Monday, December 19, 2016

Easter Island

Max and I have split up. He is returning to the boat with the fresh food for our next passage and I am waiting to meet a woman named Pina and a group of Rapa Nui kids we will be taking sailing. I watch Max negotiate the waves in our little dingy from a bench that looks out from the edge of town. A man wearing a headdress and a futbol jersey, drinking a warm rum and coke, sits next to me. He introduces himself and I ask him twice to repeat his polysyllabic name. His face is leathery with few but deep wrinkles. He wears a heavy necklace of bone and carved wood and begins the way most Rapa Nui men do, by telling me that he loves the sea. He asks me my name, about the boat, about Max, and tells me he has watched us go about town for days. He offers me part of his day's catch, a fish with sharp white teeth and rainbow scales. I accept and we put the fish in a black plastic bag he finds beneath the
Easter Island arrival.  Preparing the anchor
seat of his scooter. He asks if I have a glass to share the Rum and Coke, and invites me for an asado at his house one day, describing how he would cook fish and meat for us in the way only a Rapa Nui can. He tells me to look at the stars and think of him on our journey and shows me how to scale, gut, and cook the fish correctly. This happens to us from time to time and the cooking directions are always the same, delivered in a serious tone as if to suggest that if I screw it up, he will not be held responsible- a pan, oil, a little salt. I promise that this is how I will cook the fish. As I listen to this man, and look around me, I wonder how I end up in situations like this? How did I get to this bench with this man? How did we reach this far off island?

Having stood watch for many stunning daybreaks, I have grown to love the slow lightening of the sky and the sharpness of the sun's first rays. None of these mornings compare to watching the sun rise on Easter Island after fifteen days at sea. It appeared first as a dark landmass, hardly different from the clouds, but larger and higher than I expected. We sailed towards Hanga Roa on a broad reach in calm seas and I sat alone on the cabintop watching the green undulating hills and eroded cliff faces define themselves. I could see trees disfigured by constant wind on the slopes and the spray of waves hitting those dark, porous lava rocks we grew accustomed to in the Galapagos. I watched the sunrise by myself knowing that Max's sleep was too precious even for this sight. I still peeked through the port at him every five minutes to see if he was stirring. When he woke up and tried to come up I blocked the way, covered his eyes and yelled nothing to see out here captain, nothing to see, until he pushed me aside and looking at the view, letting out a sound of astonishment. I know! I said, It's amazing! Max suggested that I make breakfast, the duty of the dawn watchman, but I refused, saying I would never give up this view to be below deck making oatmeal. I got two granola bars, filled up the coffee thermos, and we sat together staring at the approaching coastline.

Easter Island's mountain tops become visible at dawn

Max and I watching the coast line float by as we head into port

There is nothing like coffee and landfall

Hanga Roa is the only port in Isla de Pascua, more appropriately called Rapa Nui by the indigenous tribe who very much own the essence of this island. It's amazing that their creative, deep traditions could be altered easily by the white guy who showed up on a day that happened to be Easter and renamed the island. We arrived the day after Thanksgiving. So what? The town looked clean cut beneath rolling cumulus clouds and crisp air. We could see a few cars going by, restaurant terraces beckoning in the sun, lines of matte black Maoi heads, and then a tremendous, humbling surf breaking in turquoise and white foam. The main anchorage is not ideal as it is in 85ft of water with no shelter from the pacific swell. We radioed in and were received and even offered a free mooring. For those non-salts reading, a mooring equals a sharp decrease in stress.Government placed moorings don't
Our anchorage in Hanga Roa
usually drag; anchors certainly can. With a mooring one only has to worry about preventing chafe on the mooring lines where ever chafe can occur, a lesson I learned the hard (and terrifying) way in Guadeloupe. So we tied off well, with two lines cow-hitched to the mooring lines and sections of hose around the lines where they led through the forward chalks. Looking down into 85ft of cobalt water, I swore I could see the hard ripples of sand on the bottom. Next to us men were off-loading cargo from a large ship onto a small boat. We were the only two ships in the harbor. We opened the ports and went to sleep with a chilly spring breeze blowing through the cabin. By 10a.m. the crew arrived: immigration, department of agriculture, port captain, and then three others. They were extremely friendly and we went through the paperwork and inspections quickly. In the end it cost $9.00 to check in! They asked for it in USD, and by the way, our next three months are in this country, so it's pretty cheap for an entry fee. This comes as an enormous relief after the Panama Canal and The Galapagos.

