EASTER ISLAND, Chile — Carlos Paoa was living in California when his sister wrote to tell him that some of the big stone statues back home on Easter Island were being set upright again and restored.
He was surprised. Like New Orleanians who barely notice trees that catch Carnival beads, Easter Islanders “didn’t pay much attention to the statues when I was growing up,” said Paoa, a photographer/guide in his late 40s. “Now they’re our main economy.”
In recent years, about 70,000 visitors annually have traveled to Easter Island, called Rapa Nui by its 5,700 residents.
Paoa led 20 of us, all passengers from the Oceania Marina cruise ship, for a day-and-a-half independent Easter Island Spirit Tour around the 64-square-mile South Pacific island named by Dutch ship captain Jacob Roggeveen. The explorer spotted it 293 years ago today — April 5, 1722, Easter Sunday.
The statues, called moai (mow-eye), already were there when Roggeveen arrived, as were Polynesians who made them.
Looking at us through aviator sunglasses, Paoa pitched details. Despite Easter Island’s isolation, 2,300 miles from Chile, which owns it, and 1,293 miles from its nearest neighbor, Pitcairn, he said “This volcanic island provided raw material to build 900 statues and 300 platforms.”
The moai are weathered, with sloping shoulders and big heads. Some have ski slope noses, square jaws, long ears and mouths that look as if they were made with a single slash of a sharp knife. Built between 900 and 1600 AD, they weigh as much as 80 tons and are 14 to 30 feet tall.
Paoa said that according to oral tradition, when a chief died, his family commissioned a moai to represent him, and set it up to face his community.
But the moai wasn’t important until a coral eye was inserted, he said. “That’s when the spirit of the chief — the mana or energy — was activated.”
Sweat trickling down our foreheads in January’s heat, we hiked up to the quarry and saw half-carved moai still lying there. Down the hill, we looked up a platform restored in the 1990s. Fifteen moai on it faced inland, their vacant eyes staring over our heads.
How were the moai moved around the island? National Geographic reported the most recent theory, that locals used ropes on either side and behind each statue, and “walked” the moai by pulling and pushing.
Within a century of Roggeveen’s visit, most of the moai had been knocked over, perhaps by rival tribes, or maybe because few believed in their power anymore. Whatever happened, all the eyes had been gouged out. One is on display in a museum.
It’s not an idyllic tropical island with lots of palm trees or lush vegetation. Early settlers, believed to have arrived from Polynesia between 600 and 900 AD, cut down the palms when clearing land to farm. But did rats, which stowed away on canoes from Polynesia, eat the palm tree seeds and finish the job?
There are so many mysteries on Easter Island.
Like Baby Boomers everywhere, I’d wanted to visit Easter Island since high school, when I read Norwegian scientist/explorer Thor Heyerdahl’s “Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft,” which included numerous references to the mysterious statues and history of Easter Island. Published in 1948, it sold 50 million copies over the next decades, and focused world-wide attention here, as did Heyerdahl’s 1955 book, “Aku-Aku,” which was all about Easter Island.
So when a random Oceania Cruises brochure arrived by mail, I flipped through it, saw the itinerary, including an overnight visit to Easter Island, and signed up that afternoon. It was an 18-day voyage of my dreams: Valpariso, Chile, to Papeete, Tahiti, on the 1,250-passenger, 66,084 ton Oceania Marina, built in 2011.
Other stops included Robinson Crusoe Island, where a castaway’s story inspired Daniel Defoe’s novel of 1719, now undergoing repairs after a tsunami; and a day off Pitcairn Island, where Fletcher Christian and eight other British mutineers from The Bounty settled in 1790. We couldn’t land because of rough water, so most of the 45 remaining residents boarded the Marina to sell items they made.
Also on the schedule were the French Polynesian islands of Fakarava (lovely, non-touristy) and Bora Bora (over-the-water hotel colonies) and finally Tahiti, where I took a ferry for a day trip to Moorea, the most beautiful Polynesian island we saw.
There also were 10 days at sea, a nightmare for type A personalities, a sweet dream for me. I relished time to read, relax, take cooking lessons, go to the Canyon Ranch Spa Club, feast — in seven restaurants serving fantastic meals, with no required dressing up for dinner, and talk to other passengers.
Although there was that one couple I met on an elevator the morning we arrived at Easter Island.
“A big day!” I said.
“Why?” asked the woman.
“Easter Island!” I said.
“I’d never heard of it before this trip,” she said. “We’re not going ashore.”