Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Greetings from Rapa Nui! [The Lost Blog Posts]

[Below, my friends, is what I planned to post here for you all on 29.June.2009--a whole month ago! Alas, when I went to the Internet cafe in Hanga Roa specifically to post this, my laptop was dead. Thanks to our stalwart tech department at work, my files are at least recovered, but the poor machine is "scrap". Here at least is what I would have offered you all back then. And BIG thanks again to Liz Ruther and Bruce Higgins for loaning me their laptops through much of the remainder of the expedition, without which I never would have completed any field reports or blog posts on the island...]


It’s 10:00 p.m. on Thursday, and I have been back on Rapa Nui for over 24 hours now. We landed about 8:00 p.m. last night. Since here below the Equator, the Winter solstice has only just passed, it was quite dark. It was also raining, and as we walked down the gangway to the cracked tarmac, I broke out in a wide, coprophagous grin, happy to be back, happy to be done with flying and sitting in airports after more than 50 straight hours of traveling, happy to see the familiar outlines of Mataveri Airport, happy that my watch once again showed the correct time even though I was far from home, happy at last not to look ridiculous in my oilcloth duster that I had been wearing since Los Angeles as I watched other passengers running to the terminal to get out of the rain. Happy to remember running on the track behind the Nataani Nez Elementary School Gym track in Shiprock two months ago in the rain because I knew then that the temperature and weather would be very similar to those I would encounter on La Isla. And here I am, in the rain.

And now I am way tired…


Anybody wondering where I am? Well, I will tell you where I am NOT, and haven’t been yet: in a cave. We’ve been here almost four full days, but it has all been spent in training and preparation. Friday was the inevitable crisis over our permits, something I was familiar with from the last time I was here, but this time I was able to observe the process more closely—and of course, I am even more invested in the outcome this time. Yesterday was training, which was delayed and protracted at every stage. This is not to say, however, that the end result was diminished. If anything, I think we got more out of it because of the circumstances. Allow me to explain—and please note that my explanations tend to be complex, as I like to track far back into the root causes of things. So place your tray tables and seats in the upright position, and prepare for descent:

Our expedition is called 2009 Expedición Rapa Nui: Proyecto Natural y Cultural de la Historia Espeleológica, which translates as “2009 Rapa Nui Expedition: Natural and Cultural Speleological History Project”. I am the field archaeologist who will be handling the “Cultural” side of things, and our host at the Hotel Tupa, which was formerly the Hotel Topa Ra’a—formerly as in when I stayed here in 2002. Sr. Sergio Rapu, is the senior archaeologist, to whom I gladly defer in all things. I will hope to say more about him later, but he deserves a little more introduction here before I proceed, as he is a most remarkable individual, a true Rapanui renaissance man. First of all, he was first Native Rapanui archaeologist (he received his original training in Wyoming under the late William Mulloy, along with Charlie Love and the infamous Claudio Cristino), the first Native Rapanui governor of the island (even earlier, his older brother Alfonso Rapu became the first Native Rapanui mayor of Hanga Roa after a remarkable bloodless revolution and non-violent protest led by the women of the island and involving a stolen bulldozer), and of course, hotelier. More recently, he attended UC Berkeley, where he studied International Relations. While he was there, he and I were working together to arrange a series of meetings with the Navajo Nation president and other tribal leaders, but that fell through at the last minute when he was called off to do some speaking engagements under the terms of his scholarship. We are talking now about making that happen somewhere down the road. He has a great interest in learning about the Navajo Nation’s own efforts towards developing sovereignty, and in establishing direct relationships between indigenous peoples, and he also has a great interest in Navajo culture going back to his time in Wyoming, when he no doubt attended powwows and other intertribal events in which Navajo people were participating.

Last night at dinner I reminded him that I also live quite close to Chaco Canyon, which is where his mentor Bill Mulloy began his research—which was the reason why the late (and also a dollar short) Thor Heyerdahl selected Mulloy for his watershed “Aku-Aku” expedition back in the 50’s, as Heyerdahl expected to find ceramics and New World style flintknapping here. Mulloy eventually commented that there was no way that any Native Americans had ever been here, as the quality of the flint (or rather, obsidian) knapping here was so poor. He was no doubt referring to the ubiquitous mata’a (obsidian spearpoints), which apparently were produced in the thousands by a generally rather quick and dirty approach. As carvers of wood and especially stone, however, the Rapanui people had few equals in their time. Which is far from over.

The opportunity to work as an archaeologist under Sergio’s guidance and with some direct access to his immense expertise, experience, and wealth of knowledge about the island was one of the main reasons I signed on for this project. Thus Sergio, Mulloy, obsidian-knapping, and the archaeological side of things for now…

As I said, our expedition is the 2009 Expedición Rapa Nui: Proyecto Natural y Cultural de la Historia Espeleológica. It is the “Natural History” side of things that comprises our primary objective. To that end, we will be setting traps in the caves for arthropods: insects, spiders, centipedes, and related creatures with “jointed” legs. The data gathered during this part of the project—and the arthropods—will provide a crucial part of the research base for the doctoral thesis of our expedition’s leader, J. Judson Wynne, who is a PhD candidate at Northern Arizona University (NAU).

