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Letters Blog Barrie Mahoney's Blog

'Writing Inspired by an Island in the Atlantic'

Living in Caves

“Top 20 Caves to Rent in the Canary Islands” screams one advertisement, followed by “Hundreds of Cave Homes to Buy in the Canary Islands” shouts another. Well, I guess it all makes good copy, but is living in a cave just another symptom of ‘reverse one-upmanship’, and something to brag about to colleagues at work? “Oh, I’m just off to the cave for the weekend.”

During the Spanish conquest of the Canary Islands, the native aborigines, the Guanches, were considered to be living at a primitive level by European standards. The Guanches wore animal skins for clothing, made stone tools for hunting and lived in caves. Well, if that’s not primitive, what is? It is strange how with the passage of time, reverting back to cave dwelling is seen as ‘cool’ (in more ways than one) and is now a highly desirable form of accommodation for some.

A few weeks ago, we visited a friend whom we have known for many years. He bought a group of caves in the Canary Islands before it became fashionable and at a knock down price too. He and his family were not living in exactly slum-like conditions, since our friend’s caves were well equipped with all modern conveniences. There is running water and mains electricity, although many cave dwellers prefer to rely upon their own solar installations, since it gives them a feeling of self-sufficiency. Beautifully designed bedrooms, fitted kitchen, sauna and games room would put most homes to shame, with the added benefits of fast Internet connection and cable television. Our friend’s home included a patio and delightful, well-stocked garden crammed full with unusual and native plants.

There are many such cave homes throughout the Canary Islands, with the most villages made up of cave homes located in Gran Canaria, where the excavation of cave homes into the mountain side remains a feature of the natural landscape. One of the most appealing features of cave homes is that it is unlikely that air-conditioning in summer and heating in winter are needed, since they remain at a steady temperature throughout the year. How’s that for energy efficiency?

Visitors to the Aguimes municipality in Gran Canaria will also find some of the best preserved cave dwellings on the island in the Guayadeque ravine. There are several cave restaurants and even a cave church that is open to visitors, which may help visitors to appreciate the sense of coolness and atmosphere of cave dwellings.

If we now hop over to another of the Canary Islands, Lanzarote, visitors will discover a cave home in the middle of a remote lava field. This was the dream home of the renowned artist, César Manrique who utilised the simple idea of living in five volcanic chambers. This is not an ordinary home, but one lovingly created by a man who had the vision to develop Lanzarote’s unique volcanic landscape into an ecologically friendly dwelling. It is thanks to Manrique that regulations were brought into being to restrict tourism development on the island with any structure taller than a palm tree forbidden.

Homes are not the only use for caves in Lanzarote, with a cafe built into a rock on the island’s north coast and a theatre, swimming pool and nightclub built into another cave complex, which was hugely admired by Manrique as the world’s most beautiful cave adaption - praise indeed.

Of course, as time goes on, modern adaptions of original cave homes distort our vision of the lives and times of these early people. As a reminder, visitors to Gran Canaria may wish to visit one of the most important archaeological sites in the Canary Islands, the Cueva Pintada (the Painted Cave), which interprets life at the time of the Guanches. The original purpose of the cave is unknown, but it is decorated with red, black and white painted geometrical shapes and may have been used as a dwelling, a scared place or for funeral rites. This spectacular site is well worth a visit.

So, before you rush off to book your modern cave home experience with Airbnb, and yes, I have no doubt that a version of a cave home will be available on there too, do give some thought to these ancient people and the lives that the Guanches lived before the invasion by their Spanish conquerors and the genocide that was to follow. Personally, I’d rather book a nice hotel.

© Barrie Mahoney 2023

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Life is Too Short to Stuff a Mushroom

I often think of that throwaway and impatient comment by the author, Shirley Conran, that “life’s too short to stuff a mushroom”. It is a quote that often occurs to me when I am confused, bewildered or reach a dead end in an argument that I am having with myself. I had one of these ‘mushroom moments’ a few days ago.

I’ve been uneasy about using the term ‘expat’ for many years. This confusion and conflict came to a head during the height of the migrant crisis when I began to see more clearly than ever before that there is no real difference between an ‘expat’ and an ‘immigrant’. As I have been writing a series of articles for ‘expats’ for some years, and published a book called ‘Expat Survival’, as well as running a popular website of the same name, it did seem an unnecessary complication and expense to change the title to ‘Immigrant Survival’, and so I left the issue on the ‘back burner’ to stew.

I am well aware that the subject of whether British ‘expats’ living in Spain, France, Italy etc. are expats or ‘immigrants’. Personally, I am very happy to be known as a ‘European Immigrant’, for that is what I guess I am. For me, the term ‘expat’ sounds colonial and temporary, whereas being an ‘immigrant’ sounds as if it is a long-term commitment, or even permanent. However, if we think about it, we are no different to the three million or so European immigrants currently living in the UK, yet we never refer to them as European, Spanish or French expats, do we?

