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Letters from the Atlantic Letters from the Atlantic by Barrie Mahoney

'Writing Inspired by an Island in the Atlantic'

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​Animals Need Our Help Too

Animals Need Our Help Too

It has been a distressing week in Gran Canaria. A major fire broke out in the heavily forested centre of the island, which is in an area that we often visit. It is a region that few tourists can be bothered to visit, for which residents are grateful, since not only is it an area of spectacular natural beauty, but an area of peace and tranquillity. It is well away from the pressures of the modern world, the sun beds, fast food restaurants and bars in the busy tourist area in the south of the island.

Not only the Gran Canaria fire, but many other news stories have been particularly distressing over the last few weeks. Tragedies, such as the Grenfell Tower fire, flooding in Bangladesh, horrendous hurricanes in the Caribbean, volcanic eruptions in Italy and the horrors of ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Myanmar, have made an impact upon all but the most cold and detached personalities. As we watch these horrors unfold in faraway places in the comfort of our own living rooms, it is often difficult to identify with the pain and suffering that ordinary people experience when faced with such disasters.

Although, I understand that the suffering and welfare of people come first, I know that I am not the only one to be distressed about animals caught up in such disasters. There is rarely any mention of animals caught up in flooding, fire and other tragedies that appear on our television screens, and little is ever reported. It seems that animals suddenly become invisible during times of crisis, yet as all animal lovers will know, they have become part of our lives and highly important. Dogs, cats, horses, donkeys, birds and reptiles, as well as farm animals often perish in horrendous circumstances during these periods of exceptional tragedy, and it seems that they are forgotten and left behind during the pressure of rescue efforts.

This point was brought home to me this week whilst reporting on the forest fire, which quickly got out of control on the island where I live. The fire spread quickly and destroyed many hectares of land, involving five municipalities. A number of villages and many people were evacuated. Thanks to the brave and selfless efforts of the emergency services, it appears that only one life was lost. The woman who died was an expat, originally from Sweden, who had made her life on our beautiful island. She refused to leave her home, preferring to stay and look after her animals. Her charred body was later discovered outside her home. One can only imagine her terror, as she was consumed by the flames.

It is often difficult to identify with the hundreds and thousands of people in distress that appear on our television screens, but it is the distress of small groups and individuals that help us to understand their pain and suffering. For me, it was the dying moments of this terrified woman that has stayed in my mind. I did not know her, but the fact that she bothered to stay behind to care for her animals tells me a lot about her compassion and humanity, and I suspect that she is someone who I would have liked.

Spain and the Canary Islands are often rightly criticised for attitudes to animals, which can often appear casual, uncaring and exploitative. Over the years that I have lived in Spain and the Canary Islands, there have been many times when I have wished that we had the equivalent of the UK’s RSPCA, PDSA and many other dedicated animal charities helping to protect animals in Spain. Sadly, this is not the case, and much is left to hard-stretched police, as well as dedicated individuals, to help to relieve the plight of animals suffering in this country.

There is some good news to help to soothe the rawness of this latest tragedy on the island for animals that need veterinary help. The Veterinary Department of the University of Las Palmas is currently helping animals that have suffered, but escaped from the fire at a centre in the town of San Mateo. Volunteers from the College of Vets at the University of Las Palmas are offering a 24-hour service to help these animals. Dogs and cats can be taken directly to a central animal point for care and attention.

It is often said that a society can be judged by its attitude towards animals. I have always believed this to be true, and in these polarised and often selfish times, it is heart-warming that the needs of animals are also being considered following a tragedy that has affected all precious life.

If you enjoyed this article, take a look at Barrie’s websites: http://barriemahoney.com and http://thecanaryislander.com or read his latest book, ‘Footprints in the Sand’ (ISBN: 9780995602717). Available in paperback, as well as Kindle editions.

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Typewriter Terror

Typewriter Terror

The phone rang; it was a colleague in Las Palmas telling me that the police were in the middle of a response to a potential terrorist incident in the city. A suspect package had been placed in front of the door to the garage of the central offices of the National Police on the island. The building was sealed off, traffic was prevented from entering the road, and anti-terrorist officers arrived to assess the potential danger of the package. These officers quickly discovered that this was a false alarm, and since the suspicious package turned out to contain nothing more lethal than an antique typewriter, the panic was over.

