I had expected to be greeted by a lush vegetated archipelago but instead we arrived at the dry volcanic north face of Lanzarote and the similarly arid, adjacent but quieter island of Graciosa. These stark and dramatic landscapes draw your minds eye to the past with clear scale-able volcanic craters providing a narrative of these islands creation.
Two days after arriving, the anchorage at Graciosa was our setting for a memorable Xmas with songs, food and a late night rave on deck. Santa made it down the hatch. Phew.
Non prevailing winds pushed us on earlier than anticipated so we were soon anchored off Las Palmas on Gran Canaria where Amber had a home in a squat. I experienced Las Palmas as a small, uninspiring city but for all it was a sensory overload (it was the biggest City the girls have ever seen “is this what London’s like?”). It was a reminder of some of the elements of everyday life we appreciate being away from on this trip. Headspace can be hard to find amongst all the people, and cars, and inspiration is not always forthcoming in the predictably homogenized consumerist City Centre. Funny that seeing a Marks & Spencers can make you feel sick of home rather than homesick.
We were still at anchor city-side for New Year’s Eve and after failing to make new friends by midnight the Lilly crew were ready for bed before being brought out of our soporific states by a completely over the top harbour fireworks display. We joined in by shooting a flare towards the oil tankers and had another dance party on deck. Turns out Morla loves dubstep!
We sailed on to La Gomera enthused by the prospect of a return to a more unspoiled environment and the more diverse and unique flora and fauna that the westerly Canary Islands offer on account of their wetter climates.
Our first walk on La Gomera was up the awe inspiring Hermigua Valley, a huge fertile barranco dominated with banana plantations but with fincas nestled on ancient stone terracing. Changes in wind and swell meant we were on the move every few days to find sheltered anchorages until coming to rest at Valle Gran Rey, a small fishing village that has swelled with the influx of transient and permanent German tourists. We had no plan to stay here much more than a week but a month and a half later we were still there. The longer we stayed the richer our experience became as we embedded ourselves in the boat and beach social scene. Especially timely for the girls who joined a multi-national band of beach kids.
The subject of time comes up regularly as we discuss among the crew how long to stay in each place. The benefits of pausing can never be predicted but always seem to be forthcoming. At Valle Gran Rey it began with making friends with two other families on boats; Dave & Georgie on Content and Giovanni & Francesca on La Vent do Alba plus their five little sailors. To borrow Giovanni’s fixed mot du jour, the welcome they gave us was ‘fantastico!’. Them came Maria and Tato with their kids. The wise beyond her years Xiomara(10), the ever twinkling Nur(7) and finally the 2 year old Moi, part laughing buddha part wannabe car mechanic. It’s curious how a child who’s upbringing has been an immersion in nature can develop a side passion in catalytic convertors.
Maria and Tato’s respective primary passions in traditional birthing and sustainable agriculture indicated a commonality in interests and world views but we couldn’t have anticipated forming such strong bonds and there were tears when we ultimately had to say goodbye. Our connection with the family was deepened when they all jumped aboard for a week’s hiatus from Valle Gran Rey when we sailed to La Palma to explore a new island. Our experience there was mixed however.
We were forced to go into a marina to see out some bad weather and if marinas are stuffy environments at the best of times then this one was particularly posh and polished. We stuck out a as a slightly rag tag group on a traditional boat and were soon at the rough end of snotty prejudice from the marina office who tried to kick us out with after only two nights. Maria’s calmness in the face of officialdom idiocy assured we were finally allowed to stay. It seems we were guilty by association with a particularly bohemian boat that we had befriended before entering the marina. This boat was skippered by a strong Romanian woman called Julietta and onboard was her dreadlocked son Anton, her partner and other jean ripped friends. They were deemed beyond the pale by the marina and turned away with a myriad of nonsense excuses. Much discussion prompted on Lilly regarding image. Should you amend your appearance in order to expect fair treatment? Are there acceptable limits on personal expression? Should you adapt to fit in with a society you might deem sick and how much value is there in making snap judgements based on appearance? All questions we explored for hours and quite timely because as I write this (during The Atlantic crossing) various crew members this afternoon put henna Tattoo’s on their faces. How will this impact our reception in the Caribbean? Depends on the taste of the people or officials we meet I suppose, as always beauty and appropriateness will be in the eye of the beholder.
Returning to our time in Valle Gran Rey it was our base from which to explore inland on La Gomera. It is a sensationally beautiful and varied island such that any bus or hire car journey is jaw dropping. It can be other worldly at times when walking and camping in the cloud forest or down by the coast. Truly a slice of paradise at times and this combined with the people we met made Gomera a very difficult island to leave. It became a running joke on the beach that Lilly was perpetually planning to leave ‘in the next few days’.