Our first trip in to Hanga Roa in our fodable dingy and little Tohatsu engine was the most terrifying experience of the trip so far. Our nearest brush with disaster. We couldn't even see the entrance between the lines of rollers and surfers in wet suits bobbing like sleek black seals. We only knew there must be one. A fisherman, in a long, heavy boat zoomed by an waved us in. He had long hair in a bun and a curly dark beard: the common aesthetic of the Rapa Nui man. He waved us in and pointed to his wake, so we fell in and followed. We quickly realized how incredibly slow we are in comparison as he disappeared around the corner. At least we knew the way in. I was busy looking over the town trying to decide which lovely terrace was deserving of our first beer, when I saw a heavy swell coming towards us. That wave is going to crush us, I said to Max. There was nothing to do but resign ourselves to the fate. We were going swimming. I imagined two weeks of boat garbage unleashed into one of the world's most pristine surf spots. Max imagined something more practical- how we would get anywhere without the computer that was on my back. The wave hit, breaking
Max braving the surf after having perfected our entry method
almost upon us, we instinctively leaned towards it and forward and it sent us spinning, the whole dingy flexing dramatically. Then it spit us out, upright. There was no time to celebrate as another wave was swelling towards us. This one hit and was even worse. We tilted even more, the engine let out a primitive growl, and again I thought of how I could quickly collect all the garbage before swimming to safety. Again we made it. A minute later we were at the dock laughing together like two kids who know they just got away with doing something really stupid. For five days we braved this entry and exit, becoming better and better at what I started called the real Hell's Gate. We never went without the computer in a dry bag or with too much weight. Significant previsions required that I hitch-hike with a fisherman while Max braved Hell's Gate solo. We realized that the entrance can be done well if you are patient and wait for the break between lines of swell. People like to say all types of things about waves. That they come in threes, fives, sevens. The truth is more variable. If you are surfing, the ones you can ride come in threes. If you are in a sturdy fishing boat with a lot of horsepower, you should wait out five. The waves that can sink a foldable dingy with a 3.5 horsepower engine, come in lines of 9-11. You have to wait and study the horizon. If you decide to go for it and another develops, it is best to whip around and hit it head on. I watched Max do this one day from the dock and saw our dingy almost totally airborne. After so many trips, Max perfected this technique to the point that the Rapa Nui men voiced respect. I must admit, I never drove the dingy in or out, enjoying the pleasures of back seat driving or rides with fisherman too much.
After the terrifying rollers, Max ties up next to a Maoi

The town of Hanga Roa is an easy-going paradise. The Rapa Nui are stunningly beautiful, happy, and kind. The kids are all little surfers running around town barefoot, their waist length hair tangled and ending in bleached brown curls. The women wear flowers in their hair and the older men wear ornamental necklaces. Most bodies are decorated with traditional tatoos of tribal designs inked precisely over shoulders defined by a dedication to surfing or long circulating tattoos winding around thighs and torsos. Something written out in Rapa Nui hyroglyphs. The Rapa Nui flag, white with a red curved image of two heads looking up, is omnipresent. We literally laughed all the way to the bank on our first walk through town, reminiscing about the dingy entrance, stunned by our luck. We found a terrace for our first beer and, looking over the menu, shuddered at the cost of things. I was sure that Max had the exchange rate wrong. In the end, the exchange was 650 pesos to the dollar, and an appetizer at a middle of the road place was 11,000 pesos. Town is very expensive, but there are a few gems that we found.

