by Brian Kerstetter
SWIMMING ON EASTER ISLAND
“DO NOT COME TO EASTER ISLAND! I REPEAT, DO NOT COME TO EASTER ISLAND!" This was the email O. received from a German travel agent, specializing in tourism to the UNESCO World Heritage site, when he asked about shooting a photograph involving the monolithic moai statues that have inhabited the island for centuries.
Interpreting this as an invitation, O. booked us on LAN Airlines Flight 1521, from New York to Easter Island, via Santiago, Chile, touching down on the night of May 5, 2004, exactly nine days after receiving the travel agent’s email.
As the residence of some 887 sacrosanct statues, carved from hardened volcanic ash between the 10th and 16thcenturies, Rapa Nui, the indigenous name of Easter Island, is considered the most remote inhabited settlement on the Earth, a prehistoric pinprick adrift in the Pacific Ocean.
O. and I journeyed to Easter Island neither as amateur anthropologists, nor as eco-tourists, though we did carry a sizable camera. Our goal was simply to take a single photograph. That is, O. wished to have a little fun with a celebrated row of seven statues, known as Ahu Akivi, by transforming them into absurdly grinning rabbits. This would be accomplished with the aid of cardboard cut-outs of mouths and rabbit ears affixed to a handmade iron–and–string apparatus positioned a few feet in front of the camera and employing simple depth-of-perception photography. A part of O. had never graduated Kindergarten, and it was this part, the schoolyard cutup, that latched on to these antediluvian treasures as ripe targets for a 21st century makeover.
Our second day on the island, with the aid of scissors, glue and Magic Markers, O. and I recast the sixteen feet tall, eighteen ton statues from glum patricians into hee-hawing hares. No sooner had O. released the shutter on his Hasselblad, than a local boy with jet black hair galloped over the horizon and halted before us on a chestnut colt. In broken English, he asked our business.
“Just taking pictures of these rabbits,” O. said, eyeballing the preliminary Polaroid’s.
The youth removed his floppy sombrero and scanned the horizon, paying no attention to the moai carvings. He glanced searchingly at me and I flicked my head in the direction of the camera and tripod. The boy replaced his hat, maneuvered his horse behind the camera, and warily peered into the viewfinder. The instant his eyes focused, a tomato-red smile erupted across his face. He must have gazed into the camera for thirty seconds, not believing the venerable statues of his youth were now a band of snickering bunnies. Shaking his head, he tipped his cap in our direction and bolted off, laughing and bumping up and down in the saddle.
The following day, O. and I set about exploring the island. We wandered into Hanga Roa, the island’s solitary town, with the intention of renting a couple of horses. The young man from the previous day, galloping into the horizon like a Harlequin Romance book cover, had compelled us toward the horse as the most suitable conveyance for touring the island. Our selection had nothing to do with how we’d look postured atop statuesque geldings in the snapshots we’d show our friends back home.
At the stables, a plump fellow with a mustache resembling a cord of fraying kindling welcomed us and, attending to our request, escorted two miserable beasts before us, one more diminutive than the other. The rest of the world would have called these animals donkeys. The larger of the two reached the top of my thigh. To head off any fondness O. might foster for these bantam burros, I cleared my throat unnaturally and shot him a glance that clearly stated: “ABORT MISSION. I REPEAT. ABORT MISSION.”
“Hop on,” O. said, administering a crisp pat to the animal’s rump.
I envisioned being dragged the length and breadth of the island by this decrepit mule. I held my ground, imagining the balls of my feet stapled to the wood floor.
“Hup! Ride ‘em cowboy,” O. exclaimed, clapping his hands. “Look, he likes you!”
Upon hearing the clapping, the mule reared its dopey eyes in my direction. The animal looked as enamored with me as I was with him.
“Giddy-up,” I muttered, pinching a smile in the direction of the farmer.
I fantasized about how I would make O. pay for this, but my reveries were diverted by the farmer’s mustache, which had taken to twitching like a tasered squirrel in the hopes of a transaction.
