder. I waved to her and then we boarded the plane together, sweaty and out of breath. “Are your friends going to make it?” I asked.
  Miraculously, as I plopped down in my seat, my question was answered when I saw the remaining two ladies huff into the cabin. We had all made it.
  Knowing that these flights to Easter Island from Chile only happen once a day or less is an important part to understanding the urgency of the story.

  As I settled in for another five hours of flying, my excitement levels began to build. I was going to step off this aircraft onto Easter Island. Isla de Pascua is its official Chilean designation, but the locals call it Rapa Nui. Such a mysterious place. Such history and culture. I could only imagine what was in store.
  In between tiny naps and reading a book I had brought along about the island, I made new friends with my seatmates Ruby and Benita. It was an instant love affair with these two that happily carried over into the rest of the trip.
  Because of the anticipation, this flight seemed at times like it was going to drag on forever. Then, suddenly, we were descending. From the center row of the plane, it was difficult to see out any windows. When the pilot pitched over to make his approach, though, we were treated with a magnificent view of the green of Easter Island stuck like an emerald in the middle of the vast blue ocean. Cameras snapped and excited voices bantered throughout the cabin.
  Minutes later, we touched down on the tiny island and rolled to a stop on the tarmac. The requisite stairs were brought out, and in my haste to deplane, I forgot my brand new book in the seatback pocket.
  Then came the moment I had been waiting for. I stepped out of the cabin and took my first breath of air.
  One of the things I always notice when I travel somewhere new is the smell. Every place has a very distinct aroma. I flashed back to a similar moment in 2006 when I stepped off the plane in Tanzania, Africa. I remembered how the air smelled like campfire smoke and how it really hit me that I was actually in Africa. Here, the air was fresh, moist, full of life, and best of all, warm. I shouldered my camera bag, made my way down the stairs and put my feet on Easter Island.

  The tiny Rapa Nui airport was oppressively hot, noisy, and jammed with a mix of tourists and islanders alike. I was very relieved when I finally got my hands on my bag and stepped back outside into the breeze.
  After I found the Explora driver, he checked my name off his list and a gorgeous Rapa Nui girl draped a vibrant lei of yellow flowers over my head. “Welcome,” she said, and flashed a dazzling white smile.
  They loaded my luggage into a nearby van and I waited while they collected more passengers. The first to join me? Ruby and Benita! Turns out they were staying at the Explora Lodge as well.
  As soon as the van was full, we headed out for a quick drive-through of Hanga Roa.
  The entire body of Easter Island is only fifteen kilometers from tip to tail, so the tour of the island’s only town was understandably short. We saw cobblestone streets, tin roofed houses, lush green landscapes and a beach of jagged black volcanic rock. Thundering against the dark boulders was the most beautiful turquoise surf I’ve ever seen. I wanted to stop right then and there and just watch the waves crash, but we pressed on to the lodge.

