The trip to Stockholm the week before Christmas disrupted vacation plans for the long Christmas holidays. Most years, although the Germans leave the office by noon the day before Christmas and New Year, it’s almost the end of the workday before we’re notified that we can leave "early." This year, however, since the 24th and 31st were on Mondays, the buildings weren’t even unlocked after the weekend, leaving us no alternative but to take two extra days of Administrative time!
We had been looking for a sunny, warm place to spend some time. (Not that Frankfurt has been that bad. Since we got mountain bikes last summer, I’ve been riding mine to work nearly every day and have yet to get wet. For several days after we got a four-inch snowfall in December, I decided it was prudent to walk to work, although even then I saw cyclists with even skinny-tired bicycles ploughing through the snow.) By then, it was too late to get the series of shots and visa required for Kenya.
Another alternative was Egypt – we figured that as long as we returned before January 15th, we probably wouldn’t get caught in a war. [Recall, this was during Operation Desert Shield, the buildup to the first Gulf War.] And there was the possibility that it might be the last time there would be anything left to see in that part of the world. However, when we asked a travel agent if there was anything still available for Egypt, she handed us a brochure and asked us what we wanted her to check. At least, as long as we were occupying the chair in front of her, she would continue to check out our requests. (Also, see Travel Agents.) We were soon able to find that nothing was left for the time period we had available.
It’s a lot simpler for the "Last Minute Travel" agent at the airport – she knows what they have left, or at least what was still available the last time she checked. The Canary Islands looked promising. I had earlier asked the ASIM project manager about them and he said that when he had been to Grand Canary Island many years before the weather was perfect. Although it has since become very touristy, there are 6 other islands in the Canaries. He said he thought one reason the Germans found the Canary Islands so attractive was because, although they shared the African climate (Lanzarote is only 50 miles off the coast of Morocco) they were European – there wasn’t the very different customs of the North Africans; for instance in the way they treated women. There were two possibilities on the island of Tenerife: one in a resort town, the other five miles up the coast, which we chose.
The weather was like we’d always wished it would be when we’d been to the Caribbean. We had a nearly cloudless two weeks. The brochures had said there was an average of six hours of daily sunshine in January – maybe they meant the number of hours when you could get a tan, because the sun rose over the mountains at 8:15 and sank into the ocean at 6 every day we were there. The temperature was in the low 70s during the day with enough breeze off the ocean to counteract the heat of the sun. At night it was in the low 60s – perfect sleeping weather. Somehow, even on Tenerife, one of the Canary Islands which is the farthest from the African coast, the humidity is low enough that the towels dry out between the morning shower and when you might need another one after a hard day of sun-tanning.
The Canaries are volcanic islands, and we could see snow-capped El Teide, at 14,000 feet, the highest mountain in Spain(!), ten miles to the northeast. The nearer mountains reminded us of the Sangre de Christos in northern New Mexico – except there was an ocean 100 yards to the west. Tenerife, the largest of the Canaries, is shaped like a narrow triangle pointing towards the northeast, about 70 miles long and 30 miles wide. A high plateau and ridge of mountains making up the long center of the island assures that most of the rain from the prevailing westerlies falls before it reaches the southeast side. Although the northwest side is green, it is also more often cloudy. The southeastern part of the island, including where we were, was arid. However, because of irrigation, terraced banana plantations covered much of the land that sloped to the sea.
That’s not to say that it is all picturesque – five miles south from us along the coast, within sight of our seventh floor balcony, is Playa Las Americas, containing as garish a group of concrete high rise hotels and condos as you’ll find in any resort area. Also failed malls, both old and new, that overestimated the tourist’s appetite for souvenirs and beach clothes. Time-share shills accosted us every other block asking if we spoke French, German, English? They didn’t know how to handle Americans – they expected British, and it didn’t seem likely that we’d think it a good investment from the U.S. However that didn’t stop them from trying.
Even in our relatively isolated area, there were the remains of two high rises that failed before opening. They still sit there, not yet stuccoed and painted, with "No Trespassing" signs. But they’re still trying – across the gorge a billboard advertises "15 Luxus Bungalows, mit 2 oder 3 Schlaffzimmers" – it’s easy to see who they’re targeting. These at least have been stuccoed or painted, but they still stand vacant amongst two cranes.
We rented a car for three days and travelled around the island. Actually, in three days we had three cars. Each day something different went wrong with the latest one we’d been given – it's clear that Tenerife is not a German possession!
