Book Excerpt: Trans-Siberian Railrway

A chapter about travel along the Trans-Siberian railway, from my book Common Sense and Whiskey, Modest Adventures Far from Home:

If you don’t speak Russian and if you decode Cyrillic gingerly, one letter at a time, it’s not completely effortless to come up with bottled water in Ekaterinburg, but it is possible, and I bought six litres.

The kiosk, alongside a tram stop, was just big enough to be a walk-in affair, not big enough for four, let alone our steamy tensome.  The boys in front  argued over what beer and candy to order one each of. I motioned for six bottles way up high on a shelf  and all kinds of consternation rippled through the mottled impatience behind me.

In a few hours Mirja and I would be climbing aboard the Trans-Siberian railroad to Ulan Bataar, Mongolia.  We’d be a week en route, so we needed all kinds of stuff.

As soon as I had all those bottles, though, I calculated we could get everything else at the train station.  Six litres of water is heavy.

Today was Labor Day in the U.S. On the edge of Siberia, autumn held full sway. E-kat’s denizens plodded by cold and damp in an insistent, heavy shower. A lot of the older folks wore long coats. All day the rain beset.

•••••

Every account of coming upon the Ural mountains speaks of disappointment, and for good reason. The dividing line between Europe and Asia is just hills, really, and Ekaterinburg nestles just beyond their eastern slopes.

The Atrium Palace Hotel Ekaterinburg looked so nice on the internet that we mused back home that it had to be either German or mafia owned. Well, it wasn’t German. It was E-kat’s only “5-star,” with glass elevators and snuggly, fluffy Scandinavian bedding and BBC World on TV.

Still, it had its Russian characteristics: There was the hourly rate, Rule #2: “If you stay for less than six hours, you are charged for twelve hour accommodation.” And Rule #7: “The guests who troubled a lot before can not be allowed to stay at the hotel.” Hard to know if the guys in track suits grouped around the lobby drinking coffee were part of the problem or there to enforce the solution.

•••••

Mid-rises glowered down on ancient Siberian carved–wood houses. There wasn’t much spring in E-kat’s civic step. Down Ulitsa Malysheva, a second-tier comrade (maybe it was Malysheva himself) stood statuary guard near a canal. The flowers at his feet had long since conceded to summer weeds.

Old and dusty women tended the old and dusty local history museum. They turned the lights on and off as you moved through the rooms. The Communism section was closed.

During the revolution, in July 1918, The entire family of deposed Czar Nicholas was shot while holed up at the home of a merchant named Ipatiev here in Ekaterinburg – then called Sverdlovsk – and some days later the besieged Bolsheviks burned and buried the bodies outside town.

In 1977, local Sverdlovsk party boss Boris Yeltsin ordered the Ipatiev House destroyed. Fourteen years later Yeltsin, then in the Kremlin, financed exhumation of the bodies from the burial pit, and exactly eighty years after their murder, on July 17, 1998 the bones of Russia’s last Czar were laid beside the bones of previous Czars in the crypt of the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg. In the museum, black and white pictures of Nicholas and Alexandra were pinned up alongside diagrams of skeletons. 

In a dainty candle-lit Orthodox church-let, hardly big enough for the two women inside, Mirja and I bought a tiny cross and a few icons. With a glass, the women inspected the back of each, like kids examine trading cards, and they proclaimed one Nikolai and explained of another, “Blogodot Denyaba.”

E-kat’s youth did a kind of country swagger beneath a huge billboard for “Ural Westcom” Cellular – written in Latin, not Cyrillic. Every kid in town walked up and down the sidewalk drinking big brown half litre bottles of beer. Maybe it was because they could.

Muddy Ekaterinburg, east of the Urals.

If your baseline was vodka, pivo (beer) was positively a soft drink in comparison. None of these young people – old enough to aspire to fashion and to drink and flirt and smoke – none of them remembered the days of vodka and The State. They were all eight or twelve at the Soviet Union’s demise.

The train station was white, granite and huge, a city block long and probably more, but it was hard to see why – they only used a tiny slice of it. There was just time to lug our stuff into the steamy waiting hall, and before you knew it, up rolled train number two, the Rossiya.

Here was a moment of some import. They told us our first class compartment was “very expensive,” but we didn’t care about that (it wasn’t that expensive), we just wanted to find it very empty. And so it was.

