On The Road: Chile Can’t Decide

 

Punta Arenas, Chile

Charles Darwin was just shy of 24 years old, his eyes open in wonder as the HMS Beagle slid along the shore of the largest island in the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego. His eyes grew wider as bonfires flared along the water’s edge. “They must have lighted the fires immediately upon observing the vessel, but whether for the purpose of communicating the news or attracting our attention, we do not know,” he wrote. 

These shore people called themselves Ona and Yaghan. Canoeists and fishermen adept at navigating the labyrinth of channels in these straits, in wintertime they kept fires constantly stoked for warmth. The Yaghan wore only the scantest clothing despite the cold. To fend off wind and the rain, they smeared seal fat over their bodies.

The Ona lived across the strait, on an island just visible through the spray and mist. History calls them fierce warriors who adorned themselves with necklaces of bone, shell and tendon, and who, wearing heavy furs and leather shoes, intimidated the bare-skinned Yaghan. Darwin gave them their backhanded due, calling them “wretched lords of this wretched land.” An acerbic settler once described life hereabouts as 65 unpleasant days per year complimented by 300 days of rain and storms.

The main town at Chile’s southern tip is Punta Arenas, with 145,000 people a proper town with a proper town park, which is home to a statue of Magellan and its smooth, often-rubbed toe. If you rub the toe they say you’ll be sure to come back. Twenty two hundred kilometers south of Santiago, you take what entertainment you get. So we rubbed the toe.

A band of cold rain swept over the Hotel Cabo de Hornos, churning the Strait of Magellan dirty gray. Punta Arenas’s “oldest and grandest” hotel was, well, it was just a hotel, all of its walls painted a determined shade of mustard. We and the staff watched sleety squalls spray over the strait.

By the time you reach the town of Puerto Montt in Chile’s Lakes District, the Pan American highway has long since made its point, 816 miles of Chile to the north and no fancy roads heading south. The farther you go, the more determined you’ll need to be to get all the way down to Punta Arenas, and you’ll have to be plenty determined, for there are still over 800 miles to go.

I walked to the water, stepping lightly around potentially threatening mongrels holding a Purina warehouse at siege, and I put my hand in the chilly Strait of Magellan – right there amid floating plastic bags and candy wrappers.

One passenger ship was calling just now. Across the strait, looking just about west to east, low hills rose around a town called Porvenir. It wasn’t very far but I couldn’t make out much. We’d come down to the southern tip of Chile to have a look around, to see what makes it unique.

Punta Arenas is a place where your rental Nissan Saloon sedan comes equipped with a wire screen to prevent gravel cracking its windshield, because blacktop roads end where towns do. We looked ridiculous, we thought, motoring off toward the hills. A quarter inch mesh of expanded metal surrounded the glass all around, far enough away for the wipers to operate underneath.

A foot-square hole was cut in front of both the driver and the passenger with more mesh hinged over it so that the normal position was open for ‘city’ driving, but for your serious gravel roads you could pull a string that reached inside your side window and roll the window up really fast to catch the string and bring the protective panel down. That sealed the windshield against rocks and provided you with a good, oh, thirty percent view of the world in front of you.

The bottom of the continent is a place where beyond the city blacktop there are virtually no houses and there is virtually no traffic. Except for there being roads between towns, things looked a little like summer in coastal Greenland. There were tiny white wildflowers and there were no trees.

Northbound at a place called Reubens, where stood a settlement of a few buildings, trees began to appear. The Nire, or Notofagus antarctica, a native species, grows to ten crooked and branched meters, compacted and dominated by the winds. Fields of tree trunks stood twisted and contorted by the wind. The forest presented in two shades of green – the needles and lighter clinging lichen. Rolling hills replaced the horizon-to-horizon flat. You could watch sheets of rain approach from miles away and wash overhead on their march to the other horizon. Snow topped a few low peaks.

A thousand sheep blocked the road. Gauchos and a squad of dogs marched them forward. The dogs ran and darted, responding to the mens’ whistles, and moved the sheep off the road for us. You wouldn’t need to play with these dogs at night. They’d be worn out.

Guanacos lived everywhere, grazing on cliffs like mountain goats. Maybe four feet tall at the shoulders, llama-like, brown and white, from the camel family, they may weigh 200 pounds. They live in family groups, and do this funky juke with their long necks when they run.

