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/