El Hierro Day One: Travels and Tribulations

For context, the Canary Islands are part of Spain but are off the northwestern coast of Africa, in the Atlantic. Apparently the name Canary does not refer to the bird but instead derives from the root of the word canine, after large dogs, and the birds are named after the islands. Nor does the name El Hierro, my destination island, refer to iron (it’s literal Spanish translation). It possibly comes from the native word for cistern. But I digress. Already.

My host father drove me to Madrid, where he goes every day for his work with Rotary International, and dropped me at Moncloa, where I had planned to take the metro all the way to the airport. Aaaaaaand… the metro line to the airport is down for repairs. There are signs everywhere about it. Linea 8. The red line. Fortunately, my host father had looked up the train option the night before, which had actually slightly annoyed me at the time because I thought it would be easier to just take the metro. Huh. Easier, indeed, if it were running. I was rather glad, as it turned out, that I had taken a picture of his computer screen. I was also glad my flight left at the rather respectable hour of 11:55am. That’s almost technically not even the morning anymore.

The metro took me to the train and the train took me to Terminal 4 (the dreaded Terminal 4!) and from there a bus took me to Terminal 2, which is where I needed to be, and I was glad I had started the journey early so I could end up getting there just on time. And, good thing I only had carry-on.

The first flight was to Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands. I had paid extra for a window seat. I was quite happy with this arrangement. Although, as it turned out, I found the early part of the flight a bit disappointing. As I wrote in my journal:

Spain, you’re lucky I love you for other reasons.

Flying over much of the Iberian Peninsula is relatively dull. Headed west, the land is relatively flat, the topography subdued, the land browns and dull greens, pinched up in rumpled but localized hills. Waterways stay at the surface rather than digging down into canyons, meandering across a semi-arid land in similar tones of gray and flat green, and brown where heavy with sediment.

So, not particularly inspiring. The coastline flying over the southwestern corner of Portugal was interesting, though, as coastlines often are. Portugal. Still on the list.

Leaving Madrid, in browns and greens and with it’s iconic four towers.

And then, ocean, and then, Tenerife. The island is known for El Teide, a prominent and massive volcano, rising to a height of 12,198 ft (3,718 m). According to Wikipedia, El Teide’s summit is the highest point in Spain and the highest point above sea level in the islands of the Atlantic. Not bad. But, like Portugal, a destination for another time. It’s last eruption was November 18, 1909. I’m headed to where the activity is a bit fresher.

Approaching Tenerife, with El Teide dominating above the clouds and through the haze.
The influence of topography. Dense development, meet canyon and volcanic cone.

We got into the Tenerife airport on time and I saw people queuing for a flight to El Hierro. I was booked for a flight two hours later, to be on the safe side. But could I make this one? I’d heard the flights around the islands were pretty relaxed. So, I asked. And was rebooked. And stepped right into line. (So, this went smoothly.) I was concerned about not getting a window seat on this flight since I was a latecomer, but, never fear, on a plane this small every seat is a window seat.

The formidable El Teide again, from the west.

El Hierro was skirted by haze when we approached. Still, it was a dazzling, beautiful day. The tiny airport was right on the coast. This was convenient, since the rental car acquisition did not go smoothly. At least I had the water to look at.

I’d reserved a car, but for my original arrival time, and there was not yet a car ready for me. Fair enough. I was told I’d be able to get tourist information in the airport, and I’d been told right. The island is a UNESCO Global Geopark, and is set up for tourists like me looking to explore it. I actually had no idea. I spoke with the woman staffing the booth and was elated. She gave me a map of the island in its Geopark context, highlighting the nine visitors centers. Nine visitors centers! For a mere 22 Euros, I could buy a “passport” to all of them. And have it stamped upon visiting each one. Say what you will, I was excited to have a goal. All nine? In three days? No problem. Oh, the places I’d go, the things I’d see, the things I’d learn! She also gave me a trail map for the island. It’s rife with them! There’s even a trail that runs all the way from one end of the island to the other, which can be walked in about nine hours. Shoot, so many things to do. Maybe, I thought, if I can get some good conversations in and check out all the visitors centers in two days, I could hike the length of the island on the third. So many things to do and discover. Maybe I wouldn’t seek out any conversations after all. Maybe I would just cruise around and explore the whole time.

Eventually, there was a car for me. The woman called me over to claim it. She asked for my driver’s license. I was a little nervous I’d need an international driver’s license, which I got last year and had forgotten about and failed to bring. Fortunately, I didn’t. But I did need something else. I’d reserved my car through a third party, and the third party did not communicate a small detail, which is that a driver needs to have had a license for at least two years. Well, of course I have. *However*, my license only shows the date of issue. The date of issue is July 22, 2016, because I had to renew it last year. So, as far as she could see, there was no proof I’d had my license more than one year, let alone two. Cripes. She wouldn’t budge, and I didn’t want to put her in an uncomfortable situation.

