Memoir: There’s a Volcano Outside my Front Door

 

There’s a volcano outside my front door. I stand on the threshold and there it rises, a perfect cone, decapitated by its own fury. It’s winter, and the euphorbias cling on, smatterings of green against the cinder black. To my right is the volcano’s big sister, La Corona, a monolith, its fractured crest evidence of a day five-thousand years ago, when lava spewed and gushed and tumbled, razing the land.

Back then, there were no human witnesses. Now homo sapiens ramble all over the rock. I’m visiting the island of my memories, my former home, Lanzarote, desert dry and riddled with volcanoes, their offerings of cinder and lava meeting the eye in all directions. An island as commonplace as a tea towel to the British tourist, a place no one has heard of in Australia, where I live now.

I’m a woman in her fifties staring back into her twenties, living on an island continent straddling the Indian and Pacific Oceans, while my soul is shackled to this Atlantic rock.

A benevolent wind whistles through the shutters. Behind me, moving from room to room, Michelle is preparing for the day. We’re staying in an ancient farmhouse with metre-thick stone walls. It’s the northernmost dwelling in Máguez, a tiny village of whitewashed, flat-roofed farmhouses hugging narrow streets, nestling in an elevated valley on a tongue of land about five kilometres wide.

It’s a fine day. Streaks of cloud occupy the sky. I trace an attentive eye along the western ridge, taking in the folds of the mountains, aware that on the other side of their crest, is the cliff. I stare and stare, my soul hungry for what I saw before, as though I could re-capture my past and erase the years between.

There’s a culture of rare ingenuity on this island where it scarcely rains, dry-land farming. Without it, the people could not have existed. For millennia, the farmers have used the cinders for mulch. They call it picón and it renders the fields basalt black. Up here, away from the resorts, the old ways are still lived, evidenced in the small field of maize across the street, in the old farmer bent double, weeding. The farmers make use of the rock too, for wind protection. The result is a tidy arrangement of cinder fields and dry-stone walls.

Our car, a small and white rental, waits beside a small patio. I eye it with trepidation. Michelle is doing the driving. We’ve been all over the island, coursing every major road. We’ve passed low stone walls framing fields of black, where single grape vines or fig trees nestle in neat rows in cinder pits protected by stone wall arcs. We’ve passed low stone walls fronting every terrace rising up the mountain slopes. We’ve passed low stone walls framing every single field, right up to the roadside.

I haven’t seen much beyond those low stone walls. Michelle, a native of Australia’s capital, Canberra, is transfixed by the primordial terrain. I envy her. I have scarcely been able to take it all in. I want to, badly, but when we’re in the car, I can’t seem to peel my eyes from the roadside. It’s a reflex. She finds it hard to centre the car. I’m a reluctant driver turned apprehensive passenger and it’s all I can do not to grip the seat. I don’t think my fear is unfounded. We’ve shaved some roadside weeds and knocked a side vision mirror or two.

Lanzarote, or Titeroyugatra as it is traditionally named, has a colourful history. One of the Fortunate Islands known to Pliny the Elder, the island was given its European name after a Genoese sailor, Lancelotto Malocello, who landed in the 14th century.

By the 15th century, knowledge of the island had grown. There was much to be gained from the lichen and the cochineal, both prized fabric dyes. The island was the subject of numerous piratical attacks, servicing the north African slave trade. Then in 1402, Norman nobleman Jean Béthencourt and his sidekick Gadifer de la Salle conquered Lanzarote, subduing the local tribe, capturing their king, Guadarfía, and securing assistance from King Henry III of Castile.

With conquest came Catholicism, the islanders forced to convert. Up sprung churches, monasteries, convents. Forts were built to protect the island from further attack.

The forts now house art galleries and museums.

From his base on Lanzarote, Béthencourt set off to conquer the rest of the Canary Islands in battle after bloody battle spanning much of the fifteenth century. The islands proved geographically strategic, ocean-faring caravels able to take advantage of the Canary current that made for plain sailing to the Americas. In the centuries that followed, Lanzarote suffered many incursions, its capital razed, all its records destroyed. Once, nine-hundred locals hid in a lava tube in the island’s north, a tube created by La Corona. They were discovered, captured, shipped to the slave markets in Algiers and held to ransom. The then King of Castile paid up and the captives were returned to the island.

