The Bellybutton of the World

Though the time between posts would suggest otherwise, I followed my trip to Patagonia immediately with another to the absolute middle of the Pacific Ocean, on the world’s most isolated inhabited island. Roughly 20 hours after my flight home from Punta Arenas landed in Santiago, I hopped on another one, 4 hours out towards a speck on the map that Chileans nickname the bellybutton of the world (and I’m still not sure why).
The change of scenery could not have been more drastic. On morning I was in the wild, wind-whipped southern part of the continent, and the next afternoon on a serene, lazy, subtropical island. However, while the island epitomizes “getting away from it all” with only 5000 residents and waves lapping at its powdery beaches, what makes this destination unique are the ubiquitous and legendary moai positioned throughout the island, as well as the story behind these mysterious figures.

Legends abound about Rapa Nui history, with many outsiders believing in extraterrestrial activity and other supernatural forces. Our tour guide was of Rapa Nui descent, and assured us that all past goings-on were, in fact, natural, albeit mind-bogglingly impressive. From the island’s discovery, with seven explorers happening upon it after nine days in canoe, to the mass production and erection of almost 900 moai statues over a few hundred years.
Each day we toured a different part of the island, learning about the rise, fall, near total destruction, and recent reconstruction of Rapa Nui culture over the past millennium. Our first tour brought us to two ahus, platforms on which moai stood (all were toppled during civil wars in the late 1800s; all those standing now were restored by archaeologists).

This first day taught us the importance of the moai. Rather than depict deities, the monoliths represent clan chiefs, who are buried underneath their respective statue. The moai face inland, protecting their clans with spiritual power. Regardless of your belief in supernatural energy, you feel a certain power from such grand creations when you are so close to them. Be it their stoic presence, mysterious faces or sheer grandeur, standing face to face with the moai creates a palpable, mysterious atmosphere that you can feel in your nerves.

Our tour also took us to the Rano Raraku volcano, where the Rapa Nui carved the moai, and to an ahuguarding a beach cove that, were it not a popular gringo stop, would have been paradise, with sand like flour, swaying palm trees and a brilliantly blue ocean. The following days, while touring more ahus, we learned about the settling of the island, how the population swelled to 20,000 and crashed to under 200 after the golden age as a result of deforestation, overpopulation, civil war, the European slave trade and disease. Most incredibly is how the Rapa Nui have managed to rebuild themselves into a solid, growing population from a hopeless point. I feel like all of that would be an anthropologist’s perfect case study.

Life on Isla de Pascuahas since turned into a picturesque existence. I asked Cristian, the tour guide, what islanders do living so far from everything. He simply answered that residents just live day to day, with no stress and no worries. The Chilean phrase “poco a poco” epitomized. Sure enough, after a few days in the heavy air and calm breeze, strolling through the only town, it’s difficult to worry about much of anything. Much like you can lose yourself in studying Rapa Nui history, you can just simply lose yourself by taking in the island atmosphere, far away from the “real world”.

While not a destination I will likely visit again, Rapa Nui has proven to be one of the more fascinating historical stories that I have come across while in Chile. Maybe because it is so unique, or because it could serve as an important lesson to the wider world in many aspects (conserving resources especially comes to mind), there is just so much to take in. You could easily learn about Rapa Nui history from the internet, but it is hard to appreciate the magnitude of it until you stand face to face with the moai.

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