Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Day 276: Pitching In

On our first day on the island, we'd visited the Tourist Information Office where we had to pry information about hiking from the woman's protecting grasp. After a struggle, we learned there was a special program running that week that happens only 6 times a year: tourists can go to an otherwise restricted area for rehabilitation to plant trees. We eagerly signed up (as she repeatedly questioned us, "Are you sure?") and we woke up excited on Thursday, ready to take action. It felt great to be doing something collaborative with the local community after months of feeling otherwise disconnected from any one place. We also were thrilled to have the opportunity to offset some of the negatives we knew we were imposing on the island by being there. We had no idea if we would be lugging huge saplings uphill in order to do so, or if we'd be planting one token tree, but either way, we wanted to be a part of it.

Promptly at 8:30 am, we arrived at the school gymnasium for our briefing to discover that no order seemed to be in place. Tourists milled about, and 20 minutes passed without anyone speaking to us. Nearing 9:00, a group of junior high school students came stampeding down the hill, boisterous as in any culture, and at that moment, a member of the Conaf (Cooperacion Nacional Forestal) staff appeared. It was clear that the tourist information woman had neglected to reveal to us that we were in fact joining a school field trip aimed to teach about issues facing the island and provide an opportunity for youngsters to feel proactive.

Pouring out of the vans onto the side of the road, we closely followed the man-in-charge up a gentle slope to a clump of rocks. The unsupervised students ahead of us lounged on the rocks in waiting, or ran off trampling across sensitive ecosystems. We reluctantly sat down, knowing our destination must be further ahead, preferring to continue rather than bake in the sun. We waited nearly 20 minutes before the stragglers in the group had caught up (after their lengthy photo shoot in the tall grass). Perhaps a warning about trip expectations would have helped weed out the non-hikers from the group.

Taking a Break: Easter Eggs
on Easter Island
Another 20 minutes up the extinct volcano brought us to a second resting point in the shade beneath a rocky hilltop shaped like a topknot. By now we were pretty annoyed with the lack of communication about the type of expedition this would be. This was clearly a half day trip that was being extended into a full day; time we didn't have in a week's stay on the island. Begrudgingly we waited for the same group of 4 to lazily make their way up the hill and have their turn at a break. Amidst the frustration and confusion we took time to enjoy the wonderful scenery and views over the island.

We continued on, crested the slope and relaxed instantly upon seeing the view. Wild horses roamed the open plain while puffy white clouds reflections' glistened in the calming waters behind them. Our remoteness was obvious. We stopped again to admire the view and were unsure whether we were meant to eat lunch. We empathized with others we'd met on the bus who hadn't brought along a snack or even a bottle of water, having expected everything was provided (as the tourist information woman had indicated). We'd learned long ago in the trip that "all-inclusive" has very different meanings to different people, and sat down to eat our food, carefully avoiding sitting on the inviting moai benches.

Down the slope, we headed through the surprisingly soft brush, over rocks and into grove of trees. The students ran, jousted each other, pulled limbs off trees and threw rocks, all set to the soundtrack of top 40 songs blasting from iPod speakers. The meaning of our trip into nature seemed a bit lost on them. We breaked at a clearing for ham and cheese sandwiches and juice before getting our orientation of the activity ahead. A heartier lunch for afterwards was being prepared; a Conaf ranger, chainsaw in hand, went and cut down a tree to make a fire to cook chicken over. Putting our net tree gain for the day at -1.

Easter Island was deforested centuries ago, that combined with volcanic eruptions and the windswept nature of the island's position has meant that some areas have never recovered. This has led to severe erosion. After years of study by those familiar with Polynesian plants and Rapa Nui's climate, four trees had been identified as necessary for reviving the island's North-East banks. We would be planting the Aito, a tree known for growing in wild, barren terrain with little nourishment in the soil. After they take root, Mako'i, Dodonea and Albizia will be planted, which will thrive in the Aito's shade and the protection from the wind they offer. Conaf seemed well-prepared for our arrival, with hundreds of holes drilled in the dry, rocky soil and seedlings and handfuls of fertilizer resting beside each planting place. We were given a demonstration of proper planting technique, including building a small retaining wall around each tree to ensure the rain didn't just wash away the freshly disturbed soil, then the 70 of us took to work, planting 1400 saplings in the span of an hour.

We regrouped in the clearing for a lunch of grilled chicken. The experience seemed to lack instilling of the core practices of naturalization, but hopefully we did more good than harm. After more waiting around, we hiked 5 km more around the other corner of the triangular-shaped peninsula. We led the pack of people and made it just before the rain started to pour down.

Caked in dust, the four of us walked the main strip, hoping for a repeat of the amazing chicken and chips we ate the first day, but it wasn't in the cards. We returned home to make more plain rice and couscous, eating it as we watched a spectacular rainbow frame the ending of our day.

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