08 Oct 2017 SOUTH AMERICA
In ‘Double Whammy’, (20 October 2017) I lamented the loss of my original write-up of the trip (which lasted from September the 23rd to October the 8th) because my computer died and the hard drive containing the first 1,300 words, proved to be irretrievable. I am not game to attempt to recreate the original account, partly because of the other disaster mentioned, namely having to close down the website, which only came back on line two weeks ago (24 February 2018). Instead, I shall try and communicate the essence of the journey. It is a relief and a delight to be able to upload blog posts again.
It took me nearly 76 years to visit every continent other than Antarctica, having touched down in Santiago on Sunday September 24. I was travelling with my son Simon, whose announcement earlier in the year that he wanted to go on holiday with his Dad was as unexpected as it was heart-warming. His wife Nicole, stayed home to look after their newly acquired cattle dog puppy, Pepper. Simon had never been to South America either. I happened to glance out of the window of the rear door of the 747 just as we crossed the coast. Moving to the other side of the plane I was thrilled to see the snow peaks of the Andes and got hold of Simon who produced his camera and videoed them.
The main reason why I wanted to visit this pinprick of volcanic rock was to experience being in one of the remotest places on the planet. I also had a love affair with the mythical statues, moai, ever since seeing Hoa-Hakanana’ia in the British Museum when I was at art school in London in the ‘60s. Instead of a sense of remoteness on landing, I experienced the familiar charm of a tropical arrival; the welcome at the airport, where we were given a garland of flowers; the drive in a minibus through colourful Hanga Roa; and being received with a refreshing drink at our resort accommodation. Feeling the remoteness kicked in later.
Mystery and Remoteness
Easter Island is legendary for the mysteries which pervade it, made deeper by the absence of a written history. Consider the very place and its location, a mesmerising combination. There is no certainty about when and from where it was first settled, except that it was not from South America. For all the archaeological activity the island has seen in the last one hundred years, culminating in a repudiation of the ecocide view of its history, no-one knows for sure when the moai were first created, how they were transported, or why the Rapanui stopped carving them. The lack of a written record and the unreliability of oral tradition, consign the stupendous physical evidence largely to informed conjecture; in addition to the moai, only a fraction of them resting on an ahu (platform), are the chicken houses, the cairn-like boundary markers, the foundations of dwellings, the intact ceremonial shelters, the petroglyphs, the lithic gardens – all formed of stone – and the larva caves. The written record only began on the 5th of April 1722, when the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen anchored off the island. The mystery of Easter Island which has made it one of earth’s most fabled places, started when the Dutch ventured ashore.
Objectively, if you are on a road with land on either side, as was the case when we left the outskirts of Hanga Roa on our way to Anakena, you might be in the middle of a continent. Any such fanciful illusion was soon dispelled when we topped a modest ridge and beheld the Pacific Ocean to our left (2,000 kilometres beyond Pitcairn Island) and right (2,000 miles beyond the coast of South America). The landscape is surprisingly varied for a place with a reputation for being barren. There are volcanic cones whose outlines cannot be mistaken for anything else, eucalypt plantations dating from the late 19th century, parched open ground with rocky outcrops reminiscent of moorland, stupendous sea cliffs, and waves battering a shore consisting either of stretches of low rock face or of a jumble of basalt boulders, its harshness relieved by just two sandy beaches. The more I saw of the ocean, the greater my sense of the vast, surrounding emptiness.
This feeling perfectly matched the impact the moai had on me, which began on the afternoon of our arrival when we were taken to Ahu Akivi, whose seven moai, although inland, are unique in facing the ocean. To be in their presence in the place where they were hewn and erected was otherworldly. The moai are imbued with power, representing chiefs and ancestors charged with the duty of watching over the people who made them. Having been taken from the quarry where they were carved to the village of their descendants, they were placed on an ahu, formed of large stones, in front of which is a ceremonial space. All the ahus we saw were close to the shore. Four of the moai of Anakena, located on an idyllic sandy beach surrounded by palm trees, carry top knots made of red scoria.
Originally moai had eyes of white coral which were more vulnerable to contact with the elements than the quarried rock. A preserved eye was unearthed and is now in the island’s museum. The absence of eyes gives the moai a paradoxical look of detachment coupled with a brooding intensity. We were taken to one ahu where the moai were no longer standing. Their condition seemed to support the notion that they had been lowered rather than, as the guide maintained, toppled, because the faces were not smashed. The most celebrated ahu made me wonder if the Rapanui ever played rugby union, because, at Tongariki, they assembled a veritable fifteen-man team atop the biggest ahu of all, with their backs to the cliffs and sea stack of Poike, a sublime view. Some of the moai carry top knots, some are broad and squat, some outstandingly tall. The heaviest weighs 88 tons.
