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Letters from the Atlantic Letters from the Canary Islands by Barrie Mahoney

'Writing Inspired by an Island in the Atlantic'

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​Just One Shade of Grey

Just One Shade of Grey

At the time of writing, the UK is in a period of collective limbo regarding Brexit. As a result, HM Government, through its network of British Ambassadors and Consulates, is busily issuing advice to expats living in Europe, which is meant to be helpful. In addition, writers, observers and bloggers, such as myself, are also offering their opinion and advice. In reality, of course, no one really knows what will happen, and most of the advice given could turn out to be irrelevant or even unhelpful. It is in this spirit that I offer the following information.

The UK Government has suggested that in the event of a ‘no deal’ Brexit, mutual recognition of driving licences between the UK and Europe will cease. UK citizens wishing to drive in Europe after 29 March 2019 would need to apply for an International Driving Permit (IDP). Whilst I vaguely remember being aware of this document, I had never actually seen one. I thought it was only intended to be used in remote, non-European destinations and was a kind of relic from post-Empire Britain. I couldn't have been more wrong.

The IDP is basically an official translation of the UK licence in various languages, which allows the holder to drive in another country when accompanied by a valid licence from their home country. In theory, the document helps drivers to motor around the world without a language barrier. It is valid in all countries that have signed the 1949 and 1968 Conventions on Road Traffic, and is particularly useful in some countries where car rental companies require one before a car may be hired from them.

I remembered that they used to be available from either the AA or the RAC motoring organisations in the UK, and so decided to apply for one from the AA. The total cost of the licence, together with overseas postage costs, was fifteen pounds. The application form was easily downloaded on line, but it required a postal application and a cheque for payment; certainly, no credit cards or Apple Pay welcome here! The entire process reminded me of a bureaucratic procedure from the 1980s. Two weeks later, the document arrived.

Whilst the application process was surprisingly efficient, the contents were nothing short of disappointing. The actual document is a dirty grey colour, which reminds me of a wartime ration book, rather than a modern driving licence designed to meet the challenges of swinging, post-Brexit Britain. Disappointingly, both the AA and RAC will no longer be permitted to issue IDPs from the end of February 2019. In future, IDPs will only be available from around 2500 Post Offices in the UK who will, I am told, offer a much simpler application process for just £5.50. The permit is valid for twelve months and it will no longer be possible to order one by post, since it now requires a personal visit to a UK Post Office. My guess is that the IDP will never be needed, and certainly not in its present form, but cautious readers may wish to apply for one just in case.

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© Barrie Mahoney



Leaving messages in public places seems a strange thing to do, but I guess it has been going on for generations. You have only to look closely at ancient trees, park benches and public monuments to see those immortal words “John loves Jane”, or similar words, announcing to the world undying affection of a first love, latest love or indeed any other pertinent message. I guess it is rather like the Stone Age equivalent of Facebook and Twitter, when personal (and often irrelevant) messages are declared to the world, when maybe they would be better kept to one’s self.

Speaking of messages, the good people on the island of Fuerteventura are getting a little annoyed with tourists who are following the latest craze of leaving messages with stones on beaches, and building small towers with stones. The current problem is that tourists are no longer content to wander along the beautiful white, sandy beaches of Fuerteventura, but wish to leave their mark to those who follow. I guess you could call it the human equivalent of a dog ‘peeing on a lamppost’. These tourists who visit Fuerteventura carry out message or imaginative construction activities using stones to ensure that their presence does not go unnoticed, but which local experts describe as causing a destructive impact upon the ecosystem of these beautiful beaches.

One such area, Playa de Esquinzo in Fuerteventura, is just one example that was recently highlighted where the Tourist Board wants to raise awareness that their messaging and construction activities on beaches and coastal areas are destroying and damaging the landscape. Tourists on other Canary Islands are also adopting these stone message activities without considering how their actions affect delicately balanced ecosystems.

