9 Feb 2018

49. Boxes, water and old men

The visible edge of a dike of grey basalt
cutting vertically up through different
layers of mostly porous rock. The brown
layer in the middle is possibly that colour
because it was burnt by a very hot lava
flow of basaltic material which formed
a fragmentary sill whose vertical prisms
are just visible to the left of the dike.
The Canary Islands are huge piles of volcanic rubble sticking out of the sea. Much of this rubble is made up of layers of porous rock on layers of hard impermeable rock, called 'sills', so that each island roughly resembles a many-storeyed wedding cake. As the cake consolidated it cracked and into these cracks lava was squeezed up from the magma below. This lava solidified into impermeable walls called 'dikes'. Inside the island, then, the dikes and sills together formed a stack of boxes with impermeable sides whose porous contents filled with water filtering down over millions of years from rain and snow on the surface. Consequently, at least in the western province, there are few vertical wells and the islands’ supply of ground water is extracted by horizontal wells, called galleries, that break through the walls of the boxes (the dikes) as they burrow at different levels into the sides of each island.

Unfortunately, in our island there are few effective sills and few boxes. The precipitation we receive simply leaches down and down into the heart of the island, then out into the sea. Traditionally there was no point in digging wells near the villages. Attempts to harness runoff in dams in the gullies proved useless because without modern materials the porous ground absorbed all the water. So the only water available to the islanders was the rainwater they collected in their domestic cisterns, a few minor springs and a natural lens of freshwater at Icota near El Pinar. And of course the Garoé.

In the middle of the twentieth century some enterprising islanders from La Palma tried to cultivate bananas in El Golfo. They finally gave up but they did leave us a part of the solution to the island’s water problem. Wells can be effective if they are cunningly located and designed. One such is the “Pozo de los Padrones” on the straight road through the badlands to Frontera, just after leaving the tunnel. There is a panel on the wall of the pump house explaining how the excavation begins as a well (pozo) going straight down and then continues as a horizontal gallery under the imposing 3,000 foot crag opposite.

A view of Frontera on a day of sunshine and drizzle in February. The mountains part-hidden by cloud capture the moisture from the Trade Winds and this water filters down through the rock. El Pozo de los Padrones is at the foot of the crag in the centre of the photo and burrows right into the heart of the mountain.

There is a tap at the pump house where the public can collect drinking water, pure unchlorinated “fossil” water. One day I was there with my collection of five-litre plastic bottles when four cars pulled up, each driven by a man of my age and, of course, we struck up conversation.

The pump house at Pozo de los Padrones. The relic on the
left painted white was the scoop at the head of excavations
when the gallery was being dug. The rubble was taken out
in gondolas like the one just behind it. The excavation must
have been backbreaking work for the men aided only by
dinamite and this minature machinery. A gallery is a very
confined space, perhaps little higher than a man and not
much wider than the skips on rails, the air stifling, damp
and hot.
While we waited our turns, the banter went something like this:

- “When I was a young man I used to go to the spring every day. Not to get water, mind you! But to chat up a certain young lady. Now she sends me here to get me out of her sight!”
- “That’s it! Things have changed. No girls here today, eh? All up at the tables in the Avenue. Showing themselves off. Drinking gin-tonics!”
- “Yep! All we’re good for is to fetch water, take the rubbish down, walk the bloody dog and mind the grandson when his parents are out!”
- "When I was young, old men were looked up to, respected. Now you’d think we’re in the way! And that's if they see you!”
- “Nonsense! We old men are the greatest.”
- “How come?”
- “The greatest. The biggest thing today. We don’t fit in anywhere!”

15 Jan 2018

48. The Garoé

Water, water everywhere, 
Nor any drop to drink …
(The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Coleridge)

Or so it must have seemed to the garrison of soldiers entrusted with conquering the island. Until a native princess besotted by one of the officers told them the secret of the Garoé, the tree that miraculously distilled water. That is, according to the romantic legend (see my post 33. History part 2 ). The original tree was destroyed many years ago but it’s well worth a visit to the site and its replacement.

The dutiful visitor will leave the hired car at the crossroads near San Andrés and undertake the two and a half kilometre walk along the windswept heights on a dusty or muddy 4X4 track. Once out of the pine forest (definitely not Canary pine) there is a bird’s-eye view of the ruins of La Albarada, the first colonial settlement on the island and, further along on the left, magnificent views of the foothills and valleys to the west. The site of the Garoé is surrounded by a high wall. Once through the wrought-iron gate you listen to a touristic sales pitch and pay your modest toll before emerging into a different, magical world, a green Avalon of swirling mists, vertiginous slopes and shaddowless forms at a thousand metres above the Atlantic.