I will stop here for now, as we are preparing to head out into the field at last.


I wrote that last part early in the morning (early as in maybe 7:30-8:00 a.m., given that we are only a few days past the Winter Solstice here, and it doesn’t really get light here until 8:00 a.m. right now), and I am writing this late at night (11:15 p.m.). I need to develop a writing style, or a form, for these entries that will not suffer if I have to break off at the end of any given paragraph, or even in the middle of a paragraph. This perhaps means fewer long narratives and less extensive expositions, and a more encapsulated style. And of course, more photos, right dear readers? I will have to think more about this, and try out some experiments. But I will do that thinking in the morning. Maybe tomorrow, I will even be able to get online. I also still need to get over to the Hotel Otai and check on Charlie Love. But for tonight…sleep.


I would say it is a bright new day, but it is still dark outside the Tupa Hotel, formerly Topa Ra’a. Which of course, I do not mind…as a cave archaeologist, I do some of my best work in the dark. Right now, it appears that only I and the many, many roosters of Hanga Roa are up and about. Even in the dark, I have a rich panorama here for both my eyes and my ears, at least if I lower the screen of my laptop for a moment. I am sitting back in a lounge chair of what used to be the patio of the Tupa, but is now effectively the verandah, since Sergio is in the midst of a massive renovation, and two-story addition is going up right over my head. The second story is fully roofed already with green corrugated sheet metal, but the bottom story consists solely of concrete pillars at this point, transforming what was the patio into a kind of de facto verandah. Whatever the second story will be, I cannot imagine that Sergio would destroy the hotel’s signature view, so it will probably be a lobby/lounge and/or dining area, which is what the older area directly behind me right now is still.

Let me tell you about that view, which has brought me many go-to-my-happy-place memories over the last seven years: directly in front of me is Terevaka, the largest and youngest of the three major volcanic peaks that form the corners of this distinctly triangular island. The mountain slopes gently down on the west—my left—to a small cape, which is extended by two small islets, the outer most of which is Motu Tautara (no this is not the famous birdman islet—that is Motu Nui, which is behind me and out of sight behind Rano Kau). Between Terevaka and me are the quickly diminishing lights of Hanga Roa, the only town on the island. In the foreground from center to left, a number of tall coconut palms stand in silhouette to the Pacific, whose vast visual expanse is broken only by single buoy, which bobs in the harbor, marking the site of a sunken moai, dropped during the attempt to transfer it to a ship some years ago.

I will stop here and go get my camera. I know that’s what you want. I won’t make you beg…

The coconut palm, like much of the vegetation on the island, is a relatively recent introduction. The Polynesian settlers of Rapa Nui did not bring it with them. Like the dog and the pig, it is one of the elements of the usual imported Polynesian agricultural landscape that did not make it this far on the canoes, or if it did, did not survive here. Perhaps the first Rapanui did not cultivate it after they discovered the massive forest of giant palms with their own delicious miniature-coconut-like fruits that once blanketed the island. The vegetation here now, at least in Hanga Roa, is a bizarre, eclectic, and utterly delightful mix of plants from every corner of the globe growing in licentious profusion and proximity. The Rapanui people love plants—especially trees.

It’s fully light now, although the sun had not yet risen from behind the maunga in the east, and that means it is almost time for breakfast here in the just-past-the-winter-solstice world, so I will aspire to bring this entry to some closure here. Back therefore, to the aforementioned view from verandio of the Tupa: my favorite thing about it, and the element that I have watched in my mind so often since 2002, is the way on a windy day (today is not one, at least not yet), one can see right up the north coast to where the waves break on the cliffs between here and the cape of the Motus. The cliffs there are 30 meters high or more, and a good wave will send a plume of pure white spray all the way to the top of the cliffs. THAT is what I love.

Of course, one morning when I was here with UH in 2002 (this one, time, at band camp…yeah, I think I am that guy on the team right now), I came out to the lobby, and then since breakfast wasn’t ready yet, went back to my room to talk to Mike Lu, my roommate. When I returned to the lobby a little while later, someone asked me what I had thought of the waterspout. “What waterspout?” I asked. Apparently they had all sat and watched the waterspout until it was gone. And I missed it. So now every morning I scan the horizon for a waterspout…

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Home is the Caveman

I arrived home shortly before 6:00 p.m. last night, slightly ahead of schedule, after spending a day and a half on planes and in airports. It was almost a miracle that I--and my luggage--both made it, as I had five flights in all, just like on the way down. And my changeovers were usually under two hours--none over three. I had to pick up my bags at every airport except Phoenix. Somehow, I made it.

Today I went back to work, and the vacation--my first in several years--began to rub off of me. I hope I will be able to hold on to some of it for a while.

