Rapa Nui’s Tapati Festival

The gods smiled on us again when we booked our trip to Easter Island. Totally by fluke it turns out that we are here for the grand finale of Rapa Nui’s annual Tapati Festival.This huge festival celebrates local culture and honours the ancestors.

The local people prepare all year for this week long event. Local young men and women sign up as candidates, representing their extended families or tribes. Contests test their skills, strength and knowledge. One contest is sliding down an enormous slope on handmade sled made from palm branches.

img_3710They sing, dance, cook, make crafts and much more. Not only are the candidates tested and judged, but also their entire tribe which supports them. The tribes dance and sing, make costumes and create amazing floats for the final parade.

How amazing to be here to witness this authentic, grass roots Polynesian festival. We walked to the main street around 5 PM.

Floats made of farm tractors pulling long flat beds, were parked along the upper end of the main street. The trailer beds were decorated with greens, mostly palm leaves. img_3695img_3694But it was the carvings on these trailers that blew us away. People had spent weeks carving huge statues of mermaids, warriors, turtles and more. These are reminiscent of North American totem poles, polished and oiled or painted. At first we thought that, surely, these carvings were re-used each year. But we were assured that they are newly created for each festival!

Hundreds of people milled about. To our amazement, all locals, even even some tourists, were decked out in traditional costumes: feathers, paint, and a pair of coconuts – if that. Many women were completely naked except for a sandy body paint. The paint resembles henna mixed with sand. Entire bodies were painted brown or with contrasting designs all over: swirls, lines, dots, symbols – including the face. Even the hair was often covered in this ‘mud’ and made to stand up straight. Women usually had feathers or palm fonds in their hair. The men only wore a loin cloth, or simply some leaf wrapped about their private parts… Infants and children were all painted and decked out in feathers. Little boys brandished their wooden swords and even tiny girls wore little shells as bra’s.


When we asked what time the parade would start, the answer was invariable “Maybe at 6, maybe by 7…” So we waited, strolling along the street and did not have enough eyes to take everything in. At one point I felt I was in a Disney movie about the South Pacific, except that this was so real, so authentic. Nothing on the floats was made of plastic or anything artificial. Just local wood and greens. Only the preschool had a gigantic fish on their float made of recycled bottle caps.

Once everyone and their entourage was judged, a king and queen were announced and then the parade slowly started to roll down the street. A float would come by, followed by a huge horde of local people in their body paint and feathers. Suddenly everything stopped again and people would sing and dance. There were ukuleles, a harmonica, guitars and drums. They sang these wonderful, catchy Polynesian songs, dancing and swaying arms and hips. Such energy! At some point we sat on a patio for empanadas and drinks while watching the parade flow by. img_3819

The parade would move again and another couple floats came by before it all stopped again and another dance and song erupted. By 9 PM the float wasn’t even at the end of main street. Tirelessly they danced and sang, everyone happy and beaming. There was no drinking, no drunkenness, no pick pocketing. It was amazing to revel in this happy atmosphere and I kept pinching myself that I was able to witness this Festival. It was totally not touristy and a true celebration of local customs and tradition. It was joyfulness personified.


By ten o’clock a full moon shone down on it all. The king and queen for the coming year were still waving and smiling, music and laughter and song was still wafting out over the white capped waves of the Pacific, as we finally turned our backs on it all and walked to our hotel. The next morning our waitress was sleep eyed and admitted she had gone straight from partying back to work at 6 AM…

If you ever have a chance to visit Easter Island, I highly recommend you coincide your visit with Tapati Festival – a highlight of our trip to South America.

Our travel agency: www.savacations.com

For details and video of Tapati Festival, click here: http://www.easterislandspirit.com/tapati-festival/

Tales of the South Pacific 3: Moving Moai and the Birdman Battle

img_3473Our next visit was to the steep cliffs of the south west coast of the island. From up above we gazed down on foaming white waves pounding the shore of a small island: Moto Nui. This is were history was made.

The first inhabitants likely arrived on Rapa Nui in wooden canoes from far away Tahiti. From these first few, grew a population of thousands. But European diseases and fighting reduced their numbers to a low of 110 at one point. After the moai carving culture, competing tribes designed a non-violent way to establish order on Easter Island: the Birdman Cult. Chosen young men competed for the right to have their tribe rule for the next year, until the next competition was held.


Birdman figure

The competition was held near the most important site on the island: the Rano Kau volcano, and consisted of climbing down a steep rock face of Orongo to the wild ocean below, building rafts from reeds, using these as floatation devices and swimming the rough kilometre wide passage of pounding ocean to Moto Nui island.


We saw tiny rock houses at Orongo and scattered rocks carved with birdman and boat pictures. We also climbed the sides of the ancient volcano to look inside the crater, filled with shallow lakes where drinking water was collected and reeds for the rafts were cut.

img_3498We saw tiny rock houses at Orongo and scattered rocks carved with birdman and boat pictures. We also climbed the sides of the ancient volcano to look inside the crater, filled with shallow lakes where drinking water was collected and reeds for the rafts were cut.

