26 Oct 2017

46. White Elephants

White elephants are endemic, though not exclusive, to Spain, including our island. Whereas the public works described in my last post are largely attributable to the vision and negotiating skills of a particular person, our white elephants seem to be of more diffuse parentage and are most likely the well-intentioned but unquestioned brain-children of technocrats in our institutions. A few quite visible examples:

At the La Peña vantage point, next to the restaurant, a Congress Centre was planned. On first sight, it seemed a brilliant idea. The site was perfect, with beautiful views over the ocean and El Golfo, with good roads to Valverde and the airport as well as the rest of the island … An excellent venue for serious congresses and other events, far away from big cities and their distractions, and with excellent IT connectivity. But perhaps no-one considered accommodation for 100 or 200 participants and their spouses. Besides, there is not much for the spouses to do on the island. Or perhaps the money ran out. In any case the project was abandoned and the half-built shell has been sitting there for three or four years, its expensive floorboards warping and its ceilings falling in. Officially another victim of the financial crisis. I recommend you visit the La Peña restaurant for lunch, and when you do, have a look at this still-born pachyderm.

The view of El Golfo from the La Peña vantage point where the Congress Centre was to be. The colourful swimming pool is in the centre of the photo about a sixth of the way up, an oval enclosure between some houses and the rocky coastline.
At the same time you might like to look almost vertically down from the La Peña vantage point at a curious sprawling construction near the mini-hotel at Las Puntas. From nearby you’ll see it is a sort of Gaudiesque swimming-pool with colourful tiling, in fact wonderfully exotic. Years ago when they were building it I thought it was going to be a discotheque to compete with those of Ibiza. Perhaps it was. Since then, however, it has only been filled with water a few times and opened to the public in summer. I suspect the problem is that without a buoyant tourist industry there is not a big enough market to make it profitable.

The industrial estate, El Majano, with the cheese factory in the centre. The
proposed factory to transform local produce is the grey building on the
other side of the cheese factory.
Near San Andrés our industrial estate is home to our slaughterhouse, cheese factory, animal feed factory and Mercahierro, mentioned in another post, all public enterprises. As far as I know, no private enterprise has ever started up there, despite certain incentives. About fifteen years ago the Cabildo built a factory on the estate to transform local produce. The idea was to produce jam and other conserves from the island’s excellent fruit as well as processed and packaged vegetables. Another part of the factory would be devoted to packaging and processing meat. Theoretically all of this would be certified organic and there was even talk of making the whole island's agriculture organic. Courses were organized to qualify local workers specifically for the project. On the face of it, it was a winner: it would create jobs directly and indirectly; it would revitalize the island’s primary sector, especially in the foothills; the added value of high-quality organic produce would compensate for the cost of shipping to the other islands, and most importantly it would better the island’s image and bolster pride among the islanders. But something went wrong and the wind is blowing through the open doors of the installation and the unused machinery is wasting away in silence. I think it was not a question of funds. What probably happened was that the visionaries that set it all up were simply incapable of making it work. And private initiative was out of the question.

Just as there are many examples of positive improvements over the years, there are quite a few baby white elephants. But I don’t want to rub it in too much …

23 Oct 2017

45. Into the 21st Century

Over the last 35 years El Hierro has leapt from backwardness into the twenty-first century. At least in public works. The person visibly responsible for this transformation is Tomás Padrón, founder of the insular party, AHI (El Hierro Independent Party – not Independence Party) and President of the Cabildo for most of the time between the late 70’s and the recent crisis. You may not agree with his often apparently marxist policies or you may claim anyone in power during the years of the EU payout bonanza would have done the same or better, but "give credit where credit's due". Here are some of the most salient projects that have made the islanders’ lives so much better.

The Frontera end of the tunnel is hardly noticeable: just a darker semicircle
in the imposing wall surrounding El Golfo.
All in all, the island’s roads are much better than most people would expect for such a small island. The two main towns, Valverde and Frontera, are now connected at sea level by a road which cuts driving time by two thirds and avoids having to motor up more than 1000 metres and down again through the monteverde forest along the ridge of the island’s mountainous backbone. Part of this road is a 2.5 kilometre three-lane tunnel which was drilled from both ends describing an "S" through the mountains. I find it amazing that both bits met up. Another two smaller tunnels have been built between the port and the Parador.

