Archive for March, 2016

The penultimate day of our stay on the island proved to be intriguing.

Our first stop was Arrecife, the island’s capital famous for it’s warren of narrow streets. Until this day we had taken the ring road, avoiding the confusion. This time, on a mission to deposit copies of The Drago Tree at a book shop near the Castillo de San Gabriel, we had no choice but to enter the fray.

Somehow we found our way to the Cabildo, on the southern end of town, an impressive modern building constructed in Spanish colonial style and surrounded by car parks. Not wanting to re-enter the warren of streets, we parked and walked the promenade back to Calle Leon y Castillo.

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The day was sunny and warm and it was a pleasant walk, first through a neatly laid out cactus garden fringed with low stone walls flanking the sea, and then around the creamy sands and sapphire waters of Playa Reducto – my kind of beach too, shallow and still. There were couples, old and young, women with strollers, the people of the city walking leisurely, relaxed. It’s a vibe you lock into, immediately.

Once past the 5 star Gran Hotel, the promenade continued on to Castillo de San Gabriel. Here, major road works impeded the flow of our walk, but the view of the old fort and the shimmering sea drew our attention.

We found the Libreria El Puente, down a side street off Calle Leon y Castillo – Arrecife’s main thoroughfare – the owner happy to take our remaining copies of The Drago Tree, to sell on our behalf.

By now it was lunch time. We had to eat. After walking around a number of side streets, passing eateries either uninspiring and notably empty, or exciting and predictably overflowing, we ended up back at the bookshop, and the restaurant next door. A small, friendly affair, with original paintings for sale on the walls and fried rabbit on the menu. Irresistible.

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I imagined intense conversations between leftist intellectual types over salami and hard cheese. And I wondered at who the two men were who ran the joint and whether they were really from Andalucia. I doubted it.

We ambled over to the old fort along a narrow causeway, pausing at the old drawbridge for photos, staring down into the tranquil water, watching a woman taking advantage of the warmer shallows and edged by basalt walls, little beaches, pebble strewn, appearing unexpectedly.

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The fort was closed. So we posed by the cannons, had a snoop around and strolled back along the other causeway. I told Michelle I thought I could rent an apartment in Arrecife, one facing the ocean, and write a book or two. Something about the vibe of the city aroused me. Maybe all those narrow streets filled with secrets.

We stopped for gelato near the Gran Hotel. By the time we reached our car it was 4pm.

Perfect timing for a drive to Famara. I wanted to provide Michelle with a contrast.

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It took about 1/2 an hour to drive across the belly of the island. And there we were facing north, with the cliff of El Risco towering to our east, the low rollers pushing in the tide. So we walked along the beach, pebbly and not so easy on the feet (I had rather stupidly chosen sandals for the outing), and kept on heading east, hoping that the lower the sun, the less cyclists would be on the roads when we headed back to our farmhouse in Maguez. On and on we went, in no hurry to turn around. Then Michelle stopped and asked me if I wanted to continue. I said I didn’t care either way but sensed she wanted to head back. As I turned I saw a man, naked, heading our way.

His speed was greater than ours. I turned back a few times, to admire the cliffs, say adios, or hasta luego, and there he was in all his glory. So I said to Michelle, ‘He’s spoiling my view.’

‘Complete with his semi,’ she replied.

I have to admit it took me a while to connect his half-erect penis jutting out like those of the male figurines that sometimes appear above male ablutions, or indeed abound in my friend Domingo’s studio, with her comment – semi.

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We laughed all the way home. I was still wiping away the tears as I set about making cauliflower soup. (We’re down to using up the scraps of the groceries we’ve been buying from the local supermercado in Arrieta. Tomorrow is chorizo day. Don’t ask.)

Michelle is happy to report that we walked 16,000 steps today. She has an app. What the app doesn’t say is that they were all steps of contentment.

