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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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​All Helmets and Lycra

All Helmets and Lycra

Over the years, cyclists from all over Europe have headed to the Canary Islands to take advantage of some decent weather with which to indulge in their favourite pastime. All of the inhabited islands have become increasingly popular, but with the favourite destinations being Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote and Fuerteventura that are selected as ideal destinations for all-year-round cycling. The tourist boards and hotels are grateful, since income from cyclists and their entourages makes a healthy contribution to tourist income.

As well as heat, the islands offer mountains, breath-taking scenery and a refreshing sea breeze. Rainfall is rare during most of the year, which makes the islands ideal for winter training. The main disadvantage are the dust storms, which although occasional, are like riding through a blanket of hot, dry fog. These ‘calimas’ are caused by very fine sand being blown from the Sahara. Locals are wise enough to know that they should remain indoors in such conditions, but it is not unusual to see dozens of cyclists attempting to complete their training schedule in conditions that must be injurious to their general health, and with some being admitted to hospital for treatment. Those suffering from asthma, as well as other breathing conditions, would do well to avoid cycling on the islands during the presence of a calima.

Whilst following behind two ‘team cyclists’ the other day, who incidentally were holding hands, it occurred to me that I rarely see a happy cyclist nowadays. They all seem to be so deadly serious, gritting their teeth and with huge quantities of sweat leaking from their designer Lycra. It looks to be anything but pleasurable and seems to be more of a test of endurance; maybe that is the point. I rarely see cyclists actually enjoying their cycling in the beautiful scenery that these islands have to offer. Their eyes seem to be glued to the road just ahead of them, or glued to the sensuous bottom of the team cyclist in front.

It all seems such hard work nowadays; whatever happened to cycling for fun? Am I the only one who remembers actually enjoying cycling to work or going for a leisurely cycle in the countryside with friends, and stopping for a pub lunch before cycling home? Cyclists visiting these islands have spent a considerable amount of money on flights and accommodation, as well as transporting their cycles from their home countries, so why waste it peddling aimlessly up and down the same stretch of road near my home?

As I cautiously follow the two cyclists holding hands, musing on my cycling memories from the past, other motorists were getting impatient behind me. Road conditions meant that I could not overtake, so I was content to wait. However, others were not, which encouraged one very angry motorist to hoot the cyclists loudly, as he overtook me whilst approaching a bend. The cycling ‘lovebirds’ merely dropped their physical connection briefly and offered the angry motorist a one-finger salute, which is not the best way to gain friends or to promote one’s sport.

Anger is never appropriate in these circumstances, but it did remind me of a number of emails that I have received in recent months, complaining that “cyclists are a nuisance” (with much stronger language being used). It is also clear that negative comments on the islands’ social media are rapidly increasing, with angry comments declaring that team cyclists are becoming a curse on the islands’ roads. Rarely does a week pass without at least one cyclist being seriously injured during a road traffic accident, or even worse, alongside their crushed cycle. There are regular reports of children, the elderly, the infirm and those simply not paying attention, being hit by a speeding cyclist. It seems that the days of welcoming team cyclists to these islands is fast disappearing.

The old adage of ‘each to their own’ comes to mind, but maybe enjoyment from cycling can be achieved without inconveniencing, annoying or maiming pedestrians and other road users. An appropriate message to team cyclists might be to enjoy these beautiful islands, appreciate the ever-changing scenery, adjust appropriately to road conditions, and to be thoughtful towards others. Maybe looking less desperate and smiling a little, might help too? Speed and sweat is not what life is about. Protection Status © Barrie Mahoney 

The Russia Connection

The Russia Connection

During the time that I have lived in the Canary Islands, I have come to understand, appreciate and admire the contribution and influence that these small islands have made over many years; an influence that is far in excess of the size of this unique archipelago.

Anyone who has travelled across these islands and has driven through some of the older road tunnels, carefully crafted through the centre of some of the volcanic mountains, will appreciate the impressive engineering skills demonstrated by the talented workers of earlier generations. I was reminded of this once again when it was reported that the authorities in St Petersburg, the second largest city in Russia, announced their decision to dedicate a bridge on the tributary of the Neva River in honour of the Canary Islands engineer, Agustín de Betancourt, who worked for Tsar Alexander I.

