Thursday, September 14, 2023

On the way to the cemetery

When I was a boy, just the other day, life in the Canary Islands was still comparatively primitive.

While Puerto de la Cruz, on the island of Tenerife, was beginning to take shape as a package holiday resort at the end of the 1950s, there were still two main classes of inhabitant, the rich and the poor, the landowner and the peasant. In between, there were the sharecroppers and the fishermen.


The banana plantations between the old Martiánez Hotel and the beach had been cleared 

There was vast private wealth in land, and in many rural areas inhabitants lived a very simple kind of life, serving the sometimes feudal landowner and sharing the crops the land produced. They were the poor. This was until General Franco’s regime began implementing the Limited Rent Housing Law of 1954 and the Urban Leases Law of 1964, a social housing plan which saw the building of over four million affordable houses for the poorer classes throughout Spain, including the Canary Islands. Most owners managed to pay them off within ten years. As a result, many of the peasants’ traditional stone cottages dotted around the landscape were abandoned for the comfortable state-built housing estates. It also saw many peasants abandon thousands of agricultural terraces for more prosperous wages in town.


Some of those abandoned terraces, like these in the El Río gorge, are being recovered

I grew up in the 1960s and my father once owned a finca in the hills above Tacoronte. I still have vivid memories of half-naked children hanging onto the skirts of bare-footed mothers who peeped out of the wooden doorways of stone cottages beside the lanes that led to the farm. They would stare and wave at us as my father drove the Land Rover up the muddy tracks to our farm. The kids learnt to beg for half a peseta, or to barter in exchange for a handful of plums, chestnuts or blackberries. 

My father employed mostly women on the farm, and it was always a joy to hear their singing and laughter as they worked. He built the farm manager a proper house, while he prefered us to sleep in a rather dodgy wooden hut which was erected on a concrete base under the pines and above the plum orchard.


Grandmothers often came to give good advice or to keep an eye on the children

Country folk rarely travelled far, and many were born and died without ever visiting the nearest town, like one or two centenarians I have met in remoter hamlets of the Anaga mountains. They were and remain extremely generous and helpful to each other as communities. The farming chores, like gathering in the wheat and threshing it on the eras, filling the sacks with grain and carrying them on their backs or on mule to the Tacoronte market, were happily shared. 

This very old era, or threshing ground, can be found near Teno Alto

When somebody died, however, the world came to a halt. Neighbours would gather outside the family cottage to pay their respects, and to accompany them during the ritual wake. They would often take food for the grieving family because a cooking fire was not lit for a day or two in respect for the departed. Then, when the priest sent a signal, men would sway in solemn procession down the lanes to the nearest church or cemetery. By law, the dead would need to be buried within forty eight hours after death.

In Lanzarote there is a little village called Soo. It nestles between the Colorado Peak, the highest point of one particular volcanic cone, and what was often referred to as the Soo desert, a grain of sand compared to the neighbouring Sahara.


The pretty village of Soo, as it is today

Not so long ago, when a member of the family passed away, grieving women in Soo would lock themselves into the dead person’s home for eight days. The custom, which only disappeared in the middle of the 20th century, was so that the neighbours could care for and feed the grieving family during those days of mourning. The men, I understand, were excused. They would be required to attend to the animals and the crops. Many years ago, it used to be the custom in all the islands that women never went to funerals. They would only be expected to attend a memorial mass on the third day after a death.

Unlike today, when visiting doctors are often seen in remote villages checking up on the elderly, there were still no doctors or caretakers to cater for peasants well into the 20th century. Country folk either never became ill or, if they did, cared for each other with ancient herbal remedies. If sickness or old age ended in death, men carried their own dead on their shoulders to the cemetery. They would not be taken in a coffin but laid on a simple stretcher made with sticks. It actually made sense because it was a much lighter mode of transportation, and they would often be required to walk considerable distances to a final resting place in holy ground.


