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Letters from the Atlantic Letters from the Atlantic by Barrie Mahoney

'Writing Inspired by an Island in the Atlantic'

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​A Little More than Amnesia

A Little More than Amnesia

I guess most people have heard of Indonesia and maybe Polynesia, but what about Macaronesia and, indeed, Micronesia? How about visiting Macaronesia one day? No, this is not a new name for France invented by the current ambitious President Macron, but a cluster of four archipelagos in the North Atlantic Ocean, just off the continents of Africa and Europe, which are formed by raised and exposed peaks of the ocean floor that peer out above the ocean’s surface.

The Canary Islands are part of Macaronesia, which also includes Cape Verde, Madeira and the Azores. Interestingly, the islands belong to three different countries: Spain, Portugal and Cape Verde, which are all part of the continent of Africa. The Azores are an exception, since they are part of the European continent.

Although I vaguely remember the term ‘Macaronesia’ being used during geography lessons when I was a pupil, I have rarely heard the term used in recent years. It came to light once again this week after Cape Verde announced that it was aiming for a free trade zone with other Atlantic islands to allow for the free movement of people, as well as goods and services.Despite the term ‘free trade area’ now being seen as ‘dirty words’ in the UK during the current UK-EU Brexit negotiations, it is good to hear that the establishment of free trade areas by others is regarded as a very sensible way forward for nations to trade and work together in a coherent and civilised manner.

Cape Verde is a group of ten windswept islands off the coast of West Africa. It is a volcanic archipelago that was a Portuguese colony until 1975, and with which it still has close links. The islands have stronger economic growth that most of the sub-Saharan countries in Africa. The International Monetary Fund recorded Cape Verde’s growth in 2017 at 4 per cent, which is forecast to improve even further to around 7 per cent. The islands are hoping to enhance tourism and economic growth with such a deal and re-engaging with other islands in what is known as Macaronesia. Cape Verde is hoping to create a legal framework for its people and goods to travel freely for the benefit of all.

The Cape Verde islands, which have a population of around 500,000, and with a large expat population, have already passed legislation to remove visa requirements for Europeans and hope that the European Union will reciprocate. Laws have been changed to make it easier for foreign investors to invest, and recent legislation allows foreign exchange accounts to fund transfers without restrictions. Cape Verde’s currency is linked to the euro, which also facilities business activities.Cape Verde has aspirations to develop the islands as a hub for air travel, since it is ideally located between the Americas, Europe and Africa. It also sees itself as offering great potential as a digital hub for Africa.

Since I mentioned Micronesia at the beginning of this article, I should explain that this group of small islands is in the Pacific Ocean, but that is a story for another time. I think I am going to add Macaronesia to my postal address in future, after several incidents of my post being sent to the Cayman Islands, instead of the Canary Islands. It might help Correos to deliver my post rather more accurately in future.

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The Journey of Life

The Journey of Life

It has often been said that travel broadens the mind, which is one of the many reasons why young people particularly are encouraged to travel. I still remember, in vivid detail, the journey that I took to Germany as an insecure and impressionable thirteen-year-old. This is one incident from my childhood that I value greatly, and I will always be grateful to my parents for having the wisdom to encourage and to allow me to participate in what was at that time a new and experimental project designed to encourage post-war unity and understanding.

The journey that I experienced was part of a school twinning project, with myself and others from my school living individually with a German family, which we had no prior contact, for two weeks. One year later, the visit was reciprocated in the UK with our newly acquired German friends staying with us. For myself and many others, the visit was a huge success, and the friendship that I developed with the German boy, whose home I shared during those two weeks, was one that I greatly valued and continue to this day through emails and occasional visits.

I still recall an unpleasant night-time ferry journey from Harwich, a train journey through the Netherlands, fierce Dutch and German security police checking passports and tickets, and a combination of languages, before we finally embarked in a new and strange country that was to be my home for the next two weeks.

