3 Sept 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.


  1. This was a very amusing and interesting read. Being an avid reader, I enjoy pieces like this, especially ones written in a comical manner. I'm looking forward to read more posts from you soon, Keep it up!

  2. Glad you liked this post. I, too, am looking forward to reading more of your comments!