Brandon’s note, October 27, 2015. OK, OK, so it’s been over 3 months since my last Radical Sabbatical post and nearly 6 months since the events of this post transpired. I’m sorry! Turns out being in San Francisco for the summer kept me much more busy than I’d anticipated and I just didn’t make the time to sit down and finish up the numerous half written blog posts I have on my computer. At any rate, currently I’m in Singapore and after spending over 4 weeks surfing in Indonesia, a week in Myanmar and another week sailing in Thailand, I’m not imminently planning any more surf trips so I should habe more time on my hands to catch up on the blog. I’ll try to get at least one post out per week until I’m caught up!
I had travelled for 9 months once before in my life, when I was 23, and with another opportunity to be wanderlust I sought a different experience for the time I’d spend traveling now, at age 31. A decade ago I hoped to rapidly see many different places and I was thus frenetically moving from one place to another. This made me less able to absorb culture and get to know local people. Part of my desire for my “early 30s” sabbatical was to travel and exist in places for longer periods of time, make deeper connections with people, and really feel out the vibe of the places I would visit.
Along this vein I was very fortunate to spend three weeks in Rapa Nui, where I attended a Chilean wedding, learned much about Rapa Nui culture, made new friends and sampled some of the fine surf on this small island.
In case you’re not familiar with Rapa Nui, I’ll start with a short geography and history lesson for you. Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island, or Isla de Pascua in Spanish, is an extremely isolated island in the South Pacific with a unique and fascinating history. The island is some 2,500 miles west of the Chilean coast and nearly 2,000 miles from the Marquesas, which are the nearest South Pacific islands with any kind of significant population. Rapa Nui is only about 15 miles long at its widest point and one can easily drive around the entire island in about an hour. Polynesians who arrived in voyaging canoes after sailing from Mangareva or the Marquesas Islands first settled Rapa Nui around 1000 A.D. The original Rapa Nui inhabitants flourished on the semi-tropical island and spent enormous energy carving and moving to their ahu platforms the monolithic moai statues that Rapa Nui is famous for. To this day there are over a thousand moai statues scattered across the island! The Rapa Nui society flourished and the population rapidly increased, but eventually competition for limited island resources resulted in a bloody period of history. By around 1600 A.D. the island’s forests had mostly been cut down. Fewer trees meant fewer canoes, and less canoes meant less fishing, and less fishing meant less food for the people and more intertribal fighting for the limited wood and timber resources. Thus the population started to decrease. The Golden Age of moai carving in Rapa Nui ended around this time and was eventually replaced with what’s known as the Birdman Cult (more on this lo come). But as is a common theme for Polynesian societies, it was the arrival of Europeans that was truly catastrophic for the islanders. Imported diseases and forced slavery brought the population down to as low as about 100 individuals by the mid 1800’s. Then in 1888, at the height of the western Imperialism, the Chilean government took possession of the island and Chile still currently governs Rapa Nui today. The official and most commonly spoken language is Spanish, but the Rapa Nui people also speak the Polynesian language and many times on the island I heard conversations in the native language. The history geek in me certainly came out while I was exploring and learning about Rapa Nui. I think what made it all so much cooler was that the small size of the island meant it was so easy to see the places where all of the history I learned about actually occurred.
The motivation for Brant’s trip to Chile and Rapa Nui was to attend the wedding of his friend Pato del Sol. Pato is a Chilean who spent a year studying at UCSD while both Brant and I were undergrads there. Brant lived with Pato in the International House dorms and the two became good friends. I met Pato a couple of times through Brant and also took an ungergraduate computer security class with Pato, who majored in computer science as I did. After Pato finished his year studying abroad at UCSD he went back to Chile, finished up school and a few years later founded, with his brother Felipe, an AdTech company called Admetricks in. It turns out that intelligence and entrepreneurialism run deep amongst Pato’s family and friends. At Pato’s wedding I met his father who immediately liked me and introduced me to his friends after learning that I had gone to Stanford and studied Management Science & Engineering, which he’d earned his Ph.D. in some 30 years before! I also got to know Pato’s fiancée, Dani, who is founder and CEO of a startup called BabyTuto that is the Chilean version of diapers.com and is currently very rapidly growing sales. A cousin of Pato’s, Samuel del Sol, is working at a Chilean solar startup called Solarity, which was especially relevant to me at this point as I had been talking to a solar financing startup in SF that was looking for a product manager with my skill set. I felt really fortunate to have met all these interesting Chileans, all thanks to Brant’s invitation for me to be his surf buddy and wedding +1 on this trip to Chile.
