chile,  travel,  year abroad

The stolen moai | Travel stories | Rapa Nui

One thought reverberated around my mind as we stood around a small dining table draped in white lace, listening as our host introduced herself: We are far too sleep-deprived for this much enthusiasm.

We had quite literally come so far: over 2,300 miles to be exact, mostly across the vast Pacific ocean. And five hours of flight time, some waiting around at the overcrowded baggage carousel and a squashed taxi ride later, we had arrived at our accommodation on Rapa Nui.

Our host was a local resident, conveniently the mother of a friend of a friend, and the house was basic but large and fairly comfortable, even if that evening we were to discover that it did nothing to keep a few errant cockroaches out. For now, however, our knowledge was limited to what we saw before us: the short, beaming woman bearing glasses of fresh mango juice. She was extremely enthusiastic about everything and had an easy laugh to accompany her interesting sense of humour.

“The mangoes came from the tree outside,” she told us in lightly-accented Spanish, only satisfied when we responded with ample amounts of awe and excitement.

The juice was in fact the second nice surprise of our arrival on the island: at the airport, we had been greeted with seven floral necklaces, each made with freshly woven grass and flowers.

“Now, you’ve got two hours to settle in and buy your tickets. Mi casa es tu casa. Until Sunday, and then you’re out,” our host laughed, and swept out with an airy, “If you need anything at all, don’t ask!”

What at first had seemed to be just an easy way of arranging our accommodation and tours soon came to be a huge blessing. Not having to navigate around the island or come up with an itinerary or go searching (without internet) for the information to accompany what we were seeing was a relief and a delight.

I will never forget the moment our guide explained the history of Hoa Hakananai’a (“lost or stolen friend”, a moai statue whose back is carved with images and symbols relating to Rapa Nui culture) as we stood in the Rano a Raraku park.

“This moai is in your country – your home,” she told us, “In the British Museum. But he needs to come home. He belongs to us. He means so much to Rapa Nui – he is our history, he is part of this island. He has travelled so far but now it is time for him to come home.”

Tears glimmered in her eyes; a droplet overflowed and fell across her cheek, unhidden, unashamed. The seven of us stood silent, buffeted equally by the fierce wind and by the force of the emotion evident in our guide’s words.

It seemed impossible that just a few minutes earlier this woman had been laughing and telling us (truthfully) that the necks of the moai had been modelled of the shape of a man’s… ahem, privates… and telling the two guys in our group to have a little look next time and compare. (I warned about her humour).

She reached in her bag for her phone, scrolled once or twice to a video which must have been frequently accessed, and showed us the campaign video for the moai’s safe return to the Island. The hashtag #QueVuelvaElMoai (“Let the moai come back”) flashed up on the screen and we stayed quiet.

“But the government are working with us,” she continued, with the smallest glimmer of hope appearing on her lips, “The good thing is that they haven’t rejected our communication, and now we’re working out what we could do to put him back in his rightful place. What we could make to give the British government in exchange for Hoa Hakananai’a.”

That this seemed like a good thing seemed somehow wrong to me. Why should the British museum receive something in exchange for an item which was never theirs to keep and display? But she was right; at least they weren’t rejecting the idea completely.

The following day, we were to see the exact location in Orongo from which the British HMS Topaze expedition stole the moai in the 19th century. Debate is still ongoing as to whether he should return to his home, which is now marked by a stone circle, or if he ought to be preserved in a museum as he has been for over 150 years in Britain.

She dabbed at her eyes, and smiled again. “And now you can go home and remember the tears I shed for Hoa Hakananai’a.”

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