“So what’s the biggest fish you ever caught?” I asked my cousin Manuel Fernando as we drifted, fishing for garoupas in the choppy water off the coast near Barca, just north of the Ilheus that sit in front of Madalena.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said lazily, a cigarette just barely hanging from his lips as he stared off towards Madalena, a fishing line in his hand, “I’ve caught plenty of tuna, marlin, you know, 70, 100, 200 kilos. I guess it must have been that one dolphin. That thing was big. We ground it up to make chum.”

“He caught a freaking dolphin,” I thought, “God, that’s not even a fish!” I contemplated this as I looked down into the water, making sure to pick my line up off the rocky bottom once in awhile to move my bait around and make sure the line doesn’t get snagged. “I need to catch more fish!”

I asked Manuel Fernando that question, his biggest fish, during the first day I went out with him on his boat. It was a quick little thing, just a few hours to pass the time on a Friday morning. Manuel Fernando is my second cousin on my dad’s side. He owns a fishing supply store and has spent stints as a commercial fisherman. We caught about 15 garoupas, blacktail combers, between three and six pounds each. My cousin examined our catch with a bored look on his face. We had brought one fishing pole for me, my cousin just fished with some hooks on a line. “After all, the objective was more to just entertain ourselves, not catch a lot of fish,” he reminded me. “One of these days we’ll go out and try some different kinds of fishing.”

I get the fishing thing from my dad’s family; back into history the men on that side are all fisherman, boat mechanics, sailors, anything related to the sea. The backyard of my fathers childhood home is the channel between Pico and Faial, my grandpa used to call it his “garden.” Areia Larga is full of my dad’s cousins, childhood friends, and other folks who come from fishing families. They’re practically marine mammals, in a couple of generations they’re gonna have fins. They sit in cafes and in their houses like seals laying on the rocks, waiting for the right time to go out on the water again and catch fish.

Like Pico mountain, the ocean is an element that colors every aspect of life here – you cannot escape talking about fish and fishing in a regular conversation. There are old men who don’t fish anymore – they spend the days looking at the ocean, watching the boats coming in and out, exchanging fishing stories. Their are old men who are retired and now can fish everyday, young guys who go spearfishing in the morning and late in the afternoon. Old folks and children sit near the port and catch carapau that you fry and eat whole. People buy lapas off of people who go diving regularly – 15 to 20 euros a kilo. Family members who fish bring their catch to family members who don’t. And basically anybody from a fishing family knows how to catch most kinds of fish, just like everyone here basically knows the right time to plant potatoes. It’s just too bad that there are less fish in the ocean than their used to be. The commercial fishing has really taken a toll in recent years. Some guys complain when they don’t bring 100, 200 kilos in a day. .

So I’m in the land of constant fishing and macho fisherman. I can’t even begin to describe the way fisherman tell stories in a group, it’s sort of a competition to talk about the largest number of fish while sounding the most casual, as though if they really wanted to they could slaughter every fish in the ocean:

One guy might say, “Yeah, so I just decided to go out one morning to see what was out there, and the water was choppy and I thought about going in, but all the sudden I caught like 20 amberjacks and a tuna. And then later that day I decided to go take a swim, you know. And of course I brought my gun and shot 4 octopus, 5 vejas and 10 salemas. Then I caught a couple of kilos of lapas, and went out that night and caught a few kilos of crabs.”

And then another guy will be like, “Yeah? Why didn’t you catch more? Listen to this, the other day I went spearfishing at the ilheus, you know just to pass the time. I caught 20 big vejas, shot three 10 kilo anchovas, caught two bags full of barnacles, Then I shot a 100 kilo grouper and a couple of 20 kilo conger eels and I was starting to think that this was a lot of fish to clean, but hell on our way back I caught 30 peixo-porco just because I was bored. Then I saw a dolphin and I almost felt like killing it with my teeth but I don’t really like to eat dolphin.”

One of the reasons I came to Pico was to fish a lot. Growing up my dad never really wanted to go fishing much because compared to here, fishing in California is sort of besides the point. After having spent a lot of time thinking about this family heritage and my responsibility as an Azorean to kill and eat many fish, I embarked on a little mission a few years ago to become a good fisherman. And though I’ve spent plenty of time on the pier in Santa Cruz catching jacksmelt and mackerel, along the coast of California fishing for rockfish, halibut and striped bass, I can’t say I’ve had that much luck the majority of the time. I guess you can say I have a little bit of a complex about this; maybe that explains the 15-foot fishing pole I bought awhile back…

Amongst other people, Manuel Fernando, my cousin Luis and Tio Guilherme have been helpful in teaching me the local tricks. On the days I go fishing I deliver my catch to one of the various families I eat with. If I don’t clean them myself, they miraculously get cleaned and cooked in awesome ways and I get to eat them. It’s great. Since I arrived, I go into Manuel Fernando’s fishing store every week or so, buy a couple of things and chat with Tiago, Manuel Fernando’s son.

For a weeks I had been eyeballing what had become to me the holy grail of fishing equipment, the rack of spearguns in the back of the store. Ever since the first day I saw Luis come back with a big haul of fish after 15 minutes of diving, I got it into my head that I had to try this out. So right after I got back from walking around the island, I went out an bought a snorkel and fins. I spent a week or so practicing diving in area funda, the swimming spot near the port of Madalena. Then one day I went and visited Tiago at the shop and got outfitted with everything I needed to begin spearfishing.