Nowadays, this kind of journey seems mild and quite ordinary, but at that time, the entry into post-war Europe was akin to entering an alien and potentially dangerous world. This early experience fed and nurtured my interest in countries, people and languages outside the United Kingdom, and eventually encouraged me to make a new life in another European country. It taught me much about people from outside the narrow confines of my daily life and routines in a Lincolnshire village, and nurtured my understanding of what it is to be truly European, and not simply British or English.

How times have changed, with children visiting Spain, France and Italy, and often whilst babes in arms. Overseas travel has become both easily available and affordable for many people. However, not all are able to benefit from this new freedom. Although many young people have plenty of time on their hands during the long summer holidays, they often lack the financial resources to do anything particularly worthwhile, and most do not have the funds to undertake travel that could enrich and broaden their minds.

Despite the low cost and ease of accessing other countries by using one of the cheap airlines, often the best way to see Europe is to travel by train. This is the reasoning behind an important European Union scheme for young people that is frequently ignored in the UK, which is a free Inter-Rail Pass to allow teenagers a full month of free travel around Europe.

The European Commission has set aside 12 million euros for between 20,000 to 30,000 teenagers from all over Europe to collect a free rail pass for use during the long summer holidays. The pass will allow students from the present 28 member states to ride on trains, buses, trams and ferries to visit any corner of Europe that they wish, and all free of charge.

The idea behind the initiative is to encourage young people from all backgrounds to connect with other Europeans to develop a European identity. What better way to see the sights whilst travelling relatively slowly, and absorbing the cultural idiosyncrasies of a variety of nations. Chatting to other people and sharing experiences whilst they travel will often create friendships and memories that could last for a lifetime.

I suspect that this early induction will lead to a lifelong addiction to rail travel, which is something that I doubt low cost air travel will ever achieve. Travel is a rite of passage into the world and I sincerely hope that, despite Brexit, government-funded European travel projects will continue in some shape or form. This is life education at its finest.

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The Motor of the Atlantic Ocean

The Motor of the Atlantic Ocean

I like visiting churches, and particularly the old ones. Not only are they an ideal place to rest for a few minutes, but they charge my spiritual batteries, allow me to cool down from the heat of the sun and teach me quite a lot about the people that live and worship within the local community. Until recently, I have rarely considered the physical positioning of church buildings, and always assumed that much was subject to the availability of suitable land, as well as the positioning of other buildings and natural features. In other words, I have assumed that most churches were built more by accident rather than focussed design. A recent study in the Canary Islands has made me realise that there is much more to the subject and, once again, reminded me that the trade winds had, and continue to have, an important part to play in the history and development of these islands.

The trade winds have both a positive and negative impact upon everything in the Canary Islands. The shape of the volcanoes, climate, the guiding of sailing boats and the natural cycles that enrich the Atlantic Ocean are all affected by the trade winds, which many refer to as “the Motor of the Atlantic Ocean”. Mariners have used and relied upon them for centuries for reliable and swift sailing. Surprisingly, the trade winds may also have determined how churches were originally built in the Canary Islands.

Three researchers from the Institute of Astronomy and Space Physics of Buenos Aires, the Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands and the Institute of Heritage Sciences of Santiago de Compostela have carried out a very interesting study of 32 churches across the Canary Islands and have recently reported their findings.

Most Christian churches in Europe were for centuries built with an orientation that would allow the priest to look to the east when officiating at the Mass. This instruction came from the first Council of Nicea in 325 AD. In most churches, the altar is aligned to the point where the sun rises, which followed the advice given by Saint Athanasius of Alexandria in the Fourth Century, which was designed to allow worshippers to hear the Mass whilst facing the sun.

Later, Church law stated that church buildings must observe the principles and norms of the Bible and sacred art, so that many churches have their nave facing east or towards the point where the sun rose on the day of the year when its foundations were laid. This practice was followed in almost all Christian churches in the world, with the exception of those in North Africa, where churches tend to face west.

