I lay back in the warm ocean and floated, looking up at a cloudless gold-blue sky.
This was perfection. Two days earlier, fleeing a cold Spanish winter, I had, impulsively, loaded my VW camper aboard an enormous ferryboat and plunged southward through Atlantic storms to the Canary Islands, those remote volcanic blips off the Sahara coast of Africa.
To be sure, my impetuous escape seemed a little bit crazy. I had little in the way of cash-just about enough to return the 700 or so ocean miles to mainland Spain. I knew no one in Gran Canaria, where I had alighted, and had no place to stay except for my faithful camper. I didn’t know how long I planned to stay or where to go next.
And yet, the island spoke to me. Gently but firmly. “Stay,” it said. “Just stay and see what happens.” For a person who loves to be on the move, it seemed an odd proposition. But the voice inside sounded so certain, so totally clear. “Stay. Stay and let things happen.”
And so that’s what I did. And once I allowed myself to let go, things literally arranged themselves and I stood around watching like a delighted spectator as my life on Gran Canaria was fashioned gently before my eyes.
Although the Canary Islands were referred to briefly by Pliny the Elder as the Fortunate Isles, little was known about these remote volcanic outposts until the arrival of explorer Jean de Bethencourt in 1402, who came with plans to establish colonies for the Spanish crown. The Guanches, the islands’ only inhabitants, were rousted out of their cave-dwelling languor and eliminated long before Columbus’s brief but famous stopover here on the way to the New World.
Gran Canaria and Tenerife experienced the first great surges of tourist-resort development in the 1960s. Little Lanzarote followed later and now boasts a handful of beach resorts below its moonscape hinterland of volcanoes, lava fields and “black deserts” of sand and ash.
More remote and undiscovered are the tiny islets of Gomera and Hierro, where dense rain forests and terraced mountains mingle with high sheep pastures, towering volcanoes and hidden lava-sand beaches. Nobody could tell me much about them or the other outer islands of La Palma and Fuerteventura. I planned to visit them all once I had gained my shore legs after a few days in Las Palmas, the capital of Gran Canaria.
But things didn’t quite work out that way.
As I drove out of Las Palmas, the map of the island open but ignored on the passenger seat, I let my camper take the narrow island roads at whim. It seemed to know where it was going as we climbed high up the slopes of the largest volcano, Valcequello.
I stopped in a pretty mountain village for tapas in a tiny blue-painted bar with a vine-shaded patio overlooking the whole island. Here? I wondered. But I kept on moving.
I drove past more villages with lovely little churches and tiny plazas enclosed by neat white-and-lemon stucco buildings, past banana plantations on terraced hillsides, past vast fields of tomatoes and small vineyards. Huge sprays of bougainvillea burst from roadside hedges. The scent of wild herbs rose from the tiny fields sloping down to the ocean.
A tiny cottage appeared with a stone roof in a cleft between two rocks. It had everything: vines, bananas, a small cornfield, two donkeys, blue shutters, and a view over cliffs and black volcanic soil beaches and ceaseless lines of surfing ocean.
Here? I wondered. But still I kept moving.
At dusk, I parked on a patch of grass below the volcanoes. I had some bread, cheese and sausage, and a glass of brandy, and settled down to sleep feeling utterly at peace. Someone else was orchestrating this trip and that was just fine.
Early the next morning as I sat on a rock watching the sun come up, I looked down and saw something I’d not noticed the night before: a tiny white village huddled on top of a rocky promontory that jutted like an ocean liner straight out into the Atlantic. It was different from anything else I’d seen on the island. Most of the villages were straggly affairs, scattered over hillsides like blown confetti. But this place looked light and strong and enduring on 100-foot cliffs. A long flight of steps climbed up to it from a track.
There was no road through the village, just a sinewy path with cubist houses packed together on either side and ending in an area of level rock at the end of the promontory. I could see laundry blowing in the morning breezes; the hillsides below rose steeply from the rocky beach and were smothered in banana trees. It looked completely cut off from the rest of the island. A true haven. Mine!
Somehow the camper groped its way down from the volcano, bouncing and wriggling on cart tracks cut through the brush. I saw no one as we descended.
Close up, the village looked even more dramatic. Scores of white-painted steps rose up the rock to the houses that peered down from their cliff-edge niches. Children were playing in the dust at the base of the steps. They stopped and slowly approached, smiling shyly. A rough hand-painted sign nailed to a tree read “El Roque.”
“Hola!” The children grinned.“Sí, sí, hola. ¡Hola!”
One of the larger boys came over and shook my hand. And he wouldn’t let go. He tugged and pointed to the steps.
“Mi casa-my house. You come.”
It was an invitation and I accepted.
We all climbed together. The smaller children straggled in a line behind me; I felt like the Pied Piper and even my wheezing at the end of the 130-step climb had a pipe-ish sound to it.