The first day I went I started out into the water from a rocky beach just south of the port of Madalena. The high tide was coming in so low, rolling waves were breaking over the rocks. I fumbled with my new gear and managed to get out into open water, rolling with the waves. I armed the gun and fired a few times erratically at the first fish I saw. With the nervousness of being in the water with the gun, I ran out of air quickly whenever I dove. After 15 minutes I was shivering cold, but I spotted a group of the biggest vejas I had seen and decided to try for them. I made a couple of unsuccessful attempts and began loading my gun for a third shot. I cut my finger badly in the process, and I thought that my loud groans sounded funny underwater. I cursed and swore and retreated back towards coast. Feeling defeated, I scrambled over the rocks trying to hold onto all of my crap and made for home.

The second day I went out with Luis in Area Larga. I borrowed a wetsuit from Valter to take care of the cold problem, and got out into the water on my family’s home turf. Feeling a little bit more confident I tried to breathe steadily, choosing a target and diving slowly towards it. With the wetsuit I was now a lot more buoyant and struggled to dive. After a few minutes my cousin swam by and said, “You caught anything yet?” I said shyly, “No, I’m working on it,” and watched him swim off in front of me, trailing 4 dead vejas on his line behind him. “Damn,” I thought. I became determined not leave the water until I caught something.

After making a few unsuccessful attempts at vejas on the ocean bottom I spotted a peixo-porco swimming by. Those things are big and flat, basically round like a target and swim really slowly. I thought, “YES” and swam towards it, took a shot and got it right in the head. Knowing that my manhood was no longer at stake, I headed back to the house, where Luis threw my peixo-porco onto his giant mountain of fish. The fire was already hot for lunch and Luis grilled my fish and I ate the little guy. Encouraged, I determined to go out as much as I could and start catch more each time.

The next day I headed down at 9am, spent two hours in the water and managed to catch two vejas. When I got back to the port of Areia Larga there was a line of old men, cousins and family friends, sitting on a bench like they usually do, probably watching me the whole time as I struggled in the water. They asked to see my catch and I proudly showed them the two fish. They looked at me a little embarrassed, like maybe I was crippled and it wasn’t polite to stare. “It’s ok son, you’ll figure it out.” One of them said. “You need to get a weight belt” another one said. “Well, yesterday was one and today was two. Next time it’s gonna be three!” With that they laughed encouragingly and I headed home satisfied.

So the past week or so has been steady work at getting better: two, three vejas at a time plus a few other things mixed in. Even if I don’t catch much snorkeling is super fun, and I’ve been having a good time in the water getting to know the sea life. I’ve seen a few interesting things, like rays and big anchovas (bluefish) hunting along the coast, eels and octopi and whatnot. The other day I went out with my cousin Vera’s boyfriend Miguel and watched him catch a couple of moreias, eels, a scary fish that looks like the devil. After being shot in the head they wrap themselves around your spear and a big one can even bend it. They can take a good chunk out of your hand if they bite you, or turn your arm blue if they wrap around it. I saw a 6-foot long moreia pintada that day and decided it’d be best to leave it alone.

Yes, it does cross my mind that catching fish these days is a little morally complicated, considering that we’ve abused the sea so badly. But fishing is just another part of culture, like farming, that is about knowing your environment, being in constant contact with it, and letting it sustain you. Like industrial agricultural, industrial fishing is the real problem. If the average person knew how to plant a garden an catch a few fish sustainably I think we’d be a lot better off.

Despite the machismo and overzealousness it’s kind of encouraging to hear fisherman talk about the big commercial fishing boats and how they’re wasting the sea. I’ve heard multiple people curse this 5 mile long net that floats along the coast of Pico on the Sao Jorge side, saying that it’s a crime and should be outlawed. Ultimately Azoreans love they’re ocean and want it to continue to produce. After all, when the whaling industry died here decades ago whale-watching has become one of the major attractions. I hope I can come back to Pico with my kids and fill my table with seafood without feeling guilty about it.

It’s going to be really hard to leave this warm water that I’ve become friends with when it’s time to head to the mainland for September, but by now I’ve far surpassed my fish quota for the year and so I guess it’ll be time to stop soon. Still, I can already see the day when I’m back in San Jose craving a piece of fresh fried fish. Then I’ll have to get in a car or on my bike and make the long trip to Santa Cruz and catch the little mackerel that swim past the pier every once in awhile. It just wont be the same.

What can I say, my summer of hard work farming on the islands hasn’t turned out to be what I thought it would be. Like I described before, the farmers and gardeners here are very willing to show me their quintas and explain things, but there is a very strong cultural thing against putting me to work, a young guy from California who is here on vacation. That, coupled with the realization that many of the fields that were previously dedicated to diverse vegetable gardens have been converted to pastures and cornfields for feed in recent years, has put a damper on my plans to have my hands in the soil every day.

Still, I’ve convinced my cousin Manuel Narciso to put me to work, and over the past couple of weeks I’ve spent a good number of full days with him and Angelina in the fields and vineyards. Just up the street from our house in Cabo Branco they have a field that was mostly planted with corn, but that also has two small traditional vineyards on either side along the wall. I was walking along one day and saw my two cousins bent down in the vineyard and decided to walk through the corn and meet them out there.

