there are guardian angels in the nooks and crevices of our lives when unseen danger lurks they push you us aside from the path of a grand piano falling from the sky
After two days across the Sahara, I took a boat to Las Palmas, Canary Islands, where I mingled with Northerners fleeing the harsh European winter – Germans, Finns, Swedes. This is my Christmas Story. The wild days in Las Palmas was a walk on razor’s edge. I had to flee the grip of this tourist town, otherwise I would burn out. So I hitched south to the find the caves of Lanzarote, the next island, where, I heard, from drifters heading north, about an undiscovered paradise. From the violence of a storm, I entered the calm of its eye.
Lanzarote had many coves full of caves, a remote pristine paradise for backpackers-turned-cavemen. I thought, what would it be like to go back to basics and live in a cave, experience a bit of the Stone Age. Why was this so attractive to the counter-culturists? I was looking for ‘paradise’ and I said this was it. I took a small boat to Arrecife, capital of Lanzarote, then to Playa Blanca, the last remote village before Papagayo, the ‘Cave City’.
“Where are the caves?” I asked the store owner at Papagayo. “Ah. Another backpacker. The place is full now,” the store owner said in understandable Spanish. “I don’t care. I’m going,” I said. “Bueno. You better buy food here, the last store before the open wilderness. Here, try this.” He showed me some brown powder. “What is it?” “Gofio. Nice hot chocolate for the cave.” “Okay, give me a pack,” I said.
He knew how many backpackers were at the Papagayo caves because they all came to him for supplies. I bought a lot of provisions, I walked six kilometers through desert-like terrain to the caves along an unclear hardly-used dirt road. There were no more vehicles in the area, and no electricity. I forgot, however, to buy candles, and I only had a 3-inch used one.
Solitude and communality are diametrically opposed, but are the essential ingredients of drifting and of self-discovery. There were about 12 backpackers at the caves at the time I arrived. They came and went and by the time I left after four weeks, the population had changed. There were about four or five caves scattered around the four or five coves. The main cove was the most beautiful, the center of the universe. From the top, I could see the corals through the clear water. A German guy with long hair was snorkelling in the nude.
It was a surprise to see the two Canadian girls who travelled with me across the Sahara. They found the place too. The caves were all occupied, so the girls used a tent. I did not have a tent, so I walked around, looking for my own place to stay. There was an abandoned home with no roof. This was occupied by the snorkelling German. He improvised plastic sheets for roofing, leaving his home half exposed to the rain, which hardly came.
The largest cave was empty. It had a one-meter wide entrance, ten feet high. It was a dead end, no tunnels. The cave was like a room, circular, about a five-meter-diameter interior. There was a protruding boulder right after the entrance, a perfect cover so the interior is protected from the wind and gave privacy. I had to go around it through a narrow path to the left or right to get inside. I wondered why nobody took this cave. It looked better than the German’s abandoned house. It was the best cave and yet it was empty. Why? I decided to investigate.
“Hey, how come nobody stays at the big cave. Looks like the best cave,” I asked the German. He seemed irritated that I disturbed him. He came out of the water and was now frying a big fish outside his ‘house’. He didn’t answer. “Okay, I go,” I said, “No use talking to a wall.” As I was leaving, he shouted at me, “There’s a big rock hanging on the roof that may fall anytime.” True enough, there was a crack on the roof. The German followed me. He said, pointing to the big boulder at the entrance, clutching his fish dish, “This boulder at the entrance fell from the roof perhaps a few years ago during an earthquake. That one is coming next.”, He pointed to the roof.” “It fell 600 years ago”, I said with authority. “Nobody dares sleep in this cave in fear of being crushed,” he said. I laughed. He shrugged his shoulder, “Are you a geologist? It’s your life, not mine.”
I moved in to the best cave, the largest, the Waldorf Astoria of the Cave City in Lanzarote all because nobody dared to move in in fear of the boulder on the roof hanging like the sword of Damocles. I had a gut feel from my guardian anger it was safe. Boy, was I lucky. All caves occupied and I get the best one rejected by all.
The Waldorf Cave smelled of urine. The first order of the day was to clean it, make it five-star once more. Many backpackers had stayed here in the past, the daring ones who were not afraid of the rock falling from heaven. I spent one whole day removing the garbage. I even saw syringes and needles. Some drug addicts must have stayed here a long time.
I got a discarded pail in the garbage area and started removing the old damp and dirty sand out of the cave. Then I hauled in new white sand from the beach, warm and dry from the sun. That was hard work, but at the end of the day, the two Canadian girls came over and were surprised to see how clean the place was. I told them I was having a ‘house warming’ tomorrow evening and was inviting everyone. I added that they were welcome to stay in my cave. They just giggled and left.