The woman under whose iron will Trans-Siberian lore demanded we cower – the provodnitsa – while no nonsense, appeared kindly enough as she studied our tickets, nodded, and handed over the key to cabin nine, between cabin eight, with a baby, and the toilet.

Inside – impeccably clean. Mirrors on each wall made a not very big space bigger. All six lights worked – the overhead fluorescent, lights on the walls, and tiny reading lights over each bunk.

The window was structurally shut and it was warmer than it needed to be. Satiny print curtains covered the window but Mirja moved them above the door. That way we could have it open and see out, but people in the corridor couldn’t see in. Brilliant.

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On the Road: In a Tough Neighborhood

My column at 3QuarksDaily as it ran on Monday:

On The Road: In A Tough Neighborhood

In the middle of the night of March 24, 1992, a pressure seal failed in the number three unit of the Leningradskaya Nuclear Power Plant at Sosnoviy Bor, Russia, releasing radioactive gases. With a friend, I had train tickets from Tallinn, in newly independent Estonia, to St. Petersburg the next day. That would take us within twenty kilometers of the plant. The legacy of Soviet management at Chernobyl a few years before set up a fraught decision whether or not to take the train.

Monitoring stations in Finland detected higher than normal readings. The level of iodine-131 at Lovisa, Finland, just across the gulf, was 1,000 times higher than before the accident, according to the German Institute for Applied Ecology.

Russian authorities reported the accident in the media, and I think they felt self-satisfied for doing it, but Russian credibility had burned down with Chernobyl’s reactor 4. Any more, people thought the Soviets, as Seymour Hersh said about Henry Kissinger, lied like other people breathe. And as usual, solid information was hard to come by.

A news agency in St. Petersburg reported increased radiation, and the Swedish news reported panic in St. Petersburg. A lady in Tallinn that day told me her mother had called from St. Petersburg and they were closing the schools and sending children home to stay indoors. The Finnish Prime Minister fussed that seven hours passed before the Russians told him. It was frightening.

No one believed the plant spokesman when he said on TV, hey (big Soviet smile), no problem. No one trusted the Russians.

•••••

In the same way that provincial Balkan towns had never thought of themselves as national capitals (like Podgorica, which became the capital of Montenegro, and Ljubljana, the completely delightful capital of Slovenia), Tallinn was, had been since Soviet occupation in 1940, an outpost, a modest administrative hub, though far more architecturally charming than Soviet in its medieval center, with round stone guard towers and ancient walls all around.

Back then, in 1992, there just wasn’t that much of it. Tallinn was far smaller than its close neighbor Helsinki, itself only half a million. As usual when Soviet Communism got hold of a place, the difference between Soviet Tallinn and free Helsinki was night and day – in that order – even though they are unidentical twins, only 50 miles apart across the Baltic.

The Finnish-built Viru hotel where I stayed (“Viro” is “Estonia” in Finnish) is the tall building in the background of this photo. It was just about the only place foreigners stayed, and something of a mild Estonian legend. The Viru opened in 1972 and adventurous Finns (whose language is similar enough to Estonian that they can understand one another) crept over to have a look at the Soviet way of life.

Naturally, for the Viru’s first twenty years the KGB spied on guests.

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New Monday Magazine Column at 3QD

This month’s column is up at 3QuarksDaily. It’s about the largest overland migration in the world, wildebeests and zebras crossing the Mara River in Kenya. Read it here on 3QD today, and I’ll publish it on CS&W later this week.

And there are many more photos like this one in the Animals and Wildlife Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.

Travel Book Recommendation

Nice to see Kapka Kassabova’s book Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe has won another award. She writes evocatively about three months of travel up and down the Bulgarian/Turkish/Greek border, an entirely underexplored corner of Europe. Check it out. Bet you’ll enjoy it.

Tuesday’s award joins previous accolades for Border. It was named Travel Book of the Year back in February.

Europe’s Invisible Corner

Here is my column this month for 3 Quarks Daily, as it ran there on Monday. Please visit 3QD and poke around a little bit, spend some time. It’s the smartest site out there.

EUROPE’S INVISIBLE CORNER

Hyvä asiakkaamme,
Ethän käytä huoneiston takkaa.
Se on tällä hetkellä epäkunnossa
Ja savuttaa sisään.

