DAMIEN ENRIGHT: You just can’t beat authenticity thanks to sunset drummers

My column of February 26 explained that a unique charm of the Valle Gran Rey on the island of La Gomera in the Canaries is the laid-back “vibe” left over from the first hippies that arrived here, Vietnam War draft dodgers in the late 1950s, writes Damien Enright.

An “alternative culture” has thrived ever since, welcomed by the then farmers and fishermen, now turned tourism providers with family enterprises. It might be said that some of the first businesses, trekking guides, bike rentals, and bakeries were started by foreigners who first arrived in ragged jeans, toting backpacks, and decided to stay.

The tradition of finding ways to survive in paradise continues, manifest in the way a handful of the exotic people who dwell in caves on an almost inaccessible beach far from amenities, including fresh water, trek each evening to the main beach to lay on an unrehearsed, unchoreographed drumming show as the sun sinks into the sea southwest of El Hierro, the island on the horizon.

For visitors sitting on the black sand of the unspoiled beach, the ambience clearly conjures some magic. For many, it’s a memorable feature of their Gomera holiday. They won’t find such an ambience on resort beaches of crafted sand, backed with cafes and skyscraper hotels. The hippies thus add to the uniqueness of La Gomera.

There is no charge to listen; a hat passes around afterwards. Over the decade since the sunset drumming began, or evolved, it’s become a tradition. It isn’t organised or promoted, but everyone who comes to the valley hears about it. The scheduling is simple: go to the main beach at sunset. Anyone with a drum can join in and share the contributions. Sometimes nappy-pantaloons-wearing, earringed and braceleted performers show up, with females hula-hooping rings of fire around their midriffs, fire-juggling or eating from flaming torches as the dark comes down. It’s an open forum. Audience numbers depend on season. From pre-Christmas to Easter, they might average 60.

Gomera has no problem with its “alternatives’” however, as I also mentioned on February 26, after an international Rainbow Gathering on a remote beach, licensed by the local town hall, ended, some stragglers arrived in the valley to wash their clothes at the beach showers and hung around naked in the nearby plaza, the authorities became somewhat uptight and cut the water to the showers.

This discommoded the tourists. Soon, the Rainbow folk wandered peaceful away and the water was restored. But, can hippies and tourists mix? So far the dilemma hasn’t arisen, and one hopes it never will.

An American friend tells me that when Key West in Florida gave its “alternative” people the bum’s rush and this was not a good idea. Its ragged, Hemingway-esque characters in washed-out jeans and sun-bleached beards hanging about the waterfront was a tourist draw. They lent the place an authenticity popular with big-city visitors — here were people with a real philosophy of life who’d dropped out of the rat race and gone fishin’, long term.

Just being in the same space helped destress city folk, and dressing like the locals, drinking rum in shanty bars and playing guitar at impromptu gigs seemed just the thing for relaxing.

However, the Chamber of Commerce decided the bohos were giving their resort a bad image, and acted to make them feel unwelcome. The bohos moved elsewhere, and the ingredient that made Key West special moved with them.

When the visitors arrived the following year, Key West was like a hundred other resorts, nothing unique about it, its character and atmosphere gone. Visitor numbers fell. Now, what was to be done? Get back the hippies? But Key West would no longer suit them — too uptight, too sanitised, no more the rum shops, no more smoking a joint in the park.

A few businessmen got together and came up with a brainwave. Hire unemployed Hollywood actors to hang about the waterfront and be ‘bums’! They’d pick up sanitized cigarette butts in the street, swig from half-pint rum-bottle-shaped glassware in brown paper bags, hold ‘illegal’ street concerts, with the police pre-informed.

Did it work?, I asked my pal. He didn’t think so. The Key West of Hemingway characters was gone.

Meanwhile, happily, in the Valle Gran Rey, the alternative culture continues to provide dream-food for the visitors. It’s alive, well and unobtrusive. Its members don’t litter, don’t steal, don’t give the place a bad name – so no Hollywood actors need apply.

As for your correspondent, he’s been asked to be this year’s Guest of Honour at the St Patrick’s Day ceremonies in Courtmacsherry.

He’s flattered and he’ll be there – and he’ll try to bring some sunshine for the day!

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