The next day, I prepared for the ‘gofio party’. Lacking candles, which everyone seemed to have plenty of, I went to the other caves and collected melted candle drips on the rocks and floor which they no longer needed. I was able to collect about two pails of melted candle. Next I collected sardine tin cans and small bottles at the garbage dump and cleaned them with sea water. I re-melted the candle drips and poured it into the bottles and cans. I used thick string, also from the garbage, as wick. Before dusk, I had fifteen candle bottles and cans which I placed around the entire cave. Nobody ever thought of that, of recycling melted candle. It perhaps takes a freak from the poverty-stricken east to improvise. In the affluent waste-oriented west, even freaks had little inkling to improvise.
I ate dinner quickly inside the cave and prepared for the party. I lit all fifteen candles. The place had a soft glow and people outside noticed and came over. They were amazed how clean and bright the Waldorf Cave was. I cooked a lot of gofio for my guests. It was a nice quiet party, no food, only hot chocolate. The German did not come. They said he was ‘busy’. Uninvited people came every night for hot gofio. Every night, I lit all fifteen candles like it was Christmas. The Waldorf Cave became the meeting place. I thought I would be recluse and meditative. I became a social being. But I was running out of butane gas and gofio.
Everyone was scrimping on expensive candle, lighting only one at a time in their caves or tents. The only store, which was a long hike away, tripled the price of candle when the owner found out only backpackers were buying them. It was highway robbery, or law of supply and demand. But my candles were for free. I did not have to scrimp. The Waldorf Cave was lit at night like a cathedral. Later, it was hard to find discarded melted candles. They caught on to my style and started their own candle jungle. But I had a lead, a two-month supply, which I gave away when I finally left.
Mixing social aind personal concerns at the cave, I did a lot of reading. I remember until now some of the books, like The Teachings of Buddha and The Tibetan Book of the Dead. I traded the latter with a Scottish drifter for my book Razor’s Edge. I was recluse during the day, talking to no one, doing yoga exercises and meditating. At night, uninvited people came by and there was a lot of friendly talk. I was beginning to like monastic life during the day and socials at night. People poured their pains on me. I loved being a counsellor, the guru wanna-be. It was a spiritual experience for me. I was alive more than ever. I decided to stay for a month. I borrowed the snorkel of the German and spent hours every early morning snorkelling in the cove. The untouched coral garden was fantastic. The colored fish were mesmerizing. I began to systematically probe the other coves and beaches as far as two kilometers away.
The place was so quiet except for the soft cadence of waves so conducive to meditation, that when I went to town to do my weekly shopping of butane gas, sugar, gofio, rice and vegetables, I was startled by sudden noises like the toot of a vehicle’s horn.
The cave became my chapel of prayer. Every morning, after my yoga exercise and meditation, I read books and wrote my diary, which I lost in Sweden on the way north. At night, after my guests had left after a good round of hot gofio, I knelt on the sand and thanked the Lord for His gift to me of inner peace and wisdom. It was not just serendipity. His hand was on my shoulders all this while. He was perhaps preparing me for my pilgrimage to Fatiima, in Portugal, a 7-day 80-kilometer hike from Lisbon.
there is beauty in darkness in whose bowels you can meditate and transport yourself into new places it is here where one achieves anonymity before going back into the blinding light darkness can make you see
The silence sunk deep into my receptive soul. I began thinking of New York and my family but not in a homesick way. I wondered what they were doing now. They would be scandalized to know I was now a caveman. I laughed aloud like a mad man, as I looked at myself transformed from computer programmer to caveman.
My daring sojourn was not to look for the world but for myself. That was what eastwind was all about – the breeze or storm from the east moving west. It was important to look inward by looking outward. Buddha said if you got too engrossed with yourself, you would get blind and not see yourself more. Funny, but Buddha made me more Christian. For I was mirrored in everything and everyone I encountered – the orange Lanzarote sunset, the sky-blue cove, Vicky in Morocco, Maria in Las Palmas, Josh, John, Jim, and Olga, poor Olga. Where could she be now? It was only in marvelling at the world and establishing links with others that I could look deep inside me. Years later, I would reminisce and realize how we met in street corners and shared heaven, sometime hell, then departed forever, never to see each other again. In the caves of Lanzarote, time stood still for me. There were no schedules, no problems. It was the longest ‘retreat’ I ever had in my life. It energized and purified me spiritually. It was a form of cleansing, removing the ‘dust’ of civilization.
Andre, a scrawny French Canadian, was one of the most fascinating drifters I had met. He had his own cave about two meters wide, just enough for him to recline in. It was one meter high and one meter deep, so small that you had to stoop to get in. I wouldn’t even call it a cave. It was just a dent on the wall. He improvised a large plastic sheet to cover the mouth of the ‘cave’ for protection from the rain. It could be lifted if you wanted to go in and it could be closed when there is rain. Inside was his home, gear, clothes, kitchenware, etc. all cramped into this tiny hole in a complex series of ‘holes’ carved out of the wall, on top of which he improvised shelves from discarded wooden slabs. He had two wild cats for company. They were so wild, he had scratches in his arm. They refused to be fed at times.