There is much more to tell, but it's late, and I have to work a 10-hour shift tomorrow. For now, I leave you with this photo of the most spectacular sunrise we saw from the patio of the Tupa Hotel.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Ships That Pass in the Afternoon

“the descent beckons / as the ascent beckoned”
--William Carlos Williams

Today will be our last day in the field, which is, of course, a melancholy prospect. We actually have not even been out in the field for two days already, and today will probably be only a very brief excursion. We will be visiting a single cave, Ana Heva (AKA Ana Vaiteka, but that is another story, and one guaranteed to confuse if I try to explain it here without all the background of my field reports). While there, I will quickly pull a set of pin-flags I left in place to mark a datum and measurement baselines for an underground cistern that I was mapping, take some fresh photographs of the large underground switchback ramp inside the big room below the main entrance, and carry an aluminum folding ladder into the cave so that Jut can look behind a suspicious rock that he spotted perched on a ledge high up the wall. Then out.

After that, it's just a question of finishing up field reports and packing. We leave on 19.July, and that for me will begin another two days of long flights punctuated by mad dashes through various airports until—I hope—I arrive safely back in Durango, Colorado with all my luggage (as distinct from my “baggage”, some of which I hope I have shed while I have been here, along with a few extra pounds I was carrying) to find my family waiting for me. And then maybe over to Serious Texas BBQ for dinner! And then back home to a hot shower and my own bed.

But that's not yet. I still have a few days left to enjoy here on Rapa Nui to make the most of. Today is the big day when one family feeds the whole island in honor of the feast day of a Catholic saint, whose name I will try to confirm later and post here before I leave, perhaps accompanied by a photo or two. Tomorrow night is Jut's talk at MAPSE (Museo Antropologico Padre Sebastian Englert). I went by the museum yesterday to visit with Sr. Francisco Torres, the director. He was very supportive of my research on Rongorongo when I was here in 2002, and I had been wanting to touch base with him and pay my respects since I arrived here, but the first day I went to the museum, he was out, and since then, I have not had a chance. While I was there, I saw a handpainted necktie in the gift shop that I am sorely tempted to buy. I have two neckties I bought there last time I was here—one with honu (sea turtles) and one with tangata manu  (birdmen). They are both really cool, although the material is too thin and the tail ends of the ties are unpainted and left white. Perhaps I will focus in my mind on these flaws and not on how perfect the tie would look with the black suit and red shirt combo I am contemplating for my back-to-school wardrobe upgrade.

On the way over to the museum--which is a rather long but very pleasant walk through the oceanfront park with all the restored moai and ahu and the beautiful stone canoe ramp at Ahu Tahai, which must have been the pride of that community some 200 years ago—I tried to snap a few more shots of the surfers in the bay. I was trying to get them with the supply ship in the background. That's the ship that we have been waiting for since we arrived, as the lack of ethyl alcohol for our insect specimens threatened at one point to shut down our primary research focus, at least until Sergio remembered that he had a 5 liter jug stashed somewhere. When it actually did arrive, we heard that it was  not actually the supply ship but instead just the car ship, bringing more vehicles to an island that already has way more vehicles than it needs. I wonder when the bicycle ship is coming...?

A couple days ago, I was trying to get some photos of the surfers with the French warship in the background. That one was anchored  in the harbor for several days as well. I tried a couple times but couldn't get the angle right, and then one afternoon, it was just gone, leaving the car boat alone. Now the carboat is gone, having quietly slipped away in the afternoon as well, so the bay is shipless again, and likely to remain so until after we depart.

I've been trying to get some good surfer photos for my daughter Adrianna, who has wanted to attend our president's mother's alma mater, the University of Hawai'i, study marine biology, and surf...ever since she met my friend Victoria Wichman and her husband Randy a couple years back when they came over to the mainland from their home on Kaua'i. I originally met Victoria when I was here in 2002 with the UH Archaeological Field School under Dr. Terry Hunt. We worked together for several days photographing archaeological features in the Akahanga Quad and taking their coordinates, and we became friends in the process. Since then we have stayed in touch on and off, and I see her sometimes at the SAA meetings. When Victoria and Randy came to visit, we took them out to Chaco and my daughters totally bonded with them.

Terry and the UH folks arrived here on July 4, along with Carl Lipo and his own crew from Cal State Long Beach. Carl was not part of the field school here until the year after I came, but I know him from his work and from the SAA. A nice surprise for me was that they were joined by John Dudgeon and Amy Commendador of Idaho State University. John and Amy were the two UH grad students who ran the field school in 2002. They were back in 2003, but this is the first year they have been back since then, so they have been away almost as long as me.

Soon it will be time to say goodbye to my friends, some new, some renewed, and hope to see them all again in less than seven years, which is how long it took me to return to the island a second time. That's the way of these expeditions and field schools and such.  You leave your family for weeks at a time, which is heartwrenching when you have young children like mine, board your first flight practically in tears thinking of your children's faces (meanwhile, they are probably thinking of I, Carly or some such nonsense and have totally forgotten you), and after however many days arrive at your next destination, grubby and dazed with travel. You meet your new comrades, none of whom will be much like you imagined—usually they are far cooler and more interesting than you imagined—get accustomed to your new surroundings and start falling into your new routine. The new and exciting surroundings and people occupy your mind and you throw yourself into the work, dealing with surprises, setbacks, delays, new opportunities, and startling revelations as they arrive. You make unanticipated discoveries that radically alter your thinking. You discover new ideas and information that you did not even suspect existed. And at some point, you quietly turn a corner in your mind and you know it is time to begin turning your thoughts back to family and home, and you start preparing for return and re-entry to your regular life. And, of course, your regular job. You say your sad airport farewells to all your new friends, and then the gravity of your distant loved ones and all things familiar becomes the force that  pulls you forward...

