Easter Island: Bitchhiking

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Such enthusiasm

Sitting on the jagged black rocks that the islanders have kidded themselves into calling a beach, can of shitty Escudo lager in hand, getting through a five-pack of raw hot dogs and staring out at the sunset wondering what the hell I’m doing with my life in both a positive and negative way, it all clicked into place in the most unlikely of circumstances. I rose from my spiky makeshift seat and headed down the moss-covered steps just as a crab flew flailing past my field of vision having been tossed from the crest of a wave like a one-way boomerang, and, with the crumbs of indecipherable donkey components still falling from my lips, I sprinted across the main dirt road into the town’s only internet cafe. It is there I now sit, a mere three hours before my flight leaves (don’t worry, the airport is literally a five-minute walk), writing this post to tell you that the full 180 is complete. And I haven’t simply gone from Easter-Island-based disdain to mere fondness, no. I have a full-blown confession to make; I love this island more than anywhere else on Earth.

Last night I crawled into my sauna-like tent at 10pm in the hope of rising early enough to hitchhike to Tongariki on the northeast extreme of the island. The beach at Tongariki, supposedly, is one of the greatest sunrise-watching spots on the planet, so at 5:15am, which was way too early in hindsight, my alarm sounded and I woke up to not tranquil morning silence, but another brutal rainstorm hammering against all sides of my tent. Even after travelling 10,000 miles to one of the most extremely remote point on Earth, there is no way in hell you’re getting me out of bed to stand in a rainstorm in total darkness waiting for a lift from a stranger. Back to sleep. I can always see a sunrise in Tahiti, right?

Such enthusiasm
I woke again at 9:30am, feeling like I’d slept for about 30 years, and headed up to the ‘main road’ in an attempt to hitchhike to Tongariki in a less inconvenient fashion. Sunrises aside, Tongariki is supposedly highly impressive anyway, and it – along with Rano Raraku – were the only parts of the island I had yet to see. At the point where the main airport road diverts off into the countryside, and adorned in a t-shirt and tracksuit bottoms (literally what the Christ was I thinking?), I stuck my thumb out and lo, the very first car stopped. A squat little islander rolled down his window and told me that he couldn’t pick me up, then drove off. I mean, it was generous of him to stop but that wasn’t exactly the most useful information he could have imparted in that particular moment. So, just as the North Koreans had experienced in 1994 when Kim Il-Sung bit the dust, I began my Arduous March, though mine was in a somewhat more literal fashion than their, and a few million fewer people perished.

Heading slowly yet steadily up the road to nowhere, constantly looking back through the fringe of my now overly-long hair and sticking my thumb out at every moving object, I met the eyes of maybe 50 different drivers, most of whom were white tourists, and all of whom either looked at me with intense confusion as if they had never seen a human being before, or with pity as they performed a wildly exaggerated shrug to make sure I understood their aggressive apathy before rip-roaring over the horizon at 15mph. As I bent down and put my hands on my knees to shield my face from the rapidly rising heat, one passing driver even laughed at me and made a walking symbol with his hands. I hope he loses his hands in a tragic walking accident, then we’ll see who’s making the unpleasant gestures, friend.

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Finally, a large van filled with propane tanks stopped. The guy shouted a bunch of Spanish at me, and I said ‘Tongariki?’, to which he responded ‘Tongariki! Ooooooh!’, and swung the passenger door open invitingly. We trundled up the road, my fingers digging into the dashboard as the van felt like it may either collapse or its contents explode at the merest fender bender, until we hit the turn off for the start of the road to Tongariki. He pulled into a driveway, told me his grandfather was an Englishman called Henry, then said ‘I live here’ and pointed at a shed. I guess that was the end of that leg of the trip. I was now stuck on a small through road between the two main paved roads, and still only about 1/5th of the way to my final destination. I stuck my thumb out at the first passing car and boom, he stopped.