A doctor visits elderly people in their Chinamada cave dwellings once a week

More than one story has been handed down from generation to generation telling of porters suddenly being given the fright of their lives on their way down from the hills to the cemetery. Pancho, who owned a pottery kiln above Arico, a village on the south eastern slopes of Tenerife, was a recognised tile maker. He died just before the Spanish Civil War, after apparently collapsing during an argument at the village inn.

His body was lovingly bathed and proudly dressed in his best clothes. But, on the way to the cemetery, transported by men in solemn procession, his rigid body suddenly sat bolt upright on the stretcher and it shouted out, “Hey, what the Devil is going on?”

The stretcher bearers immediately dropped their dead baggage with a hard bump on the ground. They, and the body's relatives and neighbours, scattered, terrified in all directions. Well, with no proper doctor at hand to certify a death, a corpse might at times only have given the impression of being a corpse. Pancho survived to have another argument at the village inn.


A street in the old town centre of Arico

They were definitely more civilized on the island of Lanzarote. They often used camels to rock the dead to the cemetery. Nevertheless, the road to the burial site could be long and hot, with hardly a drop of water to be found. So, if the procession happened to pass close to a village where there was a fiesta going on, the mourners wouldn't hesitate. They would simply join in the festivities, refresh themselves with some good wine to accompany a bowl of goat meat stew and then continue solemnly to the cemetery.

In the village of Teno, situated in the mountain range to the extreme west of Tenerife, the small number of inhabitants who dedicated their lives to sheep, goat and arable farming, were believed to use a specially prepared stretcher for carrying their dead. In fact, unlike the disposable stretchers made with sticks, it was a long box, like the crude wooden ones seen in cowboy films. It had wooden poles attached to each end and was designed to be transported by just two men. The narrow, rocky path down the mountainside was too narrow and dangerous for more than a single file of men to walk down. Then, when the procession reached the Bujame or Negro gorges, the dead person would be transferred into a proper coffin for the rest of the journey to the cemetery which was situated at the coastal town of Buenavista. This mode of transport was still in use as recently as the 1970s because, until then, there was no road to Teno. Like the village of Masca, the hamlet was pretty well isolated from the rest of the world.


Negotiating the mountain tracks into the Bujame gorge could be tricky

As at almost every funeral, processions on the way to the cemetery attracted quite a crowd. Every adult male member of a village would take part. Milking the goats, preparing the terraces or digging the potatoes could wait until tomorrow. The respect paid to the dead and to the grieving family was sacred. It was, and still is, in the nature of these wonderful islanders, and one can still feel the strength of unity today in those rural communities.   

By John Reid Young

Author of:

The Skipping Verger and other Tales (a collection of short stories)

A Shark in the Bath and other Stories (a collection of short stories)

The Journalist (a novel)

For more information, or if you would like to read any of my books, please click on the images to the right of this page.

Please sign up for an occasional newsletter here:


Twitter: @reidten

Instagram: authorjohnreidyoung

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Norwegians, Ripped Mountain and Potatoes on the Canary Island of Tenerife.

     If you were to sail in to the city port of Santa Cruz, in Spain's Canary Island of Tenerife today, you would undoubtedly find a place packed with cruise ships, tour buses, eager taxis cabs awaiting on the quay, and inter-island ferries speeding in and out of the harbour. You might also be lucky enough to spot the La Palma, a floating museum. The beautiful old boat was built by W. Harkness and Son, Ltd. in Middlesbrough in 1912. It had been ordered by the British firm, Elder Dempster and Co., Ltd., who intended to improve transport between the Canary Islands.

The La Palma, a lady with fine old-fashioned lines

     If you had sailed into the same port in 1926, you might be joined on the south mole by one of the Blue Funnel or Union Castle Line ships from London. You might also have spotted a Norwegian Navy training ship parked against the south mole.