One of many street food options available in Hanga Roa

There's a sandwich place right in town where two guys make amazing food while blasting 90s hip hop and alternating breaks to share a joint they kept outside. The tables are saw mill cut boards hanging from the braided palm frond roof. We ate a fresh Tuna sandwich big enough for two that cost 7000 pesos, then ordered another of beef with onions and cheese with a fried egg on top. Unlike in other restaurants, where a waiter may approach and say, how is everything this evening?, in that false tone, our waiter, bopping his head to the music with heavy eyelids simply makes the Rapa Nui hand signal, thumb and pinkie out, twitching back and forth.  The gesture is returned to convey that your dinning experience is satisfactory.  He smiles, genuinely happy. The restaurant faces a large rugby field, the focal point of the town, that hosted a tournament for the Polynesians Islanders during our stay. We spent many sunsets there eating grilled meat kabobs for 3000 pesos and watching the games. People went by in cars, on scooters, or bare back on horses, but overall town is quiet except for the tremendous crash of the surf.

Up the main street a little more is Restaurant Chez Ramon where empanadas big enough to make you skip dinner are made to order by Ramon. His restaurant is tiny and nested into a vibrant garden of tropical flowers. He goes about his cooking thoughtfully and slowly, bringing little snacks to hold you over. Ramon has a big heart and an affinity for sailors so much so that this became our home base. We filled all our water jugs there, placed a very economical vegetable order through him, and ate many of his fresh Tuna and cheese empanadas. Ramon can do your laundry for less, rent you a car for less, and really get anything a cruiser may need, for less. If we ever did anything through anyone else, he would admonish us and say, why didn't you ask me

The remainder of the island provides vast landscapes of partly cloudy skies, green hills, and a coastline of lava rock formations being battered by waves. We drove around the entire perimeter in a couple hours. We climbed to the top of crater edges to peer at lagoons below, visited the ruins of ceremonial grounds, and stopped at many sites of toppled Maoi. The tour gets more dramatic as you continue from Hanga Roa around to the east, leading to the "Maoi workshop" where you can see the sculptures in all stages of production, some half carved out of a cliff face, and other toppled and rolling downhill. This site is halfway up a dramatic crater that rises suddenly from green fields where horses gallop in herds through the bent over grasses with the turquoise sea in the distance, darkening towards the horizon. I am not joking; it's that pretty. Towards the end of our road trip, we found the famous site of the 15 Maoi lined up at the edge of the sea. The site is as amazing as the cliffs and coastline that surround it. You will want to sit and stare for a long time noticing the slight differences between each of the 15 carvings and try to comprehend the scale of everything you are looking at. We sat in the grass and recycled the same conversation we had all week. I can't believe we are here. I can't believe we sailed here. and from Kingston. 

View from ceremonial town at the southwest of the island

Our off-road rental car

Laura at the edge of volcanic crater

We are preparing to leave Easter Island today and will spend one more night at anchor, casting off after breakfast tomorrow, December 1. This evening we will take a group of local kids sailing. We are not sad to leave. There is too much to look forward to. The anchorage here is dreadfully uncomfortable at times, dingy approaches leave our hands shaking and hearts racing, and town is just too expensive. Sometimes, just moving around the boat at anchor is a challenge. The hose on the mooring line chafed through and the boat looked like a giant shook it up every time we returned. Out of the six nights we spent at anchor, about half were peaceful with long dinners and bright orange sunsets. This island and people have nested themselves quite permanently in our hearts and we are thankful. For the opportunity to visit such a distant and special place, for the fishermen in feathered head dresses and Adidas hoodies who leave part of their catch on our decks and give me rides, for the little kids riding 12 foot waves like it's no big thing, and for the people who covered these hills in monoliths that remind me of something I am not wise enough to understand or articulate.