Archive for February, 2008

The last time we took Andy’s stepmother, Marge, to La Laguna it didn’t so much rain cats and dogs, as lions and hyenas. So her impression of it wasn’t the most favourable.
During her visit this year we took her again when the sun was shining, determined that she would get to see its beautifully preserved old town at its best.
La Laguna's colourful old streetsWe wandered around cobbled streets, explored hidden courtyards and atmospheric old churches, crossed Tiananmen sized squares and strolled around the farmer’s market where rows of stalls displayed the salted fish and the most perfect vegetables; some, like the green and purple cauliflowers, I’d never seen before.
It was all going well until it was time for lunch. On our meandering we’d passed the most alluring tapas bars, but Marge is of the generation where adventurous cuisine means trying a brand of cheddar that’s unfamiliar, so we had to forego the trendy tapas bars for somewhere which had ‘toasties’ on the menu.
As a compromise we picked the rather oddly named ‘Pearl of the Caribbean’ café on Plaza del Adelantado which seemed to have a menu to cover all persuasions. To be fair, it wasn’t a hardship, the plaza’s a lovely place for a leisurely lunch.

The waiter handed us some menus, but before we had a chance to peruse them, recommended that we try the house speciality, the arepas.
These are corn pancakes which are filled, then fried; a speciality from Venezuela. Andy and I hadn’t tried them for a long time, so decided to go with his suggestion. The waiter turned his attention to Marge.
Without even glancing in his direction, she said to Andy. “Tell him I want a cheese and ham toastie.”
When the waiter heard this, he rolled his eyes and started lecturing Marge about being typically British, wanting the same food abroad as she has at home. All done good-naturedly of course, and with a smile on his face.

This didn’t endear him to Marge for a couple of reasons:

  • He had the audacity to speak to her in Spanish.
  • Although she didn’t have a clue what he was saying, she got the gist that he was mocking her and she doesn’t like the idea of her choice of a toastie lunch being questioned.

She also felt that we’d been bullied into having arepas despite our reassurances that, as the place did actually specialise in arepas, we did actually fancy trying them.

There was another Venezuelan dish on the menu, cachapas. I hadn’t tried them before, so I asked the waiter what they were like.
“You don’t want to try them, too much fat. Eat a lot of them…or toasted sandwiches,” he added; another dig at Marge. “And you’ll end up fat. Stick to arepas and you’ll be like me.” He was whip thin.
I liked this guy. The cachapas were double the price of the arepas, yet here he was, pushing what was probably the cheapest thing on the menu. You’ve got to trust someone’s judgement when they do something like that.

That’s La Laguna for you; a town with bags of old fashioned charm and honest waiters. Although, if you asked Marge she’d probably tell you it was the place where it rained a lot and waiters tried to bully you into having something you didn’t want.

The arepas, by the way, were delish. Although, admittedly I could have managed two, but I didn’t dare tell the waiter that.

Obsidian eyes

That dragged me into their depths and trapped me.

The Romany girl

She took me to the graveyard

She took me in the graveyard

She took me, she took me, she took me.

The Romany girl devoured my heart and shredded my soul

A curse or a gift?

I guess I’ll never know.

Our neighbour regularly leaves little ‘gifts’ from her garden at our gate; enormous juicy lemons, glossy avocados which are so perfect that they look as though they’ve been touched up for a photo shoot and the bizarre, but appropriately named custard apples.
The other day she brought something quite different; a little jar of orange salsa called mojo rojo.
Mojo rojo (a spicy sauce made from chillies) is one of two sauces that are invariably served with a popular local dish, papas arrugadas (literally wrinkled potatoes), in restaurants around Tenerife. The other is mojo verde which is quite similar to pesto.

