Azores 2016: a tale of three returns (part two)
We were waiting in the hotel lobby for our ride to the airport, and I kept looking at my watch.
“Will he be here soon?” I asked the receptionist for the third time. She seemed like the calmest person in the world. Time moving as slowly as her head nodding.
“Yes, I just called him. He’ll be here in 5 minutes. You have plenty of time.”
I knew I was being silly. The airport is less than 15 minutes away, and checking in wouldn’t take longer than 20 minutes, probably less.
This was proof that I had lost my islander let-it-go attitude. I was fretting about something it would not have crossed my mind 20 years ago.
A car honked, and I bolted to the door, hardly saying goodbye to the receptionist.
“It’s 8 a.m. in the morning on a Sunday, and he honks? What was he thinking?” I complain about his rudeness to my husband, but he didn’t seem to worry as much as I did. I was clearly wasting my energy on the wrong things.
The trip to the airport was quick and silent, despite my two unfruitful attempts to strike up a conversation.
I felt like our driver woke up early on a Sunday morning to do a gig he wasn’t too thrilled about.
A recurrent thought came to mind – it’s not the destination that boosts tourism. It’s the people. And I was having a bitter farewell after such a great first impression the previous day.
When we reached the airport, I rushed out of the car, expecting a long line at the check-in counter.
Had I forgotten how things worked around here? If there was ever a time to feel like a silly tourist, this was it.
There was only one couple in line ahead of us (well, hardly a line at all), and when the woman turned around, my eyes lighted up.
“Oh my God, I haven’t seen you in ages!” After a hug, a shriek, and a quick introduction of our respective husbands, we were catching up.
What were the odds of running into your High School roommate and longtime childhood friend in the middle of an airport in the Azores? To be honest, quite high. But, somehow, I had forgotten that too.
Half an hour later, on the plane, we recognized the flight attendant as an old schoolmate. After all this time telling my husband that it’s not true that the Azoreans all know each other, I was having trouble busting that myth.
Landing in Flores is always an adventure to me.
I am not afraid of flying, but I hardly remember a landing that went 100% smoothly. I concentrate on it so hard that my head almost hurts as if the pilot could feel my positive energy from that aisle seat, two rows behind the left wing.
Why did everything look so small? Why did the scale of things in real life didn’t match the size of the images in my head?
I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was looking in from the outside and, really, it had only been 6 years since I’d been home.
Throughout the whole trip, I felt like I wasn’t from there anymore. I’m the one who left.
When I planned the trip, I planned it as an outsider.
“Four days,” I said. “Four days are more than enough to see what there is to see.”
I failed to account for the shifts in the weather (I should have known better).
I failed to account for the fact it was the high season (I really should have known better).
I failed to account for the fact that the island is so much more than what you see (seriously, how could I not have known better?).
On Monday morning, at 8 a.m. sharp, Silvio was outside waiting to take us on a full-day car tour around the island. “We should go soon and get the most of it while the weather is holding up”, he told us.
In 24 hours of being back in my homeland, that was the first time the island looked familiar to me. And the first time I felt it was bigger than me (as it’s supposed to be).
I could almost see myself going back to live there, but then I remembered the rough winters, the isolation when it’s too windy for the planes to land, the shortage of supplies.
“Are you feeling the rise in tourism here?” I ask Silvio.
“I always have clients! If you’re willing to put in the time, there is no stopping in the summer. But after September, things start to wind down, and I take time off for the rest of the year until the next high season.”
We switched from English to Portuguese and back to English often. At every one of the 30+ stops to see the views, I took a dozen Instagram-worthy shots. The island now has better 4G coverage than the one I get in Lisbon on an average day.
The conversation shifted back to the quality of tourism. We both agreed that good things will come out of it if tourism entrepreneurs put in the hard work. They can’t all rely on government support. Here, some people are doing it right.
“We need to sell the islands for what they are, not what the tourist believes they are,” he added. “A while back, a group of tourists hired me to show them around. They insisted I found a farmer, dressed in the same work clothes they had seen in a photo, so they could film him working. I had to tell them this wasn’t the 1970s anymore! There’s hardly anyone living exclusively off the land anymore!”
There is a big gap between real life on the island and what the tourists believe is typical. But this isn’t a problem exclusive to the Azores, and certainly not one I wish to go into right now.
We stood guard, looking down at one of the 7 lagoons, waiting for the clouds to clear to take a shot.
After a full day of sightseeing, we didn’t have much energy to do anything else but stroll around town. Some faces looked more familiar than others, although I can’t always remember a name. I do remember who they are related to (parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins).
As the young woman at the Whale Museum told us, amused, hours later:
“Here, we go through our lineage before we tell our names because it’s easier for people to identify us. So, I’ll say I’m the daughter of so and so. If they don’t recognize my family immediately, I sometimes go all the way back to my great grandparents.”
Older people will always ask tu de quem és (who is your family).
Whaling was banned in the 1980s, and the local economy evolved from there. Whale hunting is a memory now, a museum topic.
I sat to watch a video on whale hunting off the shore of Flores, filmed by a French man. The video looked oddly familiar, and I wondered if it just looked like every other documentary I had seen on whale hunting.
I don’t know what makes me chill the most. If the haunting cry of the harpooned sperm whale or the shaky hands of the hunter grabbing the bottle of liquor that’s been passed around.
In the next room, the portraits of former local whale hunters cover the wall. I know some. I planned to interview one of them, but the time was short, and I never get around to do it. To be honest, I wouldn’t even know where to begin. It stayed as the ghost of an idea that I would never follow through.
I felt the time was of the essence, and I wouldn’t be able to do all I wanted in the remaining two days. Even the boat trip to Corvo was on hold, waiting for better weather conditions.
The trip was postponed for another day, and we took another late afternoon stroll around town: by the pier, my school, the old French quarter, the small Holy Spirit Império.
I meant to write about the Holy Spirit celebrations, but the research never truly began. I needed to plan it better. But how does one truly explain a religious phenomenon to the non-religious?
A phone call confirmed they were all set for the boat trip to Corvo the next day. “Be at the meeting point before 9 a.m. We must leave on time.”
I wish I had planned this better. Stuffing three and a half islands into five days was crazy and naive.