This bridge will be inaugurated on the eve of the opening of the World Cup later this year, which links the islands of Petroviski, Serni and Dekabristov through the Malaya Neva. The naming of this bridge after Agustín de Betancourt marks 260 years since the birth of this Tenerife engineer. This bridge will help to reduce the traffic congestion of St Petersburg, which has traffic jams as big as Moscow, and has a stadium that will host one of the World Cup semi-finals.

Agustín de Betancourt was born in 1758 in Puerto de la Cruz in Tenerife and his roots can be traced back to Jean de Béthencourt who began the colonisation of the Canary Islands in 1402, declaring himself as King of Tenerife in 1417. Agustin’s father was a well-educated businessman with commercial interests in textile machinery, and his mother, Maria, was the first woman in Tenerife to publish a scientific article about dyes used in textiles. Agustin graduated in Madrid, and worked on canal buildings and mining, before travelling to Paris to study hydraulics and mechanics.

Betancourt had work published on engineering within the coal industry, but his main role was to discover new technologies that would benefit Spain. His work took him to England where he visited James Watt and Matthew Boulton, who were pioneers of the steam engine. Much of Betancourt’s work appears to be connected with intelligence gathering from engineers working in France, England and the Netherlands, which would probably be called commercial espionage nowadays. His interests were wide and varied ranging from the optical telegraph, Spain’s first hot air balloon, harbour dredging, gun barrels, building a city jail, preservation of several ancient churches, building a cathedral and rebuilding a fairground, which gives a flavour of the interests and achievements of this dedicated engineer at work.

It was Betancourt who became the founder and director of the Institute of Communication Route Engineers, and, among other things, designed the first paper money printing machine in Tsarist Russia. He lived in Russia for 16 years and was also involved in construction projects in the Nizhny Novgorod main commercial precinct during the Nineteenth Century, and the modernisation of the Tula weapons factory. During his life, he also created the School of Civil Engineers of Roads, Canals and Ports for Madrid and built the Double Effect Steam Machine.

Agustín de Betancourt died in 1824 in St Petersburg. Engineer, architect, builder and inventor, Agustin de Betancourt has a memorial in the form of a bust in the premises of the University of Railway Engineering and is buried in the cemetery of Alexandr Nevsky Monastery in St Petersburg. Once again, many will be surprised, as well as humbled, by the impressive achievements of this son of the Canary Islands. Protection Status © Barrie Mahoney 

​Chocolate, Avocado Eggs and the Canary Islands

Chocolate, Avocado Eggs and the Canary Islands

The Spanish love their chocolate. Pastries are dipped into it, biscuits are coated with it, churros are drowned in it and anything else is sprinkled with it. Chocolate is everywhere in Spain, which is not surprising, because it was the Spanish who discovered and gave birth to modern chocolate. It was Spanish explorers who brought chocolate to Europe more than 500 years ago with the addition of sugar to a bitter cocoa drink transforming it into the chocolate delight that we know today. Indeed, it was Christopher Columbus who may be credited for being the first European explorer to encounter chocolate. It is said that Columbus intercepted a trading ship loaded with cocoa beans during one of his voyages, but thinking they were almonds he ignored the precious load.

The next step in the journey of chocolate was left to the explorer, Hernán Cortés, who may be credited for being the first European to bring chocolate to Europe. Cortés was mistaken for a God, and invited to a generous Aztec feast where he was given their prized, spicy drink of warm chocolate. Cortés was no fool, and the capitalist that he was led him to realise its value to both himself and the Spanish Crown.

The knowledge of how to turn cocoa beans into a delicious frothy drink was more a mystery that was jealously guarded by the Aztecs. It was left to Cistercian monks to get hold of and adapt the recipe that would produce chocolate for the Spanish nobility. They managed to keep their secret away from the rest of Europe for more than a century after its discovery.

Over the years, the recipe was modified to suit the European palette, which came in the form of cutting out the fiery hot peppers that the Aztecs traditionally used, replacing it with sugar cane from the Canary Islands to create the sweet chocolate that eventually became a worldwide sensation. It was decades later that a British company, founded by Joseph Fry, created the first ever chocolate bar that delivered chocolate and excess calories to the masses.