To say I mounted the animal would be hyperbole. I approached the mule, lifted my left leg in the air and replaced it to the ground on the other side of him, like getting on a three-speed bicycle. I jostled the reins and the horse trudged forward, dragging my long, stringy legs along the floor next to him. The soles of my sneakers produced a demeaning squeal as they trailed along the floorboards. The contemptuous beast turned its head to see what was causing the resistance. I caught a glimpse of myself in the stable window – I appeared to be riding a goat.
“Yep,” O. concluded, holding his fist to his mouth, his eyes glistening. “That’s the one.”
The farmer took hold of the reins and urged the sleepy runt back in the opposite direction. O. wanted to observe the animal drag my legs back the way we’d come. And for this, I can scarcely forgive him: he reached into his breast pocket, withdrew his digital camera, and snapped a photo of me and my pendulous legs atop the pint-sized mule.
“Definitely the one,” O. said, reviewing the image, his voice quivering.
We’d have chartered the two animals had the farmer not informed us, once in the saddle, that O. and I resembled our horses.
“Like happy family on holiday,” the man exclaimed, intending this as a parting compliment. “I take picture!”
Compliment or not, neither O. nor I could face returning home with hundreds of photos in which our facial expressions exhibited doubt as to whether or not we took after our horses. Bounding off the animals, we thanked the mustache, shoved a few pesos in his hand, and rushed back to town, where we hired a pair of equally ramshackle 1970s Hondas, complete with World War II-era helmets and Red Baron-style aviation goggles.
Accelerating out of the parking lot, I spotted O. in my rear view mirror, still propped on his machine, the kick stand down, peering back at me from behind his oversized kamikaze goggles. O. had never ridden a motorcycle, it turns out, and imagined riding one to be akin to handling the moped he owned as a teenager in Switzerland. My reservations about the horse were now supplanted by an even greater skepticism of the motorcycle. O. reassured me, categorizing himself as a quick study, and proceeded to peer down at his feet in search of the pedals.
We walked the motorcycles out of town in search of a vacant lot, where O. could learn to ride without harming himself or, more crucially, others. Along the way, a pick-up truck pulled over to ask if we needed gas. “Thanks, but we have gas,” I replied. And pointing at O., I added, “He doesn’t know how to ride a motorcycle.” With that, the pick-up sped off amid hoots of braying laughter and exhaust fumes. In the lingering climate of the horse photo, I now felt we were square.
Adjacent to a rusting tractor, O. got the hang of the motorcycle. That is, he accelerated, stalled and generally misappropriated the defenseless machine for the better part of an hour. I learned in the process that O. wasn’t pleased with the gear configuration – first gear downwards, gears two through five upwards.
“Why not all five gears up?” he questioned, after devoting five minutes in search of neutral.
“They’re all like that,” I informed him, reclining against a tree. “Is that relevant now?”
I hadn’t completed my question, when he popped the clutch and wrenched forward, stalling the engine.
“That was second gear,” I muttered.
He kicked the gears and heaped abuse on the rental machine in both English and Swiss German.
“You’ll get used to it,” I called, trying to be supportive, and closed my eyes.
I reopened them, almost immediately, in time to witness the motorcycle, lacking a rider, barrel past into a row of shrubs. Checking my watch, I suggested we put the finishing touches on his apprenticeship on the road. It was noon before we embarked on the looping artery that would conduct us around the island. By this point O. had settled into a mutually contentious relationship with the machine, such that between his carping and the engine’s whining, the atmosphere was that of a feuding couple. I periodically checked my rear view mirror to monitor O.’s status. There he was, bless him, hanging on for dear life, puttering forth at a few miles per hour, hunched over the handlebars in the white knuckle posture of a speed racer crossing the finish line.
