“The first time I realized the Earth wasn’t flat was on the island of La Palma. When I landed in Santa Cruz though, all I wanted was a place to finish my poetry book…”
The taxi driver’s smile shakes my tiredness. His black curls are a hundred silhouettes rhythming fly me to the moon on the radio. While he drives me out of El Paso, the comfort of the yellow leather back seat is a drop in the ocean compared to the charm I’ve experienced in this little corner of the Canary Islands for the past three months.
On this side of the world, I’ve had time to appreciate the avocado trees popping from the road’s corners, giving a break to the omnipresent platanos. I could wave to the little woman sweeping her porch every morning in the same red jumper – there is no need to hurry here.
Some hitchhikers I met in Madeira over the winter aroused my curiosity about this tiny island saying ‘it’s the greenest paradise in Europe’. But today I can tell you – it is so much more than that! La Palma is
‘Todo bien?’ Josè smiles again through the rearview mirror. Sometimes my quietness confuses people who don’t know me, but I feel this is not the case with him; the car’s slow pace makes me feel warm and safe. The wide mountains revealing their lush curves in front of my eyes bring me back to the present; they are like neighbours I never visited. It is the first time I’m witnessing gold advancing on their green groves, the sun spreading light over them, soft and gentle as a brush.
When Josè drops me off at the astronomical viewpoint of Llano del Jable, I move closer to the group and my jaw drops at the view of the Aridane Valley. There’s a thick, whisked fog dissolving gold into a mist that separates us. I am witness to an unending catwalk of fluffy clouds, for once below the sunset, and I hear ‘one day I will come back’ repeating inside my head. In three months I have been here, I have only hiked once. When I wasn’t working shifts at the hostel in El Paso, I was working on my poetry book or was at the local beach.
We are at an altitude of 1,341 metres and sat on top of the mountain opposite is the biggest elliptical observatory on earth. With every minute that passes my feet freeze a little more… we are waiting for a very large telescope to be assembled right in front of our eyes.
‘Good evening folks. I guess all of you know we are in one of the 5 best stargazing spots on Earth?’ our guide Elena asks. She is tiny and sweet like a bonbon and alternates between Spanish and English without getting confused like I do. Once the daylight fades away, she kicks off with the nuts and bolts of the visible constellations using an astronomical laser. (I’m 34 years old and I’ve never seen one. Maybe I should watch Star Trek from time to time).
‘See? That’s the little bear. One, two, three, four, five and six’.
The magic starts to happen when I realize that a thick, dark, velvet coat, shaped like a cupola, crowns my head. Hundreds and thousands of tiny little lamps beam life light years away from us. I didn’t know that stars could be distinguished by red, blue, or yellow with a naked eye. All the previous stargazing memories of my life – on the beach, camping in the mountains or strolling in the summer – they all vanish. I am suddenly driving a Ferrari after a lifetime of being happy with an Alfa Romeo – I wonder why.
‘I just see spermatozoa’ I squeak, when I observe 7 magnified Pleiades through the telescope.
‘Well…it’s all about the matter, isn’t it!’ Nadia laughs politely at my insolence.
But while the other tourists share their less-insolent observations, I fly back to Sicily, travelling on red watermelon boards and ripe red tomato shuttles. Some lemon leaves turn into sails and a sprig of mint is my compass.
I was eleven years old, watching the world from inside my dad’s blue Renault. The interior was dusty, smelling of soil and fish. The grey seat covers had been encrusted with salt ever since I could remember, and were always torn.
‘Dad, why would you bring me here for my research…at home we’ve so many books!’
The public library of my hometown wasn’t a fun place. It was always just me, dad and the same grumpy old lady dressed in the same heavy white wool jumper, even in May.
‘You have to learn how to make your research here’.
I had chosen ‘The universe’ as my last written exam subject, and my paper was due in three days.
‘See? How many new covers?’ he would point out, as if Asimov and other Science fiction books weren’t already all over the place, in my bedroom, and in the whole house.
And then, in one second flat, it fast-forwarded to the summer of that same year. Next to the gate of my grandfather’s plot of land named ‘the valley’, where dad had parked his white Fiat Uno. (‘If I were a monk, I’d have a big Volkswagen Golf. I’m a teacher, I have to buy economy’ he used to say to mock our town’s priest).
With our noses up to the sky, my neck was sore.
‘See? The little bear!!’
‘Chiara…where are you looking!?’
‘Yes… One, two, three, four…five and six!’
When Elena changes lenses for the Orion nebula and I distinguish the shield it’s like hugging an old friend I haven’t seen in two decades. Some people complain – they say the telescope should focus better…I step a little farther from the group and vanish into the magic of darkness.
I am wearing a tiny blue and white striped dress. My hands smell of strawberries and two pigtails tumble at my temples. Cicadas sing as though it’s the last night of summer. Me and dad are still stood with our noses up. When I used to get too tired there was only one game that could cheer me up as a child.
‘Dad…I want to fly higher…higher!!’
His thick squat hands used to stink of Marlboros and orange peel.
‘Higher than this and you’ll reach the stars!!’ he shouted, and lifted me up, up, up. When I could grab those big hands, the sky really was close. In my 8-year old’s memory – I can tell you – I was sure I was touching all those little stars.
‘When the sun explodes again, we’ll return to matter’ I hear Elena saying. My eyes are still closed. I smile at the thought of having just completed my first collection of poems. Maybe this is how dreams come true when you’re 34 – by taking the time to work on things which are really important.
I imagine grabbing his hands again, and they turn into a present made of stardust.
(Edited by Kate Ambrose)