My two sons and I enjoyed an extraordinary journey with Rapa Nui descendent and local guide, Amanaki Rata.
With sleepy eyes after an overnight flight from Lima, Peru, we were looking to meet our guide Amanaki Rata. While surveying the surroundings we noticed, a poised woman with flowing jet-black hair sauntering through our hotel lobby. She smiled at each person she made eye contact with, including us. We were hopeful this welcome burst of energy was our guide, and she was!
Amanaki introduced herself and enthusiastically asked questions about each of us. Her voice was deep and strong in a pleasant way. She expressed delight at the opportunity to lead a young mother and two school-age boys. Within minutes, she directed us to her open-top jeep to begin the tour, instinctively checking with the boys to inquire if the washroom was needed. The three of us were quickly energized as we set off on our Easter Island adventure.
This Chilean island, located in the southernmost part of the Polynesian Triangle has been the subject of mythical tales and controversial debate since it was first spotted by European explorers on Easter Sunday in 1722. There is a plethora of questions scientists and archeologists have unsuccessfully tried to answer for over a century. They often call Easter Island an “open-air, archaeological museum.” As we traversed the pitted road on this remote piece of land in the South Pacific, we were eagerly anticipating whatever lay ahead of us. We already knew that Easter Island, or Isla de Pascua in Spanish, was notorious for its mystery and the many unanswered questions on how and why over 600 years ago, the Rapa Nui, the native inhabitants, built and sculpted hundreds of giant, stoic, stone statues, called moai.
We were hiking the quarries at the Rano Raraku Volcano, where the stone statues were originally carved, when my youngest son asked, “When is lunch?” Amanaki soothingly said, “Soon!” and questioned my well-traveled boys. “Would you like a traditional meal?” “Of course!” they exclaimed. “We have enjoyed street food in Ho Chi Minh, pastries in Paris, and haggis, neeps, and tatties in Scotland. We love local food!” Amanaki smiled, and said “Fantastic! My ancestors ate fish and rats . . . and it’s all you can eat!” They both snickered at the joke . . . but continued walking in silence.
We reached the apex of the quarry and it was a dramatic, sudden entrance into the past with the ancient idols hidden yet protruding from the ground like they had sprouted from the earth itself. We learned they are composed of consolidated volcanic ash. Some stone busts were covered with grass and moss while others are still buried and yet to be unearthed. These secretive stones were shaped over a period of five centuries by a civilization that later would destroy them. This baffled the boys. They could not understand why anyone would want to destroy something so enchanting and enormous. More stories were shared, and additional questions were asked. To fully grasp the uncertainty of this island was impossible. There are so many questions about what happened so long ago.
Amanaki explained to the boys about the steep cliffs from which it would have been nearly impossible to catch fish from when the Island was first inhabited. Generational advances, allowed fish to be added as a staple in the island diet. Polynesian foods included many varieties of fish, vegetables, and fruit, which were wrapped in banana leaves to prevent burning while being cooked over an open flame or underground with hot ashes.
The reminder of food, caused a grumble from the bellies of the boys. We settled on lunch at the marina, no rats involved. My little rascals held out hope for ice cream and Amanaki used her leverage to alter their plans for an ordinary scoop of vanilla and urged them to try Lúcuma, a flavored frozen custard made from indigenous fruit known for its pumpkin-like taste. While we sat near the waterfront, the boys asked how these gigantic boulder-like statues “traveled” from the quarry to their ceremonial platforms sometimes as far as fifteen miles away.
“Even the native people are uncertain,” Amanaki pointed out. “In every place on the Earth where huge megalithic pieces of statues or stones were transported, the explanation of how they were moved involves the use of logs, ropes and a lot of people. There are over three hundred moai in different states of completion that never left the quarry.” We finished our dessert, still stumped by the question of how the stones were created and transported. It was perplexing.
At dinner that evening, we met many people from eclectic backgrounds who had travelled from all over the world to experience the mysteriousness of this island. We instantly connected with a Brazilian family from Salvador. The mother was a doctor and the father, an international business correspondent. Their family mantra mirrored ours — work hard and play hard. We had many great conversations about life, living, and love. Their daughter Nina, a couple years older than the boys became a partner in crime. This tactical threesome would daily meet up after our tours to play cards, wander trails, and search out mischievous things to do outside the hotel. They even assisted the hotel chef in making a Brigadeiro, a Portuguese chocolate delicacy for Nina’s birthday.
Each morning, Amanaki would surprise us with a basket of warm papaya mango muffins made from a secret family recipe that she could not and would not divulge. As we headed towards the most photographed location on the island, she told us how her family is one of the oldest clans living on the island. I had just taken the last bite of my mouthwatering muffin when we arrived at the largest ceremonial platform. The raised stone surface boasts fifteen boulder busts and showcases them against a glorious blue backdrop, the Pacific Ocean. It was breathtaking. My oldest spoke up, “We visited Stonehenge, but these stone statues are so much better and way different.” He and his brother ran off to take pictures of the scenery, which was complimented by an abundance of native island dogs.