The best came last when we visited the site famous from so many photos – the long row of moai standing shoulder to shoulder. This is iconoclastic face of Easter Island. img_3642

But my favourite site is the quarry. When I first heard the name, I pictured a rock excavation site where rocks were dug up. However, when you approach the quarry, it is as if the stone people have come to life and are walking out of the mountain from where they are born. A gently sloping green side of a volcano is scattered with upright figures. They seem to be walking down, stumbling and standing all over the slopes. The sight gave me goosebumps and a lump in my throat. img_3618img_3633

The moai were carved here from gigantic blocks of basalt and lava. Weighing many tons and measuring up to ten meters in height, their individual features were carved. I had heard that most figures only show the upper body while the lower half is still buried. Before I saw them, I thought that this meant that the moai had been covered by drifting sand over the ages. But that is not true at all, there is no sand. Only lava and rocks. The artists did not have ladders, so they dug deep pits in which they lowered or erected the moai until they could reach their faces to carve them.

Once a figure was finished, it was erected and “walked” down the mountain to spots all over the island – a mind boggling feat that National Geographic has tried to recreate. Why did they stop carving and moving? It seems like they were in the middle of ongoing projects when work came to a halt. No one knows…img_3604

Why did the Rapa Nui create these statues in the first place? Well, it is believed that well to do families ordered a moai in memory of an important member of the community. When this person died, male or female, a moai was constructed in his or her image and erected over their bones. Once the grey basalt figure, with or without red lava topknot had been given white corral eyes with a black obsidian center, it was believed that the deceased person’s spirit had enter the moai and would now protect Rapa Nui and its future generations.  img_3637

For details on Easter Island and its history, click here:http://www.mysteriousplaces.com/easter_island/

See a reenactment of ‘walking’ the statues here:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yvvES47OdmY

Tales of the South Pacific – 2. Easter Island or Rapa Nui 

img_3874We flew from Santiago, Chile to Easter Island on Latam Airlines. Which is, in fact, the only way to reach the distant, isolated island. Before getting there I had imagined an old, small airplane. I don’t know why – but I had thought it would be a local airline with an old prop plane. The opposite turned out to be true: Latam is part of One World and operates a brand new Boeing 787 on the route to Easter Island. As we reclined in luxury we crossed the south Pacific Ocean. Only then does it become clear just how distant this place is. From mainland Chile you fly at a speed of 850 KM an hour for about 5 hours! The island is almost halfway between mainland Chile and New Zealand. img_3508

We arrived in luxury and comfort. But now imagine that you are an early explorer, sailing the Pacific Ocean in search of new lands. After weeks of nothing but water, you spot land. A green island with round, cone shaped hills and the odd ragged cliff dropping off into the roaring ocean. As this Dutch ship under the comment of Captain Roggeveen, cautiously approaches the island, furling the sails that billowed from its three tall masts, you spot people. Giants.

Huge, towering people standing shoulder to shoulder with their backs to the sea. These stone giants are most likely meant to honour chiefs and other important people. For more than a thousand years – no one knows their exact date – have they silently been standing here. Only a few statues face out over the sea, looking in the direction of other Polynesian islands, possibly the Marquesa Islands from where the first inhabitants of Easter Island might have come by canoes.


Roggeveen did go on land and communicate with the native population. As it happened to be Easter for the European Christian sailors, they named the island Easter Island; Paas Eiland in Dutch, Isla de Pascua in Spanish. Never mind that the island already had inhabitants and a name: Rapa Nui. Like other islands claimed by European nations, it has now gone back to using and being proud of its original name and so I shall refer to Easter Island as Rapa Nui in my story. Since 1965 the island is under Chilean government. It uses Chilean pesos but has its own Rapa Nui postage stamps.

The stone statues for which the island is famous, are so shrouded in mystery that it is hard to realize that they stand on a normal island where regular people live in a regular town. I had only ever seen images of statues and green grass and found it slightly jarring to arrive in this mysterious place to see ordinary trucks, Cola machines, dogs – just like in any other town. Where was the mystery?

We walked across the tarmac to the palm fond covered entrance of a tiny airport. Each and every new arrival is greeted with a lei of fresh flowers.  People here still speak Spanish but also Rapa Nui, which is very Polynesian and looks like Hawaiian to us. We noticed that most of the other tourists in our hotel and on tours around the island, must have saved up and planned for this trip-of-a-lifetime just like us for most had white hair! Our hotel was a lovely, one story building with high ceilings and large rooms. Palm trees and flowering shrubs surrounded a small pool. It was nearly 30º, even late at night. With only two and a half days on the island, there would not be much time for sitting by the pool. We had a place to explore!


