Two Tales of Recovery in the Canary Islands

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The Parque Nacional de Garajonay on the Canary Island of La Gomera offers many things: dozens of hikes to suit everyone's ability level, dazzling views of the island's dry canyons, cascading terraces of banana trees, and misty laurel forests.

But I was in search of something else. I had read -- and seen photos -- of the burned forests on La Gomera from last summer. Fires, caused by arson, had swarmed across the island, charring roughly a fifth of the park and causing close to $90 million worth of damage to this Unesco World Heritage site. Was there a trail that would lead me through that? I asked a guide at the visitors' center on a trip there over the winter.

"You should know that no one died in the fires, which is a miracle," she quickly told me. "It's sad, but there's also a lot of new growth. It's just that it's slow." And with that, she pointed me in the right direction.

I didn't tell her why I wanted see the blackened hillsides and skeletal trees. A circuitous route had led me to the visitors' center, much like the one I'd later follow on a hike that wove through acres of startling devastation. And yet on that hike I also saw distinct beauty, small bursts of green pine and gray laurel here and there, an unmistakable -- indeed heartening -- herald that renewal and recovery were indeed possible.

Two months earlier, I had sat across from my radiologist as he described the seven weeks of treatment that I would have to undergo for my early-stage breast cancer. He warned me of the possible side effects, and asked me if I wanted to be written out sick from my job at a medical research society for the duration of the treatment.

As an American who has lived and worked in Germany since 2000, I've grown somewhat familiar with the ample health care benefits there. But seven weeks off -- in addition to the six that had been offered following the lumpectomy to remove the tumor -- sounded overly generous to me. I didn't take the doctor up on his offer. I had recovered quickly from surgery, was back at work a day afterward, and while I had some mild swelling and redness from the radiation, I had none of the dreaded fatigue the doctors kept warning me about.

After radiation, however, my radiologist suggested an extended (up to six weeks) recovery retreat, or Kur, as the Germans call it. Alternately translated into "cure" or "regimen," a Kur may be spent in the Alps or at the Baltic Sea, and is paid for by both public and private insurers. A staple of German health care, the Kur dates from the reign of Otto von Bismark, who established it as part of his extensive social welfare reforms in the 1880s. Germans -- employers and employees alike -- remain proud of the tradition, recognizing it as essential to one's recovery from serious illness.

I had no frame of reference for a Kur, other than Thomas Mann's plodding "Magic Mountain," in which his characters are secluded at a Swiss sanitarium, take the waters at natural springs and kvetch ad nauseam over illness, death and fate as they recover from tuberculosis. None of this appealed to me, but as my radiation treatment was about to end, it was winter, the darkest in Germany since 1951; at the end of January, the German weather service announced that the country had all of six minutes of sunshine for the month. I eschewed the Kur, but I still needed out -- a place in the sun, away from the ice and snow and dismal talk of fate.

I wanted a vacation. A travel agent friend suggested La Gomera, which seemed to satisfy my wish for quiet and warmth. I went online to find out more, and that's when I stumbled upon stories about last summer's fires, and horrific photos of scorched ravines.

La Gomera, I read, is not the most popular among the attractive Canary Islands, which beckon flocks of sun-seeking Northern Europeans in winter. The waves can be rough and the beaches are mostly rocky, but it's ideal for hiking. The fires I had read about were not the first on the island; La Gomera, I learned, has almost mystical powers of renewal and recovery, regularly rising from the ashes, defying blistering flames, not to be undone by adversity. The fires, however, were a bit of a conundrum, considering that much of the island's national park is a moist cover of dense foliage and jungle. But still it had happened, not unlike my diagnosis, I started to think, for I had had no known risk factors for the disease.

The destination in my mind slowly took shape, and the journey gathered importance for me the more I read about this tiny island that was the last of the Old World Christopher Columbus saw before he set sail for the New. The day I booked my tickets, I happened to glance at a topographical map of the island, and realized that I was looking at a volcano. Thomas Mann had his Magic Mountain, I thought, and now I hoped to have mine.

After arriving in Tenerife, my companion, Thomas, and I took a bus to the town of Los Cristanos, where we then caught the ferry to San Sebastián on La Gomera. It's a 45-minute ride, and as the barge cruised into the harbor it was dusk, but we could still make out the island's soaring crags and peaks. San Sebastián blankets the sides of several of them, and as our taxi took us up the road from the harbor to our hotel, we had a grand view of the sea and crescent-shaped black sandy beaches. We also saw a kaleidoscope of little box houses and bougainvillea inching up the cliff where our hotel, the Parador de La Gomera, was perched.

Beyond the reception area was a courtyard filled with rubber plants and ferns, totally silent but for the pleasant fountain in the middle. The room was not as impressive -- it appeared dark, with heavy wooden furniture. (We were amused at the single beds, a reminder that we were, in fact, in Catholic Spain.)

