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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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​Don’t Shoot the Messenger!

Don’t Shoot the Messenger!

It has been amusing to read comments about the islands’ weather in the press and social media over the last few days. Apparently, the Canary Islands have only just survived storm and tempest and all manner of tragedy. Flights have been cancelled, airports destroyed, cars and roads have been washed away and, basically all hell has broken loose on these ‘Paradise Islands’. According to the Mail, Sun and Express, life as we know it on these islands is about to come to an end. Hmm, really?

Fear not, the sun is out again today, and apart from a few more potholes in the roads, and some vigorous mopping of patios, life is more or less back to normal. It has been a bit wet, of course; some flights have been delayed for a few hours, but life continues in much the same way as it did before the rain. These islands do get quite a lot of rain each February, which is why flights and accommodation are usually cheaper than at other times of the year, and some years are worse than others. In short, there is nothing to get too alarmed about, but the tabloid press is having a field day about “Tourism Disaster in the Canary Islands”. Maybe they are talking about life in an alternative universe, or did they simply exaggerate a minor inconvenience to sell a few more copies?

Brits love to talk, and preferably complain, about the weather. Conversely, most Canarians that I speak to have welcomed the refreshing rain that has cleansed our streets from the dust and sandstorms (and dog poo) that have lingered from the summer months. The reservoirs, which were almost empty and were the subject of alternative ‘doomsday’ scenarios in the popular press, have been replenished and the islands’ forests and green spaces are actually rapidly changing from a dusty brown to a lovely fresh green once again. Everything smells so fresh and new again; what’s not to like?

Those reporting sensationalist stories and posting heavily doctored videos about the islands’ weather forget that few homes in the Canary Islands have the benefit of gutters, roadside drains, and even a damp proof course within the basic infrastructure to deal with an excessive fall of rain; we don’t usually need it. As a result, we do get a few problems from time to time, but it is hardly the stuff to get too stressed about. In true Canarian tradition, all is well after two or three days and any inconveniences are quickly forgotten.

For many holidaymakers, of course, the Canary Islands are the subject of dreams and heightened anticipation for a forthcoming holiday in the sun. It also costs a lot of money to get away for a few days, and who wants their dreams to be shattered? How dare anyone publish anything that detracts from this view of ‘Paradise Islands’. Indeed, I have read a number of comments from both residents and holidaymakers complaining that the local press should not be writing anything negative about the weather, because it is bound to have a negative impact upon the tourist industry. Fine, let’s just publish fake news, and forget all about reporting reality. Is that what tourists really want?

The truth that is often ignored is that these islands are not always the ‘Paradise’ that is usually portrayed by the tourist industry. We have our fair share of crime with murders, theft, stabbings, drownings, drug and alcohol abuse, prostitution, and partner, child and animal abuse are all reported in our weekly news. We boast of more drownings on these islands than any other region of Spain. The islands suffer from poverty, homelessness, require food banks, and face huge unemployment, as well as being the most unpopular region in all of Spain for the quality of employment opportunities. There, we have it; these islands are not always ‘Paradise’ that many like to claim they are, but are merely a romantic illusion of an idealistic world, which may help to fulfil fantasies during a couple of weeks’ holiday in the sun. If you think about it, they cannot be anything else; after all, flawed human beings live and work on these islands, therefore nothing can be perfect.

For much of the year, the sun shines, and tourists come and go. Many arrive pale and sick; some with colds, flu, depression and anxiety in a bid to forget their troubles, albeit briefly. For most holidaymakers, these islands help to refresh and replenish the soul, give inspiration, relaxation and much needed rest to troubled minds. For most of the year, they do a pretty good job, but let us also remember that these islands have their ‘off days’ too.

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​Up the Amazon

Up the Amazon

Have you noticed how social media and the UK press love to take a swipe at Amazon whenever they can? Of course, this is just one of the least attractive parts of the human psyche; pure delight in building up and praising a sportsman, singer, film star or company, and then taking considerable pleasure in destroying them.

Personally, I have few quarrels with Amazon, since as a Brit living in Spain and the Canary Islands, I have benefited greatly from some of their services. As an author, many people buy my books from Amazon and it would be foolish to bite the hand that feeds me. In my opinion, their Kindle service is second to none, and I doubt I would enjoy life quite so much without it. I can enjoy newly published books at a fair price whenever I wish without the delays and costs involved in ordering a physical book from the UK. No, I do not crave or wax lyrical over “the smell and feel” of a physical book; just give me my Kindle.

