Iguazu, Argentina The Bellybutton of the World

Flights to Easter Island are really expensive.

When people plan trips to South America, they often throw it in there. Giant stone heads in the middle of the ocean – who wouldn’t want to check that out? Then they find out the price, and…hmm, maybe next time.

Yes, I’ve got a budget I’m working within. But I’ve also got an opportunity to visit the places I never thought I’d get to see. In fact, I’ve sort of got a mandate. I talked to Melissa about it and we found a way to make it work; when we reached Santiago, we checked into the Bellavista hostel, loafed around for a couple hours, then I left her to explore the city by herself while I nicked off for a couple days to go dance with the Moai.

She wasn’t particularly fussed about it anyway, and we figured by around that point in the trip, we’d both be able to use some time off.

The moment I hopped in the cab to the airport, I became suddenly bombarded with worry. Am I going to make the flight? Is it an e-ticket or did I leave the paper ticket back in the room? Where did I put my passport? Will they have weight restrictions on luggage? What if the weather’s bad?

I am not, in general, a worrier. I mostly just count on things to work out and fix problems as they arise. It eventually dawned on me that these questions running through my head are the ones I routinely, unconsciously, dump on Melissa – or whomever I happen to be traveling with. By not concerning myself with what can go wrong, I passively obligate those around me to take on the burden.

…okay, behavior identified. Fixing it? That’s gonna take some work. I’m not exactly eager to change in that area – and there are benefits to not worrying. For one thing, I get to keep a full head of hair.

Weird art at the Santiago airport.

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The flight took me by surprise. I expected a 737 with plenty of empty seats. I boarded a packed 767 that flies the route daily, sometimes twice a day.

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The big screen showed our plane’s progress over a satellite image of the region. As we approached our destination, the map zoomed in closer and the screen became an unblemished sheet of blue with only a single, tiny speck, 2200 miles off the coast of Chile. Though the means of determination are nebulous and debatable, Easter Island is often called the most isolated island in the world.

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The in-flight movie was Sky High. Being an unreformed superhero nerd, I must confess to having found it enjoyable.

At each place I go, there seems to be one nationality in particular that is attracted more than any other. Galapagos tourists were mostly American. In Bolivia, it was Argentinians. Germans are crazy for Peru. For whatever reason, Easter Island seems to have been claimed by the French.

I issued no formal surveys. Just going off the folks I encountered.

A particular Frenchman sitting adjacent on the plane annoyed the crap out of me. It is my strong conviction that when a passenger has neither a window nor an aisle seat, as was my unfortunate lot, they are entitled to at least one, if not both armrests. It was the opinion of the Frenchman, clearly, that regardless of where he was sitting, he should get whatever he wants – period.

The armrest to my left was a lost cause. I wasn’t competing with another mere arm, but with rolls of boisterous fat that couldn’t possibly be squeezed anywhere else. The Spanish lady in possession of the fat seemed nice enough, but there wasn’t much she could do.

The right armrest, however, was fair game. The Frenchman and I spent most of the flight literally pushing each other’s elbows back and forth across the disputed territory. He pretended to be asleep through this, as if it were some somnambulant reflex. For my part, I felt no need to disguise my intentions, having what I felt to be the moral high ground.

The plane landed close to midnight. The passengers raced off, as they always do, so they could be the first ones to start waiting for their luggage. Once bored with that, they glommed around the phony stone head next to baggage claim to have their pictures taken, as if it was the only one they were likely to see on their visit.

One of the really nice things about giant stone heads: they’re not going anywhere.

A group of Rapa Nui men dressed in loincloths with ceremonial body paint performed a traditional dance to welcome us.

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What I found more interesting was the dancer with the night off, standing to the side with his wife and baby to cheer his friends on.

It took me a while to put my finger on what interested me about that. There was something perceptually different to similar performances I’d seen elsewhere. I finally realized: they aren’t phoning it in. They’re actually enjoying themselves. The guy could’ve been sitting at home doing nothing, but he chose to be there.

Standing next to me in the audience was a conspicuously solo traveler, a decade or two junior to almost everyone else on the plane.