The Union Castle boats stopped regularly in Tenerife

     Tenerife was perhaps the furthest south the Norwegian Navy had ventured since Viking explorers had braved the waves. Apart from enjoying an interesting training adventure in warmer climes, the idea was for a group of young cadets to investigate if there was any connection between the pre-Hispanic Guanche people on the islands and ancient navigators from Norway. Today historians believe most of the Guanche people may have been brought to the island from North Africa by Phoenicians or Romans, perhaps in search of different dyes. Others suggest there were earlier nomadic people who drifted to the Canary Islands much earlier, possibly on rafts built with reeds from the Nile.

A Norwegian gunboat of the kind used as a training ship

     The Norwegian training ship was to remain in Santa Cruz for at least ten days before calling in at Casablanca in Morocco. A young Lieutenant, known for his keen interest in ancient Viking exploration, six cadets and two ordinary seamen were issued with three tents, backpacks and rations for five days. Their mission was to look for a cave, which was supposed to be located in the volcanic landscapes at the base of Mount Teide, and where local anthropologists had discovered a Guanche burial chamber. 

      It was a beautiful early morning when they set off on the winding, dusty road towards the colourful town of La Orotava. From there they took one of the mule tracks which were so often used by European geologists, astronomers and anthropologists to explore the great Las Cañadas calderas. They spent their first night under a spring in the Aguamansa pine forest. 

One of the tracks in the beautiful Aguamansa forest

      After finding their way through the forests and then through a desolate landscape of volcanic rocks and shrubs, they climbed up towards Mount Teide from the base of one of the sedimentary plains at the edge of the eastern caldera. The young officer and his companions then set up their camp inside a sunken dip on the pumice plains which were overlooked by an ugly and dramatic example of eruptive force known as Ripped Mountain, Montaña Rajada.

The pumice fields, a Martian landscape under Montaña Rajada

     The heat of the midday sun and the dryness in the air hit them hard to begin with. However, the climate can be deceptive at the base of Mount Teide. In fact, it wasn’t long before fierce gusts of wind had them scrambling to collect loose volcanic stones to build a barrier around their camp. Sudden chills in the air made them feel quite unsure of themselves. They had not been warned that weather conditions in the bleak, high altitude, Martian landscapes on the island of Tenerife, can become treacherous very quickly in winter. Nevertheless, those same gusts of wind calmed as suddenly as they had appeared and the young men went to sleep early. They were exhausted after the day’s trek, and looked forward to hunting for Guanche remains on the following day.

     Then, at the crack of dawn, they were all shaken awake by a strong gust of wind. Within minutes the young men were wrapping up in as many layers of clothes as they could find. It was now icy cold. In fact, it had begun to snow. More than snow, they were in the midst of a blizzard as blinding as those on Gaustadtoppen, Norway’s highest mountain. The fierce storm, with the wind making the volcanic rocks produce anguishing screams, had them huddled in their tents for most of the morning. When it ceased, allowing them to peep out, timidly pushing drifts of snow away from their tents, they were engulfed by a dense fog.

 It can snow heavily on Teide volcano and the high mountains of Tenerife 

     In spite of being hardy Norwegians, accustomed to Arctic conditions, nobody had prepared them for this kind of weather on an island so close to the western extremes of the Sahara Desert. The Lieutenant, anxious as he was to pursue their amateur anthropological investigations, told his companions they would probably abandon their expedition. He would not have known that, if they could only keep themselves warm for a day or two, the weather front would pass. Brilliant sunshine and the warm volcanic soil beneath them would soon melt the snow away.

     For the time being, however, fearing they would never find their way in the fog, the officer sensibly decided that they would stick it out for one more night. They would use their small paraffin lamps to heat up their rations, as well as their tents if necessary. That decision could have been fatal.

