Pandemic Scorecard

Here’s my most recent monthly travel column, as it was published at 3QuarksDaily.com:

 

On The Road: Pandemic Scorecard

POSTED ON SUNDAY, APR 25, 2021 6:14PM BY BILL MURRAY

By Bill Murray

They call it the Sargasso, this grass. It is the bane of Belize, an invasive floating weed that keeps pitchforks flailing along the waterfront. The Sargasso Sea, we know where that is. But this grass is from Brazil, Réné says. It’s a new challenge from a new place. It isn’t challenge enough just to weather a pandemic, he says. Now there’s this, too.

The hotel receptionist tries to convince a lady on the phone the grass isn’t so bad here. It’s worse other places, he suggests carefully, not to cast aspersions. Réné, a  snorkel boat pilot, might wonder where as he tends his Honda outboards like a Mekong longtail runner clearing water hyacinth.

Réné has a less sales brochure-oriented assessment: we’ve done this to ourselves. This nasty bit of seaweed is from Brazil, human caused, product of fertilizer, effluent from the Amazon. Look at this, he scoops a random handful into the boat. These are seeds, it breeds right here just floating on the water.

Welcome to other people’s problems.

We just returned from our first trip abroad in 14 months. Belize is feeling the strain of the lack-of-tourism, as I sense they do most things, gently. The smiles are there. No people could be looser, more easy-going, nicer, and it’s just as pretty as you hoped; Belize, and its gracious people, are lovely.

Pandemic strain isn’t specific to Belize, of course. It has just been a long, weird year and everybody’s wary – not so much of each other but just of the whole patience-pulverizing persistence of the virus.

One benefit of quarantining for a year inside your own enclosed small space is that you make your own rules. For much of these last fourteen months we could hear others around our apartment, people with their own approach to quarantine involving, say, twenty friends, but we kept a closed regime.

Finally vaccinated and eager to go, the first thing we realized at the airport was, forget about your closed regime. Some people are just going to be ornery and you can not stop them. Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson airport felt nearly normal, busy, shops open and people, as many as you’d figure, damn them, just misbehaving. Yes, I want the airport back to normal. No, not with misbehaving people.

Some Americans are clearly never going to respect distance or wear masks, exhibiting a kind of “go ahead and challenge me” belligerence. After a year of only seeing that on TV, the minute you find that it looms between you and your destination, that people out there are loud, boisterous and mask free, that’s disappointing. So not a lot of places want Americans right now because some of us don’t acquit ourselves well when we arrive.

After a year of ennui in sweatpants, now that the vaccinated can enjoy an outdoor meal with sorely-missed old, true friends, what scares me is that, even as the world has changed in radical ways out there, in here, among close friends, we’re stuck where we were a year ago. Same stories we’ve already told, no new ground.

I read this as clarion cause to get back out there and gather some new experiences. Old friends who are still friends after a year will remain friends for a while longer yet. Suppose we all go collect a few new stories to share with them.

So where might we go?

The European Union’s baffling, childlike helplessness with vaccine procurement and administration seems to have cost Europe another summer. With Europe failing, shall we pin our hopes on Asia in the fall?

Those would seem to be tenuous hopes. You can read any day about worrying new outbreaks in Thailand and Cambodia, and the inexplicably slow rollout of vaccines in formerly exemplary South Korea, Australia and, of course, Japan, where no one is welcome for the Olympics.

Not going to China. If there is a country in this world more politically geared to inject its citizenry with dicey drugs than China is, I don’t know of one. China exports more of its 50/50 Sinovac vaccine than it vaccinates its citizenry with, and that tells you all you need to know about its efficacy. Brazil, a major beneficiary of China’s benevolence, is a case in point and a sad example. South America in general is just toast, virus-fried. Not going there. Even Canada, Jeez, Canada is shut down.

So we climbed onto Delta Airlines for a short flight to Belize, which, as I say, was lovely. Outsmarting ourselves, we bought tickets up front. We sought to bypass the entire middle-seat question but so many others had the same idea that while our cabin was full, entire rows in the back stayed empty.

Up front they dispatched bright orange boxes meant to keep contact to a minimum, shrink wrapped packages suggesting more than they had to offer, cheerfully labelled BISTRO. The contents? I just have to share:

• Partners brand “slow-baked” crackers with olive oil and sea salt, with “honest ingredients” and a homey quote on the back from Cara Figgins, President. Net weight 0.75 oz.

• Boulder Canyon brand ® Classic Sea Salt, Classic Cut, Kettle Cooked, Gluten Free potato chips: “Our path took us to  the great outdoors.”