Two days later I found myself browsing in a charity shop that I occasionally visit. I always find it fascinating to browse through old books, records and maybe find a technological treasure from the past, such as an old radio or ancient camera. This time, I spotted a typewriter, an old Olympia, sitting proudly on an antique desk. It looked in remarkably good condition, and one that I guessed was made in the mid 1960s. This machine brought back a flood of memories of my father bringing his portable typewriter home from work each day and patiently teaching me to type when I was still at primary school. In more recent times, I have been thankful for computers, tablets and all the other gadgetry that make life so much simpler. Did I really want to use a typewriter again?

Later that morning, I returned to the shop and asked for a sheet of paper to test the typewriter. Amazingly, all the keys worked, and the type was clear and aligned. It felt smooth and accurate to the touch, which was surprising for a 50-year-old machine; it had clearly been well looked after. It also came with a very smart protective case. As I handed over the ten euros asking price, I asked the man looking after the shop to tell more about where it had come from. He told me that it had come to the shop as part of a house clearance following the death of “an important man” several years ago. The typewriter had been forgotten and only recently put on display. He wouldn't tell me any more about the original owner of the typewriter, and seemed pleased when I stopped asking questions and left. I returned to my car, pleased with my purchase, although it was much heavier than I remembered. I was also intrigued by the response to my questions, and felt that there was much more to discover.

It was when cleaning the machine that I found an old sticker in the case with the name of the shop that had originally supplied it. The sticker included a phone number, which was in a different pattern of numbers currently used. It was not too hard to track down the modern version of the number and I decided to call it. Although it was doubtful that the shop would still be in business, I remembered that many businesses in the Canary Islands are passed through many generations, even though the original trade may have changed. To my surprise, the telephone number worked, and a man answered.

The man listened patiently to my story about the typewriter and told me that his father had owned the shop, but had died some years ago. As well as selling typewriters, his father had also serviced them. Although the current business no longer sold typewriters, the son had kept some records; did I know the serial number of the machine? Fortunately, I had already predicted that I would be asked this question and had written it down. The son took a note of the number and promised that he would call me back “manaña”. My heart sank when he said this, since “manaña’ is often a polite way of saying ‘never’.

Two days later, I received a telephone call. True to his word, the son had checked his father’s records, and found the serial number of my typewriter, the date of sale and the servicing that it had received. This time, the son was quite animated and told me that the machine had belonged to someone important, who had died. As I was British, he doubted that I would appreciate the significance, and asked if I would like to sell the typewriter back to him. He wouldn't tell me who it had belonged to, and I began to imagine that he would be quoting the words “data protection”, which is the current way of denying reasonable information requests. I thanked him for his trouble, but declined the offer, as I wanted to keep the typewriter.

Even more intriguing was when I tried to buy a new ribbon for the typewriter. When the ribbon arrived from the UK, it would not fit. I contacted the supplier, who assured me that it was the correct ribbon for an Olympia. He was puzzled as to why it would not fit and asked me to send him photos of the typewriter and the old ribbon spools. His reply was even more puzzling, since it seems that my Olympia typewriter is in fact an Olivetti. He is a typewriter expert and had not come across this issue before and suggested that the labels had been switched at some stage in its life, but could not explain the serial number that related to an Olympia. My imagination began to work overtime; was it all part of a complicated plot, with a switched identity of both its owner and the typewriter? It certainty left me wondering even more about its history and that of its previous owner.

I always appreciate a good mystery, and I also now have a rather splendid typewriter that I will use from time to time. I will always be fascinated by the story behind it, even though I have yet to discover who the “important person” was and why the identity of my typewriter was changed.

As far as the original news story that started my week is concerned, I am still wondering why an antique typewriter was left outside the central police office. After all, does anyone use a typewriter nowadays?

If you enjoyed this article, take a look at Barrie’s websites: http://barriemahoney.com and http://thecanaryislander.com or read his latest book, ‘Footprints in the Sand’ (ISBN: 9780995602717). Available in paperback, as well as Kindle editions.

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​The Korean Factor

It was a pleasant surprise this week to read that the Mayor of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria is visiting South Korea to exchange ideas and experiences about policies on public transport, and a range of other issues. It makes a pleasant change to read positive news about South Korea, rather than depressing and unpleasant rhetoric, sabre rattling and threats between their neighbour, North Korea, and the United States.

