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Monday, March 25, 2013

The Ballad of Flank & Shan

Flanky and Shannon were partners
Oh lordy, how they could roam
Swore to be true to each other
Just as true as the moai around.
She was her dog, and they hiked for hours.
-original version of the classic song "Frankie and Johnny"

I was wandering around map-less on Easter Island in the blazing mid-day sun, walking down a long, deserted road thinking that maybe I'd taken a wrong turn somewhere. My destination was Rano Kau, the biggest inactive volcano on the island which, at its summit, features the ceremonial site of Orongo. Being the guilty young traveler that I am, I feel often obligated to use legs as opposed to easier methods of transportation even though I usually want to take the easy option. So I thought yes, let's walk. 10km there then 10 km back. Cake. There was a pedestrian trail that began in some ambiguous spot near the coast, and as I wandered further my mental map grew fuzzier. A mother and her child whizzed by on bikes, took a left turn, and I decided I'd follow them.

Down the road which I later found out to be the wrong turn (note: do not just follow strangers. Their mere existence does not mean they have the same destination as you), I was almost bowled over by a friendly stray dog and his companion. Folks, meet Flank, the friendly stray who was my dog for a day on Easter Island.

Flank leading the way, friend in tow, at the beginning of the pedestrian trail.

"Come on, slow human. There are things to explore!"

I've had plenty of strays accompany me on various journeys. But never to this extent. In a way, I feel like Flank chose me. I didn't give him a name right away- I fully expected Flank to wander away after ten minutes or so. But he stayed true to me. He waited for me as I lingered like a silly bipedal humanoid wielding strange contraptions and pausing for amounts of time in various spots to snap photographs. He made sure I caught up when I struggled down narrow paths. And he sat with me whenever I chose to plop down in a field or along the path to take in the heavy silence of Rapa Nui Nature.

Not a bad view. Here we stopped to look at the scenery
and eat soda crackers. Please note the walking stick I
acquired somewhere along the way.

Flank and I finally reached the first stop of our two-tiered voyage above, the lookout over Rano Kau. This volcano crater, which looks like a giant scummy pond, provides the fresh water for the island. 

I named Flank "Flank" because I was staring at his flank the majority of the time. Also I think it's funny to pretend it's a bad mispronunciation of "Frank". Also, I found out that Flank was a female about halfway into our hike. By that point, we'd shared so much that I couldn't just up and change her name. We kept Flank despite the unladylike moniker. 

The Rapa Nui men used to compete for a coveted religious position
by swimming out to these rocks,
collecting some sort of seafood, then making it back to land alive.
Whoever made it back without being eaten by sharks or other
monsters of the sea then had the honor of spending
a year in a cave by themselves.

Along the trail up to Rano Kao.
That red face is a mixture of sunburn and exertion. 

Flank was so much "my dog" that day that she would come when I called her (I felt silly screaming "Flank" in front of other people but, hey, it's her name) and always reunited with me despite wandering off sometimes to go explore other things. When we finally reached the ceremonial site of Orongo, I was a bit panicky: what should I do? Would she wait for me outside while I went to look at the site? The answer was quickly clear: she was coming with. In fact, she led the way. Right through the visitor's center and all through Orongo. She was very friendly with the other tourists, and quite inquisitive as we see below. 

Flank, no! It says you can't go in there!

I had so much fun with Flank at Orongo. I was way more engrossed by the fact that I was wandering around an inactive volcano with my adopted dog-for-a-day (I mean, come on, who gets to go see ancient stuff with their pets??); so engrossed, in fact, that we breezed through the site and I think I missed all the exciting petroglyphs. Oops.

On our way back from the hike, Flank led me down a different
road than from where we started. I followed her, the dutiful
master that I am, and she brought me to this gem.
I am forever grateful to her.

Flank rests with me in the park. There were also
more moai here, so she gets a couple
tour guide points for this one.

Find the Flank! 

I thought she was being a silly and irresponsible Rapa Nui pup when she wandered off along the super steep coastline (depth not perceived well in the photo above), and when she began to descend closer to the cliff I even called to her to come back, anxious that she would slip and fall to her death. She ignored me, and instead sat on her haunches and watched the sea, unmoving, for almost ten minutes. We both enjoyed the view quietly, the sea breeze whipping our respective locks of fur/dreads. 

After the hike and surprise visit to the place above, I knew firmly and resolutely that she was the coolest dog I've ever met. I told her all about my dog back in my home country far, far away, how they would probably be really good friends; I told Flank that my dog could never be off-leash like she was, and that she was really lucky to have such a cool view like on Rapa Nui. Flank understood me. She also listened while I made up songs about the activities we were performing. 