• Kind brand Cranberry almond bar, “#1 ingredient heart health almonds,” 1.4 oz.

• One Old Wisconsin brand beef snack stick, 0.5 oz (Wait a minute: you can not dress up a SlimJim as anything else, especially in the south.)

• Albanese brand ULTIMATE Gummi Bears with natural flavors and “colors from real fruits and vegetables,” net weight 0.75 oz.

• Four Tic Tacs wrapped in plastic .07 oz net weight.

Ultimate Gummy bears, Slim Jims and plastic wrapped Tic Tacs. Delta welcomes you back to the air.

•••••

Civilization’s veneer stretched so thin in 2010 you could see through it. Through it, Americans saw unrelenting gun violence, our ugly, persistent racial divide and one political party’s flirtation with nihilism. But people also saw cleaner air, clearer waters in Venetian canals, and citizens of Delhi could even see the Himalayas. Perhaps the virus can help the planet self-correct a little. In this respect viruses are above the human pay grade.

Through that stretched veneer you could discern a pull-up-the-drawbridge sentiment early in the pandemic that thankfully didn’t last, but did put a marker down. In March last year the Scottish National Party’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford MP, warned people off heading to Scotland to self-isolate:

“I urge everyone to do the right thing; follow the government advice and please do not travel here. If these warnings are not heeded and people need to be stopped from travelling, then I am afraid that is what will have to happen. Those in camper vans please go home!”

Fannin County, Georgia officials did the same. March a year ago its sheriff’s administration posted to Facebook: ““I have received multiple inquiries wanting to know if people from Atlanta can come to their cabins. The answer is ABSOLUTELY NOT!!” Attempting to deny the right to use someone’s property is kind of shocking in our usual American context, especially in rights-loving rural Georgia.

Fannin County is around 100 miles north of Atlanta in the southern Appalachian mountains. My wife and I own a pretty little patch of creek in adjoining Union County. In the panic phase of the pandemic we considered (as everybody did) whether our last redoubt might be there. To reach it we’d have wanted to drive through Fannin County.

Georgia displays county names on its license plates and thereby gives our State Patrol, those guys with the handsome wide-rimmed hats, telltale clues as to whether any individual car might be not from around here, meaning from one of those damned metro Atlanta counties.

If pandemics will be part of the future, something to keep in mind for next time is how straightforward it would be to fundamentally fracture a real pillar of the US’s secular worship of property and wealth. It wouldn’t be the province of theorists in columns like these. It would simply, summarily, be done, by big brawny state troopers in impressive headgear.

And that’s the thing about pillars. They’re real strong and all, until they’re not.

We’ve learned the foundations of our societies aren’t as strong as we thought. In politics, ask Poles, Hungarians and Hong Kongers. In pandemics, add Brazilians and Indians.

A year ago we all made predictions, and some were better than others. A Naval War College scholar named James Holmes thought “stress … reinforces the society’s basic character. When trouble strikes, the society’s members reach for familiar ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. They respond in ways tested in, and seemingly verified by, past experience. Stress drives discourses about diplomacy and strategy toward extreme versions of these familiar ways, and action follows that trend.” Maybe.

I feared that once leaders saw how easy it was to rule by fiat, for example summarily ordering their publics off the streets, some might be less than willing to return to the status quo ante. It looks from here like that prediction may have only come true in Myanmar.

Many of us mapped what we wanted to happen into our predictions. I hoped that forward looking local leadership would press for change, and the mayors of Paris, Madrid and Milan did well by doing good with their bicycle lanes. Tel Aviv, Portland, Minneapolis, Calgary and other cities closed streets to encourage walking. Those changes may have come about because they were achievable.

Others predicted the pandemic would usher in grand, fundamental change, like Justin E. H. Smith in It’s All Just Beginning, argued that since the virus is presumed to have originated in a Wuhan wet market, the time of “wanton delectation” should end. Some things that seemed at least plausible and definitely desirable just didn’t happen. For one, a Digital Congress. Ethan Zuckerman wrote

“this is a great time for congresspeople to return to their districts and start the process of virtual legislating—permanently. Not only is this move medically necessary at the moment, but it has ancillary benefits. Lawmakers will be closer to the voters they represent and more likely to be sensitive to local perspectives and issues.”

What a great, and hopeless, idea, that feeders would remove themselves from the trough. Confirming a maxim: entrenched interests tend to remain entrenched.

Some opinion now fashions us as tender emergent post-pandemic shoots, urging that we not become the boorish rubes we were before. With some forethought, a little planning, maybe some well-meant community meetings, we can all become humble and hygienic, engaging and empathetic and kind to animals. We’ll have to see about that. No harm in aiming high, I guess.

