Saturday, 24 October 2009
a moai not yet removed from the volcano quarry where it was made
Tongariki moais - 15 in total which have been re-erected
cave we clambered through
There are numerous underground caves near the west coast of the island, previously inhabited by the Rapa Nui, which can be seen from the remainder of many small walls left inside. There are still islanders today who remember times before the arrival of the first aeroplanes. They speak of being brought up in the caves, fetching water daily from the freshwater lake in the volcano crater. They have a history of being persecuted by the people who arrived after the explorers, including Peruvian slave traders who kidnapped many of them and later, a sheep farming company who took over the land surrounding Hanga Roa village, hemming the last of the population in. Many also died when smallpox and TB were brought to the island by continentals. In the 19th century only 111 natives remained. Since 1963, when the island was granted freedom, the population has significantly recovered and modern day life on the island is different to how it was only a generation before. Three aeroplanes daily bring tourists with money to spend in the local community, on souvenirs of hand carved statues and shell necklaces and hiring either cars, scooters or quads to tour the sites. The younger Rapa Nui generation is split between those who remain and those who leave for the continent, although when asked most would admit to wanting to return to the island at some point. There is a strong connection with the ancestral history and culture and a pride in being part of the most isolated community on earth. We explore the caves, amazed at the fact we can walk 200 metres underground through pitch black tunnels. We head back to the pretty beach at Anakena for a last dip in the huge waves of the Pacific Ocean before cooking our last meal in the Mihinoa Camping Hostel and chatting with some fellow travellers who’ve just been to New Zealand and only had great things to say about it.
The island is populated by almost 4,000 inhabitants plus about the same again in horses. They seem to be the preferred livestock, although we can’t work out what purpose they might serve. There are some cows, but no sheep. Kestrels have the skies pretty much to themselves. I’ve seen no evidence of any small furry creatures, like rabbits or rodents and, for some bizarre reason, there seem to be a lot of woodlice. Funny, seeing as one of the main historical issues of the island is that the natives completely deforested it, causing many problems to their sustainment. Nowadays, groves of eucalypts are flourishing along with generic deciduous and they’re attempting to re-introduce the Toromiro tree, which is currently extinct in the wild and was one of the species which suffered from the heavy handedness of the Rapa Nui.
We hire a Daihatsu Terios to tour the island for our 3 day stay and soon realise that the distances on the map are much shorter than they look. It’s possible to drive the full length of the island in just over 20 minutes- 20kms. We start out on the road to the eastern coast, which is a secondary road with many potholes. Greg’s driving gets increasingly more skilled as he becomes adept at navigating through them. We follow the morning tour bus as it makes it’s stops to view the toppled Moai and Ahu (platforms). We soon appreciate however that there are sites which the tour bus either can’t make it to or doesn’t have time on it’s schedule, so it is possible to be the only ones looking at these ancient monuments.
Rapa Nui was discovered by a group of Polynesian pioneers (possibly from the Marquesa Islands, 1,500km to the west) attempting to form a colony and harvest the land. It is unknown exactly when this was but it could’ve been any time from the 8th century to the 14th century AD. They developed into a strictly spiritual culture who built large stone statues, Moai, as gifts to appease their gods. As the years passed these Moai became larger in size, such were the workers pressed by the Akiri, or king of the island, to supersede the previous examples. Unfortunately, for the Rapa Nui, this stone carving culture became obsessive, to the detriment of all else on the island, including the population’s ability to feed itself. Logs were required for the gigantic statues to be rolled into position, so all the trees were cut down. Farmers were conscripted to join the ranks and help with the building, letting their crops go to waste and die, and the whole situation got to the point where it was critical that they alter the way they were living or they would not survive. A new idea came in the form of the Birdman cult, wherein, at the beginning of Spring, when the migratory Sooty Tern would come to nest on the tiny islands of the south coast, the strongest swimmers of each tribe on the island would have to attempt the harsh Pacific waters to collect the first egg of the season. This feat represented fertility for the coming season, and would determine who would be crowned Birdman for the next year, but again caused the virtual extinction of the birds on the island because of the destruction of their nests and their habitat. So, the essence of the Rapa Nui people was the lack of respect they had for the delicate ecosystem of their island and the mass destruction they caused of it. But, it can be said that the majority of the peoples believed that what they were doing would lead to problems, however, they were ruled by the Akiri who frightened them into expending all their energies in the quarries chipping and carving at the rock, to make the biggest Moai ever seen. He told them stories that every other land mass in the ocean had sunk due to lack of belief in the gods and, if they were not careful, their island would sink too. It must’ve been a strange feeling to think you were the only people in the world, not knowing whether anything else was beyond that endless horizon of nothingness.