     The inhalation of paraffin fumes began to sting their eyes and make them nauseous. One of the seamen began to feel so unwell and drowsy that he rolled over and knocked a lamp over with his elbow. Paraffin spilled all over his legs and caught fire. He was screaming in agony and terror as is companions dragged him out of the tent and into the fog. They managed to put out the flames by rolling him in the snow, but he was badly burned. Meanwhile, the tent became a roaring bonfire. Nothing could be saved. It was a disaster.

A plaque pays tribute to José Bethencourt outside the house he lived in 

     If only they had hired a local guide, José Bethencourt, the guide from La Orotava. Without him, unfamiliar to the terrain and the surroundings, especially at night, the Lieutenant had to make a decision. Should he send two of his team off into the night in search of help, with only a compass to guide them?

     He probably made the correct choice. He was not going to risk losing two men in this strange, inhospitable landscape in freezing conditions. No, they would all huddle up in the two remaining tents until daybreak. The injured cadette was not in grave danger, in spite of the pain. He had nasty burns on his legs, but he would survive. Evidently they would need to get the young fellow back to their ship and their expedition would have to be abandoned, but that was just too bad.

      Except for the one with the horribly burned legs, the young seamen slept on and off. When they opened the tents to stretch and make coffee in the morning, the fog had cleared. There was not a breath of wind. It was quite extraordinary. 

Shrubs, like Teide broom, and jagged volcanic rocks protrude through the snow

     Not a cloud in the sky. In fact, the snow and ice very soon began to glisten with the rising sun which began to toast their faces. It was going to be a magnificent Tenerife day. How they wished they could continue with their adventure. After a good breakfast, more coffee and a short stroll to inspect their snow-covered goat track, they packed their tents away, ensured there was no rubbish left in their enclosure, and made their way down to the sedimentary plain again before heading back towards the Orotava Valley.

     It was slow-going. They took it in turns to help the injured cadette down the rocky tracks. The path was covered with snow to start with, but soon turned muddy as they descended from their campsite at nearly 7,000ft above sea level into the dense Canary pine forests. They reached the first stone and thatched cottages in Aguamansa by late afternoon.

Traditional thatched cottages adorned the agricultural hillsides

     A group of women filling brown sacks with pine needles greeted them with waves and amused cackles before running towards them when they realised the young men needed assistance. The same women invited the Norwegians to follow them down between neat agricultural terraces, and then under majestic chestnut trees to what appeared to be a small hamlet. Plumes of scented smoke filtered through thatches and the aroma of delicious goatmeat stew made the young seamen’s stomachs ache with hunger.

One of the favourite meals in Tenerife is succulent goatmeat stew

     The young adventurers were never going to make it to the comforts of La Orotava before dark so these village people offered them all they had in the way of shelter, food, water and wine. It was the year 1926, and most islanders lived from the land. There was no such thing as money in these upper hillside regions, which are known locally as las medianías. However, the inhabitants were blessed with happiness, with the routine of existing, and with the kindest hearts and warmest humour to be found anywhere on Earth. And, for just one night, these country folk belonged to the young, intrepid foreigners, especially to the one with the nasty burns on his legs.

     A rather plump lady with glorious, reddened cheeks and hands like a man's was summoned to take a look at the burned legs. Her name was Feliciana. She was the curandera, a kind of herbal doctor so often used by mountain folk. She was not a trained doctor, of course, but her cheery attitude and beaming smiles persuaded the young Lieutenant to allow her to help the unfortunate cadette. Once again, he was correct in his decision.

     Nobody had any black olives, whose juice she swore would soothe the burns. But there were plenty of recently dug-up potatoes which Feliciana proceeded to peel with a gigantic knife, dropping the peel in a heap onto the hard-trodden earth floor of the cottage they were sheltering in. She then used the same knife to cut the potatoes into fine slices. These she placed, very gently and neatly, onto the cadette’s burns, attaching them to his legs with slithers of green plant shoots. Feliciana then covered these with a warm, moistened cloth. The seventeen year old lad had already felt some relief by just watching the woman and by listening to her humming, but he felt the throbbing pain of his burns ease away when the potato dressing on his legs began to take effect. Apparently, the juice from potatoes had been used for generations as a natural reliever of pain and healer of certain kinds of wounds.