One other thing about far southern Chile – Punta Arenas is the home of Chile’s new president, Gabriel Boric, a descendant of South Slavs. Maybe 20,000 of Punta Arenas’s 145,000 people are of Croatian descent, and there are around 200,000 Croatians in Chile. Boric’s family, among many others, emigrated in 1897 from Ugljan, an island of vineyards and olive groves opposite the coastal city of Zadar.

By the end of the nineteenth century descendants of the Ona and Yaghan still lived in the fjords and all across the rocky outcrops of Tierra del Fuego, but once Chile and Argentina agreed on their border in 1881, the call went out for settlers. As it happened, just then the catastrophic accidental import of an insect pest to the Rhône Valley was destroying vineyards from France all the way to Dalmatia. Boric’s ancestors fled the plague, abandoning Croatia en masse for a new home in the wild, wild south.

•••••

Gabriel Boric

In March, the bearded young Boric joined the historic line of left wing Latin American leaders when he assumed Chile’s presidency at age 36 years and one month; at the time he was the world’s youngest leader. His administration came to office with a rare gift: the chance to draft a new constitution.

Three years before and innocently enough, then-president Sebastián Piñera allowed a fare hike on Santiago’s metro system. A 30 peso hike, about four cents, wouldn’t be a casus belli most places, but in Santiago, protests led to 29 deaths, looting, the torching of metro stations and a state of emergency. The uprising, led by students, wasn’t about the pesos. It was about decades of neoliberalism and remnants of the Pinochet dictatorship they couldn’t shake loose.

Piñera rescinded the fare increases but birthed a new hashtag, #ChileDespertoAs the protesters said, Chile woke up. The movement gained a name, the “Estallido Social,” social explosion, leading to the drafting of the new constitution and a referendum on its adoption.

The proposed constitution was anything but conventional. It called for a national single payer health system, free education including college, the right to abortion with few restrictions in a two-thirds Catholic country and the guarantee of Indigenous rights on a continent where, as Carlos Barón has written, “the equivalency of the ‘N’ words is still the word ‘Indio.’”

To understand just how radical the proposed constitution was, a brief step back:

Salvador Allende, a lifelong Chilean politician, ran for president in 1958, 1964 and finally won in 1970. First a member of the Chamber of Deputies in 1937 and subsequently a Senator, cabinet member and party secretary, he was about as known a quantity as you’ll find.

Nevertheless, in a place as far from the daily heartbeat of the Cold War as you could be, Allende’s socialist vibes unnerved the Nixon administration. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once briefed newspapermen that Chile could be a “contagious example” that would “infect” U.S. allies in Europe. Ponder that. Chile might infect European allies.

On September 11th, 1973 at high noon, British made Hawker jets bombed the presidential palace in Santiago. Allende’s rallying cries on radio failed to summon support, military police abandoned the presidential palace and Allende was killed. General Augusto Pinochet, head of the armed forces, assumed control.

A young lawyer and right-wing ideologue named Jaime Guzmán, wrote a new constitution for the new regime. Guzmán supported free markets and authoritarianism, idolizing Frederik Hayek and Fransisco Franco. During Allende’s administration he had joined a fascist terror group.

His constitution left the government in a “subsidiary state,” subordinate to private business, reducing it to subsidizing the private sector’s efforts in basic areas like education, health and pensions. The government was unable to intervene in the economy unless explicitly allowed.

Notably, the Pinochet constitution granted the “rights of private citizens over waters,” codifying corporate confiscation of rivers for, for example, the mining industry, and rendering the government helpless to stop it. Aside from small bore reforms in 2005 under the presidency of Ricardo Lagos, this constitution, with its state subsidiarity, still stands.

By the election of Gabriel Boric the Pinochet constitution was 42 years old and showing its age. It was written to secure Pinochet’s military regime and hold the market, not the government, responsible for social services. Where the government was responsible was to ensure that mining, and natural resources, not be regulated.

Back to the present.

Since the Pinochet constitution was largely the product of one man, Guzmán, Chile determined that a new constitution would come from delegates chosen in open, democratic national elections held in 2021 that chose 155 delegates to a constitutional convention – with seventeen seats reserved for indigenous groups and gender equality. The result? The largest bloc was made up of independents, many with limited political experience. Only some 13% had held political office before; it showed.

About twenty percent of the delegates came from the right. This may or may not have been a fair snapshot of the electorate, but those numbers allowed left and center-left delegates a comfortable enough majority to ally and return an overfull document containing 388 articles, including vague and exotic declarations like “nature has rights” and animals are “subjects of special protection.”

Chile would be declared an “ecological nation” and a “plurinational country,” with at least eleven Indigenous groups given autonomy as “nations” within the country. The draft also contained the reasonable enough notion that there should be some limits on corporate confiscation of water for mining.

