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'Writing Inspired by an Island in the Atlantic'

Living on a Volcano

Shortly after moving to the Costa Blanca, we discovered that in the nineteenth an earthquake had destroyed a small town close to the urbanisation where we had made our home. Nowadays, we live on a volcanic island in an archipelago where there are still several active volcanoes.

One of the very first pieces of advice that we received when we arrived in the Costa Blanca, and one that we quickly learned to be particularly valuable, was “Never believe what you hear from bar gossip; always find out the facts for yourselves.” Bar chat is easy and, like Chinese Whispers, often varies significantly from the truth, and particularly if it is bad or disturbing news. However, many expats, desperate for information and advice in their own language, often readily fall for misleading information.

The current topic in many of the British bars in the Canary Islands is the issue of seismic shocks currently underway in one of our neighbouring islands, El Hierro. This island paradise is quickly becoming the source of overreaction and potentially dangerous gossip causing concern. So what exactly are the issues?

Over the last few weeks, seismic shocks on El Hierro, which the experts call ‘swarms’ have been mostly of low magnitude since they started in early July, and most of the seismic activity has been limited to about 9 to 16 kilometres below the surface. The question on everyone's mind is, “Is El Hierro heading for an eruption and, if not, what is going on beneath the surface?”

We need to remember that the Canary Islands are volcanic in origin and a wide variety of lava has erupted from Canary Island volcanoes over the years. This is what makes the islands what they are, and without the volcanic eruptions in the past there would be no Canary Islands. Experts tell us that they are similar to the volcanoes found in Hawaii, and that they share many similarities in that they can grow very large and that the style of eruption and lava flow are similar.

Should we be surprised by this seismic activity at El Hierro? The answer seems to be: No. Although the islands’ volcanoes are nowhere near as productive as Hawaii or indeed Iceland, the Canary hotspot is one of the more vigorous on the planet. Does this seismic activity automatically lead to an eruption? Not necessarily, and this activity might not even lead to an eruption. However, now that we have many of these volcanic systems so closely monitored, we notice this subtle activity as it happens, rather than waiting until we can feel the seismic activity on the surface, which usually means that an eruption is highly likely. In other words, there are plenty of warning systems and the monitoring of seismic activity is constantly taking place.

These incidents should remind us that El Hierro is an active volcano and that these signals might be a warning of an eruption sometime in the future. However, it could be many years between a seismic swarm that eventually leads to an eruption of the volcano.

It is always a good idea to be prepared, especially when living on a volcanic island. Over 10,000 people live on El Hierro, and emergency planning will tell residents what to do and where to go if El Hierro does decide to erupt. However, most eruptions produce lava flows and ash that are not likely to be a major threat to the island’s residents unless they are caught unaware, which is highly unlikely. People on Hawaii have been living with a constantly erupting volcano for over 30 years, Mount Etna in Sicily performs a regular firework display, as do the volcanoes in Iceland; so any activity on El Hierro should be impressive to watch, but not a catastrophe for the residents of the island, nor indeed for the rest of the Canary Islands. So back to your gin and tonics and the sun beds; you now have the facts and not just the bar gossip. Cheers!

© Barrie Mahoney

From the 'Letters from the Atlantic' series by Barrie Mahoney

Living in Spain and the Canary Islands : ISBN 978-0995602724

Click here to find out more

"The Stars Smile Down on You”

Those who have easy access to BBC television may have seen the series, ‘The Wonders of the Solar System’, hosted by Professor Brian Cox, which has inspired me to take much more notice of the night sky. After all, the Canary Islands are very well placed for stargazing. During these programmes, I also wished that I had been taught by such a passionate and enthusiastic teacher as Brian Cox during those interminably boring physics lessons when I was a pupil at school. Apart from one memorable experience, my studies were a very boring diet of what seemed like useless information and regurgitated facts that had no relevance to the world that I lived in. Why were we not told more about the wonders of the universe and information that related to our very being? No, the highlight of my career in physics was a pinhole camera that I made after one lesson about light, when I was suddenly and surprisingly inspired. This happened to be the beginning of my interest in photography and so possibly those boring physics lessons were not completely wasted on me after all.