Dear customer,
Please don’t use the fireplace. It is for the moment out of order and the smoke comes into the apartment.

•••••

Now wait a minute. We might need that fireplace in Lapland in December. Just now it’s three degrees (-16C) outside. The nice lady couldn’t be more sympathetic, but they just manage the place. Fixing the fireplace requires funding that can’t be organized until we are gone.

She promises we’ll stay warm thanks to a magnificent heater, a sauna and the eteinen, one of those icebox-sized northern anterooms that separate the outside from the living area. I have fun with the translation, though. I imagine that fool Ethän has busted the damned fireplace again.

• • •

Welcome to Saariselkä, Finland, where it’s dark in the morning, briefly dusk, then dark again for the rest of the day. The sun never aspires to the horizon. Fifty miles up the road Finland, Norway and Russia meet at the top of Europe.

But look around. It’s entirely possible to live inside the Arctic Circle. It takes a little more bundling up and all, and you need a plan before you go outside. No idle standing around out there.

There are even advantages. Trailing your groceries after you on a sled, a pulkka, is easier than carrying them. There’s a word for the way you walk: köpöttää. It means taking tiny steps the way you do to keep your balance on an icy sidewalk.

Plus, other humans live here, too, and they seem to get along just fine. Infrastructure’s good, transport in big, heavy, late model SUVs, a community of 2600 people, all of them attractive, all of whom look just like each other.

I imagined “selling time shares in Lapland” was a punch line, but it’s an actual thing. A jammed-full Airbus delivered us from Helsinki, one of three flights every day to Rovaniemi.

Down the stairs, across the tarmac and into the dark. The highway spools out with no end, a monochrome tunnel of mist and snow. Finns counter with a flourishing roadhouse culture. Oases appear, of people and movement and light, fast food, a cafeteria and a grill, newsstands, groceries and gasoline.

At floating markets in the Mekong Delta, boats hoist fruit on bamboo poles to advertise they’re selling coconuts, say, or star fruit. Here, totems rise at exits, fog swirling around neon: Pizza! Market! Gas! 24H! Credit Cards!

Seventy kilometers up the road is Inari, Finland’s largest town by area. At 17,321 square kilometers it’s about half the size of Belgium, yet your fridge is likely to be dorm-sized and the biggest carton of milk you’ll find is a liter. Finns are a conserving lot, even with room to spread out.

And the loft in this little apartment, sure it’s for kids (please let it be for kids), but not only can you not walk in it, you can’t crawl in it. A bloody death trap if there were ever a fire. Not that there would be, because the fireplace doesn’t work.

There is a grocery you can walk to, Kuukkeli, down on the highway into town, where you can buy mean and defiant ruisleipä, Finnish rye bread. I know a Lithuanian man who claims they have the same loaves in Vilnius. There are sausages and heat-and-serve casseroles made of beets or mushrooms or potatoes and ham. And tins of moose, bear, elk and reindeer.

If you eat meat you will do best just to capitulate on the reindeer thing. Here in Kuukkeli you can buy reindeer burgers, cold smoked reindeer, reindeer steak, reindeer sausages, reindeer meat pie, smoked reindeer flatbread (this is a hit: in high season Kuukkeli sells 250 a day), reindeer pizza (chopped smoked reindeer, blue cheese and pineapple), reindeer quiche, reindeer soup, smoked reindeer roll, croissants with chopped cold smoked reindeer, reindeer paninis and warm reindeer sandwiches.

•••••

Mark Twain wrote “If the thermometer had been an inch longer we’d have frozen to death” and I feel that way this morning. The hardest thing is getting out of bed. That can be unfortunate if you mean to make something of the day, since it’s night again by 3:00. The last bus runs at 3:40. There is no more light.

But maybe everybody sleeps in, because come midnight, the lambent auroral sky-dance teases out a parade of the awestruck from a dozen lands. We group together up and down the hills, all of us bundled and round Michelin men, teeth chattering like dice, bouncing and rolling and reveling in how utterly odd is this world.

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On The Road: Giraffe Spotting

Here is my complete second column in the On the Road series at Three Quarks Dailyas it appeared there Monday.

•••••

It all started with zebras. 

Hard to believe, but sustained, hands-on field work in east Africa only has a sixty year history. Today Hans Klingel is an emeritus professor at the Braunschweig Zoological Institute, but when he arrived in Africa in 1962 Herr Klingel was one of only three scientists in the entire Serengeti.