After our hike, we meandered back into town. She waited for me as I stopped to buy groceries; she sat by my table as I rested with a coffee and to journal, even though the waitress tried to shoo her away and I said, "Please, she's with me." Flank paused as I lingered over souvenirs, waited patiently as I consistently was slower than her due to my two legged deficit. In fact, it was around this time that I knew she had to come back with me, whether or not the cabana owner Carmen liked it.

Just as we were about ten minutes from the cabanas, it started to rain. The precipitation up until that point was pretty sporadic- maybe it would sprinkle for five or so minutes, then it would clear up. Well, not this time. What started as a grey drizzle turned into a full-fledged monsoon. I wanted to take a taxi but knew that no Flanks were allowed in cars. So we walked. Step by step, through mud streams and up hills and along horse paths that had turned into miniature rivers. By the time we got back, every article of clothing was leaking water and I was completely soaked to the bone. But Flank was with me. 

And then, my beautiful Flank instantly plopped on the welcome mat in front of my door, as if she already knew it was my room.

Carmen came over a bit later and found Flank and I lounging outside during the freak rainstorm. She wasn't pleased. "What are you going to do with this dog? She can't stay here." I felt awful, like I was abandoning Flank, but what could I do? Feed her for a couple days, then just disappear from her life, never to return? It was a doomed situation and I knew it. She was Rapa Nui; I was beholden to the continent. I disappeared into my room for a time and when I next emerged, Flank was gone. I think Carmen's dogs scared her off.

This post is dedicated to the wonderful 6 or so hours that Flank and I spent together. I left for Orongo that day alone but returned with a new best friend. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Rapa Nui Bliss

Tell anyone you're going to Rapa Nui, aka Easter Island, and the response usually begins with an exclamation ("How cool! Bakan! I've never been!") followed immediately by a piece of advice ("Go to this restaurant. Visit this place at this time. Watch out for the moai at night."). The night before my flight from Santiago to Rapa Nui, I was lingering outside my hostel and got to talking with a random passer-by. The conversation of course led to Rapa Nui (all conversations end in Rapa Nui), and when the Advice Portion of the conversation rolled around, this is what he said first:

"Oye, chica, los pascuenses te van a comer." (Hey, girl, the Rapa Nui men are going to eat you.")


I'm proud to report, post-Rapa Nui, that I was never eaten by the rabid Rapa Nui men, nor was I molested in the night by the moai. I was, however, fully and completely satisfied by my trip in every possible way.

Let's start the Rapa Nui Review with some stats.

Number of empanadas consumed: 2. One was tuna and cheese on the beach for my birthday, the second was shrimp and cheese. Both were mouth-wateringly fresh because, well, fishing is pretty much the only option for fresh food round those parts.

Number of volcanoes climbed and conquered: 2. I climbed Rano Kau via a pedestrian trail, then continued on to a ceremonial village higher up named Orongo (long, hot, sweaty, lovely hike, accompanied by a totally unexpected but perfectly matched stray dog, whose tale I will relate another time); also ascended Rano Raraku on foot, which was a far less impressive feat but still beautiful and useful in my stats nonetheless.

Number of moai visited, spotted, witnessed and otherwise enjoyed: Upwards of 40, easily. It was hard to keep track of them all. Forget naming them, too. I thought that was a good idea in the beginning (wrong).

Time spent lingering, wandering, oogling and otherwise admiring the shit out of the island: innumerable hours.

Shades of tan acquired from sunbathing, hiking or just standing on the corner for too long in mid-day sun: 4

Amount of money spent on the island: [this information is currently not available nor will it ever be analyzed]

Number of caves spelunked: 1, La Caverna de Las Dos Ventanas. This number should have been higher. Next time, Rapa Nui. Next time.

Number of 4-wheeler breakdowns: 2. One of them occurred just as a policeman was signaling me to stop so he could check my driver's license. Little did he know I was in panic mode and desperate for someone to explain what was happening with the gears and why it would no longer shift out of 4th gear. We never got around to checking my license.

Average cost of a meal in any restaurant on the island: About $20, conservatively, not including drinks, appetizers, desserts, or anything.

People told me, prior to my trip, that 6 days was too long there. "Baaah, you can do it all in three days! Four, tops!" As an official Rapa Nui Veteran now, I can say with a firm word and soft heart that 4 days is an injustice, 6 days is a tease, and three weeks is ideal.

However, in fiscally responsible terms, 4 days is sufficient, 6 days is stretching your budget, and three weeks will leave you penniless and scouring the earth for extra income. Although I am still a "budget traveler" even when I splurge, Easter Island hit me way harder than I thought. I sort of knew this in advance - being the most remote island on the planet, one can't expect them to have cheap amenities. Everything, save the seafood and the moai, must be shipped in from Elsewhere. Farming is hard on the island due to rain and crop loss. Deforestation has altered the landscape, wildlife diversity is limited, and there's a history of cannibalism when protein sources dwindled. In other words, shit is expensive there.

