Living On

Armen is heavily missed. His absence left a hole in independent observation of the political and economic risk situation in Latin America. Beyond the merely analytical though his work was wide-ranging from Armenian philanthropy and social observation of Latin and European lifestyles through to being a "fly on the wall" at the Cannes Film Festival every year and reporting back on the more exotic foibles of the international jet-set.

We miss his wit, his sense of history and his bon mots (in French, Armenian and, even, Turkish). Armen was very much a product of the Levant but then, like so many other Levantines, converted to an international stage where they offer insight into all around them. This record tries to humbly accumulate his collected writings for public consumption so they can be preserved and appreciated for the urgency of the moment in which they were written to the timelessness of the observations.

How best to categorise the uncategorisable? Maybe Armen could be described as an Armenian/Anglo/Franco Samuel Pepys for our times.....

It is ironic that ultimately it was the very mediocrity and self-satisfaction of the Chilean "system", which he documented so thoroughly, that brought about his tragic end.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

EASTER ISLAND REPORT A trip to Polynesian Chile

After the pause caused by my trip to Rapa Nui, I had intended to cover the
fast-sinking political situation of Chile's Titanic-Lusitania administration, but that can wait another week or two. Several readers did say that they expected a report on Easter Island, and though my writings are not generally demand-led, I think it is a subject worth covering.

THE BACKGROUND I do not wish to join the 150-year old discussion about the
various mysteries surrounding the island's culture and its famous statues.
Many great and less great researchers have spent a lot of time, saliva and
ink on trying to solve the mysteries, but after all that effort I think it
is pretty safe to say that no new information is likely to be found which
would result in definitively plugging the deep holes of conjecture, so it
might all be a waste of time. I would suggest to go and see, take it all-in
as it is, and enjoy it. Others might disagree and actually take pleasure in
years of sterile discussions for or against specific theories. I for one
have always disliked chronic going around in circles, preferring the sort
of problem that takes you from A to Z, even if you make slow progress past
C. For those who remember their mathematics classes, the technical
definition of "infinity" is that of a point towards which you always tend
but never reach. It does not apply to circles. In my 36 year professional
life, including 30 years as a Latinamericanist commemorated last week-end,
I have attended too many inconclusive long meetings, so I do not need to
volunteer for them as intellectual entertainment..

One information which is definitely documented in the archives of several
foreign ministries is that Chile, short of money between the two world
wars, desperately tried to flog off that piece of isolated real estate. It
was offered to the USA and Japan, also probably to Britain and France.
There were no takers, but it makes the nationalistic antics of the early
1990's, when the French post office dared issue a series of stamps about
Polynesian cultures, including one depicting Easter Island, somewhat silly.
The French ambassador was called-in for explanations and a squadron of
three Chilean navy ships set sail for the island to protect it against all
those French postmen planning to invade (by Air Mail, I'm sure).

GEETING THERE (AND BACK) The flag airline LAN has a monopoly on the route,
with flights either ending there, or going on to Papeete in Tahiti. It is
an expensive trip (from U$ 600 up, just for the ticket, unless you are a
native and get a special fare). LAN appears to be schizophrenic about
whether it is a domestic flight or not, because it was impossible, prior to
the journey, to get precise information as to where one should check-in for
it at Santiago airport. At the end, it turned out they have special
counters half-way between international and domestic zones. The flight
takes five to five and a half hours out and, thanks to favourable trade
winds, between four and four and a half hours on the return trip. To put it
in perspective, it is like going from London to the Near East. The time is
two hours behind Chile's, something which is little advertised, and not too
many people realise.

For those interested in curiosities, the very large runway is due to an
extension paid-for by NASA, so that it could be used as an alternative
strip for the Space Shuttle.

LOCAL SOCIETY The estimated 4,000 or so native Pascuense population
reminded me more of North America's modern Indian reservations, rather than
a colourful local culture as seen say in Bolivia, Guatemala or Peru. Young
men driving 4X4 pick-ups or more expensive SUVs, or motorbikes for the more
modest, are the norm. At least on the outside, with the exception of one or
two girls seen with a flower in their heads, they do not show much "couleur
locale", and the fact that the islanders are known as being "laid-back"
cannot be a serious criticism coming from continental Chileans. Mixed
marriages mean that the native language is spoken less and less in
households (though taught at school), but there still are old people who do
not speak Spanish.

Private life may be more peculiar, and again the comparison with today's
North American native societies stands. Domestic violence, incest and
drunkenness are frequent according to well-placed local informants (and I
do not mean tourist guides). Theft is common, as tradition considers most
property as communal rather than private. Laws are applied in an even more
lax fashion than on the continent, as I did not see anyone wearing a seat
belt during the four days we were there, and the application decree about
the anti-Tobacco law is obviously still on its way from the continent by

There is one modest hospital unable to cope with anything mildly serious,
and Mrs. Bachelet, who was there a day before us, has now promised a better
facility. Nowadays, anyone with a serious ailment has to be flown to the
continent, accompanied by medical staff. You can imagine that if it is very
urgent, your chances of survival are not that high. Until the avaricious
tortoises who sign the cheques at Hacienda get round to authorise the new
hospital, make sure your medical insurance covers emergency air evacuation
(it is still 5 hours to either Tahiti or the continent, though). There are
primary and secondary schools, whose level does not seem to be worse than
the national average, which of course might not be saying much. Still, it
has managed to produce one virtuoso pianist, the young Mahani Teave who is
currently studying with the Armenian-born Sergei Babayan in Cleveland. On
one of my walks by the seaside, I saw three young girls of no more than 10
practising the violin in the open-air, with a teacher.