I opened the door to what can only be described as the scent of dead animal. A man with a strange sunhat and pitch-black tinted sunglasses looked across at me and again spoke to me in Spanish, this time with an unusual mumble. I asked him ‘Tongariki?’, to which he said nothing, looked forward, and started driving. I too looked forward to reveal the strangest dashboard configuration I’d ever seen; it had a ledge sticking out at the top, where an airbag would normally be. I’m pretty convinced that whoever is in the passenger seat the day Captain Grumbles goes crashing into a giant head statue will be turned to dust before they can say ‘what’s with all the used latex gloves on your dashboard?’

We drove for about seven minutes along the coast road up the east of the island, at a snail’s pace as always, until we reached a turning up into the farmland in the interior of the island. He said some form of ‘Here, finish.’ at which point I got ready to get out of the car, when the guy asked for some money. I said ‘Money? Why?’. He said nothing, but pointed at the rev counter. What, you want me to pay for the time you wasted by not actually using second gear? Assuming he meant petrol, I went for my coins pocket, pulling out about 1,000 pesos – the equivalent of around £1. He snorted and said ‘No. Mas.’ I added another 1,000 peso note. So that’s £2. Again he told me he wanted more. Rather than play this stupid guessing game, I sighed and asked him how much he wanted. He said 10,000 pesos.

Knowing he spoke no English whatsoever, I said ‘Ten thousands pesos?! That’s ten quid man, why the f*ck would I give you that much for a seven-minute ride?’. I don’t really know what my aim was here; I just needed to vent my incredulousness. It didn’t work. He just stared at me, having clearly not understood. I said ‘No 10,000.’ I know it was a risky tactic but I wasn’t having this floppy-hatted gimp con me out of petrol money when he was already heading in that direction, and not even taking me where I wanted to go. He sighed, and with a frustrated tone said ‘OK, 5,000’. I said ‘How about tres mil?’, showing him my haul of three thousand-peso notes. He said ‘No five?’ at which point I nonchalantly said ‘Nope’ at the exact moment a 5,000 peso note jumped out of my wallet and drifted down onto his feet. I blurted ‘Adios!’ and scrambled out of his car. I was now £5 down, in the middle of nowhere, only about halfway to Tongariki. This had not panned out as planned.

Cue the next passing car and in it driver #3; a smiley little man from mainland Chile who picked me up with great enthusiasm, and in incredibly broken English attempted to chat to me all the way to Tongariki. He wasn’t even going to Tongariki – he was going to Rano Raraku – but he drove the extra mile or so just to drop me off. Now this is the kind of ride you want. Friendly, happy and not acting like he’ll turn me into another one of his latex-glove-based dismembering experiments if I forget to sling him over a couple of pesos.

So two hours later I arrived at Tongariki. On an island that takes 15 minutes to drive across. Only something special was going to snap me out of the tired, sunburnt, agitated stupor I had sunk into, and that’s exactly what the 15 giant Ahu statues of Tongariki did. I can report first-hand that the famous ‘Easter Island Heads’ are not merely famous due to their mysticism or peculiarity – they are truly imposing and intimidating structures of monumental proportions considering their age, and the resources available during their construction. In photos, the Ahu often appear alone, with little reference of scale, but stood among them, you appreciate their sheer magnitude as they tower over you, some as tall as 30ft. I arrived at the site to find a strange turnstile, and a slender little middle-aged woman selling freshly-squeezed pineapple juice in water bottles approached me and asked for my ticket. ‘What ticket?’ I replied, to which she said ‘for the national park’. I told her I didn’t know I needed one. She told me I did. I told her I understood, and asked where I could buy one. After silently noting the fact that I was short of breath, sunburnt and dripping with sweat, she paused for a moment before visibly wincing and hesitantly saying ‘… at the airport.’