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

the lone and level sea

I dedicated this poem to Liz Ruther because I am so grateful to her for letting me use her laptop so much. I am VERY, VERY grateful. I am only sorry it is not a better poem. Thank you Liz!

the lone and level sea
For Liz Ruther


this is the eighth land
the last safe place
the world is quiet here (except
in the morning when the roosters all crow
or when the discos open on Saturday nights
this is Hau Maka’s vision
Hotu Matua’s dream
a land where the people
would not die many
when the big waves came
and they do come—
tossing 10-ton ancestors
across the craps table where old
Tongariki village stood
Ure a Vai a Nuhe’s canted throw
good for google-eyed tourists and
the Chilean chainsaw archaeologist
cracked eyeless vessels
not much use for Tupahotu ancestors
cheap concrete leaves their spirits mute
yet when the waves recede
young men stroll down Atamu Tekena
strumming ukes and guitars
and an ad hoc combo jams behind the
Aloha Cafe
not all waves are water though
and seven years show their wake
more coral trees
more cars more restaurants
more bars
everywhere more color
every few doors construction
hotel additions renovations new
storefronts hammers and power drills
young men boisterous at work
too loud stereos Topatangi Sinatra Chilean rap
young vahine laugh
outside on the stairs
yet these are only islands
in the quiet
the winds mutes them
everything here
belongs to the wind


the basic equations are simple here—
sea, sky, land
scissors, paper, rock...
te vai te rangi te henua
te henua cuts te vai
te vai wraps te rangi
te rangi
te henua


across the shallow lake
in the south branch of Ana te Pahu:
near the end of the cave
an avocado tree stands
on a crumbling stone platform
stretching up through a skylight
silver-white sun pours around it
bathing its crown


There are no avocados on the tree
that would be too much to ask

Eight haiku from Hanga Roa Village, Rapa Nui 13vii2009

Big thanks to Christina Colpitts for challenging me to write these. I hope maybe she will post her eight here or elsewhere as well. We had a fun haiku writing session, and I wrote more than I have in 3-4 years...

winter squall last night--
sky clear this morning but for
one frigate bird

two ships in the bay--
neither is carrying
fresh avocados

locals bundle up
against the austral winter--
the surfers don't mind

craving bananas--
every bunch on the trees here
is green, green, green

the fruit tree we saw
in a sinkhole: Hai'a--
it makes good ice cream

bright yellow guavas
we surveyed this cave Monday--
how did we miss them?

did someone fix
that loose sheet of tin?
now I can't sleep right...

the best sunset yet--
what a view from the shore road!
but I promised bread...

Saturday, July 11, 2009

More Blogs from the Eighth World

So much to tell you all, and now most of it will probably have to remain unsaid...my plan had been to make this blog my daily journal, and to keep my friends and family updated on a regular basis while I am so far away, but the death of my laptop combined with the intensity of our work schedule and the difficulty of Internet access has kept me from either writing much or posting anything. We are actually off today, so perhaps I will at last make it to one of the WiFi places in town and wait to pay for my 15 minutes on one of the slow-ass desktop machines at some exorbitant rate...

When I was here in ’02, there was one little Internet place on the sea road down the street from the hotel. It’s long gone now, but back then it had a single computer and a freezer with ice cream bars that had interesting names like “Eccentric”, “Crazy” and “Stereo”. I used to go down there with my roommate Mike Lu and take turns on the computer. The girl who ran the place was nice, and I gave her an Emmylou Harris CD before I left. Emmylou Harris is huge here, though not so big as Kenny Rogers or the Kelly Family (a multinational European country group that is apparently huge elsewhere in the world but unknown in the US). The night we went to see Topatangi (my favorite Rapanui band), Marc Kelly brought this girl up to say Hi, and it was the girl from the Internet place. She remembered me after all this time, and she said she still had the Emmylou Harris CD. I wonder if Gram Parsons ever caught on here...I left a few of his CD’s here last time, hoping to spread the gospel of the Grievous Angel.

The most popular song throughout the South Pacific, BTW, is “Queen of Hearts” by Juice Newton. I have heard versions in at least three different Polynesian and Micronesian languages. I’ll bet it’s big in Chile, too...go figure.

I’ll write a little more about Rapanui music shortly, but back to my original topic first, which was how much of my experience here has gone unwritten and will probably stay that way forever. But here are 10 things that have happened:

1. My laptop crapped out. Sergio asked a friend of his who does computer repair to check it out for me. He said: A. The problem is the monitor, not a virus; B. It CAN be fixed; and C. It can NOT be fixed here on the island.

2. I got to do an archaeological survey of the entirety of Ana te Pahu, one of my favorite caves in the world, and I recognized some complex and amazing features used for water-collection and agriculture. This helped me to spot related features in other caves later. “Cave agriculture”. Google that, amigos y amigos, and see what comes up. Bupkis, I bet.

