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Farewell, Rapa Nui!

Orongo is a deserted village of stone huts important in the tribal history of Easter Island. The island was plagued with tribal warfare over land, resources and power, and by the latter part of the 17th century the society that had so systematically carved the moai had disintegrated into anarchy and were even beginning to destroy the statues they had so painstakingly created. A group of warriors suggested that the path to restoring order was to create an annual competition, with the winner assuming the seat of chieftain for the following year. Thus was born the Birdman competition.

Tribal leaders would each select one athlete to compete, while they lived and watched from these huts, built into the side of a hill that topped a 1000-foot cliff overlooking the wild ocean and these three islets, Moto Nui, Moto Iki and Moto Kao Kao.

The springtime competition began with a climb down the rocky cliff face and a swim through the chilly, shark-infested waters to Moto Nui, the largest of the islets.  There the swimmers would wait for the first egg laid by one of the hundreds of Sooty Terns that migrated there to lay their eggs and raise their young. Sometimes they’d be on the islet for weeks. The lucky spotter and retriever of the first egg would signal to his waiting chief, who would shave his head and eyebrows and wait for the competitor to swim back to the main island, climbing the steep cliff and presenting the unbroken egg. The chief would be proclaimed Birdman until the next competition. This tradition continued for about 150 years and was central to the island’s religious beliefs.

On the backside of this village is Rano Kao Crater, which we had visited earlier in the week. Much more scenic on a fair day!

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Our organizer photographer arranged a model shoot one day at Anakena Beach, and we were fortunate to be able to meet these beautiful people and make pictures they can use on social media. As I usually do, I’ll end this series of posts with faces from Rapa Nui.

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Spectacular Skies

Being out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Rapa Nui has some seriously dark skies. And even during daylight, the heavens are pretty spectacular, with roiling black clouds signaling rain, or just achingly blue clear sky.

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The new moon happened on April 2, which made the skies above Anakena Beach even darker. Our local guide and astrophotographer, Marc, pointed out the various constellations, including the Southern Cross, Pisces and Orion, as well as the International Space Station and several planets, among them Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus.  Shooting stars zipped across the void. After unsatisfying night shooting in Alaska (Northern Lights and freezing) and Namibia (a malfunctioning lens at wide angles) I was determined to get something — one good shot — to bring home. My first one delivered a big surprise…

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The cloud, which appeared to the naked eye as a blob of puffy grayness, had been brilliantly tinted by the brush fire we had smelled earlier in the evening. It made for some real drama as it shape-shifted throughout the hours we stood on the beach. See the shooting star directly above the rightmost moai, above?

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What was so great about the cloud — or was it actually smoke? — was that it made every shot just a bit different from the others. Now I’m really hooked on dark skies!

Tongariki Sunrise

Most stories about Easter Island include photos of this iconic spot. Like Macchu Pichu or the Eiffel Tower, Tongariki has been photographed countless times from every angle and has no secrets. And yet, being there is another thing entirely, especially as the sun begins to reveal itself through the swirling clouds.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

These fifteen statues extend 220 meters — over 720 feet! In 1960, an earthquake on the Chilean coast measuring 9.5 on the Richter scale was followed by a tsunami that scattered the fallen statues.  Between 1992 and 1996 these moai were moved back and replaced upright on the ahu, a colossal effort given that these are the largest moai on the island. The biggest of the statues weighs about 88 metric tons (a metric ton being about 10% heavier than a US ton). A construction company from Japan donated a crane for the restoration job, and when it broke down, they sent another — gratis!

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After the sun came up, I wandered around behind the ahu to the rocky beach, calm on this day. I did notice that one of the moai might have been a plumber…

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On the other side of the day, we journeyed to Rano Raraku, a quarry called the nursery of the moai, as it was the spot where most of them were carved. Disembodied heads  stand watch, or simply lie on the ground where they fell. Broken moai were thought to have lost their mana, so were abandoned. 

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This guy is Pitu Pitu, a sort of famous moai. I love his cocked head and quizzical expression. Up here we could get closer to the statues than anyplace else — close enough to see the distinctive carved features (note his nostril) and tattoos. This is where their personalities came to life.

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Sad to say, because the moai are carved from porous volcanic rock, rain, wind and sun are steadily eroding them, and there is at present no effective way to preserve them.

We Meet the Moai

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhile I knew there were hundreds of moai on the island, I assumed they were all pretty much the same. Wrong! At Rano Raraki, known as the birthplace of the moai, I discovered that the carvers imparted the heads with unique facial expressions and characteristics. More on our visit there later.

I also assumed from my reading that these giants looked out to sea. Wrong again! Only one group of moai gaze seaward; the Rapanui worshipped their ancestors, and these benevolent statues resembling important tribal elders and dignitaries were erected to look over and protect the people of the villages.

