My First Job in Buenavista del Norte

In 1960, I spent my first three weeks in Buenavista del Norte exploring the region on foot and mastering the language. Because everybody was Spanish-speaking and curious about the solitary young ‘extranjero’ in their midst, they all greeted me and asked countless questions. Every evening, I looked up new words in my dictionary and studied  Spanish grammar. Soon I was able to hold my own with anybody.

Doña Lutgarda’s cousin, Mata Cabra, offered me work, helping to construct a banana plantation. Juan Gonzales from Los Silos was our ‘encargado’. Juan, only a few years older than I, was a highly capable foreman. He was supportive and respectful of his work crew. Some dozen men and women, we made the daily ride to the worksite on the back of a lorry. We left the plaza at 7.15 a.m. and returned at 6 p.m. five days a week. The work was very hard but I had lots of fun and I earned enough to pay for my keep in the Pension Méndez.

Our job was to excavate the plantation from the prickly wasteland. We did this mostly by pick and shovel. The men filled woven baskets full of clay and rock. The women carried these on their heads and dumped them into the lorry.

Occasionally we used dynamite to blast rock that defeated our picks and crowbars. Juan taught me how to lay sticks of dynamite, insert the explosive caps, and wire everything to the plunger. None of my fellow-workers dared to use explosives so I earned a reputation for fearlessness. Juan was an expert in all things from construction to managing plantations. We became good friends and I learned an enormous amount from him. We remain friends to this day.

When we’d finished excavating, we had what looked like an empty swimming pool the size of a football field. Then we built a stone wall as a foundation and brought soil from the mountains. We planted Irish seed potatoes and local banana corms. With water that came from reserves inside the mountains through complex networks of pipes and channels, we irrigated the planting.

Finally, we built a cinder-block wall around the plantation to protect the future fruit from the constant wind that blew in off the Atlantic.

At weekends, we would hunt octopus among the rocks. Sometimes we’d go inland and find ‘mora’ trees laden with mulberries. I’d take my straw hat full of ripe berries back to the pension and Doña Lutgarda would make mulberry pies. Juan and I scaled Teide and explored the ice cave and the crater.

Don Juan-Pedro came from Arico and also lived in the pension. He taught school up in the tiny hamlet of El Palmar. One day, he invited me to talk to his class. Juan-Pedro used a blue motor-cycle but because the gravel road was so steep and dangerous, he asked me to walk the few kilometres up a rocky path to the tiny school.

His pupils had never seen an extranjero before and plied me with questions. When I told them I’d attended school for 13 years, there were cries of disbelief. Juan-Pedro talked to them in rapid Spanish and calmed them down. That night at dinner, he told Doña Lutgarda and the girls about my visit. “Why was there such a commotion when I said I’d attended school for 13 years?” I asked.

“Children in isolated hamlets attend school for only a few years,” he explained, “so 13 seems like a lifetime to them.”

“What did you say that pacified them?” I asked.

“Oh, I just told them we Canarios can learn in three years what it takes the feebleminded Ingleses 13 to master!”

Doña Lutgarda and the girls laughed. But they believed him!

When the construction job ended, Don Salvador offered me employment. Don Salvador lived in Puerto de la Cruz. He and Don Pancho owned ‘Alhambra’, a firm in Buenavista del Norte that exported bananas to Scandinavia. With a mixed work crew, we collected green piñas from the plantations and packed them in straw or pine-needles for protection.

Miguel the lorry driver drove them overnight to Santa Cruz to be shipped to Stockholm or Helsinki. Banana stalks are cut green. They must be packed, kept cool and shipped rapidly to their market. Sometimes we worked 20 hours straight to get a lorry-load to the cargo boat waiting at the port.

While working for Don Salvador, I fulfilled my ambition and graduated to carrying a machete. Epifanio, a quiet man with a lifetime’s experience of banana production around El Rincón, taught me how to judge the ripeness of a growing banana stalk. He showed me how to reach up with the machete and cut one so that it rested its 20 or 30 kilos comfortably on my shoulder.

Doña Lutgarda Méndes Hernández and her large family, my co-workers and the villagers of Buenavista del Norte taught me a great deal. For their warm hospitality, for the gifts of their language and friendship, for sharing their culture and their ways, I salute the people of Tenerife with respect and gratitude.

Text and photos by Ronald Mackay

To discover more of Ronald’s amazing year-long adventure in Tenerife, take a look at his book here:

Fortunate Isle: A  Memoir of Tenerife

 

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Settling in Tenerife

A man brandishing a machete was responsible for my settling in Tenerife in 1960. He emerged from a plantation overlooking Puerto de la Cruz. As soon as I saw him, I knew I wanted the kind job that demanded I carry a cutlass!