If there was one element of our interactions in La Gomera that left me feeling a bit cold it was our limited exposure to the local people and culture. Their history is depressingly familiar, violently colonised and ultimately forced to exist under the homogenising influence of modern capitalism. The Gomeran whistling language (of which there are 2,000 different words that can be whistled to communicate across wind swept valleys) was nearly lost if it hadn’t been for a concerted effort to preserve it. There is a huge monument built to celebrate the language for tourists to take photos next to and the same symbol can be bought in the form of trinkets and carvings in gift shops. It’s an uncomfortable juxtapose that the influx of visitors responsible for a culture’s submission can now buy tokens of appreciation in the form of a key ring. On the other hand it might be a reasonable way to celebrate something the Gomerans are proud if. It’s not clear, and we didn’t meet enough Gomerans to get an idea of their perspective.
It was described to us that there are roughly three groups of people on the island. The Gomerans, the Germans and the tourists. A reputation for being insular and protective of their communities, it felt that many of the Gomerans were tucked away inland out of reach of the traveler. A much longer stay would have been needed to start getting exposure to their ways.
There is a tension that we will have to address regularly as we travel further to more varied cultures. The appetite to meet, learn and make connections with people living in different, hopefully more traditional ways balanced with a sensitivity to not want to pollute or disrupt their way of life. How does a belief that everyone should be able to move freely round the world get balanced with the observation that so many communities and cultures have been used and abused with this freedom? Particularly pertinent to us is the effect of tourism. Whilst we might not be contributing to the high end tourism that steals locals rights to access their own beaches (which is the case on some Caribbean islands) our desire to see distant lands is not impact free and the question for us is how to do this sensitively and aim to have a positive impact? We will have to feel this out as we go.
As a reflection on the time on Gomera I found the nature to be immersive and inspiring but amid concerns of a planet being driven willfully over a cliff it was the friendships and time spent with amazing people that reinvigorated the potential beauty of the human spirit. To the friends we made in Gomera, thanks for this gift. Hasta luego y besos
Pictures above include a 300kg Tuna brought in by fishermen in El Hiero, fabulous wild camping, carrying a huge piece of scrap bronze out of a barranco, 16litres of beautiful palm syrup, an inspired piece of scrimshaw by Nono and mountain biking round volcanoes.
Adi and James became friends and also potential future seafarers (we hope to see you on the water one day!). Plus Nono sewing a new lee cloth, a good haul from spear fishing, Rowena helming us towards La Palma, free factory reject bananas, a blow hole rainbow, a friends sympathetic illegal dwelling in the hills of Gomera plus a lovely interaction with a farmer in La Palma that insisted on giving us free produce.
Lucia and Simon became close friends during our time at Valle Gran Rey. Talented linguists but unfortunately due to Simon’s stomach not new candidates for a life at sea! One afternoon on Lilly at anchor confirmed this so we will have to seek you out on land one day in the future!! Some other of the other pics were taking by a talented photographer that we hung out with and another is a snap of a tortilla party at Maria and Tato’s!
3 thoughts on “Reflections on The Canaries”
Wonderful to read. Thankyou for your writings, pictures, words and thoughts. I will write too for all of you….sometime soon. Love to All. I miss you. But words and news of your journey is so inspiring…they keep us afloat too. XXXXX
Wow what a wonderful story and descriptions of the Canaries and in particular, la Gomera, and your insightful thoughts and views on tourism, etc,how should one behave when visiting new places and cultures, how much should one ‘be oneself’ and possibly arouse suspicion and sometimes hostility, or by respecting the locals sensibilities, one makes compromises , not going out of your way to be confrontational either by appearance or behaviour. Is there not something to be said about ‘when in Rome do as Rome does’? Such a huge subject for discussion…… And the photos are magical, and those gorgeous girls…… I await descriptions of the crossing and your arrival in Dominica and more news from there. Thanks Nick, beautifully written and for yOur thoughtful observations, you brought it all to life so vividly. Looking forward to the next blog. So very much love and thinking of you such a lot, especially those two very special princesses. Take care of each other and stay safe. Gramma, Mum, Pauline xxxxxx.
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Thank you Nick – very enjoyable to read: evocative and thought-provoking – and wonderful photos.
You’re not really tourists in the normal sense. Tourists bring only the most superficial aspects of themselves and their culture to the places they visit. I watch tourists here, and they only seem to deepen divisions, local ‘tribalism’ and shallow stereotyping. You bring almost everything of your lives to the places and people you encounter… and you don’t really represent any obvious ‘culture’. I think it means you can have some real meetings with people; not doubt there’ll be all kinds of reactions, but it will often be good, never superficial, and potentially of some deeper value for everyone – and of great interest to the rest of us! So keep observing and feeling – and writing!