For all its good intentions, the convention had produced a vague and aspirational document giving entrenched interests a surfeit of targetsThe draft included, for example, restitution for historically Indigenous lands.

There was another problem: a steady stream of questionable behavior by convention delegates themselves. Some tried to shout down the national anthem on opening day. One was forced to resign after falsely claiming to have cancer. Another tried to cast a vote while taking a shower.

Still and with all that, I’m mystified by all this What’s the Matter with Kansas stuff, in which working-class and poorer people vote counter to their interests. A popularly elected body offered up free education, gender parity (married couples couldn’t get divorced in Chile until 2004) and the right to decent housing. Yet this was rejected in every one of Chile’s 16 regions and 338 of 346 municipalities. What happened?

Part of the answer is the predictable, aggressive TV ad campaign run by vested interests. Anyone who has seen a television in the United States this election season will sympathize. To turn on the television on was to be implored to reject this scary, demonic document. 

Opponents took to morning talk shows and the evening news to repeatedly denounce  the document as “extremist” and “poorly written,” while conservative think tanks produced opinion polls of doubtful accuracy showing that most people would vote down the new draft. Social media spread disinformation, and fake copies of the draft constitution circulated, with doctored articles. A senator named Felipe Kast charged on conservative radio that the draft constitution “allowed for abortion until the ninth month of pregnancy.”

No surprise that exit polls suggested people were confused. Rechazo (Reject) partisans, it’s said, spread rumors that the new constitution would abolish home ownership and allow Indigenous communities to summarily secede. A Rechazo spokesperson, a university law student a year younger than Gabriel Boric named Fransisco Orrego, claimed the document would abolish people’s rights to own their homes if they had bought using social subsidies, a common circumstance.

For the first time ever, non-felon prisoners were allowed to vote. Here is a measure of the effectiveness of Rechazo’s campaign to muddy the waters:  of fourteen prisons, only one voted to approve the draft constitution. The Tocopilla prison in Conceptión, the only one to approve the draft, was also the only prison where “physical copies of the draft constitution were actually distributed.” The other prisoners had only media to inform their vote, and they all voted no.

The defeat and consequent retention of the current constitution is an unattractive option, as meanwhile private sector actors will continue to use “state subsidiarity” to block reform. Further, the whole process led Chileans to a low opinion of the country’s new leader.

It’s a real shame to waste all that promise. After a fast start, that the draft constitution was roundly rejected has dealt a tough and possibly fatal blow to the young reformer just six months into the job. Gabriel Boric hit his all-time low approval rating in October, at 27 percent. He may already be consigned by a skeptical public to sitting out a few elections and attempting to return one day not as a firebrand from the left, but as a more properly aged traditional pol.

New 3QD Column

Here’s my newest travel column at the excellent website 3 Quarks Daily, as published on 29 March:

On The Road: Explorers, And Where To Explore

by Bill Murray

Trans-Siberian Train

Larger than life writers always have that one extra experience, the one that puts your trip to shame. Lawrence Ferlinghetti did when, having achieved the Russian east coast via the Trans-Siberian railroad, he was ordered clear back across the continent because of paperwork. His calamity leaves most of us with nothing to say about our own, more ordinary trips.

If you want to write about the world, you still have to do the trips. You have to see for yourself what better writers were describing. You have to go, so you see how they say what they say.

Patagonian Chile

Doing trips yourself is a way to stretch a little, to stand in the great explorer’s footsteps. You need to go to a few ends of the earth. Throw rocks in the Straits of Magellan. Stand and consider how odd it is that the nearly Antarctic tip of South America came to be known as Tierra del Fuego, the land of fire. Imagine being as far from home as Ferdinand Magellan and his crew, sailing to a place no European had ever seen and spotting huge bonfires onshore, where tribes called Yaghan and Ona kept fires constantly stoked for warmth.

The Yaghan wore only the scantest clothing. They smeared seal fat over their bodies to fend off the wind and rain and cold. Canoeists adept at navigating the straits’ channels and tributaries, they hunted the sea. Three centuries after Magellan, Charles Darwin wrote of the same people “going about naked and barefoot on the snow.”

The Ona lived across the strait. The books call them fierce warriors who adorned themselves with necklaces of bone, shell and tendon, and who, wearing heavy furs and leather shoes, intimidated the bare-skinned Yaghan. Darwin called them “wretched lords of this wretched land.”

