Last night, far beyond the lurching reaches of Dnipropetrovsk’s smokestacked suburbs, somewhere in the darkest wilds of the Pontic–Caspian steppe, we stood with our heads on our forearms, resting on top of the open window panels as we hurtled towards Odessa on a 14-hour sleeper train. With cans of demoralisingly warm Staropramen we had bought from the housekeeping lady at the end of the carriage, we skipped past abandoned factory after abandoned factory, through towns, districts and regions evidently not sufficiently prosperous so as to have ‘de-Stalinised’ themselves; this was another instance of that pure, unfiltered post-Soviet backcountry that travellers like Jake, Elliot and I have scoured this continent to compile memories of for the past decade.
Having booked a first class sleeper cabin, we naturally assumed that our train would be of similar technological adequacy (and age) as our previous train from Kiev to Dnipro. However, as we touched down on platform five, our oversize luggage in tow, we were greeted by a row of grey-blue cattle cars masquerading as a cross-country train service. Climbing up the stairs into the carriage corridor felt like watching From Russia With Love in virtual reality. As steam spurted from pipes in the walls, and the smell of crumbling skin cells launched itself from the Persian carpet with every step further into the darkness, we sidled along a mahogany-flanked train carriage that must have been at least 80 years old. At our cabin, fold-up leather bunk beds greeted us, along with a window that refused to open, and subsequently a heat so stifling that we immediately knew this was going to be a rough night.
Skip forward three hours and three beers and Jake and I found ourselves with our heads protruding from the windows in the corridor, maximising our lung capacity in futile anticipation of any fresh air that might manage to penetrate the burning coal embers and iron smelting fumes surrounding the train as it sat motionless in a freight yard. Overhead rang out the deafening sound of control box operators communicating with each other and their various cargo-filled subjects via loudspeaker, and we watched as coal truck after coal truck was slowly dragged or pushed into the obsidian blankness beyond the last lamplight of the depot. Under the assumption that our train would lurch back to life once all tracks were clear, Jake then nudged me on the shoulder and pointed into the distance down the tracks. Out of the black rolled a coal truck with no engine attached. As it rumbled into the light, I stupidly asked ‘how is that thing propelling itself?’, before realising that it wasn’t. It was obviously a mistake – a carriage that had come loose and rolled away, and just about the closest thing Jake and I would ever see to a runaway train. As we watched with bleary-eyed nonchalance like a cow stares at a passing car, it then slammed into a row of stationary freight containers, waking the entirety of our train up with a thunderous impact. As everyone jolted upright and a group of worried-looking track workers suddenly jogged into the light, Jake and I burst into hysterics, further angering the burly Russian co-occupants of our carriage. Before we could even finish laughing, our train suddenly sprang to life and wobbled off, inexplicably back in the direction we had just arrived from. I decided to question no further, and promptly went to sleep.
So now it’s Odessa’s turn to undergo my mild-mannered and irrelevant scrutiny. Dnipropetrovsk had been fun, but a sort of challenging fun. A city that is in no way built for tourism, it’s grey, industrial and rough around the edges. With only one major boulevard, the centre is compact and – apart from on Sundays – mostly lifeless. However, there is an untapped beauty within it. For instance, while the city is a hollowed out former Soviet industrial stronghold, it also has sights like Monastyrsky Island, hugging the western bank of the vast Dneiper River, complete with forested parks, white sand beaches and – if you’re a fan of industrial landscapes – one of the most stunning sunset spots one could ever hope to see, underscored by the vast expanse of water surrounding the island, and punctuated by concrete bridges and shipyard cranes far, far in the haze of the distance.
Dnipropetrovsk is a city that I could never recommend to anyone I know. Nothing about it is conventional. There isn’t much to do, there isn’t much to see, but something about it left me with a sort of unspectacular love. And that’s still love, I guess, so it feels like it has to be qualified by something, but it isn’t. The emptiness, remoteness and unfamiliarity of the city are its drawing points.