My pinhole camera experiment was a revelation in more ways than one, because in the process of testing the quality of focus, a friend and I decided to photograph the rear of a teacher’s car in the staff car park thinking that we could use the vehicle’s number plate as a test card. It was after we had spotted that the parked car was swaying gently from side to side that we realised that we had discovered a passionate relationship between a member of staff and the pretty French language exchange student in the back of the Morris Minor that we were photographing. Needless to say, for two curious eleven-year-olds, the whole experience was an interesting revelation into the ways of the world and made for an interesting physics lesson after all.

Returning to the television programme and the wonders of the Solar System where our own small planet Earth was both celebrated, as well as placed into the much wider context of the solar system and beyond. From this programme, I began to understand one of the sayings about the Canary Islands, possibly used far too much by travel agencies, as a place where “The stars smile down on you”. Physics now, at last, began to make some sense.

Sky watching is at its best in the Canary Islands where the night skies are mostly crystal clear thanks to the efforts of successive islands’ Governments over the years to reduce light pollution. The location of the Canary Islands also means that we can see all the constellations of the northern hemisphere throughout the year and mostly without the help of a telescope. As our eyes become accustomed to the night sky, we can get a flavour of the vastness of the universe and suddenly thousands of stars seem to appear and form a glittering blanket; if we are really fortunate we can sometimes see shooting stars as well. A high position away from the main centre of population gives the best view or, in my case, a quick stroll to the seashore is usually good enough for a spectacular viewing.

It is wonderful how new information and earlier gained knowledge sometimes just falls into place when inspired or we are somehow reminded at a much later time. For me, stargazing has been a revelation, although I do still wonder how two grown adults managed to do anything of significance in such a small car! Mind you, they may just have been conjugating verbs!

© Barrie Mahoney

From the 'Letters from the Atlantic' series by Barrie Mahoney

Living in Spain and the Canary Islands : ISBN 978-0995602724

Click here to find out more

Marmite and Mosquitoes

Regular readers of 'Letters from the Atlantic’ will recognise that I am a great fan of Marmite. Yes, I readily accept that Marmite is rather like Blackpool or Benidorm - you either love it or hate it; in my case, I like all three. This 'Letter from the Atlantic' concerns my recent discovery about the thwarting of these miserable little beasts, mosquitoes, with a healthy dose of Marmite. No, I am not suggesting that you cover your bodies with a layer of the black stuff; although I am sure it would be effective, it may be going a little too far and you would not be too popular at parties.

When we first moved to Spain we lived very close to the salt lakes in the Costa Blanca. We quickly discovered that, at certain times of the year, attacks from mosquitoes were part of life and, as a result, mosquito blinds and nets were quickly installed in our home. I recall spending a miserable few months with my arms and legs covered with itching, red spots that took weeks to disappear. I spent hot summer evenings on our sun terrace, relaxing and enjoying a few drinks with neighbours - wrapped from head to toes in clothing designed to cover all parts of my body; I even wore long socks pulled over my long trousers. This was not quite how I had imagined life in sunny Spain. Despite these precautions I was badly bitten; the little 'perishers' clearly adored the taste of me.

Others were much more fortunate. My partner and many friends were rarely attacked, whilst others were, and it seemed that it was individual odour that mosquitoes were attracted to. Indeed, it seems that mosquitoes avoid around ten per cent of the human population, because they simply do not like their smell, and so I regard it as a compliment. We invested heavily in sprays and creams, whilst the usual bar chat claimed that it was alcohol in the blood that mosquitoes sensed and liked, and that they preferred some drinks to others! Well, I was certainly not going to change my favourite tipple just for them.

Moving to the Canary Islands, I was initially troubled by a few bites, although nowhere near as bad as in the Costa Blanca. However, after a few months right up to the present time, I am rarely bitten at all. This puzzled me until after listening to a recent radio programme and reading some of the latest research on the subject from a team who are designing new products to combat mosquitoes’ voracious appetites. This revealed that one of the things that mosquitoes dislike is the smell, and presumably the taste, of vitamin B12. It was at this point that all became clear.

In the UK I would eat Marmite regularly. However, moving to the Costa Blanca meant that there were no ready supplies available. There were more important things to do, such as getting a water and electricity supply, and so my passion for Marmite lapsed temporarily. However, after moving to the Canary Islands, we discovered a ready supply in our local supermarket and I started eating toast and Marmite again each day for my elevenses. Our dog, Bella, enjoys it too and always demands one ‘soldier’ and sulks if I forget. So what was the link? Well, it seems that as Marmite is rich in vitamin B12, this is acting as a mosquito repellent.