Since the 1950s, the standing moai have all been subjected to sometimes crude, sometimes more sympathetic, restoration. They are a small fragment of the nearly 900 extant statues. The restoration entailed heads being cemented on torsos and the stuck-together moai being cemented onto the ahus. Their original creators relied on gravity to keep the moai in place, of which we saw a splendid lone example at the entrance to Tongariki.
Most, by far, of the moai remain where they were quarried, at Rano Raraku, one of two craters holding a fresh water lake. Its tuff is ideally suited to forming moai. Numbers of them are buried on the crater’s external slopes, some with just their heads protruding above the grass, others showing a bit of torso too. A few completed moai lie where they were made, at the foot of the rock face. Entering and immersing myself in the crater, its rim defining the horizon, the luxuriant reeds at the water’s edge, the twenty eight moai I counted on the inner slope, the fact that only Simon and I were there, made this the most cherished moment of all my encounters with the landscape and its monuments.
Unlike any Other Place
When Simon declared that he wanted to holiday with me, I was committed to visiting Easter Island, so he was happy to come along for the ride. He fancied visiting Buenos Aires and I was happy to accept his choice. By the second day, Simon was beginning to fall in love with the island, as was I. It soon became apparent that we were in a place unlike any other in the world. The creative genius of the Rapanui, sustained over centuries of complete isolation and self-reliance, is unique in the annals of humanity. The moai are its greatest invention, one of the greatest in all art. They seem to have gained power with the passage of time and are as impossible to ignore now as when they were made.
Easter Island has no permanent brooks or streams, let alone rivers. Traditionally, crater lakes were the main source of water together with wells and springs. The current supply is by aquifer. The original settlers brought chickens with them. At Anakena we saw what I like to believe are their undomesticated descendants, scratching around at the picnic tables where we had some refreshments. There is no television, which was the case in the Okavango Delta. To claim that the Rapanui and their culture became extinct through internecine warfare and cannibalism and by eating themselves out of house and home, has been demonstrated to be false. On the contrary they were adept at harvesting water and growing food on land with little vegetation. Like so many indigenous people throughout history, the Rapanui suffered the devastating consequences of contact with the outside world. The most harmful being the raids by Peruvian traders in the early 1860s. They forcibly removed some 1,500 Rapanui to the South American mainland to work as agricultural labourers. Most perished within a few years. Only fifteen were repatriated. At their lowest ebb there were only 111 Rapanui alive in 1877, but even that is a far cry from being extinct. Today there are close to 3,000 people of Rapanui (Polynesian) descent.
The language survived and is taught in the island’s schools. After years of neglect, money has recently been spent on the national park which contains the historic sites, resulting in better protection of the monuments, improved signage and the employment of many more Rapanui to man kiosks and act as guides and rangers. There is a growing pride in their culture among contemporary Rapanui and a determination to keep it alive and relevant.
I experienced another moment which was the equal of that in the crater and totally unforeseeable. I was standing on the terrace outside our room, in front of which was a low bank of loose stones at which I happened to glance. I saw a close and slightly smaller relative of the Australian potter wasp I had filmed on Tamborine Mountain, hovering over the stones, ducking beneath them and reappearing a few times before flying away. Easter Island is not known for its wealth of fauna. But an American scientist who has studied the island’s insect life confirmed by email, that he had received other reports of potter wasps. Just how they arrived on the island, presumably from Chile where there are many known species, and above all, how they survive, is another of Easter Island’s great mysteries, known only to a select few – you, now being one of them.
It’s a pity Simon isn’t writing up this part of the journey because he is much more of a city person than me and Buenos Aires proved to be his kind of city. I am glad we went, above all because we flew over the Andes, though there were aspects of the city which I found unfamiliar and interesting. Ever since I first flew the sector between Delhi and Calcutta in 1979, seated at a window on the left side of the plane, I regarded it as one of the earth’s great flying experiences. We were above the clouds, so were the Himalayas, visible in all their dazzling, snow-capped glory. I have flown the sector several times since and bar one occasion, have enjoyed that stupendous view. At a dinner soon after we arrived in Calcutta I mentioned seeing the Himalayas and surmised that they must have been one hundred miles away, only to be told that they were twice that distance, such is their colossal scale. The Alps would have been invisible beneath the clouds.