I am perfectly aware that this knowingly-backhanded endorsement generously affords the average person an adequate arena within which to pick off reasons to avoid Dnipro at all costs, but that’s not really the type of person I’m selling Dnipro to. I write this because I know that simply by being in a place like this, Jake, Elliot and I are in a miniscule minority, even though I’m aware it comes across as perhaps a little overtly abstract to constantly try to put into words the perspective of someone who frequently finds himself in far-flung places purely because they exist. As a result, it’s difficult to explain much further, beyond saying the kind of fondness one has for a city like Dnipropetrovsk can only really be felt by those who have a love of travel off the beaten track – those who go somewhere simply so they can expect nothing and thus relish everything.
Six days, eight hours and five minutes after arriving at Faa’a Airport in a monumental rainstorm and discovering I’d have to sleep on a bench outside the airport McDonald’s, I am finally leaving Tahiti. As many of you may have read on my last blog post, while I’ve made some excellent friends here and discovered new ways to appreciate time without internet, I have not enjoyed my time on this island. Or perhaps it’s less a lack of enjoyment of my time here, and more a painful frustration at pretty much everything this island has offered me, which rarely went beyond rain, concrete, terrible transport and charging £10 for a beer.
This troubled little island, however, has just given me a parting gift that should make me a little more reflective and perhaps a little more forgiving, but really just comes across as a big middle finger to me; sunshine. I’ve barely seen a single ray of ultraviolet light this week – it’s been buried behind deep layers of cloud and driving rain, yet now I’m back here at the airport, I look up to see lovely clear blue sky out the window. Two hours before my flight leaves. Thanks for that, Tahiti. I could probably just accept that I was unlucky, and that maybe this island can give holidaymakers a perfect tropical paradise experience, but really it just makes me think that Tahiti hates me as much as I hate it.
Having written only three blog posts in the last week, including one that didn’t really recount anything that’s actually happened, you’d think I’d have enough experiences built up for a novel-length entry, but nope. Not much has been going. In fact, I can count four things of any note that have actually happened all week. They are as follows:
The first is that a tropical storm hit us. In my inadvertent round-the-world tour of natural disasters which has so far racked up an earthquake in Chile and a flash-flood on Easter Island, I’ve seen some extreme weather, but none like what hit us yesterday. At my hostel on the west of the island, everyone gets up early, everyone sits together and eats the excellent breakfast provided by the hostel, and everyone does it no matter the weather. Earlier this week, a Category 5 hurricane hit Fiji, west of French Polynesia, and a number of little subsidiary storms have been ambling around the South Pacific. One had been circling close to Tahiti, and at breakfast the day before it was due to either hit or miss us, Fred – the hostel owner and most French man I’ve ever met – disappeared into his house and returned, cigarette hanging from his mouth and a baguette/laptop combo under his arm, to show us a website that tracks tropical weather activity. As the day went on, we all agreed, as did the weather forecasters, that the storm would slip around the south of the island and miss us entirely.
The following morning, I woke up and headed to breakfast to find tablecloths whipping around in the wind, all the other guests sat in the little open-air breakfast hut wearing waterproof clothing zipped up to their noses, and all attempting to stop the mess of peanut butter and marmalade jars from being picked up and carried away on the breeze. ‘Oh so the storm did hit us in the end?’ I asked Fred. ‘No, the forecast said it would miss’. OK. I took my seat, rain digging into my face, and grabbed a piece of damp baguette. Just as I went for the butter with my teaspoon (for some reason the only piece of cutlery available), a huge gust of wind suddenly picked up two of the tables and, complete with jam jars, coffee mugs and butter dishes, slammed them against the back wall and out the side of the hut, out into the driveway. And we all just watched them sail off into the distance. I looked at Fred, Fred shrugged, and we went back to drinking our coffee/rainwater mixed drinks. It seems nothing can stop the French from enjoying a breakfast baguette.
