At play with the masters on an island paradise

Fiftysomething

Fri, Apr 19, 2013, 07:00

I’ve been sleeping with the enemy. Well, I haven’t actually; I’ve been rolling out my rattan mat and lying down on volcanic sand next to great swathes of the German population: our economic superiors, our benefactors, our industrious, flaxen masters.

The long and short of it is that I have close friends who have a home on a tiny Canarian island accessible only by boat or ferry from Tenerife. It is an island that happens to be wildly popular with stolid, vacationing Germans. Thanks to my friends’ unstinting generosity, a couple of cut-price, bone-rattlingly early flights from a bugle-belting airline, and three small backpacks, my sons and I escaped the recent Siberian chill and spent a week there. And believe me, I know my luck.

La Gomera is an island mercifully short on high-rise developments and discotheques; it is an island on which you would never, ever need a pair of high heels. It is an island of banana trees and avocado bushes, of rock and shale. It is a place where mangos grow and lizards skitter, where brooding mountains pierce the clouds and where the night sky could have birthed the cliche inky-black.

There are not too many cars in the valley on our side of the island, just steadfast footwear for the long walks through the foothills. Consumerism, which is hardly a feature of the place at all, is muffled by the knowledge that anything you buy will have to be carried up hundreds of steps to your own front door; if you don’t really need it, you certainly don’t put it in your backpack.

There’s one ambulance in the valley, in which the paramedics doze, waiting for the Medusa jellyfish to drift ashore. And, next to the bus station, one of the first gay couples to marry in Spain have a pretty little cafe where old men gather every day for protracted, nail-bitingly tense games of dominoes.

In the evening, the bloated sun sets over the big riotous ocean. The hippies in Rasta hats and ankle chains thread their beads and hawk their wares on the tiny square, while their sun-bleached, wide-eyed children chew on their gaunt young mothers’ leather amulets.

You can watch it all from the wall that runs along the dusty promenade, drinking a gin from the low-slung bar across the road that doesn’t use a measure. Before the rays extinguish, it’s time to climb home, eat, sleep.

For the first couple of days, I felt like the jowled cockerel that struts around in the pen opposite the ATM. Busy. Busy doing nothing. Busy scratching around making noise, rattling my dewlaps, unable to let go of the urgency and distraction I seem to carry around Dublin like an ugly handbag. It takes time to stop.

Eventually I quit walking around in circles searching for my hat and began to watch the other holidaymakers. The Germans.

The Germans seemingly come to La Gomera imbued with purpose; they have guidebooks and hiking boots and cushion-soled socks. They have telescopic walking sticks and water flasks.

They have routes to follow and flowers to catalogue and salt-baked potatoes to eat and strong necks to keep out of the sun.

But La Gomera is unpredictable, elemental. The mountain shrugs and trails dissolve, rocks catapult, mist descends; sometimes fire spits like a dragon, and the landscape blackens.

There is something about the setting that insists you recognise that we are merely squatters on earth’s surface, pale ants to be brushed aside.

The German guidebooks are sometimes more aspirational than accurate, and this does not rest easy with the visitors. You can spot them staring at a newly ripped ravine in confusion. After all, in the book, this is supposed to be a forest clearing; nature clearly did not study her script.

Eventually they submit, and come to the black beach to lie down.

I like sleeping next to Germans. They stake out their territories efficiently, brisk towels on hot sand, backs to the Saharan wind. Their chat is minimal; they settle quickly.

They are decisive bathers: no fluthering around the edges baptising themselves with handfuls of sea water; they just plunge right in. The larger ones float. They don’t carry transistors or plastic bags full of egg sandwiches; their infants seldom roar, they don’t squabble or peel or litter.

Okay, occasionally some gritty chap with a goatee, and probably a degree in economics and a wardrobe full of polished loafers back in Bonn, produces a guitar and softly renders some Simon and Garfunkel. Disconcerting, certainly, but hardly antisocial.

They are the masters at play, prone under the volatile mountain, as susceptible as the rest of us to nature’s whims.