So, problem solving. Is it solvable? I texted my housemate back in the States. Could she perhaps find my expired license and send a photo? I was hoping I might reach her just in time, but no, she was already at work. (Plus, I had no idea what I’d done with my expired license. I would have directed her to the dangerous private world of my top dresser drawer, which it turned out not to be in anyway.) Hmm. I went outside. I was frustrated. I was stuck. The woman at the tourist counter had told me about the bus system, so I went back inside to get yet another map.  I went back out to catch the bus. Perhaps I didn’t really need a rental car. I could save the expenses and bus it around the island. I could at least bus up to my hotel today, and bus back down tomorrow to pick up the car, saving some money. Since I had to wait a half an hour, I had some time to keep thinking. I was within wifi range still of the airport and looked around on the Colorado Department of Motor Vehicles website, on my phone. I found that I could get my driving record. Surely that would work as proof of my 2+ years of licensed driving? Distracted, I missed my bus. It was short. I was expecting full-sized. It drove away without me. Back inside, I asked about the bus size. Small. Oops. Confirmed. So I called the Colorado state government (thank you international plan) and talked to a very helpful public servant and paid the $9 over the phone. Within 15 minutes, my driving record was in my inbox. Technology. Technology! Wifi, international texting and calling, digital records. Boom. And me, able to rent a car. Yes, she accepted that document, shown to her on my phone, as proof.

I was exhausted though. Some of the excitement had been drained out of me. Nothing like a two-hour ordeal to quell some of that fervor. Plus, I was a little nervous about the drive. Before about a month earlier, it had been years since I’d driven a stick shift. Fortunately, a friend had coerced me into driving his stick just a few weeks before as part of a car shuttle. I wasn’t sure at that point that I could still do it. I told him I’d get in and see how I felt, and would call if I needed him to come get it. As it turned out, no need. I left the driveway. Thank goodness for muscle memory. Made it to his place no problem. I win. Otherwise, I would probably have been stuck with the bus on El Hierro anyway.

My hotel, from the side. Nothing glamorous. I mean, where’s the view of the ocean? Not to mention the wifi… But, it’ll do.

My point of real arrival was a hotel in the closest real town to the airport, Valverde. It always feels good to get to wherever I’ll be sleeping and check in, if it’s a hotel. Done. Home base. Grounded. Unfortunately, I wasn’t particularly happy with my accommodations. The room smelled funny. I’m not a particularly finicky person, but I was hoping to find a room to be a bit of a sanctuary, and this one smelled like… cigarettes? Did they actually give me a smoking room? I was disappointed. I wouldn’t be able to hang out in my room, and write, as I’d envisioned. How could I fulfill my dreams of being a traveling writer when I was given a stinky room? Even worse, possibly, was that the wifi didn’t work. I really just wanted something to work. (The overpacked faux carry-on I’d been lugging around that I had to force into the narrow overhead compartment while people waited to board behind me had broken a clasp on the shoulder strap, meaning that half the time I picked it up it slipped out and I ended up pulling it by one end with the other dragging on the ground.) I went back downstairs and asked reception about the wifi not working, suggesting that perhaps the password was wrong, and she said that no, the password was right and that the router is right by my room and so it should work just fine. (But it *doesn’t*!) She went upstairs to reset the router. Then it worked. (See, I’m not crazy.) I checked in with the online world and then, somewhat dejected, set out to take a walk.

I was scouting out the town for places I may want to go to talk to people the next day, and just getting acquainted with it. What is this place all about? I looked at the tourist map and headed up the street, to the church. Made of volcanic rock, like the one in the town I worked in at the base of a volcano in Ecuador. Using local building materials, that’s the only choice here. Everything on El Hierro is volcanic. *Everything.* Wonderfully, wonderfully everything. But more on that later.

For tonight, it was just a walk past the church, which was busy in a relaxed sort of way with children playing in the square. I walked past the city hall, which I noted for the next day, and past an outdoor stage area with some kids who yelled a somewhat cheeky hello. I walked past a promising-looking bar that might be nice for a drink or a coffee, but which was closed. I was impressed by a deep and lush ravine cutting up to the town from the sea. I noted palm trees and narrow streets. Storefronts. I stopped into a bar for a coffee and free wifi. I was hoping for a spot that felt open and had a view of the ocean, but those aren’t on the menu in Valverde. Instead, I had a view of the street, across to other buildings. And a nice enough bartender serving mainly the regulars.

Church and moon. Hard to tell, but the rock is volcanic.
Lush ravine.


Palms and whitewash.


Steep streets on a steep island.


I went back to my hotel room. I decided to go to dinner. I wasn’t the only one with that idea, or apparently with the same recommendation. I went to a place called El Secreto that was recommended by my friends in Madrid. El Secreto was no secret. There were three other groups there, all foreigners. I was admittedly disappointed. The place felt very much like a traveler’s joint, hippy and cozy and playful and very much like a restaurant I attached myself to in Baños, Ecuador, when I was there also talking to people about living with an active volcano. The same one with the volcanic-rock church. Around the world, common cultures cultivate common spaces. It’s like how every highway exit in the U.S. is like every other highway exit in the U.S. Of course, the menu here leaned to Spanish cuisine, and the place is not a chain, but there was still a strange feeling that it could have been anywhere, especially with the foreign clientele, which of course I was a part of.

I went for comfort food instead of local food. It had been a long day. A rich ravioli in cream sauce. At least, I figured, I was closer to Italy than I usually would be.

Walking back, I decided to try a different route. It was very dark, and I wondered as I found myself getting seemingly farther from rather than closer to my hotel and down a street that felt a little sparse on the lighting if I had made a mistake. But as I walked along another gully cutting up through the town, I was rewarded with this view. This is why we explore new spaces.

A view back to town. Not as striking in this photo as in life.

I arrived back in my hotel room hoping to spend a little more time as a writer on my Spanish island, but once again the internet was not working. Instead, I curled up in my stinky room for a stinky sleep. I may as well get an early start tomorrow.

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