When I wake up on Easter Island, the rain is lashing against the window. This always comes as a shock when you go somewhere that is supposed to be hot but then you remember that tropical showers come and go in no time. The information in my room tells me “The reception is open 24 hours daily, but this service is only available between 8am and 10pm.” Brilliant. At any rate I wander in. What I’m after is a bloke with a jeep who’ll take me to the places I want to go. I don’t like herded tourist tours and my ethnological riddle will not be solved by following a camp maori with a green umbrella to a knackered old moai with a million fag butts at the bottom of it. So I have found a local who is covered in birdman tattoos who is going to get me the wheels and do the honours.
He’s the Del Boy of the island and he takes great delight in showing me their flag, which is the precise opposite to those of Chile, their owners. We speed off in the hired jeep and we are clearly well off the beaten path where the travel agents go. There are several caves involved so we’re underground with torches for some time. One on the coast is impressive. After crawling through a small opening you have a choice of two paths, each leading to a hole in the cliff where you can stare out to sea several hundred feet up: Dos Ventanas, the two windows. Another series of underground caves has stone tables, fireplaces and the other paraphernalia of domesticity, plus a solitary tree growing out into a small hole ion the surface.
We visit most of the moai in various states of repair. They originally had red blocks on their heads (pukao) to represent hair, which is cut from a different part of the island. The bodies come from the “factory” at Rano Raraku, a volcanic crater where hundreds can be seen still as part of the hill, all in various stages of development. We see the remains of a thirty foot long house which was designed as an inverted boat with a stone base and reeds bent over, a large rock that you blow into like a trumpet, some fishy type petroglyphs, and a large stone ball with seats round it.
Del Boy loves picking the wild guavas, but after half a dozen I’ve had enough. He’s also a diver but he doesn’t use scuba gear when he goes down for lobster – he holds his breath, shines a torch in their eyes, and whips them out of their caverns with a hook. I’m lucky if I can hold my breath long enough to prevent inhaling a blast of diesel crossing the street in Victoria. At Ahu Te Pito Kura there are fifteen moai all standing in a row like giant chess pieces lined up for a game. They create a human presence and if your arms were long enough you’d like to give them a big hug.
The stone head quarry is a hell of a place. They carved them out of a volcano and, wherever you look, what you think are natural shapes are pretty much all half-finished moai. They are everywhere, poking out at all angles, like iron filings randomly superglued to sloping Astroturf. It makes you want to put them all straight. At various sites you can see stonework which is the same in its tightness of fit to similar sites in Bolivia and Peru. I climbed up inside the volcano and I think it must be my favourite place in the world – a bowl of serenity where once there was lava chaos. You could sit and ponder life here for ages. It’s a fun drive around the island rough-roading in a jeep, interspersed by the aerial tag displays of the indigenous hawks.
At the western tip of the island is Orongo, site of an ancient village and lookout area that was the focus for a strange bird man cult. Here’s the gist. Every year the senior guys each nominate their own athlete whose job it is to dive off the cliff, swim to a nearby island, and come back with the first Sooty Tern egg of the season. No, seriously. The winner gets a top quality woman and the master is the Bird Man for the year, which he has to spend in total seclusion. Makes perfect sense really. No wonder they call it a cult, or maybe that’s a typo. Anyway they’re all barking mad and there’s your proof.
They lived in the weirdest little houses where the front door is so small you’d be hard pushed to squeeze in a pygmy leprechaun. Apparently if an intruder tried to get in, they just gave them a good kick in the head. Friendly bunch. The site incidentally is the home of an extinct volcanic crater filled with a lake and big patches of reeds. It looks a bit like spinach soup with croutons, except half the soup bowl has been ripped away to build houses so you can see straight through to the ocean. Visually odd, you might say, and mentally even odder.
Del Boy insists that I continue to enjoy his hospitality so I end up going to a birthday party, which is a full family affair. There’s a whole cow cooked in the traditional curanto fashion (it’s a hot rocks system basically), and the birthday girl is given a car which is thoroughly blessed by the padre. Most of the cow ends up on my plate to eat, along with what looks like a coconut and some cooked banana. Different drinks are proffered at regular intervals – beer, red wine and then scotch with dessert.
To stay medically alright, I lob a bit in the bushes so as not to offend. Then the traditional music starts and they pass round a guitar and accordion, so I am obliged to play some Beatles ands Rolling Stones so they can all sing along and shout Bravo Inglese! Then it’s off to the local disco where everyone goes berserk until four in the morning. My theory is that girls like dancing because they can show off sexually in public without actually having to have sex. Blokes dance because they want to have sex. The girls, of course, have a better track record of getting what they want.