For the first week we were in Rapa Nui Brant and I didn’t even surf once. This was rather disappointing but there was also so much amazing touring and wedding crashing to do that it didn’t really matter. We did constantly check the surf and found consistently beautiful light offshore conditions on the south side of the island, but the swell was too small for the breaks on that side of the island to work. At any rate, I’ll describe more about the surf we did end up finding in my 2nd Rapa Nui blog post.
So instead, for the first week, and to a lesser extent throughout our entire 3-week stay on Rapa Nui, Brant and I delved into the cultural side of the island, visiting the amazing archeological sites, hanging out with the Chileans who were there for Pato & Dani’s wedding, and making friends with Rapa Nui locals who showed us around and gave us a real perspective of the island and its history.
We needed to be mobile so we rented motorbikes. They cost about $30/day and were super fun for curising around the islan, especially on some of the dirt tracks we found. We rented these endure dirt bikes for about 5 days, and then when it was time to surf we switched to a small jeep, which was also about $30/day to rent.
For those interested in one day visiting Rapa Nui, a quick note on what it costs. In general, Rapa Nui is regarded as an expensive place to visit by visitors, most of whom are Chilean. Nonetheless, Rapa Nui being the “Chilean Hawaii” does certainly not make it more expensive than any normal first world vacation destination; the fact is Rapa Nui really isn’t that expensive. Round trip plane tickets from Santiago run about $400-600, which is pricey, but less so considering it takes a 5-hour flight into the middle of the South Pacific to get to Rapa Nui. The daily LAN airlines flight is from Santiago, but there are also flights to/from Papeete, Tahiti, a couple of times per week. The least expensive accommodation is live in a tent at one of the campsites, which will cost you about $5/day. Camping Mihinoa is the best campsite at a great location right in front of the water near the harbor. We stayed there, but instead of tents we paid about $30/day to rent a nice room with 2 beds, a private bathroom and a kitchen that we shared with just one other room. It was definitely a good call: the campers looked pretty miserable during the frequent tropical rainstorms! A low-end meal will set you back $8-10 in town. Nicer meals will cost $20-50. We cooked much of our own food and bought groceries in town for higher-than-Chile prices, but nothing ridiculous. Pretty much everything on Rapa Nui is imported from Chile, so grocery selection is limited. Brant and I ate lots of eggs, fruits, pasta, and rice meals since our cooking is uncreative and favors high calorie meals necessary for fueling surf sessions. Attractions around the island arein general not very expensive. You could rent a surfboard for about $10 for an hour. Scuba diving at our favorite dive shop, Mike Rapu, cost about $35/dive or $60 for 2 dives; it’s a no brainer, do 2 dives!
The main and only town, Hanga Roa, is right next to the airport. Everyplace outside of town is the Rapa Nui National Park. The National Park was free to visit while we were there, but this is not normally the case. Apparently only weeks prior to our arrival, the Rapa Nui people had appropriated the management of the National Park due to political disagreements with the Chilean government over where revenues from the park were going. The feeling of the locals was that the revenues were not finding their way back into the local Rapa Nui economy but were just fattening the coffers of Santiago based bureaucracies. Further the Rapa Nui locals, who consider themselves ethnically Polynesian, not Chilean, are upset with the lax immigration being enforced in Rapa Nui as many young Chilean men would come to Rapa Nui to live a beat-like lifestyle in the warm climate. Thus the locals were manning the entrances to the National Park and explicitly not letting the Chilean mainlanders who were living in Rapa Nui access the 80% of the island that is National Park – but as a result everyone else, like Brant and myself, could access everywhere for free!