It is a pity that whoever designed the awful little informative signs was not so bewitched by the surroundings. One tells us the path is slippery: “slippery floor” – oops! Others give us architect’s plans of the half-dozen cisterns dug into the ground to collect runoff from under the tree (and presumably water seeping down through the rock) and then ask us not to throw coins into them. Perhaps in an attempt to avoid events like that of the over-enthusiastic young unofficial guide who jumped into one of the cisterns only to find it was deeper, colder and darker than she had anticipated.

The Garoé tree itself grows in a cleft in the side of the mountain facing the Trade Winds coming in from the northeast. The winds cool as they rise and form clouds which are funneled into the cleft. The humidity becomes so high that the water vapour condenses on every surface it encounters, particularly on the leaves of vegetation. This phenomenon, called horizontal rainfall, is not exclusive to the Garoé and occurs all over the island, especially in the north. On misty days you will no doubt notice wet patches on the roads and hear drops banging on the roof of your car as you pass under an overhanging pine or evergreen.

From the back of the cleft looking past the moss-covered trunk of the Garoé towards the mist coming in from the north.

However, the Garoé was, as the legend suggests, an important source of water for the population before the advent of deep wells, desalination plants and municipal distribution. In 1948 there was a terrible drought that was directly responsible for the emigration of thousands of islanders. The true story goes that a certain Tadeo Casañas, simple agriculturist and bee-keeper from San Andrés, observed what happened at and around the Garoé. I don’t know if he made use of a naturally occurring screen of heath-trees or constructed some other sort of screen, but he was soon capturing the water distilled from the horizontal rainfall and channeling it in hollowed-out flower spikes of sisal plants to where it could be collected by the villagers for consumption or for watering their animals. This relief in such distressing times, at least for a few of the islanders, is a perfect example of the ingenuity, resilience and self-reliance of the true islander. It is a pity that the engineers in our institutions cannot boast of similar initiative. Since then no-one has thought of improving on Tadeo’s idea. In fact, most people have never even heard of it.

15 Dec 2017

47. Back from Hell

The dramatic light as we left El Hierro reminded me of
the romantic illustrations in the books of my youth.  The
tiny dot you can see on the oily surface of the water in
the distance may be Charon and his ferry crossing the
Styx with souls on their way to Hades.
I’m not saying Tenerife is Hell. Far from it! But sometimes it feels like it. We recently travelled to Tenerife where I was to have an urgent hip replacement. The whole adventure, if you may call it that, took a week. A hellish week.

To begin with, although I usually take things in my stride I felt apprehensive at the prospect for it is an operation that requires quite a bit of cutting and chopping. The consideration shown by everyone only heightened my feelings of helplessness and vulnerability as I was pushed around in a wheelchair. Drugged with painkillers I was in no way able to react rationally to the professionals at the hospital: I just went into automatic “obey” mode. After four hours of surgical oblivion, our large family came to see me: a Goyesque nightmare of unfocussed, barely recognizable faces asking me how I felt as I floated in whatever the nurses were pumping into my veins.

So, really, psychologically I wasn’t exactly in a condition to enjoy myself. That’s the inside bit. But Tenerife, the place, did have a lot to add to my visit to Hades. First the traffic. Cars everywhere: the journey up to Santa Cruz on the motorway was simply an enormous traffic jam speeding along at 110 km/h: one steady three-lane stream of vehicles so dense I soon felt we knew the family in the car beside us.
Everyone was wonderfully considerate,
at the airports, on the ferry, at the
hospital, but, as the song goes:
"Isn´t it nice to be home again ..."
photo: C. Axelsson

Vehicles also produce a lot of noise and emissions in addition to the mercaptans spilled out by the refinery, a gas which affects my insides. Most probably my brain was registering my surroundings in slow-motion and in contrast everyone was busily hurrying everywhere and noisily doing things, babbling shrilly. I just wanted to get back home.

Back to our home in the hills, to the clean fresh air, to the silence in which you can hear your heart beat and the blood coursing through your veins, to the trees which sway in the wind but don’t run about, to the light and colours of the landscape and the darkness and stars at night, to the curry-smell of last year’s fennel and damp earth and pines, … We who live on El Hierro are privileged. I cannot think of anywhere I would rather be. Certainly not …

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.