Origins (hell with the fire out)
<<a story in progress>>
I first saw the place through an aeroplane window.
A small lump of red-tinged and brown ochre was caught and suspended in a vast, incomprehensible, blue ocean. In fact, you could see the whole island from the air, and when I squinted my eyes, I noticed a distinctly darker region at its bottom end, like a shadow. As the plane approached more of its features revealed themselves. Pockmarks everywhere. Some rustic brown, some pale golden, some grey-green, some brown-black. Then a grain of white, slowly multiplying and becoming clusters, transforming into tiny villages. The coastline had a thin aura of turquoise in contrast to the dense blue sea.
An inaudible mutter from the captain.
At one stretch the coast was just dark hard rocks hitting surf. Baked earth, ripped, undulating. We bank and are given the sea to study as the crumpled shimmering surface begins to give away the true scale of its waves.
A large urban area shines up under a pointy hill carved out by dry gullies. My stomach flutters as the prospect of landing suddenly hits me. It’s a smooth and uneventful moment. Just one week in the sun. I recall our conversation a few months ago. ‘Let’s try Lanzarote. My mum said it’s like Iceland but with heat. And way cheaper.’
The plane door is lifted open and a foreign-smelling air gently drifts into the cabin. We disembark down the metal steps and onto the concrete. I feel like I might trip, like I always do. I don’t, never do. My body is wrapped and quickly infused by a soft, warmwind, almost liquid. I look around briefly. It’s really windy. I can’t see anything for my hair wrapping around my face. The sensations are warm and overwhelming and I like it. Distracted, I refocus on an unmarked path across the large stretch of concrete, aware of the hurry around me. The sun is bright but hazy and a powdery baby blue sky frames the upper half of the airport building. It is a small, simple white structure with a low section of wall made from dark, gnarly blocks of volcanic stone. An elegant white sign Lanzarote is positioned in front of this rustic base, facing the arrivals from the parked planes. It is a font I’m not familiar with: the L is slightly elongated, relaxed, like it’s hanging on a breeze.
We all enter the building through a glass door, navigating its internal walkways and pass the check points. Just hand luggage. Entering the arrivals hall. It is tall and light and not busy. An unfamiliar smell. Shiny surfaces and metallic echoes. Disorientated. Where’s the exit? I notice a giant lump of black lava standing upright on a marble plinth in the centre of the room, towering over me like a monolith. I feel like crying.
Time to move again.
Out of the building, looking for the car-hire parking zone. Immediately in front of me, a large curved concrete wall with probably a hundred different types of cacti planted at different levels and arranged in steps like a shallow amphitheatre. Sun beams onto them from above the concrete awning under which we stand. Stark shadows cast off their bodies as they greet human arrivals. My body feels light. I’m blasted with some strange feeling, like a confluence, perhaps uncertainty. The wind and passing cars carry my feelings away from me.
On the road out of the airport zone. Little traffic. The ground is very dark. Tarmac roads in unusually good condition. Black and grey soil, like cigarette ash, makes up the spaces between connecting roads and lay-bys. An impressive silver geometric sculpture with parts of it spinning in the wind sits atop the centre of the first roundabout we meet. Squat palm trees here and there, nothing is very tall. No tall buildings, no skyscrapers, no billboards lurching out hysterically at the side of the road.
The sky hangs over us, massive and open. We drive into an emerging ochre space. Tiny leafless bushes scattered around. Barren earth everywhere. Patches of black merge into paler dust, like the burnt remains of ghosts. A thirsty, cracked body of a landscape.
The buildings are all white. Even the warehouses. As we reach the outskirts of the capital, only the shop signs on buildings interrupt the weathered white cuboid structures that are growing rapidly as we swing around the outer ring road and bypass the small mass of pale urban sprawl. Still no billboards. The tarmac continues its smooth and dark passage against the rough skin of the dead land. One single high-rise building made up of blue glass peeps out from the centre of the white urban scene. It’s fading into the distance, consumed by edges and shadows of pale blue and off-white. The occasional yellow or cream building here and there, sometimes a dark glass facade. The rubber-buffed concrete edges of the ring road spread out into vacant plots of more cracked, bleached concrete. A scrambled form of cactus shoots green out of the blankness.
