Now that I’m starting teaching again in August, I’ve been debating whether or not to continue blogging. I decided the wanderlust isn’t going away, so I’m going to keep writing and sharing for now. 🙂
La Serena, Chile
I was just in this beautiful country in December, so it seemed a little crazy to go back, but there was a total solar eclipse! I had some frequent flier miles to burn (thanks to some credit card scheming) and some good friends to visit again. After two long flights, a bus ride and a five hour car ride, we arrived in our beautiful condo for the weekend that looked out over the Pacific Ocean. Cata (who you may remember from my trip to Valparaiso) introduced me to brazo de reina, which is basically really thin cake covered in dulce de leche and then rolled up.
Total solar eclipses are pretty rare. I traveled to Shanghai in 2009 and Kansas City, Missouri in 2017 and both of those eclipses happened to be clouded out. Fortunately, the weather cooperated and I was finally able to see one. It’s a truly spectacular sight and it’s hard for me to put into words my excitement at witnessing such a beautiful phenomenon after so many attempts. The next one in the United States is April 8, 2024. Put it on your calendar now so you can make plans.
Sometime when I travel, I have a really difficult time. Transit is hard, hotels are expensive, the world feels very lonely. Rapa Nui (called Easter Island by colonizers) was the complete opposite of that and I had a magical time there. I stayed in a dorm bed in a hostel and ended up meeting a couple of French guys (hi Maxime & Guillaume!) and we all ended up renting a car and touring the island together. The whole trip restored my faith in hostels, since I’d had some disappointing experiences this past year.
The most special moment occurred when I signed up for a stargazing trip. I learned about how Polynesian sailors used to navigate at night using the stars. Researchers think this is how the first people came to Rapa Nui in double hulled boats, most likely from the Marquesas Islands which are almost 2,200 miles away. This is a dying skill but there are still some Polynesian elders on other islands who are expert navigators and are trying to pass this tools on to young people.
There are two main ways to find south in the sky, both methods using the Southern Cross. The first way is just to extend the Southern Cross 4.5 times and the tip of that will roughly land at the celestial south pole. The easier way for me was to connect the two pointer stars with a line, then imagine a line perpendicular to the original line. Where that perpendicular line meets the Southern Cross line is a point a bit above the celestial south pole. It seems more complicated, but was much easier for me to visualize. Once the navigators had established south, they could accurately orient their boat in whichever direction they wanted to travel even after the sun had set.
After all this time traveling in the southern hemisphere, I still struggle to recognize constellations. With so little light pollution, it was easy to see the bright stars and Milky Way. However, the main attraction was still to come when the guides took us to Anakena Beach. There they took photos of us with the moais and the celestial sky.
One of the guides starting singing a Rapa Nui song his father had taught him, using two rocks to make a beat. As he was singing, a rainbow appeared over the moais, made from the light reflecting from the moon and the moisture in the air. This “moonbow” hung in the air as the guide was singing and just as he finished, we could hear a set of hooves stampeding through the sand behind us. I turned and saw a herd of wild horses running along the beach. Music. Moonlit rainbows. Mesmerizing horses. Magic. Pure magic. Definitely a moment I will remember for a long, long time.
Like many people, I came to Rapa Nui to see the mysterious moais. They are supposed to be representations of revered ancestors who were supposed to be looking out for the best interests of the islanders. They started out small and got bigger over time. Many of the moais were placed onto specially designed altars known locally as ahus. During a hiking tour of the northern edge of the island, I got to see one of the earliest moais that was actually carved from the igneous rock basalt.
Most of the moais are sculpted from tuff, basically volcanic ash that has hardened and is much easier to carve. The later moais had tattoo carvings on their backs that were probably painted. Over time many of these tattoos have eroded away due to wind and rain. They also had topknots (pukaos) made of red scoria. Once the moai was moved and placed upon its ahu, coral eyes were added with pupils made of black obsidian or red scoria.
A giant quarry at Rano Raraku was used to construct these moai and then oral tradition says they were walked into place. There is still contention about how they were moved, but the distances were great and an average moai weighed 14 tons. (The biggest moai ever moved and erected weighed 82 tons). The pukaos themselves each weighed 1-2 tons.
Once placed upon their ahu, the islanders believed that their ancestors would make sure their needs were met. When colonizers first visited the island, they wrote in their journals about the moais still being upright on their ahus.
However, over time, the islanders begun to have issues and grew unhappy with their ancestors not providing for them. Many researchers attribute this to overpopulation and a lack of resources, specifically related to deforestation. There was certainly internal conflict on the island and the end result was that the moais around the island were toppled and the worship of ancestors ceased. The quarry at Rano Raraku is still full of semi-completed moais that were never moved from where they were carved.
In recent years, several of these ahus have been restored and some of the moais have been placed back onto their altars so that visitors can understand what that would have looked like. Many others have been left facedown on the ground where they were pulled down years ago.
Most islanders used to live in houses made of rocks and plants. The igneous rocks were carved with small holes that the support beams were wedged into. Then palms were added to the outside. The boat shape held up well against the wind and the plants protected the residents from the elements.
In one part of the island known as Orongo, stone structures were built instead. This is because the winds were quite strong here and the other houses wouldn’t have lasted long here. These were also built much later, after the moais were taken down. This village was the home of the annual competition of the tangata manu. This event was part of the birdman cult in which Rapa Nui men competed to collect the first sooty tern egg from the island of Motu Nui and then swim it back to the Orongo village. That man would then be made the leader for the following year, although sometimes potential leaders chose a representative to compete in their place.
At this time, there were many petroglyphs carved all over the island. Some of the most common carvings included Make-make, the chief god of the birdman cult. Many also featured giant tunas and boats as well as carvings of vulvas, known as komaris.
On another hike to a restricted area known as Poike, we were take to a cave that had even more carvings. Women stayed in this cave from time to time for religious purposes and representations of their deities are carved in the wall. Also found on the wall were petroglyphs of sweet potatoes covered in small root hairs (apparently now only found at a couple houses on the whole island).
By now, you all know I love to see what’s under the water, so I spent one afternoon with my new French friends at the beach and we found a bit of marine life. The lizardfish was definitely a new one for me.