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My trip to Easter Island came at a time in my life when I had stopped breathing. Not completely, of course, but it had been a long time since I had taken a deep, lung-filling breath; a breath that shoots from head to toe and makes you realize that you are truly living in the moment. As soon as I stepped foot on Rapa Nui (the local name for Easter Island), I took one of these calming breaths and realized that just the smell, the sounds and the first glimpse of island living was all I needed to slow my body from the quick tempo of daily existence.
History of the Moai
After settling into my hotel, I was quickly swept away from "the moment" and into a fantastical history when I went to visit my first Moai at Ahu Akivi. We drove 30 minutes on deeply pot-holed roads and arrived directly in front of the platform, or Ahu, where seven giant statues face the sea.
Although most contact from the outside world was made after the statues had fallen, it is common belief that the Moai were carved in remembrance of the islanders' ancestors. The Moai are said to have all been facing inland to look over the village and protect their tribes. The seven effigies at Ahu Akivi were inaccurately restored facing backwards to their original positions.
After seeing countless photos of these grand watchmen, it was difficult for me to comprehend that they had leapt from the page into tangible objects that were towering over me. As I stood in their shadows, I tried to imagine life here as it had played out a thousand years before, when a belief in the strength of family and spirit were so pivotal to the villagers that they took grandiose efforts to carve, transport and erect these massive stone idols. It made me feel like a pinprick on an everlasting timeline, but a lucky pinprick to be in the presence of such magnificent remnants of history.
There are hundreds of ancient sites on the island, and they are all astounding. However, the place that truly amazed me was Rano Raraku, the stone quarry where most of the Moai took shape. Here Moai were in all stages of production: some half buried, some toppled over onto their faces, and others yet to be carved away from the mountain. Rano Raraku was where I truly felt the magic of the island and could picture the bustle of artists laboring over their commissioned pieces. Being on that hillside made me appreciate how proud those people must have been to be a part of such an extraordinary culture.
Exploring Rapa Nui
I explored Rapa Nui eagerly and tried to soak in every last bit of beauty and anecdote about the island. On the second day of my visit, I joined a bike ride to Ahu Tongariki, which is the largest platform with 15 Moai. After a (literally) rocky start through some fields, we continued on the almost deserted road around the coast, stopping here and there when our guide would point out a fallen statue. The island is absolutely littered with Moai, and, until you train your eyes, you can easily miss the ones that are toppled and wind-worn, seemingly abandoned in the middle of nowhere.
Our destination was impressive, and it was amazing to see the different styles of carvings on the massive platform of Tongariki. But getting there was half the fun. We biked at a leisurely pace, with the crashing surf to our right and wild horses grazing nonchalantly to our left. As I pedaled along curving paths that followed the shore, I knew the calm and beauty of that morning wouldn't be easily forgotten.
Every excursion on Rapa Nui was as impressive as the last. I visited gorgeous, white sand beaches with teal water as clear as a window pane, crawled into caves where petroglyphs graced the craggy interiors, picnicked outside of a ramshackle cabin owned by a cowboy, and skimmed the ocean waves on a small, open fishing boat.
My final night on Rapa Nui was occupied by a native dance show. I was dropped off in Hanga Roa, the island's only town, and shown toward an unsuspecting path behind a few houses and store fronts. The path ended at a simple, semi-covered venue with bleachers in the back and a couple rows of chairs in front of the stage. I took my seat and, before long, an acoustic band with male and female singers started up, followed by the dancers themselves. For an hour I was mesmerized as the men and women in elaborate costumes deftly and powerfully moved about the stage and chanted along with the music. I found it a perfect final farewell, but, like my time on Easter Island, the show came to an end all too soon.
Later that evening, with the excitement of the performance still lingering in my fingertips, I took a detour from my hotel room to spend a few minutes in the quiet of the nightfall. The soundtrack of chirping crickets and a faint wind swirled through my ears as I lay on the damp grass and looked up at the boundless sky. The stars were as many and as bright as I could ever remember seeing and I realized that my deep breaths were coming easily and constantly now, as effortless as my adoration for Rapa Nui had become.
In just a few short days I had truly fallen in love with the island; its laid-back character and mysterious origins had gripped me gently, but firmly. Easter Island had given me a sense of adventure, relaxation and appreciation. But, more importantly, it had allowed me to breathe again.