23 May 2013

Moai

When tourist brochures tout a locale as ideal to "get away from it all", they mean it in a figurative sense. Except if the leaflet happens to be for my most recent destination, which prides itself on being the most isolated inhabited place on Earth. A five hour flight from anything else, Easter Island is and feels extremely remote.

Arriving on the tiny speck of land, a 24x12 km outcrop of volcanic rock half-way between Chile and Tahiti, one immediately realizes that this place is something else. The dreamy little village of Hanga Roa has been spared mass tourism, and only a few tenacious travellers (and a bunch of frequent flyers on an impossibly cheap fare sale, I hear) mingle with the Rapa Nui, as the islanders call themselves.

Even today, life feels precarious, with the population dependent on twice-weekly food delivery planes from Chile, and the odd supply ship for anything else - from toilet paper to power generators. This adds to the sense of adventure, and makes you appreciate the extreme conditions under which the island has been populated.

It could have been as early as the 13th century, explained our tour guide, when the first Polyneasian settlers arrived on the island, which they found lush and fertile. Their population quickly grew, and with time a unique culture formed. The Rapa Nui considered themselves the Navel of the world, with nothing but an endless ocean surrounding them. And so, with nowhere to go, and no foreign influence for centuries, they turned their energy and strive to an inwards-focused culture, the most visible result of which are the iconic Moai - the mysterious stone-faced statues that have become a symbol for the end of the world.

Seeing them for the first time leaves you with a sense of having arrived at the final frontier, and the mystery of how they were built and transported will intrigue even the most rational of minds. For the past 150 years, various archeological field studies have explored the island and have come up with several explanations for this unique culture, and its sudden demise. Our guide, himself part of a 1968 expedition, palpably described how western scientists tried to understand the place, and his stories of skeletons, spirits and cockroaches would be worthy of an Indiana Jones movie.

And although not typically prone to sudden attacks of mysticism, seeing the quary where half-finished moai await completion, and then the completed, rock-solid statues on pedestals kilometers away, left me deeply intrigued. Add to this hidden crater lakes, wind-swept arid planes and the incessant turquoise waves battering the cliffs, and it makes for a truly outlandish getaway. The "Star Trek planet of the week" image came to mind more than once - even Spock would have found it fascinating.

If anything, there was only one disappointment on this trip: Despite relentless search, I couldn't find a single chocolate Easter Bunny!

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8 May 2013

Spring forward

Three weeks ago, when I went for my first outdoor run of the season, I was battling sub-zero winds while skipping over snow banks. On tonight's run, a few drops of rain sprinkled the hot pavement, adding to the flowery scent in the air that unmistakable smell of summer created by sizzling, wet tarmac.

Clearly, spring does not happen in Montréal. Over the course of just two weeks, temperatures went from just above freezing to just below 30, where they have since remained. And nature has simply exploded: When a bit of food poisoning recently forced me to snooze a day away in bed, I could actually see how the blossoms on the tree outside my bedroom window had grown larger since I last woke up. (And no, I was not taking any mind-altering substances.)

Now, everything is in full bloom, the grass is green, and clouds of pollen visibly waft through the streets as I bixi to work. All the flowers are out, which made for a particularly beautiful trip to Canada's capital this weekend. In recognition of the refuge the Canadians had provided to the Dutch royal family during the second world war, Ottawa receives tons of tulip bulbs from the Netherlands every year, which the ever-so-diligent gardeners arrange into countless pretty flower beds all around the city. This makes for spectacular festival, and under glorious sunny skies helped us shake off the last bits of winter blues.

It does not cease to amaze me just how quickly this part of the world springs forward into a summery climate. But having lived through another Canadian winter, and a rather harsh one at that, I also catch myself displaying exactly the kind of exuberant sun worship that I have mocked the Montréalais for just a few years ago. Yet here I am: Throwing on my shorts, getting on a Bixi, having a picnic in the park and dinner on the terrasse. Whether it's because we don't quite trust the warm weather just yet, or simply because we know that snow will be back before we like it, we're all soaking up the sun to the max.

The mercury will continue its upwards trend, and soon the tropical heat will settle in. But this summer, I'll take it in stride - I'll install my air conditioner on Saturday.

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