At 18 and just out of school in Scotland, I had to choose my future. I’d failed to win entry to the BSc course in agriculture at Aberdeen University, so I decided to head for Argentina. My great-grandfather had gone there to build a railroad and never returned. But by the time I reached Santa Cruz de Tenerife, I was close to penniless. None of the cargo boats in the harbour were heading across the Atlantic. I was out of luck.

The quiet composure of the Tinerfeños and Santa Cruz’s drowsy timelessness captivated me. Tiers of little, coloured houses crept up the green hills behind the town. The air smelled of salt and warm vegetation. The perfect cone of Teide beckoned. Why not just stay and work? Here were people different from my own back in Scotland. I could learn a lot from them.

“Take the guagua to Puerto de la Cruz,” the harbour-master advised. “You’ll find work in construction.” But that sleepy little town proved silent and workless. What now? Night was approaching. I walked back up the hill to the main road. Puerto de la Cruz lay spread out beneath me, quiet, compact and dignified.

When suddenly I saw that daunting man with the machete step out of the plantation, I made up my mind. “I will find myself a job where that gleaming blade is the tool of choice.”

“In a banana plantation in Buenavista del Norte,” advised the plantation worker. “That’s where the work is!” Within 15 minutes, he’d hustled me into a guagua heading to that remote 15th-century village at the end of the narrow road on the tip of the island.

Buenavista from the Sea

Throughout that journey, the driver, the conductor and the delighted locals plied me with questions. For most, it was their first encounter with an ‘extranjero’. ‘Forasteros’ and ‘peninsulares’ were odd enough, but a living, breathing ‘extranjero’ was real curiosity!

“Does your mamá know where you are?” “Do you shave yet?” “Why can’t you speak Spanish?” “Do they speak a Christian language where you come from?” “Why are you going to Buenavista?”

At the Pension Méndez on la Plaza de los Remedios, the driver presented me to Doña Lutgarda, the innkeeper. She scrutinized me from head to foot and then announced, “Forty-two pesetas a day. Room and meals. Your laundry is included.”

Snuggling around the Plaza de los Remedios, the stone church, the pension, the ‘venta’ — the general store — and the bar, together formed the beating heart of village life. In the 15th century, when Buenavista had been founded, streets were for people, mules and donkeys.

Buenavista Village Street

The village offered the warmth and comfort of timeless tradition, its simple, elegant buildings provided fitting harmony. Villagers were upright, hardworking, hospitable, friendly and above all, curious about the arrival of an ‘extranjero’.

Buenavista locals

First, Alcalde Don Paco García Martín, then his legal counsel Don Eduardo Champín Zamorano, and finally two nameless Civil Guards, checked me out with shrewd questions. They concluded that this 18-year-old Scotsman, kilt and all, was ‘buena gente’. I was welcome to stay if I adapted to village life.

Buenavista Plaza Fiesta

During the year I spent there, everyone knew me simply as ‘El Extranjero’.

I explored the village, the rocky coast and the surrounding cliffs and barrancos. I learned Spanish and made friends. The Pension Méndez was my home. Doña Lutgarda and her girls, Pastora, Obdúlia, Angélica and Lula treated me like a distant relative from abroad.

They had never met anyone who couldn’t speak perfect Spanish, so they found my mistakes a constant source of fun. With their help, I learned the language quickly so I could fit in and find work.

One day, I discovered Caya, Carmita, Toño and Mario, Doña Lutgarda’s grandchildren, in my room examining the contents of my rucksack. “What are you looking for?” I asked.

“Well,” said Caya – at 8 years old she was their leader — “you remember you told us your first tongue, the one you brought with you, was English? And that you wanted to get Spanish as your second tongue? Well, now that you have got your Spanish tongue, we’re trying to find your English one. We only want to see what it looks like!” Her tiny companions nodded soberly. “We want to see how different your first tongue is from the one you have now!”

Confusion is understandable when ‘lengua’ means both ‘language’ and ‘tongue’ at one and the same time!

Carmita, Toño, Mario and Caya

Doña Lutgarda and her girls fed me well on gofio, lentejas, garbanzos, papas arrugadas and fresh fish. Within three weeks I could handle myself in Spanish. Now I was ready to find a job!

Doña Lutgarda Méndes Hernández and her large family, my co-workers and the villagers of Buenavista del Norte taught me a great deal. For their warm hospitality, for the gifts of their language and friendship, for sharing their culture and their ways, I salute the people of Tenerife with respect and gratitude.

Text and photos by Ronald Mackay

To discover more of Ronald’s amazing year-long adventure in Tenerife, take a look at his book here:

Fortunate Isle: A  Memoir of Tenerife

 

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