Another misconception is that the people deforested the island in order to move the statues from the carving sites to their desired spots. While the early settlers did cut down some of the trees to build homes, clear land for cultivation and provide wood for cooking, the greater damage to the palms that once abounded was most likely caused by Pacific rats brought aboard their canoes. These rats feasted on the seeds of the palm trees, to the extent that they could not propagate. Also, the Rapanui did not begin creating their moai for quite some time after they arrived.

Just outside Hangaroa, the only town, is Ahu Tahai, and that’s where we had our first introduction to the moai. This is thought to be the earliest inhabited area of the island.

The moai sit on platforms, called ahu. Once they were positioned on the ahu, sockets were carved and the eyes were placed, giving the statues their mana, or spirit. The eyes, made of white coral, always gaze slightly upward. The reddish topknot on this guy’s head is made of scoria, a different stone from the volcanic type of which the moais’ bodies are composed. Not all of the heads have topknots, which are thought to represent a hairdo (think man-bun) rather than a hat.

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Ahu Akivi, a line of seven statues standing at attention on a small hill, is a bit further inland, and we visited there in the harsh light of afternoon.

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Like many other ahu,  this one is positioned to align with the spring and fall equinoxes.

One morning we left the hotel early to catch the sunrise at Rano Kao, the largest crater on the island. Rapa Nui was formed when two volcanoes erupted, then a smaller third one joined. The lake inside the enormous crater  (1 km across) is covered with mats of grasses, and on a good day the sky and clouds create stunning reflections in the water. Unfortunately, sunrise didn’t materialize except for a brief moment, but a downpour did.

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Next up: a real sunrise!

Island in the Middle of the Ocean

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARapa Nui — aka Easter Island, lies some 2200 miles off the coast of Chile, and is famously described as the most remote inhabited spot in the world. Home to the mysterious moai, it is the object of endless speculation about the civilization that settled here between 600 and 900 AD.

While Rapa Nui has been part of Chile since 1888, it was actually discovered by Polynesians from further west in the Pacific. It wasn’t till the early 1700s that it was rediscovered by a Dutch, then a Spanish, then a British explorer, Captain Cook. It was the Dutch explorer, Jacob Roggeveen, who named Rapa Nui Easter Island, as he landed there on Easter Sunday 1722.

Some 800 moai dot the island, some just broken fragments near the quarries where they were carved. Tribal warfare and Catholic missionaries took their toll on these magnificent statues over the centuries. As a result, most of them were toppled over, though around 40-50 have been restored to an upright position.

 

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In the next post we’ll meet the mysterious moai.

Back to Santiago

I decided to write this series of posts out of the order in which I experienced the places, so this entry takes us back to Santiago after a week in Easter Island.

My boutique  hotel, the Casa Bellavista, could not have been more different from the dreary B&B I stayed in the weekend before. It was strategically located in the midst of the Bellavista barrio, a hip and artsy neighborhood with plenty of restaurants, wine bars, cafés and shops. Patio Bellavista, a covered city block, is chock full of shops and restaurants and is great for nightlife.

The distinguishing feature of the barrio is the abundance of murals painted on storefronts and walls. I guess you could call it graffiti, but it’s so much more, obviously the work of very talented artists.

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Wandering the streets of Bellavista is a treat for the eyes!

My friend Laura, who was on the Easter Island trip and also the expedition to Bali in January, had secured a driver for a day, so Arturo took us to the Underraga Winery in the Maipo Valley, just a short hop south of Santiago. The winery was established in 1885, and we were able to taste sauvignon blanc, carmenere, and a 100% cabernet sauvignon, finishing with a dessert blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon. All yummy! It’s going into fall here, and the grapes have all been harvested, so we got a peek at the process of selecting and destemming.

We wandered through the rustic village of nearby Pomaire, home to many potters — all of whom seemed to make the same thing: ollas in every size imaginable, bean pots, round, square and rectangular baking pans, outdoor flower pots, pitchers and cups. While the town is normally crowded with tourists on weekends, the crafters take Mondays off, so many shops were closed and the town had a sleepy air, with dogs taking their siestas in the street.

A restaurant tried to lure us in with a 10 kilo empanada! I got indigestion just looking at it!

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We wound our way down the coast through the exceptionally lovely community of Santo Domingo Beach, landing at Isla Negra, made famous by Pablo Neruda, who built his favorite house here overlooking the wild, windswept beach. Huge rock formations add interest to the landscape, and one even has a bust of the poet carved on top. The rip tides and huge waves make the area too dangerous to swim, but one can imagine how this untamed place inspired him. This is where he died and is buried. Once again, it being Monday, the house was closed to visitors; on the other hand, there were no hordes of tourists to contend with.

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My final days in Santiago took me by metro to Pueblo los Dominicos, a rustic village at the western edge of the city, with a warren of streets lined with shops selling high-quality handicrafts: hand-knitted shawls and sweaters, jewelry, pottery, paintings — you name it.