I am aware that a debate over the subject can cause heated arguments over dinner, or drinks in the local ‘expat’ bar. If in doubt as to the true meaning, it is always a good idea to check the Oxford dictionary, which in this case defines an expat “as a person who lives outside their native country”. It stems from the Latin “ex” meaning “out” and “patria” meaning native country. So am I, and others like me, an ‘expat’ or an ‘immigrant’. Personally, I am still confused…

Let us now consider the good people living in Boston, Lincolnshire, which has become a pinnacle of welcome for Polish and Romanian people living in the UK. Do the locals refer to them as ‘expats’ or ‘immigrants’? Personally, I don't think I have ever heard the community being referred to as anything but ‘immigrants’, so why is it any different for myself and Brits living in the Canary Islands or the Costa Blanca?

By now, readers will probably think that I am being unnecessarily over pedantic about two simple words. No doubt I will also be accused of being ‘politically correct’, but words and definitions do matter, because they link to meaning, understanding and our subsequent attitudes to others. If I use the word ‘expat’, am I referring to well off, and fortunate foreigners who have made a temporary move to a hot and sunny country, only to enjoy sipping gin and tonics on their terraces all day? I am certainly not referring to refugees from Syria or Africa fleeing for their lives, travelling across stormy seas with little more than the clothes that they are wearing. However, are we not the same? Does it not really all boil down to a question of luck of where we happen to have been born and the opportunities that we have been given in life?

If we accept that immigrants are expats too, maybe it is a question of degree? Expats, in the traditional sense, usually have a choice of whether to return to the country of their birth or to stay in their adopted country, whilst many immigrants simply have no choice over their future. Instead, maybe the term ‘lucky immigrant’ is a better term to describe those that have a choice in the matter, of moving for the sake of a better job, more money or a better lifestyle. This is in contrast to those immigrants who have no choice, but to attempt to escape poverty and persecution at whatever personal cost.

All this thinking really is hard work on a sunny afternoon, and in the end I am not sure that it matters that much, as the two terms are not mutually exclusive. So, I have decided to continue to use the term ‘expat’, at least for the time being, mainly to avoid having my books reprinted. After all, sometimes life really is just too short to stuff a mushroom.

© Barrie Mahoney 2023

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I’m Just Having a Tertulia

One of my favourite cafe bars is called ‘La Tertulia’. It is not a particularly grand establishment and is completely unlike any of those overpriced and often pretentious coffee shops that are springing up in city centres all over the UK. Our ‘Tertulia’ is a friendly and welcoming safe space where good coffee and delicious snacks are served at a fair price. Customers are welcome to stay for as long as they wish; it is an oasis of calm in a busy world.

Usually, the Tertulia is an oasis of calm, but on occasions opinions become heated, voices are raised to such a disturbing decibel level that only the Spanish and Canarians can achieve. Generally, though, discussions are well mannered and good natured.

The Spanish language fascinates me, and like so many expats I have been guilty of many delicious misinterpretations of Spanish words within an English context. Before I managed to become more fluent with my Spanish, I mistakenly thought that ‘tertulia’ simply meant a type of tortilla. Later, for some unknown reason, our special cafe bar became known as ‘The Turtle Bar’. Later, of course, when I bothered to consult my Spanish-English dictionary, I realised that ‘tertulia’ meant something completely different, but entirely appropriate and special.

The definition of ‘La Tertulia' is basically that of a social gathering, often with an artistic or literary dimension, which is popular in Latin America and Spain. The word often refers to an informal group of like-minded people talking about local and national news, and politics.

Historically, a typical tertulia was a regularly scheduled meeting in a public place, such as a bar, although sometimes such events were held in someone’s living room. Those participating were known as contertulios, and in the creative context, often used the opportunity to share poetry, short stories, songs and art.

The Spanish and Canarians love to talk, preferably loudly, and delight in the company of others, and particularly with like-minded people. Indeed, some of the programmes on Spanish television may contain elements of ‘La Tertulia’ with invited guests taking part in a heated discussion. Another explanation that makes quite a lot of sense is that, traditionally, many Spanish men did not like to clear the table or do the washing up after a meal. Cleverly, they came up with the idea that the local bar would serve a better coffee than that produced at home. Sadly, many Spanish women let their partners get away with it, which essentially gave free reign to the idea of ‘La Tertulia’.

‘La Tertulia’ is said to have really taken off in the Sixteenth Century, because King Phillip II of Spain became very interested in the ancient world and its cultures. As a result of his growing interest, he employed experts to compose poetry intended to accompany the artwork displayed in various palaces. Academics and courtiers would meet together to discuss their work with the King, which resulted in ‘La Tertulia’ developing as a term for learned discussion between like-minded individuals.

Back to our coffee shop in the Canary Islands; let us not get too high minded and academic about tertulias, since this is not the tertulia that I recognise. Basically, most folk call into our tertulia for just a good gossip over delicious coffee.

© Barrie Mahoney 2023

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El Hierro, Sailors and the Virgin

One of my favourite Canary Islands is the Island of El Hierro. Despite being the smallest of the islands in physical size, it is an island crammed with natural wonders, such as sea cliffs, lush forests and volcanic features to admire. Each of the Canary Islands is different, and El Hierro has become particularly special, and famous in environmental circles, due to its imaginative efforts in making the island self-sufficient from oil, relying upon water and wind power, of which it has plenty, to generate the electricity that the island needs.