“Oh Mark! I’m getting to old for this!” Manuel Narciso said as usual, even though he refuses to stop for a second. “We’re here pick up the grape vines, it’s hard work for two old people.”

Everything about Pico agriculture is harder than what I know of farming in California. Because of the rocky terrain vines aren’t grown in straight rows trellised up along wires and stakes. A vine is planted wherever there is a pocket of soil and the vines spread out along the ground. With careful pruning, the farmers are able to pick up the grape vines at this time of year with little stakes, to keep the grapes dry and speed up the ripening process. The two of them were hard at work picking up the vines this way, and the next day I agreed to spend the day finishing up in that one vineyard. It’s hard not to trample the plants that way, and in the wrong hands you can easily brake the main vines while trying to prop them up with stakes and rocks.

Another day I spent with Manuel Narciso and three other guys harvesting and grinding the corn from his and our fields. We made a giant mound of ground corn and covered it with plastic, then dirt, to protect it from the elements and store it for the winter, a process that took a 10 hours day of work. In between the truckloads of corn that came to us as the mound grew, my cousin and I did a little work on an adjacent banana orchard, removing old leaves and harvesting a few bunches of bananas. I also caught a renegade chicken that was living on the land, which Manuel Narciso was threatening to poison since it had taken to eaten his fava beans and scratching through the plastic to get to the corn. After it was caught Manuel Narciso quickly pulled off its head and threw it over a fence without a second thought. Kind of brutal but I guess when you’ve been farming for 50 years like him, the life and death of a chicken is not something to dwell on in the grand scheme of things.

Just last Sunday I went with him to move cattle from one pasture to another. The way pasture land is managed here is mostly admirable. Cattle are always moved in time before the grass is overgrazed and the land is generally given enough time to recover. A lot of the older guys complain about the younger cattlemen though, who don’t walk their wall lines or move their cows often enough. Those old rock walls aren’t really that high, and a hungry cow that is sitting in an overgrazed pasture can easily hop over a low spot to get at a neighbors grass. The thing that makes me cringe is that farmers are constantly patrolling their pastures with backpack sprayers full of herbicides that they use to kill ferns, juncus, spaghum moss and other native vegetation that would be part of the laurrisilva forest that used to cover the highlands of Pico. Before pesticides they used to use goats, but who can be walking around with a herd of goats, and besides folks have taken to stealing goats lately.

We stopped near the gate of the pasture where we’d be moving the cows and opened the gate. “Here, take this bordao (walking stick) and stand in the middle of the road. Don’t let any of the cows get past you!” I said ok and he walked down the road towards the pasture where the cows had been grazing for a couple of weeks.

I watched Manuel Narciso working down the road, a little hunched over old man in the middle of an immense landscape of pastures, with the ocean and Faial in the distance and the mountain behind us. He was born on this island 76 years ago and is still scrambling around on it, making his life, like a crab on a rock. I find it sort of admirable somehow. There were dense clouds in the sky and high up in the mato, the air was cold. Standing there with the walking stick in my hand I thought about those cold winter days in San Martin, by myself with my own homemade bordao, walking miles over pastures, through herds of cows with the deer and wild pigs in the background, and wondering when I’d get to be on Pico again.

To make a gate for his cows, Manuel Narciso dismantled a section of rock wall while constantly calling, “Vem ‘ca, vem ‘ca, vem ‘ca!” to the herd, that were grazing down at the bottom of the pasture about a half a kilometer away. The cows know my cousin well and immediately came walking up, mooing hungrily the whole time, knowing that they were going to be taken to more food.

When the wall was down and the cows started through, I suddenly realized that I was supposed to herd these cows through a gate and if I let any get passed me it might be a long annoying process to get the thing to go where it was supposed to. The herd came through the gate in a hurry, the little calves and cows and the two big breeding bulls that Manuel Narciso borrowed from a friend, practically running at me. When they got near they suddenly saw the open gate and ran into the new pasture. They hardly got in a few meters before setting to work eating the tall young grass as quickly as they could. I realized that the cows knew exactly where they were going and Manuel Narciso was just trying to give me something to do. I laughed to myself and said, “Oh well, to anybody who asks I spent a long hard day herding cows.”

“Here, carry this umbrella, we’re going to head up into this terra cause I want to show you a big hole I have up here.” We started walking high up into the mato past the cows and through the mist to get to this deep volcanic vent, which I remembered hearing about from my mom. Manuel Narciso had bought this particular pasture from my grandpa, and my mom used to say that there was a deep hole they used to use whenever a cow died, where you would never here the cow hit the bottom and you’d never smell it again. This made a big impression on me as a little kid and I thought about this hole like a scary opening to hell, so I was pretty excited to see it.

Pico has over 200 known caves and thousands of vents, sinkholes and other volcanic formations. The dangerous terrain, coupled with the unpredictable weather, makes walking alone in the mato sort of dangerous, especially if your not familiar with the land. People have gotten lost in the fog and died of cold in late summer. Folks have fallen into holes and haver never been smelled again.

The hole is at the edge of a big rock outcrop and you can easily see the evidence of the eruption that created it. The pasture is in an old lava flow, every once in awhile you see smooth volcanic rock poking through the soil. The hole must have been a big gas vent that forces it’s way through the lava, and half congealed rock collected around it. We spent a couple of minutes reflecting on the hole and the rocks “This land was made with fire Mark! And remember, what comes once will come again!” he said grimly.

