[ 10:21 thursday 7 january 2016 – la graciosa, islas canarias ]
after a glorious and windswept christmas in cornwall with my family i felt an urge for a period of complete solitude to clear my mind for the year ahead. by the end of 2015 there were so many alluring opportunities to expand the trampery that i realised i no longer had a clear sense of direction or purpose. i needed to get away from the complexity and noise in order to choose the right path.
thus on the thirtieth of december i booked a last-minute flight to the canary islands and twenty-four hours later i found myself stepping out of the airport terminal at lanzarote, blinking in the soft afternoon sunlight. looking at a map the most remote village i could find was el golfo on the west coast of the island, surrounded by a vast expanse of bare lava. so i booked a room, rented a car and set off.
speeding along the empty roads through the arid black landscape in the golden afternoon light i felt a sense of exhilaration rising in me. coming down the hill towards el golfo the village revealed itself as a small cluster of low white cuboid buildings huddled against the jagged black shore. a huge swell was rolling in from the atlantic. the wind tore the crests horizontally from from the waves sending feathery plumes through the air. everything was filled with the roar and spray of the surf as it crashed against the black rocks. i breathed it all in.
for as long as i can remember i’ve been superstitious about new year, looking to it for a sign of what the coming year will bring. i’ve always spent it with close friends. sometimes in a big city, sometimes in a beautiful wilderness. last year i saw in the new year with martin and jens on lyngen fjord at the arctic northern fringe of norway. previous locations have included stromboli, merida, berlin, london, the isles of scilly (for the millennium), melbourne and salvador da bahia. this is the first time in my life i’ve ever chosen to spend new year alone. i can’t deny i felt a little anxious about it, but i had a strong instinct it was the right thing to do.
after dropping my bags in el golfo i walked out to the rocks and immersed myself in the sound of the breaking surf. i walked to a small black sand beach at the end of the village where i sat and watched the final sunset of 2015. in the evening i drove into the island’s capital arrecife where i found the streets deserted. it felt as if the town had been abandoned. walking along a backstreet i was hailed from a small columbian restaurant, one of very few that were open, so i went in and dined on plantain and cheese.
afterwards i found my way to the old harbour and a neapolitan-run bar from which music and laughter were emanating. no sooner had i arrived than the staff began to race around distributing sealed plastic bags. one was shoved in my hands. i tore it open and found a party hat, a garland, a party hooter and a strange device comprising two plastic hands on a stick. suddenly everyone was cheering and honking. i thought there was another hour to go before midnight but i’d set the time zone wrong on my phone. 2016 had caught me by surprise. it seemed like a poetically apt way to begin the year. i joined the cheering, hooted my hooter, clapped the plastic hands and exchanged greetings with everyone on the tables around me.
the three days i spent in el golfo were passed in almost complete solitude; walking around the coast, swimming in the clear water and hiking across the barren lava fields. each evening i sat with my notebook scribbling down thoughts about projects, goals and possibilities; waiting for structure to emerge from the tangled mass. each day the shape become a little clearer. meanwhile i had two conversations where a tiny and exquisite island called la graciosa was mentioned. i knew that’s where i needed to go.
so on sunday day i packed my bag, bid farewell to el golfo and set off north along the central spine of the island. i drove through spectacular volcanic landscapes and small agricultural villages where vines were painstakingly grown in pits with low semicircular walls to shelter them from the incessant north-easterly wind. overnight i stayed with a couple in a fishing village called punta mujeres. after supper i went for a walk to explore. i heard music and found a group playing in a side street. gradually more musicians arrived until i counted three lutes, five guitars, two timples (tiny guitars specific to lanzarote), a castanet and a percussion instrument made from a ladder of goat knuckles worn round the neck.
several of the musicians took turns singing. the group would stand in front of a house and perform until the owner of the house opened the doors and windows to pass out small glasses of homebrewed sweet wine or pastis to all the musicians. after a few songs the music would stop and everyone would chatter for a while. then the group would start playing and proceed down the street until they picked the next house at which to pause. speaking to the musicians i learned this was a tradition specific to the north of lanzarote. for several days following new year musicians assembled and played in a different village each evening. this was their final night. i walked with them for an hour or more, delighted in my good fortune at crossing their paths.
the next morning i drove up the coast to the port of orzola on the northern tip of lanzarote. i locked the car and walked down to the little harbour to wait for a ferry. three hours later i was on a sturdy vessel pitching through the swell on the crossing to la graciosa. from the sea the island appears as three low volcanic craters sitting on a flat sandy base. two clusters of white dwellings were visible, the main village in the centre and a smaller settlement at the north with no more than a score of houses. pulling alongside the quay at caleta del sebo i was met by a young fellow called javi with whom i’d arranged to stay.
these last three days on graciosa have been sublime. my friends are all too familiar with my penchant for small islands. at eight kilometres long and four wide with a permanent population of seven hundred and no metalled roads (just sand), la graciosa feels very far from civilisation. i’ve spent the days walking for hours without seeing another soul and pausing to swim when i found a sheltered cove. the north-easterly wind and my rolleiflex have been my constant companions. the evenings have been spent talking with javi, continuing my writing and reading the pile of books i brought with me. javi has been perfect company, full of wisdom and curiosity.
last night, sitting in the kitchen, the final pieces came together and i knew i’d achieved what i came here for. now i write these words on my phone, seated by the starboard rail of the ferry carrying me back to orzola. by this evening i’ll be in london.
wherever you are, i send you my gladdest wishes for the year ahead. the darker the world grows, the brighter we must shine.
: c :