Archive for January, 2011

Cruelty to animals or just an unusual fashion accessory?

Actually it’s neither; at the Fiesta de San Abad in La Matanza in the northern Tenerife hills it’s custom to dress up your animals for their party day.


We met Denbah Bah on a beach in The Gambia after we’d decided to go for a romantic stroll along the soft sand in the moonlight.

Denbah was a police officer assigned to ensuring that dozy tourists didn’t get themselves into trouble…whilst walking along a beach in Africa in the dark no doubt.

On a balmy night under a glittering African sky we wore light clothes whilst Denbah was wrapped up as if he were on ski training in Finland…in winter.
“Because it’s cold,” he answered when we asked about the need for a khaki cagoule and long trousers.
We told him that if he felt the cold in those tropical surroundings, he’d die if he ever visited Britain.

We struck up a friendship with Denbah over the next couple of days and he invited us to travel with him to his home in a village inland whose name I can’t remember – if I ever knew it in the first place.

First stop was the village shop. Coarse sacks of rice acted as surprisingly comfortable chairs as we were introduced to the shopkeeper and Denbah’s younger brother. The shopkeeper’s hospitality threw up an awkward moment as he brought us water to drink in brightly coloured, scratched Tupperware bowls.
Water from an unknown source in Africa, do you drink or not? Being British there was only one answer; the risk of causing offence is worse than the risk of catching some tropical disease.

After the shop Denbah took us to his home and en route told us about the scourge of Africa, green tea, which he made sound as though it some narcotic qualities which rotted the brain and made you sloth-like.

His small home was filled to bursting with family and friends, no doubt curious to see the two naïve tourists dressed in clothes more suited to a Greek beach.
As we sat and chatted, tiny hand after tiny hand reached through a curtain that acted as a door to the back of the small house and stroked my leg.

“They’ve never seen a white person before,” Denbah explained. “And your leg is so hairy. It feels funny to them.”

The children queuing outside to take turns in touching my alien body giggled.

Then it was Andy’s turn to be the object of attention.

“What age are you?” Denbah asked in an openly direct manner that made Andy squirm and me laugh.

“My God,” he exclaimed when Andy told him…after making seasonal adjustments of course (clearly I’m being a gentleman here and not saying). “But your skin is still like a young chicken.”

I guess he meant it as a compliment.

Anyway we had a fascinating and unforgettable day, including getting caught up in a jail break, and I could ramble on about it forever. But there’s a reason why Denbah Bah popped into my head.

Last night whilst talking on the phone to my mum in Scotland last night she asked what the weather was like.
“Not so great,” I told her. “It’s just started chucking it down. It was sunny most of the day but the temperatures have dropped to around 22C. So it’s a bit cool.”

“Twenty two degrees, twenty two degrees,” she laughed. “You think that’s cool?”

At that point I realised that sometime over the last seven years I’d become Denbah Bah. Anything under 24/25C feels on the fresh side to me.

If I ever have to return to Britain outside of summer, and maybe even during, I’m going to die.

I had a little moment last night when I fell in love with Puerto de la Cruz all over again; a woman with a face as wrinkled as a bowl of papas arrugadas who had a submarine-sized cigar protruding from her mouth stared down at me from a poster on the wall; in front of me a girl who clearly modelled herself from head to toe on Shakira swivelled furiously, desperate to show anyone who was watching that her hips didn’t lie; it was 2.30am and the atmosphere was hot, sweaty and electric. My favourite bar in the world had re-opened and we were once again able to take a trip down the rabbit hole to downtown Havana without stepping foot outside of our adopted town.

Despite suffering from a debilitating disease picked up in Lanzarote (i.e. a bit of a sniffy nose but hey, I’m a man so obviously my symptoms are a lot more serious than anyone else’s), I dragged myself from my sick bed (in front of the TV screen – more poetic license) for a night on the tiles.

Friend Roberto (Bob when he’s at home in England) is a swallow; someone who spends part of the winter on Tenerife. He’s been coming to Puerto for 25 years and we got to know him whilst watching Man Utd games at the Beehive. Like many regular visitors to Tenerife, he goes to the same bars and restaurants every trip, so when we heard there was a Michael Jackson tribute band at one of our favourite night spots, Blanco Bar, we decide it was time that Roberto was plucked from his cosily familiar environment and thrust into the nocturnal world that we inhabit.

The Fragata Bar is ideal for making the transition from bars frequented mainly by visitors to bars that are frequented by Canarios, Spanish and South Americans. At 10pm the bar is full of ex-pats and Northern European holidaymakers. At 11.30 there’s a change of shift and the Canarios arrive, boosting the atmosphere with their noisy, bubbly chatter. A couple of cervezas and 20 minutes of being book-ended by two tables of young Canarios and Bob was sufficiently acclimatised.

Blanco Bar is the coolest bar in town, but you can’t tell it from the outside. Walk through the soundproofed glass doors and you enter a world of crisp lilac lighting and sleek and sexy furnishings complimented by the equally sleek and sexy people lounging on them. It’s the sort of place where you might feel that unless you look like Brangelina you’re spoiling the picture. But this is Puerto where nobody gives a damn about age, size or looks; it’s one of the things that we love about the joint.

