Of whatever else it might be accused, Tenerife could never be blamed for keeping poets awake at night in thrall to its beauty. South Tenerife in particular is best described as “brutal”: miles and miles of scrub-littered rock festooned with scrap metal and cement, some of it fashioned into reasonably eye-pleasing monuments to tourism.
These oases of sympathetic architecture are the exception rather than the rule, and, since the global recession, many such developments have been halted in their tracks: half-completed ~ possibly now never-to-be-completed ~ and blighting still further the unfortunate landscape.
Towering over proceedings is Mount Teide, an extinct volcano, the tallest mountain in Spain and arguably the only true buena vista in the south of the island, save for some occasional blazing sunsets and the ever-dependable sea, raging incessantly against the rocky shores. There are hardly even any natural beaches to offer solace to the hopeful holidaymaker. Instead there are man-made bastardisations, serving only to emphasise that which is missing in the first place.
The travel brochures, never less than optimistic, do their best to paper over these not insignificant cracks in Tenerife’s appearance, but those holidaymakers who return regularly ~ and there are many, including me and my wife ~ do so knowing full well that the glib marketing is mostly fatuous bollocks, dreamed up in the heads of people paid to tell us what we want to hear, rather than the truth.
What, then, is the true appeal of Tenerife? The year-round sunshine undoubtedly helps; the short flight time is good news; the friendliness of the locals is another big plus. However, I suspect a big factor in Tenerife’s success is that it is, to echo the Hitchhikers’ Guide To The Galaxy, mostly harmless. It is Africa without the diseases and the alarming social divide; it is Spain without the machismo; it is just about foreign enough to say you travelled, without any need to adjust your mindset. In short, it is unchallenging in just the kind of way that most holidaymakers prefer. You remember how, as kids, you used to camp out in a tent in the back garden and imagine you were lost in the wilderness, knowing full well that mum and dad were really just yards away? Well, Tenerife is like that, only more so.
What I like about holidaying here is less the scenery, more the fascinating interplay of people from different nations suddenly thrust together into a melting pot. For any people-watcher, an all-inclusive hotel is like a series of Big Brother, only quite interesting, and mostly devoid of Geordie talk-overs.
Any economist prepared to stay a week or two in a Tenerifan all-inclusive would immediately observe that the classic law of supply and demand is brought into sharp focus: if there aren’t enough sunbeds to go round, there ensues a frantic scramble to be the first to the sunbeds in the morning; if there are enough sunbeds to go round, there ensues a frantic scramble to get the best-placed ones in the morning; if there is limited dining space, even though there may be an entire evening in which to take your meal, crowds for the restaurant will jockey for an advantageous position at opening time (with no hint of anything resembling a formal queue).
In short, the all-inclusive brings out the territorial worst in people. It also offers an intriguing glimpse of communism in action. By definition, everyone in an all-inclusive is equal. We wear our wristbands of equality with pride. In principle my right to the best-placed sunbed is no more, nor less, than yours. But where there is limited supply, there must also be haves and have nots.
In an effort to clamp down on antisocial competitive behaviour many hotels lay out an assortment of rules. One such is typified by our current hotel. It is, we are told by numerous signs, strictly forbidden to reserve sunbeds before eight in the morning. Any objects used for reservation purposes before that time will be removed. Very clear, and quite right too, I hear you say. The trouble is, the rule is ignored en masse. I have no idea at what time people actually get up to reserve their beds, but by a quarter to eight they are all festooned with towels, books and underpants, none of which has been removed, as threatened, by the hotel’s Pool Enforcement Agency (or the Towel Guy, as he is better known). Thus, those who suffer most, the least equal by default, are the poor saps who decided to play fair and observe the rules. Understandably, they are disinclined to continue to do so, and the whole thing goes to Hell in a handcart. This, it seems to me, is the EU in microcosm: earnest rules aplenty, designed to make things better for all, disobeyed by the majority to the complete disadvantage of the rule-abiding minority. Result: bitterness, recrimination and a general inability to get the Greeks to pay any tax.
So sunbeds are an eternal source of fascination for the dedicated observer of human behaviour. I was once told by a guy we met in Greece that he had ended up in jail alongside a German and the hotel manager after a row over sunbeds had gotten out of control the previous year in Spain.
Apparently the affair had started off in the usual way. A gradually escalating war of earlier and earlier alarm calls, the loser having to suffer a whole day of smug satisfaction from the winner before getting the chance to reverse roles the next day. One particular morning, the English guy goes out about four o’clock and puts his towel on the sunbed, before retiring to bed with a warm glow of satisfaction. But what’s this? In the morning he finds his German pal smugly adorning the top of the sunbed, and his own towel wetly adorning the bottom of the swimming pool. The shit, as they say, hit the fan. Or, more accurately, he hit the German, after a brief war of words had failed to get the desired confession to crimes against towel-kind. The fight was hardly under way before the hotel manager stepped into the fray and got himself hurt too as both protagonists turned on him. The Spanish Police were called and all three spent a night in the local chokey reflecting on the error of their ways.
I suspect that a mischievous Spanish pool cleaner probably laughed his cojones off over that jape. Three victims in one go, including his boss, a Brit and a German. Who could ask for anything more?
Sunbeds, then, are a serious business. At least five major wars started off as disputes over sunbeds. Fact.
One particularly interesting form of behaviour is what I call “Sunbed Chess”. During the course of an average day, sunbathers, heliocentric like sunflowers, tend to follow the sun around, and the shadows of sun-umbrellas become bones of contention. It may be that you didn’t get the good umbrella, but you can always smuggle your sunbed into its penumbra, particularly if you make your move whilst the umbrella’s lease-holders are away at lunch or in the pool. A good Sunbed Chess player will move his own sunbed in a series of almost imperceptible moves that eventually brings him into pretty close proximity with the shadow. One more move and the takeover is complete.
Alert sunbathers will note these moves and act to block further encroachment by pushing their own sunbed, or a chair or table, further into the shadow, a move that I call “The Barrier Defence”.
Of course, those with a longer-term view recognise that it’s not where the shadow is now that you need to worry about, but rather where it will be in, say, three hours time. The Barrier Defence is of no use in this example, because your opponent is already ensconced, just waiting for the sun to do its inevitable thing. This tactic is known as “En passant”. When it happens to you, the only available defence is to lower the umbrella, a kind of lose/lose option, but nevertheless offering a degree of grim satisfaction, as the encroacher can hardly complain. It’s your umbrella. You control its destiny, at least for today.
Incidentally, all of the above moves are made without the slightest attempt at any form of verbal communication. Hard stares are permitted, but it is extremely bad etiquette to say “Bog off and find your own umbrella, you bastard,” however tempting that may be.
So there you have it. Tenerife is a petrie dish of eccentric tourist behaviour. For this I can forgive it its less than beautiful scenery and occasional eyesore buildings. Chuck in free beer, food and days brimful of sunshine and, in my book, you have a recipe for holiday success.