We stopped frequently at small burial areas. Tere illuminated the ancient skulls, which are often surrounded by broken shell necklaces half buried in the dust. We continued on for another couple of hours until finally I stood squinting in the sunlight, shaking Tere's hand, thanking him for the experience. He dropped me back into town, and my sleep that night was surprisingly sound.
The next morning I searched the island for a suitable location where I could view the solar eclipse taking place the next day. It was what had brought me and about 400 other tourists to Mangaia. As I lurched along the rugged back roads of the island on my rented motorbike, I met a young local boy who offered to take me to his family's burial cave in town. He hopped onto the back of my scooter and we zoomed back to Onerua, the village on the west side of the island. He told me to park by the only grocery store. From there we walked across the street, through a friendly woman's backyard and continued up a small stone path through the bushes.
After about a minute of hiking he gestured for me to follow through a clump of dense shrubs towards a pile of boulders. He turned on his flashlight and we ducked in through a small, dark opening in the rocks. Hunched over, we shuffled in, until suddenly the cave opened up and dropped off below our feet. On the ledge directly below us was a human skull, turned upwards, eyeless sockets staring up at us.
We ventured further in where we found more skulls, and other human bones, scattered in every direction. The natural ledges were piled with what I took to be various offerings, and I had to watch every footstep to make sure I didn't step on any fragile bones. Further into the cave, my young guide kneeled beside a rectangular wooden box under a low-hanging ledge cluttered with shimmering stalactites. He shifted the cover off the top of the box and inside was the skeleton of a child, not more than two years old.
He lifted a bead out from the dust between the small bones and held it in front of me. "They bury them with gifts," he said, and I could see the bead was a piece of shimmering pink plastic. The grave did not seem to be very old and I suddenly felt uneasy. When we left the cave the boy's father was waiting at the entrance, ready to scold him. I excused myself and drove home.
I arrived back at the homely Mangaia Lodge and told my host about the adventure. I asked him about the father's stern reaction, and he warned me that a few years ago a Japanese couple had ventured into that cave and had met a ghost. They screamed until someone living close by came to their rescue, saying a prayer to calm the spirit and freeing the Japanese tourists from the apparition. He warned me not to go back.
That night, I stayed up late with one of the astronomers at the lodge, watching the stars, preparing patiently for the eclipse the next morning. Before sunrise I went out with the masses of tourists and watched them line their telescopes along the airport's long dirt runway. I hopped on my scooter and drove off to the secluded viewing spot I'd chosen. Although dark looming clouds threatened to blot out the sight, I was able to get brief glimpses of the eclipse and felt completely satisfied.
After the 400 astronomers, astrologists, and hobbyist star-gazers from around the world packed up their equipment and were ferried off the island, I reflected on my experience of Mangaia.