I could not take my eyes off the majestic and mystical presence of the moai looming over the ocean. They stand peacefully erect and I am sure they actually do protect the island just as the folklore proclaims. I saw the boys from a distance, scampering as Amanaki motioned for them to not feed the animals any of her grandmother’s muffins.
Amanaki felt it was important for the boys to understand the geological history of Easter Island, which was formed by a series of volcanic eruptions. “Rano Kau, the island’s most spectacular volcano is a major archeological site,” she said. As she described the island’s delicate ecosystem, and how the volcano is the highest point on the island, I was preoccupied looking at the most spectacular 360° view I have ever seen of the biggest ocean on the planet. We were standing on the crater-rim when my youngest noticed a sparkly stone bulging out of the soil. Amanaki nodded and explained that natural obsidian covers the island. “It is an igneous rock formed when the volcanic molten lava cooled and hardened into a crystalized structure.” Unbeknownst to me, as the sunlight danced on the scattered obsidian rock formations that day, the boys were covertly shoving these treasures in their pockets. They were disappointed when I discovered the volcanic, glasslike material in their suitcase and encouraged each of them to return the rocks to their rightful home. I can honestly say, our stay on Easter Island ended with no stone left unturned and all stones left in their rightful place.
As we drove back to our hotel, I found myself contemplating the mystery in front of me. To be in the presence of these puzzling giants of stone was intriguing and left me in pure astonishment. I hoped that astonishment would be the treasure for generations of visitors to take home from the island. I hoped the answers to unanswered questions that countless scientists and archaeologists have been debating for years will forever lie deep within their haunting beauty.
Each evening, after supper, we convened in the sitting room of the hotel and talked of our discoveries that day with our fellow adventurers. There would be non-stop chatter: from endless sightings of ancient ceremonial centers, to volcanic craters, petroglyphs in slate caves, lava formations, and fascinating clues to the Orongo birdman cult ceremony and of course, the infamous moai and their mysterious creators. Each day we spent with our spectacular guide, the spiritual energy of the island, and the buoyant curiosity of our travel acquaintances was unbelievably educational and captivating.
On the final day, we were on our own to explore. The Anthropological Museum was a short walk from our hotel and worth a visit. We saw the only intact moai eye ever found, carved from white coral. Walking back to the hotel, we met our Brazilian buddies and asked them to join us for a Lúcuma cone. As we watched the kids swing and teeter-totter at a local community playground, I couldn’t help but breathe deep to absorb the fresh oceanic air and stare at the one-eyed moai from a distance. I think we all wished these monstrous memes could share the story of their existence, but part of me hoped the mystery would be forever. Sometimes it’s the mystery that is the joy, not the answer. It’s the journey, not the destination
We said our last goodbyes to Nina and her parents. As their van was being loaded, they kindly presented the boys and I each a Brazilian Wish Bracelet. We were given a vibrant pink ribbon knotted properly around our wrists to ensure the fulfillment of our hopes and dreams. Pink was the chosen color to represent friendship. All three of us will miss our afternoon gatherings conversing and chatting with the Brazilian family.
Amanaki decided to join us for a farewell dinner at the hotel. After our meal, the four of us sat on the wooden patio around an outdoor fire pit. I savored my last sip of Carménère wine sensing the energy of the island knowing its cultural legacy will remain within me for a lifetime.
As we finished reflecting and reminiscing, the flames dwindled and all of us looked up suddenly, almost simultaneously. Captivated by the blanket of stars sparkling overhead, we became a bit misty, knowing our time together had come to an end. A transformative bond was created. We were fortunate to have shared this invaluable experience with our guide, an outstanding human being, and representative of the Rapa Nui community.
Speculation will continue to swirl and stories will continue to unfold for generations to come about the Island of stone statues. However, our time spent with Amanaki will never be forgotten. She made us feel like we were part of her Rapa Nui family. Her countless acts of kindness will live on in our hearts; as will her ancestral stories of the moai. We will cherish our adventure as we trekked to the cave of cannibals, risking high tides and later enjoying our daily diet of homemade papaya mango muffins with a picnic on the white sand beach where British explorer, James Cook arrived. Most importantly, we will always appreciate taking the path less travelled and visiting top-secret spots where tour buses never venture.
Thank you Amanaki Rata for a once-in-a-lifetime, unforgettable experience and for bringing us into a deeper understanding of Easter Island’s mysterious history while forming lasting friendships.
© Shannon Hogan Cohen June 2016
** Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals. **