The second thing of note was the story of how I got stranded in Pape’ete. As you will all know, I have described Pape’ete as somewhat of a shithole; a hideous mess of grey buildings and greyer clouds of exhaust smoke. However, on Friday I decided to head up into town as there was nothing else to do on the island. Plus, I wanted to see if I could persuade Air Tahiti Nui to allow me to jump ship and get an earlier flight off the island (£250 for a flight change?!). After resigning myself to another three days in this hellhole, I headed straight for the nearest bar, got on the wifi, wrote that particularly angry blog post about Tahiti, sent it off, grabbed a beer and finished it in about 90 seconds. At which point I looked around and realised it was 6pm. And on Tahiti, that meant it was dark. In a kind of semi-panic, I headed to the ‘bus terminal’ (really just a hut on the side of the road), and sat in darkness for 15 minutes before the lack of other people waiting, combined with a row of SUVs parked in the bus stop itself, made me realise I’d probably be there all night. So what did I do? I started walking. My hostel is 20km from Pape’ete, and in the pouring rain, without many other options, I started walking down the main road that circles the island.
Yes I am fully aware that the word ‘taxi’ is probably ringing around in your head, but you have to remember that I’m a traveller, and budgeting is pretty much a requirement for every part of my trip. Even at their cheapest, taxis are rarely a viable option, and here the words ‘cheap’ and ‘taxi’ would never be uttered in the same sentence. Taxis don’t patrol for rides here; you have to call them. And the callout charge is £9 before you’ve even gone a yard. The fare then is 150 XPF (about £1) per kilometre. So that’s £29. Oh hang on no it isn’t, because the fare goes up once the sun goes down to 240 XPF per kilometre. So overall, from the callout to arrival at the hostel, I’d be charged £42. For a twelve-minute journey. What on Earth is that about?
Soaking wet, I decided to stop at a supermarket about a kilometre from Pape’ete where I had earlier gotten wifi. After the wifi refused to work, I went to the information desk to ask what my options were. After practically laughing out loud at me questioning where all the buses were, she told me the only option was a taxi. So I turned around and said ‘I’ll just walk’, when a little old lady, attempting to return some clothing at the desk and laughing with the staff, said ‘I can drive you’. I said ‘Oh that’s very nice of you but it’s OK’. She insisted I shouldn’t pay for a taxi or walk along the road at night, but obviously a random woman at a supermarket is a less appealing prospect than both of those options. She went back to returning her clothing, when the other information desk lady leaned over and whispered ‘I understand why you’re hesitant but it’s OK, I have been friends with this lady very well for many years, it’s perfectly fine, I have her phone number and address’. The other information desk lady agreed with her and said it really was my only choice as there would probably be no taxis free anyway. The first then leaned over the desk and showed me the old lady’s name and phone number on her mobile.
(N.B. Yes I’m aware I’m making a big deal of this but I am 100% sure my mum, who will currently be reading this, would have a heart attack if I didn’t make it pretty clear that this I was totally convinced this was undeniably a safer situation than either walking home and ending up under the wheels of a passing garbage truck, or hitchhiking. And lo, I was right; I’m not dead.)
So I caved. There’s no way in hell they were all in on some human trafficking con. In my desperation, and after a good 10 minutes of internal debate (and outward debate with the information desk lady), I agreed to a lift, and we stepped outside into the pouring rain to reveal the most extraordinary vehicle I could have imagined for a little old lady. She got her keys out, clicked the unlock button and a beep sounded behind us. I turned around to the sight of a monster/pick-up truck hybrid. The wheels were as tall as my shoulders. I had to literally climb into it using a built-in ladder. After boarding the Starship Enterprise, I asked her some questions to make conversation. To cut a long story short; she was ‘retired’ despite having never had a job, had married a multi-millionaire property owner in the 70s, was particularly worried about the rising drug abuse problems in Tahiti, and then, without any hassle, dropped me back at the hostel. After adamantly refusing any money for her help, she told me that acceptable payment would be to ‘write about her as part of my strange and unpredictable adventures’. So there you have it.
The third thing was that I was standing at a crossroads when a police car ran a red light, and all other cars in the queue proceeded to follow it through the red light and across a line of perpendicular traffic, causing a couple of crashes, lots of car horns and the occasional French swearword.
