Regular Update readers know that each year, I reach into our bank of frequent flier miles, and spirit Susie away to some exotic/romantic/relaxing destination. It is a joy to head for the airport without 200 pounds of gear and just carry-on baggage.

Early on, I had organized a “surprise birthday trip”. But now days it is neither. We don't go exactly on her birthday and Susie long ago insisted on participating in the details. But it is still a fun way to end a busy year or start a new one.

December 10, 2009
Susie's BD Trip -- to Hanukkah Island

Susan and I discovered Rapa Nui around noon on December 4th. I immediately claimed the small island in the name of the president of the United States, required everyone to change their customs, lifestyles, and religion, and renamed the place Hanukkah Island. It didn't bother me that someone else had already "discovered" the place or that plenty of people lived there. I mean, it wasn't like no one was around in April, 1722, when the Dutch basically did the same thing and created "Easter" Island....

Easter Island Heads

Easter Island is one of the most isolated inhabited locations on earth. From our driveway in Oregon to the check-in counter at the B&B in the small town of Hanga Roa, the trip was a bit over 34 hours. Barely 15 miles long and 7 wide, the Island lies about 2000 miles off the coast of Chile and is in the same time zone as Denver. Three thousand locals live there together with a small, constant stream of tourists from the daily flights to Santiago and Tahiti.

The main attraction on the island are of course the huge statues called Moai. We're all familiar with images of these strong faces growing out of the hillside -- like Stonhenge with noses. What I learned when we visited this site called "the quarry" at Rano Raraku is that the Moai scattered here in the hills were being prepared for transport to local villages where they would be displayed at the edge of the Ocean to honor tribal chiefs and ancestors. The quarry was simply a huge factory showroom.

Moai at  Rano Raraku Moai at  Rano Raraku Moai at  Rano Raraku Moai at  Rano Raraku

Stretching along the craggy ocean edge throughout the Island were platforms called Ahu where the Moai were displayed. But we found few standing anywhere. Clan rivalries and limited resources led to warfare. And remember what we did as soon as we defeated Baghdad? We pulled down the statue of Saddam! And the Rapa Nui did the same thing in an ongoing flurry of statue toppling.

Ahu at Tongariki

Virtually every tree on the island was cut to use transporting large stones around the island. When the ecosystem collapsed, so did life on the Island.

A series of devastating events killed or removed almost the entire population. In the 1860s, Peruvian slave raiders captured or killed half of the Island's people. A smallpox epidemic decimated those remaining . Violent clan wars broke out among survivors for possession of the lands of the deceased. Then Christian missionaries brought tuberculosis to Easter Island.

The overall picture for Easter is the most extreme example of forest destruction in the Pacific, and among the most extreme in the world. The whole forest gone, and all of its tree species (and most animals) extinct. By the end of the 1800's, over 97% of the population were dead or gone. There were just 111 people living on Easter Island and much of the Island's cultural knowledge was lost.

Eventually, Easter Island was annexed by Chile. The Island was sold as a large Sheep Ranch and the population confined to Hanga Roa. Finally, in 1966, the Rapa Nui were given Chilean citizenship. From that point on and into the present day, the Island's population slowly recovered.

Ahu at Tongariki
Hannukah Hotel

Tourism is now at the center of the local economy, with a focus on archeology, surfing, and world-class diving. We saw no agriculture, no homes outside of Hanga Roa, and interestingly, no sheep. Free range horses roamed the entire island and into some residential neighborhoods.

Lodging is available through modest inns and B&Bs which are clean and well managed. Two larger hotel/spas are under construction. There are lots of casual restaurants, a small museum, and two discos.

Everything is expensive.

The large "Easter Island Heads" for which Rapa Nui is world-famous, are actually complete torsos, the figures kneeling on bent knees with their hands over their stomachs. Some upright Moai have become buried up to their necks by shifting soils. A total of 887 have been inventoried on the Island and in museum collections. While many teams worked on different statues at the same time, a single Moai would take a team of five or six men approximately one year to carve from the soft volcanic stone.

Construction Construction Construction

Only a quarter of the statues were installed. Nearly half still remain in the quarry at Rano Raraku and the rest are elsewhere on the island, probably on their way to final locations. The largest Moai is about 120 feet tall.

The Quarry

Susan and I enjoyed a day long private tour of the Island and later rented a car to return to our favorite spots.

We spent a memorable afternoon sitting in warm breezes on a grassy hillside at the Quarry overlooking the statues and blue water in the distance. For me, the experience was as memorable as seeing the Pyramids, Machu Pichu, or the Great Wall.

Farewell Dinner

Our final night on Rapa Nui, we drank a good Chilean wine and watched the sun set over the Pacific. It had been another spectacular adventure -- one we enjoyed so much that I decided to not change the name or claim the Island after all. It wasn't mine to take. And besides, it is way too far from home.

In the morning, we began the long, long, long trip home.

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