Two a.m. on my first night in Tenerife, and I was jolted out of a deep sleep by the sound of bottles — hundreds and hundreds of bottles — clanging against each other, breaking, spilling onto the street, and rolling down a hill. I stumbled out of bed and padded across the cool tile floor of my bedroom, stubbing my toe in the still-unfamiliar layout of the Apartamentos Tropical Park time share where my friend and I were staying. Outside the window, I spied a garbage truck in the midst of what would be its nightly collection at this unholy hour. I blinked in disbelief — if not for the palm trees and the comfortably warm mid-December temperature, I could have sworn I was still in the Big Apple, being disturbed by the New York Department of Sanitation on a Wednesday morning at dawn during its glass recycling pickup. Who would have guessed that the Canary Islands and New York shared this particular peculiarity?
Despite this little hiccup, we stuck to our plan the following morning to rent a car and explore the ladle-shaped island of Tenerife, site of the world’s worst on-ground air collision, when 583 people died in 1977 after a KLM flight slammed into a Pan Am flight on the runway during extraordinarily foggy weather — a historic disaster with which we were unfamiliar until we overheard two people discussing it at the gate only an hour before our transatlantic flight to the same airport.
Hoping to be safer on the road, we headed to the time share’s car rental agency, only to find that they had no automatics available, and I had never learned how to drive a stick. So they recommended the local place: Poul’s Danish Auto Rental. Hmm…
Poul greeted us and rented us a red Peugeot without a passenger side mirror, which he assured me would not be a problem. After a few minutes on winding roads with no guardrails, I realized it may actually be a problem. But I was young and carefree, and the best way to see Tenerife is by car, so I just rationalized a potentially hazardous situation as a memorable adventure.
With a little reorientation to basic driving made, we began to appreciate the island’s beauty. Poinsettias grow wild along the roads, and banana plantations pop up everywhere. Snippets of the blue Atlantic Ocean flew by in between palm trees on our way to Loro Parque (Parrot Park), which houses the world’s largest collection of parrots — 350 brilliantly colored species and subspecies, many of whom speak Spanish (“Hola!”). By the time we wrapped up the day at La Oratava, with its houses of typical Canarian architecture — white walls, red tile roofs, wood balconies, and, very often, doors, shutters and gates painted green to prevent evil spirits from entering — I was feeling pretty confident that I could drive well with only two mirrors.
The following morning presented a surprise when we reached our car: The driver’s side mirror was missing, although the mount remained. No shards of glass speckled the street; no sign of an accident made itself clear. Apparently, someone had simply stolen it. Was I confident enough to drive with only one mirror? I walked down to Poul’s and was greeted by his wife. Before I could even begin to explain what the problem was, she said, “I know. It’s been taken care of. The part should be in later today.”
I was dumbfounded. How did she know who I was, and that I was the one with the vanishing mirror? How did she come across the damage, without knowing where I had parked the car — by accident, by some sort of secret surveillance, by some mysterious Danish intuition? My series of questions died on my lips. Instead, I asked if they had any other automatics available, but the answer was negative. She suggested I drive sans mirrors: “It doesn’t make a difference here, what with the way everyone drives.”
That wasn’t especially encouraging, but, again, being young and carefree, I took this mishap as a challenge, and we were on our way with only a rear-view mirror. The drive to Barranca del Infierno (Valley of Hell) was incident-free, and vistas of vertiginous mountains, terraced hillsides, pine forests and barren valleys captivated us. But en route to the capital, Santa Cruz, I noticed that the mount began to sag ever so slightly. As we continued to the diminutive Castillo de San Juan, which had seen its fair share of the slave trade, the mount slowly drooped more and more, like a fragile branch of a sapling with milligrams of weight slowly being laid upon it. Fearful that it would completely detach from the door and shatter on the road, and equally fearful that we would be charged outrageous amounts of money for all the supernatural damages that were occurring, we rummaged through our bags in search of something to stabilize it, but we didn’t exactly have auto supplies among our cameras and water bottles. The solution? My friend’s dental floss.
With my window wide open and the mount secured to the interior door handle, we entered Teide National Park, the largest and oldest park in the Canary Islands. Standing in the shadows of the 12,200-foot volcanic Mount Teide, which last erupted in 1909, and surrounded by improbable rock formations in a 30-mile-wide crater, we felt like we had landed on Mars rather than in a well-visited park 200 miles west of the African coast. Indeed, the similarities to our neighboring planet are so strong that the park has become a scientific center for studies of the red planet.
By early evening, the sky turned a threatening gray, and soon a torrential downpour battered us as we drove along unlit mountainous roads. Unable to close my window, what with yards of dental floss holding our car together, the interior began to resemble a small swimming pool. Craning my neck out the window into the pelting rain to check for traffic on my left quickly saturated me, and my shirt began to cling to my chest like an extra epidermal layer.
When we rose the next morning and headed to the car, we wondered what other part would be absent. Perhaps the headlights would be missing, or a hubcap or two. To our pleasure, nothing had disappeared overnight. And to our utter surprise, something had returned: The driver’s side mirror had been miraculously fixed, and the dental floss was gone. No note, no explanation, no call from Poul. Again, myriad questions arose: Had they searched all over the local area to find our car? And exactly what time of night was Poul working?
The creepiness of the situation faded once we realized that, no matter how bizarre the circumstances, Poul’s was actually doing a quick and thorough job of rectifying the problems. With this visual reference restored, we cruised into Candelaria to see the basilica with the black Madonna and to stroll by the nine giant bronze statues of the islands’ aboriginal kings just above a black-sand beach. We walked on a beach of sand imported from the Sahara before ending the day in La Laguna, the former capital, to watch a Christmas tree lighting in the main plaza.
When we returned to the car and I noticed that the glue holding the rearview mirror to the windshield was beginning to fail, I decided that before any more otherworldly incidents could arise, it would be best to return the vehicle. When we arrived at Poul’s, however, his business was closed for the night. We left our Peugeot along with a hastily scribbled note, and — in keeping with the oddness of it all — we never heard from Poul again.