I am also well aware of the supposed poor working conditions in Amazon warehouses, but I suspect that conditions there are little worse than conditions faced by most unskilled workers involved in warehouse activities each day of their working lives. Indeed, I have the benefit of knowing several people who work in an Amazon warehouse who tell me a very different story to that portrayed in the press, TV and social media, so I am prepared to keep an open mind on these issues, whilst also recognising that working conditions in warehouses generally need to be improved.

I have received a few messages recently from expats complaining about some aspects of service received from Amazon in Spain. Readers may or may not know that expats living in Spain and the Canary Islands can use Amazon in a number of countries for their purchases, including Amazon UK, Amazon Germany and, one would think logically, Amazon Spain. Unlike the operations in the UK and Germany, Amazon Spain appears to be in a state of perpetual confusion and suffering from particularly poor management when it comes to customer service in the Canary Islands, and the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, where services and choices offered by companies such as Amazon are of great help.

For myself, living in the Canary Islands, Amazon Spain is often a huge problem. Although I buy into Amazon Prime in Spain, which in theory, means no postage costs for most items, I invariably find that most items that I wish to order cannot be delivered to the Canary Islands anyway and, if they are, they are subject to a ‘handling charge’ from Correos, UPS and others acting for the Aduana (the tax authority). I rarely have any problems with Amazon UK or Amazon Germany.

Of course, it is the tax differentials between Spain and the Canary Islands that are the basis of this problem, but I am a firm believer in ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way’. Some time ago, anything ordered from the Spanish Peninsular would attract IGIC (the equivalent of VAT/IVA in the Canary Islands). Even though this tax is 7 per cent, there would invariably be a ‘service charge’ added by the courier - UPS, DHL or Correos, which would often exceed the value of the goods being delivered. The Canarian Government rightly intervened some time ago and it was then deemed that tax would only apply to items over the value of 150 euros imported into the Canary Islands.

Problem solved? Not a bit of it. Now residents of the islands find that whilst low value items do not attract tax, they still attract a ‘handling charge’ (DUA), which often exceeds the value of the item ordered. Whist this may be worthwhile for higher value items under 150 euros, it still means that residents of the Canary Islands, Ceuta and Melilla are not regarded as part of Spain and discriminated against. I understand that this contravenes various articles agreed by the European Union, so it rightly remains a matter of concern for many islanders.

If you do order from Amazon Spain, and find that the tax or handling charge imposed is unreasonable, my advice is that you simply refuse delivery and ask for it to be returned to the sender and purchase costs refunded. In addition, do send a complaint to Amazon so that they are fully aware of a continuing problem, although I suspect that the usual bland, ‘comment bank’ response will be generated. I now do this as a matter of course. Indeed, the postman arrived a few minutes ago with a delivery of washing pods, which Amazon Spain keep urging me to try at a very special price. I paid 9,94 euros for these, but the postman has just requested 14,96 euros before he would hand them over. I refused delivery and will now buy locally. I am hoping that, in time, someone at Amazon will finally get the message and begin to treat the Canary Islands, Ceuta and Melilla as intrinsic parts of Spain.

​Ashes to Ashes

Ashes to Ashes

I received a very moving email from a regular ‘Letters from the Atlantic’ reader and correspondent this week. Janice lives in the UK and has been a regular visitor to the Canary Islands over the last 47 years with her husband, Bob. Sadly, Bob died a few weeks ago, shortly after their 47th wedding anniversary, which they celebrated on their favourite Canary Island. Janice and Bob had visited the same island each year since their honeymoon, and in the same fishing village, which they both loved. The couple were true Canary Island lovers and there was only one year that they did not manage a visit, which was shortly after the birth of their son.

Janice told me that Bob had cancer, and it was during their last visit to the island that he had commented in his favourite restaurant that he would like to have his ashes scattered in the sea from the Canarian village that they had visited and enjoyed so much. Bob had remarked that it would be rather like “coming home”. In her email to me, Janice asked if scattering ashes was allowed, since she had read that it was forbidden to scatter human remains in the Canary Islands.

