Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Leaving the Sands Behind

Map picture

Today the Silver Explorer is at sea headed out into the Atlantic towards the Cape Verde Islands. It will take us two days to reach our destination--so finally, we now have a chance to catch our breath.

When I last wrote, Lisa and I were staying in a resort community that felt very much like Disney World on Tenerife; it was surreal. All the while, I was positive that I had previously been to Tenerife; however, there was not a single thing I saw that was familiar. When we left the hotel for the ship, it all became clear. Our drive to the ship was almost one hour, and in that time, we entered the “real” Tenerife which I remembered. The “locals” live in a beautiful Spanish City, which is where the port is located. I recalled from our previous visit that all the restaurants opened at 9pm, and served local food which for us was a problem. I recall being told that if I went an hour down the coast, there was a city that operated as an international community, and that it would remind me of being at home. As it turns out, that description was absolutely correct. I must admit I do feel better having found the Tenerife of my memory – at least that part of my memory still works.

When we saw the Explorer at the dock, it felt as if we were coming home. Our welcome was warm and effusive by everyone. I had so many hugs, I was almost sore. There were a few new faces, but for the most part, it was the same crew that we had grown familiar with on our last trip – ah, we were back home--in a sense.

During our first evening, the ship moved to the nearby Island of La Gomera, another of the Canary Islands, and which is home to around 23,000 people. The island is round and rises on all sides towards the central peak of Garajonay. The Island is some 14 miles in diameter and in the center rises to nearly 5,000 ft. When we were awakened upon our arrival it was still dark, but the sky was just starting to turn pink. As I looked out our window, I was amazed to see the volcano on the nearby Island of Tenerife filling the Northeastern sky. It literally dominated the horizon even at some 45 miles distance, but then again the volcano is the third largest in Europe.

The main attraction of La Gomera is the upper reaches of its steep slopes. The mountain peaks are almost permanently shrouded in clouds and mist, and as a result are home to lush and diverse vegetation. The views are stunning and this special environment is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is a protected by Spain as the Garajonay National Park. Having said all this, when we arrived, there was not a cloud in the sky – which at first you might think is a good thing for sightseeing. However, it is but an indicator of the fact that the Island has not had a drop of rain in over 20 months, and the hillsides were not green, but a dried up landscape of brown plants and dust.

As we set out on our bus tour, I was amazed at the roads. The island literally has no flat land, and so all roads are full of curves and they weave around the steep sides of the mountainous terrain. I am going to guess that in order to travel a mile in a straight line; we probably travelled three miles or more of winding road. The roads were new and well-constructed, however. Occasionally we would catch a glimpse of the old road, and it is difficult to believe that anyone would risk their life on the narrow little lanes that hung precariously to the mountain side.

Our guide had come to La Gomera almost 16 years ago, and she started to tell about how in the old days travel was so difficult that people on one side of the Island rarely ventured to the other side. Villages were mostly isolated, and that sometimes on the old road, it would take people over two hours to find a place where opposing traffic could pass one another. Also there were few visitors in the past except groups of what they called “hippies” who arrived and set up encampments. It was rather an embarrassment to the locals, but all of that changed starting about 14 years ago when Spain joined the European Union. Joining the EU meant that new roads were constructed, and people got their pensions, so that the “encampments” became respectful little communities. Further, joining the EU meant that a daily ferry service was established with Tenerife and now the island has two resorts for tourists, and of course they now have free healthcare.

The guide was inadvertently describing in a nutshell one of the problems with the EU, and in so doing, also describing in part, how Spain descended into an economic morass. Let me explain--I can only imagine just how much it cost to build the modern road system in this small island of 23,000 people; it must have been a fortune, and certainly the local inhabitants could not in any way have provided this benefit for themselves, much less could they have paid for the new pensions and the free healthcare. No, that money had to come from somewhere else, and that “somewhere else” is the other members of the EU. Once hooked on this system, Spain, as so many other member countries went on a spending spree, until they are not only broke, but the more “well to do” EU members are starting to ask why they should be paying for the residents of La Gomera to enjoy such a bag of “Goodies?”

On a final note, La Gomera has two other distinctions of note. First, the old islanders developed a form of communication which would travel long distances among the mountainous terrain. It is called Silbo Gomero, and involves a whistled speech which is indigenous to this island. It has been documented as far back as Roman Times. The language was threatened by extinction in the 21st Century until the local government stepped in and required all children to learn it in school. The second distinction for La Gomera is that the island was the last port of call of Christopher Columbus before his crossing of the Atlantic in 1492.

After spending the morning among the mountains of La Gomera, our ship set off in a southerly direction towards the Western tip of Africa and the sandy shores of Western Sahara. The area known as Western Sahara is an Area of Special Status in Morocco. It is a sparsely populated desert territory whose status as a part of Morocco is not internationally recognized. Even today there is sporadic fighting between Algeria and Morocco, and the UN continues to attempt to resolve the conflict. Our ship docked at the capital of the area, Dakhla, and from there, we traveled in a convoy of almost thirty 4-Wheel Drive SUV’s out into the desert – or to be more precise, everything in sight was desert, we simply drove into the wilderness of all that sand.

I had never really been into the desert before, and this was a unique experience. The locals were Berber, and our local tour director had seen to it that several tents were erected in the desert for our visit. The first and largest tent would seat our entire caravan, and once seated we each washed our hands in the traditional manner. We were then greeted with the ceremonial welcome of the “tea ceremony.” It was incredibly hot out in the desert under the cloudless sky, but to my surprise once under the tent, it was very pleasant, that is until the winds picked up! Several members of the Sahraouian tribe preformed for us while the tea ceremony took place; afterwards, there were camels available for those who wished to go for a ride, or you could visit several nearby tents that had been erected to show how the people live in the desert.

To reach our camp, we had driven over 90 minutes outside of town, and we had several hours to explore the region. I for one was looking forward to a bird watching ride out to a herd of flamingos when suddenly the winds started to pick up. The next thing I knew I would guess that we had winds of 30 to 40 mph, and very quickly everything on us was covered in a very fine patina of small sand particles. In those conditions, our cameras were quickly becoming covered, and we both stopped using them for fear of getting the sand into the mechanism. Given this situation, Lisa and I decided to forgo the bird watching expedition and to head back to the ship. So off we headed on another hour and a half long drive back to the port.

How glad I am that I got to see that part of Saharan Africa, but surviving there would be difficult.

So, we will enjoy two days at sea before reaching the Cape Verde Islands. I hope everyone is well.


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