The day starts with a phone call: would I like to go fishing? Why not indeed? I don’t really fish but it can’t do any harm so I agree to meet some of the people I’d met the previous night. First there were bait preparations: some sort of flour mix and raw chicken, then it was off to the cliffs in a taxi. The island is so remote that you need to book a return cab, so we did, then climbed down the volcanic rock to the waterline. Sling yer hook mate!
From the cliff top I can see straight down and through the clear water where large circular yellow fish were circling the reef like enormous lemon flavoured frisbees – they would have made a great main course. We bait up and sling the lines in as the waves crash around. My efforts were not a success but one of the other guys caught a couple of green and purple six inchers. There was no sign of the big yellow bastards at all.
Then it started to rain and it was the first time I had ever had to pull the hood out of the collar. Ironic really. I’d been round Patagonia and never needed it, and here I was on Easter Island using it. But the rain is warm and it soon passed. So we sat and waited for the taxi as the dragonflies danced around the cliff tops. And then something bloody odd happened. A taxi screamed up 45 minutes late and Del Boy stormed out, rushed up to his girlfriend and smacked her right round the head. There was a skirmish and it transpired that he’d been looking for her all day. He sped off in the cab leaving the rest of us to walk the length of the island home.
And I thought I was a bit loco. This guy really took the biscuit. He came to see me in the hotel later to apologise but it was still ironic that on all my travels in some rough Latin cities the only violence I would encounter was on an idyllic Pacific island.
“When you have experience, there’s no such thing as being wrong, it’s just your opinion against another.”
Who said that? Me, just now. I wonder if it’s true. I’m clearly not referring to fundamentals like murder but when you’re young everything seems black and white, and the older you get the greyer everything becomes. You might be right, but then again you might not. So then you’re down to an opinion. That’s one angle. It’s often said that the older people get the more they become set in their ways. So they see things more black and white. There’s no doubt you do become surer of your own mind. But whether you are right or not is subjective. So that’s confused that then. It’s very simple.
Duncan’s Rules of Other People’s Opinions
1. Consider someone else’s opinion thoroughly and, when you’ve finished, then tell them they’re wrong.
2. Your interest in other people’s opinions should be limited to those with whom you agree.
3. You’re labouring under the misapprehension that I’m interested in your opinion.
Duncan’s Law of Impressions
It doesn’t take much to impress an American.
Duncan’s Law of Implied Freewill
Don’t confuse the character of the man doing what he has to do, with that of the one doing what he wants to do.
Three weeks away and I am ready to go home. Conventional two week holidays often don’t seem long enough, but time does different things when you’re on your own. One week seems like two or three because you have so much time to think and no one else to consider. So that’s…
Duncan’s Law of Solitary Time
Days are a different length when you’re on your own.
I have forgotten what home is like and on reflection it’s incredible what you can do in 21 days. I’ve seen huge extremes of opulence and poverty. I’ve stood on the desert sand dunes and then glaciers. I’ve stayed in superlative accommodation followed by total shitholes. I’ve been in the middle of mad urban environments, and stood utterly alone in the middle of total nothingness.
And what have I learnt? Sod all! Only joking. Back in London, Vanella asks me the same question and I answer “Everything and nothing.” Travelling is thought provoking, but it doesn’t have to be heavy.
Not a lot happens on Easter Island on a Sunday. I visit the only museum for my final dose of culture on this trip. There is a map of the world as viewed from this part of the world. It all looks very different when Australia is on your left and South America is on your right. It makes me consider a trip taking in Japan, China, some Polynesian islands, and Australia. There is also a diagram which shows that in hundreds of thousands of years, the island will eventually be submerged and disappear under Chile as the plate it is on moves that way. I’m sure all the islanders just love that idea.
There are no mysteries solved here by earth-shattering observations. The mildly legendary Rongo Rongo script is simply a puzzle since no one knows how to read it because the originators died on those blasted Peruvian guano islands and didn’t pass on the skill. So no amount of academic endeavour will ever prove what it means. It certainly was the case, however, that coral eyes were inserted into moai sockets, with black obsidian eyeballs, so as to appear to give them sight. They certainly look uncannily human with them in.
There are a lot of female cabbies on the island and on this trip the driver is giving her daughter a lift to church. We drive past the quaintly named Moira rent-a-car to the hotel. I have visions of an oldish blue rinse lady competing with Avis (or should that be Mavis?) For lunch I resist the menu’s highly tempting offer of a Fruit Cacktail whilst a vicious tropical storm lashes the building.
The Japanese are clearly not taught how to sip soup quietly. I am enduring the excruciating sound of people to my left and right slurping in such a crass fashion that I would like them to turn up Phil Collins on the stereo – and that’s really saying something, I can tell you. This unpleasant episode is thankfully offset by the sight of the sun going down over the Pacific, something which never fails to impress.