We also have a new highway from Valverde up to San Andrés, making the south of the island more accessible.

Our delightful little airport, more than sufficient for present needs, replaces the scruffy installation we had before. Besides, it’s a perfect example of how well the public responds to a little spoiling from authority. Our new port, greatly enlarged on the old one, caters for large cruisers as well as our daily ferries and includes a pleasure marina. Somehow, though, despite its modern design and efficiency, I miss the charm of the old port and the house with its pretty blue verandah perched on the cliff, the bustle of its popular bar-restaurant, kids diving off the quayside and anglers sitting on the bollards.

Outpatients awaiting their turn for analyses in the foyer
of our hospital.
Depending on who’s estimating the figure, our population is somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 residents. Nevertheless we have a superb little hospital with operating theatres, dialysis, laboratory and imaging, and of course a selection of resident specialists and others that come once a week. Patients who need treatment that cannot be provided here are sent to the main hospitals in Tenerife, if necessary in medical helicopters.

The star of our public works is, of course, the windfarm-come-hydroelectric plant, “La Gorona del Viento”, described in an earlier post. This project is confusingly publicized as providing the island with 100% renewable energy. What is really meant is that one day 100% of the electricity consumed by the island's homes, industries and services will be generated from renewable sources - I don't think electric bulldozers and excavators are very common. The plant was inaugurated in 2015 and at present produces 60% of our electricity. The project obviously favours the island’s environment but otherwise the population, the unconverted whisper, does not seem to benefit from its operation nearly as much as the electrical giant Endesa.

There are many other, less visible projects undertaken during this period of growth. These include the insular domestic water supply ring, day-centres and residences for the elderly, the embellishment and conditioning of urban, rural and seaside facilities, environmental programmes and installations, etc …

26 Sep 2017

44. The Ritual Folk Music of El Hierro

Four hundred years ago Louis XIV, the Sun King, would put on his favourite costume of peacock feathers and prance around the salons of Versailles to the sounds of Le Canarien, the then popular dance of the ‘wild’ Canary islanders but undoubtedly refined for the courtly tastes of the day. Today, Canary folk music (confusingly known in Spanish as ‘Folklore’) has nothing to do with the Sun King’s inspiration but a lot to do with the crucible of peoples the Archipelago has been since then, varied and alive - Folias, Malagueñas, Polkas etc.- now often rendered anodyne by television and the tourist industry. This of course is also true of the folk music of El Hierro, or rather of that folk music the islanders emphatically call ‘folklore’. And here, of course, El Hierro differs from the other islands.

My neighbor has a seven-year-old whose grandfather made him a drum. Not a toy drum. A real big drum, almost as big as the boy, with the name of our village stencilled on the goatskin drum head. This summer we’ve had three months of drumming, at first pretty awful but drums must be in his genes because in the end we found ourselves listening for his progress. His elder brother plays the local flute – a bit of electricity conduit with holes drilled into it – and his father does, too. It is quite unlike any music I had ever heard before coming to the island. This really is folk music and part of the islanders’ folklore in the real sense of the word. It’s only played at processions during religious festivals and accompanies the dancers in red aprons and colourful headdresses you see prancing around like Louis XIV in airport photos and official brochures. The most imporant of these festivals is the "Bajada de la Virgen" (Descent of the Virgin) which is held every four years celebrating the intervention of the island's Patron Saint in putting an end to a terrible drought in 1741. The groups of musicians and dancers from every village in the island accompany Her image on a procession from Her hermitage on the common in the west of the island to Valverde in the east. A video of part of the procession in 2013:

This music is never sung. The instruments are drums, flutes and castanets. The flutes initiate each piece and the drums take their cues from the flutes, rather than the contrary as would be expected. The melodies, called ‘toques’ (tokays), are played in unison by the flutes and sound deceptively similar and basic. However, they are in fact extremely complex and delicate, with hardly discernible variations, even from one phrase to the next. The rhythms played by the flutes seem to flutter around those they have dictated to the drums which, in turn, guide the dancers. Each village has its own set of toques and some have specific uses: for example, for when the dancers are on level ground, or in the nave of a church, or for when the bearers lift the Virgin’s sedan onto their shoulders, and so on.