That bird you see above is a chicken I named Phyllis Diller, which was pecking around in a cage with a number of other birds (which is why she’s sort of blurry). I saw an amazing variety of colorful chickens during this trip.

One morning I took the funicular up Cerro San Cristóbal, the highest point in Santiago, with its expansive views of the sprawling city, and St. Christopher looking down from the peak. Especially up here you see the smog that bathes the skyline every day (except after heavy rains) and obscures any glimpse of the Andes. Santiago lies in a basin, with the Andes to the east and a coastal mountain range to the west, trapping all the nasty brown air.

These two shots show an unprocessed image right out of the camera (left), and one with dehaze applied during processing (right) . Goes to show you how much more the camera can see than I can with my naked eye — and how thick the smog is.

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I left Santiago and Chile with more to see and more restaurants to try; more day trips, to Valparaiso and back to Isla Negra when Neruda’s house is open; more wineries to visit; and excursions further afield to Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia and the Atacama Desert. For a long thin country — nearly 2700 miles long but, on average, only 110 miles wide — it has remarkable geographic diversity and stunning beauty. I loved it, and want to go back!

Touchdown in Santiago

In the long, thin country of Chile, Santiago, the capital, is its largest city and the jumping-off point to Easter Island, the object of my latest adventure. So I book-ended this latest photography expedition with an exploration of this cosmopolitan city.

Staying close-in in the Providencia area turned out to be a good choice, as I could walk everywhere I wanted to go. Arriving early on a Saturday morning and not able to check into my B&B, I killed time just walking around my neighborhood to see what was nearby (ATM, mini-market, a good place for café con leche and desayuno (breakfast)). A combined driving/walking tour later in the afternoon gave me a larger overview of the city so I could home in on the areas I wanted to explore on the back-end of the expedition.

Plaza de Armas anchors the city and was the site on which it was founded in 1541 by Pedro Valdivia, whose mounted statue oversees the plaza. The magnificent National Cathedral presides over the east end of the square.

Parque Bicentenario commemorates the bicentennial of the country, and is a lovely urban oasis, where families picnic on the weekends while watching the black-necked swans and flamingoes wade in the protected ponds. The bonus: the only clear view of the Andes I had during the trip.

The highlight of my first short stay was a 3 1/2 hour walking tour on Sunday, organized by an outfit called Tours4Tips. Just as it sounds, they don’t charge a fee; at the end of the tour you simply pay your guide what you think it was worth. Our enthusiastic guide, Cammie, was a Canadian ex-pat who engaged our group right away and kept us entertained. We started at the busy Mercado Central (the fish market), then moved on to the mob scene at Mercado Vega, a mammoth two block by four block area selling everything but fish.

Hopping on the subway, we traveled toward the northern edge of town for a fascinating walk through the General Cemetery. Over two million souls are interred here, and Cammie said there’s still room for more. All but two of Chile’s presidents are buried here; and there is a memorial to the “desaparecidos,” the people who were “disappeared” during the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet from 1973-1990. Chile commemorates its own 9/11: September 11, 1973, the date of the coup d’état overthrowing the socialist president Salvador Allende. During Pinochet’s ruthless regime, over 3000 political opponents were made to disappear, hundreds of thousands more were tortured and/or killed, and many thousands left the country.

The modern-looking structure above is the burial place of Salvador Allende, who committed suicide during the coup and was buried elsewhere, but subsequently was reinterred here after Chile’s return to democracy in 1990.

Animata are very important to Chileans, and that is nowhere more obvious than in the cementario, where people remember their dead with elaborate tributes and requests for blessing marked by flowers real and fake, stuffed toys, plaques and letters.

Those who can’t afford mausoleums are interred in niches…

We were lucky to see people getting ready for a funeral parade.

After the walk I made my way back to my neighborhood to pay a visit to La Chascona, the Santiago home of Chile’s Nobel Prize-winning poet, Pablo Neruda. Though I couldn’t take photos inside, I enjoyed the informative audio guide as I wandered through the comfortable rooms Neruda shared with his mistress, Mathilde, whom he later married. He led a colorful life as a diplomat and prominent communist, going into hiding and fleeing to Argentina in the late ’40s when the government outlawed communism and issued a warrant for his arrest.  Much later, he was an advisor to Allende, and was hospitalized for cancer treatment during the 1973 military coup. He stayed in the hospital only a short time, believing that the doctor had injected him with poison, presumably on the orders of Pinochet. He died shortly thereafter at his home in Isla Negra (more on that lovely spot later). In 2015 the Chilean government acknowledged that there was documentary evidence strongly pointing to the possibility that his death was hastened by others and not a heart attack, which was listed as the official cause of death. Neruda is much beloved by Chileans.

More on Santiago later…