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As any anthropologist will tell you, the old ways of indigenous cultures the world over are always tramped on in the name of progress. Some are decimated, wiped from the earth like unwanted crumbs. Others allowed to exist on the fringes, tolerated, ignored and oppressed all at once. Then there are smaller cultures absorbed into a larger dominant culture, seeping into language and custom. And then there are those wiped away by the dishrag of colonisation, only to be resurrected as curiosities for the edification of tourism.

imageview of Los Helechos through our front door

Here on Lanzarote, the indigenous people, the Conojeros, blended with their colonisers, through marriage, through birth. A new sort of traditional way of life, Catholicised, yet still seated in the old ways, endured for centuries. It was a culture of survival and resilience in brutal conditions. Here, dry land farming and ingenious water capture techniques kept a small population of about a few thousand from starvation.

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Swathes of the lower slopes of volcanoes were smeared with concrete (alcogidas), funnelling water into underground water tanks (aljibes); large fresh water ponds (maretas) were built along with wells and dams; in the 1920s, tunnels were gouged into the cliff of El Risco to access the water in the water galleries of the Famara massif; roofs of dwellings and patios built high, were designed to channel water into farmhouse aljibes – the people went to ingenious lengths to capture what little rain there was.

Up until the 1960s and beyond, farmers terraced the mountainsides right to the top to capture any water should it rain, creating moist micro-environments along the stone wall edge. The terraces also took advantage of the moisture provided by morning mist.

imageMaize growing in little cinder pits

The Conojeros were a people accustomed to breathtaking views, at ease in the wind, strong enough at times to knock you over.

The people built their farmhouses strategically, the north facing wall windowless, rooms inside facing an interior courtyard. Farmers lived alongside their animals. They grew what they could, hardy plants able to tolerate high amounts of wind. For a long time only two villages existed, Teguise and Haria, the other villages were more like localities where a few farmhouses, spread well apart, took advantage of a valley, a mountainside, a plain.

Fish were plentiful and a small fishing industry grew up around Arrecife. Some farmers grew prickly pear for cochineal. Salt works providing another source of income for a sparse economy.

In the 1960s up sprang a hotel. And then another …

imageCamel sculptures on a roundabout in Yaiza.

Now, the tourists can see the old ways, as displayed in museums courtesy of CACT (the local government’s Centre for Arts, Culture and Tourism). Or they can visit the alcogidas, now in disrepair, or poke their heads down an abandoned aljibe, or well – the water below polluted by effluent and no longer safe to drink, or check out the dam at Mala, the wall now cracked and leaking, or puzzle over the site of the grand mareta at Teguise, and witness the erosion of the mountainsides where the terraces are crumbling away.

The government knows it has a problem. Residents are entitled to have 10,000 square metres of land to farm as they wish, with access to cheap water from the desal plants – but the young are not that interested.

You can still see the old farmers at work. Up in the north there are many small farms run by the old people. Little fields of black planted up with neat rows of maize, and not a weed in sight. A farmer harvesting potatoes by hand, his wheelbarrow nearby. They still farm right to the mountaintops and the cliff edge. It’s a privilege to behold.

imageThe mother volcano, La Corona, as seen from our garden.

I am glad I decided to write a sequel to The Drago Tree. I want to be taken deeper into the story of this island. And the sequel will necessitate my return. For now, as our time here draws to a close, I feel just as Ann felt at the end of her holiday, still in awe of my surroundings, wanting to celebrate the traditions and mourn their passing, at odds with the very tourist industry that has allowed my easy passage to Lanzarote’s shores.

What can be said about driving down a narrow road carved through a lava plain, a road that goes on and on and on? The basalt that covers the land in every direction, thick, crusty, alive with lichen. Volcanoes or calderas 500 metres high and about 1 or 2 kilometres in diameter, rising up like cone-shaped boils, some black, others brown or red. Then there are those calderas burst open, serrated at the rim, splayed where their lava spilled to scour the land.