Recent shocking statistics screaming from some of the headlines this week accused Brits of eating more chocolate than anyone else in the world. Apparently, Brits munched their way through 8.4kg of chocolate each during 2017. Many commentators are suggesting that the increase in chocolate consumption is due to Brexit, with nasty rumours floating around that the price of chocolate bars will suddenly wildly increase following Brexit. Some Brexiters are wickedly claiming that it is the fault of Remainers, who are so depressed about severing their links with the chocolate makers of Europe, that they are putting away as much as they possibly can before Brexit takes place. In response, Remainers are claiming that increased consumption is due to Brexiters who are so nervous about the implications of Brexit, that they are anxiously eating their way through the nation’s chocolate bars before it is too late. It is also said that they have a longing for European chocolate, which they wish to keep secret.

Sadly, it seems that since the takeover of Cadburys by an American company, British chocolate just doesn’t satisfy British taste buds any more. Some of the blame for increased chocolate consumption is also being passed onto the current trend for alcohol flavoured Easter Eggs, which apparently are going down a treat. Personally, I am not too sure about gin and tonic flavoured eggs, but I am sure that readers will tell me how wonderful they are very shortly.

Despite these interesting statistics, I was surprised to see Spain not heading towards the top of the chocoholics list. For many Spanish, there is nothing more delicious to start the day than a steaming bowl of hot chocolate in which to dip a plateful of delicious churros, which is fried choux pastry (a little like a donut that has been stretched out of all recognition). It is a highly fattening, but delicious combination, I am told.

Personally, I am very keen to get my hands on one of the new vegan avocado chocolate bars that went on sale in Europe recently. The avocado used in these chocolate bars is 100 per cent natural freeze-dried avocado, and I am reliably informed that the delicious blend of avocado and organic dark chocolate is a chocolate lover’s dream. Interestingly, this product has been brought to the world by James Cadbury, who is the great, great, great grandson of Cadbury’s founder. Despite this amazing news, I was very disappointed not to have received an avocado filled chocolate Easter egg this year, but I live in hope. Protection Status © Barrie Mahoney 

Kill or Cure?

Kill or Cure?

An article about bee sting therapy caught my eye this week. Tragically, a woman recently died in Spain after undergoing a bizarre form of therapy at a clinic that involved bee venom. The therapy is known as apitherapy, which involved the woman attending a session every four weeks for two years, which was designed to improve her muscular control without allergic reactions.

As a child, and as unlikely as it now seems, I remember attempting handstands on the lawn of our garden. Unfortunately, during this challenging activity, I placed my hand over a bee who was sunning himself quietly in the grass. The bee quickly let it be known that he was not happy with my gymnastic efforts. I remember that the resulting sting was very painful and that my mother quickly removed the sting once she had realised what all the fuss was about. I also recall taking great consolation after I was told that a bee can only sting once, and then it dies. Several weeks later, I remember my father coming home from work, telling us that the young wife of a good friend and colleague had died from a bee sting that very morning. I remember my parents being very upset about this tragedy, and after my event a few weeks earlier, I considered myself to be extremely fortunate, given the circumstances. Since that time, I have always treated bees with the utmost respect and until recently have had a somewhat cynical view of how bee stings can actually help to preserve and enhance life; I am now having some doubts.

Bee Sting Therapy claims to bring relief and healing for spinal, neural, joint and musculoskeletal conditions that includes gout, arthritis, tendinitis, shingles, Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s, cancerous tumours, fibromyalgia, cramps, pulled muscles and many other ailments. The therapy is based upon the idea that bee venom stimulates the adrenal glands after a sting, which produces the hormone, cortisol, which has anti-inflammatory properties that jump starts the healing process.

This is not as unlikely as it sounds, since it has been reported for some time that venom from bees, as well as snakes, spiders, scorpions and sea urchins have the potential to work as the next generation of drugs that have the ability to effectively fight cancer. Needless to say, pharmaceutical companies are currently working hard to exploit the potential of these natural remedies to enhance their balance sheets and to impress their shareholders. The theory is impressive and I hope that current research bears positive results that will improve the lives of so many people suffering from a range of debilitating and life-threatening conditions.

This particular therapy involves holding a bee by its head and pinching it until the bee’s stinger emerges and punctures the patient’s skin. Sadly, the poor bee always dies in the process, since they can only use their sting once. In the case of the patient in Spain; she suffered an anaphylactic shock, developed wheezing and lost consciousness. An ambulance was called, a steroid was administered, but no adrenaline was made available. The bee sting had triggered a stroke, the patient fell into a permanent coma, and sadly died a few weeks later from multi organ failure.