Klingel and his wife made wildlife their career. Their first mission was to recognize individually and study ten percent of the 5500 zebras in the Ngorongoro Crater west of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Zebra stripes are whole body fingerprints. The Klingels took photographs, taped the photos to file cards and carried them into the field. They came to recognize some 600 individuals.

Their file card technique caught on. In 1965 zoologist Bristol Foster studied giraffes at Nairobi National Park, photographing their left sides to memorize their unique patterns. He glued pictures onto file cards too. From 1969 a researcher named Carlos Mejia photographed and carried cards of giraffes in the Serengeti. Scientists swarmed into east Africa and the game was on.

On the open savanna, giraffes and zebras form a natural alliance. Zebras (and wildebeests, their fellow travelers) benefit from giraffes’ strong eyesight, elevated vantage point and superior field of view. Giraffes have the largest eyes among land animals and can see in color. Their peripheral vision allows them to just about see behind themselves. The next time your safari Land Cruiser rattles around the corner into view of a giraffe, you can bet the giraffe has already seen you.

In turn, giraffes appreciate zebras’ superior hearing and their awareness of the smell of predators. Perhaps because of their distance from the thick soup of ground smells, giraffes’ olfactory senses have fallen away.

A safari guide in Botswana’s Okavango Delta once described to me the most dramatic single wildlife event he ever saw; a fierce squall of giraffe anger led a long-necked posse to kill around ten lions before one giraffe finally went down to the final five.

If a horse’s kick can seriously injure a man, he explained, imagine the giraffe, whose foot is wide as a dinner plate. Having perfectly good sense, lions usually give giraffes wide berth. Except at the water hole.

Watch giraffes before they drink. They survey their surroundings at length and in great detail before they commit, for they will require time and effort to splay into the ungainly, legs-spread stance they need to get their mouths to the ground, and then more time to clamber back upright. Fortunately they needn’t drink more than every second or third day, because to counter the peril at the water hole, giraffes have learned which leaves yield the most moisture.

Nobody else except the largest elephant can reach twenty feet into the trees. There isn’t a great deal of feeding competition up there, so serene, heads in the clouds, giraffes can be discerning eaters.

If you weigh a ton and a half, you’ll need to eat a lot of leaves. You may spend three quarters of the day feeding. In Portraits in the Wild, Cynthia Moss writes that no more than five to thirty minutes of a giraffe’s day are spent sleeping.

Using your prehensile lips and half-meter prehensile, muscular tongue, you take a branch in your mouth, pull your head away and the leaves come with it. Your preferred leaves are thorny acacia, which contain some 74 per cent water. You grind the thorns between your molars.

Scientists like that word “prehensile” because it is obscure. It just means “adapted for holding,” from the Latin prehendere, “to grasp.” Unlike a giraffe’s hoof or a dog’s paw, our hands are prehensile, with our opposable thumbs.

•••••

At the border of the Luangwa Park in Zambia it is jarring to see people and giraffes sharing the road. The giraffes have eaten the leaves on the other side of the river inside the park, forming a browse line. The trees are bare of leaves below a line as distinct as the bottom of the clouds, while the other animals fight it out for food on the ground.

Giraffes aren’t out to hurt you, so workers, kids on their way to school, occasional automotive traffic and giraffes share the road, if gingerly. Most unusual.

You’ve seen squirrels, maybe rabbits, dart onto the road in front of you, become confused and run straight ahead instead of ducking off to the side. Once a giraffe did just that in front of our vehicle near a bush camp on the Luangwa River.

A laptop had disappeared from a rondavel in camp a few days before. We happened upon two boys in deep woods, a place they surely shouldn’t have been. Caught out, they dropped their backpack and crashed away into the bush. Inside the backpack, the laptop. In the ruckus a thoroughly alarmed giraffe stormed onto the road ahead of the LandCruiser.

If giraffes ran like most hoofstock their extra-long legs would get tangled up, so when they run they move both legs on one side and then the other. All four of a giraffe’s legs leave the ground at once.

This is called “pacing” and has the visual effect of making the giraffe seem to run in slow motion. In fact those long legs cover prodigious ground. The word giraffe comes from “zafarah,” Arabic for “one who walks swiftly.”