We were heading to the hole with a purpose, to repair a fence he had built around the hole to keep the cows from wandering into it on accident. During the winter months the cows shelter under the rock outcropping, which is surrounded by laurel and incenso. My cousin told me how one winter a calf headed towards the hole looking to eat incenso, since the ground doesn’t produce grass at that time, and fell into the hole.

There are actually a variety of stories about this particular hole and various animals that fell in, but one of my favorites involves a neighbor of Manuel Narciso’s and a hungry dog. The farmer had gone up to the field to repair a wall and brought his dog with him. It was gonna be a long day so he packed a lunch and left it in the car, but when he came back to eat the dog had eaten all of his bread and cheese.

Apparently the guy was pretty pissed off. He slowly and calmly walked towards the dog, pet it a couple times, then picked it up in his lap and started walking towards the hole at the edge of his field. When the farmer got near the hole, he quickly hurled the dog towards the hole and yelled, “Por causa do meu queijo, eu nunca mas te veijo!” which translates to “Because of my cheese, I will never see you again!” The dog tried to hold on to the little tufts of grass at the edge of the hole for a second, but soon slipped and bounced off the walls a few times until couldn’t be heard anymore on its way into the abyss. The dog was never smelled again.

We spent about an hour repairing the fence, until the wind picked up, the clouds sunk down and covered the land in fog, and a torrential rain began that beat on us for 20 minutes. The weather here is frightening and strong, and I realized why we had brought the umbrella. Manuel Narciso had planned to take me higher up into the pastures but with the weather closing in, we decided to slowly make our way towards the car. We came down to the house and ate another great farm meal of homegrown pig meat fried in it’s own lard, along with taro root, grapes, tomatoes and onions and strong rich white wine. The food is really good, but I don’t like eating at their house much because after that heavy food I always sink into a coma for a few hours.

In such ways the days pass, and I’ve had a variety of other experiences with farmers and farms. Any farmer who grows wine will take you down to his cellar to try his vinho tinto, vinho branco, aguardente and licors. They also invite you to come pick grapes at the beginning of September. I’ve got a good idea of the whole agricultural scene here now, and wish I had arrived in February at the start of the planting season. I arrived during a lull in the work. Only now the corn is ripening and being harvested. The grape vines have all been raised and now the grapes are quickly ripening. The houses are filled with the smell of grapes and bowls full of big bunches are put on the table as desert after most meals.

I’ve resigned myself to spending the rest of my time on the islands just enjoying the work of the local farmers (eating) and spending my time in the ocean honing my fishing skills. I’ve devoured the few farming books I’ve brought with me and hoping for a new batch from Megan when she comes next week.

I’ve decided to dedicate the entire month of September to farming on the mainland. Through WWOOF International, I’ll be working on a biodynamic farm up in the north of Portugal near Guarda, in a mountain range called the Serra da Estrella. The farm is called Dominio Valle do Mondego and is a historical farm site now run by a dutch family. I look forward to working with their 200 dairy sheep and in their 6 quintas, that grow vegetables and olives and a few other things. I already have images of the lonely mountains, the Mondego river and old medieval villages running through my head. It will good spot to spent the rest of my time here in Portugal, reflect on the Azores and prepare myself for life back home. It’s sort of a gamble because I don’t know the people or the area, but I trust that it will be a good experience. We’ll see how it goes.

Other Happenings
What else can I say? The weeks have flown by with days walking through the country, days at the beach, long days spent checking in on distant relatives and family friends. Recently my cousin Lena, her husband Pedro and kids arrived from Terceira, along with my cousin Vera and her boyfriend Miguel from Sao Miguel, so the island is even more full of cousins than ever. There have been nights passed at a local Cafe with Valter. The other night I went out to a discoteca with several cousins and got too drunk, which was overdue.

The way people are in a tighter-knit community here is really good. Folks live more organic lives and more or less still honor many of the traditions that made it possible for them to live out on these rocks in the middle of the ocean, like farming and fishing. I like the slower pace, I like how people talk to each other and the way the kids party, though I can’t say I can keep up. It can be a little claustrophobic though for people here, everyone knowing your business and having nowhere to escape to.

Generally the time is full and I can’t believe that I’m here, but like anywhere there are periods of boredom and homesickness. I miss the Bay Area, being able to talk with other kids whose parents come from all over the world. I miss Henry Coe and and the Santa Cruz mountains and even the cold Pacific that refuses to surrender its fish to me. I miss San Jo, the freeways and palm trees and dirty streets and the weird sanitary downtown, the taquerias and Guadalupe river and Coyote Creek and those secrete spots in South County I go where I can be alone. I can’t wait to eat burritos ride in the first Bike Party when I get back. I do miss my family back home, my friends, Veggielution, and the other cool groups of folks our town.

I haven’t forgotten a vow I made a long time ago to stay in the Valley of Heart’s Delight, to work at preserving it and making it a beautiful place in cool new ways. So I am pretty sure I’m gonna settle there, and dedicate my life to that place in some way. But I am already being nagged by the reality that I will have to find a place to stay and a means of supporting myself when I get back, so the job hunt has started. Hopefully it’s something that doesn’t suck.

But like the rest of this trip, the next month will pass faster than I can imagine, soon it will be over and I’ll be back in reality, so I’m gonna try not to speed things up. Things take exactly long as they’re supposed to.