My splurging consisted of the following: one meal out per day, usually with an adult beverage or two, a 4-wheeler for 24 hours, my own private room in some cabanas away from the city center, and the entrance ticket to the two main parks. The rest of the expenditures consisted of food for me to eat at the cabana, an occasional taxi and internet use, and the inexplicable disappearance of pesos when one is on Rapa Nui. (Most likely the moai in the night.)

However, let me make one thing clear: every last peso was incredibly well spent. Was I paying double or sometimes triple the price compared to anywhere else in the world? Yes. Was I still shocked and dismayed even coming off the tail en of a stint in Puerto Varas, one of the more expensive cities in Chile? Quite. Was it irrefutably worth it and I'd do it all again in a heartbeat and if I'd had more money I would have stayed for two more weeks? YES. YES. YES.

Sunset on Rapa Nui, my first night there.

Fun and festive cemetery. 

On the north-eastern part of the island,
during my four-wheeler adventures. See the moai
on the hillside?

I was the girl zipping around in the chic
black helmet with dreads flying in the wind.

At Ranu Raraku. The site of the quarry,
where the moai were carved.

Hiking along a twisting dirt path, rocky and impassable
for cars, with the vague idea that a cave was somewhere along
the way after about an hour or so of walking. 
I found it, eventually. But only after a few piercing moments of doubt
where I mistook nearly everything for a sign to the cave entrance.

View from La Caverna de las Dos Ventanas.
Spelunking is funlunking.

In case you wondered,
this is what the face of spelunking actually
looks like in Spelunking magazines. 

A bit of a funky shot from Anakena Beach,
where I spent my birthday reading, writing, sunbathing,
and reveling in that tuna empanada.

One of my favorite shots.
Tongariki, the day of my 4-wheeler excursion.
The day was too gorgeous for words.
Tongariki sits on the sea (like the whole island, technically?)
and features 15 moai.

This shot looks like something from a video game to me.
This is Rano Raraku, the quarry.
The moai are essentially in various points of 
a tumble down the quarry hill. Their transport
was halted for unknown reasons and they were left 
abandoned. I like to call this shot
"Moai Rush Hour".

Hanging with 15 of my closest buds
(not all pictured here).

A shot from my hike to the cave on my last full day on the island.
The views were stunning, and the hike was hot but pleasant.
I passed maybe 4 people the entire way there then back. 
Quiet, peaceful, beautiful, and humid sea air.
That dirt road is among my favorite places in the world. 

I spent the majority of my time alone during the day, finding company in the moai and my journal. At night, I spent time with my fellow cabana mates; one Spaniard who had moved to the island trying to start a massage/holistic venture, a Chilean couple who came to get married and then spend their Honeymoon there, and a Chilean journalist who was one of the most educated and well-spoken people I've ever met. The owner of the cabanas, Carmen, was pure Rapa Nui and she and I spent a few nights talking about life, culture, the real reason behind the moai, and yoga. All in all, I spent my time expressing myself on paper in English and verbally in Spanish, which is why upon my return to Santiago where I met Amanda, we noticed that my English skills had...slipped, to say the least.

Traveling alone to Rapa Nui was one of the best decisions I've ever made. Plenty of people commented negatively about this decision ("You're traveling alone? How boring. And for your birthday no less? Why would you do that?") but for me, it was a liberation that I didn't know I'd been craving. Everyday I woke up and asked myself, Hey, Shannon. What do you want to do? Feel like going to the beach? Maybe you want to meander slowly to the coffee shop and write for few hours? What about a hike to the summit of this volcano over here? Caves? Maybe caves? What about a FOUR-WHEELER. Well, at any rate, do some yoga, eat that fruit and nuts, take your time because no time schedule exists and you can do anything you want to do however fast or slow you want to, and then I'm sure there will be moai somewhere along the way. Just make sure you get really sweaty throughout the course of the day and take a thousand pictures. And also make sure the Rapa Nui don't eat you today.

I really like to be alone, though I'm not a perpetual introvert. I need a healthy dose of socialization. However, this trip came at just the right time. It was a nice (and needed) break from the rhythm of Puerto Varas. And far more physically taxing than what life has been for me in the south so far. I'm not sure how many miles I hiked/walked during my stay there, but it was far more than anything my body is used to. 