After all the other passengers got their bags and filtered into their buses for their packaged rides to their packaged resorts, I made arrangements with a woman touting rooms at a small guest house for $16 a night. She put me in her car, where I found myself sitting next to the same conspicuous fellow. His name is Dom.

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Dom is from Nottingham, England – as in ‘The Sheriff of __________’. There’s a bronze statue in his town of Mr. Robs-from-the-Rich himself. I asked Dom if there was an actual person who served as the basis for the legend. He had no idea, and was clearly done with the subject.

Dom recently quit his thrilling job at a database company that tracked credit card debt and advised on loan approvals. He took his savings and spent it on a year-long trip around the world, with no idea what he was going to do when he returned home, but a sneaking suspicion that it had to be better than what he was doing before he left.< /p>

We arrived on the island with a similarly whimsical approach to our presence there and a similar degree of obliviousness as to how we were going to go about seeing the place. The main difference was that he had more than a week to explore, while I had just over a day. We decided to pool our efforts for the duration of my stay.

Before going to bed, we went into Hanga Roa, the one and only town on the island, to share a drink and both of us determine whether the other was a homicidal maniac — or an unbearable turd. Also on the agenda was the awkward business of revealing my background as an internet dancing sensation and recruiting him to be my impromptu cinematographer.

I eased into the subject and it went smoothly. His response was along the lines of, “you are the luckiest bastard I’ve ever met. Of course I will hold your damn camera.”

The following morning, the first item on the to-do list was acquiring a car. Easter Island is pretty big – way too big to walk, and the roads don’t make cycling a very tempting prospect. I didn’t want to screw around with my one day there, so I shelled out more than my share and got us a nice 4WD to tool around in.

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Driving on Easter Island is loads of fun. It’s basically one big, scenic, off-road racetrack. The only obstacle to watch out for is the very occasional tourist van plodding along.

Our first stop was the massive volcanic crater, Ranu Kau. It has nothing to do with giant stone heads, but it takes up an amazingly large chunk of the island and is worth a visit.

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Here’s one of the many dealers of stone head knick-knacks. They’re hand-carved from the same pumis rock as the big versions, mined from the island’s own supply. I thought that was kinda nifty. It’s slightly more authentic than your run-of-the-mill souvenir, ya know?

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Our next stop was the first of many large stone mounds, called Ahu, upon which the Moai once stood.

…I will now insert Chapter 1 of my spotty, hazily-informed, and probably inaccurate history of the Rapa Nui people.

So they land on this island, sometime, I-don’t-know-when, coming from I-don’t-know-where. They lived for a time in relative harmony, their population fracturing not into tribes, but something called kin groups spread all throughout the island.

At some point, the Rapa Nui got it into their soft, fleshy, real heads to march into the volcanic crater called Ranu Raraku and carve giant, stone, fake heads to represent, most likely, their fallen ancestors. They then hauled these colossal lawn ornaments to the distant shores of the island, employing ropes, pulleys, rolling logs, and probably loads of other methods that you’d pretty much have to be stuck on an island all your life to dream up. The purpose of the Moai, it is thought, was so the ancestors could watch over their kin groups.

Things went on like that for a while, and it would be an interesting enough story if it ended there. But it didn’t. Something weird happened next. More later.

So we get to this Ahu, but where’s the Moai?…that is, coincidentally, the punch line to a very funny Yiddish joke.

Upon thorough investigation, we spotted what appeared to be eyes and a nose on the underside of a particularly large boulder.

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It had been knocked over. That’s odd, we thought. And then we saw the same thing over and over and over.

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It was an epidemic. Why, you ask? Maybe we’ll find out in Chapter 2…

One day, the Rapa Nui started running out of everything. The trees had pretty much all been chopped down, probably in the service of moving Moai, so they couldn’t make any more boats to fish with. By that point, the population had swelled to over 15,000. There wasn’t anywhere near enough land to feed everyone through agriculture alone, so things started getting a little tense.

Archaeological records show the sudden appearance of carved weapons all over the island, sometime in the 19th century. Loads of fractured skulls have also been found and dated to around the same time. Kin groups that had peaceably coexisted suddenly started killing each other off. And to add insult to injury, they began tipping each other’s Moai over too.