‘The airport?! That’s in Hanga Roa! I just hitchhiked all the way here!’. She told me she was sorry and there was nothing she could do. Suddenly, I felt a slap on my back. I turned round to see a lanky man in sports shades and a national park polo shirt nod at me and say ’Don’t worry about it’. I almost exploded with relief. I thanked them both, bought a pineapple juice as a gesture of goodwill (genuinely the tastiest juice I’ve ever had) and went and explored the site. Unashamedly took a few selfies, then a few regular photos, then mulled over how the hell they precariously perched these gigantic things on the little stone plates underneath them, then made haste as there was a grand total of zero shaded spots anywhere in about a mile radius. Luckily, within walking distance (though not really) was Rano Raraku, the site of the quasi-quarry where the basalt stone used to make the statues was mined. I walked for another twenty minutes, singing loudly to myself to distract from feeling like I may be about to melt, until I finally hit the entrance to the site. I strolled in and headed up toward the quarry, when I heard something that made me almost burst into tears; ‘Hey, have you got your ticket?’. It was another national park.

I was too far gone at this point. I wasn’t playing the risky ‘I hitchhiked here’ card – instead, I went nuclear and started breathing heavily and squinting like in great pain, and turned around to see another man in a national park polo shirt. I told him ‘I just walked here from Hanga Roa’. I like to think this lie wasn’t quite as bad as it seems, simply for the fact that I had done a hell of a lot of walking in blazing sun. I told him I’d do anything, that I’d pay for a ticket when I got back to Hanga Roa, and he took pity on me and allowed me to continue. I would of course get back to Hanga Roa later and totally forget about the ticket in the mess of getting ready for my midnight flight to Tahiti. In a moment of terrible timing, it suddenly popped back into my head as I was about to board the plane, so I quickly looked it up on the sketchy wifi. £10 for each national park. On an island the size of the Isle of Wight. I’d been to Orongo, Anakena, Tongariki and Rano Raraku. That’s £40 gone. As much as I feel guilty for forgetting, I feel I’ve already contributed an absolute fortune to this tiny economy just getting here and generally being here – considering how insanely difficult and costly it is to find your way to Easter Island, I feel like charging an extra £40 for admission to the only tourist attractions on the island is a little cheeky.

However, such was the quality of Rano Raraku, that I may actually be tempted to find a way of retrospectively wiring the local park authorities the money for my entry. It was one of the most remarkable things I’ve seen; a giant wall of rock, surrounded by Ahu, all poking out of the surrounding arid grassland at jaunty angles. In the centre of the cliff face was a mixture of half-completed and semi-destroyed statues, evoking an eerie sense of a past event causing an immediate halt to all construction. I later discovered that, though many of the statues are still in pristine condition around the island, the myriad of statues you see toppled over, lying face down, or in pieces by the sides of roads, were mostly destroyed or defaced by the original islanders themselves, the same people that slaved to create them in the first place. What caused them to undo much of their (seemingly exhausting) work remains a mystery, and while most guides and history leaflets tentatively mark it down to ‘tribal warfare’, they are also keen to point out that this is mere speculation. It is unlikely that we will ever know what happened.

After hitting a point of pointy-island-head-statue saturation, I headed back to the main road to hitch my way back to Hanga Roa. I got back to the road at about 3pm, which is pretty much peak temperature time, and realised I may be in a little bit of trouble. Having spent enough time in South America recently, it suddenly dawned on me that everyone eats lunch around this time in this part of the world, and what a prescient realisation that was; it took 15 minutes of walking under brutal sunshine for the first car to show up. It zoomed straight past me. Great. Another 15 minutes went by until I heard another car approaching. A red pickup truck. I put my thumb out and pulled as desperate a face as possible, until they too drove straight past, making eye contact as they did. In an internal fit of melodrama, I sunk to my knees in despair, and I can only assume they saw me in the rear-view mirror, as they screeched to a halt as soon as my knees touched the dirt. I picked myself up and sprinted up to them, shouting ‘Gracias! Gracias! Gracias!’ as I ran. I asked the two men if they were going to Hanga Roa. They said yes and told me not to get in the front with them, but in the flatbed at the back. This was riding bitch taken to the extreme. I was bitchhiking.

