Many years ago, a few days before New Years, I saw an ad for inexpensive tickets to Gran Canaria. On an impulse, I bought two and took my young daughter along, assuming – somewhat foolishly – I’d sort out lodgings once there. It turned out to be anything but easy. We got in a taxi and knocked on the door of every inn along Playa Ingles. Not a room was available. Not a suite, not a beach bungalow, nothing. Sleeping on the beach wasn’t an option. Night-time was chilly, and I hadn’t brought sleeping bags. Besides, this wasn’t meant to be that type of holiday. This was the Canary Islands, after all.

It was midnight and my daughter was tired and yearning to go home when the taxi driver took pity on us. He knew someone who knew someone who had lodgings for rent. We drove for a long time, past the beaches, the resorts; winding our way up into the mountains. Or so it seemed in the dark Canary night.

Canary Islands

We ended up in El Tablero, high in the hills above Playa Ingles. People come to the Canaries for beaches and beer. But none came to El Tablero. It didn’t have any tourist infrastructure. Only 4 kilometres from the beaches, it seemed a different world. Mums walked their children to school, taking all the time in the world, chatting, laughing. In the afternoons, kids lazed on benches with grandparents or played football in a field.

Near our holiday rental was a pub. One afternoon, I entered. Conversation immediately stopped. I was the only female in the dark, smoke-filled little room. About to approach the bar, I was discouraged by stern looks. It could have been my imagination, but I got the distinct impression women weren’t welcome.

I came to enjoy watching the day begin in this little village. In the house next to our apartment, a señora hung the laundry. At the garage across the street, a mechanic in his undershirt started a car, opened the bonnet and began tinkering. An elderly woman swept the street outside her house. The man in the sandwich shop flirted with his young, pretty assistant. These were the morning activities in our street. I could have spent the day just watching life unfold.

A 5-year-old has different needs, however, including ample beach time and looking in toy shops. So we did all those things. Every morning, we’d catch the bus down to the beach. But as the day wore on, I found myself increasingly eager to return to our hillside village. Had the mechanic finished working on that Seat yet? The shop girl – had she finally told her boss to leave her alone? I became oddly obsessed with this microcosm of life.

Had we stayed in a resort, this would have been just another beach holiday; pleasant, details easily forgotten. Living in that little neighbourhood resonated on a different level altogether. I discovered Gran Canaria had its own personality, totally independent from the cocoon society catering to spoilt Northern Europeans in search of sun, sand, sex and cerveza.

Today, I see estate agents advertise apartments for sale in El Tablero. The resorts may even have crept up into the hills. Back then, the village certainly presented challenges to this feminist Northerner. Yet, the holiday proved oddly rewarding. I still remember it vividly.

My 5-year-old is now 22. She has a curious bent, always looking around corners, walking along seemingly uninteresting streets of everyday neighbourhoods. I like to think El Tablero had some influence on that.