3. I saw Topatangi live. Their first two CD’s, which I bought here in ’02, are among my favorite recordings ever. I got their new CD, too.

4. I got to see Matato’a live. Matato’a is the great Rapanui band who had a world music hit back around ’01 with “Tama’i”, which really is a fantastic song. Excellent video, too, with traditional gannets.

5. I got dragged up on stage to dance with the Matato’a dancers. Dragged probably isn’t the right word. When the pretty Polynesian gal came down the aisle and reached out her hand to me, I said what the hell and went up there and shook my moneymaker for all I was worth. I probably looked like Elayne on Seinfeld, but I was not going to pretend I was shy. After all, I probably had more clothes on than all nine male and female dancers combined. The guys, particularly. I joked with Jut that I was going to start a collection to get those poor bastards a Brazilian...

6. I am getting to see Terry Hunt, John Dudgeon, and Amy Commendador-Dudgeon again. They were the lead faculty of the UH Archaeological Field School when I was here in ’02, and I learned a lot from them. I see them most every year at the Society for American Archaeology meeting, but it is great to see them here on the island again and be able to speak with them at greater length about archaeology, evolutionary archaeology, Dunnell, Rapa Nui, etc.

7. Got two new fishhook pendants, one made from makoi (thespesia populnea) and one from shell. I am very happy with them. Now I have three from Rapa Nui. I need to go back to Hawai’i and get one made of bone, and finally to go to Te Aotearoa and get a jade one.

8. Making great new friends. I love making new friends.

9. I grew back my beard for the first time since ’03. The middle part anyway.

10. My caving gear really stinks, even after being laundered. That’s a good thing!

So that catches you up a little, if anyone is still reading. In case I don’t manage to post again, I am due back in the States on 20.July.

Braddah Scottie is alive and well on caving on Rapa Nui...but his laptop is dead...

I suppose some of you may be wondering what has happened since my last post from the airport in Santiago. It’s already old news to me, so I won’t go into details, but suffice it to say that I met up with the team around the time of my last post, boarded, flew safely here on luxurious LANChile (seriously—much nicer than any US airlines), arrived at Mataveri Airport, and have been on the sub-tropical, sub-paradise island of Rapa Nui ever since, and after some initial delays (permit problems that were eventually resolved greatly in the team’s favor, a ceremony to ask the Aku-Aku spirits for permission to enter the caves—and which was delayed for an extra day due to a local family emergency, training, laborious Spanish translation, and what-not-all), we did hit the ground and got UNDERground, and I have been doing the kind of underground archaeology that I love so well in some of my favorite caves in one of the places I love most on Earth pretty much ever since.

Our expedition is more than half over now, and I have barely begun to write up my finding and reports on the caves we have visited so far. One of them is Ana te Pahu, which is where I truly fell in love with caving on my first day here almost exactly seven years ago. Te Pahu is the Rapanui equivalent of a tourist cave—it has sort of a trail partway through, and a stone stairway down into the collapse pit at the entrance. Most of the tourists don’t go beyond the first skylight in the north section, and since the south section has a shallow artificial lake, they rarely go very far into that part at all. In addition to the ancient lake and dam to which I already referred, it also has elaborate fortifications, stone sleeping platforms, a second artificial lake in the far north which is dry now—a giant fig tree has sent its roots many meters into the cave and apparently sucked out all the water, and most of all, MASSIVE agricultural features. That’s right: cave AGRICULTURE (Jim Brady, are you out there?). I have a pretty extensive knowledge of the literature related to cave archaeology worldwide, and I cannot recall having seen the phrase “cave agriculture” anywhere before, unless it was in reference to mushroom farms in caves and tunnels in Minnesota, or maybe a pot farm that got raided a few years back in Tennessee...

And yeah, there are still a few skulls, but I will not post photos of those out of respect to the dead whose spirits may still linger in some of these caves...

Anyway, this will be quick, just to let everyone know I am alive and OK and having more fun than you. I am working on a laptop that fellow expedition member Liz Ruther was kind enough to loan me. When I get a chance, I will try to get to one of the Internet places and post this. First I need to go the bank and get some more Chilean pesos, since I spent the last of my pesos at the Mercado yesterday buying some cool necklaces for my daughters. I think they will especially like the shark-teeth necklaces. Internet access here is neither cheap nor easy—nor fast—and I actually have not been online yet since I arrived. After I had been here four or five days, I had a nice big blog post typed up for you all, with a photo or two even, and that night I hiked over to one of the cyber-cafes with Talina Konotchick (who has already flown home). Talina went inside to wait for one of the handful of desktop machines, and I fired up my laptop at a table outside. The computer came on, showed the first Windows screen...and then slowly faded to gray. I tried again and again, pulled the battery, brought it back to the hotel and tried it on electricity. Nothing. Or the same thing: slow fade to washed out colors. Jut said it actually looked kind of pretty. I said it would be goddamn beautiful on his laptop maybe, but not on mine.

