The Canary Islands – Beguiling and Beleagured

Filed in Gather Travel Essential by on January 5, 2007 0 Comments

 Sample Travel writing -> Saugerties NY

    Some days I feel like one of the blind men who was asked to identify an elephant by touch. Each described a different body part as the whole. They were correct as far as they went, but because they couldn’t “see” the big picture, the parts simply did not add up to one magnificent beast.

    In this case the magnificent beast is the Canary Islands. I visited there recently to find a beautiful climate, with gorgeous beaches, lush cloud forests, arid high deserts and everything in between. The gardens were spectacular, and the wild flora was amazingly diverse. The architecture was magnificent, from the colloquial wood and stone structures to the cutting-edge angularity of the modern public buildings. Even the food — especially the sea food — was wonderful, in a crossroads-of-the-world melange of cultural mixes and exotic flavors. From all I saw, the Canary Islands are truly worthy of the ancient description, “Garden of Eden”.

    Yet, during my stay international reports painted a completely different picture. According to the news, boatloads of sub-Saharan Africans daily assaulted the shores of what is basically the nearest gateway to the European Union. Thousands of mostly young men packed into barely seaworthy vessels to attempt the journey. Hundreds died, with untold others lost at sea. Tourists collected on the docks in Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands, keeping their distance to avoid the stench as they watched the derelict boats, overflowing with refugees, towed in to safety. Tents of medical facilities on the docks held personnel at-the-ready to care for the sick and remove the dead. According to the press, I was in a combat zone.

     A tourist I met told me of the Senegals in the marketplace, craftily turning trash — cans, driftwood, bits of cloth — into trinkets, and of beggars with deformed children wailing their need of alms. A resident deplored the refugees complete lack of desire to assimilate into their culture. “They don’t want to work, or even learn our language” he told me. He went on to claim that it was the public assistance and, primarily, the chance to move freely within the borders of the European Union that drove those escaping the impoverished African Continent to seek asylum in this Spanish outpost.

    The 70 miles of ocean separating the nearest of the Canary Islands from the African shore is similar to the proposed 700 mile wall on the US border with Mexico. But effective or not, at least the wall wouldn’t condemn the illegal aliens to a sure death, adrift, with no water or supplies, and no one to receive them. Nevertheless, open ocean is all Spain has to deter the illegal aliens. As at our borders, Spanish officials argue that they have no choice but to turn most away.  There simply isn’t the work and assistance in all of the EU to satisfy the needs of this assaulting horde. Substitute US for EU and you have a similar reality. It is a common problem. Everywhere tempers flare, and still the immigrants come.

    On another front, the amazingly diverse flora and fauna of the Canary Islands suffer an assault of their own. Indigenous species are threatened by encroaching species either negligently or illegally introduced. Add the impact of a growing population, and a burgeoning eco-tourism  industry, and you have a palpable loss of the incredible biodiversity the islands are known for. According to an August 29, 2006, article in the New York Times by Renwick McLean, “an invasive species enters their borders about once every 17 days, and that one of those turns into a plague capable of altering native habitats, and seriously threatening native species, an average of once every six months.” He went on to explain that imported ground squirrels and wild sheep are decimating plant life, and a beetle threatens the palm trees. These are just recent examples of the invader’s success. It is further estimated that native plant species now only represent 50% of the total plant species to be found there.

    Basically, the problems faced by the Canary Islands are the same as faced in other areas. They are simply magnified because they are, after all, only islands. According to correspondent Daniel González Herrera, “the Canary Islands . . .  have traditionally been a sanctuary for immigrants.” But now record numbers, “more than 20,000 refugees have arrived in this migratory explosion”, are overflowing the unsafe and unsanitary holding centers and emergency shelters erected to house them. Miguel Zerolo, Mayor of Santa Cruz, capital of Tenerife, said it is a “national emergency”.

    To its credit, Spain is attempting to humanely handle the African refugee’s assault on this, the southern border of the European Union. The government has committed over 100 million dollars to assisting those already within their borders, and, in conjunction with repatriation, to providing education and job training within their countries of origin. Along with other EU members, Spain stepped up patrols along the African coast to discourage additional attempts at such a dangerous journey.

    The assault on the environment is more troublesome. Obvious measures, such as a daily limit on the number of tourists taking the most popular treks, reduces the impact of people on the natural beauty and ecology of the region. But the fight to preserve the bio-diversity of the unique ecosystems within the Canary Islands is ongoing. Tighter import policies and eradication efforts for invasive species can, at best, only preserve the status quo.

    The relaxed borders of the past helped to create the problems Spain faces today. The programs being instituted are ones countries throughout the world can study and learn from, because the universal problems they address will eventually reach all our shores – if they haven’t already. In the meantime, definitely visit the Canary Islands. Walk lightly on the land as you enjoy the natural beauty, friendly people and all that a modern Garden of Eden can offer. Make the most of a sometimes beleagured, but always beguiling vacation spot – the Canary Islands – Spain’s ‘Hawaii’!

To see my other Canary Islands travel article –

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I'm a reader, bookseller, publisher, columnist, cook, freelance writer, and workaholic who likes to garden.

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