Damien Enright: Castaway, and trying to avoid exploding whales

Damien Enright: Castaway, and trying to avoid exploding whales
"Back in the day, a noble savage or a stoned hippie might sit and watch the post-sunset sky"

Last week, I wrote about a Cuvier’s beaked whale killed off our La Gomera coast by sharks or orcas and washed onto rocks at the mouth of a secluded beach. It had to be moved before it began to smell.

When my son went to photograph it, a lady standing behind me said in good English with a German accent. “Oh, he must be careful! It will burst!”

Turning to look at her, I recognised her as the woman I last saw in grease-stained overalls servicing the engine of my 1995 sun-damaged Ford Fiesta at one of the valley’s two small garages where she is sole assistant of the owner, Jose Miguel. I’ve no doubt he could get a male to take the post, but she is the best qualified mechanic available, despite being tall, slim and the sort of girl one would expect to find serving in a boutique, fashion shop or office.

Well, I thought, here is another example of the unusual and interesting emigrants one finds on this island. As Miranda said in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, “Oh brave new world that hath such people in it...” La Gomera has its unique marine life, andterrestrial two-legged life, too.

The whale on the rocks couldn’t be reached by boats big enough to haul it off, so the fire brigade was called. This was not to ignite the gas which would, inevitably have built up within it, as the German lady said. Instead, the firemen (bomberos) donned wetsuits and, at high tide, dived to put strapsattached to a boat around the body. Subsequently, it was towed to the pier for dismemberment and burial.

My son, who was surfing, saw it. There was activity around the body as it was towed, possibly sharks looking for a fast-food supper.

I heard of a dead whale, ‘ripened’ by tropical sun being carried by truck through a street in Indonesia. Whenit suddenly ‘exploded’, it showeredinnards over buildings and people. Clearly, this isn’t a subject to be discussed at dinner but perhaps, today, there would be no stomach contents, only plastic bags.

Meanwhile, we’re still stranded here. Flights advertised by our national airline for early, mid and late-May have, one after the other, been cancelled. We’re exploring return via the UK, Luton and then Heathrow to Cork. I’ve sworn to never again travel through Stansted, all the more dangerous now.

‘Castaways of the islands’ always had a romantic ring to it. When I was a child I enjoyed spending forbidden hours (“Turn your light off at nine!”) with Robinson Crusoe and his cannibal, Long John Silver, and his cannonballs, on Coral Island or rafting down the Mississippi with Huckleberry Finn. Irish children’s authors didn’t seem to offer the same sense of freedom, so I travelled abroad in my head, and vowed to do so on my legs whenI got older. Since then, I’ve been to many an island, north, south, east and west and, now, ironically, I’m stranded on one.

We dearly hope (perhaps ‘fondly’ hope?) to be back for June 21, longest day of the year. If so, on the late hours of the 22, I’ll stand in our yard and read the Monday’s Irish Examiner Outdoor Page in memory of my father whoalways said - even at age 90, with failing sight: “at half past ten, it’s so bright you can read the newspaper!”

This year, due to the lockdownof aircraft, cars and trucks, the sky may be as clear as in his youth orstill as clear as in the 1990s, his last years. May we have clear skiesagain.

Nature works in mysterious ways. Perhaps it has mysterious ways of protecting itself.

The time of day I love most in La Gomera, is the evenings. They compare with Ireland’s evenings, with swifts rocketing across the sky.

While, in Ireland, many colonies of our common swifts have disappeared, their nesting crevices filled byimprovements to houses or for the preservation of ancient monuments, here, the local plain swifts, fastest of all swift species , are legion. There are a million nesting crevices in the cliffs above the valley.

Meanwhile, who needs Netflix, especially in the summer?

Back in the day, a noble savage or a stoned hippie might, instead, sit and watch the post-sunset sky with slow clouds, rose-coloured, umber and black, drifting across it and say to a companion, “look, it’s a horse, look, it’s an octopus, look, it’s a fire-breathing dragon!” and, in the panorama, be transported from all care — no TV licences, no therapist’s fees —enjoying the free show put on by nature every evening.

As the man said, “It’s a wonderful world...”, if we have the eyes to see it...

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