Easter Island’s greatest festival
None of the seven statues at Akivi now has a hat, but it is likely that they once did: the ground at their base is scattered with red debris. In the soft evening light, the track leading up to the site glows orange from dust kicked up by passing cows. Shadows sidle down the hillsides, folding small farmsteads and rows of eucalyptus trees into darkness as they edge towards the ocean. A man stands in front of the moai, headphones on and swaying to music as if preparing to conduct some strange orchestra. Behind him, the Pacific turns violet, then petrol blue, then black. The moai stand silently watching the sky, as they have done for centuries.
Valentino Riroroko Tuki (‘Valentine’), the island’s king, spent years watching over his people from the mainland in Chile. In a bright Hawaiian shirt, he sits outside a café in Hanga Roa, greeting all who pass. It’s the day of the Tapati parade and everyone is busy getting ready – assembling feather skirts, plastering their bodies with the island’s red mud, and putting the finishing touches to elaborate floats. When Valentine was born, the Chilean government had sold the lease for Easter Island to a commercial company that ran it as a sheep farm for more than 50 years. The local population was effectively captive on its own island, with no rights of ownership until they regained some level of autonomy in 1966. In 1954, Valentine and a few friends cast out into the Pacific in a simple wooden boat to seek their freedom. “I left to show the government that we would not be prisoners here,’ he recalls. His sea voyage had lasted 56 days and brought him to near-starvation when his boat finally washed up in the Cook Islands. ‘We were so exhausted and happy, everyone thought we were drunk!’ he laughs. He was passed on to Chile, where he stayed until returning to his homeland in 1974.
He waited nearly 50 years to be crowned, in July 2011 – more than a century since the birth of the island’s last king, his grandfather, on the beach at Anakena. His duties are unrecognisable from those of his ancestor, grappling issues of land ownership and economic rights that have entangled the island since it became part of Chile in 1888. Today, however, Valentine just wants to enjoy the parade. ‘Who do I want to win – Lili or Celine?’ he wonders. ‘Why, both of them, of course!’
Come the afternoon, the parade is in full swing. Girls in costumes made from feathers and mulberry bark dance in the street or hang off floats, followed by men in loincloths adopting fierce warrior poses. Children caked in red mud pass in prams hung with banana leaves and pushed by semi-naked parents in tribal costume. By the roadside, meat is grilled on oil-drum barbecues. Lili glides past on her throne, laughing at her team as they show-off around the float.
The last year of her life has been entirely devoted to Tapati. Her mother’s home, a wood and tin bungalow with roses growing in the garden, is taken over by it: feathers everywhere, drawings of body-paint designs hanging on the walls, and nightly meals for guests and helpers. It is the final day of the festival, and Lili sits in a green sarong in the shade of the garage as her cousins unload watermelons and bananas for the final feast. ‘When I was a child, I used to dance and dream of being the queen,’ she says in a shy murmur. ‘And now I see that everyone with me is so happy. So I have no nerves. I enjoy it all, every part of it.’