Yet when we stepped out onto the balcony the next morning, we were treated to a vision of the sun bursting across the sea. Beneath us was the hotel's well-maintained garden of agave and stout cactuses, and absolute stillness. We might as well have been in the Garden of Eden.

We drove north that first day, passing through the pretty canyon towns of Hermigua and Agulo, stopping at several miradors, or lookout points, toward the sea. Our destination was the Playa de la Caleta, a beach nestled among cliffs and reached by a precipitous and serpentine road barely wide enough for one car but, we found out soon enough, serving drivers going both directions. Thomas navigated the devious corners, I held on for dear life, and we eventually reached the summit. Descending the other side of the mountain, we saw an isolated strip of black sandy beach, turquoise waters, palm trees and cactus.

The water was chilly, but we didn't care. We waded in and floated on the gentle waves. I'd had to go weeks without swimming during radiation, and could hardly wait to leap back into water. That first dip was sublime, my version of "taking the waters." Afterward, we lay in the sun, read and napped, and then slowly made our way to the thatched roof snack bar farther up the beach, where we feasted on dorado, wrinkly and salty local potatoes and peppery red and green mojo sauces.

Back in San Sebastián the next day, we walked along the beach and the pedestrian Calle Real. Our first stop was at the Casa de la Aguada, a small museum celebrating Columbus's stay on the island before heading for the New World. The Gomerans, oddly, spent centuries fending off Dutch, French and English corsairs (including Sir Francis Drake), and yet warmly welcomed Spain's most favored son. In the courtyard, a sign next to a well notes that the explorer gathered water here for blessing whatever land awaited him. Up the road, we visited the adobe and brick Iglesia de la Virgen de la Asunción, where Columbus and his fellow sailors supposedly celebrated Mass before heading west in 1492.

Farther along the Calle Real, we stopped at the Restaurante Breñusca. This colorful spot would become our regular evening haven, where the catch of the day never disappointed, nor did the garbanzo stew. But even better, we would sit outside and watch the comings and goings of the locals, their children, their dogs, their babies and clusters of chatty older folks and rowdy teenagers, all an engaging, charming window into Gomeran life, and a far more heartwarming distraction than work had been for me during my diagnosis and treatment.

Our first hiking expedition into the Parque Nacional de Garajonay, which straddles the island's upper volcanic reaches, was a two-hour loop at the park's most southern tip. We parked at Pajarito and found the trailhead called Ajugal, where it dipped into a damp canopy of wax myrtle and mahogany laurel. Later, we came to a meadow, and I looked up and saw a crescendo of blackened tree trunks on a series of hills stretching off toward the sea.

The woman at the visitor center hadn't suggested we hike this trail; on the others she had recommended, we had indeed seen new flora growth. The contrast was palpable, the lustrous and vibrant green of new ferns, and shaggy mosses, holly and laurel juxtaposed with the blackened hillsides.

But on this trail, the extent of destruction gave us pause. The fires seemed to me unfathomable. Here on the island's summit, damp Atlantic winds mix with warmer breezes, resulting in a mist, which in turn nourishes the jungle forests. The trees absorb this moisture, which eventually soaks the soil and feeds the springs that reach across the island. As we walked on, I turned this over in my head, realizing that my thoughts of "This shouldn't have happened" mirrored the way I had felt upon hearing my diagnosis, and being confronted with the uncertainty and fragility of life.

As we reached the trail's midpoint, we found ourselves again surrounded by abundant beauty. We saw a band of California pine, enclosed by swaths of moist grass, dandelions, Indian avocado, heather and palo blanco. There was a spectacular view of Los Roques, a series of bizarre rock pillars that mushroom out of the earth, and also a surreal Mount Teide on Tenerife. When we got back to the parking lot, we saw it was just another short hike up to the Alto de Garajonay, or summit, so we pressed on. From there, the views were even better. We could see as far as the island of La Palma, and down into the valleys, ravines and reservoirs of Valle Gran Rey and the town of Vallehermoso.

The day before we left La Gomera, Thomas wanted to rest, but I was drawn back to the park. At the trailhead at Montaña Quemada, a cobblestone road led me into a subterranean netherworld of vines and hanging mosses intertwined with the laurel. I was mostly alone on the trail, and I could hear birds rustling boisterously in the trees and brush. It was dark and moist, but at one point, I could see a bit of blue sky and was surprised to notice the nearness of the clouds. I could practically touch them.

And then I got lost. I backtracked, twice. I studied the map again, frustrated, and then slowly walked on until I eventually came upon a connecting trail, which seemed to lead me back to the trailhead. But first it descended deeper into the thicket, and it got darker and wetter, until I suddenly saw a compact adobe chapel set in a clearing, a stream of sunshine illuminating it. Here was the Ermita de Nuestra Señora de Lourdes, one of the dozen or so hermitages in the park. It was quite a gift to stumble upon, this simple refuge amid the darkness, and I headed toward it. I sat on the steps, the sun on my face, content in this quiet retreat atop this magic mountain that I'd found for myself.

travel

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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