The fourth was the entirety of my final day. While the Tahiti experience has been pretty shit, the final day was far from it. Camill, my friend from the hostel who I spent pretty much every minute of every day with, had organised something pretty awesome and extremely French. A group of family friends of hers were hosting a lunch at their place up in the hills overlooking Pape’ete, and I’d wrangled an invitation. After weaving through awkwardly steep roads and sharp turns, we arrived at the house. I have to say, after five weeks of slumming it in hostels, this was the most welcome change of pace I’ve had so far; we were treated to a four-course French meal, complete with champagne, about five bottles of red wine (including an absolutely mindblowing 2010 Saint-Emilion), three different meats, a cheese board and finally a decent coffee, something I’ve dearly missed in recent weeks. Oh and they had the tiniest little kitten ever.
So after getting a little drunk and eating enough food to sustain me for hibernation, we headed back to another of Camill’s friend’s place, where I saw the first sunshine of my entire time in Tahiti, accompanied with a few beers and a swim in their pool. So Camill, if you’re reading, thanks again; the entire Tahiti experience will be much more fondly remembered because of it!
I would continue now into a couple of reflective paragraphs about how perhaps Tahiti would be the perfect holiday destination in the right circumstances, or that maybe I just have to appreciate the experiences I had rather than concentrate on the negatives, but I don’t want to. Get me off this f*cking island.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the world so far, it’s that Easter Island is dry. I complained day after day about the ‘brutal humidity’ of the island every time I had a moment to air my thoughts, but in hindsight it was either because I’m just generally not used to humidity at all, or because I had just come from a particularly dry region of Chile. That place is not humid. Tahiti? Now this is humid. I’ve been here for about 3 days now, and it has been non-stop rain of torrential proportions, combined with 35 degree heat and obscene levels of dampness in the atmosphere. Even now, as I sit on the porch of my hostel, mangos falling off the trees and slamming onto the roof every 10 minutes, I am struggling. It’s just so muggy.
Which brings about some other unusual problems. For instance, you always have to wear shoes; even if it hasn’t been raining, the ground will be saturated with dew. Also problematic is the insane mosquito problem; Tahiti is apparently a hotspot not for the Zika virus itself, but for the mosquito that carries it. So I assume, as soon as it’s introduced to Tahiti, the island will descend into collective apocalyptic panic. Natural order will break down, the government will be airlifted to safety, people will sell off all their gold, and all that will be left is an army of babies with shrunken heads, destined to aimlessly wander the land for all eternity.
Also one thing that appears to defy the laws of science; you can’t dry clothing. It’s very strange, but say you get soaked by this rainfall and want a change of clothes, you’ll put your wet clothes out to dry somewhere – be it in a dry spot or even indoors – you’ll come back an hour later to discover that they’re actually more damp than they were before. I’ve been forced to devise a routine involving ceiling fans and support beams to successfully un-soak my clothing.
So, Tahiti. It’s white sand beaches again, complete with coconut-laden palm trees, cheerful men selling mangos and a laid-back Polynesian atmosphere, right? Without meaning to sound clichéd; if this is your idea of the essence of Tahiti, you could not be more wrong. This little sweatbox of an island, stranded out in the South Pacific, is an intense, heavily industrialised place that offers little in the way of perfect beach relaxation opportunities. The beaches are covered in black volcanic sand and rocky outcrops that leave no space for sunbathing or swimming, the island is encircled by a permanently-busy, fast-moving ring road dominated by heavy-duty transport vehicles, and then there’s Pape’ete, the capital and only real town of any note on the island. Pape’ete is not like Hanga Roa back on Easter Island. It’s not dirt roads and reed-roofed huts. It’s a hideous little city, absolutely devoid of any charm that the region may have had bestowed upon it by the original Polynesian settlers or their French colonisers. It’s a traffic-intensive, roadwork-filled maze of soulless concrete phone shops and cash-for-gold establishments, punctuated by the odd McDonald’s and filled with homeless people. The entire city is dominated by towering shipping cranes and a remarkably suffocating smell of pollution. I thought I was taking a huge risk by booking a hostel 20km away from Pape’ete. And sure, the transport around this part of the island is not as good, but overall I could never have foreseen how good a decision that has turned out to be.