It seems that this modern-day equivalent of ‘peeing on a lamppost’ is not a new phenomenon. A Jewish friend recently told me that within the Jewish faith, it is customary to leave a small stone on a grave. A stone is placed by a visitor on the grave, but using only the left hand (don’t ask me why). The act of placing a stone on the grave serves as a sign to others that someone has visited the grave, and enables visitors to commemorate the burial and life of the deceased. In this way, stones are used as an act of remembrance and a lasting reminder of the deceased’s life. Other historical accounts suggest that the tradition goes back to Biblical times when graves were simply marked with small stone mounds, because gravestones had not been invented. The mounds of stones helped to mark the location of the grave so that it could be found again in the future.

In addition to finding stone messages or small towers, beach walkers in the UK and US may come across a smooth pebble painted with a colourful picture of an animal or cartoon character, or simply a meaningful message. Pebble painting is yet another craze that appears to have originated in the United States and is beginning to find its way into Europe. Amateur artists take part in painting pebbles and leaving them in public places for others to find. Brightly painted pebbles with messages and colourful patterns may be found nestling in sand dunes, on top of walls and gate posts. Some parents regard it as a welcome pastime for their children, and encourage them to take a break from their smartphones and tablets, and collect stones and decorate them. Stone painting has become quite popular in some of the UK’s coastal resorts, and especially on beaches with plenty of smooth stones.

Sadly, council chiefs in the UK are not too happy with this idea, and often with good reason, as theysay they pose a danger to elderly people who risk tripping over them and they are used by vandals to throw at ducks and scrawl the paint onto local war memorials. Parents are urged to be responsible and to show their children common sense when hiding these rocks, so that they don't become problems for other people and the environment.

Meanwhile, back in the Canary Islands, tourism chiefs are hoping that tourists will continue to use and enjoy its beautiful beaches, but not to feel the urge to ‘dog mark’ by building stone towers or painting smooth stones for others to find. Indeed, this whole issue has left tourism chiefs in Fuerteventura with stony faces, so be warned.

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​Letters from the Canary Islands and Spain

Letters from the Canary Islands and Spain

As is the custom in the ‘Letters from the Atlantic’ series, this book includes letters written over a one-year period from the Canary Islands. These letters are inspired by life in the Canary Islands and Spain and are intended for all those who love these beautiful islands and the country that it is part of. The winter months have now set in, and much of Europe is currently facing chilly temperatures, rain, heavy cloud and even snow. As I write this on a sunny, warm morning in December, I am reminded of those words uttered by Christopher Columbus when he referred to these island as “The Fortunate Isles”; they certainly are.

Despite living in what I have come to appreciate as one of the best places on Earth to live and work, these islands are not always the paradise that many claim them to be. In my weekly letters, I try to give a balanced and honest view of living on these islands, which is why I sometimes write about poverty and food banks, high unemployment, lack of affordable housing, the migrant crisis, physical and mental abuse, animal cruelty, robbery, murder, and drug and alcohol abuse to name just a few of the human conditions that impact upon this ‘paradise’. These disturbing reports often surprise readers and I occasionally receive indignant emails from island lovers who wish to express their displeasure about my more ‘negative letters’. “You should focus on the best things about these lovely islands”, I am told. “We don’t want to read about island misery; we get enough of that at home”, I was told recently by a visiting tourist.

I do not work for the tourist industry, nor the islands’ government. My aim, as always, is to try and give an unbiased and informed view of real life on these islands and Spain, and not to reflect the often dishonest, yet idyllic pictures in all those holiday brochures. Sorry to shatter illusions of near paradise, but life here is just not like that. Whilst most of those ‘all inclusive’ glass palaces are owned and managed by overseas business interests, it is local people who have to work long, unsocial hours, often with low pay and poor working conditions to ensure that our overseas visitors have an enjoyable and memorable time.