Advocates of apitherapy make many claims for its health benefits, which remain largely unsupported by traditional medicine, but such cynicism has been faced by advocates of chiropractic, acupuncture and aromatherapy, amongst other therapies. Indeed, some therapies, previously regarded as ‘fringe’ by the established medical profession, have gained a reputation as effective therapies in recent years and are often used to support traditional medicine. This sad incident in Spain is reportedly the first case of death by bee venom. I will continue to do my best to keep an open mind about this and other therapies, but at the moment would prefer that my only contact with bees is through honey on my morning toast. Protection Status

© Barrie Mahoney

​The Virtual Spanish Hotel

The Virtual Spanish Hotel

Our first holiday in Spain some years ago was not a great success. We had booked into a major tour company’s “flagship hotel”, as it was described, only to find a bed containing the residue of its previous occupant, a couple of cockroaches and the distressing remains of a previous night’s curry in the toilet. Needless to say, we complained and were moved to another room. It was not the best introduction to our first holiday in Spain.

What do you look for in hotel or self-catering accommodation? I have always maintained that if I am going to spend hard-earned cash on holiday, I require the standard to be at least the same, if not better than our accommodation at home. Like many visitors, I dislike those narrow, uncomfortable, wooden beds and thin mattresses that are so popular in most Spanish and Canary Islands’ budget hotels and bungalow complexes. Insufficient hot water, no kettle, and ineffective air conditioning are all areas that are likely to generate a negative review on Trip Advisor. Nowadays, my demands also include free Wi-Fi, and not just a pathetic signal in reception, but one that I can actually use in the hotel bedroom, without an additional charge. I have this at home, so why not on holiday? Sadly, even some of the four- and five-star hotels on these islands rarely offer this facility and is a source of constant complaints from guests. According to a recent tourism fair in Spain, much of this is about to change.

How about a hotel room that automatically adjusts to the needs, language and nationality of its guests, virtual reality headsets instead of brochures, as well as facial recognition instead of a key card to enter your room? Once guests’ personal details and preferences are logged into the system, the room will automatically change the digital pictures in the room from Picasso to Monet, monitor the room temperature and adjust the lighting to personal requirements.

Hotels will be able to provide a facility whereby guests can order a pizza in 40 languages; why one would want to do this is open for discussion, but I guess it is a nice gesture to while away an hour or two. Room locks will also be ‘intelligent’ and will open and close according to the WhatsApp settings on a guest’s smartphone. What about those ghastly wooden beds and thin mattresses? Well, new ones will have sensors built into the mattress, which will monitor movements and sense when the occupant awakes, and will notify staff to bring a cup of coffee and croissant to get the morning off to a good start. However, I am not sure that guests will approve of bed sensors monitoring the time, quantity and speed of their lovemaking.

Needless to say, the main benefit of these new systems is not always for the guests’ benefit, but to improve “productivity”. If, for instance, a large number of British guests are due to check in, additional quantities of bacon, black pudding and eggs will be ordered automatically to cope with the copious demand for those much loved ‘English breakfasts’. Virtual Reality headsets are currently being used, both in Spain and Morocco, to present hotels to tour companies instead of brochures. Travel agents can take a virtual tour of the bedrooms, pool area, restaurant and other facilities, which will give a much more realistic indication of likely customer satisfaction.

In some hotels, there will be beacons and sensors fitted in rooms that will make use of guests’ smartphones to monitor at what time they visit the pool, how long they stay in their rooms and how vigorously they brush their teeth. Maybe it will also monitor how much toilet paper is used on ‘curry and lager’ nights and order additional quantities according to need? Complicated algorithms will be able to monitor their guests’ habits in order to sell additional products and services, as well as special offers to encourage them to return to the hotel. The system will also be able to determine whether guests arrive with their usual partner and children or with someone else - in which case, if the guest does not eat in the dining room, a special meal will be sent to the hotel room, complete with a bottle of champagne.

Is all this going a little too far, do you think? Few of these new services will be able to operate without considerable intrusion into the personal data of guests, which I suspect many will be unhappy about. As much as I love gadgets and applaud some of the new technology, and particularly improved beds, I suspect that most visitors will be content with a clean room, a comfortable bed, a kettle and good quality Wi-Fi. Protection Status © Barrie Mahoney 

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