Me and a couple of people from the hostel all chipped in to rent a car yesterday, and took the arduous drive up to Pape’ete, where I had my first casse-croute, a gastronomic staple of the island, and – I assume – one of the main factors behind French Polynesia’s surprisingly lofty ranking on lists of the world’s most obese territories. Every cafe, every food truck and every restaurant will have a variety of casse-croutes to test your vascular capabilities. In the major food market of the city, the ‘main hall’ is a vast space, white picnic tables bookended all the way from one end to the other, with maybe only about four food vendors; two guys selling whole tuna, one selling limes and another sat at an empty table looking like he’d forgotten why he was there. Then, through a small passageway at the back, we found a row of hidden, bustling fast-food stands. What they were doing back here, I don’t know, but I proceeded to order my first casse-croute. I got one with steak hache. Wait, I know I’m taking an age to explain what a casse-croute is, but I’ve got another point to make here – what the hell is steak hache? I couldn’t remember exactly from the last time I was in France, so I asked the server. ‘Well it’s steak. Then you mince it up, then you put it back together and cook it’. Oh yeah! It’s funny you French people call it that, cos it already has a name – it’s a goddamn burger. What on Earth is that about? Scrolling further down the menu, I noticed they also served burgers. I was extremely hesitant to ask, for fear of lapsing into some sort of never-ending cycle in which I’m being told all food is minced-up steak put back together, so instead waited for my food. What arrived was a monster. A casse-croute is a giant baguette, cut lengthways, and stuffed with lettuce, tomato, onion, copious amounts of meat of your choice, and then also filled with chips and covered with BBQ sauce. It’s an entire meal in a piece of bread. After sweating my way through the entire thing, I decided I may avoid them from now on. Although, they are cheap, and here comes my final and most fervent gripe with this island. If you don’t like me bitching about money, click away now.
The personal financial costs of Easter Island’s ‘remote island economy’ was a tiring and mildly frustrating appendix to an amazing trip. Tahiti is dominated by financial woes. Perhaps if it weren’t absolutely pissing it down with rain all day every day I may be able to find ways to distract myself, but as it stands, the only major activity available to me is either drinking the truly dreadful Hinano lager brewed on the island, or lurking around supermarkets, which on Tahiti is actually surprisingly entertaining. It’s actually become quite funny by this point, but my God this place is expensive. And so French.
If you went to the Cook Islands or some similar British-owned South Pacific island group, I guarantee you wouldn’t wander down the street to find such excessively British things as a Tesco, a fish & chip shop, a Twining’s and a bowler hat fitter all lined up next to each other, yet the French clearly took their hedonistic colonial days very seriously. Head into Pape’ete and you’ll see patisseries, boulangeries and boucheries crushed up against one another. You’ll see native Polynesians in part-traditional dress walking down the street holding giant baguettes. You’ll even see beret-clad men leaning against lamposts with cigarettes hanging from their mouths.
Thus, you’ll also see such French staples as Carrefour, a giant supermarket known for having extremely low prices. Hilariously, it is thus also considered the cheapest place to buy food on Tahiti. Trouble is, the French have also decided that supermarkets in Tahiti will not be filled with Tahitian versions of French staples, but of the authentic French staples themselves. Yeah sure, why not fly a tiny piece of reblochon halfway round the world and charge £20 for it? Why not chuck that 1995 Bordeaux on there too and sit it on the shelf at £450? And while you’re at it, stock the plane up with the shittiest, Carrefour own-brand budget versions of all the food, and thus totally negate the fact that they’re budget items. A usually £2 tub of crap, bland own-brand ice cream? That’s now £15.
Interesting, this is totally normal for the islanders, as you would expect, because there’s another funny little aisle in the far corner where every item is marked with a little sticker saying ‘Avion’ over a white silhouette of a plane. These are items they are making a point out of having flown over, and it turns out the things they choose to specify this aspect of amount to an odd collection of stuff. American processed cheese, Delerium Nocturnum Belgian beer, tapas chorizo and nutella are all mixed in there with some sort of unspoken added flight tax, as if the rest of the items in the supermarket hadn’t been flown in. But then; light at the end of the tunnel. As I stumbled through the foie-gras section, my wallet weeping as my vision started to go blurry, I reached the croissants. Expensive but not too bad. Then donuts. Hey they’re kind of cheap. Then, boom. I knew it. You can always rely on the French to charge absolutely nothing for one staple of their diet. I held it in my hands and breathed a sigh of relief. Perhaps there is space on this small, tropical speck of land for cheap food. It was my baguette of hope.
