Thursday, October 16, 2014

Captivated by La Gomera

There could hardly have been a better place on the planet to contemplate an uncertain future than the beautiful island of La Gomera in the Canaries, which has a population of about 24,000.

Full of fear after taking a voluntary redundancy, it just seemed like the perfect place to relax and appreciate the simple things in life after a few months of anxiety and uncertainty.

As soon as I took the ferry away from the high rise buildings and package tourists in the south of Tenerife, I knew I was in the right place last week.

At my pension, owned by an old school-friend, the only other residents were a Norwegian-Canadian couple and their two young sons. 

They welcomed me instantly with a cold beer and tales of their travels, including how they met in Guatamala many moons ago.

For Canadian Mike, trips to La Gomera seem to keep him sane through the long winter months in Norway.

Afterwards I ventured into town, where a rock or metal band was blasting out the tunes as part of a fiesta. They gave me a rather unusual introduction to night life in the capital, San Sebastian.

There might have been 300 people rocking in a huge marquee when I arrived that Sunday night, but for the rest of my eight day visit the place was a haven of tranquillity – too tranquil at times.

But, on my first full day on the island, I got a great introduction to La Gomera’s unconventional lifestyles. Mike and Eva had hired a car and welcomed me to join them on a one hour trip down the coast to Santiago.

There, Mike was keen to show me and his young sons the caves where he had spent many a winter’s night.

Deserted, gorgeous, peaceful, it was easy to see why people down here on Playa Del Medio were so keen to leave conventional lives, and the rat-race, behind.

Some of them have spent months, or even years, living in the caves.

Calle Real, the main street in the capital, San Sebastian

We met a 79-year old Swedish man, who has wintered for years in the caves and spends an hour on his head, doing yoga, at dusk every evening. He was the picture of good health. The adjoining beach was gorgeous and virtually deserted on a Monday afternoon.

There I met my old Galway pal, Ully, who may not be rich in the material sense but is bringing up his six year old daughter in an island paradise.

Weekends are spent exploring natural pools and picking wild fruit, rather than in the aqua parks and fast food joints on offer on the bigger island.

A week later, he brought me on a trek to a deserted village – abandoned in the early 1950s – where it felt almost subversive to have such wondrous scenery to ourselves.

My anxiety over leaving work may not have evaporated, but it was refreshing to meet artists, farmers, and roamers who had found paradise in this corner of a small, volcanic island.

I spent eight nights in Ully’s fantastic place in the sleepy capital, San Sebastian, and explored the island by day – either via hired cars or the island’s infrequent, if reliable, buses.

In Valle Gran Rey, I was captivated by a German girl who spent hours absorbed in a ‘hula hoop’ at Playa Del Ingles. Around her, relaxed tourists plunged into a savage sea. Just 15 minutes down the coast, I enjoyed a one hour snorkel under a cliff-face next to the port.

“Anything is possible, if you work and have hope,” said the sign (in Spanish) outside a local restaurant, as an old man sitting in the square marvelled at my ability to speak both Spanish and English.

I ate some gorgeous local dishes, including goat’s cheese smothered in an orange sauce, and got used to the gentle pace of life.

If there was little point in sampling the deserted bars in the capital at night, it was lovely to meditate on the flat roof at the house under the stars.

On the day I climbed to the top of the island, the views were spectacular. We could see Teide, the volcano towering over Tenerife, as though it was just metres away. A day later the same rocks were covered in a thick, misty cloud.

My redundancy has brought up some doubt and uncertainty, but in La Gomera I met happy people who did not seem to take life too seriously from day to day.

How many of us worry too much about things like careers, when there are far more important things in life?

We enjoyed an outdoor barbecue in the valley, where people from a variety of countries told me how they had come to live on La Gomera.

As a person who has spent many winter weeks in South East Asia and Central America, it was mind-blowing that this peaceful oasis was just a three hour flight and one hour ferry ride away.

I read, I swam in the warm sea, and I enjoyed chats with friends, both old and new. I visited deserted villages and drove through spectacular scenery.

On Sunday, we met up in the deserted village of Benchigijua, abandoned when the entire population moved to Venezuela in the 1950s.

It was both eerie and refreshing, plus a little sad that there was nobody around to share the spectacular scenery with us.

The time eventually came to return to Tenerife, with its English breakfasts and dive centres that actually open for business; but as the boat pulled out of the harbour at San Sebastian, I knew I’d be back on La Gomera someday.

It’s that kind of place. It just seems to attract people back, year after year, for the sheer peace and tranquillity of leaving it all behind – even if only for a short period of time.

It may be just 45 minutes from the mayhem of Los Cristianos, but it felt like another world.

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