We meet at 8, as the day is on the cusp of fading, and we pile into Cristina’s car, and follow the winding road into the mountains which I’ve described before. It’s quiet, probably because a car rally took place here today and people may not know the road has reopened. We see the ugly litter left behind by rally workers or fans, stacked up in some places, disturbing what is normally an unspoiled drive.
We are headed for Vilaflor,Spain’s highest village at something just over 4,500 ft above sea level, and which deserves a whole other post some day. This weekend is the fiesta of La Papa Blanca, the white potato (as opposed to the famous black potatoes, which also deserve a post of their own). As we reach the outskirts of the town a couple of scarecrow-like apparitions grab our attention, one of which turns out to be a man made entirely out of potatoes calmly sitting on a wall, clearly this is a festival with a sense of humor.
We swing into the car park of the hotel adjacent to the festivities, and the pungent smell, of the evening’s first event, heavy with pine, fills the air, and we see smoke rising through the trees. This is a demonstration of the traditional way of making charcoal, practised in these parts almost since the Spanish conquest of the island. We wander over to the source of the aroma, what looks like a huge mound of earth, which is emitting smoke from various orifices. Apparently, in the morning this had been a huge bonfire of pine logs, about twice the size of what we see before us now. Once lit, a kind of wall is built around the bottom to contain it, and earth is heaped on top, with holes so that the fire is fed, but doesn’t burn bright. The object is to have it smoulder, but to rob it of sufficient oxygen to turn into a true fire. The color of the smoke, at times billowing from the gap, indicates that the process is working as it should. It will have to be tended throughout the night to ensure that everything goes according to plan. As we watch, guys throw additional spadesful of earth onto the mound. For Maria it’s more than history come to life, it’s a part of her personal past, as her grandfather used to make charcoal in just the same way.
But the light is fading quickly now, as it does here, and it’s time to move on to the night’s next event, a short stroll, a Ruta Nocturna. We pick our way gingerly along a path which is probably not nearly as bumpy as it looks by the feeble lights of cellphones, through a small copse, and emerge after only five or ten minutes onto an agricultural terrace. This is where the region’s famous potatoes grow. Basically what happens here is a sort of ecumenical urging to prayer, in a way in which anyone, of any religion, or of no religion, can identify. We are asked to feel our connection to the earth beneath our feet and the stars which are now twinkling above, as the sky fades from dusky blue to inkiest black.
No doubt about it, whether you believe some old guy is sitting up there, orchestrating everything as he plaits his beard, or whether you prefer the proven facts, this clearest of night skies, with a full moon rising in stunning, silver splendour, the pervasive perfume of pine all around, and the insistent chirping of cicadas is a moment to be savoured. A prose poem is read. A moment of silence is requested to still our minds and open our souls to Mother Earth. No other sounds are to be heard. No other lights disturb the perfection, but after a while, inevitably, the few children along get restless, and it’s time to go. We pick our way back, but with long, lingering glances at that full moon until we are in the trees again.
Next on the agenda of this already quirky, but marvellous night, is story telling. Now I can listen to a good story-teller for hours, even when I only get about 80% of what he says, and this man, Don Savoie Enrique Alvarez, whose picture you see below, is a master. He even has that look which makes you not want to take your eyes off him, and his voice is rich, words roll from his tongue, perfectly formed pictures which dance in your mind. He tells funny stories about potatoes – it is, after all, the fiesta of that unpretentious tuber. As we sit in the thin lights around and the mysterious light of the moon, he tells sad, local legends of unrequited or lost love, and he tells charming stories from South American and Native American folklore. I am standing, the seating is limited, but I don’t think about the passing of time for one second. In fact I am quite disappointed when it is announced that food is being served, even though my stomach is growling and I haven’t eaten since 2pm.
Food is garbanzas in a slightly picante sauce, typical of the islands, and a stew of meat with dumplings made from gofio (a local flour, and, yes, also worth another post), but, strangely, no potatoes, an irony which doesn’t escape us as we tucked in with gusto, and sip a very acceptable red wine. The long journey back limits our possible intake of that! Simple but nourishing, this is the kind of food which has sustained generation after generation of families in this town since the conquest. It is perfect for the occasion….except for the strange lack of potatoes.
Duly refreshed, we pile into a small, unlit room for what was for me a real treat, a talk by Don Juan Vicente Ledesma Taoro, President of the Official Association of Guides in Tenerife, and secretary-general of the Spanish Confederation of Professional Tourist Guides. I have heard him speak before, which is why I know this is going to be seriously good. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone speak with such passion, authority and wit all at the same time! He doesn’t disappoint. He gives a compact history/astronomy/science lesson as he rips through his talk, barely pausing for breath, and with all the excitement of a child first captivated by the universe. He ranges from absorbing scientific fact to the stuff of myths and legends of the ancient world. He is part scientist, part actor and he is clearly a movie fan too, references to several movies punctuate his chat, mostly famously he re-enacts a scene from the Lion King, explaining its spiritual and cultural significance, and making everyone laugh, something I remember from the last time I saw him. Afterwards, but not before we do a quick take around the room (which turns out, with lights on, to be a small museum), he does a stroll around the car park, laser pointer in hand, pointing out different stars and planets, constellations and, of course, not forgetting the moon which is now high in the night sky.
At this point I am really very contented, and don’t have the faintest desire to join in the night’s final offering, what is billed as a laughter therapy session. Whilst I am more than happy to listen to chats and performances and lectures in Spanish I don’t trust my colloquial Spanish enough not to make an utter fool of myself…….. although, perhaps that is the point. Anyway, Juan Vicente Ledesma is setting up a telescope nearby! I’ve done laughter therapy in yoga classes, and it was nothing like this. This is what I remember from the past as being a team building thing, and I’m not entirely sure that I’m not too much of a loner for it anyway, but it’s good to see others enjoying it. I can see the point, but now that telescope is ready, and there is already a queue. I stand by and watch Juan Vicente Ledesma as he tirelessly explains to everyone what it is they are seeing, the same words each time five or six times before it is my turn, and adjusting the telescope after every viewing, pointing out where we can see the lunar area named for Tenerife, in homage to its place in astrophysics. His enthusiasm never wanes, and I find myself envying that.
But our watches are showing something around 2am and we still have almost an hour to drive to where we all met. The return is filled with laughter and chat, and I appreciate how much these friends mean to me. We stand for ages, still chatting before getting into our individual cars and going our individual ways.
This morning, as I wake, the smell of smouldering pine permeates my half-dreams and I realize that my hair, my clothes, which lie in a jumble on the floor, and even now my pillow smell of the burning charcoal, but, hey it’s Sunday, so who cares?