The lava tube, Cuevos de los Verdes, is now a tourist site. We visited the caves last week. Down in those caves, imagining close to a thousand terrified souls in amongst all that rock, I was moved by the trauma the islanders have endured.

The car yelps and Michelle is behind me, her sandaled feet crunching on the gravel drive. In the car, she fiddles with the GoPro before slinging the gear stick into reverse for the five-point turn.

The GoPro forces us both into silence. After weeks of site-seeing, we’re heading north for a short excursion round La Corona, the volcano that gave birth to the world’s longest lava tube.

This time, I’m determined to take in my surroundings. It’s nonsensical to travel halfway round the world only to stare down at the nose of the car and a single white line. Besides, my companion’s driving is improving every day. Nice pep talk, but I’ve become so nervous all I can do is glimpse snatches, while the better part of me lives out its terror.

I manage to look for long enough to notice nothing appears the same as it did before, despite the fact that it is exactly as it was and my mind the distorter. Lacking depth of field, my imagination has flattened the landscape, memories reduced to a Google maps’ street view version of what I am beholding.

We pass through the village of Yé and the farmed fields give way to the lava, a violent tumble of basalt, shards like standing stones, the whole blanketed in euphorbias and lichens, at this time of year a patchwork of whites, greens and oranges.

Michelle pulls up at the intersection. I point to my right. Left is the cliff road, which might possibly be fine on the way to the lookout, but on the way back the sheer drop to the ocean would be on my side. I hadn’t realised my fear of heights was so intense until I found myself back in this barren landscape.

I’ve become phobic and I’m not happy about it. Even on the relatively tame road that curves round the base of La Corona, I’m on fire, my palms hot and damp.

The land descends to the ocean. We corner a bend and then another. There’s a low stone wall beside the road. Eyeing the speedometer, I find we’re doing sixty.

‘Slow down.’

‘Why?’ she says, taking no notice.

‘It must have been right here,’ I murmur to myself.

Things look different in the dark. Twenty-six years ago, that wall would have been exactly that height. No one had come along and removed the stones. The road is narrow too, with little space between the tarmac and the wall.

I couldn’t have been driving any faster than Michelle. I couldn’t have been hurtling headlong into that wall, as memory tells me I had. I would have been coming at the wall at a glancing angle.

Another driver would have steered and braked her way to safety.

I blacked out.

Two in the morning on a lonely stretch of road, and when I came to the engine was still running and I was upside down with petrol dripping on me. My first thought was, I’ve woken up to die.

Vivid as yesterday, I scramble from the car. I’ve no torch and there’s no moon to light my way. I head back to the village of Yé. I walk up and down the streets pounding on one door then another, calling for help. For what feels like hours I try.

I discover, later, the villagers were as frightened as me, terrified if they opened the door I’d barrel in with a gang of marauding no-gooders in tow. It has me thinking traumatic memories are stored in our genes.

At last a door opens. Inside, I see my student. I sit in a chair in the centre of a bare room with her family hovering around me. Someone hands me brandy. I drink it down, welcoming the burn in my throat. It does nothing to quell the shaking.

That was no ordinary car accident. The setting alone was and is extraordinary.

I left the island for Australia soon after and over the years that accident has taken on gargantuan proportions, crippling my confidence, filling my life with fears. All that time lost to an inner vice-like grip.

The road snakes along and I see a road sign.

‘Make a left up ahead.’

The road down to the small fishing village of Órzola and the island’s northern tip is little more than a lane carved into the lava. We crawl along. Cars approach and we have to squeeze by each other.

I leave that manoeuvre to my companion and look at the landscape. For me, the decision isn’t easy. Every cell of my being is on high alert. But some other part of me takes control. After all, there is nowhere on the planet to compare to here.

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Picking up the breadcrumbs

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.

Orzola

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.

Orzola

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.

Orzola

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.

Orzola

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.

ArrietaArrieta

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.