I owe Bill Watterson a huge debt of gratitude. Not only for his unauthorised semi-biographical cartoon of me, Calvin and Hobbes, about a loud-mouthed, know-it-all blonde-haired child and his philosophical tiger, but also for introducing me to Easter Island. Aged about 13 or 14, I came across a strip in one of his compendiums where Calvin had been making snowmen, but had opted for giant open-mouthed heads emerging from the ground, instead of taking the traditional carrot and stick approach. As his dad just stands and stares, Calvin says “What’s wrong with Easter Island? I like Easter Island!”. I’d never heard of it and didn’t get the joke, but the name stuck with me. If my cartoon equivalent liked Easter Island, I was sure I would too.
Now that I’m a loud-mouthed, know-it-all brown-haired man-child, and thanks to an exceedingly generous and awesome 30th birthday present from Emily Benjamin, I’m happy to say I was right. While not quite as mysterious as it once was, with a flight to and from the island every day and up to 70,000 tourists a year, Easter Island remains a fantastic place to see, entirely worthy of its World Heritage listing. It’s expensive, to be sure, and not as easy to get to as many other island destinations, but that’s pretty much the point. Though we were only here for a couple of days, we managed to see all of the important sites thanks to a packed schedule, early starts and our great guide, Marcelo.
The source of Calvin’s inspiration, the giant stone heads (or moai) for which the island is famous, were each built from a single slab of rock, painstakingly carved directly out of Rano-Raraku, one of the four volcanos on the island, and then transported to their final location. Thought to have been created to protect the island from evil, or else as a way for the deceased to keep an eye on the living, there were hundreds of them clustered into groups dotted around the perimeter of the island, all facing inwards. After being put in place, the final step was the addition of eyes, which “lit up” the statue and gave it its protective/corrective/demonic/heretical power (delete as per the tenets of your dogma). Those that are still in the volcanic nursery and that never made it to their intended location have no eyes, but still manage to bore into you in an unnerving way if you look at them for too long.
Starting in about the 5th century and continuing the tradition for a staggering 1300 years before they realised they weren’t alone in the world, the Rapa-Nui people took rock carving and turned it into high art, moving from basic, barely-recognisably human outlines to smooth obsidian-polished statues with well defined features and individual characteristics. As each moai was a representation of a recently deceased VIP, they are all slightly different. (Recently here being figurative – the typical time to get from the commission to the “standing up” in its location was about 2 years.) One figure, possibly the most famous due to its image appearing on the front of the Lonely Planet guide, has a quizzical expression and seems to be craning its neck over another’s shoulder, demonstrating his creators’ remarkable skill. Though they aren’t defined, you could easily imagine a furrowed brow and drawn eyebrows.
Even more remarkable than the construction of 900 monoliths that have survived for hundreds of years is the manner in which the original settlers made it to the island in the first place. They supposedly came from somewhere near Tahiti, around 4000 miles away. It had been noticed that the waters on their home island were steadily rising, and that they would be inundated within a few decades, should an inland tsunami not get them first. Fortunately, the King’s adviser had a dream about an island paradise that would be their salvation; the only problem was that he didn’t know exactly where. Somewhere, uh, that way. Not letting a simple thing like practicality get in the way, the King ordered him to take a team of men in dugouts and find it.
Now, I’m not a stranger to moving to a different country based on a dream – that was how I ended up in Australia after all, but at least I knew that Australia existed and had a reasonable expectation that JAL would get me there in one piece. This guy didn’t even know that there were such things as continents and yet set off to find a new island in the middle of the ocean thousands of miles away, navigating only by the stars and eating, presumably, a hell of a lot of fish on the way. What is even more remarkable is that having actually found it, he managed to make his way back to the original island and then lead his people back to the same island again. I could barely find my way around Manhattan with a map. They named the island The Navel of The World, Eyes looking To The Sky or Land’s End, depending on whose version you believe. They certainly didn’t name it Easter Island.
On arrival, they divided up the island into territories for each tribe, thanked the spirits that they were safe from the rising waters and got on with living, presuming that the rest of the earth had been submerged. They weren’t disavowed of this notion until Easter Sunday, 1722 when the first Dutch ship, lacking a navigator of the first arrivals’ calibre, weighed anchor in the bay looking for a totally different island entirely. 300 years later, it’s still considered remote – a rare feat in this day and age – and it’s easy to see why the island has attained a reputation as a unique destination. I’m really glad that I’ve been fortunate enough to see it.
I do wish I had a philosophical tiger though.