Janice is correct, since it is illegal to scatter ashes on land or sea without obtaining a special licence, yet getting a licence remains a mystery. My enquiries on behalf of Janice at several town halls on the larger islands have led nowhere, so if anyone has further information about the procedure, do please let me know. There is a potential fine of around 2000 euros if caught scattering human ashes in public places. Despite this restriction, I do know that one of the islands, Tenerife, has a ‘Garden of Ashes’ in La Laguna where ashes can be scattered without a fee, but this facility does not exist on all the islands.

My best advice to Janice is for her to make enquiries with local funeral directors on the island. The other, slightly riskier, alternative is to ask a local fisherman in the village to sail well out of the harbour area and to discretely scatter the ashes whilst out at sea. Surely this can be no worse than some of the pollution that regularly finds its way into the sea?

I know from personal experience that scattering ashes is not always an easy thing to do on these islands, since by their very nature these islands can be very windy and ‘ash blowback’ from a traditional urn can be a highly distressing experience. The best approach is to ask the funeral director to provide a plastic tube that is designed both for plane transportation, as well as for scattering the remains of a loved one, which Janice and her son are planning shortly.

Readers may like to know that human ashes can be carried on an aircraft, although a plastic container should be requested from the funeral director to allow for the container to be easily scanned by airport security. Although the ashes can be checked in as cargo inside suitcases, it is probably better to include them as part of hand luggage. Do ensure that airport check-in staff know that human remains are being carried. The death certificate of the deceased should also be available, together with any other information given by the funeral director.

Losing a loved one is always a distressing affair, but it can be made easier in the knowledge that we have done our best to meet their wishes. Let us hope that Janice and her son take some comfort by revisiting a place that she and Bob loved so much by “Coming home”.

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Chickpeas or Coco Pops for Breakfast?

Chick Peas or Coco Pops for Breakfast?

I have rarely given chickpeas much thought. I know that I like them and, as vegetarians, we have regularly used them in our meals for many years. They are versatile, absorb flavours in the most delicious way and the bottled variety can usually be found at a very good price in local supermarkets.

I was interested to see that the thorny issue of chickpeas has featured quite heavily in the press recently. A Tweet by a Spanish food blogger featured a picture of her son, alongside the claim that her son doesn’t know what a biscuit is, which led to an interesting spat. Apparently, the boy starts his day with a bowl of chickpeas rather than coco pops for breakfast, which brought forth a flurry of debate, and some abuse from fans of coco pops, who consider that all children should start the day with this sugary feast, washed down with chocolate milk, rather than a highly nutritious bowl of chickpeas. Although, nutritionally, I tend to be on the side of chickpea fans, I am not sure that they are particularly good for breakfast, but then again, I have never eaten them for breakfast and intend to stick to my morning bowl of Alpen (without added sugar, of course).

The blogger raises some good points about nutrition, since it appears that breakfast for many Spanish children, as well as for children in the UK, has turned into a morning frenzy with many children being stuffed with sugar before being sent to school. Of course, in worst case scenarios, children are being sent to school without any breakfast at all, which has led an increasing demand for breakfast clubs to be established in schools in an attempt that children start the day with at least a reasonable breakfast.

What’s the name for a battered chick pea? Hummus, of course, which is apparently in serious trouble due to a worldwide shortage of chickpeas. Maybe Spanish children are eating them all for breakfast? No, the real reason is that the crop has been very poor in the last few years and this has led to an inability to meet demand, which in turn has led to a price increase. The increasing demand for hummus, which is made from chickpeas, is also to blame since supermarket hummus is in high demand in the UK. The price of chickpeas is the main reason for the rapid increase in the price of hummus.

The major UK supermarkets completely ran out of the product for several weeks last year, and the ready availability of hummus is still looking doubtful, which has led to serious talk of a ‘National Hummus Crisis’. After all, what exactly are people supposed to put on their pita bread? Chickpeas and hummus used to be known as ‘the food for poor people’. Not any more, since hummus is now seen as a trendy addition to any sandwich, wrap, pita bread, or whatever the ‘in word' for a lunchtime snack is at the moment.