An hour into our excursion we motored past the volcanic crater known as Rano Raraku, a graveyard of fragmentary stone cadavers, inexplicably abandoned sometime in the 17th century. Dark clouds peppered the horizon, as we veered onto a path that wound through reeds and pine forest, opening unexpectedly onto an alcove of pristine sand.
We had stumbled on Anakena Beach, one of only two sand beaches on an island otherwise enrobed by volcanic coastline. The beach resembled a Polynesian postcard, but for the inky sky, gurgling thunder, and the six gloomy moai statues lording over the beach from their centuries-old perch. We leaned the motorcycles against a palm tree. An aura of abandoned fossil hung over the beach like archaic gauze. The converging storm pulsed in the background, illuminating the statues’ sinister faces. Thunder pounded the cliffs, reverberating over the roiling tides.
O. flung his gray t-shirt in the air and, imitating a caveman, beat his chest with his fists, and dashed into what looked like a cauldron of frothy iced tea, piercing the waves head first and disappearing. I followed suit, bounding after him, making whooping sounds, only to collapse in an excruciating heap in the shallow foam, having tread on a jagged mollusk.
Behind us, the tempest whipped our clothes off our handlebars, slingshotting them into the reeds. All the while the implacable eyes of the looming statues looked on from above.
O. crouched in the water, observing the immemorial surroundings.
“Strange, isn’t it?”
“It’s them,” I said, eyeing the carvings.
Suddenly, O. thrust his finger toward the beach, his eyes ballooning, his jaw collapsing.
When I failed to turn around, O. amplified his performance by stumbling backwards and punching at the waves, like a B-movie actor confronting Godzilla.
“Good one,” I mumbled, and engaged in some circular dogpaddling to keep warm.
We bobbed up and down in the surf, like debris from a shipwreck, picturing the beach millions of years ago, inhabited by Tyrannosaurus rex, the skies filled with cawing Pteranodons. The beach’s sepia light recalled the dinosaur books I’d read as a kid during endless vacation car rides.
O. practiced the backstroke, but the tumbling waves and retreating undertow combined to spin him in circles like a log at a lumberjack competition. He contented himself with wafting on the surface and squirting sea water from his mouth, creating miniature collisions with the falling raindrops.
“Think they’d save us?” O. wondered, peering up the statues.
“If we drown.”
“Why not find out,” I proposed.
No sooner had I suggested it than O. vanished beneath the waves, arms flailing in the air as though he were drowning.
I considered holding his head underwater, but he resurfaced too quickly.
“Stupid statues!” O. bellowed, erupting from the water.
I don’t expect you to believe what happened next. I will recount the facts, as surely as they came to pass that afternoon on Ankena Beach. What’s more, after leaving Easter Island, O. and I never, not once, made reference to the events that transpired in those fifteen minutes.
The storm had churned the tides into milky peaks that crested high above our heads. The undertow was sweeping a salad of seaweed, plants, ferns and algae against our limbs, out to sea, weaving a slimy web around our legs. Like quicksand, the more we struggled, the deeper our entanglement became, until a coil of gyrating vegetation had manacled our legs. O. plunged underwater in a last ditch effort to unfetter himself. Little did we know, all the while, we were being hauled out to sea by the receding tides.
The next thing we knew, the beach was engulfed by a deep-seated gurgling, like that manufactured by a colossal hungry belly, which yielded what can only be characterized as a cosmic-sized burp. This monumental discharge – there was no denying it – spawned laughter. A percolating titter, at first, burgeoned into an all-consuming eruption of hilarity from the vicinity of the statues, like a monstrously overzealous laugh track dumped onto a cheap sitcom. In a matter of seconds, the beach was shuddering beneath a volatile confection of unruly howling and tear-producing guffaws, punctuated by intermittent gravelly snorts.
In this atmosphere of convivial merry-making, O. and I were being gently escorted out to sea. That’s when we recognized, roosting atop the cliffs in place of the venerable statues, our buck-toothed rabbits from O.’s photo, doubled over with laughter, pointing in our direction. These ludicrous hares had come to life to exact revenge on us, their tormentors, indulging in a celebratory curtain call at our final hour. And all signs indicated they planned to make a party of it.