Another roundabout with a shiny linear metal sculpture that’s rotating madly in the wind. Still white buildings, still no billboards. Driving away from the city, north, along the spine of the island, the road’s surface doesn’t change. Beyond it, a truly unremarkable landscape unfolds. The foreground is rough and crumpled and free of walls. A grey lifeless tinge drowns the hills, the soil looks like gravel. I need it darker or brighter, more desert or more lush, higher hills or deeper valleys. But it’s like a void. Like being on the moon. Bits of gritty land cracking and falling into small ditches.
Absolutely no romance to be found here. Like hell with the fires put out. Not old, just empty. Still, I’m intrigued by something, like morbid curiosity.
Along a straight road, seemingly to nowhere. Nothing in the distance. The end of the world? Ochre starts to fan out either side, accumulating into an array of small volcanic cones: gentle, soft-skinned, mini-mountains that seem to slowly dance as we pass them.
It’s getting more interesting.
A rise in the earth to the west, perhaps the saddle of a mountain, but this time silvery grey in places, crumbling at the top, its strata exposed like a bashed-up skeleton. Green-grey scrubby things and bushes scattered around, sometimes vibrant, sometimes bleached. A lone hardy tree with a rare shadow. Masses of cacti, like plants exploded and frozen in time. The road takes us swiftly under an asymmetrical, elegant bridge the colour of dry rusted iron. A coastline juts out of the rubbly landscape beyond, and it’s a dazzling hard blue with the creamy crests of waves running beneath a cluster of more white cubes, something made by a human. We turn inland and up a dusty valley with green speckles on orange-earthy sides. A small village of all white buildings. Well kept. We find our residence for the week. It’s a hostel with a handful of clean rooms and a central, communal courtyard. No frills and lots of potted plants. Surfaces talk to each other. A dog-eared map of the island sits on a white painted concrete recess in the corridor. Outside on the dusty patio, hard bright light hits crumbling painted concrete and the wind yells silently through the shadows. I peer down the valley and see the sea again. Water. Movement. Relief. It’s a decent view, but somewhere at the back of my mind there is a stormy sky growing deep along the horizon. I project it onto the fading sun of this new memory. Watch it disappear, sinking into the eastern shore.
I remember somebody once telling me there was a really interesting artist on the island that I would love. I ask our gregarious, wind and sun-beaten hostel owner.
Cesar Manrique. We should visit the Jameos del Agua.
It’s a 10 minute drive north through a treacherous landscape of silver-branched bushes squatting between cracks in endless lava that looks like it’s just cooled and then been sledgehammered and gently flecked with lichen. The road glides us gracefully through indigo, brown and gunmetal grey rocks that thrust out of the earth like bad broken teeth caught in rivers of black binbags left out to fade in the sun.
We turn into a large circle of tarmac headed by a low-level building made from deep red lava that sits seamlessly within the scene. Pay at the gate. Rustic iron bars, almost primitive in design. Move through more walls made of lava. Suddenly, the atmosphere changes. It’s quiet and the air feels close to my face. Sounds are gentle, and close too. A flute? That sensation again; being enveloped by a softness, like the liquid wind that wrapped around me on the runway. But there’s no wind here. It’s warm and dry, like being under a duvet.
I’m entering a large volcanic cavern. A huge orange sail made from sections of triangular-shaped fabric sits over its mouth, sheltering us from the outside. But it is not sealed and the experience of passing between inside and outside is not quite clear. The roof of the cavern has the twisted geometric columnar jointing you find when lava hits the ocean.
Ripped muscles of stone.