When Captain Cook landed on his way to Australia, it was shortly before things got completely out of hand. He observed that a few of the heads had been knocked on their sides. Later accounts listed fewer and fewer upright, until finally, not a Moai was standing.

This might be an appropriate place to mention how Easter Island got its name. Ready? It was discovered on Easter Sunday. No kidding. Some guy said, "Hey, look at all those stone heads. I’ve never seen anything like that in all the world. I wonder what we should call this place…I know! Today’s Easter Sunday. Let’s call it Easter Island!"

The Spanish gave it the more appropriate name of Isla de Pasqua. Curiously, the Rapa Nui didn’t call it Rapa Nui. They didn’t even call themselves Rapa Nui. The people from some other island gave them that name. They called their home Te Pito o Te Henua, or "The Bellybutton of the World."

Anyway, at some point in the modern era, after European contact but before we’d really had an opportunity to screw things up, the Rapa Nui culture self-destructed.

And how, you ask, did all this turmoil affect the production of giant stone heads? Good question. That’s actually the most profoundly interesting detail. See, when everything started crumbling, they didn’t decide that stone head production was a frivolous, unnecessary, resource-draining luxury. Nope. It became everything.

Dom and I circled the island until we came to Ranu Raraku – which is very hard to say without sounding like Scooby-Doo.

Ranu Raraku was the workshop where all the kin groups would go to work on new Moai. It was only after completion that they were hauled across the island to their Ahu.

There are more unfinished heads in Ranu Raraku today than there are all over the rest of the island. They’re also some of the most striking and stylistically advanced pieces.

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This is the apex of Moai fever. This is where most of the photos people see of Easter Island are taken. Time for Chapter 3.

The Rapa Nui invested all their hopes for salvation in their wacky obsession. They started making them faster than ever. It was obvious that they’d done something to piss off their ancestors, and the only way to fix things was to demonstrate a more intense level of worship and sacrifice.

…there’s a lesson in there, somewhere.

So Rapa Nui civilization went into drastic decline. They died off quickly and almost completely. In 1877, the population bottomed out at 111. In recent times, a rebound has begun, helped in part by the tourist boom. There are a couple thousand native Rapa Nui living on Easter Island and slightly more on mainland Chile.

The Rapa Nui are soon to be outnumbered on their native island by migrant Chileans. This is, of course, the subject of a lot of tension. Chile claimed Easter Island over a hundred years ago and made its native population their unwilling subjects. How would you feel?

Climbing up Ranu Raraku, it’s hard not to mistake an unfinished head for just another piece of rock. Down by the entrance where the park guides lurk, you get yelled at for even standing next to a Moai. But up top, it’s “Um, Dom, I think you’re standing on that guy’s nose.”

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Back round the front side is the most ambitious undertaking of all; an insanely massive, unfinished piece over 60 feet tall.

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It’s hard to imagine what the sculptor’s plan was for unearthing this behemoth. My guess is his buddies spent their afternoons in a nearby patch of shade, idly mocking him for entertainment.

“Are ya sure that’s gonna be big enough, Mukluk? I hear there’s some guy a few huts over making one twice as big.”

“Uh oh, Mukluk, I think you made the head too big. I’m standing here looking, and from this angle…I don’t know. It just looks a little crooked to me. That’s all I’m saying.”

I was more than content to take a few stills of the more interesting heads and move along. Dom’s ambitions were higher. He is a bold practitioner of the "comedy photo," and I was obliged to assist him in this.

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Who am I to judge, really? I’m the dancing guy.

Meanwhile, back on the mainland, Melissa was photographing heads of a different kind. But that’s her story, not mine.

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Check out what’s going on at the base of this statue.

Not far from the quarry, someone had the clever idea of standing a bunch of fallen Moai upright in a row. This in no way reflects their original, historical presentation, but it’s a nice photo op.

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Their historical presentation looked more like this.

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Eyes painted white with black pupils, and a funny little redish hat on their heads.

If you ask me, the way they used to look was kind of lame — a little too reminiscent of Bart Simpson. Like the ruins of Angkor Wat, the ravages of time made significant improvements.

