Scattered notes from Gran Canaria
by Lorenzo Piccoli
I landed in Las Palmas on August 5th. The first impression was bad: horrible architecture and horrible tourists everywhere. It felt like a place where I did not really want to be. After a few days I realized that of all my trips, this is definitely the most alienating city where I have ever stayed.
And yet, even Las Palmas has its charm. It makes some sense, now that I think of it: after all, I came here to volunteer with Atlas, a local association that is trying too make Gran Canaria a better place. My accommodation was in its headquarters, if we may call it so: Atlas Las Palmas, a hostel is situated in one of the most degraded neighbourhoods of the city and one of the only ones that are not affected by tourism: La Isleta. Only a few hundred meters away, Las Canteras is the biggest urban beach in Europe. It is packed with elderly people and young couples: not exactly the kind of place I fancy.
My memories of the first days are related to the community life in the hostel, the concert organized by the association there, the surfing sessions early in the morning, and the tons of digital nomads, that is to say those young fellows who only need a laptop and an internet connection to work: they come here in huge numbers and live in Las Palmas for six months or a year. Thinking back of it now, I realize in those first days I was still trying to get acquainted with this bizarre reality and finding a role for myself.
I spent most of my second week in Artenara, Spain’s second highest village at 1200 m on the level of the ocean. Here the association owns El Warung Cave Hostel: I was in charge of keeping it running. I arrived to Artenara at about las 2 de la tarde: in an almost unbearable heat, some workers were slowly setting up a stage in the town’s main and only square, while the speakers were playing traditional Spanish music. The village was about to take its usual afternoon break. I would soon be forced to do the same: after lunch the temperature reaches 48º. Artenara is a surprising place: “El espectáculo es imponente. Todas aquellas negras murallas de la gran caldera, con sus crestas, que parecen almenas, con sus roques enhiestos, ofrecen el aspecto de una visión dantesca. No otra cosa pueden ser las calderas del Infierno que visitó el florentino. Es una tremenda conmoción de las entrañas de la tierra; parece todo una tempestad petrificada, pero una tempestad de fuego, de lava, más que de agua”. This is a writing of Miguel de Unamuno, poet, writer, novelist and academic who served as rector of the University of Salamanca -where I shortly studied Spanish in 2010- before being removed by the dictator General Miguel Primo de Rivera and sent in exile to the Canary Islands – it was 1924. Just like he did when staying here, I went for long hikes, I enjoyed the surreal silence, I observed the changing colours of the sun on the rocks, I ate in all the local restaurants (three of them), and I spent much time reading and meditating with Sombras, the hostel’s cat. But mostly I tried to make sense of the geography around my cave, tracing Roque Nublo, Roque Bentayga, Cruz de Tejeda, Cuevas del Rey, Mesa del Junquillo, Acusa Verde, Acusa Seca, Montaña de Altavista, Tamadaba.
Back to Las Palmas on my third week I finally spotted some intimate aspects of the city. Las Canteras by night is populated by Arab women dressed with their veil. One of the most iconic pictures of this trip, not an actual picture but a shot I captured with my mind, is that of two foreign tourists walking next to two Arab women. The former are fat, their shirts barely cover their stomach, their walk is heavy and uncertain; the latter are shining in their coloured veils, elegant, slim, their walk is proud and certain. When I participated into some neighbourhood council meetings of La Isleta I discovered that here, just like in Italy, it is only elderly people attending these forums. Youngsters like me communicate on the internet or on their phones, but do not take part into this face-to-face decisions. Yet another example of how the modern world – capitalism and technology – are making our lives more lonely, while also eroding political participation.
My disappointment for politics was tempered by a genuine excitement for arts: many of the travellers staying at Atlas are artists who produce music or paint. Marco has a beautiful attitude and he plays in Vegueta, the city’s old neighbourhood, interacting with all those who pass by. His instrument comes from Mali, where he has lived for a few years. In October he will go to San Francisco and his plan is to buy a bus and drive all the way down to Brazil – while stopping to play music with the other people who want to join him on the bus. He is one of the persons who inspired me the most; with him, and just for my records, I would also like to remember Rodrigo, Antonio, Laia, Cruz, Silvia, Chelsea, Kristina, Susi, Thomas, Chris, Asier, Matias, Claudia, Giulia, Alessandra, Anderson, Amalia, Luca, Olivia, Dimitri, Jose, Mattia, Josito, Clara, Rey, Narandian. There is one person in particular whom I will remember, though: Manolo, who started and runs Atlas in an effort to produce a living example of economy for the common good. Right, the association: what was I doing there? My main task was that of creating a document incorporating the values and the projects to explain it to all the people who, just like you, might be curious about it. You will find the result of my work in this other post.
I left Las Palmas a few days ago, only now that my local vocabulary was starting to grow bigger and larger. For instance: (1) panza del burro is the veil of clouds that constantly covers Las Palmas and produces a spectacular view when seen from above. Every time I would drive to Artenara I would cross it right in between and then enjoy the spectacle of the cloudy ocean right beneath me; (2) azotea is the rooftop terrace of each house, a place for socializing and getting together; (3) vento alisio is the wind blowing from Morocco and Western Sahara to the islands and producing humidity and blurred colours (4) Guagua is the name of the local buses – sweet, isn’t it? (5) papas con mojo is the special -and only?-dish of the island; (6) Artenara, Ierai, Dara, Tamadaba, Arucas, Firgas, Tejeda: all of these are names in the aboriginal language, that is the language spoken by the inhabitants of the island prior to the invasion of the Spanish colonizers in 1402. Last but not least, I learnt a new word in English, a term I could have used countless of times: pearling. This is an ancient and dangerous technique that involves pearl hunters jumping out of a ship and diving nearly 100 feet in a single breath. Nowadays, when surfers are wiped out by a wave, it looks like they are diving into the the ocean looking for pearls. So we call it pearling. But in my case you can also call it a wipeout or a nosedive.
I will, at some point, return to Gran Canaria and learn more. Would you like to come there too?