This isolation also kept them safe however and it was only when explorers and missionaries came to the island in the 18th century that a lot of the population was lost to smallpox and TB.
We can recognise most of the inhabitants of the island’s only village, Hanga Roa, as being directly descended from the Rapa Nui, from their facial features and habit of growing their fuzzy black hair very long. An official Rapa Nui language is still spoken and they take their cultural identity very seriously.
We are impressed by the Moai design, each one in it’s own way, different from the last, and also by the natural beauty of the island with it’s volcanic rock formations and crashing turquoise waves of the vast Pacific.
great fountain at one of the city's parks
view of Santiago from the top of the funicular
Santiago is wealthy with trendsetters and well-dressed business people taking the lead. The city is built up but has also very successfully retained it’s green spaces, which are constantly patrolled by guards to prevent any undue behaviour. We become aware that the parks tend to generally be used by young couples smooching on benches, out of the condemning gaze of their parents most probably. The parks are very pretty, particularly the Santa Lucia city park which has a magnificent fountain and tower esplanade from where a great view of the city can be enjoyed. We also take a trip up the funicular railway to one of the city’s hills, upon which sits an immense statue to the Virgin Mary and an open air church with wooden pews, where a very atmospheric mass must take place every Sunday. There is much evidence of Catholicism still playing a very important part in peoples’ lives in Chile and, in fact, in all the South American countries we’ve visited. We take in a revealing exhibition at the contemporary wing of the Belles Artes Museo in which new South American painters addressed issues of sexuality alongside Catholicism, plus there was a display of Inca-related product packaging. In other words, the artist has collected as many product advertising using ‘Inca’ as a brand name to emphasise quality, which is highly amusing to us.
And this ends our South American adventure. We’re off to Easter Island tomorrow, leaving behind the Latin American peoples, histories and cultures we’ve encountered here, to taste some island living, then it’s on to the down under, English speaking nation of New Zealand!
La Serena sits on the Pacific coast, a colonial town with the traditional tree-lined boulevard down through the centre of town to the sea and a pretty Plaza des Armas. Our hotel is an eccentric blast from the past with furniture and fixtures from the 1950s, owned by a lovely 90 year old lady who sits placidly at the reception, chatting with her employees. The town itself is very quiet, apart from the packs of trendy school girls who always attempt a “Hello, how are you” to us, practising their English, through endless giggles.
Our tour’s nearly over and it’s only 7 hours to Santiago, our final stop.
San Pedro is the first town reached after the Bolivia/ Chile border and reinforces the idea that we’ve arrived in a completely different country. In fact, Chile is what they call, the success story of South America. It is the most economically advanced, the most European in nature and, to follow suit, the most conservative of South American people live here. This is evidenced in San Pedro when we discover loud music and dancing are strictly prohibited here, even though it is one of the most popular tourist towns in the country, due to its location in the Atacama desert, within easy reach of the Bolivian Altiplano and the striking desert valleys of the Moon and Mars. It is entirely constructed in adobe brick, but not because this is the only material that can be afforded. The artisan community have preserved the original nature of the town and any new hotels or restaurants built must retain the same low rise design using adobe.