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Everywhere you look on the island, there they are, some ancient, some young, the roads on Lanzarote coursing paths between.

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The eruptions of Timanfaya that took place in the mid 1700s and lasted for 6 years, have resulted in a landscape not of this world. A spreading mass of impenetrable rock, about 15 kilometres wide and long.

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These volcanoes emerged in fissures in the land, once a wide plain perfect for grazing. Fissures bleeding rock, cleaving open as the pressure of the volcanoes beneath forced their way above ground. This is what I have read and imagine, a primordial groaning, perhaps deafening, definitely terrifying, apocalyptic. Livestock asphyxiated, fish boiled alive, the ocean steaming, the island showered with volcanic ash and smoke. You have to know all this, to appreciate the place as it is now. But it is still impossible to take in.

The speed limit of 50 kmh is too fast. We crawled along, fascinated, not wanting to reach the end of the road.

We went to where the lava met the ocean. The road snaking along, embedded in the lava, right beside the water’s edge.

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We parked at Los Hervidores, a site of extraordinary beauty, where narrow basalt paths have been created to allow tourists to get close and see that meeting of rock and water. The basalt is many metres thick, chunky, descending in a vertical cliff. The ocean swells and surges, blue on black, sending forth its spume. There are holes in the lava, like wells, places to get soaked when the ocean is angry.

No one speaks. The wind, that other element, blows and blows. You either get used to it, or you leave Lanzarote behind for another clime. I love this meeting of the elements, all of them present, in the wind, the ocean, the rock born of fire. Lanzarote is a powerful place, unspoiled, a place to be revered. And as Ann found in The Drago Tree, every tourist slips into reverence in the face of such a setting.

Before I came here I was informed by one and all that Lanzarote had changed in the last twenty-six years, changed dramatically, for better or worse who can say. When I landed and saw the development, the mass of white cubes where once was rocky terrain, I had agreed, and when we headed north to the farmhouse we had rented for the 18 days, it was with some trepidation in my heart.

My companion and publisher Michelle was seeing all for the very first time. And I have witnessed her reactions, her awe, her growing affection for the island. With a smile.

imageMichelle Lovi, taken as we ambled along the strip of expensive designer boutiques of Puerto Calero.

For me, the north of the island – about 7 km long and 5 wide – is my old stomping ground. Every village and every road familiar. But I’d forgotten the three dimensionality, the way the mountains and volcanoes loom, the way the old crusty lava dominates. I’d forgotten the atmosphere, at once friendly yet private, closed. For millennia the people here have farmed this land. They’ve terraced the mountainsides as high as they dare to trap the water flow, on the odd occasions it rains. The way they’ve plastered slopes with a lime wash, and funnelled that water into underground water tanks (aljibes). The use they’ve made of the basalt rock and the volcanic cinders (picon), as wind break and mulch.

imageAnother view of La Corona taken fom our farmhouse.

Despite the explosion of tourism which now forms about 90% of the island’s economy, the old farmers can still be found, tilling their land. Not as many as I recall, and certainly not as many as fifty years ago, but some cling to the old ways, some see sense in the dry land farming techniques their ancestors created.

Not much development has occurred in the north. The villages are much the same, a mix of smart new villas, old run down farmhouses, ruins and vacant blocks. A few farmhouses here and there on the land around. The restaurants cater for the people more than tourists. The shops are few and largely invisible.

So, what has changed? My answer is simple. Nothing. Unless I reduce change to a mere matter of multiplication. The population has doubled. Expats from many nations comprise about 30%. Many from Latin America. Consequently, there are a lot more houses. Tourism has boomed. Consequently, there are a lot more hotels and apartments. The roads are wider and there are roundabouts everywhere. Supermarkets and petrol stations abound. Cyclists from La Santa, athletic types wearing the correct gear, hog the roads.

There is definitely a lot more money around, going into the pockets of some, and not the many.

