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.
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.
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.
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 …
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.
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.