I climbed in, and before I could get settled they went into hyperdrive and accelerated to about 50mph along this tiny, narrow little unmarked road. I had gotten in the car of the only fast drivers on Rapa Nui. Thank Christ. However, five minutes down the road, we pulled into a small layby on the beach and stopped. I clambered out to ask what they were doing. They said ‘Goodbye!’ and just stared at me. I can only assume that was a mistranslation, rather than abrupt rudeness, but I again found myself walking for another half an hour down that goddamn road until I got picked up, hassle free, by a woman who drove me all the way back to Hanga Roa. Thank the Lord God.

Aimlessly wandering around the campsite in a daze of heat exhaustion, I realised I was wasting my last few hours here, so I headed to the nearest supermercado, grabbed that very same can of shitty Escudo lager I mentioned earlier, and hit the beach. Sat there, watching the dramatic colours of the endlessly-entertaining sunset for the fourth night in a row, I realised that this genuinely was paradise. It goes without saying that nobody wants too much of a good thing. It reminded me of Robert Nozick’s ‘Experience Machine’ theory; that no human being would ever trade their own life, with all its imperfections and hardships, for a simulated life of total perfection, day in, day out. Paradise isn’t really about non-stop luxury, it’s about a small moments of luxury mixed in with intrigue, weirdness and the occasional moment where you feel like giving up. Easter Island is the very essence that. You may have to work a bit beforehand, but you’ll be rewarded with the greatest beach you’ve ever seen, and you may have to hitchhike in awkward circumstances, but you’ll be rewarded with the most intriguing, creepy national parks you’ve ever seen.

Perhaps its more of a paradise for travellers rather than the average holidaymaker. People who maybe look for more of a challenge than others; who traverse the globe for no real reason other than to just… see how far they can go. To see where they end up. For instance, sat at the glorious beach at Anakena I was perfectly content, but sat in the back of a pickup truck flying down a narrow coast road at 50mph, then I was excited. That’s what I personally travel for – to see where I can end up without trying. To get into situations so far out of my comfort zone I could never foresee them.

And so, as I finish this particularly lengthy post on the plane leaving Easter Island, I have a real sense of having experienced something truly special. It’s bittersweet, of course, but more sweet than bitter. In a little speck of land in a vast ocean of nothing, I saw things that blew my mind, made me laugh, made me frustrated, made me sad and even made me question life in general. When I set off for the island, I received a message from a friend I met in Argentina saying ‘Have fun on Easter Island… contemplating!’. And genuinely I have never done that more than in the past few days. I thought it would be boring and isolating, being stuck somewhere like that, but it was, against all my predictions, totally exhilarating from beginning to end.

In all honesty I’m having difficulty summing up what it is about this place that is so special. So in the absence of a clearer description, I’ll instead leave you with a poem by Charles Bukowski, titled Nirvana, that I’ve always found very evocative from an outsider’s perspective, but now I’m sat here, on a plane drifting through time zones away from little Easter Island, I find it particularly apt.

Not much chance, completely cut loose from purpose.

He was a young man riding a bus through North Carolina

On the way to somewhere, and it began to snow.

The bus stopped at a little cafe in the hills,

And the passengers entered, and he sat at the counter with others,

And he ordered, and the food arrived.

And the meal was particularly good. And the coffee.

The waitress was unlike the women he’d known,

She was unaffected, and there was a natural humour which came from her.

The fry cook said crazy things and the dishwasher in the back laughed

A good clean, pleasant laugh.

The young man watched the snow through the window,

And he wanted to stay in that cafe forever.

A curious feeling swam through him that everything was beautiful there.

And it would always stay beautiful there.

Then the bus driver told the passengers it was time to board,

And the young man thought ‘I’ll just stay here… I’ll just stay here’.

But then he rose and he followed the others onto the bus,

and he found his seat, and he looked at the cafe through the window.

The bus moved off down the curve, downward, out of the hills,

And the young man looked straight forward,

And he heard the other passengers speaking of other things,

Or they were reading, or trying to sleep,

And they hadn’t noticed the magic.

The young man put his head to one side, closed his eyes

And pretended to sleep.

There was nothing else to do.

Just listen to the sound of the engine,

And the sound of the tires,

In the snow.




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