One of the most fascinating and gnarly bits of Rapa Nui history Brant and I learned from our local friend Tai, who was also our dive instructor. With Brant, Tai and Tai’s friend Yili we drove up to the ancient village of Orongo, which is on the southernmost tip of Rapa Nui nestled on the ridge of a huge volcanic crater. This village was the focal point for the infamous Birdman Cult ceremony. As I mentioned in my history at the beginning of this post, by the 1700s Rapa Nui had depleted most of its forests and become overpopulated, which resulted in brutal warfare between the 10 or so tribes that inhabited the various sections of the island. The Birdman Cult developed during this period to bring a kind organization and peace to the island, whereby each year one of the tribal chiefs would become the “Birdman” and serve as a kind of prophet/chief for the entire island. You should read the Wikipedia page if you are interested to know more details than what I am about to describe. The story Brant and I got from Tai while we were at Orongo high on the volcanic crater overlooking the Motu Islands was slightly different and more intriguing. Also there is a movie (I haven’t seen it yet) called Rapa Nui produced by Kevin Costner that also is about the Birdman Competition.
According to Tai, the Birdman Competition worked as follows. Each of the tribal chiefs would pick their best warrior to represent him in the competition. The competition would have each of warriors descend the ridiculously steep and dangerous cliffs from Orongo straight down to the ocean. Then the warriors would all swim across to the Motu Nui island where they would try to collect a tern egg. The goal was to swim back to Rapa Nui and ascend the cliffs up to Orongo with the egg still intact and the first warrior to do this would be the winner. The winning warrior’s chief would then become the Birdman and serve as the lead religious figure until the next competition the following year. Sounds straightforward enough, right? Well here are some gnarly details Tai explained to us. First, is that warriors are permitted to kill their fellow warrior competitors. So if you see another guy with an egg, kill him and take it! Second, if you are not the winning warrior, then you have to jump to your death from Orongo down into the volcanic crater. While at Orongo, Brant and I both stood on the rock where many men had jumped several hundred feet to their deaths! Third, the Birdman (aka the winning chief) is given several virgins by each the other losing chiefs. The Rapa Nui people believed that virgins held great mana and so they were part of the prize. The Birdman, however, could not be touched by anyone, including the virgins (how sad for him!), while he was the sacred Birdman and he would spend most all of his time in a cave with the virgins. When he and the virgins emerged from the cave after several months, but before the next Birdman Competition, their skin would be very white from lack of sun, which enhanced the Birdman’s godlike status.
Whoa! Listening to Tai explain all of this while we were exploring Orongo, where it all went down really blew my mind; I’d never felt so connected to the cultural significance of a place before in all my travels. At any rate, given the gruesome nature of the Birdman Cult, it is not surprising that do-gooder, Christian missionaries who arrived in the mid 1800s put a stop to all of this. Obviously the arrival of the missionaries was a bad outcome for the Rapa Nui people, but I think we can all agree that western imperialism stamped out culture pretty much wherever it spread during the colonial era. It is also worth mentioning that at one point Red Bull wanted to hold it’s own tamed-down version of the Birdman Competition on Rapa Nui, but the locals rightly put a stop to that happening.
I highly recommend a visit Rapa Nui. You won’t be disappointed with this amazing island. If you do go, one particularly awesome time to visit is during the annual Tapati celebration, which occurs during the first 2 weeks of February. Imagine lots of cultural dancing involving scantily-clad Polynesian beauties & hunks, many epic parties, music galore and the undisputed highlight is sure to be when the burliest locals slide down a huge grassy hill atop sleds made of banana tree trunks lashed together, as seen in this video. Also here’s a Huffington Post article that describes a little more about the Tapati festival.
Anyway, this post got way too long as is. I need to start working on the next one so I’m going to end it here and let the photos do most of the talking.