Not that Canary island. This Canary island.
When I finally got her attention, she busied herself in getting my coffee. Having the chat with her friends, at the side of the bar, was her top priority. She made no bones about it. She was not playing a role, as so many do at work: ‘only bartender of this island’s aeropuerto’. No. Sonia was herself, right down to her purple slippers.
Positioning is everything, and the Canary Islands sit on a part of the travel map which gets little of my attention. In comparison to the Spanish peninsula – seat of glorious culture, history, treasure troves of spoils and (most importantly) Spaniards – the Canary Islands has settled in my head as the place where sun-starved Northern Europeans congregate in massive number to pretend it’s not winter. I’m not into just sun; the Canaries are not for me.
And yet, for the longest time, I’ve nursed a Canarian itch . While working on a drinks project in this archipelago some 18 years ago, I came across a local beer advert which featured a strange whistling language, used by one of the native island peoples. The people of La Gomera. The idea of whistling communicators challenged all of my lazy Canarian assumptions. I filed it away under the vaguest of titles: Explore Some Day.
And so came the day. And here I am, about to depart after two absorbing days.
The island, Enid Blyton-like in its circular shape, and Tolkien-like in its craggy green mountains, is best surveyed by car. On the 70km winding journey east to west, I lost and regained 20 degrees Celsius in temperature, and moved through semi-desert, to sub-tropical rain forest, to Mediterranean-style beach climate. My guide for one morning (well, a newly made friend on a day off from guiding) spoke of his island’s legends, its ancient kings, and the fact that El Silbo (that whistling phoneme-language of my memory) is taught in every Gomerian school for five years. Mandatory.
Everyone in La Gomera whistles a language which can carry over 5km in the right wind conditions. I wonder what this does to the idea of secrets?
All I wanted was a demonstration. But he held back. ‘It’s loud. Very loud’. This made me want to hear it even more, but I got distracted by his talk of sharks, of witches, of tricksters selling rabbit droppings as coffee, and of a curious settlement deep in the forest, at the centre of the island. La Gomera began to feel like Middle Earth. Somewhere, amid all of that chat, I neglected to demand a live demonstration of El Silbo. Having carried that itch for 18 years, it still is not fully scratched…
I returned, alone, to the centre of the island, and to the place my friend had spoken of. As I descended into the subtropical forest towards El Cedro, the loose tiled patchwork of stones composing the pathway rattled under the tires of my little Fiat. The sound and sensation, as I progressed, had a hypnotic effect. Fully alone, with precipitous falls to my left, the deep green moss and ferns became more and more dense. I felt drawn downwards, and did not quite know why. Logic fought against my descent. Meeting another car would require a stressful and dangerous manoeuvre.
At length, a small lay-by presented and I pulled in and stood outside. The humid smells of nature permeated the vehicle and my body. There was further to go. But no. Not this time. I became a little nervous, and the silence became a little eerie. Was there a sign I had missed, perhaps? With a gentle caution which rested on the knife-edge of excitement and fear, I executed a 7 point turn. El Cedro would have to wait for my return.
The charm of this tiny island keeps presenting, right until now, the last hour of my visit here. From the car dropped at the curb outside, door unlocked and the key under the seat, as per my instruction; to the airport security guy who carefully opens and smells my illegally large bottle of sunscreen and waives me on; to Sonia, scuttling about and bartending in purple slippers.
Yes. I will return.
There is always more to discover. Every big, established idea has its lesser known Gomera ideas too. And they usually win a special kind of love, so delighted are we to have found an enchanting underworld for ourselves alone.