So in conclusion, Tahiti is vastly different from anywhere I’ve ever been. I feel like I’m ticking off boxes of countries, climates and cultures at an alarming rate, each one revealing hidden surprises and strange, unexpected flaws. It’s kind of depressing in a way that many of these places that were once so far away and exotic and mysterious are now just… here. And they’re just places. They’re not magical lands made of rainbows and happiness. They’re just cities, towns and countries where people are born, live, work and die, and it’s possible to feel that. Perhaps it is that Tahiti, a place so synonymous with luxurious paradise, is actually a pollutant-ridden centre of commerce, that is making me feeling quite so confused as to what to think. As that drugged-up guy from Keane once said, ‘the map of my world gets smaller as I sit here, pulling at the loose threads now’.
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?
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.
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
A well-known aspect of Latin American life is its capacity for delays, lateness and a generally relaxed attitude toward schedules. In Argentina and Uruguay, I often found myself idly sat by as buses refused to turn up, or as meals took 50 minutes to arrive. In Chile they bumped this trait up a gear; someone would arrange to meet you at 6pm, then turn up at 8 or 9 and act like nothing’s wrong. However, today I sat foot on the mystical land of Easter Island. Known for its Polynesian quasi-religious statues (Ahu) and its rugged landscape, it has built a reputation as one of the world’s most remote island resorts, and seemingly, the world’s slowest.
Nothing happens on time on this island. Nothing. My flight was delayed taking off and subsequently delayed landing, which was a pain, but nothing compared to the shenanigans at Matavuri Airport. The dudes who bring the stairs to the plane took 20 minutes, the baggage reclaim took an hour and a half, and the guy giving me a tour of the campsite here (yes camping kill me now) thought I needed to know literally everything about the facilities, including the mechanics of a washing machine and what a bicycle is. So despite being checked into a campsite literally 100 yards from the tiny little airport, it took three and a half hours before I could actually begin to explore, and explore I did.
I’ll be honest, Easter Island is not a tiny speck of land in a vast ocean of nothing. Well I mean from a relative standpoint, it obviously is, but when you’re here it’s not quite like that. First off, it’s not that small. It’s not like some random bit of rock like the Pitcairn Islands; it has enough space for four different volcanoes, three national parks, and a coast road featuring 28 sets of Ahu.
Speaking of which – due to the lack of any English speakers at my campsite – I’m kind of alone here, so I headed off to the beach last night, as I’ve heard great things about the sunset. On the way a convoy of motorbikes passed me, with all riders wearing Nazi helmets. Oh so you can’t import any decent wine but you can import a bunch of goddamn Nazi helmets? The strangest thing about this sight was the direction these eight men were going – north, up into Terevaka, the massive volcano that dominates the skyline here. At 9pm. What the hell were they doing? Is this a conspiracy theory come true? Maybe Hitler never died – maybe he’s hiding out in a volcano lair on Easter Island.
But anyway I got to the beach and witnessed a pretty amazing sunset, and I realised, going back to my earlier point about isolation; you just can’t feel it. Sat at home in England, you might think ‘God wouldn’t it be amazing to escape to somewhere that remote?’. On paper (and more specifically on a map), islands such as these are an inviting if costly prospect. A dot of land surrounded by nothing for literally thousands of miles. But when you’re here? It just feels like any other coastline. It may be obvious, but the horizon curves beyond view after a certain point, so you might as well be sat looking out at the Atlantic, or the Bering Strait, or even the Channel. France could’ve been just over the water for all I cared.
Another expectation that I was also sucked into but turned out to be false is a belief that you’ll be able to get into and understand the isolated island lifestyle through witnessing others and experiencing it yourself. You’ll see that the people here do things differently; they’ll be more relaxed, friendlier, less ‘corrupted’ by outside influence. But I have to report that it’s bullshit. It’s part of Chile, and that is a very obvious fact. Call me naive for having expected it in the first place, but nobody speaks any form of Polynesian language, I’ve only met two true islanders, every single sign is in Spanish, it is absolutely jammed to the point of bursting with Chinese tourists and – most notably – it just is part of Chile. Same food in shops, same beer in bars, same terrible radio, same currency, same everything. The only things that are slightly different are the time zone and the landscape. Also, strangely, none of the restaurants or supermarkets have their own customised signs. Instead they all have these weird pre-made wooden signs featuring a big Coca-Cola logo and an empty space where you can write the name of the restaurant. Now that is depressing.