Various people in random places came out ahead:

• The people of Nairobi, where Governor Mike Sonko included Hennessy cognac in his Coronavirus Care Packages, calling it Throat Sanitizer. “Hennessy would like to stress that the consumption of our brand or any other alcoholic beverage does not protect against the virus,” French-based Hennessy scolded.

• The United States, where good fortune somehow seems to come naturally in spite of ourselves. It turns out that even in our national obnoxiousness those who want to are getting vaccinated way ahead of the rest of the world. Never would have believed it.

• Two other winners: Hands, and dogs. Neither ever had as much attention as they did in 2020.

•••••

Here are a few photos from Belize, at EarthPhotos.com. More will follow. And my next monthly column at 3QD goes up Sunday night.

Ascension Island

Here is this month’s On the Road column, as published Monday at 3 Quarks Daily.

•••••

In last month’s column we sailed from Walvis Bay, Namibia, to St. Helena Island, 1800 miles from Angola, 1200 from Brazil, in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean. This month we continue north to Ascension Island.

Ascension Island

When the Brits exiled Napoleon to St. Helena in 1815 they denied the emperor newspapers, subjected him to curfew, and guarded him with 125 men during the day and 72 at night. So intent were they to avoid a second imperial escape that sailing down, they garrisoned Ascension Island on the way, better to defend St. Helena.

Napoleon died six years later. With the Suez Canal fifty years in the future, the Admiralty hung on to Ascension as a sea base and it serves now as an airbase shared with the Americans, who built the island’s Wideawake airfield to move troops in WWII.

Ascension provided the middle link in an airbridge for the United Kingdom’s 1982 Falkland Islands campaign. During that conflict Ascension came alive like never before or since, as the UK Ministry of Defense ran a frenetic schedule of flights between the Brize-Norton air base near Oxford, England, and the RAF’s Mount Pleasant airport near Stanley, in the Falklands.

Other than aboard your own ocean going yacht, at the time of our visit ten years ago, there were only two ways onto and off of Ascension Island: the airbridge, which ran twice weekly charters, and the Royal Mail Ship St. Helena, which supplied St. Helena Island with periodic trips from Cape Town, and usually continued the additional 800 miles northwest to Ascension Island.

Where much of St. Helena is graceful and green, Ascension is stark and volcanic. St. Helena’s population has ancestral roots, while Ascension’s 34 square miles are home to no permanent residents, no farmers, fishermen or private property. St. Helena exports labor via contract workers. Ascension imports most of it.

Ascension is home to various NASA satellite tracking stations and military installations. The BBC transmits its World Service broadcasts to Africa and South America from an other-worldly array of broadcast antennae on the island’s northern tip. The military airstrip was lengthened so it could serve as an emergency landing strip for the Space Shuttle. It remains the longest in the Atlantic, supporting the 800 working residents, comprised of a changing coterie of research scientists and a small community of contract workers, like my new friend Nick.

I met Nick on the two day run up from St. Helena. But for a trickle of tourists this was a ferry full of “Saints” like Nick, residents of St. Helena on their way back from Christmas holiday to contract work on Ascension. Nick ran a shop in the neighborhood of Two Boats.

Ascension Island from the RMS St. Helena

Nick and I sat drinking beer in the open air aboard the RMS St. Helena, out on deck behind the indoor sun lounge. We were escaping the games inside, bingo and the like, meant to entertain passengers grown weary of the monotony of no sight of land.

Nick spoke in bursts, quick half-sentences. He’d make a point and give a knowing nod and a smile, like he’d just heard himself and agreed with what he said. He had things to say about life in the middle of the South Atlantic.

“St. Helena got its problems, y’know? Some people makin’ a fortune. Guy goes off to the Falklands to work, lives almost like a slave. Livin’ in dormitories, cleanin’ up after the Brits. He gets free travel, now, but he makes what, five grand a year, comes home and a house gonna cost him twenty. No way to live.

“And a man ought not have to go away to earn a living anyway. Here I go to Ascension, been there eleven years. Now the good thing: the way you can raise kids. It really is good. I’m bringin’ my son because I have a little shop and my wife, she teaches. No lockin’ doors, keys in the car. 900 people, maybe a thousand, right? Somebody ever takes something, eventually you find it.

“Now they have these clubs, a man doesn’t need money, just sign and have a beer, pay for it on payday. He don’t pay, he can’t leave the island, they take his last paycheck or somethin’.

“Sometimes I say no at my shop. A boy come in, wants a case of beer, if he can’t pay I say no. Otherwise I end up with no beer and no money to buy more. But my father taught me never say no if a man is a couple a pounds short for his kid’s shoes.

