This blog is about paying your taxes. It is not what I wanted or intended to write about whilst on holiday in Corralejo inFuerteventura in the Canaries. But it kind of followed me around or rather approached me in exactly the form of those people hustling you to come into their bars on the tourist drag….
The crystal clear light of the afternoon was just beginning to fade as we recognise the still young man, maybe mid thirties, who sidles up to us. In my hesitant spanish I interrupt his ‘you’ll have the best time on the island in this bar, sir’ spiel to say we remember him from last year at one of the harbour front restaurants and the year before that from a bar in Lanzarote. He smiles, quoting the names of the restaurants back to us, his eyes sliding away but I don’t think he’s even trying to remember us from Adam. He’s wearing a narrow brimmed trilby, sideburns and a Hawaian shirt in contrast to last years smart jacket. Maybe his, or his boss’ idea of what’s appropriate for a music bar. In my morose way I wonder if it might be better for his dignity at work if he could move upmarket rather than down as he gets older. But what he then actually says, in his flawless English, takes me aback.
‘No, I left that place ‘cos it was terrible, really terrible. The boss that owns that place is totally corrupt. He just treats people, his staff, like shit. I’m taking that guy to court actually. He’s totally corrupt. Anyway, its much better here, much better. You want to get out of the sun?’
My first thought was that we really had to stop talking to this guy and a memory stirred from last year of his having left Lanzarote because there were some Moroccan guys who were after him and they were a secret power on the island. So five in the afternoon being a few hours too early, and in my case, twenty years too late, for a BOGOF rock ‘n’ roll cocktail we left the guy whose job, the English language doesn’t seem to dignify with a name to his, probably paranoid, fate.
Which may actually not be that bad because tourists, English, German and Italiens, seem to be coming back to the island after a few lean years. Talking the next day to a local spanish barber though…(why do I like to get my hair cut on holiday? Am I the only one?)…there’s one bug bear and one big hope. The problem, and we hear this repeatedly, is all inclusive hotels. So although there are more people on the strip and at the harbour, they are loath to buy anything and spend most of their evenings slowly getting fed and pickled for ‘free’ in the hotel bars. On the other hand the barber…(why am I finding it so hard to say ‘shorter on top’ in spanish?)…..is hoping the russians are coming. New direct flights from St Petersburg to the island should bring an influx of rich russians. He emphasises these are not ordinary everyday russians. No, they are rich russians, rich, demanding and rude. However they also spend during their stay much more heavily than other Europeans. I ask him about the high end hotel, that will maybe accomodate some of them, that was built, illegally under European Union law, in the fragile eco-system of the national park just south of Corralejo. And was supposed to be removed.
‘That’s been resolved’, he says, They can keep it for another seventy years. Money talks, no?’
Suitably shorn, we head over to the quayside to indulge another holiday pleasure, reading a local newspaper over an alcohol free beer. The main story is around a spanish Treasury report, that estimates the ‘black economy’ in Spain, (…..what they call, rather attractively I think, ‘la economia sumergida’, or submerged economy)…at a whopping 24.6 % of the economy as a whole. Ten years ago the EU produced a report on the size of the black economy in the countries of the Union and in ignominious first place was…..Belgium! No idea why, but it was. But in second place was Spain. And the worst affected areas are, of course, the least developed, like Andalucia, Extremadura, or the Canary isles.
Maybe hoping for some restoration of that pristine ignorance of a place that can make it so much more enjoyable, we hire a driver to take us into the clear vistas of the brown volcanic hills and ridges, intothe dramatically, atavistically bare interior of the island.
A new visitors centre, seven hundred metres up, gives wonderful views of the island but also makes clear that enthusing about the elemental, natural beauty of the island won’t do. Before the first europeans, the Normans invaded…(the Timmonses probably amongst them)… and subdued the native peoples, the island was much more wooded than today. Farming practices exploiting the aquifers increased the aridity of the soils and led to the widespread desertification of the island. Amongst the leading Norman families was the Bethancourts, after whom a town is named here, and who are still a powerful family in France, and who were suspected of corruption during the recent Sarkozy french Presidency.
Perhaps with this in mind we mention to Jimmy from the West Country, our driver, the paranoid suspiciouns of our bar hustler ‘friend’.
‘No,’, Jimmy says cheerily, ‘he’s absolutely right. Hundered per cent. I ran a bar here in Corralejo for seven years. And they’re saying in the papers right the black economy is twenty five per cent. It’s not. It’s the other way round. I can guarantee you in Corralejo, its more like eighty per cent. How do they do it? Easy! Everyone works on part time contracts. Say twelve hours a week. Pay, tax, insurance, all twelve hours a week. But they’re not. They’re working sixty hours a week! And everybody’s doin’ it. ‘Cos if you’re not doing it. Your bar, or your shop, is not going to survive. And so long as you’re ok with the right people you’re o.k. There’s a bar off the main drag there…Ollie’s, yea, you know, music, bands, annoying the neighbours with drunk people and music all hours..yea? I know for a fact he’s only got a licence to sell coffee and sandwiches. There’s a few powerful families in Corralejo and they’re the ones you’ve got to keep on the right side of. There’s a bar on the sea front, there, yea, the big one,…they own a lot of places across town. I know one bar has got nothng to do with them but sends them money every week…just to keep them sweet.
What they don’t like is if you start to get the Spanish themselves in. If its just tourists they don’t seem to mind so much. But if they want to they’ll close you down. How do they do it? Well, its easy isn’t it…when everybody knows that everybody is fiddling. I used to run a bar right? And I started to get some Spanish in, you know. Next thing I know the police are at my door at two thirty in the morning wanting to know why there’s still music going on. And they’re right ‘cos the licence was only till two. But why are they at my door…when every other bugger’s bar down the strip is still blaring music? Then they come back….. the windows were not the correct thickness and needed changing. Yea really.. And you try to fight, but the fines start costing you real money…and then they mention staff contracts and then you know you’re in trouble and so do they. So you give up. I’m going back to Bristol in the autumn.’
He swings around another hair pin bend down to the plain below. Some beautiful elegant Canary palm trees sway in the breeze above dry, but mossy, shrubby green river bottoms. Looking back at the bare hillsides, now robbed of their ‘glamour’ and revealed to be, in part at least, the result of human carelessness, there seems something hopeful about these. But a number of taxi drivers and other islanders we talk to agree that the weather, the climate, has definitly changed in the last four years. It used to rain just once or twice a year, but we had that in our first afternoon here and more in the week that followed.