So that’s a little part of the story for now...I will try to post this tonight, and maybe to get online at least once more before I leave on 19.July. I dread checking any of my email accounts right now, but if you would like a postcard, send me your mailing address at , and let’s say there’s a 30% chance you might get lucky.

That’s all for now—and maybe until I get home. Time to begin getting my gear ready for today’s fieldwork...

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Braddah Scottie in: Perdido en Traducion

“This was an underestimate.”
--Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat

The flight from Dallas to Santiago, over nine hours long, was pretty smooth. But the smoothness pretty much ended as soon as I stepped off the plane, and the unsmooth moments began…

The plan was to get off the plane and do three things:

Exchange currency
Obtain a Chilean cellphone from Entel
Rendezvous with the rest of the team at the airport Starbuck’s

1-2-3. Bam. No problema…

Not for Braddah Scottie, not once I got on a good roll—a downhill roll pretty much.

Now before I commence with the intense and grueling narrative of my tragicomic mishaps during my first two hours on the South American continent, I should explain that during the course of events that I am about to describe, although I suffer, I do not die; although I experience a distressing encounter with the Chilean authorities, I am not taken to a windowless room and beaten violently with rubber truncheons by two female Chilean military officers clad in leather and spandex; although large sums of money change hands, I do not wind up as the unintended owner of a taxi and fruit drink stand in either Santiago or Valparaiso. I do, however, suffer a minor personal injury, which I will explain in more detail later. I want to outline all this now because the suspense of the narrative that follows may be too intense for some of the more sensitive readers among you to bear, and I should not want said readers to be overcome with such emotion that they might succumb to a fainting spell, and fall from their favorite reading chairs, perhaps striking their heads and doing themselves injury.

I just wanted to take this precaution because I CARE, dear readers.

OK. Buckle your seatbelts, remove Babelfish; activate Infinite Improbability Drive, here we go…

Step 1: Disembark plane, reencounter Morris, the interesting Chilean-born Palestinian American Spanish teacher with an undergraduate degree in anthropology and archaeology whom I met in the terminal in Dallas before our flight while I was finishing my previous blog post. Join the long queue at “Immigration” (The signs were of course in Spanish, but I will translate most of the Spanish-language terms here, mainly because I can’t be sure I will remember the correct Spanish spellings, and I do strive for accuracy). Join with Morris in celebrating our relative good fortune that we joined the queue before the large and annoying group of student musicians who occupied most of the same section of the plane on which we just spent at least 10 hours, at no point during which time did said student musicians seem to sleep or even sit down, not even during the hours of 2:00-6:00 a.m., which seemed to be the most active time for these strange, large-eyed primates. Now said student musicians are all standing in a loose mass in a different queue to our left. It is of course, this other queue that I should have joined in the first place, but I don’t find this out until I finally reach the end of my current cue and realize, during the course of a discussion that quickly reveals the true limits of my conversational Spanish--which in fact consists mainly of repeating the phrases “poquito” and “no comprende” a great deal—that just because my passport does have a previous Chilean stamp from my 2002 visit to Rapa Nui, it does not mean that I will not have to pay the $131.00 entry fee. As we discuss this matter, my vague memories of this issue from my 2002 trip condense into slightly less vague memories of being told that we would not have to pay the entry fee after all, since we were entering Rapa Nui via Tahiti and not stepping foot on the Chilean mainland.

Step 2: Join the other queue, now behind ALL the annoying students with their instruments. Have enjoyable conversations with the two other guys at the end of the line, and make one possible professional connection which may benefit the students and the communities that I serve on the Reservation, but I won’t go into that here. Reach the end, pay my $131.00 fee, advance to customs*, prepare to go to jail…

Step 3: Oh, “plant and animal products” includes dried meat? Maybe I should have read the [extremely] fine print despite my new contacts, my old age, the dark plane, and the loud kids. Definitely I should have. Yeah, well come to think of it, down at the bottom of my cave pack there is a few ounces of turkey jerky left in the bag that I jammed a bunch of mini-Cliff bars into after my last caving trip. I reveal all this in the interest of full disclosure and honesty. So much for karmic dividends, which had continued into the DFW/Santiago flight, where I had a two-seat window & aisle seat block to myself, thank God. But the Rota Fortuna must spin again, and no one can beat the percentages. The house always wins, and fools are escorted into an office with some nice but stern Chilean ladies who are empowered to fine me up to $4,500.00.

After some garbled explanations, a couple “poquito’s” a few more “no comprendes’”, and a little Latin for good luck (mea culpa). I am told that the minimum fine is $200.00-something.

But I get off with NO FINE AT ALL, because I am such a NICE GUY. I just have to sign some papers and receive some rather stern warnings about “otra vez”, which believe me, there ain’t going to be. At this point I see that the nice Chilean lady is actually a DIVINE ANGEL, and I grasp her right hand in both of mine, and repeat “Muchas gracias” several times, on the point of tears.

Step 2.2: I didn’t even mention my panic at the currency exchange window when I thought that “cambio” meant “charge” not “exchange” and I thought that they were taking a 25% cut of my funds, which would have left me without even enough to pay for the hotel. We got that worked out eventually.

Now I’m at Starbucks in the Santiago airport, waiting for the rest of the team.