I don’t know when this unique music arose in, or came to, El Hierro. I have a feeling, however, it owes nothing to the island’s early European settlers and possibly to none of the later arrivals. If this is so it could well predate Louis XIV by centuries and even have been brought to the island when Carthage was still great and the Sahara had not quite dried out. That may well be romantic lucubration on my part but even so I hope this expression of genuine folk music remains just that, ritual folk music, part of the lore that has held and holds, the islanders together as a people, that has helped them, and still helps them, overcome the difficulties and pressures that threaten them. I hope this unique music is never debased to the status of curiosity and tourist attraction; that it is not further normalized or fostered as an element of identity by our institutions, and that it is never part of the school curriculum ... I hope it is left in the hands of the people like the master drum-maker, his son, Maso, and his grandsons, Cristian and Johan, to keep alive and pass down from generation to generation, as it has been for perhaps centuries. But I fear this hope may be a bit too much to ask.

3 Sep 2017

43. A sense of humour.

The first time I visited El Hierro I came with my son, a camera and a rather heavy backpack. We spent the first night sleeping rough on the cold and wet Common (Dehesa) in the west of the island. The morning the sun brought us back to life and in the distance we saw a man sitting on a rock watching his cows grazing. I went forward alone and sat on another rock to his left. Gazing west over the pasture, twisted windcrippled trees and the ocean, he did not look at me nor recognize my presence in any way. After a while I leant over towards him with a packet of cigarettes,
     “Would you like to smoke?”
     “I don’t usually smoke, but to keep you company …” he said, taking one.
We smoked in silence. Then he rummaged in his woolen satchel (talega) and pulled out a diminutive barrel made of a hollowed-out piece of mulberry trunk.
     “Would you like a drink of good wine?” he asked.
     “I don’t usually drink,” I answered, “but to keep you company …”
We both burst into laughter, made friends and he took us back to his house in Sabinosa for lunch.
I know the humour wasn’t all of his making but the experience told me a lot. He had obviously been aware of our presence since the day before. His ignoring me sitting beside him was a test and a provocation. His reply, ‘to keep you company’, was a gambit. He definitely had a fine sense of humour.

The men who built this belfry on top of a small
volcanic cone at some distance from the church
in Frontera must have had a fine sense of
humour: how little we are seen against the back-
drop of the overpowering escarpment. The under-
side of the sea of cloud can just be seen at the
top of the photo.
Of course there’s the raucous, bawdy humour of bars and building sites you find everywhere, but the islanders have their own ingenious humour intended to elicit a smile, or thought, or even to convey an unpalatable truth. Rather like English humour.

Eloy saw a bar of toilet soap one of the children had dropped into our drinking water cistern.
     “Don’t worry,” he said, “like that you wash your insides as well!”.

We had arrived for a short holiday a few days before and the carpenter’s wife said,
     “Oh! You’re here then! We weren’t aware.”
     “We don’t make a lot of noise. You know that.” I replied.
     “That’s why we put up with you!” she said with a smile and a chuckle.

On my way back from a morning in the vineyard, I stopped at a friend’s house. One of the men who were also there started pulling my leg about the size of my hoe, worn down almost to a toy by years of work. My friend came to my rescue:
     “Shut up, you lazy son of a bitch! You don’t know what work is. I saw the Englishman on his way to the vineyard this morning. His hoe was brand new!”

On our first trip to the island, my son and I were in Frontera looking up at the vertiginous 3,000 foot escarpment we were about to ascend. We could not see the top hidden by the sea of cloud lower down.
     “It’s a long climb up,” I said to the young man we were talking to.
     “What you can see, yes. And what you can’t, too!” was his comment.