Men digging up potatoes like those used to soothe those burns

     On the following morning, just before the expedition retreated from the hills, with help from the Civil Guard in La Orotava, Feliciana came to bid them farewell. She also brought  a small earthenware vessel containing an oily ointment which she had prepared. It was a mix of what looked and smelled like lard, crushed thyme and rosemary. After carefully removing the potato slices, which were now dry, she very gently used two large fingers to spread the home-made cream over the burned legs. She also gave instructions to the Lieutenant to make sure the cadette used the ointment every day until the sores were better. And so he did. In fact, the Norwegian ship's Medical Officer was so impressed by the effect of Feliciana's ointment on the cadette's skin that he tried, in vain, to produce a similar kind of paste before opting for the more conventional methods of modern medicine. 


Author of:

The Journalist (a novel) 

The Skipping Verger and Other Tales ( a collecgion of short stories)

A Shark in the Bath and other Stories (a collecgion of short stories

El hombre de La Guancha y otras historias (a collection of short stories in Spanish) 

(For more information, please click on the images to the right of this page).

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Twitter: @reidten

Instagram: authorjohnreidyoung

John Reid is also owner at TENERIFE PRIVATE TOURS

Monday, December 6, 2021

A little "naivety" Christmas tale from the Canary Island of Tenerife


When Peter was a little boy, growing up in Spain’s Canary Island of Tenerife in the 1960s, Father Christmas, or Santa Claus, only had to climb down a dozen or so chimneys. There were very few European children living on the island and local kids knew only of the magic of the three Wise Kings of Orient. Father Christmas was just a quaint old fellow they had begun to refer to as Papa Noel, and he was definitely looked upon as very inferior indeed.

Papa Noel was still quite a novelty to Spanish children in the 1960s

Little Peter, the foreign child from Great Britain, and his best Spanish friend, Manolito, each worshipped their own provider of Christmas gifts. Each had been taught, from a very early age, that his own particular belief, or joyful tradition, was better by far than the other’s.

Anyway, way back in 1965, Santa Claus came down the chimney at Peter’s house, as usual on the night of 24th December, with stockings full of brilliant toys. On the following morning, Peter was in a state of great excitement. He opened his presents and played and played and played. His best Spanish friend, Manolito, was green with envy, as Peter innocently showed off his new lorry, train and cowboy pistol. In fact, he refused to talk to Peter, his neighbour on the edge of the banana plantation, for days.

A couple of weeks later, the Wise Kings of Orient trotted up on their camels to Manolito’s grand house in the middle of a banana plantation. When Manolito opened his presents on 6th January it was his turn to leap about in a state of great excitement. His father was a very important man and seemed to get preferential treatment from the Wise Kings.

The three Wise Kings, Melchior, Gaspar and Baltazar crossing the deserts.

Pillowcases, not stockings, were packed with extravagant and superb toys. They appeared far better than Peter’s and were spread over a Persian carpet for all to admire. Yes, Manolito had received many more and grander presents than Peter. He even got a belt with two golden cowboy pistols. What’s more, by the time Manolito began to play with his lorry and train, Peter’s were all very worn indeed. Wheels had fallen off and they were now only fit for the poor boy who lived in a hovel down the lane. The pistol no longer even made a bang. It was Peter now who was green with envy, and he too refused to talk to Manolito for days and days. 

News of this envious behaviour between two little boys reached King Melchior, the senior of the three Wise Kings. He summoned King Baltazar.

“Ah! Good morning, Baltazar. Listen, I’ve received some rather extraordinary reports. My falcon tells me you’ve been having furtive meetings with that old snowy fool they call Santa and, in fact, that you appear to get on quite well with him. Is this so?”