Transport has been a major challenge to authorities in Seoul for the last 40 years, because of the rapid increase in its population. Bus and subway systems have required massive investment and improvements, which are some of the issues also being faced in Las Palmas. The sharing of information, including the new Metro Guagua transport system in La Palmas, could also be of significant help to Seoul. Representatives from Seoul have been invited to visit Las Palmas when the Metro Guagua is in operation.

The possibility of Canarian and South Korean Municipalities working together on a number of strategic projects has also been discussed, as well as investment from South Korea for projects in Gran Canaria. Cooperation and sharing of ideas between countries should always be welcomed.

Links between South Korea and the Canary Islands are not accidental. Many residents and tourists are simply unaware that there is a significant Korean population living in the Canary Islands, and particularly in Gran Canaria. This has developed since the collapse of the Korean whaling industry that took place off the Canary Islands in the 1960s and 1970s. Hundreds of Korean workers and their families became stranded on the island, which quickly became their home. In the 1970s, statistics show that there were around 7000 Koreans living in Las Palmas, which became a significant proportion of the total population. As delighted as I am that the whaling industry has ended off the Canary Islands, the Korean community has thrived and become interwoven with the multi-cultural, multinational and religious mix that Gran Canaria has represented so successfully for many years.

Korean families have also maintained their strong religious and cultural identity. I recall being invited and welcomed to a service held at the spectacular Full Gospel Korean Church in Las Palmas several years ago, where the service was simultaneously broadcast in several languages. Rarely have I witnessed such enthusiasm and fervour within a church.

As well as representation through the Korean Consulate in Las Palmas, which is one of several in Spain, many Koreans run successful businesses on the island. Taking into account the close links that the island has had with Korea over the years, and the significant positive contribution that Koreans have upon both the city of Las Palmas, as well as Gran Canaria, it is entirely appropriate that these links both support and extend the current transportation projects for the benefit of both communities

If you enjoyed this article, take a look at Barrie’s websites: http://barriemahoney.com and http://thecanaryislander.com or read his latest book, ‘Footprints in the Sand’ (ISBN: 9780995602717). Available in paperback, as well as Kindle editions.


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Who Loves a Party?

Who Loves a Party?

Newly arrived expats living in Spain and the Canary Islands will quickly learn that expat lives are punctuated with fiestas to celebrate the life of a particular saint or a special period in Spanish and Canarian history. Despite the irritation that fiestas can creep up on the unsuspecting expat, ruining plans to go shopping or to visit the bank, they are an intrinsic part of Spanish life and the wise expat soon learns to join in with the moment.

Initially, many expats think that the day of the fiesta is when it all happens. This is a big mistake and new expats quickly learn that fiestas actually begin during the late afternoon and evening on the day before. This is sensible, because it leaves plenty of time to dress up, do the cooking and to gather family and friends together before the actual event. In reality of course, for many people the actual day of the fiesta is spent recovering from the night before. Fiestas are fun and add to the rich fabric and pattern of life in Spain, as well as creating a pause from the usual frenetic pace of life. After all, in Spain and the Canary Islands, life is for living.

There has been a special fiesta for the whole island of Gran Canaria this week, but it is particularly special for the residents of a pretty town in the north of the island called Teror (not to be confused with terror!). The Virgin of the Pine is the patron saint of Gran Canaria and this fiesta is based upon the story of the Virgin Mary, who made an appearance many years ago.

It was on 8 September 1492 that an image of the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared in a pine tree to Juan Frias, who was the first Bishop of Gran Canaria. Later, a large church was built near to where this pine tree grew, and it is still there today. The original pine tree died a long time ago, but there are more pine trees in the town near to the church. The Lady of the Pine, or Nuestra Señora del Pino, is said to possess healing qualities, and in true Catholic fund-raising tradition, it is possible to buy wax models of every part of the human body that can be offered for healing.

Visitors to the church will find a beautiful statue of the Virgin, which is taken out of the church in a religious procession every year on 8 September. On this day, people from all across the island come to this small town for a very big fiesta celebration. Religious or not, many visitors discover that when they are facing the statue of the Virgin it has a powerful and moving effect upon them. It is also rather extraordinary, since one side of the face is smiling and the other side is sad. The statue has many jewels, but in 1975 there was a robbery at the church and some jewels were stolen from the statue and never recovered.