And that’s it.

For me, Lanzarote is the same as it ever was. There is the same north/south divide, as if those choosing the south, where almost all the development has occurred, overshadowed by the rugged dry peaks of Los Ajaches, the young calderas of Timanfaya, a landscape conjuring a certain pioneering spirit in the soul, of the Wild West perhaps, somewhere on the edge, pervades the collective psyche.

imageA small creation by indigenous artist Domingo Diaz Barrios

Those choosing the north are influenced by the softer greener peaks of the Famara massif, drawing on the comfort of its sheltered valleys, the secret of the massif, its dramatic western cliff, always hidden from view. Here the artists and artesans live, here the politics of the Left can be found, here the traditions of old are honoured, championed, preserved. The old German bakery with its sourdoughs and ryes, still sells at the markets. The French crepe stall is also still trading. Little moments in The Drago Tree that I’d inserted from memory, suddenly made real. Along with the ceramicists, painters, jewellery makers, all still here…

imageA small work by indigenous artist Domino Diaz Barrios

In a restaurant in Arrieta, down on the waterfront, we were introduced to a desert made from Gofio (toasted maize flour), ground almonds, sugar (not much) and cream. It’s a children’s desert, made in large batches. I had the idea of adding Brandy to the mix to create an adult version. It turned out to be so good we went back yesterday for more! Simple pleasures. How we like it.

For me, nothing has changed. The tiers of locals, Spanish and ‘the strangers’ from other lands exist in much the same way as they did when I was last here. The lumbering edifice of Spanish bureaucracy is more or less the same. Opportunistic ‘fat cat’ businessmen wheeling and dealing, greasing the hands of officials with brown envelopes – how is that any different to anywhere else? And the easy going, accepting, tolerant locals prepared to make space for the temporary colonisation that is tourism, mirrors the attitude adopted by their ancestors of millennia past, in the face of conquest and piratical attack. This, after all, is an island accustomed to invasion.

Day 6 and my awe and delight at having returned are replaced by an acute awareness. Here are some of my observations.

Lanzarote is an island of contrasts. The everyday lives of the locals, with their tight knit family networks, their lives lived behind closed doors, and the tourists. Like almost all tourist destinations where the industry has planted itself in amongst a local culture and boomed, the people and their traditions, their culture, seems squeezed aside. At times tourism manifests like a sycamore in a foreign land, a eucalypt in Africa, a cane toad, a feral cat. Tourism, in essence temporary migration, fostered and serviced by a corporate edifice with no conscience.

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I wonder, do the locals here hide? I would hide. I would be pleased the windows of my house faced an interior courtyard and not the street outside. For the island feels overrun. Only in the backstreets of the remotest villages, or the suburbs of the larger towns, can the people escape the invasion. The roads are busy, and anywhere remote is frequented by the more adventurous tourist, especially the cyclist.

It’s an impossible situation, on a small island formerly poor with a struggling economy, a backwater passed over in favour of it’s more stately sisters. Now the economy is dominated by tourism, and, just like Ann observed in The Drago Tree, there is no going back to the old days.

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Thankfully on Lanzarote much care has been taken to preserve the island’s natural beauty spots. The malpais (lava) making it difficult to develop large areas, especially in the north. And the artist, architect and ecologist Cesar Manrique set an example of how to cater to tourists without ruining the environment, one followed by many, those respecting the island’s status as a biosphere reserve.

Michelle and I have spent the last few days witnessing the tourist-local dynamic. On remote, winding lanes, we’ve been almost side swiped by cyclists riding two or three abreast. We’ve walked the gritty paths in the island’s hidden corners, only to find others passing us, heading off and up and round and every which way.

We’ve hung out in a bar in the main drag of one of the island’s quieter tourist strips, and spoken with a group of English expats, all of them warm and friendly. They are aspiring writers, and I was giving a talk. I was one of them, in my heart the same desire to live on Lanzarote. I can’t criticise their wish.

