Lorenzo & his humble friends

The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool

Tag: canary islands

Stories that move me around

Last week I gave a short and simple presentation for Atlas on the topic Why do we travel? A talk about the kind of stories that inspire us to continue exploring our environments and its remote cultures. The talk is part of a new series of events that we decided to call Science of Travel.

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I started by asking the question of Doug Lansky: why did travelling go from this to this? One answer to this question is that travelling has got a lot easier: not only in the sense that there are more planes and means of transportation available to all; but also in the sense that the experience itself has changed. The spread of global brands like tripadvisor, hostelbookers, hostelsworld, mcdonalds, marriot’s has transformed tourism into a much more accessible, impersonal, standardized experience. Nowadays we can find the very same venues in all the main tourst locations around the world and when we use them we know exactly what to expect from our journey. This, of course, makes the life of travellers much easier.

At the same time, easy tourism defies the original purpose of travelling. Travelling was always a way of loosing ourself, to be disoriented, so that we can understand ourselves better. In fact, travel was always a spiritual experience. It is not by chance that some kind of voyage figures prominently in all the main monoteistic religions: Moses travels to Mount Sinai too get the ten commandments, Jesus travels across the desert to find himselfm, Mohammed’s first encounter with God is in Cave Hira, and even buddah becomes the Buddah when travelling in the wilderness. Religions show us the transformative aspect of travel. When we are disoriented, our thoughts are amplified and we establish a more unique connection with what is around us. So now it should be clearer why travelling with technology and relying on mass tourist destinations and global brands… is not really travelling at all. As Chelsea writes in her 1 year without a cell phone, ‘I didn’t want to have Google Maps at my disposal, pull up answers in the palm of my hand, or browse through the Top 10 Places to See on a screen. I wanted to touch the shoulder of a stranger and ask for help, get local advice, hear stories firsthand. I didn’t want a search bar telling me where to eat‘. By contrast, the millions of people who travel this way are more like consumers walking into supermarkets than travellers experiencing surprising destinations.

How can we have a more authentic travel experience, then? Relying less on technology and going for something hard is a good starting point; but it is not only about being more connected to nature than to the internet, though. It is also about doing something hard, as opposed to something easy. Many people nowadays walk the Camino de Santiago looking for something that is not predictable, and not standard. Hardness gets us moving – and it brought us to the moon: it was JFK who famously said ‘we decided to go to the moon not because it was easy, but because it was hard‘. Tough obstacles make for nice stories.

This is why, when I set off for a trip, I go with the objective of writing one short story about one person I will meet. It is not much about the act of writing: it is more about changing my mindset and actively looking for encounters. This is how I learnt to pay more attention. But then, of course, each of us has a different way of looking for and telling their own stories. In Gran Canaria I met a variety of creative persons. Marco, for instance, does it by playing music: his Kamelen Goni is a means of fostering encounters and transmitting his feelings. Abel uses the light to write stories through the photos of his camera. Silvia paints. I write. At the end of the day we all travel for a story.

Scattered notes from Gran Canaria

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?