Rapa Nui’s Tapati Festival

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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.

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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.

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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…
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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/

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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.

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Santiago, Chile

Our travel agency: www.savacations.com

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