Excited as we were to return the stolen laptop, we didn’t intend to alarm the giraffe, but it was long gone. In short bursts, giraffes can put up speeds of 35 miles per hour. This one surely did.

The giraffe’s front legs are longer and stronger than its hindquarters. At a gallop, the power stroke of each front leg sends the neck moving from side to side, leaning ahead, swinging opposite its stride. No other animal has such a neck and no other animal’s neck is so deeply involved in forward movement.

•••••

Why such a striking neck in the first place?

Sixty years before Charles Darwin, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck proposed that evolution proceeded from the accumulation of small, gradual, acquired characteristics. He wrote that the giraffe “is obliged to browse on the leaves of trees and to make constant efforts to reach them. From this habit … it has resulted that the animal’s forelegs have become longer than its hind-legs, and that its neck is lengthened….”

Had giraffes cried out for another explanation (and they didn’t, they just kept chewing acacia leaves), Darwin came along to give it a try. “The individuals which were the highest browsers and were able … to reach even an inch or two above the others, will often have been preserved. … These will have intercrossed and left offspring…. By this process long-continued … it seems to me almost certain that an ordinary hoofed quadruped might be converted into a giraffe.”

Lamarck’s and Darwin’s adherents still battle it out. Lamarck is lately staging a bit of a comeback.

Allow psychology professor David Barash to enter the debate and posit that they’re all wrong. To Barash it’s all about sex.

Younger males’ neck musculature grows visible in maturity, signaling their readiness to challenge for mating privileges. With females in estrus, male giraffes stand shoulder to shoulder and wield their necks as Barash puts it, “roughly like a medieval ball-and-chain weapon, or flail.”

They hammer each other neck-to-neck in turn until one cedes dominance. Barash speculates that longer necks lead to dominance, more mating opportunities, and so are passed along genetically. He calls it “necks for sex.”

Beyond the grand debate, there are simple enough ways to circumvent any generations-long path to giraffehood. Craig Holdrege, director of the Nature Institute, points out that to eat leaves, goats simply climb trees.

•••••

Baby giraffes are almost entirely vulnerable. At least half are killed before they reach their first birthday. Once in the Thula Thula Royal Zulu Game Reserve in Kwa-Zulu Natal, we came upon a newborn calf that only just reached its mother’s knees, far below her body. Mom kept it tight to her side and never took her eyes off us.

But protective maternal instincts can’t cover up the brutality of a baby giraffe’s birth. The calf drops head first some five and a half feet from the womb to the ground.  Vulnerable as they are, calves get right to their feet, in as little as five minutes.

And they grow so fast! Cynthia Moss writes that they can grow nine inches in a single week. Oxford zoologist Dr. Jonathan Kingdon suggests this was “an early evolutionary strategy whereby very large, but relatively defenseless, animals were able to mitigate predation by growing too large for predators to overpower.”

•••••

Giraffes present as above it all, and not just physically. The biologist Richard Estes reckoned that of all the animals, giraffes give the least back to the curious viewer. Implacable, delphic stoicism, maintaining a stance, chewing and looking back at you. 

I think Edith Wharton unknowingly spoke for giraffes: “Make one’s center of life inside of one’s self, not selfishly or excludingly, but with a kind of unassailable serenity – to decorate one’s inner house so richly that one is content there, glad to welcome anyone who wants to come and stay, but happy all the same when one is inevitably alone.”

These are the sentiments of any giraffe.

•••••

Giraffes are a safari favorite because of their utter evolutionary strangeness, but they have a little-known cousin that is stranger still – the okapi, the last large animal discovered by western science.

Further confined than the giraffe, to a single refuge in the Ituri forest in northeast Democratic Republic of Congo, the okapi is the national symbol of the DRC, but you will likely never see one except on the Congo’s 1000 Franc note.

An animal seemingly built by committee, this forest giraffe is donkeylike and tall-shouldered with a thick, elongated neck and chestnut black, glistening coat. Like the giraffe, it paces, and splays its legs while drinking. But the giraffe’s closest relative displays startling zebra-like stripes wrapping around its back end. Inexplicable.

The giraffe’s habitat has fragmented catastrophically (already extinct in seven countries, there are now less than 98,000 individuals left in the world). The okapi’s circumstance is more dire still. The Okapi Conservation Project’s John Lukas estimates there are only 3,000 to 3,500 okapi in the Ituri forest reserve. Lukas says okapi are so secretive and solitary that a ranger may walk 500 kilometers before sighting an okapi in the wild.

