Damien Enright: An ‘event’ observed (for a while) over coffee on terrace

Damien Enright: An ‘event’ observed (for a while) over coffee on terrace
A flock of sheep and goats, followed by a ‘pastor’ (shepherd), finds its way home across terraces now abandoned below Chipude, a mountain village in La Gomera.

I took a break from scribbling this morning to have a coffee with my son, who had also taken a break from his writing. His mother and I met him and his wife and sat outside a cafe — where else would one sit in June (or at any time of the year) in the climate of La Gomera?

But then, the sky darkened above us, and the rain, forecast every day for the previous three days, at last began to fall, drop by heavy drop, hitting the table tops and resounding on our heads.

We retreated inside and, five minutes later, watched the drops turn to a downpour, and the world grow dark outside. It was an ‘event’ observed with fascination, the first real rain we’d seen since December, when we arrived.

Showers had visited the valley perhaps three time over the months, light and short lived. This was the first real rain, like Irish rain. Meanwhile, in Ireland, rain didn’t fall for weeks, until Thursday last.

After an hour, it was still falling. The other side of the street was almost obscured. Drops beat a timpani on the tables and hopped off the tarmac. After the 25 yard run back to our car, my wife and I were was as sodden as if we’d been in the sea.

I drove the 1km home through streets that were rivers, with ponds at the corners, the drains, caught by surprise, barely able to cope. The wipers of my faithful 1995 1.6 litre Ford Fiesta got a chance to show off, as they hadn’t for months. It’s a car with little or no rust, its dark blue paintwork mottled all by the sun. It’s a perfect subject for a respray. A respray and dent-removal would cost as much as I paid for it — €800 — four years ago. It might be a good investment. It has never gone wrong, and passed the MOT every year with flying ‘colours’. I meet the vendor regularly, and she bemoans selling it.

The mileage ‘clock’ says 41,000 km, but this may be the second time around. Cars here don’t travel far, of course, the island being only 50km across. Sheltered from the sun by their owners when not on the road, the ancient Mercedes, BMWs, Toyotas, etc, are the best preserved one could see anywhere, possibly worth a fortune in Ireland but all left-hand drive.

Meanwhile, when we got home, the clothes hanging out to dry on the flat roof were all soaked and dripping buckets of water. Never mind, we said, leave them there. The rain will stop and the sun come out, and an hour later they will be bone dry.

Meanwhile, the tens of thousands of fruiting and flowering trees in this valley, the lettuces, potatoes and vegetable gardens will be blessed by the bounty. The avocado, the mango and manga, the guava and fig trees are already heavy with fruit. A German man who lives in the barranco of Vallehermoso has, it is said, a hundred varieties of fruiting trees on his property. It’s a life-long hobby; he gives the fruit away.

This island was once impoverished. Such was the struggle to grow enough to eat that peasant farmers made terraces on almost sheer slopes so high that it would take half a day to reach them, patches of earth behind walls of stones cleared, by mighty labour, from the land. This was ‘made’ land; the only level ground was at the mouths of valleys where water from the uplands seasonally spread as it reached the sea.

Thousands of these terraces are abandoned now, dry and sere, the walls falling, the soil that filled them leaching through. When they were in use, the problem was not only to reach and fertilise them but to get the produce to market, down the winding, precipitous caminos that now make walking tracks, ‘senderos’, for the tourist hikers.

Some, stone paved, were used by mules or donkeys. From the mountains inland, they brought, tomatoes, potatoes, almonds and figs to the coast, to stony beaches where they were taken off by small boats.

The population was once 40,000. It is now 21,000. There was much emigration to Venezuela and Cuba. Now, tourism has come and the Gomero people, unusually — or not surprisingly, given the climate — have no great wish to travel elsewhere. Happily, the value of an environment left to nature, with thousands of hiking trails, was understood, the mountains and forests at the centre designated one of the first World Heritage Parks. Nature has not been subverted by inappropriate resorts.

Off the edge of the road, is wilderness. Beaches have not been created by earth movers or diggers. They are black sand and washed by pristine seas.

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