We’ve hung out in restaurants in the north frequented by locals and a few tourists, and we’ve enjoyed the exceptional service, the generosity.

We’ve walked through Manrique’s extraordinary house in Tahiche, created in a lava tube accessed by several small jameos (holes in the lava). An artist inspired by Gaudi and Picasso, his creative impulse evident in every corner.

We’ve been to the artesan market in Haria, and wandered around the backstreets, passing couples also wandering around. I was showing Michelle where I used to live. And we were on the hunt for an old friend, Domingo.

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We found him in his house on the edge of the village. I hadn’t seen him for twenty-six years but he’s the same. And our affinity for each other’s company was just as I recalled.

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For the first time since we arrived, I was forced to speak only Spanish. We were talking about the past, about our lives, about the future. How I could live here again. With a good internet connection I most certainly could. And then, what would I be? An expat, an English-born Australian author championing the values, the hopes, the dreams of others. A stranger.

No. I’ll have to leave the characters I created in The Drago Tree to live that life on my behalf.

Yesterday we took a tour of the island’s north, where the malpais (bad land) fans to the coast, the legacy of eruptions of a chain of volcanos about 5,000 years ago, two of which form the view from our farmhouse, to the west and the north. It is the route Ann took in the first chapter of The Drago Tree, only in reverse.

We set off, heading north to Ye, passing through a narrow valley between La Corona, the largest volcano in the chain, and the rounded peaks of the massif. The road is narrow and edged with low dry stone walls. Beyond, the fields of black were alive with euphorbias, the lichens on the rocks bright splodges of white, yellow and orange. Wild grasses and flowers everywhere, the result of recent rain. Usually, there is little green save what the farmers plant and tend.

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Ye is the same as I recall. A tiny village forgotten by the developers. A string of farmhouses, a few ruins, paradise for someone like me.

We reached an intersection and headed right, skirting La Corona, the sloping plain to the ocean coated in a lava river, onces a tumbling fury, now a landscape of rugged basalt. For 6 kilometres we drove, taking the narrow lane to Orzola, twisting down between the rock, feeling the weight of it. A primordial scene, vast pillars of basalt protruding from the mass, nature’s standing stones. Everywhere a dance of colour, the lichens and euphorbias that have secured their grip on the landscape burdgeoning. The whole a sight at once painterly and alien.

And far more impressive than I recalled. No wonder Ann drove slowly, ‘consumed by what she saw.’

We arrived at the small fishing village of Orzola, which seems today to survive on passing trade to fill its string of restaurants, as tourists take the ferry to the island of La Graciosa nearby.

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We parked beside a restaurant overlooking the harbour and took a short walk around the block. It was as if I had entered my only story, for Ann had been here, had gazed at the mountains and the cliff, had pointed out features to her companion, just as I was doing with Michelle.

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And like Ann, we didn’t hang around. Instead, we headed to a remote beach to the west of Orzola, sandwiched by the cliff of El Risco. We pulled up halfway along a narrow track and walked the rest of the way. It was a walk like no other, each step bringing us closer to the barren massif, rising steeply, about 400 metres high, baring striations of rock, the jagged razorback of El Risco silhoutted against the sky, the whole a vast wall. The beach itself arcs to the cliff base, the creamy white sand strewn with basalt pebbles of all sizes. We stood in awe watching couples scattered here and there as they also stood in awe. Two guys were ignoring the warning signs and out on surfboards.

Walking to the car was strange. I wanted to walk backwards, to watch the cliff recede a little with each step. As if to say goodbye.

From Orzola we took the coast road to Arrieta, carved along the fringe of the lava flow. Small pebble strewn beaches appeared here and there. Beaches not for swimmers. For paddlers. For those wanting to stand and stare, at the ocean, the malpais, La Corona and the massif. For hours.

