An Indelicate Balance

Gran Canaria. Officially a part of Spain but so close to north Africa that it feels strange to hear Spanish spoken. Like so many beautiful places, the island relies heavily on tourism, often at the expense of the environment and traditional ways of life.

And yes, people do live here. Actual Canarian people, many of whom want complete independence from Spain. In Las Palmas, they live in little sea-facing apartments with tiny balconies overlooking the Playa de Las Canteras, or in swanky white villas draped with pink bougainvillea. On the outskirts of the city, they live in brightly colored, slightly ramshackle houses on the cliffs – houses which the Atlantic ocean beats relentlessly on one side, while laundry flaps in the wind on lines stretched across roof terraces.

Just outside the harbor at Las Palmas, foreign oil tankers and trawlers sit and wait for repairs and maintenance before heading out again to the west coast of Africa. One of these ships, a Russian trawler, caught fire one night and was promptly towed away from the harbor to burn and spill its oil far from the cruise ships that happened to be there that night. The fuel that leaked from the ship affected coastline and wildlife.

In the south of the island, the tourist emporiums cling to the volcanic earth like barnacles. Or like some kind of skin disease. Cancer, shingles scabs, eczema. The hotel complex we briefly visit is all whitewashed concrete and glass. Empty shops advertise Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, Ray-Ban. Muzak tinkles. I am terrified. I feel like I’ve been sucked into J.G. Ballard’s Cocaine Nights. In Maspalomas we pass a hotel called Palm Beach on our way to the dunes. Behind its fence, tourists lie sprawled on sun loungers. I wonder if it makes any difference to them where they are. And then I feel bad for looking down my nose at people who have just earned their right to relax in the sun.

We run for the hills, literally. First to La Aldea de San Nicolas de Tolentino, where we stay in a hostel run by an environmental conservation activist. She tells us about how the hordes of tourists who flood the island have little respect for the environment, littering and trampling the dunes at Maspalomas, a protected natural heritage site, and how the local government isn’t very proactive in educating people.

At La Playa, we climb to the top of a cliff and watch a man scamper over the slippery rocks beneath us with a bucket, looking for shellfish or crabs. The wind blows ferociously but the plants and shrubs growing out of the rocky ground barely flinch.

We drive up a steep and winding road, past hidden lakes and rivers, to Tamadaba Natural Park. Here the climate changes completely. We are in the clouds and white mist swirls eerily between the pine trees. It’s amazing how evocative smells can be: I roll down the window and smell Norway, where I haven’t been in over 15 years.

In the tiny town of Artenara, we sit in the town square and Rosario serves us fried cheese and chorizo. She chats to us about the various hiking trails in the area and encourages us to flip through a guidebook she keeps behind the bar. We finish our food in the company of several old men and a cat. The air is crisp but the sun is shining and for a few precious minutes it is utter bliss – until several busloads of French tourists arrive.

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