Descending into the giant hanging mouth of a space, feet pressing against steps made from chunks of lava, my hand grasps a wooden handrail. It’s a steep, winding staircase that’s conspicuously difficult to navigate. I’m forced to notice every surface I step on, hands getting sticky from the smooth polished wood as I cling on for safety. Plants emerge from small pockets nestled between large lumps of red and black lava filled with air bubbles. Wide and glossy green leaves with swinging shapes and dark underbellies mingle in the breathy shadows. Fern arms reaching towards the diminishing light that’s seeping between the orange sails above.
Exotic, fleshy, modern.
Where are we going?
The knobbly steps end at what feels like a large room of some kind but I intuit that we will descend deeper. A giant cactus stood like a sentry thrusts five pointed fingers up at the sail above and into the crack of sky. My feet meet a parquet floor with polished wood cut into a puzzle of organic shapes that mimic the geometric forms of the cavern’s ceiling. I hear birds, like they’ve always been there, but it’s the first time I’ve noticed them. Swooping impossibly fast from the sides of the cavern and into nowhere, they are swallowed and spat out again. I walk across the parquet floor, looking instinctively behind me, as if becoming prey.
It’s a cafe?
Coming out of hiding, a scatter of square wooden tables appear, polished like the handrail, with sturdy chairs that have backs designed to look like abstract geometric hands interlocking. Orange leather cushions. The whole place is brimming with the orange glow from the sails, and the tables recede deep into more cave space behind the twisty steps, where a food counter is just recognisable within the dark jumble of lava blocks and green foliage. Waiters busy themselves silently, but I’m not interested in consuming anything. I don’t want to sit down, I’m not tired, I feel like I’m floating. There’s a way further along and out of this platform, going down. White paint defines the sides of random chunks of lava, indicating a path filled with more steps descending into a black hole ahead. I am not touching anything but I can feel the lava, the bubbly rough and light madness of its surface everywhere. It’s animated and enveloping me like that relentless wind outside. I notice more colours, oxide reds and purply greys, a deep matt blue I can’t describe. My eyes try harder to make out what’s ahead. Looks like a long tunnel with water in it. A lake? How deep? The steps are easier now, don’t feel the need to use the handrail.The occasional white patch on a block of lava helps steer the way.
Further down, further in.
Another level. It’s getting darker. The flat slabs of lava before me draw the eye to the water’s edge. No ripples. Dark liquid kissing the rocky shoreline. The water is shadowy but incredibly clear and luminous from a great shaft of daylight that’s beaming into the centre of the water tunnel and refracting off somewhere, somehow. Again, I sense there is no space between myself and this body of liquid. I’m right in there. But following that feeling leaves me uneasy. The bottom of the lake is exactly like the lava ceiling - angular, rough, threatening to stab and graze - it has not been smoothed by hundreds of years of waves and storms. It’s frozen in time, pure…or is it dead? Bottled up in this cavern, there appears to be no life in it. Tiny white dots randomly catch my eye. I get down to a few inches from the water and realise they’re alive and moving. Like minuscule crabs, or crayfish? An unassuming sign tells me not to touch or throw anything in the water.
Standing up and looking deeper into the blue, I see coins, maybe from another decade before the sign went up. It doesn’t occur to me to question when this place was built, or what it even is. A dwelling that feels too open and too dark. I’m underground but I know I am not fully enclosed.
An underground garden?
Following the surface of the water along the tunnel towards the furthest reaches of the lake, I glimpse what appears to be a mirror version of where I am stood. But I know it is not a mirror. It’s slightly different. A thin walkway along the righthand side of the tunnel, close to the waterline. It’s barely noticeable, but I follow the trail towards the mirrored scene across the lake. Feels precarious, more like a bridge. Made up of those ubiquitous lava slabs with the rocky sides of the tunnel leaning over and catching me off guard. The surface of the rocks have lost their innate vibrancy now, they feel dull and drab, annoying me as I try to not smack my head against them. The centre of the lake is revealed by glints from the daylight shaft refracting off more wishful coins. I can’t see the little white critters anymore, just a hollowed out nightmare of a pool. I think of drowned witches and the underworld, of being stuck down there forever. The shaft of light is coming from a small opening in the roof of the cavern. It forms a luminescent projected splurging shape on the hell lake. It’s a gorgeous contrast and it captivates me.
