Tuesday, June 23, 2015
Day 14 (part 1)
If you live on a tiny rock thousands of kilometres away from any other sign of life, and you believe in star gods and spirits in nature, then you are bound to end up going a little doolally. How else might you explain the incredible moai culture of Rapa Nui all those centuries ago? Or the bizarre birdman cult that followed? Or indeed the decline of all of it as Rapa Nui's thriving culture eventually collapsed and went the way of the dodo? There are so many theories about the how and why of this island that it only seems right to come up with your own as well, if you are lucky enough to visit this place and get a sense of the vibe here.
I say all this because the spooky and strange Orongo ceremonial village that hugs one side of a volcanic caldera, just outside of the capital, is such an odd, godforsaken place that you soon start to imagine and dream up all kinds of weird stuff yourself. It is howling such a gale up here that it is threatening to blow us off the top of the volcano rim and in to the tempestuous waters of the Pacific below. The wind is screaming. Why on earth would you build a load of stone houses in this desolate spot up on the edge of a windswept cliff top? Once upon a time, this was the site of a birdman cult. Make Make was their god. They used to come up here and perform bird-cult rituals, whatever they might be. Inside the strange caldera, tortora reeds float in equally weird patterns upon the caldera lake. Like I said: spooky and strange.
All over Rapa Nui, small stones, usually in a circular pattern, mark the point at which you should venture no further. Understandably, this simple and inoffensive 'please keep off' prevents most of the thousands of annual visitors from face stroking the moai or lying on the ahu performing sickly selfies. But up here on the edge of the caldera, the wind hissing, the waves below crashing into the rocky headland, one of these small piles of rocks is preventing visitors from reaching the ancient birdman petroglyphs that are just out of sight. Hannes gives in to temptation and strolls a further five yards where he is able to spy the said petroglyphs but soon gets apprehended by the most Polynesian looking bloke we've seen during our entire time here; a local we had assumed was a tourist. I must admit I am roaring with laughter (from a safe distance) as Hannes gets a talking to and seems to be on his way to a possible citizen's arrest for crossing the rock threshold. Of course, the Rapa Nuian bloke in question is absolutely correct to apprehend the young Swiss (comedy value aside). Apparently, due to coastal errosion that particular spot is in danger of collapsing and hurtling into the wild Pacific Ocean below. Hannes apologises like a meak schoolboy and, after a thorough good talking to, we are finally able to hike back across the fields and small forest to the capital where we briefly watch one of the three daily jumbo jets clear our heads by 100 metres and touch down with a thump.
After a few hours spent in the gorgeous Polynesian hotel garden full of ferns and red flowers, and now properly assimilated to the slower pace of life on Easter Island, we take our Pisco to Hanga Roa's sole football stadium, down by the waterfront. There are apparently around 20 teams that play in the Rapa Nui League and we have arrived just in time to watch what appears to be a pub team play against an under-15 superstars side. Most of the pub team - let's call them Rapa Nui United - have just finished work and quickly dress at the side of the pitch before running on and blasting balls at the net without as much as a 5-minute warm up. The kids team on the other hand, look super skillful and might pass as a Premier league youth development team to see them warm up before the match. Hannes is predicting a 10-0 thrashing for the kids team, while I reckon the pub team are going to boss this one...
...twelve seconds on the clock and it is 1-0 to the u-15 superstars. Hannes takes a big congratulating swig of his mango pisco. But never fear, Rapa Nui United are classic pub team: they look overweight, out of shape and a bit rough around the edges but clearly in a parallel universe a couple of these lads could have played in the Chilean second division. Goal, Goal, Goal. And by half time it is 7-2 to Rapa Nui United. Of course, during this time, Hannes and myself have been chatting to one of the two subs - the cocaine sniffing number 22 - hoping they might invite us to play for them in the second half. At one point there is a discussion about the possibility of us maybe putting our boots on but I think the sight of our now empty bottle of pisco has buggered that one up for us. Instead, we have to settle for an impromptu kick about at half time, a huge moai staring across at us from the harbour as the waves crash noisily nearby. It is Hannes' first kick about for almost a year to the day after getting badly injured in a cup tournament last June. I think I even manage to break the stand-in goalkeeper's finger as he only manages to parry a pisco-induced thunderbolt into the top corner of the net. Grassroots football. You have got to love it. In the case of this particular match: very often absurd but brilliant. It is amazing to be attending the 2015 Copa America but, ultimately, this is where all that comes from. Not only is the setting quite remarkable, but here you have possible future stars playing 40 year old has beens and 32 year old only ifs. On this Polynesian field of dreams you have all the same banter, commaraderie and love of the game as you get on football pitches right across the globe. And in some countries - England included - grassroots football is dying as the mega billions made at the top of the game stay there with the elite, greedy and connected, instead of being reinvested in the grassroots game for everyone to enjoy. And you know what? The two of us find it harder to tear ourselves away from this Rapa Nui league game than it was from perhaps Venezuela vs Peru a few days ago in Valparaiso. It is funny really, when you think of it, because football today is a bit like a cult. After all, aren't all the flags, banners and player worship even more strange than the cult of moai and birdmen?