It seems that although there are many Marmite lovers and haters around the world, our mosquito friends really do detest the stuff! Readers may have their own strategies for dealing with the problem of mosquitoes. If so, do please let me know! 

© Barrie Mahoney

From the 'Letters from the Atlantic' series by Barrie Mahoney

Living in Spain and the Canary Islands : ISBN 978-0995602724

Click here to find out more

Enjoying Coffee from the Canary Islands

One of the many things that I enjoy about living in the Canary Islands is a decent cup of coffee. Gone are the days when “a cup of instant” seemed to be the norm, and I still shudder when I return to the UK for a brief visit. A visit to one of the relatively new, and supposedly trendy, overpriced coffee shops is, for me, an ordeal best avoided. A quick visit out of sheer desperation during a frantic shopping expedition led me into one of the many branches of ‘Costa Lottee’ that are opening up in all of the UK’s High Streets - after all, it did offer “Free Wifi Internet Connection.” Once inside, however, I was told that the connection was not working and had not been for some time. Oh well, I could do with a sit down as I had forgotten quite how exhausting shopping in the UK can be.

My request for a simple cup of black coffee, no I don’t like mugs, was met with a disinterested look as the spotty youth pointed to a huge variety of coffees on the board above his sentry post.

“Take yer pick,” he slurped, as he continued chewing his gum and picking his fingernail. “That one will do,” I replied, "but I only want a small cup and not a mugful.”

“We only do them mugs,” he replied stabbing at the nearest soup bowl with a fingernail partly hanging from his index finger.

“But I only want a small cup...,” I protested.

“Yer can’t have one. We only do what’s on the list,” came the surly response. I was now getting very concerned about where the almost detached fingernail would land. Maybe it would finally descend into the plate of expensive-looking chocolate muffins perched temptingly at the side of the till?

Realising that discussion with the spotty youth was pointless, I handed over my ₤4.50 and perched myself on a most uncomfortable stool at the side of an equally unfortunate table with three legs - goodness, they still do Formica! Maybe I should count myself fortunate that the loose fingernail was not floating in my coffee... The coffee was one of the most revolting drinks that I have ever tasted. Two sips of the dark liquid and I was out of the door, vowing never to return to the soulless branches of Costa Lottee.

I contrast this with a cafe bar in my nearest town, Vecindario, on the island of Gran Canaria. It is a genuine town with real working people and well away from the tourist areas and expensive bars that are mostly owned by expats in the south of the island. Here I can get a cup of excellent coffee for 90 cents, sit in comfort and people-watch for as long as I wish. I watch Canarians, Spanish, Chinese, Argentineans, Russians, Cubans, Germans, Scandinavians, Africans and Indians pass by, together with a rich variety of skin colour, clothing and fascinating headgear. It makes me realise once again that I am living in a community where race, colour, faith and language rarely matter and that most people still live by the old adage of “Live and Let Live”. It is a community where most people just get on with each other and I know how fortunate I am.

Back to my cup of coffee. Did you know that coffee is grown in Gran Canaria, as it has been since 1788 when King Carlos III issued a decree ordering the introduction of the first coffee plants to the Island? Today, coffee is produced in very small amounts by local farmers who have kept the tradition of growing and consuming the coffee that they produce for many generations. The coffee is called Finca la Corcovada and is grown in the Valley of Agaete. This valley has a microclimate and a rich soil and is perfect for growing coffee. The coffee is grown and produced by Juan Godoy, the only coffee grower in Europe and who is now supplying the UK market. So next time you are buying coffee, how about asking for coffee from the Canary Islands from your specialist coffee supplier and bring a taste of Canarian sunshine to your cup of morning coffee?

My memory turns back to Costa Lottee in the UK, and I wonder if the spotty youth is still filling his soup-bowl mugs with foul-tasting overpriced coffee. Maybe, he is serving coffee from Gran Canaria?

© Barrie Mahoney

From the 'Letters from the Atlantic' series by Barrie Mahoney

Living in Spain and the Canary Islands : ISBN 978-0995602724

Click here to find out more

The Story of Nelson, a Lost Arm and the Smelly Cheese

Many will have read stories and been taught about one of the UK’s national heroes, Horatio Nelson; that brave son of Norfolk who taught the Spanish a thing or two during his famous battles, his “mesmerising personality”, complicated love scandal and heroic death.