The island has no river and few underground water resources, so it depends
heavily on stored rainfall, particularly for agricultural purposes. Basic
crops and tropical fruit are grown locally, but everything else and in
particular processed food, has to be imported. There is a monthly merchant
ship calling with provisions, and the navy's Aquiles transport calls twice
a year (with a group of invited VIPs aboard), unless of course there is a
threat from a foreign stamp assault, in which case a squadron is rushed.

Only two open channels (TVN & La Red) are available, together with a local
service. The TVN programmes are shown in delayed form so that you can see
the 9 PM news at 9 PM on the island even though it is 11 PM on the
continent. ENTEL mobile phones work perfectly on much of the island, and I
spotted and used at least two internet cafés (at four to five times
Santiago prices), apart from any facilities available at the hotels (about
which more later).

One continental plague is present on the island with a vengeance: stray
dogs. They are all over the place, particularly in urban areas, and
whenever you sit at a restaurant they are expectantly under and around your
table permanently. This is not just a nuisance, but also a serious health
hazard, even in the absence of rabies.

I saw three Navy installations, but strangely, none of them seemed to have
a guard or in fact any movement in or out.

TOURIST FACILITIES The island currently gets around 28,000 tourists a
year, and the number is growing. Though this is the number which visits
Disneyworld on a slow single day, I do not think that hordes of visitors
could really be coped with. They seem to range from honeymooners to mature
tour groups, with a good sprinkling of the sort of back packers keen on
some original karma. Tourism of course is the only economic activity,
beyond subsistence farming and fishing.

Surprisingly, the tourist infrastructure as far the sights and tours are
concerned is rather impressive. We used the KIAKOE tour agency whose guides
ranged from OK to very good. Everything is well organised, additional
requests are dealt with happily, and from what one could hear in other
groups visiting the same sight, guides proficient in various languages
abounded. What is even more impressive is the quality of the translation
of public signs in the sites (I read long French and English versions
without a single mistake worth worrying about), and the more popular sights
have clean toilet and washing facilities. For those not familiar with
Chilean infrastructure, to find a working toilet in a public place,
moreover having a lock, a light, paper and running water, is like lining up
the jackpot on a Las Vegas slot machine.

Other helpful details which caught my attention included a wire mesh on a
footpath up a volcano to make it safer and plenty of road signs. What is
less impressive is the behaviour of many tourists, despite the prohibitions
and the heroic efforts of the tour guides caught in the dilemma between
professional courtesy and the obligation to respect conservation
regulations. Behaving like a yob now seems to be globalised. There was of
course the unfailing Chilean "prepotente" who refused to get away from the
Moai until his wife had taken the picture. They were the Chinese who
insisted on hugging the statues, until an exasperated guide lied to them by
saying that the fine if caught would be U$ 10,000. They were the oversized
Poles (as in Warsaw, rather than Telefonica) who, not content to be in the
front row of the folkloric show, also had to get up every two minutes to
take photos, thus blocking the view of everyone else. They were the three
Englishmen standing and smoking behind me in a closed environment, in full
breach of Chilean legislation. When I pointed out the illegality of what
they were doing, instead of putting out, they made obscene gestures and
carried on smoking. Well, I supposed we have to be grateful there were no
Israeli visitors. They would probably have bombed the Moais, then claimed
they had been attacked by them and were acting in self-defence.

The hotel Hanga Roa, where we stayed, could be a very pleasant venue, even
without the planned refurbishing. Unfortunately, it has an obnoxious
manager who is mentally and physically absent, but has refused to empower
his staff. These otherwise well-meaning employees cannot take any
initiative in the boss' absence. The establishment, which is supposedly run
by remote control by a German group in Vitacura, advertises internet among
its services but fails to inform that it is only Wi-Fi, and should you not
have a laptop with you, you have to walk the best part of an hour to go and
come back from the internet cafés. The same manager seems to ignore the
most basic courtesies (such as saying hello to guests having breakfast in
the dining room) and the laws of the Republic of Chile, such as the
anti-Tobacco one. To be fair, the Santiago management, when informed of
these shortcomings, responded immediately and promised to take measures and
keep me informed. Within a few hours, they had contacted me again with
details of action taken. Very un-Chilean indeed.

A top-level establishment of the Explora chain is being developed to cater
for the up-market visitor, currently left to rough it up a bit as none of
the island's hostelries can claim anything near luxury levels.

Prices of meals and drinks are high, but no more than in a better Santiago
venue. You will have to pay 10 to 20 thousand pesos for a full meal. A
French couple just in from Tahiti, for whom I interpreted whilst waiting
for my wife to surface from a diving expedition, were shocked at the cost
of a diving session (U$ 60) which they said was over 50 % more than what
they paid in Moorea.

THE FUTURE The island's small surface area and tiny population mean that
it would not take much in terms of resources to improve the health and
education infrastructure, pave a few more roads and seek a better way of
providing reliable water supplies.

The tourist resource cannot be neglected, particularly the conservation and
restoration aspects. Whereas foreign academics and their institutions can
be left to ponder more dead-end theories, the rehabilitation and
conservation of existing statues and other monuments (such as the expensive
material which should be used as protective coating for stone against
sea-borne erosion) is a matter for the state.

It is unbelievable that Japan, the country with the highest budget deficit
as a % of GDP, is providing cranes as gifts to lift the statues, when the
Chilean state has the world's highest surplus, and has it rotting away in
foreign banks. The mind boggles.

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