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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Learning from Canaries

By MIKE McILVAIN

SANTA CRUZ DE TENERIFE, Spain – No one anticipates the sudden wrath of
indignation possible here when unfamiliar with local Canary Islands
universities.
"?Como? ?No sabes de nuestro universidades aqui?" the lady said,
launching a million daggers my way.
Small talk in Spanish over a very good islands' version of Italian
risotto turned tasteless when the greeter-waitress's eyes flashed and
nostrils flared at the instant of my ignorance. I had never heard, by
name, of any of these islands' universities, geographically tucked
away from Europe's main line of sight off the coast of northwest
Africa – closer to Morocco than any other country. And I still don't
know why they should stand out in particular for any other reason than
her pride.
We might not take our remoteness so hard here in Laredo, but there is
at least that one lady on the island of Tenerife with visible related
emotions.
This wasn't Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, South Bend,
Indiana, Norman, Oklahoma, or Lincoln, Nebraska, but that blind spot
for Canary Islands universities could have been treated just as
horribly had I suddenly stepped into a restaurant in any U.S. college
football hotbed on a fall Saturday and sheepishly asked why were so
many people wearing the same colors and heading toward the stadium?
She wore a red dress, so I guess she might have been something like a
transplanted Sooner, but I have checked the OU Web site and saw
nothing about any big games between them and any universities in the
Canary Islands.
Exhibiting pride in the local university is there, too, but no other
connection was seen and nothing else mattered at the moment.
Trying politely to tell the truth that in the U.S. we hear very little
of the Canary Islands as it is, leaving the universities farther down
the list wasn't working. Her eyes still resembled something very angry
and vengeful, springing out of the nearby Atlantic like a sea monster,
but repeated compliments on the risotto seemed to help settle down the
inner fire I accidentally stoked when failing to acknowledge any
knowledge of local higher education, shortly after getting off the
plane from Barcelona.
I went to that restaurant one more time – when careful scrutiny from
the street didn't reveal her devilish eyes or coal black hair. Asking
about her turned out to be a bit of a blood pressure raiser with the
other greeter-waiter in attendance, so I ate a good, saucy fish meal,
got out of there and forgot the restaurant, settling for lesser eating
places in my stay of the better part of a week before flying back to
the mainland.
The trek to those other restaurants often took me past that same
emotion-charged establishment and sight of her made me turn sideways
and quickly down nearby streets. No sense taking chances.
Chances were taken the following day in a bus trip over Tenerife's
hilly midsection to Puerto de la Cruz on the island's western side.
The bus driver might have been in some sort of deal with the devilish
waitress – taking one quick look at me, he yanked the green bus into
service as I searched for a seat – making me suddenly glad for that
balance skateboarding taught me many years earlier.
The hour-long white knuckles trip over the often photogenic and
panoramic scenery was more thrill-bound with the driver's
determination to zip blindly through intersections before sudden stops
to take on, or let passengers off. I wasn't alone in my prayerful
mistrust of this young, wild-eyed driver – one older man, getting off
halfway through breathed a loud sigh of relief as he stepped off,
shaking his head briefly back toward the bus. The driver was the
subject of some chatter with other regular riders who live in the
small towns and villages between the Santa Cruz and Puerto de Santa
Cruz.
Spain's tallest mountain, Mt. Tiede, rests with its clouds and
sunshine mixture off of one's left shoulder in this ride with the sea,
pounding surf and tourist watching waiting in Puerto.
The Canary Islands are seriously touristy, but not so badly saturated
that one can't find quiet, relaxing moments by the sea, or in the
countryside on these seven spots of Atlantic-surrounded land, which
Spain has owned for some 600 years.
Many Canary visitors visit Tenerife, the biggest of the group, and
Lanzarote for its unusual volcanic-created landscape, which is the
course I followed, hoping to see other islands there some day later
whenever time and circumstance allow – assuming the waitress and bus
driver have gone onto better things in life.
Tenerife's diverse offerings range between simple, sparsely populated
country scenes and upscale, expensive wall-to-wall peopled seaside
condos and restaurants rivaling that of Hawaii or Mexico's Pacific
Coast. Travel brochures and Web sites don't properly prepare the
American for all the skin Europeans like to air by the beach or pool,
but once that little shock is dealt with you're ready for any sight.
Or so you thought.
Ferries run between the islands and Spanish mainland, but planes are
frequently the choice and the roundtrip between Tenerife and Lanzarote
isn't a cheapy, costing at least $150, but the sights of this volcanic
island prove worth it -- at least once in a lifetime.
Lanzarote's oil painting-looking barren landscape resembles the world
after a nuclear holocaust with its dashes of reds, browns, grays,
whites and blacks. Camel rides, strong wine grown in black sand pits,
white villages resembling their North African cousins' more than those
in Spain's Andalucia and a restaurant where the food is warmed from
the volcanic earth below make the traveler feel he, or she, is in a
very distinct place.
Life's pace in the Canaries moves on the slow side -- more like the
Caribbean than Europe and Thor Heyerdahl's influenced museum and
pyramids at Guimar on Tenerife lend more otherworld-type images and
thoughts.
Norwegian-born Heyerdahl is most famous for his 1947 Kon Tiki papyrus
boat trip from South American into the South Pacific, which sold many
books by the same title and earned an Oscar for top documentary.
Heyerdahl also sailed a papyrus boat to the Americas, which the BBC
made special note of in its 2002 obituary on the explorer:
"In 1970 he crossed the Atlantic in a papyrus craft, Ra II after the
original Ra had disintegrated shortly after it set out. The journey,
which ended in triumph in the West Indies turned the idea that
Columbus was the first transatlantic navigator on its head," it read.
Exhibits at the Casa de Chacona Museum at the Pyramids of Guimar Park
peak the interest of the curious, noting similarities and reason to
suspect obscure links between other continents and the Americas. The
museum, like so many historians, didn't forget that Americas-bound
sailors from Spain always stopped in the Canaries for provisions and
that last night on the town before braving the Atlantic in little
wooden sailing boats. This museum also makes you consider who else
left early, forgotten footprints on beaches in the Americas.
"Who were the white and bearded men worshipped yet also shown
sacrificed in ancient Mexican art, before Columbus came?" asks one of
the museum exhibits.
Equally thought provoking are the pyramids of Guimar, which look too
much like something near Mexico City with cactus growing through and
around them. Museum explanations note that pyramid building was not
restricted to Egypt and Mexico, but that it was largely a worldwide
phenomenon, seeming to be a shared idea across unattached cultures.
On the surface, on the surf and in the mind, the Canary Islands leave
many lingering questions and thoughts, despite any knowledge of its
universities.
But I am much more willing to learn about them then I was that night in that restaurant.

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