The stories surrounding Nelson are, of course, based upon the British point of view. Are they true? How about looking at Nelson from the Spanish and Canarian perspective?

About 220 years ago, Admiral Nelson of the British Royal Navy decided to attack Santa Cruz in Tenerife to help himself to some gold and silver collected by Spanish galleons from the Americas, but was humiliatingly and satisfyingly defeated by the local residents. I guess this part wasn't stressed too strongly during school history lessons, was it?

The residents of Santa Cruz de Tenerife have long memories of their history and proudly re-enact an historical event each year on 25 July that reminds everyone of the Battle of Santa Cruz in 1797. This re-enactment of this battle has taken place for many years in a variety of formats. Why was this battle so important to the people of Tenerife?

In 1797 the British Royal Navy decided to attack the port of Cadiz in Southern Spain, but Spanish warships drove the British away. By chance, the British Navy heard that Spanish treasure convoys from America arrived regularly at Santa Cruz in Tenerife, and sent a flotilla of ships under the command of the recently promoted Admiral Nelson.

This attack force had 4000 men, nine ships and 400 guns, but the military on Tenerife led by Lieutenant General Gutierrez only had 91 guns and a mixture of 1700 militia and sailors. This looked to be an overwhelming attack force with insufficient military to defend the port of Santa Cruz.

Things did not work out as planned for Nelson, as the Tenerife commander was more experienced and particularly clever in managing his soldiers. Several British ships were sunk and many sailors were killed in this failed attack.

This was also the battle when Admiral Nelson was shot in his right arm, and he had to be taken back to his ship where the ship surgeon amputated most of this arm with the help of some opium to lessen the pain in the middle of the battle.

Many British militias became trapped on the shores of Tenerife with no escape possible. Although 30 Tenerife residents were killed and 40 were injured; 250 British militia were killed and 128 were wounded.

The British asked for a truce and agreed to withdraw with an undertaking to do no further damage to the town or to make any more attacks on Tenerife or the Canary Islands. This was agreed by Lieutenant General Gutierrez, who also allowed the British to leave with their arms, but perhaps not Nelson.

However, Admiral Nelson had lost so many ships that he did not have capacity to take all his militia back home, so the Tenerife General lent Nelson two Spanish schooners. This was a huge embarrassment for the British Navy and a resounding success for the militia of Tenerife in protecting their island. I doubt that much of this story has found its way into the National Curriculum syllabus, as it really does not show the British in a particularly good light.

There are also some interesting facts that are linked to the Battle of Santa Cruz, such as what happened to Nelson’s right arm after it was amputated? It was thought that the arm was thrown overboard after the on-board operation, as was usual during this period, but it seems that some keen-eyed Tenerife resident found this floating in the sea or washed ashore, and eventually Nelson’s arm ended up interred within the altar of the Cathedral of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.

This story has been challenged, but it has not been denied either! Also, the honourable withdrawal and truce led to a courteous exchange of letters between Nelson and Gutierrez. Later, Nelson sent a large cheese to Gutierrez as a token of his gratitude, which was never eaten and is still on display at the Spanish Army Museum in Toledo in Peninsular Spain. Maybe the good General did not trust the British to send a cheese that wasn't poisoned?

No doubt the British will hope that people will forget the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1797 and the humiliating defeat that the brave people of Tenerife achieved over the British Navy. However, the residents of Santa Cruz in Tenerife are determined never to forget this momentous day in their history. Many wear faithful reproductions of uniforms and weapons of this historical period in all its detail of the battle in July.

Many might think that Tenerife residents would hate Admiral Nelson as he had planned to rob them and destroy their homes, but actually he became admired as he stuck to his word and the British Navy never returned to attack the Canary Islands. Indeed, there is one street in Santa Cruz that is named ‘Avenida Horacio Nelson’, which says a great deal about the island’s capacity for forgiveness, or is it amusement?

Anyway, the Canary Islands still have Nelson’s arm in their possession, or maybe not, but it definitely has a smelly cheese as a result of this battle from long ago.

© Barrie Mahoney

From the 'Letters from the Atlantic' series by Barrie Mahoney

Living in Spain and the Canary Islands : ISBN 978-0995602724

Click here to find out more

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