I’ve never seen a place quite like El Roque before or since. The lime-white cottages clustered tight in medieval fashion on either side of a six-foot-wide stone path that twisted and roller-coasted up and down, following the idiosyncrasies of the promontory’s rocky top. I passed a couple of shops the size of broom closets that doubled as rum bars for the men. Crusty bronzed faces peered out curiously from shadowy doorways. Old women, shrouded in black, scurried by.
About halfway down the wriggling street we paused outside of the larger houses facing a ten-foot-high carved wood door decorated with etched brass medallions. The older boy, obviously one of the leaders of my pack of frisky followers, pushed at the door and a panel squeaked open. The rest of the door remained solidly in place.
We entered a dark lobby with bare blue walls and a richly tiled floor. The boy took my hand and gestured to his followers to stay back at the main door. We moved deeper into the house where it was even darker. Then he opened a smaller door and the sunshine rushed in, blinding me.
We were in the living room, simply decorated with small tapestries, a broad oak table on bulbous legs, topped with two fat brass candlesticks encased in wax drippings. Eight dining chairs were placed around the table, their backs and sides carved in high baroque style with vine leaves and grape bunches. Straight ahead were three large windows looking out over a bay of black sand edged by banana plantations and, beyond that, the great cone of Valcequello. The room was filled with light. The windows were open and I could hear birds-canaries, I thought, by their flighty chattering, and mourning doves issuing soft cooing sounds.
The boy’s name was Julio. He called out and I could hear someone coming, the swish of sandals on tiles. I was still mesmerized by the view until a figure stepped in front of me and gave a slight curtsy. She was utterly beautiful. “My sister,” said Julio in slow English. “She is named María.”
The door opened and the room suddenly became much smaller. A great bear of a man entered, hands as big as frying pans and fingers like thick bananas. A bushy mustache covered most of his mouth and curved down, walrus-like, at either side. His hair was as black and bushy as his mustache. A long scar reaching from forehead to jawbone gave him a dangerous look but his eyes were the gentlest blue, shining, exuding welcome without words.
Julio stood up, rake-straight, María gave one of her curtsies and vanished again and I rose to meet the man. “Papá, this is Señor David.”
Tomás Feraldes could speak no English but during the next half hour or so I had one of the richest conversations I have ever had with a stranger. His words rumbled from deep in his chest, like boulders tumbling down a ridge. His son acted as interpreter and we talked in baby-language of everything-the village, the banana plantation upon which all the villagers depended for their livelihood, the ocean, the wonderful variety of fish you could catch from the promontory cliffs, the history of Gran Canaria, and the great pride of the islanders in their little green paradise.
“We are of Spain but we are not of Spain,” he told me. “We are Canary people. This is our land. This is our country.”
The brandy flowed. Little dishes appeared-calamares in lemon and garlic, big fat fava beans that we squeezed to pop out the soft flesh, spicy mixes of tomatoes and garlic with chunks of lime-marinated fish, sardines, island cheese, and more brandy.
Then Julio turned to me.
“My father says you will stay here if you wish.”
“Here? Where? In this house?”
“No-in another place. My brother’s home. He is away in Madrid.”
“Where is this house?”
“It is very close. My father says you will come to see your house now. If you wish.”
I now knew I had no control over anything. I’d followed my inner voice and let things happen and they were happening so fast and so perfectly I had no wish to impede the flow.
We were outside again in the narrow street. The children were still there, and off we all went, Pied-Piper fashion again, wriggling between the houses. We walked right to the end of the promontory where we all stood on the edge of the cliffs, watching huge waves explode 50 feet in the air and feeling the vibrations through the rock.
Julio nudged me. “This is your house.” He was pointing to a small square building, the last house on the rock, white and blue, with a staircase leading up to a red door. On the flat roof I could see plants waving. There were windows everywhere overlooking the beach, the volcano, the broad Atlantic.
Grinning like an idiot again, I followed him up the stairs. He unlocked the door and we walked into one of the most beautiful rooms I have ever seen. Light filled every niche. On the left was a small propane stove, a sink, a big working table and four chairs with straw seats.
The living area was simply furnished-a few scattered rugs, armchairs, low table, lamps and empty shelves, hungry for books. I could see the bathroom tiled in blue Spanish tiles and then another staircase leading up and out onto the roof with views over everything-the whole village, ocean, mountains, bays….
It was a dream.
“You like your home?” Julio was watching my face.
“Julio, this is the best house I have ever seen.”
Moving in was splendid chaos. Every child in the village came to help me carry my belongings from the camper (it looked so tiny from the top of those 130 steps) to the house at the end of the village-clothes, sleeping bag, books, cameras, food, fishing rod, cushions, towels-and my guitar. When the children saw it, they went wild. Compared with the islandtimpales, this was a brute of an instrument, a battered Gibson with a rich deep tone. They were all shouting something at me. Indispensable Julio stepped in again.