The first day we went up the expressway along the southeastern side of the island to the capital, Puerto de la Cruz, which is mainly a port city. As the world’s first "free port," it gave a big boost to the Spanish economy, until others picked up on the idea. A few miles further north is the only white sand beach on the island (elsewhere, where there is sand, it’s black, from the volcanic rock). Although some of the Canaries near Africa have white sand blown across the ocean from the Sahara, this sand was brought in by ships just for the purpose! (By the way, the islands aren’t named after the birds, rather the other way around. The islands were actually named after the wild dogs, Canaria, found there by early explorers. The native birds were then named for the island where they were found.)
The next day we drove up to the high plateau at the base of El Teide. The route we chose turned out to be more exciting than the cable car ride from the plateau to the summit. After a series of switchbacks we were crawling along a narrow road, with a sheer drop of what seemed to be several thousand feet on our right – no guard rails, of course – when I suggested to Betty Lou that she tape the vista with the camcorder. She said she was too nervous to reach in the back seat to get it. As she was on the side next to the precipice and I was leaning forward carefully scrutinizing the road ahead with both hands very firmly gripping the steering wheel, I couldn’t really complain.
Arriving at Mt. Teide, we eyed the distance yet to climb to reach the summit – about 4,600 feet. Even here, there was snow on the ground, and although we did bring sweaters and jackets, we weren't prepared for extended winter exposure. And just walking left us short of breath – less than two hours before we had been at sea level and now we were at nearly the the height of Pikes Peak.
So we took the cablecar. From the observation deck there were sweeping views in all directions, including several other Canary Islands in the distance – Gran Canaria to the east and La Palma, La Gomera and El Hierro to the west.
The third day, Sunday, we drove across the central ridge of mountains to the northwestern part of the island. We saw small towns that looked like they were in Spain, one that had been engulfed by the last eruption of El Teide in 1706, a train of dozing camels waiting for tourists to climb aboard, a "dragon tree" reputed to be 3000 years old, and a Botanical Garden established to acclimatize plants brought back by Spanish conquistadors.
Rather than again return by the boring expressway down the eastern side of the island we decided to cut across the high plateau. Big mistake! It seemed that every family with a car on the island decided to take a Sunday romp in the snow, which could still be found in areas that weren’t in direct sunlight all day. The narrow, two-lane road hewn through the lava fields didn’t have enough space for off-street parking, so people just left their vehicles, usually partly on the road. The cars, and buses(!) trying to make their way through sometimes were stalled for 20 minutes at a time.
After having filled the gas tanks of the first two cars, and having used less than half (no credit for extra gas returned), today I had only put in the amount I estimated we would use. Before long I turned off the engine (and therefore, heater) whenever we stopped – I did mention that there was snow outside? I asked Betty Lou to refresh her memory, and her English-Spanish dictionary, for how to ask some helpful, we hoped, motorist if we could borrow some gas – and by the way, did they have a siphon hose? Fortunately, the reserve tank held more gas than I thought.
The package tour tourists arrive several times a week: you can spot the latest group not just by their paleness but by their demeanor. The women nervously eye the topless sunbathers next to the pool bar and head towards the outskirts to tan. After a couple of days, they lie on their side towards the sun, away from the hotel, and roll the top down a little or untie it, depending on the type of bathing suit, but ready to put it back on if there seems to be too much nearby activity. A few days later, they don’t bother. By the end of a week, they’re one of the group next to the pool bar.
The hotel has two main levels for sun tanning: one around the pool, the other a level higher and to the rear, over the dining rooms. Smaller, lower levels overlook a gorge, and an intermediate level gives a good view of the pool and Jacuzzi. One day we noticed that two German guys had set up their lounges on the intermediate level. When they weren’t sun bathing or away at the back of the upper level playing table tennis, they seemed to spend a lot of time studying the sunbathing beauties around the pool.
That day I also noticed a couple of girls, tiny-bikinied but otherwise modest – not even occasionally slipping the top off partway to get a little more tan – about halfway back on the upper deck. Near us; of course that’s the only reason I would have noticed them! The next day I noticed their lounges were at the front edge, overlooking the boys. The day after they were also on the intermediate level, but they didn’t yet seem to have struck up a conversation with the guys, who were still surveying the pool area. Then one of them hugged the other, who playfully pushed him away and they both ran off to play some more table tennis. Soon after, the girls had left.