Henry Morton Stanley wrote of the okapi in 1887, prompting the British High Commissioner for Uganda to organize a search that failed to find a single animal. 100 years later, Lukas set up his facility at Epulu in Mbuti pygmy territory in the DRC in hopes of breeding okapi.

To get an idea how isolated opaki are, Lukas told me by email, “For the first 10 years we had to fly from Kinshasa to Goma and drive 5 days to get to our field station…. We built (an) airstrip in the middle 90’s but still drove from Goma getting supplies along the way. … In 2003 we started coming in from Uganda to Bunia and either driving or chartering a plane depending on the security along the road.”

For a time, fourteen okapi lived at the project reserve, but in 2012 all of the okapi – and six people – were killed in a two-day siege of the project, the bad guys apparently exacting retribution for a crackdown on the illegal ivory trade and illicit mining.

•••••

One afternoon near Naivasha, Kenya we bounded outside our LandCruiser, excited to behold the largest group of giraffes I have ever seen. We counted 23 on one side of the road and five on the other. 

This was a crowning, exhilarating moment, but as exuberant as the humans may have been the giraffes declined comment, silently cud-chewing, mild-mannered, staring you down, sizing you up, batting an eyelash, inscrutable. Their long curly eyelashes suggested a certain sensitivity.

Like elephants, giraffes and okapi communicate with infrasound, low frequency tones inaudible to humans (and in the case of okapi, inaudible to their main predator, the leopard). Perhaps infrasound accounts for some of the giraffe’s aloof silence. After sixty years of field work, there is still a lot we don’t know.

From afar, giraffes stand out as masts on a dusty sea, triangles on the plain. Watch at distance their stately traverse, waves of heat rising from the savanna. In Karen Blixen’s words, “When cruising, with its gaze on the horizon and high center of gravity, the giraffe hardly seems in contact with the earth.”

On the Road: Rapa Nui

Here is the complete first column in the On the Road series at Three Quarks Daily, as it appeared there yesterday

Polynesia could swallow up the entire north Atlantic Ocean. It’s that big.

Only half of one per cent of Polynesia is land, and 92 per cent of that is New Zealand. Then there’s Tonga and Samoa, the Cook and Hawaiian islands, the French possessions, and back in its own lonely corner, Rapa Nui, the famous Easter Island. Four and a half hours flying time to South America and six hours to Tahiti, Rapa Nui is a mote, a tiny place that feels tiny, forlorn, a footnote.

How in the world did proto-Polynesians cast their civilization from Papua New Guinea all the way to Rapa Nui in canoes, with thousand year old tech, sailing against prevailing winds and all odds?

If you think about it at all, you might suppose Rapa Nui was an accidental discovery, storm-damaged canoes drifting off course, perhaps, or voyages of exile dashed upon obscure rocks. Who imagines resolute, purposeful voyages of discovery on stone-age ships no match for the vastness of the sea?

I do. I fancy single-minded voyages of exploration carried out by well-provisioned scouts sailing with, say, a month’s food, who set out in the more difficult direction, “close to the wind.” If no land were found in a fortnight, when half the food was gone, they could sail home downwind, faster.

By the time Europeans first explored open water, the farthest bits of Polynesia – more than seven times the size of the Roman Empire – had already been settled. Let us not sell the Polynesian navigator short.

I think this is how, from Papua New Guinea and the Bismarck and Solomon archipelagoes in Melanesia, the vastness of Polynesia was wound together, one island at a time, arteries from the heart.

When a voyage of discovery succeeded, the explorers would return to a heroes’ welcome and the king would set about settling the new land. How to provision the settlers? Ropes and reeds for the ships, patches for the sails, food for the journey, seeds and tubers for planting, domestic animals, pigs and chickens.

I imagine a royal council of elders gazing into a crackling fire, kava at hand, debating the necessary skills, selecting the best settlers. There must be canoe-builders, planters, stone masons. Wizened fishermen and promising apprentices. Daughters of child-bearing age. Tears would surely be shed. 

A holy man privy to counsel from the gods, (a Tahitian tahu’a with special knowledge of navigation, perhaps), would be called to preside over ceremonies on both the home island and the new.