Current researchers wanted to discover if this North African custom could be seen in the first Christian churches of the Canary Islands, because of the influence of the aborigines of the islands, who descended from the Berber villages of North Africa. They examined the orientation of churches in Lanzarote, the island where the European presence is older and goes back almost a century before the conquest of Gran Canaria or Tenerife was completed.

The research findings were surprising, since the orientation of the oldest churches of Lanzarote does not show a clear influence of the aboriginal culture that can be attributed to ancient cults of these people, or their knowledge of astronomy. This was particularly interesting, because several pre-Hispanic sites across the Canary Islands mark the sunrise in the solstices and equinoxes, which allowed aboriginal societies to have a calendar for rituals, sowing and harvesting.

Of the thirty-two churches analysed, all were built between the Sixteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Seventeen are positioned to face east at sunrise, one is almost exactly aligned with the equinoxes (Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes in Mala) and two more were built in reverse, looking west. However, twelve were aligned to face in a north-north easterly direction.

These researchers conclude that this peculiarity of Lanzarote churches is unique in all of Europe. They suggest that it is a compromise response to a cultural combination of beliefs of the aborigines and the faith of their conquerors. Some churches in the Canary Islands show a marked difference to the orientation of nearly all Christian churches across the world and could have been influenced by the direction of trade winds that were so important to the aboriginal people living in these islands. So, next time that you visit a church in the Canary Islands, do take a compass with you.

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Win a House for Five Euros!

Win a House for Five Euros!


I have never liked gambling or entered a betting office, and I do not buy lottery tickets. Indeed, the only gambling that I confess to was spending a quarter in a slot machine in Las Vegas many years ago, since my fascination with the technology on display in that fascinating ‘hell on earth’ was a temptation that I could not avoid.

My reasons are simple and based upon the Quaker principles that I have always admired and tried to follow, with varying degrees of success I might add. I have always believed that gambling is similar to currency speculation and dealing in stocks and shares; some people gain at the expense of others who often cannot afford to take a loss. I refuse to bet on dogs and horses too, simply because of the cruelty that is always involved when animals are used and exploited for sport. Few horse racing enthusiasts realise that the beautiful horse that they fondly placed a bet on will end up in a tin of dog food when its racing and stud days are over. My own dealings with an animal charity in the UK that has a focus on rescuing greyhounds that were of no more use on the racetrack, and were simply disposed of, was just one experience that confirmed my belief. No doubt some will dismiss my views as both simplistic and unrealistic, but we all have moral choices and decisions to make in life. Despite my objection to gambling, I was fascinated to read that I had an opportunity to buy a home in Spain for just 5 euros when a flyer dropped through our letterbox last week.

“This is the opportunity to have your dream home in the sun - for only 5 euros” screamed the headline. This was a raffle offering an opportunity to win a fully refurbished home, with 200 square metres of space, two bedrooms, bathroom, storage room, basement, living room, dining room, kitchen and sun terrace. This lovely residence is set in a pretty village, just minutes from the beach and the mountains. How could I, or anyone, refuse such an offer? Upon further investigation, I discovered that there are 70,000 raffle tickets and if all are sold, the owner will earn 350,000 euros, less expenses, which is not a bad return on a property that I suspect is worth considerably less.

The idea is simple, and is a pioneering business in Spain that is dedicated to raffling off unwanted properties. After the recession, there were and still are many unwanted properties in Spain. Some are mortgage foreclosures that have been reclaimed by the banks, whilst others are properties belonging to those whose circumstances in life have changed, such as redundancy, illness, death of a partner or relationship breakdown. Many people feel trapped in their homes, because they have been unable to sell their properties. Traditional buyers of properties often find it difficult to raise the 20 per cent deposit that banks require for a mortgage, and the lottery idea seems to have created new hope for many would-be sellers, as well as potential buyers.

Raffling off properties seems to be a growing trend in parts of the country with buyers participating from all over the world. The lottery company charges for a personalised website, consultancy, raffle publicity and the legalities of the operation. The winner of the lottery takes the house, and all costs associated with changing the name on the deeds are covered by the owner.