But I suppose the most characteristic humour is in the nicknames. A limping mechanic was known as ‘the crankshaft’; another whose low-cut jeans were always showing a bit too much was ‘the piggy bank’; the landowners and tradesmen of Valverde were ‘white-tails’ while the rest of the islanders were ‘black-tails’; ‘skin and bones’, ‘the noble’, ‘parsley’, … Sometimes admittedly they are cruel, but there is always an element of tenderness.

25 Aug 2017

42. Climate change, what change?

Calima over El Pinar yesterday afternoon. You can't even see the forest-covered mountains behind the village in the middle of the picture.

If Donald Trump had been living on El Hierro, we could forgive his denial of climate change. Sitting in a huge deep tub of cool water – remember the Cold Canary Current? – and fanned by the Trade Winds, you can’t expect us to feel average changes of less than 0.5ºC in temperature year after year. That’s what the meteorological institute, infallible in hindsight, tells us has been happening. But this year we know something has happened. What I describe is the something in El Pinar where I live. If you want a general idea of the island, compensate for our altitude and orientation, i.e. take off a few degrees in summer and add a few in winter, reduce insolation by 30% and increase humidity a little.

Let’s start with the temperature. Over the years we have noticed a general tendency towards longer, but not necessarily colder, winters and shorter, hotter, summers and more heatwaves – this year we’re in our fourth or fifth. In any case, where I live it used to go up to 35ºC only on three or four days each summer. This August it has hovered around or above that every day.

Malmsey (Malvasia) grapes. These would normally be ready for
harvesting about now, but temperature, low humidity and insolation
have dried the bunches before they ripened. Some vines have
lost their leaves and on many the grapes are simply mummified.
At 850 metres above sea level, we have noticeably less muck in the air above us, and being almost in the tropics the sun is right overhead. So our insolation is at best something to be reckoned with. This year it is brutal. Yesterday morning I experimented with my digital thermometer: the air temperature in the shade was 30ºC, after ten minutes’ exposure to the sun the probe read 57ºC and after 20 minutes it read 64ºC. NO SUNBATHING!

Talking of muck in the air, we used to have ‘calima’ – airborne dust from the Sahara – during summer. Nowadays it appears any time of the year.

Very strong winds are less frequent. Fifteen years ago one blew away our greenhouse and snapped the trunk of our largest apricot tree. Although we still have north and northwesterly winds they are not nearly so strong.

Five years ago, in winter at least once or twice a week we had a dehumidifier on for a few hours in our bedroom. Since January this year the relative humidity has rarely gone above 40% and has often been below 20%. I wake up every morning with a tongue like old leather and hair like Rod Stewart. Although relative humidity should ideally be around 60-70%, here it is normally between 50 and 65%, a bit lower at the height of summer.

Perhaps the most important item in our climate equation is rainfall. As we have grapevines and fruit trees, growing years are more relevant and so our figure for the first year shown, ‘2009’ really means ‘October 2008 to September 2009’. Our average rainfall of 477 mm/yr is quite high for the Canaries but the total each year is very erratic, from 100 mm to 730 mm – or litres /square metre – and most of that falls heavily on a few odd days, generally in November and March. Between March and November we have drought. I can find no pattern or correlation in the annual rainfall figures, except certain coincidence with the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) sending us areas of low pressure, westerly winds and rain, or withholding them.

Annual rainfall from October to September, starting October 2008.
Figures reflect the rainfall measured at Manacen, El Pinar.

So if you take all these factors (I’m sure there are more but these are quite enough), put them in a box and shake energetically, you get this year’s, or that year’s, weather. It seems for our agricultural year 2016-2017 only the worst factors came into play: our throats are parched, the trees are almost leafless, the grape harvest is in tatters, our gardens are withered and we can’t go outside between twelve and five. For the first time in my life I wish it were winter instead of summer! Perhaps the year 2017-2018 will be a hand of aces. And maybe Climate Change will give us a more obliging old NAO year after year and our island will become the eden it deserves to be. Anyway I don’t think we want DT to come to find out!