This Friday I’m climbing Pico again and camping there, On Saturday I’ll be out partying with the cousins and on Sunday I leave to Terceira, where Megan arrives this Tuesday. I’m very excited about my time with the girl: we’ll see a couple of bullfights on terceira then head back to Pico, where we’ll spend sometime together doing a lot of nothing.

It’s been a long morning inside with clear weather beckoning outside, so goodbye for now!


Little Adventures

August 4, 2009

Festa da Santa Maria Madalena
The weekend before last, I spent my time at the Festa da Santa Maria Madalena, the big street festival that happens at the end of July here in Madalena. On Wednesday, there was a very pretty procession around the town, with all the devout current and former townspeople slowly marching around the city center, along with several of the islands marching bands and the holy statues of Madalena. At the start of the procession the church bells were ringing wildly while homemade fireworks boomed in the air and the people started out of the church. It’s a very old and traditional scene for the folks who live here but a little weird for anyone not used to it.

Thursday through Sunday night there were performances by local folklore and filharmonic bands on the stage by the church, and concerts by famous Portuguese singers on the main stage by the port. I saw my cousin Valter’s band play, a “tuna” which is composed of 20-30 university students who play popular and traditional songs. I also ran into a cool old guy from my folklore days at the festas, Senhor Manuel Paulinho, who came to San Jose when I was 15-years-old with his band. We got a little drunk together and the next night of the festa, he showed up in town with two straw hats on his head – one was his own and another he brought for me.

Each night Valter, his cousins Duarte and Joao Paulo (the two who climbed Pico with us) and I went out after the concerts to Clube Naval, a popular bar by the port that was converted to a small discoteca for the festas. After staying out until 4am multiple days in a row, I was pretty wiped out, and by Sunday night I came home early to watch the closing fireworks alone from the porch of our house in Cabo Branco.

Volta Ilha, a pé
On Monday morning I woke up confused at 8am, made some coffee then got back into bed deliriously. I had weird dreams about swimming with whales and Pico and other such themes before I woke up again at 11am. The weekend of partying got me wanting to do something productive with the week.

I had gotten it into my head awhile ago that I wanted to try walking around the entire island of Pico, a journey that is 102km altogether and usually takes four days and three nights. It’s something that people from Pico sometimes do once in their lifetime, or to fulfill a religious promise.

My parents completed the journey 39 years ago. The road to their marriage was a long and difficult one, and the story is too long to explain here. Mainly, my dad was from a slightly different class than my mom, and my grandfather was a pretty hardcore old farmer man who wanted his daughter to marry someone with a lot of land. After 4 or 5 years of a difficult courtship, where they rarely saw or wrote to each other, they succeeded in getting married in the little church of Madalena. Shortly after the wedding they started out around the island, with my aunt Natalia accompanying them.

So I partly started the trip thinking about this history, but I also just wanted a lot of time to myself to think things over and get more focused. Long walks have always been sort of a meditation for me, especially through Henry Coe. By the mile 14 or 15 your mind is exhausted from constantly thinking and all you can do is watch the road slowly open out in front of you. When you know you’re going to walk that far each day, and that all you have to do that day is walk, at some point you usually figure out that it doesn’t help to rush. “This will take exactly as long as it takes,” I remind myself, and calmly put one foot in front of the other.

I started out last Monday at around 4pm and reached Sao Roque by sunset. There I stayed in a pousada de juventude, a youth hostel that was set up in an old convent. I walked out of the hostel and immediately met three girls from San Diego, part of a huge group from Southern California that’s staying on Pico for the summer. I headed down to the Clube Naval, the popular restaurant and bar in town, to have dinner alone before Valter met me for a few drinks. Later I drank a little with the San Diego folks, and went to bed around 1am.

The next morning I woke up after strange dreams, and hardly remembered that I was on Pico and on a strange adventure. I went down into the breakfast room and when I saw that there was American style coffee, I sort of freaked out and immediately drank several cups (when I get home, it’s gonna be coffee for breakfast and burritos for every meal of the day). After a lot of stretching I started off on the road.

The little villages along the coast have grown up over the past 500 years wherever there is a low flat spot, good soil or a sheltered stretch of water. Past Sao Roque, high cliffs covered in forest rose up on my right side. The coast was on my left and Sao Jorge off in the distance over a big stretch of water.

I’m starting to get a better understanding of what types of things people cultivate, where and why. I passed more of all the standard crops, sometimes in bigger fields where the land allowed it, and where the land is rockier or steeper the parcels become smaller. All sizes of tractors pass me on the road, always with a farmer with thick stubble and a cigarette hanging off his lips riding along with half closed eyes. The calves I pass get up suddenly and try gain some distance whenever I pass. The goats look at me curiously, thinking I’ve come to give them food.

The people look straight at me, in an interested or friendly or suspicious way. Country people are really good at staring. I just have to remember that they’re used to knowing most everybody that passes, or easily being able to explain a stranger as an American tourist or somebody from the mainland passing in a car on a little trip. A portuguese looking guy with a huge backpack walking along a stretch of road that is usually only taken by car must be pretty interesting, so I remember to say, “bom dia” and explain myself to anyone I see. It’s a great way of making friends.