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This Moai ended up in a tragi-comic state. It looks to have been strolling through the meadows one day when it tripped on a stone and face-planted, its hat tumbling a few feet after.

Poor thing.

We reached the far end of the island and the one real, usable beach.

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It was generously populated with vacationing Chileans and altogether quite pleasant. Dom and I had a nice tuna steak lunch.

On the road back to Hanga Roa, we picked up a couple of attractive young hitchhiking Chilean girls. I served feebly as Dom’s wingman.

Back in town, we regrouped a little bit and watched the locals at play.

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They really are quite good at recreation. The Rapa Nui definitely seem to enjoy life on their own terms. They’re happy to have the tourist dollars I imagine, but they’re not interested in behaving like servants to anyone. A refreshing mentality after much of South America.

I didn’t actually get to see it, but I’ve gotta mention Bird Man Island.

Back in the day, the Rapa Nui had an annual competition in which the men would jump from a cliff and swim through shark-infested waters to Bird Man Island, a kilometer or so out from shore.

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Once on the tiny island, they had to climb the vertical spire to reach the nest up top. The first one to retrieve an egg and bring it back was dubbed the Bird Man for that year; a title which was, presumably, desirable.

Each year, some would get eaten by sharks, others would fall from the rocks and die. Sounds like great TV, huh? Maybe a sport worth reviving.

We got going again to see the few remaining sites before sundown. Dom dubbed this statue a "Mooai".

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I like this picture.

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We went to visit the mound where the Moai hats were quarried. It isn’t very interesting, but next to it is the tallest hill on Easter Island. I ordered Dom to run all the way to the top immediately without stopping. He did.

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You can see him up there at the top if you care to look close.

Dom smokes, by the way.

Feeling slow and weak and old, I decided I had to conquer the hill as well — but maybe at a more modest pace. I passed Dom along the way.

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And up top there was a splendid view of the island.

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Stone heads aside, it’s still really quite a lovely place.

As the sun went down, we returned to town and watched the locals rehearse a dance for the upcoming Rapa Nui festival. Most of the dancers were Chilean, but no one seemed to mind.

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The gyrations were hypnotic.

Some puppies played nearby.

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The day ended.

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We went to dinner. I was exhausted.

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Took a cab to the airport the next morning. The cabbie was female…and young…and attractive. Only time I’ve ever had a woman cabbie outside the states. Only time I’ve ever had an attractive cabbie, period.

So there you have it. Gotta go to all the way to Easter Island to find a hot cabbie.

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And that was my one-day trip to Easter Island. I saw the shit out of it.

I met up with Melissa at the hotel in Santiago. She’d been hanging around the city and was ready to move on. We had a few more days planned for Chile, but decided to head over to Argentina early so we’d have time to see Iguazu falls.

We bought tickets to Iguazu at the airport in Buenos Aires, then flew up the next morning.

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Pretty as it is, neither of us were particularly thrilled with the experience. It was the most over-touristed place we’ve seen on the trip. Throngs of people everywhere, clogging the pathways and hogging the views. No fun for anybody.

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Iguazu falls marks the border between Argentina and Brazil, with Paraguay only a few miles to the west. That’s Argentina on the left, Brazil on the right.

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I don’t know what this thing is, but it didn’t seem to mind people.

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And that’s it for this post. Back to Buenos Aires tomorrow. Got a tentative phone-in interview planned with Good Morning America. We’ll see how that goes. Then off to New Zealand.

7 Responses to Iguazu, Argentina The Bellybutton of the World

  1. Alex

    Easter Island sounds amazing! My recommendation on Iguazu: go there during our summer (July/August); there’s still a decent number of tourists, but way fewer than it seems you had.

  2. Chrissy

    That last little animal is called a coati. They’re cute, but they know tourists have food in their bags and that’s why they are so friendly.

  3. Jenny

    ohmigosh. This is awesome. I have always wanted to go to Easter Island. I loved your entry about it. Although, not so crazy about your confirmation on the expense of getting there. But hey, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing and it’s amazing what you can do with the proper inspiration. I love your whole attitude about what you’re doing. It’s brilliant. You are like a dancing ambassador for the world. Safe travels…

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