One of my favorite experiences on Easter Island is the feast that Johnny Tuki and his family host for our travel group. This feast, also known as a curanto, is a tradition that many Polynesian cultures have where a huge meal is prepared and cooked in a dug out pit in the ground with hot rocks. With each visit to Easter Island we have celebrated the end of our journey with a curanto at the Tuki’s household (or compound rather) but this year was different. Instead of simply showing up for the curanto and party I had the privilege of spending the day with the Tukis’, preparing this labor intensive meal and experience for our guests.
Johnny Tuki is a long-time friend of The Wild Calls. He is an elder and a leader in the Rapa Nui community and is very passionate about the preservation of culture and health of his island. He has a large family of children and grandchildren that have all built houses right next door to one another on their property in the county.
Our day started early in the town of Hanga Roa where fisherman, bread makers and local shops lined the stone streets for the morning market. We met Johnny Tuki at the butcher’s first as meat is always the center piece of the curanto. He greeted us warmly with a kiss on the cheek, barefoot and shirtless, with a sarong wrapped on his head and one of his granddaughters in his arm. Language was still a bit of a barrier because Johnny speaks only Rapa Nui and Spanish and our Spanish skills were limited. We understood each other well enough as he led us around the butcher’s pointing to the meats we should collect. We left the store struggling under the weight of the huge slabs of beef and bags of chicken and fish that we could barely carry. We collected the remaining curanto ingredients from the town such as potatoes and vegetables and then jumped in the back of Johnny’s truck to ride to his property.
Once we arrived at the Tuki compound we ran around the grounds collecting taro root for the Puhi bread and papaya fruit for fresh juice. We then climbed the plantain trees with Johnny’s sons armed with a machete to retrieve the large leaves that are used to wrap the bread dough before it is placed in the ground for cooking. Next, we made the Puhi bread. We all took turns shredding the taro with a single grater which took hours and ended in sore arm muscles. We then mixed all of the gooey ingredients together with our hands and wrapped the dough in plantain leaves.
We watched Johnny stack the wood for the fire in a wheel barrow placing his granddaughter on the very top of the stack and wheeling it to the pit where his sons were gathering the rocks which cook the meal. After the pit was assembled we watched as the men prepared the meat and then loaded the pit full of the food we had prepared for cooking.
By this time dusk was approaching and we were all exhausted from the day’s labor. We sat under a giant tree with a cold drink and admired his granddaughter playing in her diaper barefoot, as we tried to soak in every bit of this amazing Rapa Nui cultural immersion that we possibly could.
Our travel group began to arrive as well as the entire Tuki family; sons, daughters, brothers, grandchildren, uncles, aunts, and cousins, some by horse, some by motorcycle. The groups mingled and got to know each other while the food finished cooking, bantering back and forth, painting faces, and playing games with the children. Finally, we gathered around the pit and joined hands as Johnny Tuki said a few words followed by The Wild Calls group leader. The men then began to grab the hot stones with their bare hands removing them from the never ending pit, uncovering layers and layers of beautiful food. We feasted until we could barely move.
After dinner we crowded around one of the family members playing the accordion and singing old Rapa Nui songs while making up some new ones inspired by the night and the new characters he had just met. We passed around drinks and danced under the stars. This special night came to a close as we embraced each other as new family and thanked the Tuki family for such a unique and awe-inspiring evening.