Easter Island: The Eyes That Speak to the Sky

By Hamilton, Doris | The World and I, April 2007 | Go to article overview
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Easter Island: The Eyes That Speak to the Sky

Hamilton, Doris, The World and I

Fresh pineapple on a stick, some of the best deep sea diving in the world, massive stone statues with a mysterious past, easy biking, succulent tuna, a volcano crater two and a half million years old, and gently musical Polynesian words. If any of these things appeal to you, you just might qualify as one of the thousands of people who annually fall in love with Easter Island, the smallest inhabited island in the world.

Easter Island is known in its native language as Rapa Nui (Great Island), Te Pito o te Henua (The Navel of the World), and Mata Ki te Ranqui (The Eyes that Speak to the Sky), and has passed through many hands during the years. Although there are various suppositions about who first went to this small body of land in the Pacific Ocean, it is generally believed by most who have studied its history that the first inhabitants were Polynesians from the Marquesas in 400 A.D. (1) However, other experts move the initial population up to the seventh and eighth centuries, with their origins in Mangavera Island in the Gambier Archipelago. (2) From the island's oral traditions, the first king of Easter Island was Hotu Matu'a, and many Rapa Nui scholars believe that he truly existed.

As time went on, this piece of land with no neighbors for more than 1,180 miles in any direction experienced countless and varied new arrivals. Europeans began to set foot on the small isle in the eighteenth century. In 1722, Dutch Admiral Jacob Roggeween christened the land he discovered on Easter Sunday "Paasch Eiland" (Easter Island). Thirty years later, the same island was claimed in the name of the King of Spain, and was re-baptized as San Carlos Island. Numerous seafarers, from pirates to priests, visited in the 1800s and, by the end of the nineteenth century, on the initiative of Don Policarpo Toro, a lieutenant in the Chilean navy, Easter Island (Isla de Pascua, in Spanish) was officially incorporated into Chile. At present, the population of the island is a mixture of Chileans, Europeans and Tahitians, as well as native Polynesians. And through all the changes, the original names given to the island have endured, especially Te-Pito-o-te-Henua (the Navel of the World), and Rapa Nui (Great Island).

Visiting this Great Island

I lived in Chile for five years before I finally, in 2005, had the great experience of becoming one of the 50,000 tourists who annually go to Easter Island. Many people go to the island for only three days, since it is so small and they feel they can get a general idea of it in a short time. The other reason for the short stay is because it's expensive to stay there. It's a five-hour plane trip (2,311 miles) from Santiago, Chile, and since it's cut off from the Chilean mainland by such a distance, it infrequently receives supplies from the continent (a ship arrives bearing goods roughly once a month). This pushes up the prices of the scarce commodities available on the island. But, knowing that we might never go there again, my husband and I opted for six days. When it came time to leave, we wished we had had more time. Thinking back now on that marvelous trip is the best way to take the reader into the mystery and intrigue of the island.

We were lucky to have a tranquil flight over the Pacific Ocean from Santiago (no bumps, as others had reported experiencing on other trips!). Our first glimpse of Easter Island was from the plane window. There it was beneath us, the most isolated inhabited island in the world, one that boasted of the great mystery of the moai, gigantic statues carved centuries ago by the original inhabitants. There are 900 moai on the island in different sizes and states, including some restored beginning in the 1960s. I was ready to see every single one of them! The pilot of our flight gave us the royal tour of this tiny triangle of land in the middle of the ocean: we went all around the island, with a spectacular view of Rano Kau, the largest of the three volcanoes that formed the island eons ago.

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