It’s a shared sentiment. Where I recalled when I was last here no human life other than me, there were cars and people. Not many. Not an amount to disturb. But to be thoroughly alone would mean either luck or a trek into the harsh rock of the malpais.

We found a small car park at one beach and stopped briefly, and walked to the shore, and I found a small pebble, the size of a bean, and pocketed it. I was being Ann, for she had done the same. It was as if I was walking in her footsteps, a bizarre feeling.

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We completed our adventure with lunch beside the little wharf in Arrieta, choosing a restaurant with Spanish-speaking diners. We didn’t speak much. Both of us watched the ocean break on the low cliff to the south, sending up gushes of spume. Although I did comment on the fish I ordered, for it was the best fish I have eaten in a long time. And Michelle tells me her mussels were fine.

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As if life were in agreement that I must return to this island, and stay not for weeks but months, I found a cheap apartment to rent, just metres from where we had sat on the wharf. It was Michelle’s doing. She wanted to check out the clothes in a boutique nearby, and as she browsed I took the chance to speak Spanish to the owner. How glad I am that I did! The woman spoke slowly and encouraged my efforts and when I explained my wish she told me of her apartment, of the cost, the location, and I knew that what I have been feeling for so long, a profound sense of belonging, was not an illusion, it was just me following life’s trail, picking up the breadcrumbs.

 

Yesterday we were up and out of this old farmhouse bright and early. A little cloud on a warm and breezy day, and as we drove down past the saddles of the massif on our way to Arrecife I noticed the swathes of untilled land, land that used to be a checkerboard of haphazard plots of maize, potatoes and especially prickly pear. In the 80s I would see old women in wide brimmed hats in amongst all those spines, as they plucked off the beetles for cochineal. No more.

The road is long and mostly straight, gone the hair pins, the meandering, the character. A road that bypasses the villages of Mala and Guatiza. A road determined to take drivers to the sprawl that now is Tahiche, and on down to the capital with its super-fast arc of ring road taking traffic to the tourist hubs of Puerto del Carmen and Playa Blanca in the south, and Costa Teguise immediately to the north.

We were heading to the port. An unusual choice perhaps, but it is also the site of the Castillo de San Jose and the museo of contemporary international art, one of a long list of sites for the sequel to The Drago Tree.

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The port and surrounds, as anticipated, comprises numerous large concrete storage tanks, a power station (oil fired), a desal plant, containers stacked high in a low row along the waterfront, factories, warehouses, the whole drab grey-white of it set against the undulating sea. Scarcely worth a photo.

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The castle, set amidst this scene, is one of three located on the sea front, built to ward off pirates. A small solid building, imposing, with a small dry moat in front and turrets on each corner. A building tucked back from the street and easily missed. A building no tourist would come across except by accident, or through the determination of the lover of fine art. In other words, not at all the sort of place of interest to the average tourist the island attracts. Besides, the other two forts, located along Arrecife’s promenade, are far better suited to tourist sensibilities.

Still, whoever commissioned the fort renovations was determined to create a sense of grandeur and importance, a place worthy of the high art it houses perhaps. The quick look I took inside confirmed the fort to be a remarkable setting for a gallery. The long and low first room, with its rounded arched ceiling, the steep stairs leading to chambers above and below, the slits in the thick walls, windowed – it had an air of secrecy, of low whispers. And it was empty.

Carved into the low cliff below is a restaurant, accessed via a curving flight of cobbled steps flanked by basalt boulders and plantings of succulents in deep picon.

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We decided to sample the food, which proved good. And as we sat in front of a wall of glass, staring out at the containers on the waterfront, the buildings on the dock, I wondered what sort of people came here. Men in suits. This was a place for private conversations. A place from which to observe the docklands and not a pretty view. A place away from the noise and bustle of Arrecife. A hidden place away from the people. Not a place for tourists. Not a place for the peasant farmer plucking beetles off her prickly pear. And not a place for us.

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