Hot stuff“Do you like spicy sauces?” She asked, handing me the jar.
“Love em,” I replied.
“Well be careful with this one; it’s pretty piquant.”
“No problem, thanks,”

And not for the first time I should have taken note of the warning. The ‘be careful, this is very hot,’ ‘don’t worry, I’m used to hot food’ exchange has reared its head a number of times over the years:

On Jamaica in a restaurant called the Hungry Lion, ignoring the big red cross and warning on a bottle of ‘Hellfire Sauce’ I poured it over my red snapper like it was ketchup. The Rastafarian waiter, spotting this, ran to the table arms outstretched, but it was too late. Even gallons of Red Stripe couldn’t extinguish the flames in my mouth.

In Bangkok, my green curry was served with little pyramids of spices all around my plate.
“What do I do with this?” I asked the waitress.
“Mix it to your tastes,” she replied.
So I did. I mixed the whole lot together and spooned some into my mouth.
This time a whole gang of waitresses ran toward the table with the one who’d served me shouting “You’re not supposed to eat all of the spices.”
I think they had to bandage my tongue after that one.

On Krabi, an innocuous little dip with a silly name ‘nam prik’ was the culprit. A generous dollop on a stick of celery and somebody set off a nuclear device in my head, bringing on a bout of hiccups that had the other diners sniggering and which lasted so long that I was sure I’d get a mention in the Guinness Book of Records.

So when my neighbour passed me the jar of mojo rojo with a warning about its potency did it trigger alarm bells in my head? Did it buggery.

The sauce was delicious, savoury and perked up my plate of papas arrugadas no end, but it had a kick that could raise the dead from the grave; I don’t think I’ll be able to put anything else in my mouth for at least another week.

Although the theme of Carnaval had been fear, we’d already done the ‘monster’ bit and decided to forego any mask or wig which turned trying to eat, or drink, into a logistics nightmare. So for the final party I dressed up as a traditional cowboy (I know, not very imaginative – but it was practical) whilst Andy opted for a Doc Holliday look (Val Kilmer style).

The first sight that greeted us as we arrived in Plaza del Charco was quite enchanting. A shocking pink 50s style convertible with a sound system much, much younger than the car was blasting out some Buena Vista Social Club sounds and a lone couple were salsa-ing sexily next to the car. It was a cinematic image and I felt for a second that I could’ve been on the streets of downtown Havana. Then the music changed to the Bee Gees and the spell was shattered.

Where fancy dress is the norm - is that a real nun having a sly puff?One of the wonderful things about Carnaval is that it’s a party where everyone’s welcome, whatever their age. The Plaza, with nightly live bands, tends to be favoured by older Carnaval goers. Calle Perdomo’s beer and spirit kiosks and sound systems attract a twenty-something age group while thirty-somethings congregate in the area around the Pandora bar. A square enclosure beside the harbour is the preferred domain of the teenagers – within easy access of the burger and churros stalls. Even the town’s car park gets in on the act with an alternative Carnaval thing going on; car boots are converted into makeshift bars and sound systems piled high on the back of pick-up trucks turn the tarmac into an open air rave. However, each area isn’t exclusive. Like many people, we flitted from one to the other depending on where the best music was being played.

The odd thing though is that the music doesn’t vary greatly between any of the different venues. It’s all a variation of Latino/salsa; even the Hip Hop has Latino rhythms; it doesn’t matter whether its Billo’s Caracas Boys, Daddee Yankee or David Bisbal, they’ve all got that salsa beat.
Now, I hate dancing…no, that’s not right. I would love to be able to dance, I just can’t. I’m too self conscious and have absolutely no rhythm. I just know that I’m going to look like an embarrassing forty-something year old doing the ‘Dad’ dance. So I avoid even trying. However, the thumping salsa beat even got to me and I found myself shuffling my feet thinking of what someone had told me about salsa’s roots; that the short, sharp steps were as a result of restricted manoeuvrability caused by chains around slaves’ legs.

