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Letters from the Atlantic Letters from the Canary Islands by Barrie Mahoney

'Writing Inspired by an Island in the Atlantic'

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​Have Your Checked Your DNA?

Have You Checked Your DNA?

Have any readers purchased one of those DNA test kits that have become so popular recently? Several stories in the tabloids tell of clients who have been “shocked” at discovering that their parents were not who they thought they were. I guess if you open yourself up to this kind of intimate investigation, one just has to accept the risks and take whatever is discovered.

I bought a DNA test kit shortly after the results of the 2016 EU referendum, as I was anxious to confirm my Irish heritage with a view to claiming my right to an Irish passport. All it took was a sample of saliva and a lengthy wait. The results were fascinating, and it led to discovering cousins and other relatives that I didn’t know existed. I have since met several previously unknown relatives and, for me, it was money very well spent. It has also inspired me with an ongoing interest in my own ancestry, which I heartily recommend to others.

This new DNA technology has enabled anthropologists to further investigate the origins of the original inhabitants of the Canary Islands. This archipelago, which is made up of Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura, Lanzarote, La Palma, La Gomera, El Hierro and La Graciosa, is located off the north western coast of Africa, midway between Morocco and Western Sahara. The study of its early indigenous people has always been subject to guesswork and argument, with little real evidence to back up various conclusions; that is until DNA testing arrived.

Early studies of the indigenous people of these islands have been made difficult because of the cruel colonisation of the islands during the Spanish conquest of the 15th Century. Over the years, there has been a healthy debate as to whether the first people to settle in the Canary Islands were Mediterranean sailors or travellers from afar. These studies have suggested that the indigenous people of the Canary Islands were a mixture of Mediterranean and African people, but there is little reliable information about how these people actually arrived on the islands.

Recent DNA research by experts at Stanford University and the University of La Laguna in Tenerife suggest that the first people to settle on these islands were the Berbers from North Africa who arrived in the First Century. There are indications that other lineages from Central North Africa also settled on these islands.

This research suggests that DNA from 50 remains across 25 sites, between 150 AD and 1400 AD, can be traced from the Middle East to Africa, which indicates that the Berbers had already mixed with Mediterranean people before they colonised the islands. They had settled on all eight islands by 1000 AD. The overall conclusion is that the Berbers sailed to the Canary Islands as explorers, ready to settle and colonise these islands. Migration to these islands was significant, since these people already had the resources to survive long before the slave trade and the development of sugar plantations.

Purchasing a DNA kit can lead to fascinating and sometimes unwelcome discoveries, but one that can lead to a fascinating journey into the past. Just one word of warning; do be prepared for a few surprises.

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​Whistle While We Work

Whistle While We Work

I am often asked which of the eight inhabited Canary Islands I like best of all. I can never answer the question, because each island is different and beautiful in its own unique way. I make a point of visiting each of the islands over the year. I love them all; each have their own unique character, culture and traditions. Let me give just one example.

One of the smallest Canary Islands is La Gomera, which is currently much favoured by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. No doubt, she, like so many others, relish the peace and tranquillity of this island paradise. One of the elements of La Gomera is that it retains its own unique language, a whistled language called ‘Silbo Gomero’ (The Gomera Whistle).

‘Silbo Gomero’ is not a pointless academic exercise that the teaching of Latin is often accused of, but a true form of communication that is often used today. I recall hearing it in practical use during one of my many visits to the island. My hotel was next to a construction site, and builders were using this whistled form of communication to request additional materials, help and to give directions during the construction of a property. Its piercing shrill was unlike anything that I had heard before and I was impressed with the ease and fluency with which it was used.

La Gomera’s ancient whistling language was used by farmers and shepherds to communicate across La Gomera’s many large ravines. It is a language that consists of just two vowels and four consonants, yet the whistler is able to articulate words and phrases in Spanish or any other language.

Many believe that the language was first used by the Guanche inhabitants well before the conquest of the islands by Spain in the Fifteenth Century. Linguists regard the language with considerable interest, and some experts claim that it should be taught in general linguistics courses, because it demonstrates practically how a natural language is formed and organised.

Although ‘Silbo Gomero’ now has the status of being a UNESCO recognised form of communication, it was seriously in danger of dying out completely in the 1990s simply because children at school were told not to use the language, because “it made them sound like peasants.” In 1999, it began to be taught in schools once again in an effort to revitalise the language. This approach has been very successful and the regional Government is now considering offering courses on the language that will be taught by qualified teachers across all the islands.

Since its introduction into the education system twenty years ago, the status of the language has greatly improved. In La Gomera, it is currently taught for 30 minutes each week in primary schools, as well as the first two years of middle schools. The possibility of courses in the language being extended across all the Canary Islands is currently being considered. Whatever the decision, it is important to maintain and extend the use and understanding of ‘Silbo Gomero’ for cultural, as well as linguistic reasons. As with any language, the approach should be to learn to love the language and not to impose it.

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Clocking Brexit

Clocking Brexit

Did you remember to put the clocks forward one hour? Sadly, I completely forgot to attend to this bi-annual nonsense this time, but thanks to my smartphone and watch it was done automatically, and so there was no need to be concerned. My laptop computer and other devices all managed to adjust to the new time too. It was only a few years ago when the first part of the day would be spent adjusting the time on clocks and watches. Do you remember those annoying car clocks? I never did bother to change mine and worked on the basis that they would be correct for at least six months of the year, so why bother?

Visitors often ask whether the time in the Canary Islands is the same as in the UK. It is, but it is not the same as in Peninsula Spain, which is always one hour ahead. This is due to a number of reasons, which I covered in an earlier ‘Letter’, with the main one being the agreement between Spain’s General Franco and Adolf Hitler during the Second World War, when Spain agreed to follow the same time as Berlin.

Fortunately, the tedious nonsense of changing time forwards or backwards twice a year, known as Daylight Summer Time (DST), is due to come to an end, because the European Parliament approved a measure by a massive majority in favour to abolish the twice-yearly time change. The change will take place in 2021and individual member states will decide whether they wish to live permanently either on summer time or winter time. Once the decision has been made, it will become permanent.

Many of us will recall all the usual arguments about the need to switch time twice a year because of “Scottish farmers” or “children walking to school in the dark”, as well as many more, but I have always remained unconvinced. To me, the arguments put forward have always seemed to be both spurious and unconvincing. I am more convinced by a growing body of evidence, which shows that time changes are harmful to public health, as well as to the economy. The time change confuses the brain and leads to a reduction in productivity. There are also increased levels of health concerns, including more accidents at work reported during the immediate period following a time change.

One of the more plausible and historical reasons given for sticking with DST was thought to be a saving on energy costs. Even this argument has been shown to be nonsense, since data now suggests that the policy results in even greater energy consumption.

Sadly, I do now have to mention the dreaded ‘B’ word, since the EU’s decision may or may not have an impact upon the UK. If the UK does finally leave the EU it will be free to continue with DST as usual and to ignore the EU’s decision to abandon it. I suspect there will be a strong move from Brexiteers to ignore any suggestions from the EU and to rigidly stick with DST, and no doubt on the grounds of “national sovereignty”. This would, of course, be nonsense both economically and socially for the island of Ireland, since the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland could potentially be operating in two different time zones creating many unforeseen issues relating to cross border cooperation. Now, there’s another thought to toss into the already steaming and putrid cauldron, commonly known as Brexit.

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​Bigger and Better?

Bigger and Better?

I wonder if anyone remembers the BBC television comedy ‘Hi-de-Hi’, which was first broadcast in the 1980s? It was classic, camp comedy, which was based upon a fantasy world of a not so glamorous ‘Butlins style’ holiday camp. Looking back, it became a kind of documentary, since I remember visiting a number of British holiday camps that were very similar to the fictional ‘Maplins’ featured in the show.

One of the more memorable characters in the show was the ‘Chief Yellowcoat’, Gladys Pugh, who would make regular radio announcements to guests, and proudly announce various events around the “Olympic size swimming pool”. Well, I am sure that Gladys, as well as campers, would be most impressed to learn that the island of Lanzarote has just opened its first Olympic size swimming pool in the town of Arrecife.