By the time I was half way around the island, there were folks who recognized me as “that guy from America whose walking around the island (on foot!).” There were people who passed me on the road and then saw me later, asking how the trip was going. People offered me water and food whenever I passed and explained what I was up to. They would ask me, “Are you fulfilling a promise? Are you on a pilgrimage? Or is this just an experience?” I would say that it was a little bit of everything, not really having thought much about why I was doing it other than wanting the bragging rights and having a vague idea that it was an important thing to do.

A yellow, young cat was sitting on a wall as I came around a corner, and when it saw me it darted into the street, where it was immediately smacked by a red car that was gone in an instant. It made a loud thud, and I looked back to see the cat flailing wildly on the ground, twisting violently and sometimes bouncing up into the air. In about 30 seconds it wasn’t moving anymore, and I continued my walk a little shaken. Pretty horrifying, but there isn’t much more to say about that.

I walked for several more hours looking down at my feet, looking up at the road, whistling and quietly thinking. By around 4pm I was pretty tired and close to my destination for the night, Piedade, Piety, the village on the far end of the island. Piedade has a reputation for having the kind of folks who make very good friends and very bad enemies. People who have gone back there and started shit have disappeared. A lot of Portuguese-Americans who have been deported back to the Azores have ended up in Piedade. There’s apparently a pretty large community of pot growers back there too.

So it was early in the day but I decided that just to be safe, I should start looking for a place to stay immediately. I turned into the first dirt road I found and walked down about half a kilometer. Happily, there I found some horse stables and a cafe and a generic looking farmer man who said he could rent me a room. “Welcome ot Piedoad,” the guy said, in his thick behind-the-island accent. The people around there replace all the “ah” sounds in Portuguese with “oh” sounds. One time a guy from Piedade came to Madalena looking to by goats (“cabras”) and the Madalena guy he was talking to did every thing he could to convince him that on Pico there were no snakes (“cobras”).

The place I was at rented horses and gave riding lessons, but the family who owned it also had several villages down in the village of Piedade that they rented out to Germans or French vacationers. Luckily, they had a single private room in their own family house that sometimes they rented. After a few hours of chatting with the guys daughter and son at the attached cafe, the room was ready and I headed down to the village. I really love Piedade. If Madalena is a tiny village by American standards, Piedade is like a tiny village compared to Madalena.

I spent too much money on the room, which left me with about 10 euros for the next two days, so I after settling in I headed out to try and buy a piece of bread for dinner. I met an old french couple who drove me to the only store in town, then walked down to the port and watched the sunset. I’m really liking having time to myself. Though I’ve been very social this whole time I’m reminding myself that I won’t have so much solitary time when I get back to the States, so I should take advantage and really enjoy living in my own head and enjoy the ocean and landscape.

I went to sleep alone and woke up in a room full of white light. It was Wednesday morning now, and I was getting really sore now from walking for two days, 15-20 miles each day, with a heavy pack on my back. I stretched as much as possible and started down the road. I walked another 15 miles and arrived in Lages. Lages is a historic whaling town with teams of youth who still row out to the ocean and race in the old sailing ships. To be on one of these teams you have to be from one of the former whaling families. Pretty bad ass. I stayed in the campground which was happily only 1 and a half euros. I spent the evening chatting with some more french tourists and drinking beers in the local cafe.

On Thursday I was even more sore. I packed up my stuff and seriously contemplated heading back to Madalena on the bus. I had 18 miles ahead of me, but I decided that I might as well walk it. I had nothing to do anyways. The time passed exactly as quickly as it should.

Part of the trip was reminding myself that there are times in my life that I have been extremely disciplined, and that I have the capacity to focus and work hard. It was also to remind myself that each day is very long and has potential for all sorts of things. I thought about everything I could do with each 10 minute stretch that seemed to last forever. The past year I have not felt very disciplined, and the trip was partly to exorcise that feeling of listlessness.

A friend of my cousin Luis, the son of Senhor Manuel Paulinho I mentioned earlier, drove by me on the road to Lages from Madalena, and on his return trip he took my heavy pack. “I’ll have it for you at my warehouse in Candelaria,” he said and with that he took off without looking back. This was like an awesome blessing in this fourth quarter of my little pilgrimage.

I walked all day and watched the curves of the island disappear behind me. The day was clear and the ocean was calm. When I reached Sao Mateus I knew I was half way through with the journey. About 9 miles left. I entered the church and said a prayer to the holy statue of Senhor Bom Jesus. This is statue is an important religious symbol on the island. I don’t know its origins but every year hundreds of people make a pilgrimage from Madalena to Sao Mateus, fulfilling promises that they’ve made on behalf of sick loved ones, or because of some trouble in their lives. I rested in the cool of the church and then kept walking.

In Candelaria I was almost home. I picked up my pack and kept walking. About 2 miles out of town my uncle Guilherme called me, “Tudo bem?” he asked in his usually happy, impish way. “Yeah, I’m almost home.” “Let me come and take that heavy pack to make the rest of the trip easier.” I agreed and when he arrived, I decided that the trip was over. Counting all extra walking I did in Piedade and Lages, I figured I made up the extra mile. I got in the care with tio, and I arrived back at their house, where I ate way too much food.

Since the trip, I’m introduced to people as the guy who made the trip around the island (on foot!). Instant status. I feel a little bit more clear headed and disciplined but the feeling is going away pretty quickly. I’m looking forward to the next three weeks on Pico, and the visit from Megan. But once September hits, I look forward to traveling through mainland Portugal, maybe even Spain and Morocco, on foot and by hitch-hiking and with very little food or money. Something about wandering and being a bearded hobo has always appealed to me.