“Grinds people down. Some people make too much money, some people really poor, best thing they want is maybe a broken down second hand car. They just never gone anywhere, never seen anything in the world.

“Now I been eleven years on Ascension. I been lucky. Time for me to go back. My father died young. Not young, 62. My mother died in her 50’s. Lucky, my Auntie keeps my business back home. Won’t say I’ll never go back to work on Ascension. You get really big fish there, you know?”

•••••

Ascension Island. Hell with the fire put out. Volcanic, 100 kilometers west of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the above-water tip of a 3,200 meter high, 60 kilometer wide volcano. Most recent lava flows thought to have been in the last 1,000 years but none since at least 1501. Some eight degrees south of the equator.

Astonishingly young. Its most ancient rocks are no more than a million years old. The slopes descend to the ocean floor, a visitor wrote, like a lorry full of gravel just unloaded, with “the same steepness and regularity, something totally unlikely in a natural mountain.” In the black lava from the most recent eruption NASA tested its LEM, or Lunar Excursion Module.

In ordinary places travelers perform a trivial ritual meant to assure their return, like tossing coins in the Trevi Fountain. On the tip of Chilean South America, you will return to Punta Arenas if you kiss the toe of the Ferdinand Magellan statue.

It’s different on Ascension. The Obsidian Hotel’s island-touting brochure describes a golf course on the road east from Georgetown as the worst on the planet, where “the ‘Greens’ are called ‘browns’ and are made of crushed compacted lava smoothed flat with diesel oil.” Across the road are two canoes stood on end, one third buried, planted in lava.

Logically enough, these boats mark the road to the gaggle of housing called Two Boats, where Nick has his shop. The Ascension travelers’ legend centers on an elaborately painted stone beside the boats. When you are due to leave Ascension you cast paint upon this stone, to assure you need never return.

•••••

The waters off Ascension are home to spotted and bottlenose dolphins, humpback and Gervais’ beaked whales and the big attraction, the green turtle. The green turtles were laying when we arrived, in December. They would then swim across the Atlantic to Brazil, and return in three or four years to these very same beaches to once again mate and lay their eggs, a behavior scientists call ‘natal homing.’

We joined three conservation officers and four or five others one night for a walk down Long Beach in search of nesting turtles. Ten minutes from the middle of town, an all-enveloping darkness. A very hushed affair broken only by the chest-thumping impact of Atlantic rollers, waves that gather unimpeded for hundreds and hundreds of miles.

The lead conservation person slipped away then back, summoning us to shuffle through the sand toward a massive green turtle nesting on the beach. It’s a rare and fascinating sight, common to no one, even a researcher.

Turtles favor Ascension for the absence of predators. No dogs, no monkeys. The Ascension green turtles are the largest in the world, a meter and a half long, weighing as much as 300 kilos. Green Turtles are between 20 and 40 years old when they make the journey for the first time, males and females swimming together to mate.

A turtle will nest as many as ten times at intervals of 10-17 days. Once she has dug a large pit with all of her flippers the turtle digs a chamber with her hind flippers into which she lays around 120 ping-pong sized eggs.

Nesting Turtle and eggs

Both laying and hatching happen at night. One hatchling after another pops out on to the sand and races for the sea. They are born all at once. Only by working in numbers can they generate sufficient strength to burrow up through the sand. Once out in the air, their numbers increase the chances some will survive the headlong dash into the surf.

Everything about these turtles is remarkable, but the poet Amit Majmudar reminds us that all animals are “routinely superhuman in one way or another. They outstrip us in this or that perceptual or physical ability, and we think nothing of it.”

Perhaps because we live our lives in conscious thought, we discount the astonishing ways our fellow beings, seemingly unconsciously, navigate the world. Green turtles appear to use their own internal maps of the Atlantic Ocean. Some migratory birds seem to navigate by the pole point, the due north spot in the sky around which the sky rotates.

Ants’ ocelli, light-sensitve organs on their heads, can read the sky even when the sun is obscured by cloud, using patterns of polarized light to orient themselves. The cataglyphis ant uses an internal odometer to keep track of outbound steps to then find its way home.

Other ants seemingly do trigonometry, taking circuitous routes outbound then the most direct route back to their nests, figuring out spatial relationships between the various places they’ve been each day.

Honeybees use polarized light to find the most direct way back to the hive – a beeline. This with brains of fewer than one million neurons and with 20/2000 vision. Also shown to use polarized light: Monarch butterflies, lizards, shrimp, lobsters, cuttlefish, crickets, and rainbow trout as well as numerous migratory birds. And maybe, so did the Norse.