“Well, I don’t really know him well, your Majesty, but the one some people call Father Christmas is quite a pleasant old chap, actually. We meet every year and share a glass or two of port on the roof of All Saints, the British Anglican church in Puerto de la Cruz. But I spy on him, of course! Um, if you remember, you did send me to spy on him a few years ago in order to find out where he got his children’s toys from!”

“Did I? My goodness, gracious me! Very well then. I mean, good. Well done, indeed!” stuttered King Melchior, rather caught off guard.

All Saints Church, in Puerto de la Cruz, built upon rock and tradition.

“Well, I would like you to negotiate a truce with him. All this competing for the finest toys and between our religions and beliefs is very confusing. It is stirring up trouble amongst ordinary human beings. We cannot have little children, like Peter and Manolito, falling for adult tricks and jealousies, and about beliefs and religions being better than the other, don't you think?”

So, the very next year, when King Baltazar and Father Christmas had their annual meeting on the roof of All Saints Church in the town of Puerto de la Cruz, it went on for much longer than usual, a bit like that Brexit business. Negotiations were quite tough and each needed to consult advisors around the continents. But a treaty was signed under which children should not be affected by adult interests, predilections or political and religious nonsense.

It is after the sun has set over the great Mount Teide volcano that the three Wise Kings and Father Christmas make their way to the Canary Islands.

The process would take a few years, of course, and is still in its early days, but King Melchior’s idea was for the Three Wise Kings and Father Christmas not only to use the same shopping centres and toy manufacturers, but also to share the duty and pleasures of bringing joy to children around the World.

And so it began to happen. In fact, Spain’s Canary Island of Tenerife had the great honour of becoming the headquarters of this new Association of Shared and Differing Beliefs and Religions. Today, children on this and other islands under Spanish dominion are blessed.  In fact they are very lucky indeed. That very sensible and uniting agreement signed by King Baltazar on behalf of the Wise Kings and Father Christmas on the English slate roof of All Saints Church in the Taoro Park, enables them to receive gifts from both Father Christmas and the Three Wise Kings.

This nativity scene can be found at the Bodegón El Monasterio.

In other words, children of all nationalities enjoy visits from Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, celebrating the birth of Jesus, but can also expect equally wonderful gifts from the Wise Kings in January when they come to present baby Jesus with gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Actually, between you and I, the adults keep most of the gold and things, and Father Christmas has taken to climbing over balconies because of the lack of chimneys on the island. Well, homes don’t often require heating in the sunny Canaries.

But the whole point is that the idea works. As a result of that meeting on the roof of All Saints Church, both Peter’s and Manolito’s grandchildren have learnt to love both Father Christmas AND the Three Wise Kings of Orient.

Sharing and being tolerant of each other’s beliefs, especially at Christmas, is a wonderful thing, you know. 

All the best to you all, wherever you may be, and do be kind and understanding.

By John Reid Young

Author of books. For more information, click on the images to the right of this page or on the following text:

 Travel Stories in Tenerife and the Canary Islands

Owner of Tenerife Private Tours

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Twitter: @reidten

Instagram: authorjohnreidyoung

Friday, November 19, 2021

When Tourists saddled up to the call of a volcano in Tenerife.

    In recent weeks, since the eruption from the La Cumbre Vieja mountain range began on 19th September, on Spain's Canary Island of La Palma, scientists have been learning and exchanging more information about Strombolian eruptions than ever before. However, even they understand that against the forces of nature, especially those deep in the Earth's bowels, mankind has not got a chance.

A beautiful sunset, with Mt Teide above the clouds. To the right, a dramatic plume speaks of La Palma's eruption. 
(Photo taken during a picnic on 21.09.2021). 

     What began as a sparkling and exciting event, with magma and gases creeping through volcanic tubes and pushing their way to the surface, like a kettle coming to the boil, soon turned into a nightmare, and devastation for inhabitants of La Palma. 