An early European settler described life down there as 65 unpleasant days per year complimented by 300 days of rain and storms. If I’d written a quote so succinct, I might just put down my pen right now.

Recreation of Norse Village, Newfoundland

At the hemisphere’s other extremity, on the northern tip of Newfoundland, you can stand on the spot where Leif Erickson’s group established a European toehold in North America. You look around, you pull up your parka and you confound yourself wondering how they possibly did it, half a millennium earlier even than Magellan.

Leif’s brother Thorvald led ashore a crew of thirty using Leif’s ship (Leif having stayed back in Greenland upon his father’s death). They found the camp Leif had established the year before and soon after they found the “skrælings,” local people unlike the Inuit in Greenland. Native Americans, “short in height with threatening features and tangled hair on their heads.”

One day Thorvald’s men came upon nine skrælings sheltering under upside-down skin boats and killed all but one. The next morning an armada of canoes advanced from the sea, and Thorvald cried: “We will put out the battle-skreen and defend ourselves as well as we can.”

The explorer’s men withstood the skrælings’ attack unharmed except, calamitously, for Thorvald: in the legend, he wailed, “I have gotten a wound under the arm, for an arrow fled between the edge of the ship and the shield, in under my arm, and here is the arrow, and it will prove a mortal wound to me.”

The next time you’re bleeding out, imagine yourself exclaiming “it will prove a mortal wound to me.” The most erudite Thorvald Eiriksson became the first European buried in the New World and, dispirited, the Greenlanders soon departed for home.

•••••

Since few writers are among the world’s great explorers, we look for shortcuts. Here are four:

– Go places that are frightening, places that hold the narrative promise of a horror movie. This is the daily work of war correspondents, but short of that, you can plant yourself somewhere that scares you and tell its story. It was Ryszard Kapusinski’s entire career.

Parliament Building, Port Moresby

Tim Butcher’s book following Graham Greene through Liberia scared me. So did my own trip to Port Moresby, the Papua New Guinean capital, a city riven, debilitated then and now by crime, despair and pointless violence. Port Moresby is the only capital city in the world not connected to anywhere else in particular by road. Port Moresby swelters alone.

The Germans, Dutch and Australians colonized the coasts of PNG, but they all assumed there was negligible value inland, over the hills, until the 1930s, when a group of Aussies disappeared over the rim and emerged with eyes wide as saucers and incredible stories of cannibalism and fantastic wildlife.

We flew from Port Moresby into the highlands to see about that for ourselves, and that story is told elsewhere on 3QD

– Visit borders.  These can be rich with material, places where central rule frays, or even invites disdain, areas in a cultural stew with neighboring lands, places where multiple traditions and overlapping sets of rules apply.

The Soviets drew borders specifically to splinter ethnic groups’ power. Contemporary China’s Tibetan and Uyghur regions and the rich tribal mix on Yunnan’s southern frontier illustrate the Chinese proverb: shan gao huangdi yuan, the mountains are high and the emperor is far away

The Democratic Republic of Congo, where Kinshasa’s rule doesn’t extent much beyond, well, Kinshasa, has hinterlands full of stories. See Conrad and Naipaul from the colonial era, of course, and from the last few years read Michela WrongHelen Winternitz, and Mike Martin, Chloe Baker and Charlie Hatch-Barnwell’s approximately impossible sorth-nouth crossing of the Congo River Basin, from Kinshasa to South Sudan.

– Go places people don’t understand. These offer no prospect of merit in themselves, but at least they haven’t been over-described. A burst of early twentieth century exploration of the Balkans yielded a rich vein of literature from the likes of Rebecca WestPatrick Leigh Fermor and Olivia Manning. The region went quiet under Tito, until there came a full-on invasion of young writers who narrowly missed the Soviet collapse and determined not to miss the Yugoslav one.

Such was the wealth of post-Tito Balkan literature that I came to feel I knew Mostar and its bridge, Srebrenica and its atrocity, and Sarajevo’s airport tunnel before I arrived in Sarajevo in 1997, a few years after the war. This came in strong contrast to a 1993 visit to Albania. Nobody knew anything about Albania. It was Europe’s own little North Korea.

Tiranë, Albania, 1993

Time blurs our memory of what an isolated, eccentric, apostate state Albania was, a place where “Everything had to be ‘revolutionary,’” our Albanian guides said. “So when we were at school we had to go through what they called the revolutionary triangle. That was learning, literary training and physical labor.”

We asked about the physical labor part.

