Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Tweet without a cell phone: the whistle language of La Gomera

El Silbo - the secret language of La Gomera

Are you using Twitter? Then you must be interested in tweeting the original way. Travel back in time with me to see if I manage to connect with locals in the next village using ´El Silbo`, the whistling language used for long distance communication on La Gomera . The language is listed as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. 

Photo of a globe with a magnifying glass
Photo by Unsplash

First, I would like to bring you to the Canary Islands, an archipelago belonging to Spain but located in the Atlantic Ocean, just about 150 km off North Africa. The 7 main islands offer a variety of landscapes from a snow peaked volcano to an overseas extension of the Sahara Desert and everything imaginable in between.

Now, zoom in a bit and just off the west coast of the biggest island of Tenerife, you can find a tiny island covered in thirty shades of green: La Gomera. The 372 km2 island gives home to about 24.000 people who can tweet an actual language: the syllables are spelled out by whistling. El Silbo is the only, fully developed, whistled language in the world that is practised by so many people. My mission here is to tweet without a cell phone!

I arrive by ferry in the harbour of San Sebastian, the place where Christopher Columbus took off for his journeys to America in 1492. After a walk over Plaza de las Américas, I enjoy my ´Café con Leche´ with a beautiful view over the ocean and the peak of the Teide, Spain´s highest mountain, on Tenerife. I walk another street up to find my hostel and drop my luggage. Everything goes easy here, like on all Canary Islands I´m backpacking at the moment.

In the Archaeological Museum of La Gomera I immerse myself back in time and discover everything about the first inhabitants, the Guanche people, who first used the whistle language here. Only on La Gomera it got adapted to Spanish by the last Guanches, after the Spanish conquested the Canary Islands during the 16th century. By the end of the 21st century the language got threatened by extinction but when UNESCO listed it, the government made it a mandatory subject at schools. Nowadays, the average Gomerean is able to speak and whistle in Spanish!

Photo of a bird tweeting early in the morning
Photo by Unsplash

The next day I discover the island. An amazing green heart in the middle of the island gives home to the unique Laurel forest. I go for lunch at ´Mirador the Abrante´, where they do a demonstration of El Silbo, before I head down to Valle Gran Rey to spend my evening.

“With a bit of luck, you can hear a shepherd whistling in the early morning”, says the girl in the supermarket where I stop before going to camp in the mountains, “the whistle can travel up to 3 km!”. Completely convinced that I will hear the shepherd the next morning, I continue my trip.

 Unfortunately, my mission fails. El Silbo is rarely used the original way, but respected as a cultural aspect now. Other than the demonstration, I never caught a ´real´ twitter. Nevertheless, I had a great time on la Gomera. With the fairylike Garajonay National Park and fire shows at the beach in Valle Gran Rey, I now know why it´s ´the Magic Island´ of the Canaries.

Photo of a human being spitting fire
Photo by Unsplash

* This article was written by me for the 2017 World Nomads Travel Writing Scholarship. The application needed to be submitted in English, containing 2500 characters and written around the theme ´Make a Local Connection´.

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If you´re curious about more articles I´ve written about the Canary Islands, please click here. Or if you like to read more about my travel experience, click here. You can also scroll down to the pink part if you like to sign up for my mailing list.

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