Azores 2016, a Tale of Three Returns (Part One)

“(…) This generalizing – the snap judgment of the traveler – is the reason travel writing can seem so crisp, so insightful to the reader, and so maddening to the person who knows the place well, or who inhabits the area, who does not recognize his or her home from the brisk description of the wisecracking wayfarer.”Deep South, Paul Theroux*

From my travel journal (unedited)

“Returning to the Azores, six 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. I think 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, the overwhelming sensation of stumbling into the same people over and over again. Isn’t that why we left the minute we 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 opportunity. 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.”

******

“As I write this, I have reached Terceira three hours ago. I’m sitting at a green cast iron table outside café Verdemaçã, just steps from the Praça Velha (old square, in English) in Angra do Heroísmo. I ordered an espresso and the typical local pastry “Dona Amélia” – a sweet treat with hints of caramel and Indian 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 have been drawn towards 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 streets of the historic city center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As I was about to find out during the rest of my trip, the Azores are not the isolated islands they once were and some tourist ads want you to believe.”

Angra do Heroísmo, Terceira. 33 Years Later.

We reached Terceira island on a Saturday afternoon after an uneventful flight – in fact, the only event was the uproar of applause that followed the smooth landing of the Airbus A320. That happens often on flights to the Azores, mostly out of relief from people who are not used to the islands’ peculiarities.

Locals don’t bother applauding.

I remember the Azores Airlines in their glory years. From that time, only the cordiality 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 (an offer of local Azorean products beyond the packet of local white beet sugar would have been a very nice touch).

Still, as someone who has lost friends and acquaintances in the crash of 1999 in São Jorge island, I was grateful for a smooth and uneventful flight.

While we were waiting for our luggage, I began to notice the traits of the people around us: a handful of locals that I could identify for 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 police officers standing by the “Nothing to Declare” exit, chatting happily about a topic I couldn’t identify.

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 applauding 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 city center.

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 never mentioned I had a travel blog. I wanted the conversations to be as casual as possible.)

I thought I would ease into the “tourism topic” with some general questions about what were the local festivities in the island these days.

– “Right now”, he 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.

His tone when talking about tourism in Terceira implied growth was slow and 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 bigger there so local companies have bigger profits to invest in better marketing campaigns and improve service, which brings more tourists, which make 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 too. Travelers could fly low-cost 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. Locals have yet to see those benefits in real life.

As we reached the center of the city, I started to recognize the colorful façades, the narrow streets, the square where I used to eat vanilla ice cream, leaving more of it on the black-and-white cobblestones than in my stomach. 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 wide open 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 what a small world it was, and how one could meet the same people often.

I wasn’t.

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One comment

  1. 1

    While I didn’t grow up there I felt at home in the Azores, it is where I belong. One day I will live there! I love hearing about the islands from your point of view.

    • 2

      Thank you, Cathy! Once you have that piece of Azores in your DNA, it’s hard to shake it off. I can see you living there 🙂

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