The humble chickpea is grown in parts of Spain and the Canary Islands, where it is a popular addition to traditional stews and soups. Known as ‘garbanzo’, the chickpea has been grown in the Mediterranean, Middle East and parts of Africa for more than 7000 years. The ancient Greeks tucked into them as snacks, and they are a popular addition to Spain’s national dish, ‘cocido’, which is a stew that consists of chickpeas and pork. In the Canary Islands, there is a similar dish, but made with beef and chickpeas. The ingredients of these stews are not an exact one, since I guess much depends upon what the restaurant has available at the time, but I can almost guarantee that chickpeas will be lurking in there somewhere. Just don’t get me started on the potential shortage of falafel!

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​Sunbeds R Us

Sunbeds R Us

I am often told that Brits on holiday like nothing better than to get out of bed long before their all-inclusive breakfast has even hit the frying pan, and to chase outside to the swimming pool in their boxer shorts or bras (or possibly both) in order to place a vivid Union flag towel on the sunbed of their choice. It is even more exciting if there is a mad competitive dash with the Germans, with Brits gaining immense satisfaction if they reach their prized position first.

Why, oh why is one of the tour companies determined to ruin such jingoistic pleasures with the introduction of a ‘book and pay before you arrive’ sunbed option when booking a holiday in the Canary Islands. For the princely sum of 22 euros per person per week, potential holidaymakers can view a virtual image of their choice of sunbed, together with its ideal position close to the swimming pool, bar or most importantly, the toilets, from their home in Mansfield before even stepping on the plane. Gone are those heady days of the mad dash before breakfast. One thing to be thankful for, I guess, is that Ryanair will not be in charge of the seating allocations. Just imagine it, the entire family split up and lost in various dark corners of the pool area. Oh yes, I nearly forget to mention, the only reason for this change of sunbed policy is to raise additional cash for the tour operators. After all, their senior executives are anticipating a hefty pay increase on the back of it, and an additional charge of £176 for a family of four staying for two weeks is not to be sneezed at. Maybe now they can also employ someone to give the sunbeds a good scrub down from time to time?

Spoilsports or what? Personally, I have little time for sunbeds mainly because of the dubious sticky residue that is often lingering after the visit of the previous guest. I also get bored very easily, and lying on a sunbed for more than 30 minutes is not my idea of a good time. Would I select a sunbed close to a swimming pool anyway? Certainly not. As someone who has spent a good part of an earlier career looking after a primary school swimming pool, I know only too well what goes into them, and it has very little to do with pre-packaged chemicals. I shall never forget that heady perfume of a mixture of chlorine and urine and, as a result, I now do my utmost to avoid swimming pools of any kind.

I also have a problem with Madge and her family. Remember that television series, Benidorm? Whenever I see a sunbed, I have a vision of that foul speaking creature, Madge, and her apology of a family, all desperately trying to achieve the impossible by gaining both the skin of an elephant and an untreatable form of skin cancer in just one week’s holiday in the sun. Just add a mobility scooter and we could create our own series right here in the Canary Islands.

I guess that I should now mention Brexit, but only in very hushed tones, of course, since people can be very sensitive about such comments. I hear that the Germans have had this option of pre-booking a sunbed for many years. You really must hand it to them - first class organisers, as well as VWs and sausage. Now for the bad news; rumour has it that the new ‘book a sunbed before you fly’ option will only be available until Britain leaves the European Union. After that, it will be a point of serious negotiation and strategic compromise, but my sources in Brussels tell me that the likelihood of maintaining this advantage will be dependent upon a satisfactory trade deal, so Mrs May may well have a problem with this one, and I expect she will be looking for a lengthy transition period. Reliable sources close to the centre of UK decision making also tell me that the Honourable Member of Parliament for the 18th Century, Joseph Septimus Smog, is determined that this newly acquired right of expat sunbed reservation will never be taken away, and certainly never given up to the Germans. Indeed, he has staked his future and that of his unborn child, Octavius Smog, on this one. Let’s wait and see.

So, to British holidaymakers everywhere, do make the most of the new sense of freedom that this new sunbed strategy will give you, even if only for a short time. That dash outside in the early hours of the morning, to casually throw a Union flag towel over your choice of sunbed with gay abandon could shortly be a thing of the past. Brits can now awake at a sensible time and enjoy their all-inclusive breakfast in peace.

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