Speaking of which, I went to a bike rental place earlier today and got myself a little mountain bike for 24 hours for £10. I looked at a map with the rental guy, and he pointed to Orongo, a national park squashed in the southwest corner of the island – the only area south of the monumental airport runway that cuts across literally the entire island. Telling me not to jump the gun and go north, he suggested I take a quick bike over to Orongo. See the ancient houses, see the little islets off the coast, and of course go to the volcano and have a look. I owe this man a slap in the face. This is not cycling terrain. It’s a shitty dirt road stretching almost 10 miles uphill to the top of the volcano. With no shade. In this heat. Why this rental guy thought I had a look of the Bradley Wiggins about me as I managed to drop the bike and subsequently dislodge the gear chain while attempting to simply walk out of the car park baffles me. So I’m back at the campsite now. I have to admit, the cycling back down was awesome. Even when I had to kick a cow that charged me, still fun.
I’ve finally recovered from La Serena. Not in a wild party way, but in a nagging cold that I inexplicably had all the time I was there. I got an interesting moment as a leaving present too – me and Benjamin (a fellow hostel worker) were making beds, when I grabbed a blanket to lay across the top and a gigantic spider jumped out of it. Now I know I’m not exactly Australian, but I’d never seen a spider this big. It stumbled around the room for a bit until the cleaner came in and (in hindsight quite ironically) didn’t hesitate to stamp on it. This wasn’t a small little speck stuck to her shoe – she lifted her foot to reveal a large black stain on the floor, with a couple of legs left behind. She sighed, then continued to make beds. Her nonchalance made my day.
The next day I headed south on a bus, my upgraded semi-cama (‘half-bed’) feeling just as uncomfortable as I had expected when I handed over an extra £2 to book it. Had a beer, had a Taco Bell, and got in an overpriced taxi to the airport. I had a kind of semi-argument with the driver before we got in about the price, saying that last time I’d paid £7, to which he laughed at me. I almost considered not getting in but it was late enough for me not to care at this point. Whatever. Once I’d got in, I realised I had landed another strange driver, like Bruno all those weeks before. He asked where I was from, I said England, and he handed me a small blue book. It was a clearly very hastily-made Spanish-English dictionary, bound together with bits of string. He handed it to me so I could start a conversation, but I was way too distracted by the sheer number of incorrect translations in there. Almost all of it was wrong.
‘What time did you arrive?’ came out as ‘How long did you be?’, ‘How much will the trip cost?’ was ‘How much are this carriage?’ and I also enjoyed ‘I am going to the airport for my flight to ___’ becoming ‘I am gliding from airports in the ___ flight’. Another interesting facet was the English phonetic pronunciations. I didn’t get many photos as my phone camera is atrocious, but you can see some of them in this post. The driver attempted to speak to me but the backwards translation made it difficult to find what I was trying to say in English, so the conversation was frustrating and didn’t last long. I should have just told him I was gliding from airports in the Easter Island flight.
I took a hit and slept overnight in the airport and boom; the LAN staff took pity on me and gave me a reclining seat, with massive legroom, extra food and nobody either side of me.
But as a result I’m here, semi-stranded on the Navel of the World as the natives like to call it (wasn’t that a UK newspaper?) in a tent the size of a shoebox, on my own, in total darkness, wondering what the hell I’ve gotten myself into. Definitely more to follow tomorrow.
P.S. Holy shit I wrote this out earlier but just as I upload it I have to add – I just went out cycling again and had to turn back because of the heat, but on my way out a couple of dogs were by the side of the road looking suspicious. I approached on my bike and saw a black lump in the middle of the road and assumed it was an animal. It was. It was another dog. They had eaten all of it apart from the head and front legs. That is a vision that will haunt my dreams.