Today’s navigator consults his own oracles, the blinking, reckoning, chart-following machines on his bridge. And in Micronesia today, the art of navigation by the stars is still passed along orally, in the dark, on the sea, as it always has been.

•••••

In legend, Rapa Nui’s first colonizers arrived on two ships, one led by Hotu Matu’a, the other by Ava Reipua, Hotu Matu’a’s wife or sister, it’s unclear. Petroglyphs on a Rapa Nui cliff called Orango tell this tale. But how did they find this place?

In 1999, the Hawaiian historian Herb Kawainui Kāne and the Polynesian Voyaging Society set out to “discover” Rapa Nui using ancient methods and materials. Kāne and crew sailed from Hawaii via Mangareva to Rapa Nui in a canoe called Hōkūle‘a.

Polynesian canoes of exploration didn’t preserve well; scant evidence remains. Drawings from a 1773 British expedition that called at Rapa Nui show double-hulled canoes in the harbor. Excavated fragments of ancient canoes have turned up on New Zealand. A bog on Huahine near Tahiti yielded bits of a canoe. A petroglyph of a canoe at the Orongo cliffs suggests a possible ancient design.

Beyond these clues Kāne and the Voyaging Society found little hard evidence, so they guessed. They crafted a double-hulled canoe 62 feet four inches long, with a draft of two and a half feet and a sail area of 540 square feet.

Nainoa Thompson, the Hōkūle‘a’s navigator, devised a scheme for finding Rapa Nui at once straightforward and ambitious. Rather than hoping just to blunder onto a trifle of land, the Hōkūle‘a would approach from the west, targeting a box 300 miles by 240, two degrees on either side of 27 degrees south of the equator, the island’s latitude. It would sail the box top to bottom, zigzagging back and forth, hoping to pass within sight of Rapa Nui.

A crew member named Sam Low kept a dairy of the mission that glides through the stuff of a sailor’s days – sunrises, stacks of cumulus, sharks and sunsets. We thrill with the crew when just before dawn on October 8th, 1999, seventeen and a half days out of Mangareva, Max Yarawamai, the crewman standing lookout, spots a vague black line on the horizon and the crew celebrates with garlic eggs for breakfast.

II.

Rapa Nui’s suzerain, Chile, is its own enigma. The Atacama Desert in Chile’s north is the driest place in the world. Places there have recorded no measurable rainfall for decades. Because of its altitude and aridity, the Atacama hosts the world’s most advanced telescope.

Though a Pacific nation, at the Strait of Magellan, its storm-hammered southern tip, Chile opens to the Atlantic. A settler described Tierra del Fuego as “65 unpleasant days per year along with 300 days of rain and storms.”

Between desert and strait, Chile’s skeletal finger points the distance from Reykjavik to Ankara, 2,675 miles, but is only 40 miles wide at its narrowest, barely the width of Israel from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. 

In the Andes to the east Mount Aconcagua towers over all the Americas, at 22,841 feet the western hemisphere’s highest peak. Off the western shore the Atacama trench plunges 26,460 feet beneath the Pacific ocean. From trench to peak: 49,301 feet. Mt. Everest: 29,029 feet.

The length of the country, conical peaks serve as picture-perfect tourist lures. They can also be agents of epic havoc.

•••••

The ire of the mountain gods rose with the sun on a Sunday morning in winter, 1960. A 7.5 Richter predawn earthquake chased coastal Conception’s faithful to church and that was good, providential even, as people fled houses fated to collapse.

Another 7.5 crumbled the walls of old Conception just past two o’clock, rolling and shaking for four minutes. Andean ridges skittered and slid. Survivors fled to high ground but the high ground plunged into lakes. Six old and three new volcanoes brewed up, and all this, incredibly, was just the opening act.

7:11 p.m: the strongest earthquake in the history of the earth shook the Pacific Ocean, at 9.5, beyond human experience. Waves rocked the Pacific basin for a week.

Coastal villages simply disappeared under a ghastly eighty-two foot tsunami. Docks and coastal roads, desert to strait, fell into the sea.

Waves bent parking meters in Hilo, Hawaii, 6,600 miles away. Water drew back from the harbor seven feet below normal then bored back in in a flattening scowl.

Ten thousand miles from Concepcion tsunami waves destroyed the entire town of Shizugawa, now called Minamisanriku, and more than a hundred died elsewhere on Honshu, Japan.