For those who live and work in the Canary Islands and Spain, as well as other European countries, the looming spectre of Brexit has, for many, created a troublesome year. The future of Brits living in European Union countries remains uncertain, although all hope that common sense and pragmatism will eventually prevail for the benefit of everyone. The dream that myself and many others were able to fulfil of living and working in any European country and not to be restrained by location due an accident of birth, looks as if it will be denied to others in the future. Work and residency permits, driven by the need to restrict migration, which most had thought had long gone, have once again raised their ugly heads. The freedoms that we have been able to enjoy in the last forty years or so, look as if they are about to change. Only time will tell whether Brexit was a wise and successful strategy or not.

On a more positive note, this book aims to celebrate what I and many others enjoy about living in these wonderful islands, as well as Spain. It has been a joy this year to find that the islands’ government has found ways of significantly reducing the costs for residents to travel across all the islands, as well as to the Spanish Peninsular. This strategy is helping residents across all the islands to discover the many unique features of each island, as well as the opportunity to travel to Peninsular Spain, which has previously been denied to them, because of high travel costs. In addition, most of the islands are now offering heavily discounted tickets for internal travel, which is helping the unemployed to seek jobs further afield, students to access higher education, as well helping older people to explore and socialise.

On a more personal note, these islands are for me a paradise, and I could not imagine living anywhere else. When I first visited the Canary Islands on a package holiday so many years ago, I knew that one day, somehow, I would live here. I have been fortunate, the UK being a member of the European Union has certainly helped, as did my career change from teacher to reporter. Life is short, and I hope that in some small way, this book, as well as other books in the ‘Letters from the Atlantic’ series will help to inspire and motivate others to ‘seek and live their dream’.

'Letters from the Canary Islands and Spain' may be ordered from this link:

http://www.canary.media/Letters from the Can...

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© Barrie Mahoney

What’s in a Name?

What’s in a Name?

Now here’s an essential question to start the day. Are you sufficiently worthy to have an airport named after you, and presumably after you die? Alternatively, if you don’t consider that you meet these high specifications, do you know someone who does?

I have never been too sure about the wisdom of naming airports after people. If, for example, I wish to fly to Paris, I wish to fly to Paris and not into the arms of someone called Charles de Gaul. Why do airports in the United States have to be named after past Presidents? Washington National Airport used to be called just that until it was renamed the Ronald Reagan Airport; surely it was already named after a President called Washington, so I fail to see the point. In any case, just think of all those costs associated with new signs.

Despite some reservations, I was very pleased to hear that the island of Lanzarote will shortly be changing the name of its airport to Cesar Manrique. This name change has been requested by many residents for some time and was recently agreed by both the Prime Minister of Spain, Pedro Sanchez, and the President of the Canary Islands, Fernando Clavijo. As an admirer of the work of Cesar Manrique, I believe this to be an excellent choice in honouring someone who made a considerable and positive impact upon the island of Lanzarote, as well as the other islands in terms of architecture and the environment. Despite this endorsement, I am also well aware that there will be others who will see the change of airport name as controversial.

Other airport naming controversies include renaming the island of Madeira’s airport to Cristiano Ronaldo International; I’m not too sure what the Spanish taxman thought of that particular honour. Anyone remember the footballer, George Best? In memory of both his on- and off-pitch antics, Belfast City Airport has become George Best Belfast City Airport; what a mouthful! Whether he is considered a footballing hero or not, many will be pleased to know that it has a rather good duty free shop, which might be thought appropriate.

Over in Jamaica, I gather that the locals were not impressed when their airport was renamed after a part-time resident and author of novels about a British spy called James Bond. Many protested that the airport should have been named after a true islander, such as Usain Bolt, and not Ian Fleming.

John Lennon, Louis Armstrong, Mozart, Bill and Hilary Clinton, Marco Polo and even Robin Hood are all preserved for posterity in the names of some of the world’s airports. Interestingly, the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority has banned the official naming of British airports after famous people in the future, which I think is an excellent decision. Personally, I would much rather the airport be named after the place that I am travelling to rather than someone I have never heard of, or have no interest in. I am also very grateful that I am spared from flying to Margaret Thatcher International, but I guess whether or not you will agree will depend upon your own political point of view.

