Chirche is a tiny village, about five or ten minutes directly vertical from Guia de Isora in the South of Tenerife. I’ve only ever been here for this, particular festival, El Día de las Tradiciónes (The Day of Traditions), so I don’t know what it’s like on an average, working day. I must rectify that soon, but I imagine it’s quiet. It clings for dear life to the hillside, and these twisting, narrow streets were never made for motor cars. The last time I came, my car overheated (OK, it’s not the most modern car in the world, but it is sturdy and reliable usually).
Happily, for Sunday’s fiesta the local town hall had provided transport so neither the overheating nor parking were problems. A mini bus did the circuit from, what we would probably call the county seat, Guia de Isora, below up to the village, and we were there in time for the first trip before it got too hot. A vast improvement on my last visit, what with the overheated car and no space to park it!
This year’s festival had to battle for attention not only with the World Cup Final, but also 46º heat ….. and it came out a winner, although it seemed to be a bit less well-attended than the last time I went. This was the tenth year that the village had turned out to produce what is something like a living museum or even a theatrical production which one can walk through. The entire village goes about its business as it would have done somewhere between 100 and 50 years ago.
Here candles are being made the old way, from beeswax. The finished product on the right, and those in progress on the left of the picture. The hot wax is spooned over the thread time and time again, each layer is cooled and then doused again, until the required thickness is reached. Can you imagine the time it takes? Can you imagine spending days and days doing this, just so that you can have light after sundown?
Although Guanche artifacts have been found in Chirche, this festival portrays life as it was around a hundred to fifty years ago. It really isn’t that long. It was my grandparents, my parents time, and even my own infancy. The scales in the recreation of the local “corner shop”, the flyspray cannister lying atop a wardrobe, some of the products on display in the shop reminded me of my own childhood, so even then, things were somewhat “globally available”. Since I was brought up in a fairly countryfied area, and my crumbling home had once been a farmhouse, it was easy to identify with much of what I saw around me. It felt as much like going back in time as witnessing the past of this island.
Life wasn’t that easy for my family when I was little, and yet we did buy our flour from the corner shop, we didn’t have to produce it ourselves. The lady in the picture above is toasting seeds to make gofio, which was a huge part of the staple diet of Tenerife, and remains popular. Cereals would have grown on the hillsides surrounding the village, and be brought home for toasting, but apparently sometimes the rhizomes of ferns were also used in the distant past. The tradition probably was brought to the islands by the Guanches who, it is now widely thought, came from North African Berber tribes, who also made a similar kind of meal.
This lady is carrying out the next step, grinding the toasted seeds by hand. A heavy grindstone is pulled around and around, as you can see, until the seeds become flourlike. This is how it was done in this, small village. In other areas huge grindstones were pulled by donkeys, horses and even camels. Gofio can still be bought in the island’s supermarkets, and to be honest it’s an acquired taste. Austin has learned to mix it with honey and almonds to make a delicious dessert, and it is used to thicken soups and stews, and to make a really healthy porridge-style breakfast – very high in fibre, people!
Walking around the village, despite the intense heat, was a treat. Two things struck me hard. The first was how the whole village seems to join in wholeheartedly. Every age group takes part, from grannies (and how they manage daily life on a sheer hillside I will never understand! Seems to me, given a diet of gofio and that kind of exercise each day, they must be incredibly healthy!) to babes in arms.
Above is the old schoolroom, complete with blackboard and children who don’t seem to mind being dressed in costume! I didn’t see one sulky face all morning – not even from the class’s naughty boy, whom you can spot kneeling in the corner. I’m sorry about the quality of this photo. The schoolroom was dark, I’m thinking probably even in the fifties there was no electricity, plus the old houses were designed to keep as cool as possible in summer, which usually meant having only small windows, and thick, thick walls, which kept out the summer swelter and kept in the warmth in winter. Also, there were so many people vying for space to observe or snap, and I was too polite to hog the vantage point I had …….. another lesson learned – must be bolder! There were children helping the maypole dancers, playing games in the street or helping with chores, just as they would have been doing a hundred years ago, and every one of them with a smile on their face.
