20 Jun 2016

San Borondón

The Canary Islands from West to East, or left to right if you are looking at a map, are El Hierro, La Palma, La Gomera, Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura and Lanzarote. Some people add La Graciosa and Isla de Lobos, but these are really tiny. None of our modern maps, however, show the island of San Borondón. I don’t think this is because of military secrecy or anything like that, it’s just that every time some geographer establishes its exact coordinates it goes somewhere else. This has not always been so. Way back in the sixth century some intrepid sailors made the crossing to San Borondón. As was the habit in those days, on landing they stuck a cross and a flag in the sand and claimed the island for some king or other. The island didn’t like this and immediately submerged. The sailors just managed to get back to their boat before that too went under – they had tied it to some rocks – but for one unfortunate man who couldn’t swim. He was condemned forever to live on San Borondón, above or below water, and as soon as someone sets foot on the island he appears, chops off their head with a his cutlass and feeds their body to the fish.

A small boat for so many!
Saint Brendan on Jasconius, perhaps.
University of Augsburg, Germany 
The name, San Borondón, comes from Saint Brendan, an Irish priest. He, like another famous and earlier Irishman, Bran, mythical and most likely Celtic, set out from Ireland in about 520 A.D. to find the Blessed Isles with seventeen others in a currach made of wattle and leather. If, in fact, they did reach the Canary Islands, and many of us believe they did, the isle of the dog may well be Gran Canaria; the island of blacksmiths and the volcano sounds like Tenerife; the isle of sheep, El Hierro, and Jasconius perhaps the coming-and-going island later named in honour of the Saint.

In those times the ocean was crowded with huge sea creatures but we have hunted them to near extinction. Recently, monsters like those drawn on ancient maps have been washed up on our shores to the amazement of the press and the laboratories. A leviathan whale or a colossal squid could easily destroy a leather boat like Brendan’s. Those sailors believed. Even though the chances were they would not be coming home, they believed. And so do I. It’s necessary to believe even if it’s not rational. Perhaps you believe in Heaven or Asgarth, or that a road accident or a terrorist attack can’t happen to you, or that your husband will never find out. You may even believe in the boon of the EU. But we have to believe in things. I believe in San Borondón, in unicorns and in quite a few things you might scorn at.

Way out on the horizon you can see mountains rising above the cloud. I can swear there is no land there today
and there wasn't any yesterday. This is my last sighting of San Borondón, from my garden looking southeast
on 15th June 2016.


9 Jun 2016

Apañada at San Andrés



San Andrés is more or less in the centre of the island. Three times a year, country people came to sell or barter their animals at the fair held there. There would be cattle, sheep, goats, donkeys and mules, pigs and even chicken. What was particular about this fair was that once a deal was struck there was no going back on it and for this reason these three fairs were known as ‘apañadas’. ‘Apañar’ is one of those numerous curious words in the Spanish language that for English speakers should really be two words that have almost contradictory meanings. ‘Apañar’ means to solve a problem, manage to get something done but it also means to do something dishonestly, deceptively.

The story goes that a man had a donkey that had found the way to avoid work. As soon as the lightest weight was loaded onto the pack saddle she would collapse to the ground and refuse to get up. At the fair he met another man with a donkey and they agreed to exchange their animals. The second man asked if there was anything wrong with our man’s beast.
“Nothing!” he said, “She’s the most intelligent animal I’ve had. As bright as my daughter! What about yours?
“Intelligent, you say! What do you know about intelligence? Mine will run circles round all of you. OK, my friend. You need a bit of luck! Here you are …” And they exchanged tethers. Back home, our man loaded his new donkey with a couple of sacks of maize and, pleased as Punch, started off down the path. It was all right when he led the animal but as soon as he tried to walk beside or behind it, the donkey left the path to move in a wide uncertain circle, tripping over roots and stones and bungling into bushes. The poor creature was blind in one eye!



About a generation or two ago the island evolved rapidly from a subsistence to a consumer economy and the apañada lost its original raison d’être. It was transformed into a general agricultural fair held once a year on the first weekend in June. The sale of animals was replaced by competitions, and representatives of firms selling oenological supplies, fertilizers and farm machinery had stands to exhibit their wares. There were also stands of local produce and handicrafts as well as promotional exhibitions run by the local authorities. Horse races and similar events were also held outside.

Because of the crisis in recent years the fair has again adapted to popular tastes and needs. The organizers program many workshops for adults, youngsters and small children – traditional sports, handicrafts etc. There is an exhibition under cover open to artisans, wineries, cheese makers, market gardeners and so on, and, outside, a host of events including horse dressage, Canary wrestling and, this year, “arrastre”, an ancient Canary sport in which a yoke of bulls pull a sled carrying up to a ton or more of weight.

It is curious how the real craftsmen are disappearing and are being replaced (if at all) by what I call pseudo-artisans. A few years ago we still had men who made real pestle-and-mortars of mulberry wood, baskets of wicker softened in the sea, wrought iron tools, fine Canary silver-handled naifes (pronounced 'knifeys'), pack saddles of hay and leather ... . Such things were inevitably expensive. Today we have cheap knick-knacks made in China, fly-curtains made with bottle-tops and the occasional craftsman from another island. It is as though the modern world, in the form of the bulls of the arrastre, is chasing the craftsmen out of the picture!
 
 
However not all is lost! This year I was surprised to see the stand of two luthiers who have a workshop on the island. They will be the subject of future post.