     Hundreds of homes have been buried under rivers of lava, swallowing up the memories of generations and turning some of the finest banana plantations into petrified, fuming rock, whilst treasured black-sand beaches have been smothered by smoldering lava. Inhabitants are also suffering the consequences of the fallout, in the form of ash particles weighing down roofs and blanketing everything with something resembling powdered, black snow. Sulphur dioxide has poluted the air they breathe. COVID pandemic rules imply the compulsory wearing of masks. Now people wear masks to protect their health, not from a man-spread virus, but from the dangerous levels of volcanic debris and chemicals in the air. 

Like a snake, a river of magma finds its way in La Palma

     The island of La Palma, la isla bonita, is over 50 miles away but we, on the island of Tenerife, have memories of our own volcanoes, of course. One only has to visit the great Las Cañadas caldera to realise that Mount Teide Volcano is just a small hillock compared to what may have been there long before. We also have written memories of the last eruption on the island, a little over 100 years ago. Not only memories, but a feeling, not so deep down, that anything might happen one day. After all, as La Palma has come to remind us, the Canary Islands are still volcanically active.

     On rare occasions we have felt the minor Earth tremors that have been keeping people awake on La Palma. Some of us remember, only a few years ago, before the under-sea eruption off the island of El Hierro in 2011, that there were whispers about an imminent eruption on Tenerife. A series of earth tremors, centred between the towns of  Santiago del Teide and Icod, got people all het up. Even a few English newspapers told their readers that Teide was about to blow its top! A maximum register of 3.2 on the Richter Scale was not much to worry about, but the coincidence of a number of similar shakes over a period of weeks persuaded the authorities and scientists to come clean about the fact that something might have been about to happen. 

     Although nothing actually did occur at the time, local gossip also led to similar conclusions. Tomás, the lovely old gentleman from La Guancha who used to come with his lorry on Saturdays to sell us home-grown fruit and vegetables, told us there was a cave to the south of Icod from which nasty smelling gases had begun to appear. Mind you he was also convinced that the unusually hot weather we had been having at the time was also due to volcanic activity!

     The authorities tried to persuade public opinion that if anything did happen, it would not be on a catastrophic scale. Indeed they believed, if it happened at all, that it would be “a gentle, Strombolian eruption” which might perhaps start a few forest fires and burn a house or two, but no more. Scientists supported that belief. However, as La Palma has evidenced now, nobody can predict nor control the damage an eruption might cause, or where exactly a volcano might decide to appear in its explosive beginnings. Having said that, scientists, using modern equipment and satellite images, were almost exact in pinpointing where the Earth would give this time.

The "gentle eruption" of Chinyero (Tenerife, 1909)

     Perhaps memories of the last eruption on the island of Tenerife, in 1909, had persuaded people that any eruption would be "gentle", until this new La Palma volcano. 

     Nevertheless, when Chinyero erupted, the municipality of the Valley of Santiago was practically cut off from the rest of the world. Messenger pigeons became the essential means of communication during the eruption. The information carried by the birds took no more than 5 minutes to reach Garachico from Santiago del Teide. From there, the news was then urgently transmitted to the authorities by telegram.

     The eruption of Chinyero, however minor, produced a whole range of reactions. Fearful inhabitants took their religious images up to the lava flows and legend suggests the lava came to a halt where they stood. Victorian tourism found ways to take advantage of the situation and a number of excursions were organised to visit the volcano. Moreover, the Chinyero is famous for having been the first volcano to have been mentioned in the press, and to have been filmed and photographed. It is also the first to have been studied by contemporary scientists and about which extensive, scientific reports were made.