“They say play, Señor David. Please.”
Oh, what the heck. “Skip, skip, skip to m’Lou…”
I’d used the same song before on one of my journeys and it had worked wonders. The chorus is simple, the melody obvious, and even if you can’t get the words straight you can hum and la-la all the way through it. Which is precisely what they did.
Twenty-three little voices sang lustily at the bottom of El Roque’s steps, bouncing around in the hot afternoon sun. High above, a crowd of villagers gathered by the wall at the top of the rock began clapping, and then the kids started clapping. Soon the whole bay rang to the sound of this crazy ditty that was utterly meaningless to them and perfect for this impromptu getting-to-know-you celebration on this, my first day in El Roque.
It was four months before I left Gran Canaria. I even managed to tempt my wife, Anne, to put aside her work for a while and join me in my island home.
The villagers were delighted. Once they realized I was married, all attempts had been abandoned to match me up with one of the many eligible females in El Roque (no, Julio’s sister, María, was already spoken for). And on the day Anne arrived I invited the whole village to the house for a celebration. I had no idea what a Pandora’s box I’d opened with this innocent little gesture.
I’d asked everyone to come over in the evening after their long workday in the banana plantation. Any time after six, I said. Anne and I had prepared some platters of bread and cheese and opened bottles of island wine and rum. Then at 6:30 precisely, there was a knock on the door. It was Julio (he’d long since appointed himself as my social secretary and general factotum).
“Please come. We are all welcoming your Mrs. David.”
Anne and I walked out on the platform at the top of our steps and looked down. Faces! Scores of laughing, smiling Canary faces staring up at us, clapping, singing. And everyone was carrying something-we could see cakes, pans of broiled fish, a sack of crabs, banana branches, straw baskets of tomatoes, bottles of wine, more cakes….
“Everyone who comes to the house must bring present,” Julio told us. “It is our custom.”
I have no idea how we got the whole village of El Roque into our tiny house, but we did. The kitchen, the living room, even the roof was jammed with villagers-many of them we’d never met. Anne and I were buoyed like froth ahead of the surge onto the roof, and we never made it back to the kitchen to serve the simple dishes we’d prepared. Someone carried up thetimpales and the guitar and off we went into a spree of folk songs that set the whole house bouncing long into the night.
What had been intended as a one-time “Welcome to Anne” occasion became a regular weekly event for the rest of our stay. Every Thursday evening there’d be a “folk-fest” gathering at the house that would leave our voices hoarse and our kitchen table bowed with food. The problem was not in feeding the multitudes but in actually getting rid of all the fish, sausages, tomatoes, bananas, cakes, and wine before the next session on the following Thursday.
The most difficult items were the bananas. They’d bring whole branches with as many as 150 firm green bananas hanging from them. We tried every way we could think of to use them-banana bread, banana cake, banana crepes, banana omelet, banana purée, banana soufflé, fried bananas, banana with garlic (interesting experiment there), and even fish with baked whole bananas. And we still ended up with huge surpluses.
Aside from the rent we insisted on giving Julio’s father each month, we were living a cash-free life. We were utterly happy in our village and had no real desire to go anywhere else on the island. I found great satisfaction in painting again, something I’d let slide, and Anne discovered a previously unknown gift for knitting enormous woolen shawls in bright colors.
Every couple of weeks we’d pack a box of these new creations, leap into the camper, and drive the 30 or so bumpy miles back into Las Palmas to sell our work to bored tourists with lots of money and very little to spend it on. Not that we needed the money. But it was rewarding to see people willing to pay real cash for our rooftop creations.
The residents of El Roque were a hard-working bunch. Up by five every morning, the men moved off quietly to tend the banana plantations on the surrounding hillsides while the women cleaned every part of their houses (even the outdoor steps and the pebbles on the main path through the village) before baking, washing, cooking, buying from the peddlers and fish vendors who passed through the village every day. No soap operas or siestas here. Just the solid, daily, dawn-to-dusk ritual that should have left everyone worn out, but in fact seemed to have just the opposite effect.
Our village had dignity, pride, and constant pep. If there were family problems, we never saw them. If there was malicious gossip and back-biting it must have been taking place well off the main path that we walked every day. If there was infidelity and illicit romance, it was done with such craft and guile as to be unnoticeable.
El Roque was a true home, and we became as close to the villagers as our natures could allow. We went fishing and crab hunting with the men (the latter at night with huge torches of reeds dipped in tar that drew the crabs from the rocks like magnets). We worked in the banana plantations, we picked mini-mountains of tomatoes, we painted portraits of the villagers and gave them as gifts, we learned how to prepare the romantic sauces for Canary Island fish dishes, and we even learned to love bananas in all their culinary variations.
In the end, the village brought us a peace and creative energy that we had never experienced before and have only rarely enjoyed since. El Roque is a touchstone for us both-and a place we have vowed to return to one day.