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…

1 comment:

  1. What is the waterspout? Nice writing as always. Makes you feel like you're almost there. :)