I asked, “You mean you have been here for nine long months?” “Oui,” he replied. “Let me guess. You are an absolute loner.” “Oui.” “And you hate the outside world.” “No, no, no. I have no passport. I can’t leave this place.” “Why don’t you get one?” “You mean in the Canadian embassy in Las Palmas? Too far. I don’t have money. No way. This is my heaven. I stay here. Perhaps next year, I try.” “If you close your plastic door, you will suffocate.
He pooh-poohed my concern in French-Spanish, “No importa, mon ami.”
I picked up the idea from Andre of roaming through all the coves all around. I saw him do that one time and I tailed him. I knew he knew I was tailing him. He was amused. He swam in every cove he visited. He walked around without a shirt or towel. Occasionally, he would sing a French song. He swam and dried himself in the sun after. He was almost as dark as I was. My tan was built in. I never saw him wear a shirt. So you see, French Canadians and Filipinos had the same skin.
“You don’t have a shirt?” I half-asked half-said. “Yes, no shirt.” “You want one?” “No importa, mon ami. I have not worn a shirt in six months. I don’t have time to wash clothes. I like being bare.” “Of course you have time to wash. You mean you hate to wash.” He smiled, “Oui.” “When will you go back to Canada”. “Pa possible (impossible). I hate Canada.”
Andre was the most recluse in the group. He did not talk to anyone. It took me awhile to pry him open. He never went to my cave. He never borrowed things from others. He just swam the whole day, that was all he did for the last nine months. I was a loner but he was one a hundred fold.
I looked up to Andre. He was tough, sensitive, a veteran drifter who could teach me many things. He was happy by himself and at peace with the world. But underneath that peace, I discerned a glimmer of a storm, of the places and people he was running away from. Underneath the peace was a past pain. He touched me more than many others in Cave City. He could not even speak straight English. I knew him more than many others who talked about themselves. He did not have to talk. I could see right through his transparent soul somehow. That was my gift, to discern people.
One day, I decided to swim in the nude, taking the cue from the German. I had no ambition to be an exhibitionist. In fact, there was no one to exhibit to and nothing to exhibit. The Canadian girls did not even take a second look at my scrawny body. But I had a strange feeling when I swam in the nude. It was like the ultimate defiance of society. It made me feel free. Some kind of neurosis, you may say. I felt psychological freedom. Anyway, there was no one to ogle at me.
I must confess to some sins. In Playa Blanca, where I went to regularly, when my provisions at the cave ran out, I started swiping canned goods in the store. I pocketed a can of expensive corned beef once. This was luxury food for me. I started to take other more expensive items. I was getting bolder. So that I am not suspected by the cashier, I bought other cheap items such as candles and sugar and coffee. But I was getting addicted because I got away with it so easily. I also felt good because I could do it with such a cool air. I used my broken Spanish to converse with the store owner. Petty talk distracted him. It was also a form of vengeance, I am sorry to say, for his expensive candles that the freaks had to pay for.
One day, while attempting to make another swipe, I heard a commotion. An American backpacker was caught by the store owner. He held out a bottle of pickles that came out of the backpacker’s jacket. He was so angry, he was shouting to the high heavens. He held the American by the arm as he talked to the police on the phone. The American did not resist. I could see the fear in his eyes. The police took him away. As I reached the counter, I took out the corned beef to pay for it. I asked myself, “A blonde American in a Spanish jail? Wow, that’s bad. Sodomy? It happens in Spanish jails.”
The store owner said, “These guys are terrible. They think they can get away with everything. I hope he rots in jail.” “That’s really bad,” I answered with utter hypocrisy and fear. “Why can’t he be honest like you, a regular customer.” “Forget it. Don’t be so upset. It’s okay,” I said.
From then on, I stopped being a petty thief. It was not worth it, not even a dozen cans of corned beef for a month in jail where your ass was on the line. The benefit was totally dwarfed by the penalty. It also left a bad taste in the mouth. Romantic adventure must not degenerate into petty thievery. It must remain sacred and pure, like a mountain flower. I learned my lesson the easy way. Back at the cave that night, I knelt and prayed, “Thank you, Lord, that you warned me through my guardian angel.” After a month, I started getting lonely and bored. I could probably leave as soon as I finished the book on Buddha.
Three decades after my stint at Papagayo, I saw a TV documentary by ‘Lonely Planet’ about Papagayo. Papagayo had now become a tourist spot, no longer the lonely remote spiritual refuge for freaks. There was now a cement road, and at the end a five-star hotel, right where the German lived. Edens for freaks evolved into five-stars for tourists. Drifters were mere discoverers. Tourists messed up the edens discovered by drifters.
Finally, it was time to go. Winter of solitude was now flowing into Spring of Fiestas. I flexed my wings again and hit the road. Before doing my Fatima pilgrimage on foot, I saw the famous Portuguese bull fiesta where they let loose a monster on the fenced streets as brave drunk men run around. Not me.