If you’re planning to travel to the Azores in times of COVID-19 please refer to these official sources when planning: COVID-19 Information from the U. S. Embassy in Portugal (in English) and Official Azores Government’s Information for Passengers Traveling to the Azores (in English, Portuguese, German, French, and Spanish).
We are waiting in the hotel lobby for our ride to the airport and I keep looking at the watch. “Will he be here soon?”, I asked the receptionist for the third time. She seems like the calmest person in the world, where time moves as slowly as her head nodding. “Yes, I just called him. He’ll be here in five minutes. You have plenty of time.”
I know I’m being silly. The airport is less than 15 minutes away and there’s a chance that checking in won’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 honks outside and I bolt 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 doesn’t seem to worry as much as I do. I am clearly wasting away my energy on the wrong problems.
The trip to the airport is quick and silent, despite my two unfruitful attempts to strike up a conversation. I feel 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, is 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 are 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.
Half an hour later on the plane, we recognize the flight attendant as an old school mate. After all this time telling my husband that it’s not true that the Azoreans all know each other, this was not the best day to break the myth.
Landing in Flores is always an adventure to me. I am not afraid of flying, at all, but I hardly remember a landing that went one hundred percent 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 does everything look so small now? Why does the scale of things in real life do not meet the size of the images in my head? I still can’t shake the feeling that I’m looking in from the outside and, really, it has only been six years since I’ve been home.
Throughout the whole trip, I will feel like I’m not 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?).
It’s Monday morning, 8 a.m. sharp, and Silvio is 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.”
In 24 hours of being back in my homeland, this is the first time the island looks familiar to me and that I feel it’s bigger than me (as it’s supposed to be). I could almost see myself going back to live there but then I remember 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 always have clients! If you’re willing to put in the time, there is no stopping in the summer. But after September, things become to wind down and I take time off for the rest of the year until the next high season.”
We switch from English to Portuguese and back to English often. At every one of the thirty plus stops to see the views, I take 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 shifts back to the quality of tourism and if it has a positive impact. We both agree that if tourism entrepreneurs put in the hard work, good things will come out of it. They can’t all rely on government support. Here, there are people doing it right and people slacking around.
“We need to sell the islands for what they are, not what the tourist believes they are”, he adds. “A while back a group of tourists hired me to show them around and they insisted I found a farmer, dressed in the same work clothes they had seen in a photo, so they could film him doing his typical work. I had to tell them this wasn’t the 1970s anymore! There is hardly anyone living exclusively off the land anymore!”
There is a big gap between what real life is 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 delve into right now. We’re standing guard, looking down at one of the seven lagoons, waiting for the clouds to clear to take a shot.
After a full day of sightseeing, we don’t have much energy to do anything else but to stroll around town. Some faces look 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 and 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 sit to watch a video on whale hunting off the shore of Flores, filmed by a French man. The video looks oddly familiar and I wonder if it just looks like every other documentary I have ever seen on the activity. 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 plan to interview one of them but the time is short and I never get around to do it. To be honest, I don’t even know where to begin. It stays as the ghost of an idea that I will never follow through.
I feel time is of the essence and I won’t be able to do all I wanted in the remaining two days. Even the boat trip to Corvo is on hold, waiting for the weather to turn or improve. Whatever happens first and whatever is the safest. The North Atlantic is a mighty beast and there isn’t a single local who doesn’t respect its wishes.
The trip is postponed for another day and we take another late afternoon stroll around town. The pier, my school, the old French quarter, the small Holy Ghost Império (Empire). I have been meaning to write about the Holy Ghost celebrations, but the research never truly begins. I need to plan this better. But how does one truly explain a religious phenomenon to the non-religious?
A phone call confirms they’re all set for the boat trip to Corvo the next day. “Be at the meeting point before 9 a.m. It’s crucial that we leave on time.”
I wish I had planned this better. Stuffing three and a half islands into five days was crazy and naive.