Azores 2016: a tale of three returns (part one)
From my travel journal (unedited)
“Returning to the Azores, 6 years later. I’m a local looking in from the outside. I’ll never be an outsider, but I’m in a limbo between local and foreigner, still an islander nevertheless.
From booking the flight to writing posts about the island, I feel like a small kid desperately calling out for attention.
Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t help to notice one or two raised eyebrows, however faintly, when I explain, “I’m from Flores, but I moved to the mainland 20 years ago”. They seem to look at me as “the one who left,” and I feel like a fraud.
What right do I have to talk wonders about the islands when I don’t know what being an Islander feels like anymore? The roughness of winters, the isolation, and the overwhelming sensation of stumbling into the same people repeatedly. Isn’t that why I left the minute I had the chance? For the adventure of being an outsider?
When we landed in Terceira, for a quick half-day layover, I expected for the warm, humid air to wash over me, that sensation of “home.” But the breeze was cool and dry, almost chilly, and I felt slightly disappointed.
Not even the different accents of people around me made me feel like I had gone somewhere else. I was disappointed but not dismissing the whole event. If there’s something I learned from travel is that things happen for a reason, and you always have to make the best of the experience, no matter what.”
“I landed in Terceira 3 hours ago. I’m sitting at a green cast-iron table outside café Verdemaçã, just steps from the Praça Velha (the old square) in Angra do Heroísmo. I ordered an espresso and the typical local pastry Dona Amélia – a sweet treat with hints of caramel and spices, the symbol of the island’s cultural melting pot in a tiny cake the size of the palm of my hand.
The city is quiet. A handful of tourists roams around, hopping from one closed monument to the next – it’s a sunny Saturday afternoon, and local folks are at the gray-sand beach down the street.
Four kids walk by, eyes glued to their smartphones’ screens, giddily exchanging tips about where to get them. The Pokemon Go craze is alive and well in the historic city center’s streets, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Azores are not the isolated islands they once were despite what some tourism ads want us to believe.”
Angra do Heroísmo, Terceira. 33 years later
We reached Terceira island on a Saturday afternoon after an uneventful flight. The only event was the roaring applause that followed the smooth landing of the Airbus A320.
That often happens on flights to the Azores. An expression of relief from people who aren’t used to the islands’ characteristics.
Locals don’t bother cheering.
I remember the Azores Airlines in its glory years. From that time, only the friendliness of the crew remains.
The comfort was mediocre. The in-flight magazine didn’t have a single topic of interest. The complimentary meal was a joke — offering local Azorean products beyond the packet of white beet sugar would have been nice.
Still, as someone who has lost friends and acquaintances in the crash of 1999 in São Jorge island, I’ll always be grateful for a smooth and uneventful flight.
While we were waiting for our luggage, I began to notice the people around us: a handful of locals that I could identify by their accents; a group of excited Spanish-speaking tourists; here and there a family of emigrants from Canada and the US (husbands and wives speaking in Portuguese between them, but switching to English when they needed to address the kids); a pair of chatty police officers standing by the Nothing to Declare exit.
There was no sign of other airport employees around.
The belts started to move, but less than a minute later, the lights went out. The Spanish-speaking tourists began laughing and clapping while singing Happy Birthday – a joke that is also common in Portugal in similar situations.
I smiled, thinking about the island’s mood – it never is as we want it to be; the islands lead the way, always.
A dozen of steps separated us from the baggage claim and the arrivals waiting area. Outside, the man holding a sign with my name on it would take us to the hotel in Angra do Heroísmo.
I could see he was preparing to greet us in English and his smile grew wider when I spoke to him in Portuguese.
As we drove away from the airport, I told him, “it must be about 30 years since the last time I was here. I’m from Flores, and I used to come here every summer; my mother’s uncle lived across the street from a nightclub…?”
He nodded vehemently, “Twins! The oldest nightclub in the Azores!” I laughed. Part of me was relieved this wasn’t a figment of my imagination as a child, “Exactly! That’s the one!”
In general, Azoreans are talkative, especially the ones who work in the tourism industry. But I noticed they would talk more openly to me after they knew I was a local, despite the fact I haven’t lived in the Azores for 20 years.
I thought I would ease into the tourism topic with some general questions about the island’s local festivities happening those days.
– “Right now,” the driver told me, “it’s the Festas da Praia, at Praia da Vitória.”
– “And the Folk Fest is starting soon too?” I added.
– “In a couple more weeks. You know in Terceira, there is always something happening!”
Terceira is known as the “party island” in the Azores. Locals often say that there are eight islands in the archipelago and one amusement park.
When talking about tourism in Terceira, his tone implied growth was slow, and the competition wasn’t always fair. I took that opportunity to agree with him with my own motto for the islands:
– “Each one of them is special. I usually ask people to tell me what they enjoy doing, and I’ll tell them what’s the best island for them. I always promote all of them!”
His eyes were wide and bright in agreement.
– “Thank you! That’s what I tell everyone! But they only seem to be interested in advertising São Miguel, São Jorge, and Pico! What about the rest of us?”
By “they,” he meant the regional Government.
This really is a loop. São Miguel, Pico, and São Jorge are the most popular islands. Tourism seems to be more prominent there, so local companies have more significant profits to invest in better marketing campaigns and improve service, which brings more tourists, making the islands popular…
– “Did you know most travelers don’t know about the free inter-island connecting flights when they take a low-cost flight to the Azores from the Portuguese mainland?” I asked him.
– “Unbelievable! It’s almost as if they want all of the business to themselves! It’s not fair!” he told me.
When easyJet and Ryanair began flying to São Miguel in 2015, the Government ensured that the other islands could benefit from the new influx of tourists.
Travelers could fly low-cost from any other airport in Portugal to Ponta Delgada and request a free inter-island connecting flight to another island, as long as they didn’t stay in São Miguel for more than 24 hours.
As we reached the center of the city, I recognized the colorful façades, the narrow streets, the square where I used to eat vanilla ice cream, dropping most of it on the black-and-white cobblestones.
I knew I had been here before, but everything seemed smaller now.
Exploring the city as a 4-year-old is not quite the same 30 plus years later, I know.
Half an hour later, after dropping the bags at the hotel, I was roaming the streets and calling my mother for reference points.
– “I can’t find the garden. The one I used to play at? The one I had that photo taken near the red gazebo?”
I was standing on the curve across from a gated garden I recognized but wasn’t sure it was the right one, holding my camera with my left hand, with my phone pressed hard against my right ear, while I looked around trying to find something else that looked familiar.
The museum with whitewashed walls and bright yellow trimming on my left didn’t ring any bells.
My memory was playing tricks on me, and I needed confirmation. It felt like the same place, but it didn’t look like the same place.
As I waited for my mother to remember where the garden with the red gazebo was, I noticed a group of tourists coming up the street, with big smiles and cameras raised above their heads, photographing every architectural detail and glimpses of blue sky with pure amazement.
I nodded at them and smiled; they nodded and smiled back.
We had shared the flight from Lisbon.
They were surprised at what a small world it was and how one could bump into the same people.