     Chinyero began to erupt just after two o'clock in the afternoon of 18th November, 1909. Its activity lasted for 10 days, unlike the new La Palma eruption which, as I write, is two months old and still going strong. The eruption was preceded by a series of earth tremors and underground noises which alerted the inhabitants in Santiago del Teide and neighbouring regions. The eruptive process began when a 600 metre long crevice opened up and this was accompanied by loud explosions, heard as far away as La Laguna and Santa Cruz. The eruptive column towered sky high. As one local resident described,

“It gave a great thundering sound and the plants and trees flew into the air with the smoke and earth. The shrubs went up, turning over and over and were covered in black and red earth. Huge stones were also flung out, everything spreading out when it reached high up, and bits of gravel came down on us, so hot that we could not hold them in our hands.”

      There are also memorable tales about folk in the Orotava Valley. Some were brave enough to take a close look at the eruption. I remember being told by Noel Reid that he witnessed the eruption at close range. He was a lad of seventeen at the time and remembered that there had been a series of earth tremors for a couple of months before the eruption. 

     The first sign that the earth was attempting to breathe was when news arrived that gases had appeared from a cavity on the side of Mount Teide. Everyone thought the peak itself would erupt and foreign residents hastily began to pack their bags. Many British residents took boxes and cases for safe-keeping at Casa Reid in Puerto de la Cruz or at El Nido, the Vice Consul, Tom Reid’s home, itself built in 1894 on the top of a volcanic rock. Some residents were invited to stay, resting wherever they could find space, indoors or on the verandas. 

El Nido, the British Vice-Consul's house in the Orotava Valley.

     From other parts of the island, the noise of the explosions from the eruption could be heard like distant thunder, and the amazing red glow of lava shooting into the sky were very spectacular. Local people were frightened. The Bishop of La Laguna ordered everyone to pray. But the rumblings and the glow seemed to go on for days without apparently causing great harm. 

Tourists from around the island got a close look at the volcanic eruption (1909)

     Therefore, like a number of others, Noel Reid and a group of mostly Spanish friends, including Anita Perez, a beautiful local girl who lived at a house called Los Frailes, could no longer resist the temptation. They decided to get a closer look and rode their horses as far as Icod de los Vinos, and up into the hills along the old carriage track.

They rode into the hills from Icod de los Vinos

     They left their horses at a certain distance, for fear the animals would become nervous as they neared the constant explosions, and walked higher into the hills where they set up camp close to the inhospitable black, old lava flow produced by another volcano, the Trevejos, which destroyed part of the original trading port of Garachico in 1706. 

The Trevejos Volcano erupting and destroying part of Garachico, as depicted by artist Ubaldo Bordanova

     The following day, the intrepid group of adventures then proceeded on foot to within half a mile of Chinyero, to see the earth flinging rocks high in the air and spewing lava. Noel Reid, who just seven years later was much closer to hell, earning the DSO for bravery at Ypres in the First World War, and his party of youngsters, were not the only ones to get a close look at Chinyero. 

Captain Noel Spence Reid DSO, MC (born in Tenerife in 1892)

     Another member of the distinguished British community, Austin Baillon, often recalled his own father, Alex Baillon’s memories. According to him, the thunderous explosions could be heard from as far as the island of Gran Canaria. People in nearby villages, like Guía de Isora, spent the best part of a week in the streets. Seven craters opened up on a plain. Liquid stone was blasted 600 feet into the sky and glowing lava gushed into the night in four huge, slow-moving rivers, like immense burning snakes. Alex Baillon said it was a splendid sight to see the frightful force of nature. 

     There is a tale about the priest of Tamaimo holding continuous prayers in the little chapel, begging for the lava not to reach them. It stopped just before the village. 

     Until the current eruption of La Palma, it was hoped, and almost believed, that any future eruption would be as safe and as obedient to Christian prayer as Chinyero, or perhaps no worse than Chahorra, the fissure eruption that appeared on the side of Pico Viejo, alongside Mount Teide in 1798. 

     One can only pray, in fact, judging by what we have witnessed these days on La Palma. Prayer, even for the non-believer, is all we have when nature decides the pressure has become too much. 


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collections of short stories set in the Canary Islands,


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