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While walking towards town, I meet Antje’s son, Pablo. He tells me that when I reach the bottom of the path, instead of turning left into the village I should go to the right and take the trail to the barranco, the ravine. This trail is the ancient Camino Real de La Costa (The Royal Road of the Coast) and wraps around the entire island, linking the villages and towns. It is marked by three distinct bands of color—red, yellow and white—painted on rocks, posts and signs along the way. It is an ancient road and just how long it has been in use is unknown. The Guanche people (aboriginal Berbers from mainland Africa) inhabited the island beginning in 1000 BC and Roman commander, Pliny the Elder makes mention of the Canary Islands as far back as 50 BC when a Mauretanian expedition landed there to find the abandoned ruins of massive buildings.
I take Pablo's advice and descend into the dense, thicketed canyon. The rock-studded trail is edged with gnarled trees, plump cacti, ferns, palms and succulents. At each steep drop-off, I stop to enjoy the magnificent scenery—a symphony of things blooming and growing, all of it tethered to the dark red, stone-riddled earth.
At the bottom of the barranco, the steep climbing begins. It is unbelievably hot and the walls of the ravine sway like giant, draped green nets on all sides. Sweat drips into the corners of my eyes and I try and ignore my fluttering heart as my feet slide across a loose fan of rocks near the trail’s edge. I catch my breath and continue to trudge upward, all to aware of the signs along the way that warn: Landslides! Peligro! Danger! After several switchbacks, I stop for a drink of water. Looking around, I notice a small, wooden door built into the mountainside. I sit down on its little stoop and just as I am wondering what could be inside, I hear a soft crunching.
A man is coming down the path above me carrying a massive bundle of grasses bound with twine. He supports this load with his back, neck and head. As he draws near, I stand hastily and gather up my pack.
“Buen día, señor,” I say. “Disculpe.” Excuse me. I scoot to one side of the narrow trail, away from the little mountainside door and keenly aware that there is no rail behind me to prevent a fall into the deep, green barranco.
“Nada, nada,” the man says and smiles. It’s nothing, it’s fine. With one hand, he opens the mysterious door and in a smooth motion, heaves the bundle of grass inside. Ah-ha! I think. Mystery solved. It’s a mountainside hay mow.
Inching away from the sheer drop-off, I continue upward. Suddenly, I hear the tinkle of bells. I look ahead and behind for the bobbing heads of goats, but there is nothing, just the grass man dashing nimbly down the trail. I walk on and the bells become louder. Still, no goats on the path. I stop and listen. There is sudden smacking sound. I look over and am startled to see a pair of goats sitting in the shadows of a large cave. They stare at me with deliberate interest, chewing placidly; heads swiveling in unison as I draw closer. They are seated upon a ledge above a large, open area of the cave where there are beds of straw and bowls filled with water and food, even a little gate fashioned from branches tied shut with rope. It is a very clever mountainside pen; the goats are cool and sheltered from the sun and in close proximity to the tableau grasslands at the top of the trail where they feed.
I walk on. There is another switchback and then, another. Finally, I stand upon the plateau of land that I can see from the window of my little cabin, all the way across the ravine. It is a breath-taking place; abundant with golden grasses, dragon trees and majestic views of the sea. Blue on blue as far as the eye can see. I breathe a sigh of relief and bask in the rich colors. Me, the girl whose knees ache at the mere thought of heights. I made it.
One afternoon, Kata, Antje's red cat comes calling. We play—me tugging his stuffed, pink dinosaur so that he will bat and fight it, legs wrapped like a wrestler around the faded, plush body. I pet him and he purrs loudly then, falls asleep on the striped patio bed.
All of a sudden, it is four o’clock and I am due at Antje’s shop. We are going to the neighboring town of Puntagorda to visit the local mercado (the market) and attend the African culture festival. I lock the door to my little cabin and bound down the trail to the town square. When I arrive, there are a surprising number of people in the plaza. Usually, it feels forgotten by time—just a few old men drinking wine at a plastic table in the corner.
Inside Antje’s shop there is a German couple that I passed on the Camino Real de la Costa earlier in the day. We exchange niceties and as they leave, Antje introduces me to another man. She nods at him with a smile and asks, “Can we take this one to Puntagorda, also?” He is slender with brown, curly hair, a scruffy beard. A shoulder bag is slung across his chest and he wears faded, brown cords and sandals; his cap sits at an angle. It’s Che Guevara, I think.
“No problem,” I say.
Before we can leave for Puntagorda, we must wait for Antje to close her shop. Che Guevara turns to me with a smile and says, “May I invite you for a drink?”