We have the opportunity to explore the mud hills of the Valley of Mars, just outside the town- bizarre formations which prove to be a fun mud playground, before heading off to our penultimate destination La Serena.
Tuesday, 13 October 2009
typical Altiplano scenery
After breakfast on the second day we journey out into the Altiplano which proves a much rougher ride in our 4x4s than the salt flats. There are no paved roads, only dirt tracks and some of the routes we take off road are evidently too much for our vehicle as we stall going up a deep sand hill and unfortunately the engine gives up. Our driver and his two driving buddies spend a good half hour investigating under the bonnet and, it turns out, one of the belts has gone. It’s lucky our drivers are trained mechanics because the umpteen times our truck fails, they always seem to be able to get it running again.
cactus on the 'coral' rock island
one of our 'scale' illusion photos
our bus disappearing into the distance at great speed
The first we know that we’ve encountered a political road block is when we’re asked to quickly leave the bus with our belongings and walk.
Our poor bus driver, who has been coping with a broken windscreen for the past three hours through dusty Bolivian desert, has to attempt to speed past the oil tanker, which is pushing him, and make a diversion off road through the darkening desert. We are unaware how far he manages to get as we are already trekking our way down the road past numerous oil tankers blocking our path. We tactfully say nothing to the drivers as we pass, in case they are averse to us crossing their protest path.
Seemingly this kind of blockade occurs regularly in Bolivia, but it’s the first time Heidi has ever encountered such an episode with a tour group and she is obviously worried, as she tells us that sometimes they can turn violent and tourists have been known to be seriously injured by drivers throwing boulders as they attempt to pass through. Eventually, after 1 ½ hours walking through a pitch black desert we come upon our destination town of Uyuni, where we ask for directions to the bus terminal, in hope that our big rucksacks, which were in the bus’ boot, are located. However, when we arrive, we are informed our bus never made it and has had to turn back.
The dawning realisation occurs that, although we are glad to have all made it safely to Uyuni, our bags have not.
We eat together at the local pizza joint, still in good spirits and Heidi vows to investigate the situation first thing in the morning.
Next day we are told many stories about the blockade- like, no one is journeying there from Uyuni because it’s too dangerous, there’s a petrol shortage in town and our bus has had to travel all the way back to the previous mining town where it’s tyres have been slashed. However, all of this turns out to be untrue. Our bus is, in fact, stranded with deflated tyres, on the other side of the blockade, which, in fact, disperses at noon and Heidi is able to journey there by taxi to retrieve our bags. At first our hotel was unwilling to attempt the trip because they believed it was dangerous to send gringos out there- they would become a significant target, but they relented and we now have all our belongings back safe and sound. The town of Uyuni is however still at a standstill as numerous tour groups wait till they’re given the go ahead to journey to the Bolivian salt flats.
In the end, everything worked out well, but it could’ve been very much worse.
Greg preparing his dynamite- just look at his face!
Thursday, 8 October 2009
Basillo was ten years old when he started working in the silver mines of Cerro Rico, a mineral rich hill which shadows the town of Potosi. His father was dead so he had to step in and provide for his mother, younger brother and baby sister Vanessa. They lived next to one of the entrances to the 5,000 mines which riddle the mountain, in a tiny adobe shack. He worked long hours as an assistant, carrying the loose rock and helping the other miners hammer into the mineral veins in search of precious metals. The dust inside the mines causes miners to develop silicosis in the lungs and their average lifespan is only 35. Basillo worried about this and his little brother, who also worked alongside him. They were scared that they would die in the mines, accidents happened everyday. There were collapses in the tunnels and often fatalities due to problems with the dynamite explosions they used for revealing the minerals. A startling statistic of 8 million fatalities on the Cerro Rico mountain alone since it was first mined, shows the extent of the dangerous conditions the miners face on a day to day basis.