*It was while one of the Customs agents was helping me lift my rolling toolbox on the belt for the X-ray that he jammed the handle down into my finger. But I pulled it away quickly, and I can’t feel anything in it now. I mean, any pain type of thing. I can feel normal things. Which is not to say I am going around trying to feel things with my left index finger, normal or abnormal…

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

3 down, 2 to go

I’m in the Dallas/Ft. Worth airport now, relaxing before my longest flight yet—one that will take me through the night, over the equator, and into a new day, landing sometime after 7:00 a.m. in Santiago, Chile, where I will rendezvous with expedition leader J. Judson Wynne and the rest of the team in the airport. From there, we will fly on together to Rapa Nui, landing at the mile-long U.S. built airstrip at Mataveri, in the shadow of the Rano Raraku volcanic crater and the ceremonial village of Orongo on the western corner of the island.

When I got here, I blew $30.00 on an IPod cable. I mentioned in my last post that I had forgotten to bring mine. I noticed when I was trying to download the photo of the birthday cake that my daughter Tyra baked me back in April for my 46th. It was supposed to be my desktop background, but somehow it wasn’t showing up. I will include it here. The pictures on the cake are beetles, which I have been collecting since last year for an entomologist/caver in Ohio.

Almost time to board for Santiago. All these travel posts probably aren’t very exciting, but it is a good way to occupy my mind and not brood so much on missing my family. Stay tuned for the good stuff.

STILL TO COME: Giant statues! Extinct Volcanoes! Ancient Ruins! Obsidian Spearpoints! Polynesian Culture! And of course…Caves of Mystery!

Braddah Scottie don't tweet...

This will be a short update. And those of you who know me will know I don't usually do brief. Not boxers either for that matter, but I won't delve into that conundrum here. For those who want TMI, the answer can be found in one of my musical playlists on facebook:


and thus I add a little social filtering while at the same time belaboring the point into ridiculousness. A typical Nicolay move...

Here's the important part: I'm in LAX. My baggage redistribution strategy was a success:

Rolling toolbox: 51.5 lbs.
REI bag: 47.5 lbs.

= no overweight baggage fees.

Of course, my two carry-ons literally weigh more than my checked bags now...

I don't really understand how the REI bag came out that much lighter. Unless either my duster weighs more than 5 lbs., or US Airways' scale at the Durango, CO airport is rigged.

Next stop: Dallas/Ft. Worth. Is the airport in Dallas, or Ft. Worth? I've been in it before, but never stepped outside it to find out where I was. It was only ever a stopover, so I was always focused just on moving on, no offense to the great state of Texas, which has some great caves and some great cavers. And some great cave archaeologists. Although to be sure, most of my favorite Texans are in Austin. Keep Austin Weird!

Not that brief really, after all...which is why-y-y-y Brother Scottie don't tweet...

Sittin’ in the Sheraton Gateway…

The skies are cloudy in Los Angeles this morning and it looks like it might even rain…which I take as a sign that I should move ahead with my plan to try to manipulate 15 lbs. of baggage in such a way as to avoid getting hit with another overweight baggage fee. The key to that plan is wearing my duster, which is currently packed in my large wheeled REI bag. The downside to that is sweating more, but my REI pack came in at 51.5 pounds and didn’t get fined, so if I can get a few pounds out of it, I can move a few back in. My rolling toolbox was 65 lbs. I need to move as close to 15 lbs. as I can get into my carry-ons and my REI bag, without sending the REI bag over…or destroying anything. My backpack has already suffered one zipper failure, and my REI bag lost a compression strap somewhere between Durango and LA—ripped right off somewhere in the baggage handling machinery. Then there is my archaeology kit, the custom made PVC folding kit that slips into the back of my cave pack. I could put that into my cave pack with my climbing gear-but if I did I would have to take out all the pointy stuff--the trowels and the pick—and leave them loose in the toolbox, where they might puncture stuff. I’m not sure why I brought those items anyway, since I won’t be doing any excavating. But I would feel naked in the field without them though. What’s a dirt archaeologist without a Marshalltown trowel? I spend most of my time being a library archaeologist, now that I am actually going to get dirty (more like muddy), I want to do it all the way.

OK, done. Wearing duster. Boots and binders relocated. Archaeo kit remains in toolbox. Carry-ons now weigh more than checked bags, and l look like the 21st Century caving angel of the apocalypse, wandered in from the desert with my long, dark, desert-worn overcoat, my caving pack and helmet over my shoulder, and my laptop case on my back.

And there’s something I did forget—the cable to connect my IPod to my laptop…

All this travel minutiae is of course an excellent diversion from brooding over how badly I miss my family. I had forgotten how bad it is to separate from them this long. As the clock ticked down on my departure, MY separation anxiety got worse and worse. As for the girls, they are probably alright. Actually, I really hope they are, even though I am like the dad in this dialogue on McSweeney’s:


This was new on Monday, and I printed it out and gave it Age to read before I left for the airport.