Between Japan and Chile lay little Rapa Nui.

Rapa Nui’s famous statues are called moai, and the base on which a moai stands is an ahu. Ahus are holy places, ancestral graves. Likely as not you’ll hear admonitory shouts if you try to touch a moai or walk across an ahu. They are Rapa Nui’s patrimony.

The gods went bowling that day in 1960, scattering the moais at Tongariki two thousand feet inland and dashing their ahu to bits. The Tongariki moais are giants, the island’s greatest achievement, but the heavens’ pique cast them like matchsticks onto the plain.

Thirty years on from the earthquake, Chile’s President Patricio Aylwin sent a replica moai to the destroyed Japanese village of Minamisanriku. The Japanese crane manufacturer Tadano returned the gesture, sending heavy cranes to restore Ahu Tongariki. Until a quarter century ago, the massive Tongariki statues, the island’s iconic, unexplained, unforgettable images, still lay scattered.

III.

We have saved Tongariki for the night of the full moonrise. Fabiola, in whose taxi we have come, is intent, no nonsense, a devoted smoker with one son at university in Santiago and her younger boy here on the island. Her university son will bring a telescopi from the mainland this year, her Christmas gift to her younger boy.

Fabiola demonstrates her expectations for the telescopi, cigarette between her fingers, arms apart and eyes wide, awed by what it will reveal. She must be right because you hardly need a telescopi. Just look to the heavens.

What a place to view the planets. Hardly a view-obscuring light for 2,300 miles. Just here, in a heartbeat, we follow where Fabi is pointing and find two fast-moving satellites.

•••••

Counterclockwise through the roundabout we catch the coast road. Children get dirty on the curb. Women on a veranda erupt into theatrical laughs. A slow rider clops by on horseback. We drive for half an hour at a leisurely pace because leisurely is the thing here.

The coast is close; the waves crash in. They’ve come a long way, got up a good head of steam.

Brine in the mist. Lick your lips and you taste it.

Horses graze on shore, unbound by fences. They’re not wild, exactly. They all belong to somebody, they’re branded. But since there’s nowhere for them to go, they go where they will. The surf pounding behind them frees you, too.

Horses and cows and a produce stand. This planted field and that on the inland side. We are running up the east road, sun casting shadows the length of the island, darkness creeping in from the sea.

Here, a moai has been toppled on the ahu where it once stood. Looks like they knocked it over in just such a way to add insult to injury, back broken at the neck in two pieces. Naked conflict, right here.

You read about violence in the late statue-building period and now you see it before you, its cruelty magnified by this smallest canvas. On Rapa Nui the most advanced instrument of war was the adze, a hand tool.

Stéphen-Charles Chauvet imagined it thus: “The attacking warriors set off before daybreak, followed by their women and children, who wailed or intoned ‘protective’ chants.” Women and children found seats along the neighboring slopes to watch the triumph or death of their fathers, husbands and brothers.

•••••

Arriving at Tongariki for the first time is hard to describe, an experience you can only have once. The Tongariki ahu aligns with a natural bay hundreds of yards wide, a moor gradually rising inland, a natural amphitheater.

The indifference of towering stones, far out in the Pacific, draws the three of us to quiet. The biggest moai of all is here. Eighty-six tons. Imagine.

The ancients got it and its siblings here somehow, rolled them on logs, rocked them side to side with ropes, somehow. It is just plausible because the quarry, on the slopes of the volcano Rano Raraku, is line of sight from here.

All the half-unearthed, nodding moais you’ve seen in pictures are up there, never finished, never extracted, never put into place, buried to the shoulders, never making their statement.

They say they built them bigger toward the end, perhaps growing more plaintive to the gods, perhaps making more desperate claims on immortality.

The moais’ obsidian pupils stare into the past. We assume a pilgrim’s pose at the base of the ahu. Isolated in the back corner of an obscure island, alone in the twilight, it’s a feeling unlike any other. It’s entirely unique.

A man taking pictures, one other man and a boy are leaving as we walk through one of the rusty turnstiles they’ve put up and long abandoned. Turnstiles?

Campers’ lanterns twinkle down along the shore and besides that there is no one. Only the full moon ascending through broken clouds, a crashing surf, the Rapa Nui moais and us.