An odd, but understandable tradition of blessing a devil god in the mines is still practised today. This devil icon was introduced by the Spanish when they enslaved the indigenous population into working for them in the mines. They saw that the people were frightened of dying underground, where god doesn’t seem to exist, and introduced a devil figure to ‘protect’ the miners from harm.
Every miner, including Basillo and his brother, bring gifts of coca leaves, alcohol and cigarettes to the Tio (the devil god as it’s called) in order that he will look after them in the mine and not let any harm come to them. Although the boys are too scared to look right in the Tio’s face, they are comforted by the belief he will protect them.
Basillo and his brother used what little money they brought into the household to buy food and save for the coming year’s school uniforms. Their mother believed education was the key for them to leave working in the mine and achieve better things for themselves. Basillo had dreams of becoming a teacher and his brother a civil engineer. They attended school in Potosi in the mornings before starting their shifts at the mine in the afternoon. At the age of 14, Basillo is recorded to have said he wishes to only work five more months in the mine before seeking better paid employment in the town, where the lifestyle is healthier for him and his family.
fiesta of the Virgin Rosario, La Paz
It’s obvious that Bolivians love to celebrate, from the endless shops specialising in masks, cardboard cakes and hats, streamers and confetti. Again, a contradiction in that the more hard up people are it seems the more they plough whatever money they have into fiestas and carnivals. We are ‘fortunate’ to be staying at Hotel Rosario and it just so happens that the celebration of the Virgin Rosario is taking place directly outside our hotel on the very weekend we are here. Music is pumped out in the street till 2am each night and people either crowd round the stage watching the various live acts or set up camp on wooden benches with crates of bottled beer to hand.
On the day we leave a procession takes place through the city streets, starting at our hotel. The brass band, playing traditional Bolivian tunes, leads the way, followed by a girl in gold platform boots twisting her way along in a skimpy gold lame minidress. Making their skirts twirl in sync are many groups of indigenous women dressed in identical striking colourways and following them are bizarre, holographic ‘armoured’ men with crazy masks and bright red and white feathers coming out of their heads. This spectacle would be enough in itself without the added bonus of simultaneous dance steps, bringing the whole occasion to life. I can see why so many local people come here to take in this amazing display in an otherwise drab brown city.
Sucre, by comparison, is the political capital of Bolivia, meaning it houses the parliament buildings and is where the current government sits. It’s much smaller than La Paz but outweighs it tenfold in the beauty of it’s architecture. It’s pretty, cobbled streets are lined with colonial whitewashed buildings, each with it’s features well-preserved. On each corner of the main square there are extensive newspaper stands, which is unheard of in La Paz (no-one seems to read anything apart from sensationalist tabloids). And the newspapers in Sucre are intellectually sound.
Small food and drink kiosks in La Paz are ‘replaced’ by comprehensive stationers and book shops in Sucre. It’s possible to tell that the inhabitants of Sucre are more wealthy than La Paz, due to their choice of clothing (more westernised) and more in keeping with current fashions. The funny thing is though that I don’t find these people half as visually interesting as the charismatic, crumpled but still smiling faces of the variety of local peoples in La Paz. And I wonder whether the people of Sucre would be as much into the fiestas and celebrations as the people of Paz?
The most dangerous road in the world, otherwise known as ‘Death Road’ has, in the past, claimed the lives of over 100 people per year, due to its narrow, winding switchbacks and sheer drops. It starts at 4,640m in the snowy landscapes of the mountain tops and descends 3,345m, through cloudy rainforests to the hilltop town of Coroico. Nowadays a new alternative road, wider and safer, is more heavily used by traffic, but today construction work on one of it’s bends, caused an unusual amount of traffic to use the Death Road, which only contributed to our obstacles. The first quarter of the ride was smooth-going asphalt and some of the guys in our group including Greg, reached speeds of up to 55kmh. Then it turned to loose gravel and the fun started!