Thousands of pilgrims joined the procession this week, and many arrived for celebrations on the eve of the fiesta. One of the customs are parrandas or groups of people who move between different places singing traditional songs; others join them to make the singing group larger. This tradition comes from the islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico, where many people from the Canary Islands moved to many years ago for work. They later returned home and brought with them some of these Caribbean islands’ cultures and traditions.

This year’s parrandas started with traditional music, but then went on to more modern reggaetron. The singing leads to people dancing until they are ready for refreshment in the local bars. These pilgrims often arrive in Teror by car or bus, but many make the journey on foot, and some this year have been seen dancing in the middle of the GC21 road. Sensibly, for the safety of pilgrims, the main road to Teror was closed to traffic for the evening.

It is noticeable that the traditional grip of the Catholic Church upon people in Spain and the Canary Islands is fast diminishing, and it is rare to see many people attending church on Sundays as used to be the case, particularly during the Franco years. Despite this, it is clear that many Canarians maintain a strong spiritual basis in their lives and continue to be moved and inspired by stories of the saints and religious events, which they celebrate with vigour and enthusiasm. Above all, they enjoy a good party!

If you enjoyed this article, take a look at Barrie’s websites: http://barriemahoney.com and http://thecanaryislander.com or read his latest book, ‘Footprints in the Sand’ (ISBN: 9780995602717). Available in paperback, as well as Kindle editions.

© Barrie Mahoney


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​The Stinky Tree

The Stinky Tree

It is often fascinating to discover some of the remedies and answers to problems that can be found by looking at the past. If we look carefully, we often find answers to many present day problems, and how our ancestors dealt with the inconveniences of life. I discovered this recently when looking at a tree on the small island of El Hierro.

A visit to the enchanting island of El Hierro is not complete without a visit to see the Stinkwood or Smelly tree (Ocotea foetus), which is native to the island. The tree is evergreen, a member of the laurel family, and is threatened due to the loss of habitat in the areas where it thrives and, I suspect, its pungent aroma. Yes, it can be smelly, hence the name, because the tree is rich in essentials oils. These oils give off an unpleasant odour to the wood when cut, but don’t let this part of the story put you off. After all, stinky or not, this tree does have an interesting story to tell…

The Stinkwood tree was sacred to the ancient inhabitants of the small Canary Island of El Hierro, the Bimbaches, who called it the Garoe. Legend states that the Garoe assured the life of the Bimbaches, because it provided them with sufficient water to ensure their survival. Remember, this was not a time when the locals could pop into the local shop and buy a large bottle. The Canary Islands are visited by the trade winds and, since water was so scarce, the little water that was available to these ancient islanders were from the clouds that condensed on the branches of the tree. It is said that water that dripped from this tree was led to a hole from which the Bimbaches took their water supply.

The original Garoe tree was destroyed by a storm on the island, but in 1957 a replacement tree was planted in the same location as the original tree. Legend or not, the same principles as deployed by these ancient people are still just as relevant to fulfilling islanders need for water today.

Let us now move to another Canary Island, Fuerteventura, where similar principles for catching water are still used. The Fuerteventura Government has been collecting mist for the last year or two, and this new technology has already collected over 33,000 litres of water. Mist collectors use humidity from the trade winds that blow across Fuerteventura, and extract water from mist and fog to create a sustainable water supply. Meters fitted to the mist collectors show around 6,500 litres of water are collected each month during the trade winds season.

So, how is this done in Fuerteventura without the assistance of the Garoe tree? This simple technology uses mesh placed on vertical structures in high mountain areas that intercept mist and humidity that blows across them, and water droplets fall into storage tanks. These mist collectors use water from sea mist or clouds to support the reforestation of endemic or specific species of plants and trees, which will help plant habitats to recover by providing moisture for the soil and improve the quality of the environment and landscape.

It is both a humbling and fascinating thought that technology and processes used by the ancient people in the Canary Islands are being brought back into use today in an effort to rectify damage caused to the environment over many centuries.

If you enjoyed this article, take a look at Barrie’s websites: http://barriemahoney.com and http://thecanaryislander.com or read his latest book, ‘Footprints in the Sand’ (ISBN: 9780995602717). Available in paperback, as well as Kindle editions.


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