  Minutes later, we arrived at Explora, the only real “hotel” on the island. Most all the other places to stay are residences in Hanga Roa converted into bed-and-breakfasts. The Explora Lodge, construction of which was finished only last fall, has thirty cabin-like rooms, lies roughly in the middle of the island and overlooks the southern coast.
  The room was an impressive blend of rustic island feel and modern amenity that included a jetted tub! Next to the very comfortable and certainly inviting bed was an enormous picture window overlooking a vast green meadow and the South Pacific ocean.
  Shrugging off my twenty-hours of flying fatigue, I changed, washed up a bit and had a quick snack at the lodge’s bar before I joined a group heading out for an afternoon excursion. I didn’t want to waste any of this short trip sitting around.
  As we drove across the island to our first stop, afternoon rains danced over us several times, as they would the rest of the day, but never stayed long enough to become a problem. The moisture, if anything, only served to enhance the colors and textures of the landscape.
  Ahu Akivi was our first stop and gave us our initial up-close look at some of Rapa Nui’s Moai. The seven giant stone statues, it was explained, were sitting atop altars called ahu, and were restored to their former glory in 1960 after laying toppled for nearly a century. These particular moai are among only a small number that face the ocean and are said to represent the “seven explorers” that found the island. They were constructed of various types of volcanic stone, including basalt, and featured eyes of white coral with obsidian pupils.
  Most of the eyes of the moai have been destroyed by erosion since they were first carved between 1250 and 1500 CE, but a few of them near Hanga Roa have been restored in recent times.
  Next, we travelled to Ana Kakenga on the western coast. We hiked a moderate distance across the rolling, treeless countryside, passing the stone foundations of ancient houses long since obliterated. Our guide, Nicolas, gave us a pretty thorough history lesson and also showed us a restored example of a chicken coop, again built of stones. The craftsmanship of the Rapa Nui people was impressive, most of all in the intricate nature of their masonry. Though they lacked modern tools, every block in every structure was a solid fit with no gaps.
  As we continued down the slope toward the ocean, I was struck by how vivid everything was. The grass was so green it was almost glowing. The dirt was the silkiest chocolate brown, the ocean and sky were almost match-perfect electric blue, and the volcanic rock was the deepest, richest black. Languishing on these hills were herd after herd of horses, grazing wherever they pleased with no fences in sight. I was told that though the island was bustling with these stallions, they were, for the most part, allowed to roam free because every rancher knew which belonged to them.
  Shortly, the grass gave way to a sheer cliff that plunged hundreds of feet to the heaving ocean below. There’s something quite mesmerizing about the sight of giant waves crashing into rocks. That hypnosis, and my endless shooting of photos, caused me to constantly lag behind the main group, but I didn’t care. There was no way to lose them out here, and I was going to take all the time I wanted.
  At the end of the trail, I caught up to the group as Nicolas discussed the islanders’ use of caves. There were two fairly large openings in the rock face nearby, but they weren’t readily accessible. Another burrowed into the ground near to where our vans had come to retrieve us. Most of the group ducked into the cave to check it out, with only a couple of claustrophobics staying behind.
  As my eyes adjusted, I was surprised to find quite a large underground room with a ceiling high enough nearly to accommodate standing upright. Nicolas shined his flashlight down a side passage and told us there were many such caves around the island. Some had been used for storage and others as hiding places during battle.
  “Does this come out somewhere?” I asked. Nicolas nodded, “Yeah, that way, not too far.” I asked if we could go through and he said yes, but to watch my head.
  As we moved along inside the ever shrinking room, I kept one hand on the ceiling at all times. Soon, I could see sunlight spilling through the small opening ahead. I eventually had to take my pack off and scuffle through on my hands and knees. It wasn’t the giant cave adventure I had hoped for, I thought, as I emerged onto the hillside, but it was still fun. I had the mud stains to prove it.
  Our last stop of the day was Ahu Tahai on the northern end of Hanga Roa. This site had several moai and was located right on the beautiful shore. As I walked from one ahu to the other, snapping pics, I could see several islanders on their boards in the waves beyond. It was a beautiful afternoon, and the rains had seemingly moved along. Now, all that was left was the sun, some really good surfing conditions and a striking full rainbow.
  Glasses of champagne were passed around as the sun began to set on our first day, and we were all smiles.
  By the time we were headed back to the lodge, I had come to know the members of my party fairly well. Charlie, the defacto leader of his group, was an older gentleman from South Africa who spoke with a droll English accent that reminded me so much of Thurston Howell from “Gilligan’s Island.” He was accompanied by his lovely wife, a man named Goulding and his wife, and their friend Arthur.

  Back at Explora, Charlie and Arthur and I sat down in the lounge, and I had my first taste of “Pisco Sour”- a drink I would soon come to realize was both deliciously addicting and devastatingly high in alcohol content. Two empty cocktail glasses later, I was feeling pretty fine. We shot the breeze for a good long while, and then saw by our watches that it was time to wash up and prepare for dinner. Charlie asked me if I would “care to dine” with his group that evening. I accepted and then staggered back to my room.
  After my first full shower in two days, I was refreshed and more than ready for a healthy meal.
  Everyone else was seated when I arrived, and the spread was surprisingly formal. As I sat down, still slightly buzzed, the wait staff attended to me and the group engaged me in lively conversation. For some reason, I started thinking about the scene in “Titanic” where Leonardo DiCaprio’s character pretends to be a gentleman and dresses up to attend a dinner with the ship’s aristocracy. These folks were nothing like those snobs of film legend, though, and we had a wonderful evening.
  The dinner was exquisite, and we were all thoroughly spoiled by the chef. The four course meal consisted of not-unusual fare; soups, salads, pastas, sinful deserts. What made it so unique was the combination of ingredients, the presentation, and the sheer quality of it all. A very good Pinot Noir rounded things out nicely. I can think of few meals that compare.
  I didn’t turn in that night until around 12:30 a.m. I wasn’t feeling the effects of time-zone displacement, since Easter Island is on Atlantic Time, but my total accumulated sleep for the previous three days was roughly five hours. That, plus all the hiking, the drinks, the full belly and a deep sense of peace put me out almost immediately.
  When I roused from my coma the next morning and opened my curtains, I came face to long face with a four legged peeping tom.

NEXT TIME, Day 2: mountain hike and the moai quarry

1 comment:

  1. More More!!! I'm going to have to live vicariously through you. I can hardly wait to read the updates! Such vivid imagery! I'm there with you in spirit!