I Am Birdman, Hear Me Roar
The author on Rano Kau.
Credit: Joshua Paul
The next morning, the fourth day of wheel-spinning, I popped into a souvenir shop on Avenida Atamu Tekena to buy a headband. In one account I'd read, the Birdman racers carried the egg in their mouths. But in another, and in the movie, they'd worn specialized tapa-bark egg carriers, little woven baskets, somewhat like a Jewish phylactery, that rested on the forehead. I settled for an I'm-going-out-of-my-fucking-mind Christopher Walken Deer Hunter do-rag, bright green with Rapa Nui bird designs. I chatted with the shop owner about my Birdman ambitions in bad Spanish, and then with her Scottish boyfriend in bad Scottish. He knew exactly who I needed to talk to.

"Wilo. Has a shop just down the street. Bike rentals and such. He's the adventure guy."

I headed straight to his place of business, a shed attached to a laundromat. The sign outside showed the Make Make character. Wilo came out to greet me; his pregnant wife waved from the doorway.

"The eyes are the balls, you see," he said, noticing me admiring the sign, "and the nose is the penis. Everything on the island is sex."

That aside, Wilo confirmed that he was the go-to man for adventure. "I love it," he said. "Mountain bikes, surfing. Whatever you need. You want to do the Birdman, it's not a problem. But it's very dangerous. Are you famous?" I pondered the most advantageous response, then answered honestly.

He frowned. "You are old," he observed. "But fit?"

Yeah, sorta. All right then. We quickly sketched out a plan. Later that day he would show me where I could jump into the sea, and then, tomorrow morning, when I did it for real, he would follow me out to Motu Nui in a boat. I didn't see how that was so dangerous. Never mind: I was happy to have found someone who solved all my Birdman problems in one fell swoop. Wilo, who was an adviser on the thwarted Red Bull campaign and had JPEGs to prove it, was an accomplished big-wave surfer and owned one of the island's two Jet Skis, which he used with a dude nicknamed Hydro for tow-in surfing. He would make an excellent water-safety officer.

We quickly came to a price: wonderfully low, I thought. He even offered to toss in a replica totora-reed paddleboard. More wonderful still. Plus, he had a traditional Rapa Nui warrior costume he could wear, for color. Cool. We agreed to meet that evening at a cafe to work out any remaining details.

I strolled back along Avenida Atamu Tekena a happy man. The Birdman was on! No longer a mere tourist, I was a participant. A celebrant. What an island! What a town! Paradise, with rocks. But that night at the cafe, Wilo arrived looking heartsick. He'd been thinking. Of the difficulties. Of the dangers. "I'll do everything like we agreed," he said, "and even provide hot shower and towel." He then named a price six times the original. I pointed out that I didn't need the shower and towel. I counter-offered half his figure, still a substantial raise.

"Well, okay," he said, not disguising his disappointment. We parted soon after, Wilo with his regrets, me with disgruntled-water-safety-officer tabu on my head and word of a big swell on the way.