•••••

Human navigation away from Ascension Island in 2010 meant either sailing back to St. Helena Island aboard the RMS St. Helena, which has since been retired, or flying via the airbridge to the United Kingdom or the Falkland Islands. Since 2017 maintenance at the Wideawake airbase has precluded landing of larger aircraft, and the Falklands airbridge is for now rerouted via Cape Verde. Current options for getting to and from Ascension are even fewer than those ten years ago.

We took the airbridge. A testudinologist (studies turtles and tortoises) named Sergio Ghione wrote that at the time of his work on Ascension, the Airbridge was a grim military affair, with the first row or two of seats removed in order to accommodate stretchers. By the time of our visit, at a non-military time, flights staged to and from RAF Brize Norton using charter contractors, like the Scottish company Flyglobespan, which had the contract until it filed for bankruptcy a month before our scheduled flight.

Unsure who might fly in to pick us up, we assembled to leave Ascension in a little chain link holding pen just off the Wideawake Field tarmac, and a brightly-colored Air Tahiti Nui widebody arrived to pick us up, which later set up a jarring visual as the airliner, in its merry Polynesian livery, glided in to touch down at RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, in the snow.

•••••

Additional reading:

On Ascension Island: Turtle Island by Sergio Ghione, and Island Base: Ascension Island in the Falklands War by Captain Bob McQueen.

On animal navigation, By the Light of the Moon, the Poles of the Earth, The remarkable ways animals get around by Sally Davies. For a tour of the odd capabilities of some really strange living things try Ten Million Aliens by Simon Barnes.

On human navigation try Wayfinding by M. R. O’Connor, The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World by Wade Davis and The Old Way by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas.

Random Interesting Facts

From Liquid assets, Julia Bell recalls an unromantic trip to a tax haven in the Times Literary Supplement:

“There are about 4,400 islands in British and Irish waters, but this number includes only those that are over half an acre in size and are islands at all states of the tide. Of that number 210 are inhabited, and 850 are in the Republic of Ireland. If you include the islands that are only visible at low tide, the figure rises by another 6,000 or so. Jersey forms part of an archipelago, including Guernsey, that is closer to France than Britain, protected from the full force of the English Channel and the Atlantic by the Cherbourg peninsula to the east and Brittany to the south. They are ostensibly a Crown Dependency, which means that the British Sovereign is responsible for their security and safety, and their governance is a throwback to William the Conqueror and the formation of the Duchy of Normandy. Jersey is a Bailiwick. The term emerges from the Old French word for bailiff – bailie – and it refers to an area of land over which a bailiff has jurisdiction. The Bailiff of Jersey is chosen by the Crown, which means that Jersey has a strange insider/outsider status in its relationship to Britain. Jersey’s laws are supervised by the UK, but it is also classed as an independent state, which means that it is possible to run business there that has no tax relationship to the mainland.”

Photo Essay

Interesting photo essay today about the tiny island of Migingo. Nope, I’d never heard of it either. It’s in Lake Victoria between Kenya and Uganda. Check it out here.

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.

Rapa Nui Multimedia

The New York Times has a nice multimedia piece up this afternoon about the danger faced by the moais, those enigmatic statues on Easter Island, known locally as Rapa Nui.

Check it out and then explore more photos from the island at EarthPhotos.com. Here are a few:

Island Transport

 

Only Known Authentic Moai Eye, in the Father Sebastian Englert Anthropological Museum near Hanga Roa

 

Anakena Beach and Ahu Nau Nau

 

Sunset

And here are twenty entries, photos and stories from our visit to Rapa Nui.

 

 

RMS St. Helena Retires

Now that the St. Helena airport is up and running the RMS St. Helena, the last ship in the world to actually carry the British mail, is taking down her flags. It’s on its last visit to the island this week.

Here are a few photos from St. Helena, a tiny speck of land 1200 miles west of Africa in the south Atlantic Ocean, formerly only accessible via the RMS St. Helena.

St. Helena is a product of the same British colonialism that brought us the map in the previous post. It’s a place out of time.

It’s lovely, too.

The only population center, Jamestown.

There are more photos in the St. Helena Gallery at EarthPhotos.com, and here is a link to posts I wrote at the time of our visit.

A plucky little charter company called Atlantic Star Airlines is arranging a charter flight now for Christmas 2018 from the U.K:

Here’s their web site. And here is the local paper, the St. Helena Sentinel.

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 #23, Moai at Easter Island (Rapa Nui)

2moaiatquarrysmall

Click to enlarge these moai at Rano Raraku Quarry, Easter Island (Rapa Nui). See the Easter Island Gallery at EarthPhotos.com, and see all the Friday Photos.