It goes without saying that a hundred or even fifty years ago, there were no video games, no television, no fast food, so children had to make their own amusements. Below is a selection of the types of homemade instruments which they used to make.
Maybe there is some special karma attached to living in this village, because I rarely remember a time when I’ve met so many friendly people. People who would stop in the hot sun and wait whilst you fiddle with your camera so you can snap them.
People who are quite at ease being photographed showing off their pride in their traditions….not all instruments were homemade!
People who are willing to attire themselves in heavy, traditional clothing in a 46º heat (might even have got hotter after we left!), so that they can keep this link with their past, and show it off to others.
This lady was crocheting what looked as if it was going to be a small doily, and surrounding her are displayed other examples of lace and crotchet work – most looking newly made, and proving that old crafts are not nearly dead here! The really nice thing is that it looks as if future generations are happy to go on keeping these traditions alive. It’s something I’ve noticed often in the folk music and dance groups which I see regularly on tv – no way are these groups composed just of the old folk. The folklore of Tenerife seems to be in good and safe hands for quite a while yet.
Now this is a tradition many people will be happy no longer is widely used. This gentleman is preparing a goatskin for use in making gofio or cheese. The ingredients for either were placed inside to be molded and strained. Goat is still widely eaten here, and is a treat. I’ve never had it badly cooked. The use of the skins? Well, there was nothing else, back when, and as with other meat products, there wasn’t much waste. They were different times.
There were demonstrations of bread making in big, old ovens, agriculture as it was (and still, sometimes is) here, the making of roof tiles, which had been the village’s only industry outside of agriculture, and a host of other stuff, and highlight of the day, a mock wedding, but we ran out time and couldn’t stay to watch. We had a glimpse of the wedding dress, laid out on the bridal bed in a restored house, but no time to see the bride, sadly. As I mentioned before, we did pop into the pretty church for a few moments, and then we had to be on our way.
We just missed the mini bus, and took refuge from the sun in a nearby bar, which was built directly into the rock face, providing welcome coolness. I have to mention it was the only kind of disappointment of the morning. We paid around €15 each for a very average gazpacho, stone cold garlic bread, croquetas (one ration of chicken and one of tuna, which were indistinguishable), a couple of very cold, very welcome beers and best – a plate of papas arrugadas (wrinkled potatoes), the island’s speciality, all of which came with indifference or a shy smile, depending on who served us. It was a bad choice of venue, but nicely decorated, as you can see above, and reminiscent of the coastal resorts, where that kind of service is the norm. It’s a great shame that tourists don’t get out more to meet the “real” people of Tenerife, these people who are so kind and happy and gracious. I’ve never been to a fiesta of any kind where I wasn’t made to feel enormously welcome, and Chirche would be top of a list like that. In some ways I don’t blame the kids who work as waiters or shop assistants down in resortland. Firstly, they aren’t given the proper training in most cases, so they don’t know how to respond to people, and secondly, I couldn’t put up with the sort of attitudes and backchat they get from a lot of their customers. Frequently, once you have made a contact, their demeanour does change. Yes, I do realize that the onus is on the supplier of whatever service you are buying to provide that service with a smile, but scratch just a bit and you might find that the nice young waiter comes from Chirche, or somewhere similar.
When I move on from Tenerife, and return for a visit, one thing I intend to do is to stay in the casa rural (rural hotel) here, in the middle of Chirche, and embrace the relaxed and happy lifestyle of its people.
One thing this day taught me. I’ve always enjoyed snapping, and never really been too interested in video, but watching the maypole dancing for quite a while I would have loved to have videoed it. Stupidly, because of my lack of interest I’ve never bothered to figure out how to work the video selection on my camera – job for this weekend! Next year I won’t clash to the World Cup at least!