Amid the Moai
Our Sleep Storyteller-in-Residence, Phoebe Smith, talks about the adventure behind her latest Sleep Story, Exploring Easter Island.
It had taken 24 hours to get here. 24-hours, three flights, two taxi rides and more coffee than I care to admit but, finally, I had made it to Easter Island. And not just anywhere on this far-flung patch of volcanic land, but to Tongariki where a row of 15 restored moai – the huge stone heads that made this place famous – stood watching me, watching them.
Yet despite my long journey to get here, following weeks of planning with my friends at Journey Latin America, I stood, not looking intently at the stone statues like everyone else, but instead with my eyes firmly shut.
To understand my apparent adversity to looking at the moai in that moment I should perhaps rewind a little.
These giants were, to me, celebrities. Ever since my mum had shown me a photo of them as a child in a huge picture book, they had invaded my dreams.
I longed to one day see them, to stand beneath their lofty faces and gaze upon them. But, once I knew I was actually going to be making this dream a reality, I started to do more research.
It wasn’t enough to just come and look at them. I wanted to truly understand them. Doing that I came across an incredible book, written 100 years ago. It was penned by a woman called Katherine Routledge and entitled The Mystery of Easter Island. Though hailing from Britain, she is all but forgotten by many and I for one had never heard her name. But it was down to her that we know so much about the statues – why and how they were made, what they represented and why they were all toppled by the year 1838.
She had been part of the first archaeological survey to the island but rather than just observing and measuring the stones, she started to connect with the locals and took the time to ask questions and – crucially – to listen to what they said.
And she didn’t just conduct one interview and then leave. She asked the Rapanui elders the same questions again and again; to be sure she was getting the most accurate information she could.
From the conversations she had, over the 15 months she was stationed here, we know today that the moai each represent a different member of the tribe. We learned from her that they face the villages they were from, rather than gazing out to sea, so that they could project their mana – or magic, wisdom and protection – onto their people even after they’d gone. And we know, thanks to Katherine, that they were toppled when the tribes stopped believing in them and fought between themselves, destroying the statues in a symbolic gesture.
When she arrived to the spot where I stood – the best place on the entire island from which to watch the sunrise – she had no guide to interpret what she saw. Instead she took the time to simply listen. To listen to the stones; listen to the sound of the waves crashing behind the plinth where they would have stood, and tune in to the sensations the gentle breeze caused her to feel as it stroked her cheek.
Of the experience she wrote: “Everywhere is the wind of heaven; round and above all are boundless sea and sky, infinite space and a great silence. The dweller there is ever listening for he knows not what, feeling unconsciously that he is in the antechamber to something yet more vast which is just beyond his ken.”
As a travel writer I’ve always been keenly aware of the need to use more than just one sense. Often I arrive in a place and, though I must look to be a very odd sight to some, I shut my eyes and notice immediately how fast my other faculties heighten.
I can smell the scent of the ocean and know it’s looming ahead while others with their eyes wide open have no idea. I can taste the coriander being grown in a field on the other side of an old stone wall without even having to spy it, and I can sense the joy a scene causes viewers without seeing the smiles spread on their faces.
And so that’s why, despite waiting many years to finally reach this far flung outpost, I chose not to look, but instead to listen, as Katherine had a hundred years before me. And in those moments I realised that the auditory experience of meeting the moai is far more rewarding than seeing them visually.
As I found, standing on the edge of the sea at Tongariki, if you listen very closely, you can hear the ancestors in the stones whispering to you, telling you their secrets. Because while archaeologists can reconstruct the fallen statues and replicate scenes from the past, it’s only when we close our eyes that we have the power to transport ourselves to anywhere and any time we chose. And that truly is mana…