I’d had the heads up via Twitter that Michael Jackson had been cancelled and replaced with One Love – a tribute to Bob Marley. Even better as far as I was concerned especially as the band, helped by a guitarist who injected a heavy dose of R&B into familiar reggae riffs, were pretty damn good. It sounded like Marley, but with a whole new dimension added and Blanco rocked as just about everyone joined in ‘One Love’ et al with mucho gusto.

For a brief chill-out we swapped venues and made the short trip to Limbo. The band there had finished playing but we were met with a bit of Free which was nice. Limbo’s most popular area is its outside terrace and whilst it was busy-ish, the cool 14C temps meant that it wasn’t its usual sardine can packed. As we downed another cerveza and Bob surveyed the old red tiled rooftops opposite, the Havana Rum billboard looming above us and the huge palm tree silhouetted against a clear sky and a sea of stars, he said something strange.

‘Wow, I really feel I’m in Spain,” he shouted above the music.

Twenty five years of visiting and those two bars inspired him to say that. It spoke volumes about the Puerto that some British visitors see and the ‘real’ Puerto that we know and love.

If he thought the first two bars were foreign, Azucar was about to blow him away. The atmospheric Cuban bar in a former gentlemen’s smoking club has been occupying its lower floors for over a year, but at last its upper floors have re-opened and we entered to the usual maelstrom of whirling, twirling and suggestive thrusting that can make you feel slightly voyeuristic. Of all the gin joints in all the towns I’ve toasted salud, slangever’d and bottoms up’d in, Azucar is my favourite. Azucar’s get down and dirty personality and thumping Cuban vibes make me want to clamp a cigar between my teeth and down a mojito in one thirsty gulp…without removing the cigar of course.

Andy and I threw in the towel at around 3am, leaving Bob, who had been completely seduced by the bar (and relaxed by cervezas), watching chicas and chicos make love fully clothed on the dance floor i.e. any free floor space in the bar.

We left Azucar happy in the knowledge that as well as enjoying a top night we’d given another friend the keys to a magical kingdom. The bars he’d frequented before will just never seem the same again. Bienvenido to the real Puerto de la Cruz, Roberto.

2010 ended on a high. Not only was I ‘freshly pressed’ on the front page of WordPress over New Year which was a real buzz, I was also interviewed by Spanish newspaper ABC Canarias.

I was particularly proud of that because it came about partly because of recognition by a journalist on the paper that my articles captured the idiosyncracies of the ‘real’ Tenerife. That was a special compliment as far as I was concerned.

It felt quite rewarding to see the only decent photograph of me that exists appear in a Spanish paper. Hopefully I didn’t come across as too much of a geek; although as it was in Spanish, few Brits will ever know it existed.

It also got me thinking about other ‘cool’ moments in my life.

Here’s my top five.

1: Helping a Sheep Give Birth
My aunt had a farm in the Scottish borders that we visited every year. One time during lambing season when I was about 8 we came across a sheep that was having trouble giving birth. The lamb had turned around inside the womb and someone had to put their hand inside, find the lambs head and turn it around. My farm veteran 13 year old cousin’s hands were too big and my sister and female cousin were having none of it. I was ‘advised’ by my cruel elders that if I didn’t do it the lamb would die and it would be my fault.
With tears blinding me I boldly stuck my hand where I really didn’t want to. When that little lamb popped out and started bleating it was the proudest and messiest moment of my life.

2: Becoming Immortal in a Ghost City
Okay, it’s a bit cheesy, but becoming immortal in the ghost city of Fengdu in China has to be right up there. In truth it didn’t involve an awful lot – running up a long staircase without taking a breath – but it was a feat beyond most of the aged 70+ other people on the steps whose doddering nearly prevented Andy and I from becoming immortal. I’m not proud, but I had to I barge some of them out of the way in my quest to become immortal (add loud evil laugh).

3: Being Complimented in Sex and the City land.
Being in Times Square for the Millennium was pretty mind blowing in itself, but a seriously stylish guy and gal approaching me in a record store in Manhattan to compliment my shoes and ask where I’d bought them was just the bee’s knees. Giving out fashion advice in the heart of Sex and the City land was just the ultimate. Of course it was just the shoes. Nothing else about me was remotely fashionable – it was winter in NY and I was dressed for practicality. Apart from the über cool shoes, I looked more like an itinerant bank robber.
The shoes, by the way, were bought in Schuh in The Trafford Centre and I’ve still got them. Needless to say they don’t look quite as good these days, but they’re still the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever worn.

4: Yes Prime Minister
In a previous life I wrote reports and briefings about various things for government ministers. A lot of the time I never knew what happened to them after I hit the send button and mostly they were quite dry factual, analytical pieces. On one occasion I had to supply a brief for a politician giving a speech to the Chamber of Commerce in Manchester. I can’t remember why or even what it was, but I added a witticism to the brief and bugger me, the politician kept it in. I was pretty chuffed a couple of days later when the MEN included the line when they reported Gordon Brown’s address to Manchester’s business community.