Electric cars, complete with charging points, and free Wi-Fi across the island are both modern technological factors that add to the special appeal of this island, which is in sharp contrast to the ruggedness and remoteness of an island that appears almost untouched by tourism. Occasional volcanic eruptions can be a slight disincentive for some tourists, although I suspect that this will change rapidly following the introduction of a 75 per cent travel discount for all residents of the Canary Islands. Inter-island travel is usually quite expensive, and discounted travel is a wise initiative from the Canary Islands Government, which should assist both communication and tourism.

The Descent of the Virgin of the Kings (Bajada de la Virgen de Los Reyes) is celebrated on the first Saturday of July every four years. The procession carries the statue of the Virgin from its hermitage to the island’s capital, Valverde, a journey of around 29 kilometres. La Bajada is an extraordinary procession, accompanied by dancers dressed in traditional white and red dresses, wearing multi coloured hats, and accompanied by the sounds of many castanets and drums. The whole island joins in the celebrations, which begins at the Hermitage of the Kings, at the west of the island, followed by lunch at ‘The Cross of the Kings’, arriving in Valverde during the evening.

Celebrations take place during the entire month of July, with the statue of the Virgin visiting the most important towns and centres on the island, until the first Saturday of August, when it is returned to the hermitage. La Bajada is based upon a fascinating story that has become the focal point of the fiesta.

In 1546, a ship passed along the coast of El Hierro destined for the Americas. However, the ship could not leave the Sea of ​​Calm due to a lack of wind, so the ship was forced to sail in a circle for several days. Finally, on January 6 the food on board had run out and the sailors were forced to ask the islanders of El Hierro for food. Shepherds willingly gave the sailors the supplies for the harsh journey ahead, and without accepting payment.

In return and in thanksgiving, the sailors gave the shepherds the only item of value that they kept on the ship, which was an image of the Virgin Mary. From this moment onwards, a gentle breeze began to blow in the Sea of ​​Calm and the ship could recommence its journey. The shepherds carefully guarded the Virgin in honour of the day that the sailors arrived on the island. The carving was placed in a cave where she was venerated and offered gifts. The Virgin became the protector and patroness of the whole island.

It has occurred to me that having a celebration of this kind every four years is a rather good idea, and wonder if a similar pattern should be implemented for many other fiestas that seem to come around rather too quickly for me to catch up? Imagine Christmas, Easter, Halloween and the entire collection of fiestas taking place every four years; it would give us all much more time to catch our breath, as well as to save up for the big event. However, I guess that the Church and commercial interests, such as shops and manufacturers and children, would not be too keen. Maybe it is not such a good idea after all.

© Barrie Mahoney 2023

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Getting Tough on Builders

Since the World economic recession in 2008, and many would say long before that, builders and developers have been accused of holding onto land that has been agreed for development purposes in the hope that eventually it will increase in value. At that time, and only when the price of land and property shows a significant mark up, will building work be completed.

As we have seen in the Canary Islands, Spain, as well as in the United Kingdom, the result of this approach has been a shortage of affordable housing due to building projects being put on hold or abandoned. Many young families in the Canary Islands still live with their parents with little hope of ever being able to afford to rent or buy a home of their own. Despite promises from governments, it is likely that it will be many years before promises can be fulfilled, if ever.

As far as repairs to infrastructure is concerned, one Spanish municipality has had enough and is going to take drastic action against such lethargy in the name of profit, which many would say is long overdue. The plan is to clamp down on developers that have not completed work that had been agreed. The Department of Planning will seize around 500,000 euros worth of bonds, which builders and promoters are obliged to lodge with the municipality at the planning stage, for agreed road repairs, pavements and public areas. These bonds are required at the initial stage of granting all building licences for the main purpose of ensuring that work is completed.

This sum is linked to around 60 permits that date back to the building boom of the pre-2008 period. The Municipality has examined each case in detail, and itemised the cost of agreed works that still need to be fulfilled. If the companies concerned are still trading they will have the option to immediately fulfil the agreement, or the bond funds will be seized so that the municipality can complete the outstanding work. This seems to be an obvious response and is the main purpose of the bond.

In the Canary Islands and Spain, there are many construction projects that remain incomplete. There are shopping centres, housing developments, roads and public buildings that have either been left abandoned at an early stage of work, or where the work has never started at all. In all cases, a bond should have been lodged with the municipality to ensure that work is completed in time. However, in some cases, close fraternal links between developers and council officials ensure that drastic action, including confiscation of the bond to ensure that work is completed, is never taken, and many projects remain deep frozen in a kind of building ‘limbo’.

We often hear of the need for rapid economic growth and the creation of employment opportunities, as well as building new homes. Maybe ensuring the completion of outstanding building projects, including building on land already earmarked for residential development, would be a welcome contribution to both the housing shortage, as well as providing employment opportunities in the United Kingdom as well as in the Canary Islands.

© Barrie Mahoney 2023

Join me on Facebook: @barrie.mahoney

To find out more about Barrie and his books, go to:

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