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​Poverty in the Canary Islands

Poverty in the Canary Islands

As we prepare for the Christmas festivities, maybe an article about poverty is not what many will expect, but maybe it is the most important time to discuss a subject that we are all aware of, but feel helpless to do anything about. At least in the Canary Islands, we can offer a little good news that should have a positive impact upon many people in need.

I sometimes write about both homelessness and food aid in the Canary Islands, which surprises some and annoys those who believe that I should somehow focus my time upon extolling the virtues and beauty of these wonderful islands, and act as an unofficial holiday promoter. Since I do not work for the tourism industry or am responsible to the island government, I feel that my time is better spent opening the eyes of those who have been seduced by the island dream to what is really going on behind those glossy brochures and slick television advertisements. Yes, these are wonderful islands to visit, live, work and play, but the unemployment situation is horrendous, particularly for young people, and the lack of affordable housing is at crisis levels, so that we have many residents who are either homeless or relying on food banks to survive. Despite those glossy brochures and ‘all you can eat and drink’ hotel deals in this ‘alternative island universe’, this is not the reality that many people face each day of their lives.

The Canary Islands are not alone in this shame. Poorly publicised statistics show that between 2013 and 2017, around 230 homeless people died on the streets of Britain. Between 2017 and 2018, 440 people have died, which is almost twice as many in a quarter of the time. How any society can allow this to happen, and how any government can rest easy with these appalling statistics, I do not know.

The good news is that in Gran Canaria, the city of Las Palmas has recently created the first day centre for homeless people with an investment of around 700,000 euros from the Canary Islands Development Fund.This building will be accessible for all as it will have an elevator, stairs and bathrooms especially adapted for people with reduced mobility. This refurbishment project began in 2017 with the first phase of demolition of the interior.

It is hoped that this new facility will open in February 2019, and will be the first day centre for homeless people in the Canary Islands. The day centre will provide a reception area, medical and administrative offices, training rooms, a hairdressing salon, toilets, and bathrooms adapted for people with reduced mobility, as well as an outdoor area that will be used as a rest area. The first floor will provide a kitchen, a dining room with capacity for 60 people, luggage storage, restrooms and showers for residents, a locker room for staff, offices, a warehouse and a cleaning room. The third floor, which is currently under construction, will see the creation of 34 residential spaces, so that homeless people can spend the night in the new centre.

In another welcome move, the Government of the Canary Islands has received 1,787,000 euros from the European Aid Fund for the Most Disadvantaged, which is the second of three payments to the Spanish Red Cross and the Spanish Federation of Food Banks in the Canary Islands. The European Aid Fund is jointly funded by the European Union and the Spanish Government and is intended to promote social cohesion, to reinforce inclusion and to contribute to the goal of eradicating poverty.

Food aid is given to various institutions to distribute to the population according to different categories, such as those with low incomes, mothers with new babies, unemployed people, as well as those identified as being within the poverty index. In the Canary Islands, the money allocated to the purchase of food amounts to almost 5,300,000 euros divided into three periods throughout the year. The ‘food basket’ contains about fourteen products, such as white rice, cooked beans, UHT milk, olive oil, canned tuna, pasta, tinned tomatoes, biscuits, canned green beans, canned fruit in light syrup, powdered chocolate, infant bottles of fruit and chicken, infant cereals and milk powder.

During the early days of the recession, politicians in both Spain and the UK were fond of using placatory phrases, such as “We are all in it together”. Clearly, we are not and never will be. These islands have the potential to be of enormous benefit to all its citizens, and not just the mega hotels and businesses that are often based in other countries and have very little positive impact upon the local economy. It is with this in mind that I read with interest a recent report from the Government of the Canary Islands that the new tourism strategy for the islands between now and 2025 will contain a commitment to the whole of society, and with the aim of increasing the quality of life for all. Let us hope that this really will be the case, and not just empty words.

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