6 Aug 2017


It looks like something solid emerging but really it is
lumps of floating Restingolitos and bubbling water.
Photo de C. Axelsson.
It seems the Canary Islands are a sort of trail of breadcrumbs left by a rogue tongue of weakness in the Earth’s crust. Over millions of years the weakness has been advancing from east to west leaving, first and nearest Africa, the island of Lanzarote, then Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria, Tenerife, La Gomera, La Palma and finally El Hierro, the westernmost and youngest of the archipelago. Logically, then, if an addition to the family is going to emerge from the bed of the Atlantic, the best place to look for it is near us. And that is exactly what appeared to be about to happen between October 2011 and March 2012.

Cockerels in the Canaries crow at any time during the day or night, supposedly because they are very sensitive to seismic tremors. Just before October that year they began to have nightly concerts and even we insensitive human beings began to feel the movements (of the earth not the concerts) some of which were quite strong. Then the sea to the south of La Restinga began to look dirtier. Next, it seemed to boil and to spew up precooked fish and a sort of black and white pumice that floated to the coast and was eagerly collected by the population until the activity was finally forbidden. These floating rocks were dubbed 'Restingolitos', a pun on the name of the village and the suffix meaning 'stone' or the diminutive. Eventually La Restinga was temporarily evacuated because of the danger of poisonous gasses. And that was it. We didn’t get a new island. 

Whenever something out of the ordinary happens it is normal to get a succession of politicians jousting for a photo in the press. Of course, they are all experts in the field in question. In November 2011 there was a General Election, a coincidence which greatly exacerbated the phenomenon. So, every day from different institutions and national candidates, as well as regional and local 'authorities', we had contradictory analyses, propositions and forecasts. Ill-prepared meetings were held, the army was called in, ferries to evacuate the whole island were to be requisitioned ... At best all this helped put El Hierro on the map even if the reports in the international tabloids were inclined to catastrophic sensationalism. Of course, there was a funny side. It was said that one enterprising fellow had registered in his name the new island, if ever it should emerge, and that the oceanographic research vessel had recovered a German beach towel and parasol pegged to its surface 100 metres below the waves.

El Hierro has long been known as the 'island of five hundred volcanoes' – all dead, of course – so now it is the 'island of 501 volcanoes', this last one still huffing but invisible to all except the divers at La Restinga.

7 Jul 2017

40. Photos in El Mentidero

A few weeks ago I was surprised to see an exhibition of photographs in the square (El Mentidero) of El Pinar. Surprised because it was the last place I would expect to find an exhibition. More surprised by the superb quality of the photos. And even more surprised than that by the subject matter. Portraits of the villagers.

These were not pictures of quaint old ladies in weeds, nor of ephemeral beauties in clouds of gossamer before a spectacular sunset, or mustachioed dancers in funny hats. No, these were not the official inhabitants of the virtual Hierro promoted by the authorities. These were real people. People I know. Just their portraits against a black background. No trappings. Their personalities laid bare in the best tradition of western portraiture:  resignation and sadness in the eyes of a Renaissance figure; the disbelieving anger of Huxley’s redskin in Brave New World; the tenderness and uncertainty of a woman who has seen it all; the acceptance of injustice; a young boy’s defiance … It’s all there, the hardship and misery, but, above all, the dignity of the individuals.
The photgraphs shown here are snaps
of the originals taken in the square by
a visitor.

Perhaps I read too much into what I see but I hope that soon the photographer, Alexis W., shows us another, complementary vision of his villagers: their generosity, humour, sense of family, hope, tolerance …

His second collection of photographs exhibited in El Mentidero, also entitled NOSOTROS (“we” or, if we divide the word, “us and the others”), is superficially similar but fundamentally different in my opinion. These, too, are delicate psychological portraits, this time of ‘alternative’ couples, but they imply the complicity of the photographer while in the earlier exhibition he was apparently only the vehicle between his subjects and us, and also, especially given the timing of the show, they suggest vindication.

The photographer has an internet site well worth visiting: