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Letters Blog Letters Blog | Barrie Mahoney

'Writing Inspired by an Island in the Atlantic'

The Cold and Cruel Sea

It is true that less tourists return home alive than have set off for their holiday in the Canary Islands. This disturbing fact is not one that the tourist industry will thank me for highlighting, but it is time that the stark facts are raised once again and that holidaymakers are alerted to the potential risks of a holiday in the Canary Islands, and other popular tourist destinations.

The Canary Islands are a wonderful place for a holiday, but it is best not to return home in a coffin. We have the best climate in the world; each of the seven inhabited islands are unique and offer a range of activities and experiences that will enrich the spirit of even the most hardened and cynical traveller. The problem for tourists is not the islands, but the Atlantic Ocean.

Ours is a cold and cruel sea. It is deceptive in its appeal, but it is not the Mediterranean Sea. Many tourists forget this and quickly succumb to the delights of this turbulent water. Its many charms lull the unsuspecting tourist into a false sense of security with its frothy and inviting appeal to swimmers, surf boarders, wind surfers, but those with a true knowledge of the Atlantic Ocean will be only too well aware of its rapidly changing moods and boiling anger that erupts from time to time.

Every year, I see that the Canary Islands are placed at the top of a very disturbing league table for drownings, with most of these casualties being tourists. Statistics indicate that one tourist drowns every six days in the Canary Islands, a record that is one of the worst in Spain.

The shock of very cold water, swimming after a heavy meal, after drinking alcohol or taking drugs are some of the reasons for these individual tragedies. Cardiac arrest in the sea is not unusual, since it is the result of the shock of cold water, even in temperatures of around 25 degrees. The water around these islands rarely exceeds 24 degrees, even in the hottest periods of the year; it is not just freezing water that is a danger to swimmers. Despite the temptations to cool off after a day in the sun, swimmers can get into difficulties in as short a time as five minutes.

Many tourists forget that high winds, rough seas and treacherous currents are the main reasons for many drownings that take place each year. A strong undertow and unpredictable rip currents are also a grave danger to swimmers. They are unseen and unpredictable, catch swimmers without warning and carry them a considerable distance out to sea. Rough seas around our beautiful coastline can also be a danger for unsuspecting walkers, which may occur even in what appears to be good and settled weather. It depends what mood the Atlantic is in, and freak waves have sometimes swept walkers out to sea.

Some of these issues were brought home to me last weekend when I visited one of our popular, local beaches. It was a beautiful, yet stormy morning and the red warning flags were flying. Despite this, there were many swimmers in the sea, together with several surfboarders. I spotted two lifeguards urging swimmers to come to the shore for safety, which most obeyed. These swimmers were then directed to a safer part of the beach. However, several swimmers, including the surfboarders, continued to ignore the lifeguards.

It is this attitude of bravado and ignorance that is behind many swimming tragedies, and it is hard to legislate against foolishness. Sadly, it is also these attitudes that place the safety of lifeguards and other members of the emergency services at risk. Despite the best efforts of the islands’ government, the municipalities and the emergency services, swimming tragedies continue to occur far too frequently.

© Barrie Mahoney 2023

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

The Work-Life Balance

Getting the work-life balance right is not easy for many people, and for many juggling with earning enough to pay the rent or mortgage, food and other bills, there is often very little choice in the amount of free time available. Time to spend with families and friends is important, and I often admire the Spanish tradition of putting family life first whenever possible.

The Spanish Minister for Tourism and Technology was recently musing about the impact of technological changes upon society, and suggested that a three-day weekend was almost inevitable. The Minister spoke about fast moving technological developments in communication, public administration and education, and the 51.2 million mobile phones that are in use throughout Spain. With 40 million people having ready access to a mobile Internet connection, more people could work from home or ‘on-the-go’. He went on to say that this approach to work would have positive effects on health, productivity and public spending.

The Minister raises some good points, and his ideas are not new, since many claim that the traditional employment structure is bad for health. Time spent with family and friends is the most important part of life, and with work being the means with which we pay for it. In many ways, this ‘flexible’ and more relaxed style of living and working in the Canary Islands has been operating for many years.

Very few shops, and certainly no offices or banks, are open on a Saturday afternoon. The few shops that do open (unless they are situated in commercial centres or tourist areas) close their doors at lunch time on Saturday, and may or may not reopen on Monday morning. Many Canarians take Monday off work, which is why shopping, banking and visiting Town Halls is never a good idea on Mondays.

Fiestas and family life are very important in the Canary Islands. Most weeks are punctuated by a different fiesta in towns and villages across the islands. Often those living in neighbouring municipalities feel the urge to join in too, and close their doors early on the day before the big event to allow time to prepare food, shop and to dress up for the big day.

Schools close at the end of June for the traditional long, summer holiday and reopen again in mid-September. In many ways, this is necessary, because of the excessive heat in Spain and the Canary Islands at this time of the year; few classrooms enjoy the luxury of air conditioning. It is a time when children and their families can enjoy a long summer break together, and it is taken very seriously. For some children, sports, language and summer camps are an option, which some busy parents take full advantage of. However, these facilities do not come cheap and for many families the only option is for grandparents to share the load and for parents take time off work to be with their offspring. As a result, legal, financial, postal and most other services grind to a halt, since no one ever seems to consider staggering holiday entitlement or to appoint reserve and back up staff to cover the shortfall of workers.

Then there is the dreaded August 15th. This is the day when almost everything closes down (except in the tourist areas) for at least two weeks, and possibly more. Many of us are longing to get back to normal, which will happen sometime in mid-September, but definitely by October!

Despite such inconveniences, Spanish and Canarian workers do work very hard and for long hours. Most shops and offices open from about 08.00am, and closure at 10.00pm is not unusual, particularly in commercial centres. Most small shops close at around 1.30pm for the traditional siesta, and open their doors again at around 4.00pm. This is the time when Spanish workers traditionally eat their main meal of the day, followed by a siesta. However, in more recent times and with increasingly long distances to travel to work, few workers make it home for a family meal at this time of the day. The midday break is important, because of the heat, and it is time to cool down and relax away from the heat of the day.

Many Spanish and Canarian workers have two jobs, which again is why the mid-afternoon break is useful for workers to get from one job to another. I know a number of shop workers who start work at 08.00am, work until the siesta and then hastily drive to the tourist areas where they begin their evening shifts as waiters and bar staff, and usually finish their shift at 11.00pm or much later if it is bar work.

A revised working structure for the working week has been trialled in parts of the United States and Sweden, but it is unclear whether it will ever become a reality for Spain. However, the Spanish Government is giving serious consideration to removing the siesta, starting work later and finishing the day earlier.

© Barrie Mahoney 2023

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


Here we go again, another Friday 13th. I really am fed up with reading what all the doom mongers have to say about the likelihood of disaster on this ‘unlucky’ day. It reminds me of an event a few weeks ago when a weird religious sect that takes the Book of Revelations literally, busily promoted the idea that the world was about to end on 21 September. How disappointed they must have been on 22 September. I just hope that they gave some serious thought to those unfortunate believers who committed suicide in order to avoid the big event, or those that had blown all their savings a few weeks before, as they couldn’t take their savings with them. Such foolish predictions are not only dangerous lies, but very cruel for many decent, trusting people.

What is it about the human psyche that loves the idea of disaster, terror, and fear? Don’t we have enough real events to terrorise us already? Do we really need any more demons than The Trumper, Little Rocket Man, Global Warming, Islamic Terrorism and Harvey Weinstein to successfully chill us to the marrow? We will shortly have another fiesta, nowadays frantically celebrated in Spain, as well as in many parts of the world. This event is, of course, Halloween, which I personally detest. Gone are the days when it involved little more than drawing a few spooky pictures, hollowing out a pumpkin, and making masks with the kids, with a spot of apple bobbing thrown in for good measure. We now have an event that to many is little more than the celebration of evil, an opportunity to drink excess alcohol, as well putting kids in danger. A few years ago, the idea of Halloween, as opposed to the highly religiously significant All Saints Day, was hardly recognised, let alone celebrated in Spain and the Canary Islands. A commercial opportunity for shops to sell more imported rubbish? Yes, most certainly, but is this kind of celebration healthy, let alone desirable? It is a simple case of ‘each to their own’ I guess, but I’m having none of it.

In Spain and the Canary Islands, you won’t find locals drawing their blinds and running away from black cats. It is actually Tuesday the 13th that is considered to be unlucky, since Tuesday is said to be dominated by Ares, the Greek God of War, who gives his name to the Spanish word for Tuesday, which is Martes. The old Spanish proverb proclaims: ‘En martes, ni te cases, ni te embarques, ni de tu casa te apartes’ – or in English – “On Tuesday, don’t get married, embark on a journey, or move away.” There are also a few more Spanish superstitions that the cautious expats should be aware of, including putting a hat on a bed that will bring bad luck. This superstition is believed to have come from a time when people believed that evil spirits lived in people’s hair, which could be transferred from the hair to the hat and then to the bed, leaving unfortunate souls open to ghost attacks during the night.

As a cat lover, one superstition that I am not too keen on in Spain is that cats have only seven and not nine lives as in the UK. Sadly, cats in Spain and the Canary Islands have to be much more careful, since they are two lives short.

I now know never to give a knife as a gift. Spanish tradition states that buying knives or scissors symbolise the cutting of ties and relationships, so if you gift newlyweds with knives, they will break up. That’s a pity, since I had planned to give a set of kitchen knives to a lovely couple as a wedding gift. It will just have to be the toaster after all.

Many fans of amateur dramatics in the UK tell their actor friends to ‘break a leg’, but in Spain it’s a bit different. Instead, you must wish that person ‘mucha mierda’, or ‘lots of shit’. I shudder to think what the origin of this one is, but I do have a very vivid imagination... If anyone knows the origin of this one, please do let me know.

Have you noticed that many homes in Spain and the Canary Islands have cactus on windowsills or placed strategically in their homes? It is believed that spikey green cactus can ward away evil spirits, so a nice prickly cactus might make an appropriate housewarming gift. Always be careful when brushing, because you must never sweep the feet of a single woman. If you do, she will never get married and hate you for ever.

Fancy getting your own back on someone? This is easy, just buy them yellow clothes. After all, yellow represents sulphur and the Devil, and it is sure to bring them lots of bad luck. Getting ready for Christmas and the New Year? Don’t forget to eat twelve grapes in rapid succession on the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. Spanish people reckon that wearing red underwear also helps to bring them good luck, so I must remember to pick up some red undies when next in Marks and Spencer. By the way, just a tip when eating grapes, please go seedless. I still recall a very unfortunate incident with someone who choked to death on the seventh grape. There really wasn’t too much luck involved for him, but maybe he wasn’t wearing red underwear.

I’ll let readers into a little secret, which may explain a little of my aversion to ‘disaster planning’ and days that are meant to be unlucky. I was born on Friday 13th at around 13.00. Thanks to my mother’s considerable efforts to destroy the myth of ‘Unlucky 13’, I was taught that Friday 13th is my special day when good things happen. With one or two notable exceptions, and I won’t bore you with the details, this has mostly been the case. Friday 13th is always a good day for me when good things usually happen. I guess it is a state of mind.

I adore black cats, I will happily walk under ladders and never throw spilled salt over my left, or is it right, shoulder. I have no time for superstition and the Book of Revelations. Come on, let’s do reality instead. Have a great Halloween!

© Barrie Mahoney 2023

Join me on Facebook: @barrie.mahoney

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

The Stinky Tree

It is 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 attempt to rectify damage caused to the environment over many centuries.

© Barrie Mahoney 2023

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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

Join me on Facebook: @barrie.mahoney

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

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