If only the DJ’s hadn’t changed tack and switched their Latino music for American and British sounds.
Don’t ask me why, but the influx of non-Spanish music here seems to have stopped somewhere around 1979. Suddenly the sexy sultry sound of Carnaval changed to the dated sounds of a British 40th birthday bash as salsa gave way to a ‘Grease’ medley, followed by a bit of Queen and then Saturday Night Fever and then, worst of all, a Spanish version of ‘Follow Da Leader’ (Sigue El Líder, I think). And amazingly, the thousands of Carnaval goers in Calle Perdomo all seemed to lap it up. In front of me a girl gestured for me to join in with the actions.
She screamed at me as I kept a fixed grin on my face while thinking. ‘I’m of the baby boomer generation. We listen to Amy, Green Day, The Kaisers, Faithless; not this.’

Just when I thought the music couldn’t get any worse, ‘Sigue El Líder’ was replaced by ‘Let’s do the Timewarp again”.
Andy and I looked at each other. At that point we knew that it was time to leave. For us, Carnaval 2008 was over.
And anyway, it was the Manchester derby the next day and we wanted to have some energy left to watch that – What a big mistake that turned out; we really should have stayed at Carnaval.

If there’s one thing you can guarantee at Carnaval, it’s that at some time it’s going to rain. Some may see this as a heavenly judgement on the hedonistic nature of the beast. On the other hand it just happens that Carnaval generally takes place during the rainiest month of the year, February.

This year it looked as though we’d been lucky and the rain stayed away…that is until the final day and Carnaval’s big closing parade, the Gran Coso.

By Saturday morning the outlook looked gloomy. The sky was filled with heavy swollen clouds, literally ready to rain on our parade, which would clearly put a dampener on proceedings.
For most of the day the rain drizzled down, more Manchester than Tenerife, but then just before 4 pm, the parade’s official start time, a miracle no less. The angry clouds parted like the Red Sea to be replaced by blue skies and bright sunshine. For once the weather gods smiled on Carnaval.

Dancers in the closing paradeIn typical Tenerife fashion, the parade started late, but the sunshine brought out beaming smiles and sparkling costumes all round as fairies, Egyptians, native American Indians, Geisha girls, belly dancers et al swirled, spun and salsa’d their way along Puerto’s seafront. A delegation from Düsseldorf were seated in a stand opposite us. I only mention them because a couple of the delegates nearly got into a fight with each other just before the parade began. One was trying to manoeuvre his way through the packed stand to get some beer, the other wasn’t in the mood for budging, leading to a ‘handbags at dawn’ scenario. It was something and nothing, but it was the only aggressive scene that we witnessed throughout Carnaval. Shame on them that these supposedly honoured guests nearly cast a black cloud, albeit a small one, over what is a happy, friendly and trouble free event.
The infectious nature of a parade soon lightened the atmosphere amongst the Düsseldorf delegates and for three hours men, women, girls and boys danced their way through Puerto’s streets.

The general rule of thumb for many participants at Carnaval is to wear as little as possible, both during parades and at the parties afterwards, which is maybe one of the reasons that Red Cross volunteers accompanied the parade handing out free condoms to the crowd. I was taken by surprise and, given my age, slightly flattered when one volunteer leaned toward me. Then reality bit as he gestured for me to move before he thrust a handful of condoms into the hands of a bemused and clearly embarrassed young German lad who was standing behind me.
At around 7pm, the arrival of the Carnaval Dames and Queen signalled that the parade was almost at an end and the glitzy showbizzy aspect of Carnaval was over for another year…now it was just the final night’s party to survive and then we could catch up on some rest.

The best food stall in the worldOne of the little things that gives me a buzz every Carnaval is the appearance of the Meson California food stall. Puerto de la Cruz already has plenty of great eateries, but this wooden rectangular ‘Carnaval only’ stall is in a league of its own.
It’s jam packed with goodies; blackened legs of Serrano hams, great green hands of bananas and a curtain of long strings of chorizos hangs from its ceiling. In the centre of the stall, silver platters are piled high with calamari, pinchos and great bunches of emerald herbs whilst the long counter is filled with juggernaut sized loafs of bread and doorstop sized montaditos topped with morcillas, chorizos, strips of Serrano, glistening charred Italian peppers and the biggest carb hit of all, a montadito topped with a full Spanish tortilla.
And the aromas…they’re enough to drive you insane. This is the stall that ended nearly ten years of not eating meat for both Andy and I, such was its seductive powers. The essential refuelling stop for flagging revellers, it is a foodie’s paradise and quite possibly the best food stall in the world.

