On a tiny boat, elderly couple find safe haven from La Palma’s volcano

On a tiny boat, elderly couple find safe haven from La Palma's volcano
Margaretha and Luis, 80 and 90 years old, wait on their boat where they have settled after fleeing their home following the eruption of the Cumbre Vieja volcano. Photo: JORGE GUERRERO / AFP
Fleeing their home after the La Palma volcano erupted on September 19th, one Spanish-Dutch couple married nearly for 60 years decided to seek safe haven aboard their tiny boat until the situation improves.

When the evacuation order came, neither Margaretha Straates, 80, nor her 90-year-old husband Luis Rodríguez Díaz fancied the idea of staying in temporary accommodation.

“It suddenly came to me, why don’t we try the boat? It’s only an old boat, but we could take a few things and settle in,” Rodriguez Diaz, a retired gastrointestinal surgeon, told AFP.

Just 6.4 metres (20 feet) long, the “Hamurabi” is a tough little boat that has only needed one engine change in 35 years, he says.

But it is big enough for him and his Dutch wife who sit with their backs to the volcano, which keeps up its endlessly explosive activity.

Together, they pass the time on the boat’s tiny deck with a radio, her computer with Wi-Fi, a small fridge and an adopted cat they picked up while fleeing, and who bolts into the cabin when visitors arrive.

The space is small and requires careful navigation, with Straates often forgetting to duck her head to enter the cabin.

“I’ve banged my head three times,” she says.

False sense of security

The pair are residents of Todoque, a village almost totally wiped off the map by the lava.

When the order came, they had to leave very quickly.

“The Guardia Civil police came and told us: ‘You need to evacuate right now, very quickly’ so we left in what we were wearing,” says Rodriguez Diaz.

Margaretha Straates, 80, sits next to her cat on the boat where she and her husband are staying. Photo: Jorge Guerrero/AFP
Margaretha Straates, 80, strokes her cat on the boat where she and her husband are staying. Photo: Jorge Guerrero/AFP

They never thought the eruption would be so violent and destructive, lulled into a false sense of security by the eruption of La Palma’s Teneguía volcano 50 years ago “which was a friendly volcano that didn’t do much damage”, says Straates.

Over the past 16 days, the erupting volcano has destroyed more than 1,000 properties, many of them homes.

On Sunday, they heard that their house was still standing but that was not enough to ease their distress.

“We’re in a really bad way,” said Straates.

Despite their situation, the pair are lively, chatty and in good spirits, perhaps helped by a lifetime of moving house.

He is from the northwestern tip of Spain, while she hails from Amsterdam.

During the 1950s, Straates went travelling around Europe on a trip that was paid for by her sister after she passed her medical studies.

“I was in a park in Amsterdam with my best friend and we met the sexiest man I’d ever seen,” she recalls. She was 16 at the time.

Margaretha Straates and Luis, 80 and 90 years old, wait on their boat where they have settled after fleeing their home following the eruption of the Cumbre Vieja volcano two weeks ago, in the port of Tazacorte, on the Canary Island of La Palma on October 3, 2021. - A new flow of highly liquid lava emerged from the volcano erupting in Spain's Canary islands on October 1, authorities said, as a huge magma shelf continues to build on the Atlantic ocean. (Photo by JORGE GUERRERO / AFP)
The couple pass the time on the boat’s tiny deck with a radio, her computer and a fridge. Photo: Jorge Guerrero/AFP

Amsterdam, Gibraltar, Zimbabwe

They swapped addresses and got married a while later in Gibraltar because, at the time, only religious marriages existed in Spain.

They lived in London for a while then in the British colony of Rhodesia — later Zimbabwe — where Rodríguez Díaz held a very senior health role.

In 1977, they decided it was time to move back to Spain given the instability in the British colony, which would gain its independence three years later — and because the Spanish dictatorship had ended with the death in 1975 of Francisco Franco.

“Now that Franco’s regime has gone, it’s better to go back to Spain as I’m getting older,” Rodríguez Díaz told himself, fearing otherwise he would never go back.

After nearly 60 years of marriage, a volcanic eruption and two weeks cramped into a tiny living space has given rise to a few arguments, but nothing they have not been able to handle.

At the port are showers, washing machines and restaurants, and although they can go up to their village, no one can say when they will be allowed to go home.

“No one at all,” sighs Straates.


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