Tuesday, July 28, 2009
[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
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
“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
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
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
not all waves are water though
and seven years show their wake
more coral trees
more cars more restaurants
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
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
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
sky clear this morning but for
one frigate bird
two ships in the bay--
neither is carrying
locals bundle up
against the austral winter--
the surfers don't mind
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
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.
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
That’s all for now—and maybe until I get home. Time to begin getting my gear ready for today’s fieldwork...