I accept and Antje shoos us out of the store. We walk next door to the local watering hole.
“You would like coffee—or wine, perhaps?” he asks, as we enter.
“Coffee, por favor,” I reply.
He says his name is Manolo and asks mine. I tell him. The bartender, Petra is from the Czech Republic. She deftly whips up a caffe sola and I carry it to the table. Monolo also has a coffee but tries to talk me into a shot of Jägermeister.
I make a face. “En serio?” Really?
“Oh yes,” he enthuses. “It’s the best. Es un digestivo!”
I shake my head. No, gracias.
Petra rolls her eyes and we share a look. She pulls out her iPhone. “Jägermeister es malo,” she states with an air of authority. “The best drink is from my country, from Czech Republic—Berenchova.” She shows us a Google photo of a fancy blue bottle of liquor.
Manolo waves her away with a laugh. Luckily, he drops the idea of Jäger shots. We talk instead of Garafia and La Palma. He works for the tourism office as a guide. It is one of the rare non-agro or shop jobs in Garafia.
“La Palma is not Spanish,” he says decisively. “Es todo. It’s everything.” There is a diverse mix of cultures here—Portuguese, French, Spanish, German, African, Eastern European. He pauses and brings out a worn, leather pouch of tobacco and rolling papers and begins to prepare a cigarette. “Regarding La Palma,” he continues. “Trust me, I am an expert here. Whatever you wish to know, I can tell you.”
Behind the counter, Petra arches a delicate brow and bites back a smirk.
When Antje is finally ready, she pulls an empty suitcase behind her out of the shop. It’s for the handicrafts she will buy at the mercado, she explains. As we stand in the plaza, her son, Pablo suddenly appears. Where he has been, I couldn’t say. He is quiet, shy and industrious. I often see him around his mother's property—toting grasses to cover compost, digging, raking, planting. Yesterday, we sat in the sun outside the kitchen house surrounded by a tribe of cats, me—bumping along in stilted Spanish as he patiently corrected me. I learned that he likes chess and hiking, speaks German and Spanish and teaches futbol to kids at the grade school. bumped along in stilted Spanish as he patiently corrected me. I learned that he likes chess and hiking, speaks German and Spanish and teaches futbol to kids at the grade school.
“Pablo, kommst du mit uns?” Antje asks him teasingly in German. Will you come with us?
He shakes his head and with a faint blush, nods toward the bar. It seems to be the place where the entire town goes when work is done. Pablo is a homebody, his mother has told me, and will always choose the familiar.
Behind us, Manolo’s voice suddenly crescendos. He has been on a diatribe for some time but I stopped listening after we left the bar. Now, he is ranting about something a German tourist did; a thing of no real consequence, other than it gives him something to shout passionately about.
“Ay de mi!” he roars, suddenly. Inexplicably. His voice echoes across the plaza and a table of tourists looks up curiously from their plates.
“Tranquillo, tranquillo,” Antje whispers, tugging at his sleeve.
We pile into the car. Before we leave town, Manolo asks to use the bank. I park across the street and we wait for him, windows down so that the sea air blows through. He stands at the ATM, legs apart, as if he is facing off against an enemy. After a few moments, he bangs both hands down on the machine.
Antje and I turn to watch him. She was in the middle of telling me that this ATM once had a small opening beneath the machine for trash—receipts and such—and that people (tourists, mainly), thinking it was the card slot, kept accidentally throwing their cards in the garbage. We know that this is not the case with Monolo, the local. The Expert on All Things La Palma. He begins cursing loudly in Spanish then, turns back towards us, his hands to the sky and yells: “It say—I am not enough!”
“Fondos insuficiente,” chuckles Antje. As in: no dinero. We stifle our laughter, make sympathetic gestures through the open window. He turns back to the machine and after more cursing and banging, finally trots back to the car. By some magic he has procured a fistful of Euros.
“Vamanos!” He exclaims, a triumphant gleam in his eye. “To the festiva!”
As we drive, Manolo leans forward between the front seats and expounds in Spanish about La Palma’s incredible natural features—its abundance of caves, mountains, lush forests, beaches, the diverse flora and fauna. There is even a giant caldera—a collapsed volcano—at its heart (Caldera de Taburiente). It's clear that Manolo wants all visitors to love the island as much as he. I’m not a hard sell, however and tell him that La Palma is definitely a place that everyone should see once in their life, if they are able. As he rattles on, I focus on hugging the road's snaking curves and then—Antje abruptly tells him to stop talking.
“I would like to speak to Richele, por favor, since she is gone tomorrow,” she says.