All dressed up for the drag marathonI thought I’d imagined it, but then it happened again – this time with a bit more force; something was being brushed against my groin.
I looked down to see a large peacock feather being wafted against my nether regions. Startled, I traced a path along the feather and up the hand and arm holding it, and found myself staring into the face of a six foot transvestite wearing 7 inch high heels. She/he fluttered her long eyelashes, smiled sweetly, held up a ruffled hand and whispered huskily (the emphasis being on the huskily):
Laughing, I moved aside. Well it served me right. I’d been blocking the access to the fuel supply for this years’ ‘Mascarita Ponte Tacón’ (High Heels Marathon). In other words, I was in the way of the free beer provided by Puerto de la Cruz’ Ayuntamiento for the contestants in what has become one of the most popular and funniest events of Carnaval on Tenerife.

It’s a nice touch; plying the high-heeled beauties with beer just before the race. Some were struggling to walk on heels as it was; throw in alcohol to mess with balance and co-ordination systems and a series of platform-shoe unfriendly obstacles along the length of the course and you’ve got a recipe for mayhem. The very least that’s going to get broken is some elegantly painted fingernails. The whole thing is a hoot.

Missing an essential piece of costumeThere were over 200 entrants this year and the registration took a good two hours; a marathon in itself, but it did give me time to have a good look at what fantastic, imaginative and lewd and rude costumes were on show; which was almost as much fun as the race itself.
There were flowerpots, Xmas trees, cowgirls, Madonna’s, Paris Hiltons, scantily clad weightlifters, scantily clad overweight and underdressed mock tourists, whole shops (yep, really – people dressed as shops; figure that one out), cacti and even someone in a functioning bath and shower. This year’s lot weren’t quite as un-PC as in previous years, but here were still enough ‘shocking’ touches (the usual model penis’ barely concealed by short dresses, exposed buttocks etc) to shock any conservative and sensitive, unsuspecting visitors in the thirty-odd thousand strong crowd.

After my dalliance with the towering tranny, I decided to retire to a more strategic spot and let the stars of the show get on with the fun, nonsense and general razzmatazz.
God knows how the ‘marathon men’ feel today after running an assault course in their stilettos and platforms, but I know that my legs are stiff from just standing and watching, and my jaw muscles are aching from an overdose of laughing and smiling.

Last night I must have bumped into someone dressed as Sylvester Stallone, cos I feel as though I’ve been pummelled by Rocky Balboa for 15 rounds. Mind you, it isn’t all down to over indulgence at Carnaval’s opening party.

It was one of those days when everything seemed to be happening. A deadline for a regular walking feature was looming close and calima and high clouds on Tenerife for the last couple of weeks had ruled out the chance of any decent photos, until yesterday. So the day started with a three hour hike along an old merchant’s trail on the island’s northern coast. Trouble was Spanish TV was screening the Tottenham v Man Utd game, so we had to hot foot it home for that; the sweat barely had time to dry under the rucksack straps.

Man Utd had hardly managed their last gasp escape when it was time for an early dinner of Mediterranean pitta pockets (a semi home made concoction of flat breads filled with mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, red onion, sweet pepper, fresh basil and oregano which is lightly fried in olive oil). Delicious and quick; essential given that Carnaval’s opening parade was due to start at 20.00 (or so it said in the official guide).

