After having travelled along the coast of Latin America from Medellin to Bogota in Colombia, to Quito in Ecuador, Lima in Peru and Santiago, Chile, we were finally ready for the last leg of our Latin American journey – the 5 hours flight from Santiago to Rapa Nui – Easter Island. This was a vision that was born in Valparaiso two years ago when Oscar Ordenes, National Secretary in Chile YMCA and I were talking together about the island far away out there in the Pacific Ocean. Oscar always had wished to go there and find out the situation for young people, and the dream was to start a YMCA out there on the small island. A school class from Easter Island had visited Valparaiso YMCA a few months ago, and we had a good contact with one of the schools on the island.
This is the first photo of the Moais, stone statues representing famous ancestors and carriers of blessing and protection for the clans on the island. There are hundreds of them and they are scattered around the coast, all of them staring into the land to protect it and give it strength. Only 7 Moais look to the ocean, to remind people on the island about the first ancestors coming in their canoes and colonizing the island, most likely around 800 A.D.
The first morning we left the hotel, this group of young people from the school we were about to visit, sang gospel songs for us on the city square. The population is around 6-7000 and around 1500 of them are under 18 years of age. There are four schools, but not too many activities after school for young people.
The teachers took well care of us and asked interestedly about the YMCA and what we stood for. They also explained what their school was prioritizing and how they focused on teaching old elements from the Rapa Nui culture, how to build canoes, how to make ropes and how to do traditional cooking.
Oscar does not need any invitation to take part in the football game of the kids at school, and threw himself with full energy into the play. A door opener of dimensions, Oscar!
This is the teacher responsible for sports and physical education, and he was really impressed when Oscar told him the truth about Basket Ball and Volley Ball. You could almost feel how the respect for the YMCA was growing.
One of the main roads down to the ocean. You were never far away from the ocean anywhere on the island, it is only measuring 7km times 21km, and is a triangle of old, dormant volcanoes. The oldest one 3 million years and the youngest only a few hundred thousand years old.
Here the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholic missionaries came from Tahiti in 1864, and that meant the end to many old traditions and competitions between the different clans on the island. Most people are Roman Catholic, but there are at least four evangelical churches on the island as well.
The coast line down town, surfers’ paradise, and open for all kinds of water sports. This is what is in focus for many young people, swimming, canoeing, surfing, fishing – you name it.
I tried to visualize the feeling of loneliness that sometimes overtook me as I was walking around the beautiful landscape of Rapa Nui. Rapa Nui is the name they use for themselves. They belong to Chile since 1884, but there is also a strong energy for more independence and more protection for the indigenous culture and old traditions. For hundreds of years the Polynesian clans were left alone, no neighbors, no enemies, no visitors at all, before the first European sailors came. We know that a Dutch sailing ship came to the Island in the early 18th century, landed on the island on Easter Day, and therefore the name Easter Island! The visitors from Europe did not bring much blessings, but they brought illnesses that killed a high number of the population. They were extremely vulnerable for unknown diseases which these sailors brought with them.
The Mayor received us in his office very friendly and gave us a good overview of the situation on Easter Island, or Rapa Nui as he called it. “There is no other government in a circle of 4000 km around us,” he said with a broad smile. Rapa Nui really is the most distant habitat in the world, no other populated spot on the globe has such distances to the nearest neighbors. The people on Rapa Nui wants to take care of their old culture, knowing that they are such a small population they are very vulnerable. We underlined that if the YMCA would come to the island, it would be organized with local leadership and local ownership. We are not bringing traditions and programmes from the outside if they are at all threatening for the local, indigenous culture.
The climate on Rapa Nui is sub tropical, and always very windy. So the evenings were quite cool, the nights cold, and the climate was not very favorable for agriculture or forests, and a dramatic deforestation had taken place in the 16th century, leading to an extremely difficult ecological crisis with food shortage and lack of trees to build seagoing canoes. At the depth of this crisis a civil war broke out on the island. The overclass being used to the lower classes serving them and working hard to carve out the famous statues, the Moais, and not the least to transport them for many kilometers, all of a sudden experienced that the servants and slaves made a revolt. The war spread to the clans and became a devastating situation. Almost 100% of the Moais, the stone statues, were overthrown by competing clans, and the population became dangerously small in numbers.
Erity Teave to the far right here, was our hotel hostess. A brilliant one, full of hospitality and good care. She spoke fluent English and was very interested in our visit to the island. It turned out that she was the President of the Council of Chiefs, the native leadership on the island, and also a very influential member of the Rapa Nui Parliament. She had even been to the UN in Geneva, representing Rapa Nui. A dedicated Christian, she was committed to help the young generations of her people against all the problems around drugs and alcohol and violence, and she asked eagerly about more information about the YMCA. When she heard that we are represented on Tahiti, New Zealand, Hawaii and Australia, she saw possibilities for a network of Polynesian cultures. She started to call around the island and introducing us, and before we knew it, we had our days fully programmed with numerous meetings and visits around the island. The first result was the visit to the Mayor, a cousin of Erity. Then we were invited to meet the President of the Parliament and the lawyer of the King, then we were invited to speak to the Parliament during a meeting the same evening. That became a very positive experience and the President expressed that there is a clear need for the YMCA to start work on his island. Next day the Governor on Easter Island cleared her busy agenda so that she could meet with us, and as she heard that Erity had volunteered to be the first local leader of the Rapa Nui YMCA, she expressed full support. The Governor promised to help the YMCA and Erity as much as she could. And smilingly we all gathered under the photo of the Chilean President and took an official photo of the visit to the Governors office. We visited two schools and had interesting conversations with the headmasters and the teachers. We learnt a lot from them about life on the island, culture, problems, how nice and calm it was to live there, and how it sometimes was a tense relationship between people from Chile and people from Rapa Nui. Next day there was a whole line of Pastors and Ministers from Evangelical Churches waiting to talk with us, and we also met with the Roman Catholic Priest. As if this was not enough, a group of brilliant young adults, working to build a music schools for youth to preserve the indigenous culture, invited us to visit their ecologically built project. Really impressive people and a very solid project. And they were all interested and motivated to work together with the YMCA.
Oscar Ordenes, National General Secretary of Chile YMCA, smiling in the sun, happy because the expedition to Easter Island went above all hopes and expectations. The founding meeting of the Rapa Nui YMCA is planned in a few days, and Chile has got a new local YMCA, and the YMCA is represented in a small, far away island with a fascinating history and culture. YMCA is now a small dot in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. An amazing development!
Now I am being called for my next flight and my watch will again be changed to a new time zone and my future jet lag is building up reserves to hit me with when I return back home 🙂 I have to run away from this very fast and good internet, which for a couple of hours made my digital life so easy. But I have much more to tell from Rapa Nui, so more in the next blog post!