Our mountain bikes were top of the range with full suspension rigging on the front and back wheels. But, even so, it was a bumpy ride, navigating boulders and ruts especially when the road was narrow and there was a long drop on one side. I couldn’t help my imagination running wild at times, thinking what would happen if I hit that stone wrong! A picture of Nicky when he broke his wrist falling head first over his handlebars just wouldn’t go out of my head! Greg was very kind to rein in his desire of an adrenalin rush and stayed at the back of the group with me. At times I would pick up speed and do really well without thinking, then suddenly remember that only in May of this year a cyclist doing just what I was doing lost their life over the edge, and I would pull harder on the brakes and take it easier.
We covered about 47km all pretty much downhill and, by the time we reached the hotel where we were having lunch, I’d developed aching knees, with the intense vibrations from the rocky road, a sore bum from bouncing around on the bicycle seat and tenderness in the palm of my right hand from having my fingers clutching the brake constantly.
However, despite this, the trip was well worthwhile- the scenery alone was spectacular. We were descending through cold alpine mountains which turned into humid tropical cloud forests with dozens of butterflies and colourful birds. At the end of the day, we could say we’d survived the most dangerous road in the world.
Saturday, 3 October 2009
guinea pigs living behind the stove- with no refrigeration, it's important to make sure your food's fresh!
Each pair in our party, has been allocated a homestay family and we all chat about how welcomed we’ve been made to feel in these poor people’s homes. Homestay, as a practise on the island, has been going on for ten years and, I figure, it must make economic sense to the families and they seem to genuinely enjoy it. Heidi says we all look so odd to them and in order that they can distinguish us from the next white westerner we are given the family beanie to wear. After footy, our ‘mothers’ lead us home for tea. We are invited to eat in the cocina (kitchen) with Inocencia and Marie, where it’s considerably warmer than in our little bedroom. A different soup with keenwa and several potato types is followed by a vegetable stew with rice and coca tea. The diet is good her, all home grown produce from the farming terraces surrounding Inocencia’s home. Marie sits by the candlelight knitting a yellow cardigan, occasionally requiring advice from her mother. She tells us she speaks three languages, Quechua, Spanish and is learning English at school on the island. I can’t help but wonder if she’ll remain on the island when she grows up, where day to day life is hard or choose to pursue a career on the mainland. Inocencia actually grew up in Lima but it is a testament to life on the island that she made the decision to return here to live with her parents in this house.
After a sound night’s sleep Inocencia presents us with a super breakfast of pancakes and coca tea. There’s no such thing as a shower or bathroom here so it’s a quick baby wipe wash and brushing of teeth outside the garden gate.
It’s not long before we are making our way down to the port of Colcacacha village and saying our goodbyes.
Our first taste of homestay accommodation has been an extreme one, but very enjoyable. On our way back to Puno we stop off at Taquille Island where the descendents of the Pre-Inca culture Tiahuanaco live off the land. It is a beautiful day and the sun sparkles on the turquoise blue of the lake, making us all feel like we’re on holiday.
We visit the Uros Indians who dwell on floating islands made purely of Torturo reeds. I have never seen anything like it. They have lived for centuries on these islands which they construct from the root system of the reeds bound together with rope and layers upon layers of reeds are placed on top to form a spongy floating platform. An island has a lifespan of only 15 years before it begins to disintegrate and the inhabitants have to set about constructing a new one. Their reed cabins can be transferred to the new island easily as they are constructed atop reed rafts. Everything needed for survival is on the island, the men fish and the women prepare the food in small stoves. They journey to the main land on their traditional reed boats to trade fish with the locals for other produce not available to them- maize, corn, potatoes, rice. We are told that, due to genetic problems arising owing to significant interbreeding within the Uros Indian population (of which there are 1,300 across 36 islands) many of the younger generation opt to find partners on the mainland, either choosing to stay or return to island life.
It is fascinating but we must leave to sail to Amarantani Island to meet our homestay families.