“Claro, claro,” he replies and leans back, placidly rolling another cigarette. I glance at him in the rearview mirror as he stares out the window with a gauzy expression on his face, his thoughts already floating elsewhere.
Antje begins to talk. She was a young mother when she first came to Garafia. Pablo was two. When she arrived, she had three boys and soon after, gave birth to a fourth. Her sons thrived on the island; the older two are now back in Germany, one a museum curator and the other, an outdoor educator for children. Her youngest sons—Pablo and his little brother—split their time between Berlin and Santo Domingo.
Before Antje came to Garafia, she lived a bohemian life. She made art and handicrafts and became a self-taught photographer. Once, she had a job driving trucks through the Andorran mountains. These days, life is simpler. Antje is content to run her shop selling artisan goods on La Palma but still travels as much as possible. An addiction of sorts, she admits. What she loves most is going to Africa by boat from Grand Canarias. She has visited Gambia and Senegal several times and loves both countries. She even tried to adopt an eight-year-old boy—a Gambian orphan she came to know on her visits; who called her “Mama” and begged her to take him with her as tears rolled down his cheeks. The paperwork went on for years, she says. She prepared her house, applied for the requisite approvals. But it never happened. She found the boy a good school in Gambia and paid for him to go there until he graduated. He has since grown up and has a daughter of his own.
"And the cycle of poverty repeats," she sighs. We talk more about this as we sit, sipping Cokes at the café outside the mercado in Puntagorda. Youssour N’Dour is blaring from the loud speakers as the stage is readied for the main act—a Senegalese band.
Later, we wander through the masses of dancers, drum circles and artists and finally, stroll the farmer’s market where, I buy a slab of rosemary goat cheese, some chocolate and a packet of anise crackers. The air is thick with colliding smells—the sweet haze of pastries and tang of cheeses, the keen pinch of spices. Outside, Antje steers me toward a stand where a woman is selling Gambian curry. In exchange for three euros she hands us plates laden with saffron rice and tender chicken swimming in a froth of coconut milk, dates, currants and cumin.
Later that evening, after we we have returned from Puntagorda, Antje comes to my little cabin bearing a steaming pot of Lemongrass tea. She is glad, I think, that I am so happy here. That I find it to be the kind of place I might return. When we were at the café earlier, she took a deep draw off her little pipe and said, “We should meet in Fuerte Ventura next year. There is a nice place on the beach to stay and there will be music and art and handicrafts. And dancing.”
It sounds like magic. And as she says the words, I would like nothing more. Yet, I suddenly realize: there is no such thing as ‘all the time in the world’. We can only see as much of the world as our brief time on earth will allow.
Both relief and desperation settle over me as I ponder this.
In the morning, I go next door again for my breakfast. I’m to go there whenever I like, Antje has said. The kitchen house is 150 years old; a traditional stone Canarian building that was about to collapse in on itself when Antje stumbled across the property in 1992. Workers on the island helped her bring the crumbling ruins back to life, adding plumbing and electricity and also—refurbishing the dilapidated goat barn in the back acre which, at the time, was nothing but a huge, overgrown jungle. During renovations, Antje lived in her caravan camper parked down in the town of Santo Domingo, 1500 feet of rocky switchbacks below the property. Gradually, the refurbished kitchen house and guest cabin blossomed into being and the goat barn became her home—an artful place of skylights, African cushions, colorful throws and vines curled around reclaimed beams.
When I arrive at the kitchen house, I unlatch the blue French doors and step into a woody hive from another era. It is earthily fragrant and totally quiet, save for the ticking of a clock. On one end, wood shelves laden with recipe books, tins and baskets of fresh produce line the wall alongside a side board, gas stove and sink; bundles of herbs hang above in the rafters. On the opposite end of the room there is a lofted bed and beneath it, a sofa and upright piano that Antje brought from Germany. There is also a wood-burning stove, shelf crammed with books and one modern touch—a fish tank where a pair of red, fan-tailed cichlids dart between the rocks.
On the table, my breakfast awaits: a bowl of gofio (locally-made porridge) topped with banana slices, on a plate—four green arcs of fresh avocado, a wedge of goat cheese, slices of salami and fresh bread—three coarse and brown, four soft and white. There is also an orange and hot tea. And milk, butter and jam.
I begin with the gofio and then, devour the avocados atop the delicious brown bread. Thinking ahead, I pocket the orange, slice the cheese and with the meat—make two small sandwiches for my hike.
This is the morning in Antje’s kitchen house—sunny, warm and florid with rich aromas.
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