When I went to Rapa Nui for the first time in 2002, with the University of Hawai’i Archaeological Field School, I was saying goodbye to my family outside the single gate in the Farmington Airport. All the other passengers had already gone into the little gate room, although it’s just right there past the checkpoint, so they could still see me hugging my daughters and getting ready to cry or something like a huge wuss. Just then, a nervous security guard started shouting, “We’ve got a bag that’s buzzing! We’ve got a bag that’s buzzing! The name on it is Mick-o-lang!”
I was dragged into security without being able to even finish my goodbyes, apparently suspected for the smuggling of killer bees. This was 2002, remember. The National Guard were still assigned to some airports.

I was made to remove everything that could be decently removed in front of the other passengers, and they began to search my checked bag. A small screwdriver drew some attention, and I had to remind the zealot that it was in my checked bag. He consulted with his supervisor. Then he reached into the little duffel inside the checked bag into which I had packed all the odds and ends. Triumphantly, he held up a bulky object and shouted, “Ohmigod, what’s this!”

What is was, was a conglomeration of battery chargers and foreign voltage adapters and such that I had duct-taped into a single mass for some idiotic reason. With the batteries on the outside. Even to me, it looked like a bomb.

In my super-calm hostage negotiator voice, I explained that what it was, and that it was all “from Radio Shack”. In retrospect, I guess you can probably make a pretty good bomb with stuff from Radio Shack.

Eventually it turned out that the buzzing was coming from my beard trimmer, in which I had foolishly left the batteries. I don’t do that anymore. Ironically, I had brought it because someone had told me that my beard made me look “like a terrorist”, and I wanted to be able to shave it off again after I let it regrow on Rapa Nui, which I did. I had already shaved it off for the outward journey.

Of course, all that held up the flight almost half an hour, and the other passengers just glared at me throughout the flight. Fortunately, it was only to Phoenix…

Monday, June 22, 2009

In Transit: Shiprock to Rapa Nui

I’m on my second of the five flights that over two days will bring me back at last to Rapa Nui, and I am hoping that my luck on this one is an omen that will set the tone for the rest of my trip: I have an entire three-seat half row to myself. 12 D-E-F: mine, all mine.

When you board a plane and find you are the first one in your seat block, your reaction is likely to depend on your seat assignment. If yours is the window seat, it’s not really a problem. In fact, you are probably going to be happy that you don’t have to climb over your new seatmates, bumping knees in the old Bugs Bunny, “’Scuse me, pardon me…” dance. Assuming of course that frottage is not your thing, dear reader (and if it is, please refrain from applying the “dear” and consider my address to you as simply “reader”)…

If your seat is the middle, you know that you are going to have to get up for at least one person, and immediately you begin hoping that the destined occupant of the window seat will at least have the good sense to show up before the aisle. And you start contemplating mathematical formulae that involve the potential girth of your immanent left and right hand seatmates, times the length of the flight, and raised to the power of the number of times each of you will have to use the restroom during the flight.

If yours is the aisle, then you sit down but don’t buckle your seatbelt. You size up every passenger struggling and sweating down the aisle towards you, and if they don’t look thin, attractive and narcoleptic, you sigh inwardly with relief as each in his or her turn takes a seat before your row or passes without a glance in your direction.

My original seat was D, the aisle. When I can choose my seats, I choose an aisle seat. I understand that this is somewhat atypical, but I like the aisle. In the aisle, you can be the courteous one, rather than the rude one. You get up for everyone else, you assist in the transfer of your seatmates’ empty plastic cups to the flight attendant, you step back into the aisle at the end of the flight to let them exit first. When I was in high school, I read the novel in which Kurt Vonnegut first used the phrase, “Kindness may fail, but courtesy will prevail.” According to Vonnegut, a young reader like myself (like myself, but more precocious to such a degree as to cause me envy), wrote to him with that phrase, explaining that he (the reader) felt it encapsulated the theme of Vonnegut’s work thus far. Good stuff. I remember all that clearly, but not the title of the book, or much else about it except that I think it was the one that had something to do with bag ladies and peanut butter. It was the first Vonnegut that I had read, and it was a little off-putting for the guy to start off by writing that a young reader had just divined the essence of his work, thereby essentially rendering the book in hand and all future efforts superfluous. I am, to be sure, rather fond of some of Vonnegut’s work,particularly Cat’s Cradle, “Harrison Bergeron”, and the author’s appearance in the Rodney Dangerfield film Back to School. My point, however, was not about the merits of Kurt Vonnegut, but about courtesy. I enjoy extending it, and that is part of why I take the aisle seat when I can. And this time my good karma paid dividends.

To be sure, I also choose a seat in the wing section when I have the option, since this of course is statistically the part of the plane where your chances are best of surviving any kind of event in which the term “survivor” might actually come into play. I heard this long ago, and my faith in this truism has been confirmed over the last few seasons of LOST. Look at the Tailies: almost totally decimated; even my favorite character, Mr. Eko, who looked tough enough to survive a direct hit from an RPG.

So now I am sitting comfortably somewhere between Phoenix and LA, in 12-E, the middle seat, typing on my laptop with my plastic cup of tomato juice on the tray table of the seat to my left, which is in the “down” position. This is the life…

(composed on US Airways #35)