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.

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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.

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.

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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.

 

Of the people…?

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.

Arrecife

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.

Arrecife

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.

Arrecife

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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And the wind it blows

Well I cried on touchdown. It was the sight of the barren forms of the mountains of Los Ajaches, Lanzarote’s southern massif, and the villages of La Quemada then Puerto Calero coming into view, then the sprawling mass of white cubes that is Puerto del Carmen and the villages in its hinterland. Michelle had the window seat so didn’t notice my tears, but the woman seated to my right, who had been reading a Joanna Harris all flight, couldn’t have missed them. So I turned to her and said, ‘It’s my age.’

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I hadn’t spoken to Bernie for the duration of the 4 hour flight from Gatwick, but once she had put down her book, I struck up a conversation, asking her where she was staying and the like. When she returned the inquiry, I hesitated. But the moment I mentioned I was an author and that I had written a novel, The Drago Tree, set on the island, she took note of my name and the title and said she would buy my book straight away. Thanks Bernie!

I didn’t tell Bernie that Michelle was my publisher. That she was so inspired by The Drago Tree she’d come with me from Australia, a country where almost no one has heard of Lanzarote, to see the island for herself. It would have sounded like bragging. But Michelle has given my book the greatest endorsement any author can hope for, prepared to travel all that way with a woman she’d never met before, to see for herself why Lanzarote is so special.

Michelle designated herself as driver. What a relief! I’m a good navigator so we managed to find our way round the capital, Arrecife, and on to the northern road with ease. And I could take in the mountains, the calderas, the ocean. The first thing that struck me was the size of the calderas, made all the greater by their closeness, something lost in a photograph. When I was researching for The Drago Tree I’d spend many hours touring the island on Google maps, dredging up memories of when I lived here more than two decades before. But I could never capture that elusive depth of field. Many times on that drive north I wanted us to pull over so I could be still and stare and stare and stare. But we needed food, so we pressed on.

Lanzarote

According to my Internet searches all the supermarkets are closed on Sundays save for those in the tourist south. And since we had driven past all of that and were in open country, our only hope seemed to be a petrol station for some basic supplies. And we hoped to find something open before we reached our destination, a farmhouse on the very edge of the village of Máguez.

When we neared the fishing village of Arrieta, I suggested we take a look. And there on the corner of the main road in, was an open supermarket! And down a narrow alley, the ocean…

Lanzarote

Parking was fun, Michelle forced to drive down the narrow streets so typical of Lanzarote, bereft of pavements and lined with low-rise dwellings, all whitewashed. She was doing well, having mastered the gear box, the indicators, the strangeness of finding herself on the wrong right side of the road.

Stepping out of the car and breathing in the cool ocean air, I could scarcely believe I was here.  I was consumed with a sense of familiarity and belonging, which is hardly surprising since I’ve carried the island around inside me ever since I first visited in January 1988. Back then I fell instantly in love and by November of that year, I was living here.

Arrieta hasn’t changed that much and I knew my way around. The supermarket was well-stocked and had several aisles and a deli at the back. We bought locally grown produce, cheese, bacon cut to order on a meat slicer, wine, both local and Spanish, and other bits and pieces. It was all so inexpensive, so familiar to me. Atun (tuna backwards), champu (if you don’t know what that is, I can’t help you), leche semidesnatada (nata is cream), the whole experience of intuiting meaning came back to me. And my sense of belonging grew all the stronger.

At the checkout I tried out my Spanish, with my usual apologetic caveat about having not spoken the language for twenty-six years. Imagine the thrill when the woman smiled and chatted and I understood and she saw that I did, and we had a conversation. At the end she told me there was nothing wrong with the way I spoke. And there I stood; I’d come home.

I’ve come home to the mountains, the ocean, the wind, the ever present wind, to the picón, the lava, the buildings and the people.

We loaded up the car and headed up the steep sided valley to the little plateau nestled in the mountains, the location of Haría, and Máguez. More narrow streets, this time a warren, but with the caldera of La Corona ever present in the north, it was easy to find our way.

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It was when we opened the front door we both knew it had been more than worth the trek, not only across the globe, but the island too, for the house we are renting for the next few weeks is magnificent. Ten foot ceilings, walls of stone two foot thick, spacious rooms, and just for us.

Lanzarote villa

So I’m seated here at the large table, with Michelle opposite, the tin of Chocodates Michelle bought in Dubai open between us, with the cool wind howling through the shutters, the scudding clouds releasing flurries of light rain, with all of our two week stay ahead of us, happy and fulfilled. Yet already with an ache in my heart, knowing that once again, I’ll have to leave.

To purchase a copy of The Drago Tree, here’s a link to Amazon.

Hanging out in Oxford

This trip to Lanzarote wouldn’t have been complete without a detour to Oxford to catch up with my oldest friends! Sue Raikes and Adrian Moyes still live in the quaint village of Eynsham, six miles west of Oxford, where I lived back in 84. Introducing them to my travelling companion and publisher, Michelle Lovi was a delight.

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The highlight of the flight was the refuel stopover in Dubai. Just two hours filled with queuing and shuffling about withe the carry on luggage, but it did prove just enough for Michelle to purchase a tin of Chocodates. I had no  idea why she was on a mission to buy them until offered a free sample. An almond wrapped in a date and dipped in chocolate. One of those kinda healthy intensely sugary hits. Bit of a thing in Dubai it seems.

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Landing in Heathrow and trekking to the coach, down endless walkways had me thinking of settings for horror or urban fantasy. But we were soon out of there and trundling through stop the green and twiggy fields of Buckinghamshire.

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Arriving at Sue and Adrian’s cottage of old Cotswold stone it was as if I had never been away, the years shrunk to months, and everything I had known and loved about my visits was there again, in  conversation, in the sumptuous food, created from produce grown on their allotment nearby, in the seamless way time fills with activities. Including a novel way of making coffee!

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Yesterday Michelle and I took the bus to Oxford and I gave her my personal tour, following the route I used to cycle, down Broad St to Blackwells bookstore, a vast warren of a space filled with every sort of book, on round the Sheldonian theatre, past Bodleian library, under the Bridge of Sighs and along a back lane to Magdalen bridge.

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Much had changed since I lived here in the eighties, but when I went into the old whole food store Uhuru to see if anyone there recalled the former CND office, I asked the woman behind the counter, I was amazed to find she’d been working there all this time and pointed out the site, now demolished to make way for a new building housing a few shops. One of them was Viny’s cafe on Cowley Road, unpretentious and lively and serving what we took to be North African fare.

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That night Michelle had her first taste of Mah Jong. She picked the game up straight away, despite the wine and the jet lag. Impressive. Sue and Adrian bought my Mah Jong set for my fortieth. Fabulous game but requiring four enthusiastic players so I don’t get to play that much.  I lost.

Our stay wouldn’t have been complete without a pub lunch. We went to The Plough in Finstock. Low ceilings, thatched roof, and traditional fare. I had bangers and mash, Michelle cod and chips. And oh what chips! Triple fried!

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It was a terrific introduction to England. Michelle has remarked on the friendliness and generosity of all we met. Not at all what she anticipated. And we drove right by the location for Midsummer Murders.