I reach the end of the tunnel to meet the almost-mirrored cavern. It feels much lighter at this end. I follow the white-lined lava block steps adorned with greenery to ascend back into what I can now see is open sky. There are different routes that zig-zag out of the mouth of the tunnel. I pick one and enjoy the forms around me, not caring to know where I’m going. I am looking but it does not feel like looking. It’s like a dream. Completely real but impossible to comprehend as a real place. I am a body floating through these spaces. The exposure to all the rocks, leaves and shadows suspends me in a sensitivity to surface.
Climbing the staircase and everything gets even brighter. I weave around lumps of lava and small drystone walls of lava and navigate pavements with thousands of placed pieces of lava set into them. I’m amazed that I haven’t tripped or snagged my clothes and skin on such a myriad of rough objects. Reaching a lip of white-painted concrete. The ground is now completely smooth and swoops below me into a large pool of water in the middle of the wide open space. It’s all painted white, except occasional lumps of lava set into the concrete. I notice that this is another cavern but with a much shallower brim, and we are still surrounded by lava. Walls emerge out of the cavern, along with more twisty staircases with polished wooden handrails and white-flecked walkways. A giant lone palm tree hangs gracefully over the pool, casting it’s shadow on the wind-whipped surface. That relentless movement of air is back, but this time it’s gentle. More trees and bushes stand unassumingly around, like spectators to the white performance at our feet. The reflection of the sun onto the floor is intense and I feel exposed, as if on stage. I want to move on, I don’t wish to stay here, the smoothness under my feet makes me imagine I might slide into the deep pool. As beautiful as it is, I know I am not allowed in. Nobody is. This is a spectacle and nothing else. I feel empty. A red life-ring pops out vibrantly against a black and white wall.
I quickly tiptoe around the perimeter of the pool. A sort of peanut-shaped body of translucent splendour, languishing in its own dazzling reflection. It is beautiful to behold. Like the cleanest, crystal-clear water placed on a plinth and held forever in a vortex of wind, angelic. Even the insects don’t appear to be attracted to it. I’m reminded of the infinite lines refracted in a swimming pool. I’m dazed, trying to organise forms that are slipping away in a continuous flipping of ripples.
It’s not enough.
I need to go under.
I think of that monster ocean I saw driving across the island to this place. The absolute pure ecstasy of being in it; a submarine, swimming down to the seafloor and looking back up at the shimmering surface. Stroked and held by nothing. No perspective, only the endless terrifying blues of bliss.
Walking up more steps, these have polished wood set into white concrete, encircled by lava. I reach the top and turn around to find a view. The whole cavern is open, the white floor sending out a big glare. The landscape rolls out from the rim of the hollow and into the distance: brutal, burnt, empty. I see the ocean. It looks completely still but I know it’s thrashing like mad over there. The small volcanic cones pastel-fade into a southern sky beyond, whipped up by sand and ash colours, tracing an emerging lunar silhouette.
That rocky dark headland lurks in front, like the end of a war scene. The defeated crashing into the sea.
I feel faint.
This scene is alien yet familiar.
Where have I seen it before?
I haven’t. It’s an amalgamation of shattered memories borne out of unresolved utopias. Like a load of dead leaves blown into the recess of an alley, my dusty desires pile up into an aesthetic monument that stares back at me in exploded basalt, white lines, green exotic shapes refracted through a filter of blue halo. I set it alight in my head.
There I am.
This is where I dwell.