5: You’re a Better Man Than I am…
A quarter of a century ago there was a girl at work that I had the serious hots for. But she was way out of my league and her circle of friends were smart, witty and interesting whereas I was a hick with an appalling taste in music not long arrived from a small Scottish island. One day she mentioned that she’d heard Hawkeye in MASH use a quote from Gunga Din and that she’d love to know the whole poem. So at the first opportunity I headed to Waterstones, bought a copy of Barrack-Room Ballads, learned the poem by heart and recited it to her in the office canteen during lunch hour. But was she impressed?

It was by far the most rewarding thing that I’ve ever done…as she’s sitting with her back to me typing away as I write.

Anyone who’s walked past the wonderful sculpture of the fishwife in Puerto de la Cruz is already familiar with the work of Julio Nieto. But pretty though she is, she’s only the conventional tip of the iceberg when it comes to his creations.

Some of his other sculptures are products of a vivid and fantastical imagination that clearly knows no bounds. So it was with childlike delight that we discovered a street exhibition of his work in La Orotava’s plaza when we visited between Christmas and New Year.

I can’t do them justice with mere words, so I’ll let the images speak for themselves.

New Year’s Eve in Puerto de la Cruz is Groundhog Day.

Every year the drill is this – people dress up to the nines; go out to eat; head to the main plaza at around 11.30pm; salsa a bit (unless you’re me, then you shift from foot to foot with no rhythm whatsoever); move to the harbour; eat 12 grapes when it’s midnight; make a lot of oooh and aaah noises at the firework display; drink cava until your head’s as fizzy as the stuff in your plastic glass; then salsa some more (after the cava even I believe I have rhythm) until you die…or dawn arrives.

Simple really.

With Andy wearing a vintage Red or Dead number (Sex and the City is great for coming up with new ways of making old clothes fashionable again) and me in a smart but casual jacket and jeans affair we joined the revellers in town.

The Ape in the Garden
We kicked off the night with neighbour Nicole and her son Sebastian at a little place in the fishermen’s district. Not the best joint in town, but decent enough fare.
Nicole is very French in a 50s Bardot sort of way. Seba on the other hand is straight out of the French Foreign Legion…possibly literally. We always have interesting discussions about life and politics in France and also about his experiences as a young ‘outsider’ growing up here. Nicole likes to talk about herself and ‘amour’ and gets tired if the subject moves onto something less mundane such as politics.
During the course of the meal there was a rather disturbing revelation – that we have an ape buried somewhere in our garden. It happened before we moved into the house and the story of how it got there is quite incredible (involving guns, police and broken noses) but I’m saving that for another time.

The Annual Grape Eating Fiasco
At 11.30pm we left the restaurant for the plaza, watched a few people salsa sexily (it’s really just public foreplay) to the live band, then moved to the harbour to get in place for the firework display and the annual grape eating fiasco.
If you don’t know about grape eating in Spain at New Year, it’s a good luck thing. As soon as the first bells chime for midnight, you eat one with each chime and down the last as midnight strikes…otherwise you might as well hide away in a cave for a year until the bad luck dissipates.
The trouble with this tradition in a más o menos culture is that no-one is ever sure when the first bell should chime (in Puerto it’s a firework for each chime) and this year there was a mini panic as the plaza clock struck midnight and there was no firework. Then someone on a balcony above us popped their party poppers, setting off an epidemic of premature grape eating in the crowd – but still no firework. Andy and I wobbled as people all around us broke, but we held our nerve even though Seba insisted it was midnight…and then, finally, the 12 single fireworks started their countdown and Andy and I gobbled our grapes furiously hoping good luck was assured for the next 12 months.

A Moment of Insomniac Elation
Nicole and Seba went home about 1am leaving Andy and I on our lonesome. The band in the square was replaced by a guy on a keyboard and his two dancing little girls. It’s difficult to describe them without sounding cruel, but I’ll just say the girls looked exactly like Gabby’s daughters in Desperate Housewives. It was an appalling act, so we took off for the clubbing area beside the old custom house. By this time the area was full of young girls in short, shiny, strapless evening gowns and lads in suits. Whereas the girls looked stylish and sophisticated, the local lads  still insist on sporting Derek Zoolander haircuts – it was a piss take guys – which doesn’t do them any favours at all.
Almost as soon as we got there familiar sounds sent a surge of adrenalin through our veins as the DJ pumped up the volume with the Faithless classic Insomnia. It made our night and our arms punched the air…for all of thirty seconds before the DJ reverted to the obligatory Latino beat.

Looking at the plague of Zoolanders around me it suddenly struck me why it’s always Latino, Latino and more Latino even in the clubbing areas. Whenever the DJ strayed from Latino, they were lost. They attempted to do something resembling salsa to the thumping dance beat before giving up and wandering away from the dance area. The only time they got really excited was when the Latino came back on and they were back in familiar territory.

It’s quite sweet in a way and I respect how traditions are maintained but Andy and I like a bit of international music now and again. We lasted until 3.45 by which time we were Latino’d to the eyeballs and it was time for the long walk home.