We arrived on Easter Island at 2 a.m., our flight having been delayed for two hours. It was cool and rainy as we walked across the tarmac into the small airport, and the floor surrounding the baggage claim was slippery with mud and impatient passengers looking for their bags like vultures scouting roadkill. Our backpacks were among the first out, but the two 23Kg bags of food that we’d brought to avoid exorbitant island prices emerged last. It didn’t matter; we were unsure that our farm host, Marco, who we planned to volunteer for would even show up. We had no phone number, no WiFi, and no information as to the location of the farm except “the middle” of the island.
As hotel representatives greeted the other passengers with name cards and flower garlands, Ben and I hid under an awning from the rain with our heavy bags and hoped that our host might recognize us, as we had no way of recognizing him. When the parking lot and taxis were almost clear, Marco did turn up with his farm hand. He led us out of the airport gate to where is pickup waited. There was only room for one passenger in the cab, so Ben and I would have to ride in the back.
“The adventure begins here,” exclaimed Marco. I forced a smile that might have been genuine if it wasn’t raining and if I hadn’t been up for 24 hours. Back on the continent, it was already 4 a.m.
We sped away from the airport into a night blacker than squid ink, and only slowed when we turned down a dirt road. Shivering from the wind and damp clothing, I kept lookout for the warm glow of lightbulbs. Instead, we pulled up to a dark wood-and-plastic sheeted shack (which would come to be known lovingly as the paipai, meaning very basic accommodation in Rapa-Nui). Too tired to socialize, I hoped and prayed that nobody was home.
Inside, two boys that looked no older than 19 and two girls sat on tattered, stained couches around a single candle. “Hola,” I said. They stared wordlessly at us through a cloud of smoke. Not wanting to be social wouldn’t be a problem- they were stoned out of their minds.
Rain still fell the next day- it’s sound amplified by the paipai’s tin roof- but the volunteers gave us a warmer welcome. Between showers, we walked to the coast on a path that stretched between pastures of cows and horses, trying not to step on the thousands of ankle-twisting fist-sized rocks.
Some of the rocks seemed to have deliberate placement, forming lines and pentagonal shapes. The Chilean girl Natalia (who no longer stoned, had the poise of the Queen of England and the charm of Sophia Vergara) explained that the shapes form a picture when seen from the air. “The whole island is an archaeology site,” she said, passionately gesturing around us. Even our paipai had petroglyphs on the rock wall atop the hill in the back, and (apparently) a fallen Moai shrouded in neck-high grass by the bedrooms.
How I wanted to see the rest of the island. I ambitiously decided to visit all the known Moai, but the whole week was grey and wet, and after five hours a day of picking strawberries, my back hurt as though a Moai had crushed it.
The sun finally made an appearance the next week, and for an island with relatively little flora, there was an exceptional explosion of color. The sky turned from Scranton Pennsylvania-grey to an eyeball-searing blue. The wet grass sparkled yellow in the heavy evening sunlight, little purple flowers drifted through the air, and the mud turned an earthy red. I’d given up trying to see all the Moai, as to get anywhere entailed a 40 minute walk to the main road and then hitchhiking, but it was too beautiful to stay in the shack.
I took up running. Easter Island has to be the best place on earth to run (minus the ankle- breaking rocks). With few cars and no people, I sang out loud at the top of my lungs, receiving strange looks only from the cows and horses that proceeded to trot away from me. Marco had said in our brief online exchange, “Easter Island no problem!” That’s how I felt when I ran- that no problems could reach me on Easter Island.
Sadly, Easter Island does have its problems. The islanders do want independence from Chile, but haven’t figured out how to make it happen logistically. The island receives three cargo boats worth of resources from the mainland country every month, and ships back a good part of the 20 tons of garbage that it produces per day. And with an economy entirely dependent on the rapidly-growing tourism, the locals must strike a balance between the exploitation and the preservation of the legacy that draws the tourists in the first place.
With Chile’s rude but somewhat necessary interference in Rapa Nui life, that balance has been tricky one to find. A Scottish sheep farm was allowed by Chile to use nearly all the land outside of Hanga Roa until 1953, when the islanders rebelled, elected their own mayor, and began to win back rights to their native land. Today, only blood descendants of Rapa Nui people can own land on Easter Island. But because Chile controls and profits from the flow of tourism to the island, the Easter Islanders don’t have control of their own economy.
In spite of all this, the island houses a happy, wealthy bunch of people. There is virtually no homelessness because the filming of the movie Rapa Nui brought in so much money to the islanders that they could afford to buy land; many families own multiple houses and undeveloped property. Some of the richer families occasionally (and by occasionally, I mean approximately 33 times per year), build a massive earth oven that is blessed by a priest in a feather crown and everyone on the island- tourists included- are invited to a free picnic of roasted sweet potatoes and local beef and fish. Beholding the sight of a couple hundred people, all napping out their food comas in the grass, melted my heart a little.
I didn’t end up visiting all the Moai, but I did hit up all of the most touristic spots: Rano Raraku, the Moai factory in a volcano; Tongariki, where the sun comes up behind the Moai; Orongo, the volcanic lagoon; and all the caves I could find (minus the one with a dead cow inside).
It’s a small island and you really do only need a couple days to see the sites. Plus, hostels are expensive and paying upwards of $40 per night isn’t within everyone’s budget. To get a really great Easter Island experience, you must stay in a paipai with no electricity or cell service for a month. Spend long, breezy days picking strawberries and chasing cows. Scratch yourself on rusty nails poking from the walls as you grope for candles in the blackness. For a rocky, deforested speck of land in the middle of the ocean, Rapa Nui has a lot to offer.