It does seem to be an interesting and creative idea, which has gained the approval of the Spanish Housing and Finance Ministries. Maybe it is not a good idea to invest your life savings in buying tickets, but I guess that the odd five euros can do no harm. If any reader has used a lottery to sell their property, or maybe won their home in this way, do please let me know.

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​All Helmets and Lycra

All Helmets and Lycra

Over the years, cyclists from all over Europe have headed to the Canary Islands to take advantage of some decent weather with which to indulge in their favourite pastime. All of the inhabited islands have become increasingly popular, but with the favourite destinations being Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote and Fuerteventura that are selected as ideal destinations for all-year-round cycling. The tourist boards and hotels are grateful, since income from cyclists and their entourages makes a healthy contribution to tourist income.

As well as heat, the islands offer mountains, breath-taking scenery and a refreshing sea breeze. Rainfall is rare during most of the year, which makes the islands ideal for winter training. The main disadvantage are the dust storms, which although occasional, are like riding through a blanket of hot, dry fog. These ‘calimas’ are caused by very fine sand being blown from the Sahara. Locals are wise enough to know that they should remain indoors in such conditions, but it is not unusual to see dozens of cyclists attempting to complete their training schedule in conditions that must be injurious to their general health, and with some being admitted to hospital for treatment. Those suffering from asthma, as well as other breathing conditions, would do well to avoid cycling on the islands during the presence of a calima.

Whilst following behind two ‘team cyclists’ the other day, who incidentally were holding hands, it occurred to me that I rarely see a happy cyclist nowadays. They all seem to be so deadly serious, gritting their teeth and with huge quantities of sweat leaking from their designer Lycra. It looks to be anything but pleasurable and seems to be more of a test of endurance; maybe that is the point. I rarely see cyclists actually enjoying their cycling in the beautiful scenery that these islands have to offer. Their eyes seem to be glued to the road just ahead of them, or glued to the sensuous bottom of the team cyclist in front.

It all seems such hard work nowadays; whatever happened to cycling for fun? Am I the only one who remembers actually enjoying cycling to work or going for a leisurely cycle in the countryside with friends, and stopping for a pub lunch before cycling home? Cyclists visiting these islands have spent a considerable amount of money on flights and accommodation, as well as transporting their cycles from their home countries, so why waste it peddling aimlessly up and down the same stretch of road near my home?

As I cautiously follow the two cyclists holding hands, musing on my cycling memories from the past, other motorists were getting impatient behind me. Road conditions meant that I could not overtake, so I was content to wait. However, others were not, which encouraged one very angry motorist to hoot the cyclists loudly, as he overtook me whilst approaching a bend. The cycling ‘lovebirds’ merely dropped their physical connection briefly and offered the angry motorist a one-finger salute, which is not the best way to gain friends or to promote one’s sport.

Anger is never appropriate in these circumstances, but it did remind me of a number of emails that I have received in recent months, complaining that “cyclists are a nuisance” (with much stronger language being used). It is also clear that negative comments on the islands’ social media are rapidly increasing, with angry comments declaring that team cyclists are becoming a curse on the islands’ roads. Rarely does a week pass without at least one cyclist being seriously injured during a road traffic accident, or even worse, alongside their crushed cycle. There are regular reports of children, the elderly, the infirm and those simply not paying attention, being hit by a speeding cyclist. It seems that the days of welcoming team cyclists to these islands is fast disappearing.

The old adage of ‘each to their own’ comes to mind, but maybe enjoyment from cycling can be achieved without inconveniencing, annoying or maiming pedestrians and other road users. An appropriate message to team cyclists might be to enjoy these beautiful islands, appreciate the ever-changing scenery, adjust appropriately to road conditions, and to be thoughtful towards others. Maybe looking less desperate and smiling a little, might help too? Speed and sweat is not what life is about.

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