Andy and I work on the basis that nothing, but nothing starts on time here – it’s a pretty sound principle, so we didn’t drive to Puerto until nearly 20.30. Unfortunately, by that time, there wasn’t a parking space to be found in, or near the town. The nearest spot we could find was in the La Paz district above the town, a 15 – 20 minute walk to the centre, most of which is down stairs; it’s okay going down, but a killer on the thighs on the way back up. We eventually reached the town centre about ten to nine and guess what? The parade had only just started.

a taste of Rio in Puerto de la CruzThere were about 1500 people in the parade; dancing troupes in wildly colourful costumes, cute kids in even cuter costumes and the stars of the show, the Carnaval Dames and Carnaval Queen wearing…a smile and not much more.
The only problem was that the drivers of the floats carrying the queens seemed to think they were in the Daytona 500 (I suspect because they started late and were trying to make up lost time). Each one sped past the spot where we were standing, giving me just about enough time to take one photo per float before they were gone.

It did mean, however, that the parade finished quickly. We legged it backed to La Paz, drove home (now about 22.00), stuck on some Ministry of Sound, poured a vodka sprite, laid out all our potential fancy dress clothing and decided it was time to think about what we were going to wear to the opening street party.

Two hours later, two ghoul/witch/monster thingys were striding through the banana plantation next to our house on the three kilometre walk into town.

It was near one in the morning by the time we hit Plaza del Charco; probably still a bit early for seasoned Carnaval veterans, the streets hadn’t filled to the point where it takes an aeon to move anywhere (that happens about 03.00).

Anyone not in fancy dress is the odd one outAfter that, we salsa’d our way (or, in my case, a stiff legged, British version of it) around the three streets where the partying takes place, checking out the weird, wonderful and occasionally, lewd, rude and highly amusing costumes all around.
The thing about Carnaval is that it’s such an incredible high. Even when it reaches its peak and you’re jostled and bumped by the swaying mass of friendly beaming creatures around you (at one point I became far more intimate with a trumpet around someone’s waist than I was comfortable with) it’s impossible not to be swept away, almost literally, by sheer wave of joy that engulfs the place.

Somewhere at very-early-in-the morning o’clock, my legs screamed that enough was enough and we decided that it was time to wend our weary, but ecstatic way back home.

As always, the first night of Carnaval exceeded all expectations. It was hard work and, at this point, I’m not sure I’ll survive the week, but it was great fun, honest, despite what my body’s telling me today.

Carnaval Queen 2008 (provided by Ayuntamiento de Puerto de la CruzOn Friday night the lovely and exotically named, Layla Buzzian was crowned Puerto de la Cruz’ Carnaval Queen by our mayoress, Dolores Padrón at the end of a ritzy glitzy affair lasting hours. The contestants, as always, looked fantastic in their chariots-come-costumes. It all seemed to go quite well until it was time for the crowning of the Carnaval Queen when all contestants had to squeeze onto the stage. As usual the logistics of fitting all contestants and their small van sized outfits hadn’t been taken into account and there wasn’t quite enough space; you’d find more room to manoeuvre in a sardine tin.
Don’t ask me why they couldn’t have built a stage big enough to accommodate everyone, it’s the same set up every year, you’d think they’d be able to get it right by now (In La Orotava, on the hill behind us, they managed to build a stage which could accommodate two almost full sized pirate galleons). I’m sure I saw a couple of judges put their heads in their hands as a couple of stage hands tried to fit everyone in, with limited success. I’ve no idea what the girl at the back looked like, but she had a pretty right arm.

It wasn’t the hottest of nights, and, as the potential queens’outfits traditionally involves a lot of exposed flesh, by the time the results were being announced I wasn’t sure whether one quite ample girl was shaking with nerves, or shivering with the cold. Whatever, but for some odd reason I had a sudden yearning for blancmange.

Carnaval really starts big time tonight, with the opening parade followed by an all night street party and I’m not on the slightest bit prepared; I haven’t a clue what to dress up as and I’m shattered after three weeks of visitors. At this moment it looks as though I’ll be going naked. Well, the theme is ‘FEAR’ and I can’t think of anything much scarier than that.