We rocked up to the tour operator’s office at 9.15. His wife looked at us with complete bewilderment when we said we are here for a tour. A couple of frantic calls to her husband later and it’s clear that we are not going anywhere that day. At least not with him.
Honga Roa, the only town on Easter Island is everything you’d hope a Polynesian town to be. A maze of small fire red streets with only a couple of cobbled roads. Cars drive by idly (speed limit is 30km) whilst most locals either cycle or gallop down the road on horseback.
At the only pharmacy which we visit to buy a thermometer we are told that because of the winds and swell the boat carrying supplies to the island has not been able to unload its cargo. Boats do not dock here, the port is too small and shallow and so cargo is carried to shore in smaller boats. As a result, the island has run out of mosquito repellent, small gas canisters and tomato sauce.
We look into signing up for a tour of the island. Predictably all outlets offer the exact same tour options at comparable prices. At a tour operator off the main road we talk about surfing, the break right in front of the port looks tricky; both left and right lines are available but both break in shallow water on volcanic rocks.
He eyes us warily. “Do you have your own boards?” he asks.
“No we will need to rent”.
“Gringos come with their brand new boards and steal all our waves. We don’t have that many boards on the isnand and what we’ve got is old”. We heard many stories of gringos being shouted at on the line up or being abruptly cut off by a local as they paddle for a wave. Assured we would not be stealing all the waves he happily gives us the low down of the break and in return we agree to take the tour with him the next day.
Later the same day we stroll to the beach to look at the surfers. There’s quite a swell and 3-4 meter waves keep braking right in front of us.
“Not sure I can surf this” I say.
“No guts no glory” responds Andy.
In front of us a bare chested local holding a young baby on one hand and a freshly rolled spliff in the other is cheering his girlfriend on. From one of four sailing boats anchored at a distance a small dingy appears. On board a family of five.
“Familia loca” he tells us (“crazy family”). Not sure who’s more crazy. Them or him, now balancing with baby in his arms on the volcanic rocks where the waves break.
As the little boat makes its way past the line up the man starts waving his hands. He shouts but we can’t make out what he is saying. And then we see it. The first wave of the set rolls up, the best surfer of the group paddles for it and catches it. As the wave breaks he jumps off his board.
“How did he miss that? I thought he had it” I say.
And then I realise what’s happening. The wave broke right on the little boat throwing the father who was sitting by the motor off the boat. The surfer paddles to the dad and hands him his board to use as a raft.
By now the second wave is rolling up. The man on the shore has dumped his baby by our feet and has run off. Loud voices, hands gesturing and pointing, a fisherman jumps in his boat. In the water the rest of the surfers are all paddling for the wave. No one pops up, they all body board to where the little boat is.
The wave crashes mere feet of the boat which flies off the surface. When it lands back in the water all four passengers are still on board. The mother is trying to restart the motor but with all the water it stalls. About five surfers jump off their boards and hold on the the rails of the boat. They seem calm, orchestrated as if they have done this a million times. The third and biggest wave of the set is about to hit them.
Once again it misses them by a hair’s breadth. The force of the white water pushes the boat (with surfers and their boards all around them) a good 10 meters forward close to where the father, still holding on to the surfboard for dear life, is. He swims to the boat and tries to jump back in but the surfers tell him not to.
The fisherman approaches, takes a ladder and secures it on the side of the boat. The father slowly makes it onboard. The smaller boat is now on starboard side. Both boats slowly make their way to the harbour whilst the surfers paddle back out to catch the next set.
“Familia loco” says the bare chested guy who has now come back to pick up his child. “Loco loco loco” he says rolling another spliff. At a distance, the fisherman slowly pulls out of the harbour with the whole family heading out to their sailing boat.
Looks like the locals are not that unfriendly after all.
Visiting Easter Island has been on my list of places to visit long before I knew what a bucket list was. So when we were planning the trip and listing what we’d like to see, do and experience, Easter Island was the first thing I noted down and the one I refused to budge on.
We finally made it to Santiago on Wednesday afternoon. We did not plan to be there that early; I was hoping we’d spend the day exploring Valparaiso, visiting Pablo Neruda’s house and shooting a dress series shot in front of some of Valparaiso’s iconic graffiti. But from the moment we woke up we could tell something was wrong.
Whilst petrol stations were open the little shops and restaurants in them were all closed. There were no trucks on the streets. We counted 3 cars in a 250km stretch of road. In Valparaiso, everything was closed. Deserted streets with only bewildered tourists and homeless people. We asked a police officer were everyone was. “Censo” (census). Turns out Chileans take their civic duty very seriously and they all stayed at home.
Another hour passes, another 100km rolls by. The Atacama desert, the driest place on the planet is an utterly barren landscape. A vast, arid, rocky desert without a shred of vegetation. But it is not the landscape we are here to see. It is the stars…
Ten P.M. in the surf house and all is quiet. After hours in the water most of the inhabitants are hitting the recovery button, closing doors and going to bed.
At ten thirty a car pulls up outside. As the reggeaton fades, five girls get out giggling. Each is carrying a bottle of booze or a pack of beer. Looks like its going to be a lively night and, perhaps unsurprisingly, my plans for the evening change….
I have come to the realisation that I am not very good (read crap) at learning new things, especially if I don’t excel (or at the very least do better than my colleagues / classmates) pretty quickly. The last couple of weeks have been humbling and thought-provoking, rewarding and tear inducing, frustrating and exhilarating.
Allow me to expand.
There’s not much to say about Arica. A town of about 200,000 people perched at the northern point of Atacama and a stone’s throw from the border with Peru the town is dusty, heaving with backpackers and trucks moving north or south. The one amazing thing about Arica however is the surfing.
Before I left for Athens we agreed that it’d make sense to meet in Arica, a town on the boarder with Peru famed for its surf. We also agreed that till I got a passport in my hands it made little sense to plan further, book tickets etc. So whilst we were apart Andy was slowly making his way through Salta and I was enjoying all the modern day luxuries in Athens (decaf skinny lattes, Zara, haircut…).
When you pick up a hitch hiker you have a very,very short period of time for you both to figure out if either of you are a serial killer.
As I rolled past, he put his cigarette out on the heel of his Vans and put the butt in his pocket. Serial killer he may be, but a considerate one at least. I stopped, rolled back, window down and asked where he was going. Atacama. Jump in amigo.