This project has included the remodelling of Lanzarote’s ‘Sports City’ at a cost of around 6 million euros, and will be the home of the island’s Youth Information Centre. This new pool will be available for top-level swimming competitions, synchronised swimming, as well as water polo.

Visitors to the Canary Islands often imagine that the sea will be warm, but forget that these islands are surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, which is never truly warm enough to swim in. This new swimming pool will be heated from renewable energy sources, making the most of natural ventilation and light. I think Gladys would be immensely proud to announce the pool’s many new facilities to her campers.

The current trend to be ‘bigger and better’ does come with a number of risks and challenges. Perhaps one clear example of ‘shooting oneself in the foot’ may currently be seen on the island of Gran Canaria where work is currently underway to build what is touted to be “The Best Water Park in the World”, as well as “The Biggest in Europe”.

This massive project and investment is already well underway, and there is no doubt that it will provide many new employment opportunities, which it is hoped will be given to local people. This development is part of an overall plan to provide more leisure opportunities for national and international tourists. Gran Canaria is already a very popular and busy island that is trying hard to enhance its reputation for rural tourism in many of its beautiful, unspoilt and peaceful locations, so yet another, even more massive water park on the doorstep of rural tourism may seem something of a contradiction.

It is often reported that visitors are demanding yet more commercial leisure facilities to enjoy during their holidays, in addition to the many water sports already provided within a natural setting. Whether this is true, and visitors really do want to visit this beautiful island, mainly to enjoy being in the “Biggest and Best Water Park”, at the expense of destroying the natural island character that has been so popular with visitors over the years, remains to be seen.

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​Termite Terror in Tenerife

Termite Terror in Tenerife

First of all, my apologies for the alliteration and the ‘Daily Mail’ style headline; I just couldn’t resist it. Sadly, on this occasion, this is not “fake news”.

These invaders from the USA (Reticulitermes Flavipipes) were first reported in Tenerife in 2010. Commonly described as “an efficient and economic wood destroying insect” in the United States. These pests feed on all kinds of cellulose material, such as the wood used in buildings, paper, books and cotton. There can be as many as 20,000 to 5 million workers in a colony, with the queen laying 5,000 to 10,000 eggs each day.

Similar to ants and cockroaches, termites are a social species and share many of the tasks that are necessary for community survival. Their division of work is based on a caste system of workers, soldiers and breeders, which is remarkably efficient. These pests are a great problem in many countries, since termites can go undetected for a lengthy period of time. Their presence in structures can go unnoticed, since the timber will look structurally sound from the outside, but the inside of the structure will have been reduced to something resembling a honeycomb. Structural timbers and floorboards are most at risk from termite damage and termites are considered to be a serious economic pest.

In Tenerife, pest control services were alerted and they successfully eradicated these pests from a residential property, or so it was thought. The problem was once again reported in 2017, but the news was not widely reported, because residents were concerned that it would affect the value of their properties. Controlling and destroying termite colonies is not easy, and is expensive. Popular methods range from chemical treatments, heat, freezing, electrocution and microwave irradiation.

A recent report has since shown that this infestation in Tenerife is a serious one and now covers an area of around 60 kilometres, with suggestions that they could now have spread to anywhere on the island. In parts of Tenerife, such as La Laguna, there are many buildings of considerable cultural value that are mainly built from timber; there are also plant nurseries in the area. This, together with high temperatures and high levels of humidity, creates ideal conditions for termites to thrive throughout the year.

Tenerife is not the only place to suffer from the termite invasion. Cities, such as Paris and Florence have been tackling the problem for many years. Other Canary Islands are not immune either, since one of the reasons for the ten-year delay in reopening the lighthouse in the south of Gran Canaria is said to be damage caused by termites.

It is not all bad news, since termites are said to play a critical role in the decomposition of organic material on forest floors, for instance, without which forests would be in trouble. Sadly, this will not be of much comfort to communities in Tenerife and other places who are having to deal with the damage. Hopefully, local municipalities, as well as the island government, will step in to help eradicate this serious problem and to assist those who have been so badly affected by this hidden invader.

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© Barrie Mahoney

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