Scene-setter: We’re going with the movies we watched on the plane to Easter Island, which sounds lazy, but stay with us. All the moai (the statutes with the big heads) on the island have their backs to the ocean save for the seven that stand at Ahu Akivi, a site on the northwest of the island. According to origin myth, these figures represent the first explorers from the islands of Hiva who were sent by their chief to find other lands fit to inhabit. They face the sea, waiting for their people to join them—which is basically the plot of Interstellar, so there you have it.
The other film we watched was Birdman, which was the name of an annual religious rite of the Rapa Nui peoples around the 18th century. Every spring, at the start of sooty tern mating season (sooty tern is a bird), each tribe on the island would send a representative to the ceremonial village of Orongo. There, the competitors would climb down a cliff and swim through shark-infested waters to a small island (off the coast of this already small island) where the terns made their nests. The first warrior to capture an egg and return with it to Orongo would be crowned Birdman and become a holy figure for the next year, just like Michael Keaton.
Pound-the-table recommendation: If one were to visit this island made of magic, one would obviously want to see the iconic heads and the lush landscapes. One would certainly want to eat tuna empanadas and drink pisco sours. And some would say that one must see such and such heads at sunrise and such and such at sunset—the “postcard moments,” as we heard them referred to. But the one thing that we did on Rapa Nui that really and truly blew our minds was we looked up at night. Never have we ever seen so many stars in the sky. It felt like a planetarium, but one that was maybe overdoing it a little. When you’re on an island that is a five hour flight from the nearest civilization, light pollution is minimal, and you get to have a moment with the cosmos that is pretty legit.
Back-pocket fact: (Not a fact so much as a theory, just like “global warming”…) So what’s up with the moai? One theory is that they represent people stricken with leprosy. The distinguishing features of the moai—the enlarged noses, prominent ears, pursed lips—are all appendages that would have deteriorated when stricken with the disease. Unlike Hawaii, where lepers were shipped off to Molokai, people with leprosy would have lived among the community. Perhaps the moai were a symbolic way of restoring lepers to health once they died.