The Ocean
On the Friday after my trip I went down to a local shop and did it – I bought a snorkel! The ocean is like this forbidden fruit for me. Like I explained earlier, I’ve been raised to fear it, so a big part of the summer is about overcoming this fear and learning to be comfortable in the sea. I had been practicing swimming a lot, but I really want to eventually go spearfishing, so getting comfortable in deep water and diving is very important.

I bought the snorkel and happily reported back to my Tio Guilherme’s house. Tio looked amused, and said, “Let’s get in the car and go down to Criacao Velha to try it out.”

“When I was a kid I used to swim every day,” Tio said. “Your dad used to dive off of high rocks, but afterwards he wouldn’t swim, he would just climb up from the bottom on the rocks like a crab.” When we arrived at Criacao Velha it was low tied and the little natural pool was almost ridiculously calm and shallow. I got in, put my face underwater and tried to breath through the snorkel. I felt really unsure of myself, flailing about and hyperventilating in three feet of water like an idiot. After about 15 minutes I calmed down and started swimming about.

There were so many fish, and big ones in that little pool. I have spent so many days peering down into the water with my fishing pole that never seems to catch anything, and now I felt like I could almost swim up and bite those freaking fish.

This was the beginning of a really strong habit, I became “viciado” as they say, addicted, and for the past four days I’ve been in the water. Once I got fins I went crazy, and now snorkeling is super fun. I’m practicing diving slowly and quietly in the hopes that one day soon I get a spear gun in my hand and start catching fish.

Other Happenings

The Festa of Cais de Augosto happened over the weekend, a big festa in Sao Roque where I stayed the first night of my trip around the island. More craziness, drinking and discotecas. As much as the night life is fun, it’s not the first thing that I think of doing when I come here. I’m more inclined to hang out with old farmers and fishermen, and spend the days swimming and reading. Still, I’ve spent a few nights with Valter, Joao Paulo, Duarte and their crew partying down at the festas. There were a couple of good bands and on Sunday night, a nice firework display.

I’ve seen my cousin Manuel Narciso again, having spent Sunday eating at his house. He picked me up Sunday afternoon and walked into my yard even before saying hi to take a look at the corn. “Damnit, look!” he said, “It’s drying out from the bottom up, this corn should have already been cut but I wasn’t watching. And now the guy with the tractor can’t come until a week from monday.”

I finally convinced him that he should allow me to work with him some day, making stakes and raising up the grape vines, or possibly helping a little while he and some neighbors build a rock wall separating one of their fields. This week I’m gonna try to advance things with my family’s business regarding our properties, swim a lot more and possibly head to Terceira for the festas of Praia for a couple of days.

I hope this finds you all well back at home.

Getting to know Pico

July 27, 2009

It’s been three weeks now since I arrived on Pico. I feel at home, and the days are passing more quickly than I thought they would. I spend days lying on the rocks near the coast. I take my time walking from place to place and watching the weather pass. It’s July 26 and I’m anxiously waiting for the day that Megan will arrive, a girl I miss very much. This week I will finally walk around Pico island, a trip that will take three nights and four days. In the following weeks I’ll spend days on Sao Jorge, Flores, Corvo and Faial, other islands where there is more swimming, fishing and nature.

During the first week I swam in my fathers home port of Area Larga twice a day, once before lunch and again before dinner. Dad: If you’re reading this, I don’t want you to be jealous but fish is part of every lunch and dinner. Somebody is always catching fish – abrotea, tuna, vejas, bacalhau, anchovas, crab, lapas, this amazing seafood is as common good bread, wine and cheese around here. I’m getting darker, and all the walking and swimming I do is only barely keeping me from becoming extremely fat.

It’s amazing to be in a place where I’m constantly surrounded by family. Back home there’s a handful of us and we see each other regularly once or twice a month. When I step out the door in Madalena I run into a variety of uncles, aunts, cousins, second cousins, and folks that are practically family. I’m fishing on a dock, and my cousin Manuel Fernando rolls up. He owns a fishing supply store and spend an hour teaching me the best way to catch anchovas, a fish that grows up to about a meter long, using live carapau that are easily caught. Later I’m on my way home from the beach, and I pass his house, then sit down to drink beer and talk with his son, my cousin Tiago. Days ago, when I was on my way down from Pico mountain with my cousin Valter, I saw my other cousin Manuel Narciso moving cattle from one pasture to another with his daughter Fernanda. Today I went into the city hall of Madalena and saw pictures of my grandpa, Manuel Zulmira, in an exhibit about the transports that used to sail carrying passengers and cargo between Pico and Faial.

After a few days living down at Luis’ house in Areia Larga, I moved up to our house in Cabo Branco. Most days are filled with people and family meals. Each day I get multiple invites to lunch and dinner, and several people who are willing to take me fishing, to their gardens, or to various areas of the island. I have the keys to three houses now and counting. Despite all the activity I’m also enjoying the time I have to myself every morning to read and relax, and the days I go alone to the coast. I’ve been watching the corn in our field grow, listening to the wind blow through it, listening to the rain as I sleep alone at night.