“Anything. We could go help build a building, we could do farming. Once they were building the martyrs’ cemetery. We had to carry some marble blocks and it was January and February. It was cold on top of the hill. It was terrible.” A rueful chuckle. “Also I have taken part in so many railway construction sites.”

We lingered that night over dinner in downtown Tiranë, told stories, laughed and drank raki, the Balkan brandy distilled from grapes and anise. Our friends knew the Albanian soccer coach at the next table, who’d brought the referee for tomorrow’s game with the Danes. Not a bad idea.

Bunkers, Albania, 1993

When it came time to leave Albania we turned up at the sea terminal in the decrepit town of Durres, where dozens and dozens of diminutive concrete slab bunkers, installed under the dictator-for-life Enver Hoxha, rose like mushrooms, right down onto the beach.

Guards outside a chain link fence admonished “Watch your things in there.” Nothing indicated what we might do but walk with the flow, dodging Bulgarian heavy trucks that threw muck up from potholes.

I held a brochure from the Adriatica Line. When the top of a ship with the brochure’s color scheme came into view, we stood in a queue. Twenty minutes and no one moved, so we made for uniformed men at a car and truck gate. They spoke Italian and German and we didn’t, but some random Albanian who didn’t speak any of it mediated, the gate wheeled back and we marched proudly forward to a bureaucrat’s table. Here, heads shook. It was not possible. Something about a slip of paper we should have gotten at Tiranë airport.

I like to think that in the end our non-retreat wore ‘em down. We had nowhere to go, we couldn’t even plead our case, so we just stood there. Eventually we got the requisite stamps and a nod to move nearer the ship. Ahead was a final queue up the ramp into the M/v Expresso Grecia.

We shuffled fitfully. The last line of Italian defense examined Albanian papers. By now it was sailing time. An imperious fellow at the top of the ramp declared our papers not in order. We would have to go back to Albania. Adriatica, it seems, kept the passenger manifest in a building we didn’t know about.

I found the building and went inside. A monster thundered at me to march right back out and come around to the window. Where she typed our names on the passenger manifest, glared, and thrust at me two long pink strips of paper. I scowled back, snatched them, and did a gleeful little scamper back to the ship. Finally, as darkness closed around the unlit harbor, we eased away in the direction of the war-racked Dalmatian coast of former Yugoslavia.

– Visit places where few others turn up. If no one has been where you’re going, no one expects what you’ll see. Few travel by cargo ship for example, about which Gregory Jaynes wrote an entertaining book, the whole point of which was that nothing happened. Xavier de Maistre wrote a pandemic-perfect travel journal of sorts, an account of being confined to one room for six weeks titled A Journey Around My Room.

I’m thinking of the time we set out for Asuncion, Paraguay from Argentina, starting at the Triple Borders, where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet. A man named Walter drove us over to the Brazilian side of Iguazu Falls, across the River Parana. On the strength of Walter vouching that we’d be back in Argentina today, that didn’t require a border stop.

But really, we were driving straight through a tiny snip of Brazil for Paraguay. Walter warned we might lose our cameras if we took pictures at the Paraguayan border, but just-delivered boxed chicken dinners interested the border police more than we did. It only took about three minutes.

Disappointing, exhausted Cuidad del Este, Paraguay’s East City, squatted in the sun before us, poor and dusty and ramshackle, low buildings crumbling into lumps along the highway, traffic lights out, money changers in leather money belts glowering from the side of the road. Walter stopped, didn’t like the rate, then stopped again and did a deal at the Esso for fifty Argentina pesos worth of Guarani. Gas money.

In Cuidad del Este you long to be in the country again. A John Deere heavy equipment store, red dirt, no landscape, litter. You’d think there was a competition to see how foul they could make the roadside. Men with guns sat on stools. On the other side of town they’d torn up the road and didn’t appear to have plans to fix it.

The caballeros barracks was the nicest building in Cuidad del Este. If you were a young man such a place, with its crisp-pressed, uniformed soldiers, must have had its enticements.

 We and others double-passed some of the slower cars on the two lane westbound highway which, if nothing else superlative can be said, was in tolerably good shape all the way to Asuncion. Pavement good enough to speed.

Somewhere a road wandered off to the left. A sign with an arrow read “Novotel 247K.”

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.

3QD

From today I’ll be contributing a monthly travel-themed column called “On the Road” to 3 Quarks Daily. Today’s entry is On The Road: Rapa Nui.

Just a wee bit of it 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 of the road. We are running up the east side of the island, setting sun casting deep shadows, darkness covering 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 happened right here.