But viewing the Himalayas lacked the immediacy of flying alongside the mountains on our approach to Santiago. And that was no more than an aperitif to flying 3,000 m or less above the Andes for mile after mile, the glaciers and snow-covered peaks extending to the horizon on either side of the aircraft and unfolding below us as we flew on.
One of the things Simon and I liked about our stay on Easter Island was that most of the guests at our resort came from South America. We loved it whenever the guide said “vamos”, let’s go. We befriended a charming, young Brazilian couple who lived in Santiago and were on a short break, leaving their children to be looked after by the grandparents. The resort staff were friendly and attentive. Our tour guides were Rapanui. It was strange and different to be in a part of the world where we saw hardly any Asians and not a single Chinese tourist.
We landed at an airport in Buenos Aires that was not only close to the centre of the city, it was next to the River Plate, which is so broad that one cannot see the opposite shore, a feature which fascinated and intrigued me. I cannot think of any urban area located on a river which does not occupy both banks. Buenos Aires is more like a sea side town, except that the sea front is its back door. The River Plate is formed by the confluence of the Uruguay and Parana rivers, the latter having its own huge delta. On the map, the River Plate looks more like an estuary than a river. It is 290 km long and 220 km wide at its mouth in the south Atlantic Ocean, which is a long way from the city.
Our accommodation could not have been better. It happened that we were in the smartest part of town. Buenos Aires is enormous. We went on bus tours, sitting upstairs in the teeth of a stiff wind which blew in from the river, dodging rain as best we could. Thanks to the wind, it seems that the city is able to live up to its name because the visibility was excellent and the view, of course, was good. Simon liked the ornate 19th and early 20th century architecture of the apartment blocks and the numerous villas with their elaborate iron railings and massive lamps. The city is famous for its avenues. I believe the Avenue of the 9th of July is the widest on the planet. The traffic lanes are separated by islands planted with trees, among them the silk floss tree which belongs to the same family as the baobab. Its branches and bulging trunk are covered in prickles. In the 19th century the city fathers imported numbers of Moreton Bay fig trees from Australia, which adorn various squares with their immense spreading limbs. The width of the main avenues is not matched by the crowded pavements, which were almost as mean as those in Britain. We had some excellent meals, consuming huge quantities of meat. I found it uncanny and uplifting that so many of the people I saw in cafés and restaurants, whether sitting alone in quiet contemplation or engaged in lively conversation, reminded me of people I came across as an artist in London.
Perhaps I was unduly influenced by Argentina’s political history in not being surprised by the militarism on display in Buenos Aires, but I made a note of it because I had never previously encountered its like. The place wasn’t over-run with soldiers, there were no tanks on street corners, nor did it affect life around me. Yet it was pervasive, like a shadow from the country’s distant and not so distant past. One just had to look at a map of the city or listen to the audio guide on the tour bus to discover that the militarism proclaims itself in streets named after military figures and in statues and monuments commemorating generals, admirals, presidents, patriots and battles, erected in many of the city’s squares. The map shows a hospital and a suburb named after different generals. The militarism is particularly rife in La Recoleta cemetery, the final resting place of the country’s great and good. The cemetery is one of Buenos Aires’s major visitor attractions, where what struck me as a disproportionate number of generals, brigadiers and colonels are buried. It is a veritable walled city of the dead, covering 5.5 ha of prime real estate. The rows of mausolea line kilometres of ‘streets’ and allow access to vaults with as many as five shelves containing the sarcophagi of generations of family members stacked one above the other. I risk not doing Buenos Aires justice, but, in addition to flying over the Andes to get there, I am glad I visited the city.
Our return flight to Santiago was notable for two reasons. Firstly, I miscalculated the time we needed to leave for the airport, which gave us less than two hours to check in. The queues were long, the desks were under-manned and there was only one scanner at security. The result was that our names were called out over the P A and we had to run for it to board the plane, which Simon did not like at all. The other notable occurrence was the great scream which filled the cabin when the plane dropped like a stone during turbulence as we approached the Andes. While neither of us screamed, we agreed that this was the most severe turbulence we had endured, even if it did not last as long as some bad turbulence on a flight to Hong Kong. Travelling with Simon once more was a precious time.