Who knows what flashes across a human brain in the final moments before death? A soft-focus, Oprah-esque pastiche of life’s Hallmark Greeting Card moments, or an absurdist collage of Three Stooges assaults, representing a definitive, turd-scented middle finger raised defiantly, as a parting farewell, to a couldn’t-care-less world? In the course of being carted out to sea, O.’s preposterous hares mocking us as we went, we were afforded a preview of which epilogue to look forward to.
Then, with the sea’s slimy fingers contracting around us, as irrefutably as the nose on my face, a towering appendage sliced across the heavens, plunging into the waters before us. The form resembled a prehistoric whisker. Without delay, we latched on to the great fibrous follicle and felt ourselves corralled toward the beach where, in the shallow waters, we managed to disentangle our limbs and crawl ashore. When we turned toward the jubilant rabbits for enlightenment, only the original moai statues, with perfect indifference, returned our gaze.
That evening, at dinner, O. and I ordered two steaks and drank more than usual. O.’s bearing was ruminative, eschewing his ritualistic banter with the waiter, clearly preoccupied by what had occurred that afternoon at Ankena Beach. When he accepted the wine without multiple tastings and his trademarked, “well, it needs to open up,” I realized his temperament was forthrightly philosophic. O. loitered over his steak and this, too, made me ill at ease. He could routinely make a meal that took ten minutes to order, disappear in under five, as though eating were an Olympic sport and he was training for gold.
“700 years is a long time,” he said, more for his own benefit than mine.
I took a drink, awaiting more detail. None was forthcoming, and I conceded that 700 years was indeed a long time.
“I mean, how would you like it?” he asked. “Having the same l-o-n-g face for 700 years?”
“The statues …?”
O. took a drink of wine and made a face like he’d dipped his tongue in a glass of sauerkraut.
“Headache wine,” he mumbled.
I took a swig and swished it around, like mouthwash.
“Black cherry… leather… with a lovely hint of …”
“Shut up,” O. muttered, distracted by the scenarios playing out in his head to rationalize the day’s events.
O. leaned back, his forefinger manically chafing the cuticle on his thumb, like a housefly rubbing its legs together.
“Maybe we did them a favor,” he said.
I was certain I hadn’t done anyone a favor in quite some time. Nonetheless, I engaged my jaws around a chunk of meat and masticated earnestly, peering into the air.
“In the photo … don’t you see,” O. continued. “We made those boring statues happy … for one day … with red lips and big smiles and …”
“And rabbit ears,” I added, through a mouthful.
“Okay, and rabbit ears…” O. conceded. “The point is…”
O. sat up in his chair and, looking around suspiciously, lowered his voice. “The point is…those cardboard smiles and rabbit ears saved us. S-a-v-e-d our lives.”
My left eyebrow flinched and, like a spy about to divulge his final tip-off, O. whispered, “They weren’t there to laugh at us…they wanted to help us. You think this is a joke, but don’t you see, they wanted to thank us for one pathetic day of happiness in 700 years!”
To buy time, or to fete the glorious, unanticipated poetry of O.’s conclusion, I raised the empty wine bottle in the air and gestured to the waiter for another. I reclined in my chair and considered the day’s events from O.s perspective.
His account, on target or not, seemed as passable as any. And if, one day, back on the mainland, I should find myself face to face with an agnostic, I intended to make damn certain my facts were watertight. To this end, I ventured a closing summation.
“Let me get this straight. You’re saying some statues saved our lives because we dressed them like Bugs Bunny and…”
In mid recap, O. threw both his hands in the air, like a cop stopping traffic at a busy intersection. He was through with me.
As I got up to go to the bathroom, I heard O. mumble under his breath.
“What’s wrong with him, it’s not so f*cking complicated.”