The Fortunate Isle?
Take a trip there with Ronald Mackay.
An intriguing title is only one of the delights to be found in Fortunate Isle: A Memoir of Tenerife (Plashmill Press, 2017)by Ronald Mackay.
Ronald recently wrote an article introducing himself to readers of the Story Reading Ape’s blog, describing his life, travelling and teaching behind the Iron Curtain, in Mexico, England and Canada. Later he specialized in the design, management and evaluation of development projects which again took him across the globe. His latest memoir tells of a year he spent in the Canary Islands as a young man with everything to learn about the world and himself. The islands have often been called the Fortunate Isles, and yet another alluring name for the largest, Tenerife, is Island of Eternal Spring.
Mackay left home in Scotland at 18, after failing to win the University place he hoped for. Cast down by this defeat, he decided to leave his disappointment and familial difficulties behind him.
His ambition was to travel as far as South America. However, a lack of funds beached him in Tenerife, where he unexpectedly found a home and a new life in a remote village at the end of the island, Buenavista del Norte. There the extranjerowas at first regarded as a strange novelty. The villagers, intensely curious about him as an exotic outsider, were cautiously friendly, but he was welcomed by Doña Lutgarda, who ran the local pension. She rented him a room, treated him like a member of her large family and taught him how to avoid offending the customs and etiquette of the close-knit community. Eager to find acceptance, he started learning to communicate with a basic Spanish grammar, a Spanish/English dictionary, a notebook, and a heavy schedule of study, assisted by the interest and assistance of Doña Lutgarda, her daughters and grandchildren. In a matter of weeks, he was able to engage in basic conversations with his new neighbours and it wasn’t long before Doña Lutgarda found him a job.
The memoir is full of perceptive, affectionate stories of the people, who lived in Buenavista del Norte, their way of life at that time, of the friendships that the author made and the adventures he shared with those he met and worked with. Mackay’s acute interest in people, languages and places has made him a skilful writer, able to bring his characters to life and embed them convincingly in their isolated, island setting. Tourism is the mainstay of the economy today; Tenerife has more than 5,000,000 visitors each year, but in the 60s there were few visitors and working in the banana plantations and fishing were the most common occupations. Everyone contributed whatever they did best to the community and could therefore claim their place in it.
The book is illustrated by the author’s remarkably clear black and white photographs, evocative of the time and the atmosphere of the place. Over the course of the book a picture of the whole community emerges, in which each person has a role and deep rooted family connections and responsibilities provide stability.
In the penultimate chapter, Mackay witnesses an incident which suddenly and fundamentally reconstructs his universe as well as his understanding and perception of himself. He watches the loving mother of the intellectually challenged man, El Loco, who had taken over the digging of a new well when the crew had hit sand, walk to the site of the accident where the wall had caved in and buried him. Her anguish is plain, but so is her acceptance that, as an integral part of the community, her son will always step up to do this dangerous job and that his willingness and bravery is a source of pride for him and the villagers. “Unconditional acceptance is the obligation of attachment.”
Mackay spent a year on Tenerife and it was a formative time. Through his experiences there, he comes to see that “none of us can choose to live just those bits of life that we prefer. Life comes as a package.” His flight to Tenerife gave him the opportunity to learn new skills and develop deeper insights. After the accident at the well, he knows he cannot block out the problems he thought he had left behind him in Scotland and that he must return home to cope with circumstances he had previously found overwhelming, but now knows he is strong enough to face. He will return to play a willing and integral part in his own family’s life and to facilitate the changes to come by contributing whatever he can do best. The Fortunate Isle has provided the background and experiences for Mackay’s coming of age.