You read about violence in the late statue-building period and here it is before you, the cruelty of war somehow magnified on this smallest of canvases. The most advanced instrument of war was the adze, a hand tool.

Please go and read the rest on 3QD.

•••••

3 Quarks Daily is an aggregator. If you’re not familiar with it, pay a visit and spend some time there when you can. 3QD “curates commentary, essays, and multimedia from high quality periodicals, newspapers, journals, and blogs puts together a distillation of the best of the web in daily links,”  as it has since 2004. I think it’s brilliant.

Every Monday 3QD features all original writing, to which I’ll contribute a travel-related column every fourth Monday starting today. I’m honored to participate.

Friday Photo #35 – Sunset at Ahu Vai Uri, Easter Island (Rapa Nui)

FP35

The ‘ahu’ is the pedestal on which the ‘moais,’ or stone carvings stand. This one is closest to Hanga Roa, the only town on Easter Island. Please see 78 other photos in the Easter Island Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.

And see all the Friday Photos.

Have a good weekend!

 

Friday Photo #2

HDR of the Moai at Tongariki, Rapa Nui (Easter Island)

FridayPhoto2

“… Arriving at Tongariki for the first time is hard to describe. It’s an experience you can only have once in this world. The ahu is aligned with the inner part of a natural bay a few hundred meters wide and a field gradually rises inland giving the feel of an amphitheater.

These moai are huge. The biggest on the island is here, 86 tons. You can see why because you are line-of-sight from the main quarry, the cone of the volcano Rano Raraku. They say they built them bigger and bigger toward the end, perhaps growing plaintive in their pleas to the ancestor gods. If that is so these must have been among the last.

Standing at the base of the ahu regarding these guys, isolated in an obscure corner of an obscure island, while you’re alone in the twilight, it’s a feeling not quite like any other. It’s entirely unique.

A man taking pictures, another man and a boy are leaving as we walk through one of the rusty turnstiles they’ve put up here and there around the island. Campers’ lanterns twinkle down along the shore and besides that, no one. Nothing but the sea air, the full moon rising through broken clouds, a crashing surf, the moai and us….”

– from the eventual book, Visiting Easter Island, A Considered Guide.

Click to enlarge the photo. More photos in the Easter Island Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.

More Moais – Three Last Wednesday HDRs from Easter Island

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Moai2

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Three more fancied-up moais from Easter Island:

Top, the quarry at Rano Raraku, where these guys were carved out. It's a long way and a lot of effort to finally stand in this quarry, but if you ever make the trip, it feels like pretty much no other place. Too many mysteries. How did they move these guys all over the island with no modern tools? Why did they stop as if in mid-hammer blow, put down their things and walk away, leaving dozens and dozens of these guys at the quarry? And what happened to cause the downfall of Rapa Nui in the first place?

Middle, This is one lone guy standing by himself near Ahu Tongariki, the biggest single collection of standing moai on the island. It's as if he just didn't get along with the rest of the gang. The long ahu is sort of behind and to the right of this shot, and looking away from them like this makes for a pretty desolate scene, don't you think?

Bottom, Ahu Ko Te Riku, near Hanga Roa town. This fellow's eyes are replicas. He's the only moai with eyes, and it's to demonstrate how much more imposing (creepy?) the moais all must have looked back when they all had eyes. There is one moai fragment with its original eyes in the Father Sebastian Englert Anthropological Museum near Hanga Roa.

All are HDRs processed in Photomatix and CS5 using Nik plug-ins. The top two are texturized. The texture in the middle photo was shot on the same trip, in Lima. Click them to make them bigger. There are 50-something photos in the Easter Island Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.

More Moai – Wednesday HDRs from Easter Island

The internet connection at the Altiplanico Hotel on Easter Island was a little wi-fi transmitter that worked best if you sat at the table directly beneath it and had all day. Nobody had all day, but now that we've been back for a couple of weeks I've had enough time to put several photos through a proper post-production process in Photomatix, for HDR processing, and Photoshop, so I'll post two or three a week here each of the next few Wednesdays.

This week, three of everybody's favorites, the moai. Click these to link to nice, big, full-resolution versions:


Moai1


Moai2


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Top: The fifteen moai at Ahu Tongariki. We had the good fortune to be on the island on the night of a full moon. Center: Sunset at Ahu Vai Uri near the island's only town, Hanga Roa. Bottom: Back at Ahu Tongariki. Easter Island is so remote that no matter where you are or when you're there, you share the view with a handful of people at most.

Find a new photo or two a day at the Easter Island Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.