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Clean as a whistle

In a winter of forty-odd years ago, I lived on the island of La Gomera, in the Canaries.  A beautiful place, largely undiscovered by tourists, which is to say, people like me, it was full of delightful little discoveries.  The Canary Islands in general were more than just a place for Germans to get their winter tans.  Columbus set sail for God knew where from there – from La Gomera, in fact – and there remained a mysterious connection to the Americas.  The post office in Santa Cruz de Tenerife had three after-hours mail slots: domestic, foreign, and Venezuela.  When I asked why Venezuela, I got a blank stare, as if I had just inquired as to the purpose of shoes.

Anyhow, back to La Gomera.  The island had one hair-raising road, three villages of any size, and about as many distinct ecosystems, all crammed into a mountainous terrain that took your breath away.  In the middle was a rainforest, as unlikely as spats on a cat.  A bus driven by an escaped lunatic made the run from San Sebastian, the capital, to Valle Gran Rey twice daily.  The trip encompassed the entire length of the road, and half the island.  If there were any foreigners on board, the driver served as a tour guide as well.  “This spot,” he would say (in Spanish of course) as the bus skidded on loose rocks on the outside of a curve above a sheer drop, “is where five buses have gone over the edge.”  And off we would speed, pedal to the metal, while the passengers swallowed their hearts again.

But this story is not about that, or any of the other dozens of endearing habits of chauffeurs on the island.  It’s about whistling.

Well, you should have guessed, from the title.  Because of the rugged terrain, people had trouble communicating; they could often see each other across a sheer gulf, but their voices wouldn’t carry.  They could whistle, though.  In Spanish.

“Pedro,” they would whistle, “how’s it going?”  “Eugenio,” would come the reply, “don’t ask!”  Neat.  This is the only place in the world without a tone language that used whistling to communicate over large distances.  At least in Spanish.  The technique was simple: just whistle and try to speak at the same time.

Of course, the habit has long since died out, what with cell phones and what not.  But the rainforest in the middle of the hills has a lot of mockingbirds.  When I was there, you could still go walking in the woods and occasionally hear, “Eh, Roberto,” or “Pablito!”

“You stole my goat, you son of a bitch.”

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