Our hotel

Rapa Nui is roughly the same size as Salt Spring Island with almost the same number of people, around 7000 – increasing with tourists. They also face similar problems, like sustainability, water shortage and recycling. Of course this island is much further away from a main land. Supplies used to come, and still may, once a year by ship. Everything else is flown in. So the cost of a soft drink or anything else is sky high. A small bottle of water which was 1 dollar in Santiago, costs 3 dollars here. Everything needs to be recycled or re-used. A sign in our bathroom asked us not to ‘throw paper at the toilet’ – which we took to mean no flushing of paper…

At 9 AM, we climbed aboard a small bus together with other tourists from Chile, France, Australia for our first day of touring the island and seeing the statues. img_3542

Salt Spring has its deer and lots of rabbits. Rapa Nui has dogs and horses. Dogs roam everywhere, the nicest, sweetest pups, wagging tails and friendly as can be. An estimated 2000 horses have been branded but, like our chickens at home, are free range and roam all over the island.

img_3541Our very first moai, or stone statues, was a row of five who, unlike all other moai, face out over the ocean rather than inland with their backs to the sea. Why? We can only guess and only “the ancestors ” know the real answer. They sit near two platforms on which the moai typically rest. These platforms are built of huge square basalt blocks with straight lines and rounded corners. It is impressive how precisely these were constructed so many hundreds of years ago, without the use of metal tools.

Once the guide pointed it out, we noticed moai that have fallen forward, on their faces, and cracked. Many have been destroyed during a civil war between the Long Ears and the Short Ears tribes around 1680, as well as by missionaries, neglect and the passing of time.

The standing, reconstructed moai were about 5 meters tall. Each face is quite individual. A few wear ‘top knots’ – these round blocks of red lava have a smaller red part on top and are said to resemble not hats but hair, worn traditionally on a long pony tail tied in a knot on top of the head, just like most men here still wear it.


Top Knot lava stone



Next story: More Moai Tales and The Battle of the Birdman!

Tales of the South Pacific – 1. Santiago, Chile

img_3429Normally we are very individual travellers and book all of our own arrangements, including flights and accommodations. However, just like in Africa, we felt that this short trip to South America merited the knowledge and advise of a specialized travel agency. We found South American Vacations in Florida.

We often travel for an extended period of time, combining personal travel with work in international schools. This time, however, I did not have school bookings and we could only go away for a short time, around 2 weeks. The top destination on our long time bucket list only required two weeks, in fact we couldn’t afford any longer to this expensive destination. We took a deep breath and bit the bullet: we would visit Easter Island and the Galapagos Islands while we are still healthy enough for the amount of hiking involved.

img_3432Easter Island and Galapagos are often visited together with Machu Pichu. But we weren’t interested in hiking at such a high altitude nor in seeing more ruins after visiting many Mayan and Aztec sites in Mexico. Later we met people who visited both destinations and also include in their trip Rio, Patagonia and Antarctica. This seemed way too overwhelming to me..

South American Vacations was able to taylor make us an itinerary. But it did involve a lot of flying. Booking a prearranged trip has advantages as well as disadvantages: I felt that we wasted a lot of time waiting for drivers to pick us up. But it was also nice not to have to figure out taxis, haggling over fares or finding  addresses. We travel with cabin luggage only which allows us to be the first ones through customs and off with our waiting ride.

The travel gods were with us. We seldom have snow on Salt Spring Island but a foot of thick snow fell just before we left. We made it out OK even though flights all around us were canceled due to snow. From Houston, TX we flew 9 hours to Santiago, Chile where it was a balmy 25º. The arrival hall in Santiago beat anything we’d ever seen in airports around the world: hundreds and hundreds of arriving passengers in one gigantic line up, snaked around and around. We shuffled along for over an hour until they finally opened up some extra windows and we cleared immigration.

img_3416Thanks to booking with the travel agency, all little details were arranged including pick up by taxi to get to our hotel – a small but very convenient hotel in downtown Santiago. We walked around the neighbourhood and ate a sandwich on a patio. I was surprised at how un-Latin-American the city felt. It resembled a modern, European city and in fact I think I read somewhere that Santiago is called “the Paris of South America” – stylish business people rushing to offices, expensive cars, underground parking garages, and of course several Starbucks…

We didn’t spot any Chilean food – just French, Thai and American – and ended up having a great meal in an Irish Pub of all places. After having spent a night on the airplane we slept like a log. img_3426The following morning we were picked up for a city tour. The downtown in which our hotel was located, was the cosmopolitan, business part of the city. But there is also a historic downtown. Dating back to the mid 1500’s, the streets are narrower here and lined with historic houses, palaces and churches rather than with glass and glistening steel skyscrapers. Our guide, Cristobál, was extremely knowledgeable, not just in dates and numbers but with his grasp on politics and development of his country. We learned so much from him about revolutions and dictators, about settlement and government.

Starting in an ancient cathedral with gleaming wooden floors and hand painted wooden ceilings, we walked all over the city for several hours, stopping in front of old palaces where generals lived, the palace of justice, the mint and many other Spanish style buildings and monuments. One monument still had the bullet holes from the 1973 revolution in which Salvador Allende gave up his power.

We ate fresh empanadas and walked around the hill of Santa Lucia where we had a view of this city of over five million people. Green belts and parks are the lungs of the city and many people walked and jogged here.


Santiago, Chile

Our travel agency: www.savacations.com

For a walking tour of Santiago check out: http://www.swoop-patagonia.com/blog/things-santiago/