Columbusí Rendezvous in La Gomera
by Sarah Andrews

In the not too-distant past, this tiny island off the coast of Africa was the end of the world, the edge of the map, the most westerly thing known to man.

As I stepped on its black, volcanic shore, I tried to imagine that I didnít know the New World was only a jet plane ride away, or that international newspapers had arrived on the morningís first ferry boat from nearby Tenerife, an island that like La Gomera forms part of the Canary Islands archipelago.

I pictured La Gomeraís only commercial port, San Sebastian, as Christopher Columbus would have seen it when he made his last pit stop here before setting off for discovery: sparse, dry, a palace glaring at me from the cliff above the port and traders pushing native treats like goat cheese and fruits my way.

Reality wasnít terribly different, other than the fact that the huge steel boat I arrived in was filled with wet bars and television screens and that my first view of the land was of an enormous parking lot.

Columbus first landed on La Gomera in 1492. It was a logical place to stock up on fresh food, but the islandís widowed governess, a beauty so famous that a jealous Queen Isabella banished her from the peninsula, had more than a little to do with the fact the explorer put off his journey for nearly a month and made several later trips to the island.

Columbus, also widowed, was enchanted by the governess, Beatriz de Bobadilla, and by the island itself, which always enjoys spring-like temperatures and though only 11 miles across contains enough micro-climates to feel like an entire continent.

Their story is one filled with passion, betrayal and other Hollywood-worthy elements. I was fascinated and so decided to focus my exploration of La Gomera on what theirs would have been like.

Tip-toeing behind Columbus and his beloved took me first to the streets of San Sebastian, the capital and largest town on the island. Past the noisy central plaza, where juice bars and newspaper stands are the only things competing with the neighborhood childrenís soccer games, "Colonís House" sits along a sunny street outside the townís center.

Inside the little house, outfitted with the ornate wooden balconies of traditional Canary architecture, drawings of Columbusí ships and information about his journey are displayed. Some claim that he slept in this house during his first visit, before he met Beatriz. The fact that it was built 100 years after his death make it doubtful, but still the exhibits allowed my imagination to sneak a little closer to Columbus and Beatrizís trail.

San Sebastian is also home to a reproduction of Beatrizí palace, now a nationally-run Parador hotel. Perched on the cliff above the port, the white-walled, red-roofed hotel is currently closed for repairs, but the view of the grand complex from below was enough to convince me of the power she would have held as governess of the island.

My next stop was Our Lady of the Asunciůn, the church where Columbus supposedly prayed before setting sail; I suppose he asked God for safety and perhaps for a speedy return to Beatrizís arms. Like the house and palace, the church is a replica. Few original buildings remain standing because most were destroyed or burned by the waves of invaders and pirates that tried to gain control of the island through the 15th and 16th centuries.

Heading toward the center of the island, I tried to pick up the loversí less-marked but more interesting trail. On the tip that the two had gone on several occasions to bathe in one of the many streams in the Garajonay National Park, a protected forest that marks the center of La Gomeraís map like a circular green stain, I aimed my little white rental car for the interior.

The roads in La Gomera are surely better than they were in Columbusí day, but thereís still no getting anywhere as the crow flies. Climbing, twisting, winding highways make their ways over the volcanic mountains that are the island. In La Gomera, things are always going up or going down; even on the valley floors that house most of the islandís population thereís no flatland.

So many mountains make communications difficult; the ancient Gomeransí ingenious way of speaking across the mountains was Silbo, a language thatís whistled, not spoken. The whistle travels much farther than shouts, and permitted the islanders to send long, complicated messages despite the lay of the land.

Although Gomerians had told me that they still occasionally use Silbo, I have to admit I was a bit sceptical; perhaps it was only shown at tourist fairs. So when I was resting in a small valley town and suddenly heard what sounded like two birds having a conversation, I jumped up to look for the source of the song. Sure enough, just down the road was a man with his fingers tangled up in his lips, whistling.

I should have known that there simply arenít enough of us here for anything to be done for the sake of the tourists.

The mountains may inhibit communication, but they make the island a hikerís paradise. The National Park, one of the worldís few remaining examples of the laurel forests that once covered the Mediterranean lands, has the best trails of La Gomera.

In sharp contrast to the desert-like dry air of the port area, clouds hang continually over the forest like damp laundry dripping dry, keeping the plants green, the moss heavy and hikers fresh. The thick canopy high above lets in just enough light to make deep green leaves shimmer, making the forest seem like one from a story book; I half expected a little gnome to dart across the well-kept trail in front of me.

Soon after beginning the "El Cedro" trail that the locals promised would be the most beautiful of the park, I came across a tinkling stream. Could this be the site of Columbusí rendezvous? I dipped my fingers in the chilly water and swatted away the insects hovering on the surface. Somehow I doubt it.

I tried another hike, this time to the "Alto of Garajonay," the highest point in the park. Above the tree line and the perpetual clouds, the air on the Alto was clear and warm. The damp forest was converted into a thick green carpet that covered the land as far as I could see, and the dripping moss of the lower park gave over to wildflowers that clawed at my ankles.

I didnít see another stream, but I bet Beatriz would have liked to come up her with Columbus anyway, if only to show him with a sweep of her hand all the island under her power. She might have explained to him the story of the peakís name, a Canarian version of Romeo and Juliet; Lovers Gara and Jonay were forbidden to be together, so they killed themselves on this point.

In my pursuit of the coupleís story my imagination raced ahead of historians and led me to the quiet town of Hermigua, where green bananas filled the valley floor and the townspeople were getting ready for one of their biggest festivals of the year: San Juan.

San Juan doesnít have a lot to do with our happy couple, and neither do the barrage of firecrackers that marked the festivities. But as part of the celebration, the men and women of Hermigua dressed in traditional Gomerian clothing. I wondered if these head scarves, long billowing skirts and tiny straw hats were similar to what Beatriz was wearing when she first caught Columbusí eye.

At the fiesta I met Enrique, a young Gomerian dressed for the occasion in an old-style cotton blouse, white cropped pants, woven socks pulled up to his knees and a colourful cloth tied around his waist. He assured me that Beatriz likely wore finer clothes but must have also had peasantsí garb to use on outings within the island.

I took advantage of our conversation to ask Enrique about the possibility of Columbus juniors at loose on La Gomera. He just smiled and shrugged, and I decided to take that response as a definite maybe.

Thereís no historical evidence suggesting that Beatriz and Columbus had children together, but in light of my decidedly un-scientific investigation I felt it was a fair pretence to research. But no one on the island would confirm the idea. Like Enrique, they just gave me quiet smiles.

Sadly, Columbus and Beatrizí story has a bitter ending. An enamoured Columbus returned to La Gomera two more times and delayed his expeditions in order to enjoy Beatrizís embraces. But after receiving word that she had married another during his absence, he did not return to the island on his final journey to the New World, and they never saw each other again.

Before heading back to the port at San Sebastian to catch my boat to Tenerife I made one last connection with ColumbusóI stocked up on famous Gomera goods for the trip. Strong goatís cheese, called the best in the world by some, a few bottles of flavourful if not elegant wine, and the islandís delicate palm honey, a syrup made by palm trees, were fit into my suitcase along with too much sand from the islandís black volcanic beaches.

Understanding Columbusí decisions to put off his journeys and stay a little longer on this idyllic island, I waved a slow goodbye to La Gomera and set off on the rocky sea.

Published by The Associated Press, summer 2002
Text Sarah Andrews

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