Furthermore, one of the reasons that I think extra time is not only a plus but a necessity for travelers like me (who find that delicate balance between budget and personal satisfaction) is that 'conquering' Rapa Nui is technically feasible in a day, if you rent a car and whiz between sites or, worse yet, come in a group package that ushers you blindly from one thing to the next. That doesn't allow for the quiet wonder and wander, the light sea breezes that caress your bright red boiling cheek in the middle of a hike where the trail end seems to be more of a fantasy than fact. Nor does it allow for the unexpected entrance of stray pets into your life (like I said, story pending), nor the discovery of caves, moai sites off the beaten trail, and more. I think Carmen, the cabanas owner, thought I was a bit of a rogue - some mornings I showed up at her cabana asking roughly how to do one thing or another, she would show me on the map, and then I'd go do it. Planning was at an all-time low on this trip, even by my standards.

This approach saves money, sure, but more than that I feel like I really connected with the island. With so much time spent knee-deep in it's hills and crevices, but yet with so much left to explore, I've got a good start on the journey to really know and appreciate this ridiculously remote gem of an island.

Also, please, can someone, anyone, give me a truly feasible answer for how anyone found the dang island in the first place? 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Guess what? Couldn't hold it in.

Like I said, I'm bad at holding it in. Farts, laughter, secrets about what I'm getting my friends for Christmas/birthdays, and more. I've been hanging with the moai here on Easter Island since Friday and, well, my harddrive space is filling up at an unprecedented rate.

Before I bore you all with this megalithic monotony (just kidding: far from monotonous. Sorry, moai. That was just a joke. Please don't haunt me in the night), I would like to pose a riddle.

How many dark silhouette photos of moai-against-sunlight can you have before it's too many?

Do you know the answer?

....Yeah?......Do ya?

Time's up!

The correct answer is: It was a trick question, YOU CAN NEVER HAVE TOO MANY! My iPhone and laptop harddrive serve as testament to this little-known but deeply true FACT. I present to you all now a sneak peek of Easter Island. Much more words and pictures to come, this I promise you.


P.S. I think I may have to move to an island soon. Not necessarily Easter Island, because it's relative remoteness makes me uneasy on the inside (seriously, once plane fuel prices go up, they are so screwed). But this sun? These palms? This ocean and sand and view of various cliffs and volcanic remnants? Yeah, I'm ready for that kind of stuff in my life. Plus the humidity isn't bad. I never thought I'd miss humidity, but DAMN YOU OHIO SUMMERS you've crept into the fabric of my being.

Found this on accident my first day here during my walk to town.
This is the ceremonial site of Tahai. 
Literally can see it from my cabana. 

Found this guy today on my way back from a 
dirtbike expedition around the island. I don't know what
site it is yet, but he was very stern and didn't talk much. 
He's probably upset because he's got some ancient paint on his face.

This is me and the moai at the beach Anakena.
I spent my birthday on this beach this past Saturday.
People say I'm traveling alone, but I beg to differ.
These guys behind me were great company.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Countdown Begins

Let's be fair, the countdown is actually ending, since today is my last day before I leave Puerto Varas for my three-week stint in the north. Tonight at 10:30pm I leave on an overnight bus to Santiago. I'll check into my hostel tomorrow, spend a nice afternoon/evening in the capital, then check in for my flight to Easter Island on Friday at 8am.

Am I thrilled? You bet. Excited? Heinously. A little bit braindead due to the onslaught of experiences, vistas, and newness that awaits me? Absolutely. On top of all this, I am in a strange state of denial about the fact that my time in Puerto Varas has come to a relative end: sure, I'll be back here at the end of March, but the majority of my friends and acquaintances will have fled by then. So these past few days have been rife with goodbyes, celebrations, a-little-bit-too-much drinking, and a helluva lot of FUN.

Yesterday my friends and I celebrated my birthday a bit early with a home-cooked Jambalaya at the Guesthouse, followed by tres leches cake, Sex on the Beach (the drink...come on, guys), Euchre, a brief nap, dinner at a local nice restaurant, a stint at the Casino (I played Blackjack without having any idea what I was doing and was up 6,000 pesos at the end, roughly $12 USD), then a long night of Champagne and Cosmopolitan consumption at the Garage with some close buddies. Truly, a lovely way to celebrate my 2__ th birthday early in Chile.

Now, off to go celebrate my real birthday on Easter Island this weekend.

Expect pictures and stories and details and a general explosion of thoughts, but maybe not until the whole trip is over. There's no telling if I'll fully disconnect on the island; though that's the goal, I may be too inspired by the moai to be able to hold it in (I'm bad at holding it in).

Another notable sunrise in Puerto Varas.
Looks impressionistic - good job, Mother Nature. 

And then also this one.

Catch you on the flip side, ya'll. Thanks for reading, and I wish you all the most delightful experience in whatever you are currently doing. NAMASTE!