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The first day of the rest of their lives

There was a heavy humidity in the air, the clouds themselves darkening the minute, gaining enough weight for the inevitable thundershower to come. Here, in Lanzarote, when October turns to November, the air changes. So too the wind. This normally dry, volcanic island is Spanish territory, part of the chain of seven Canary Islands off the coast of southern Morocco. It looks forward to the change in winds for that means moisture and rain and the waters of life. There’s a perceptible shift, one that mariners of old relied on to take their sailing vessels westwards, across the Atlantic to that great beyond, the jewels of the Caribbean and the riches of South America. Further north, the prevailing wind blows west to east, the great Gulf Stream flow filling the sails of the returning holds laden with their cargoes of gold and silver, slavers, sugars and spices. And there are still sailors who rely on this change in wind — and those who live year round in Lanzarote know them too: The battayos — the boat people. Those morning clouds turned to afternoon rains and an evening that was dark and unlit by the silver steams of the moon. Along the east coast, where there are few villages but many coves, straining eyes sought out the shadows of the battayos. The little fleet was on its way. Along the coast road that runs through places like Mala and Arrieta, Punto Maheres and Orsola, the black ink of the night was punctuated by the blue lights of patrolling police cars, supposedly a deterrent to those desperate enough to leave the Western Sahara region behind in search of a new life as illegal workers at the sinks and cisterns of Spain and beyond. European soil, European toil. For the fishing villages of southern Morocco to Lanzarote it is about 135 kilometres as a crow might fly. For those who take to a battaya, it is a journey of two nights and one day longing for a better life. Before, when the wooden fishing smacks made it to land, the craft were burnt by officialdom. Now they are left, and the creative among the locals have taken to moving them to roadsides, filling them with floral displays and cacti, turning them into works of art. On this dark night, the battayos came, beaching their boats on those isolated coves, putting unsteady sea legs onto shifting sands and hoping for a firm footing in a new life. Pedro is an elderly farming widower, tills carrots and potatoes and tends goats by days and spends evenings at the local sociadad playing cards and dominoes. His English is rough but surpasses basic; his card-playing partners say he has a way of communicating with mature German ladies and his Teutonic trysts have earned his a notch on his belt in their standing. Pedro does not speak Arabic either. Sometimes language isn’t important. His small Lanzarote holding is close to the coast, just on the other side of that main road where police patrols troll the darkness. And over dominoes and cards one recent night, he told the story of how, that morning in the first rays of the new dawn, he came face to face with five young battayos. They had come ashore the night before, carried their life possessions in plastic bags but never made contact with a friend from Arrecife who was supposed to meet them. They sought shelter that first night in one of Pedro’s outhouses. There was no fear. There was no panic. There was no need to do anything more than welcome them into his little farmhouse, make strong coffee and offer soft goat cheese and bread. These battayos had landed and they were made welcome. Soon enough, they were on their way, the first day of their new life.

There was a heavy humidity in the air, the clouds themselves darkening the minute, gaining enough weight for the inevitable thundershower to come. Here, in Lanzarote, when October turns to November, the air changes. So too the wind.

This normally dry, volcanic island is Spanish territory, part of the chain of seven Canary Islands off the coast of southern Morocco. It looks forward to the change in winds for that means moisture and rain and the waters of life.

There’s a perceptible shift, one that mariners of old relied on to take their sailing vessels westwards, across the Atlantic to that great beyond, the jewels of the Caribbean and the riches of South America.

Further north, the prevailing wind blows west to east, the great Gulf Stream flow filling the sails of the returning holds laden with their cargoes of gold and silver, slavers, sugars and spices.

And there are still sailors who rely on this change in wind — and those who live year round in Lanzarote know them too: The battayos — the boat people.

Those morning clouds turned to afternoon rains and an evening that was dark and unlit by the silver steams of the moon. Along the east coast, where there are few villages but many coves, straining eyes sought out the shadows of the battayos. The little fleet was on its way.

Along the coast road that runs through places like Mala and Arrieta, Punto Maheres and Orsola, the black ink of the night was punctuated by the blue lights of patrolling police cars, supposedly a deterrent to those desperate enough to leave the Western Sahara region behind in search of a new life as illegal workers at the sinks and cisterns of Spain and beyond. European soil, European toil.

For the fishing villages of southern Morocco to Lanzarote it is about 135 kilometres as a crow might fly. For those who take to a battaya, it is a journey of two nights and one day longing for a better life.

Before, when the wooden fishing smacks made it to land, the craft were burnt by officialdom. Now they are left, and the creative among the locals have taken to moving them to roadsides, filling them with floral displays and cacti, turning them into works of art.

On this dark night, the battayos came, beaching their boats on those isolated coves, putting unsteady sea legs onto shifting sands and hoping for a firm footing in a new life.

Pedro is an elderly farming widower, tills carrots and potatoes and tends goats by days and spends evenings at the local sociadad playing cards and dominoes. His English is rough but surpasses basic; his card-playing partners say he has a way of communicating with mature German ladies and his Teutonic trysts have earned his a notch on his belt in their standing. Pedro does not speak Arabic either. Sometimes language isn’t important.

His small Lanzarote holding is close to the coast, just on the other side of that main road where police patrols troll the darkness.

And over dominoes and cards one recent night, he told the story of how, that morning in the first rays of the new dawn, he came face to face with five young battayos. They had come ashore the night before, carried their life possessions in plastic bags but never made contact with a friend from Arrecife who was supposed to meet them. They sought shelter that first night in one of Pedro’s outhouses.

There was no fear. There was no panic.

There was no need to do anything more than welcome them into his little farmhouse, make strong coffee and offer soft goat cheese and bread. These battayos had landed and they were made welcome. Soon enough, they were on their way, the first day of their new life.

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