There are too many simple, awesome every day occurrences to describe, but I’m gonna tell a couple of stories about some of my important days here. I will try to write more often. Right now I’m leaving for a 3 day walking trip around Pico, and afterwards there will be the Festa of Cais de Augosto. Talk to you guys soon!

Manuel Narciso; Visiting my family’s land; Agriculture of Pico

While I was still on Terceira, I noticed some advertisements that were circulating about agricultural tourism on the Azores. The advertisement was a picture of an old couple in traditional dress from Pico with a young, handsome tourisst guy. The message is, “Remember, tourists are our friends,” and the ad is basically meant to encourage locals to treat tourists well, since tourism is such a large part of the local economy.

At the time, I didn’t realize that the people in the add were my cousin Manuel Narciso and his wife Angelina. Manuel Narciso is my mother’s first cousin, and grew up learning how to farm from my grandfather and great uncle. Up until about 10 years ago, he still cultivated his fields with a hand plow and trained ox. Since my grandfather left, he has been cultivating the big field attached to our house in Cabo Branco, as well as acting as the steward of other terras that were left behind by my grandpa. Even before I left on this trip, I knew that I would have to dedicate some time to this guy, one of the only relatives on my mothers side.

I visited him on my second day in Madalena. His backyard was the same as I remembered it: the teepee-like drying rack for corn, the chicken coop, pig sty and outdoor kitchen. It was almost dark so I walked up the stairs to the house and surprised them in their kitchen.

Manuel Narciso looks about the same as he did when I saw him 8 years ago – hair sprouts out of his nose and ears, he wears rubber boots and a plaid shirt. His wife Angelina was a very beautiful girl in her youth, so I hear, and now she’s a weathered and intelligent looking farm woman. After the initial shock, greetings, and preliminary conversation about the health of various family members, we got to talking.

Manuel Narciso still farms. He spent his whole life in the fields and in reality, he doesn’t know how to stop. He and Angelina keep a large home garden, fields of corn, vineyards and about 20 or 30 head of breeding cattle. “I’m getting very old, Marco,” He said, “At this point in life you’re supposed to stop and rest, but there is so much work to do, it’s almost like I don’t know where to turn.”

He can no longer stand straight, and he walks carefully through his vineyards with a cane in one hand and a pesticide sprayer on his back. Despite being so old and worn down, he still builds rock walls, cuts firewood, and climbs over fences to get to his cows. A lot of people criticize him, saying that he is well off and shouldn’t have to work anymore, that he needlessly is breaking his body and obligating Angelina to work into her old age. It’s hard to understand what motivates the guy, and if you didn’t look much deeper you might think he’s crazy.

Manuel Narciso is motivated by some very old values that he hangs onto tenaciously. These values come from a time when women were considered like cattle, when every piece of land was dearly needed by a population that the island could barely support. Sometimes folks forget that it’s only been 50 years that the island has had electricity and oil. Before then Pico was like a supernatural force. The folks here still look to the mountain in awe and fear and obsess over there weather.

When my parents were born, the local economy and culture was much the same as it had been for the past 500 years. Parcels of land had been divided and subdivided through the generations to the point where every square inch of soil was cultivated, and still families went hungry. The waves of immigration that brought my parents and others to America meant that many fields suddenly were left without a farmer to cultivate them.

Manuel Narciso is one of the old farmers who stayed, and he has spent the last 40 years accumulating more land piece by piece. As his energy fades, his life has become a struggle to keep it all cultivated. At the end of each day he takes stock of his work, and he’s always a bit disappointed.

It’s well known here that land left idle is quickly lost to nature. The native vegetation grows fiercely with the tropical heat and rain. Within one season, incenso, laurel, fayas, and sylvado begin to sprout and choke out vineyards, orchards, and anything else that was planted. Vast areas that used to be planted are now covered with 20 foot tall forest.

It’s against this crazy nature power that Manuel Narciso works, and he’s slowly losing. Each year more of his land goes untended because he can’t do as much any more and there is no heirs who want to take over the work. His old-fashioned attitude towards the value of land prevents him from selling any. He will continue to accumulate more until he’s dead.

We were sitting in his kitchen with Angelina and Maria Leonore, Manuel Narciso’s sister, a kitchen that only recently got fitted with running water and electricity. I explained to him that I’m studying agriculture and that I want to spend some time with him, seeing him work and visiting the land that my family still owns. I said that its very important to me that I see my grandfathers land and begin the process of getting written documents that will permanently give us title to it.

Manuel Narciso nodded and said, “Yes, we’ll take a day to see the terras. Some of them are in bad shape you know, they’re full of forest, but I still know where they are.” We arranged to meet on Saturday.

We own about 9 separate parcels that my grandfather planted with corn, potatoes, vineyards, fruit trees and other crops, or used as pastures. We have no official title to this land – it has been passed down to us by the fact that my great-grandfather cultivated it, and that he left it to my grandfather before my mother inherited it from him. The land is ours only because there are people still alive who know this history.

On Saturday morning I got into Manuel Narciso’s little truck and we started driving through the countryside, visiting each parcel individually. We took the time to discuss who are the neighbors, what the land could be sold for and who is potentially interested. We talked about what the land was used for, the type of soil, and how my grandfather had inherited it. Manuel Narciso would say stuff like, “I remember coming here with your grandfather – we worked each with our own plow and planted the land with corn,” or maybe, “This ground here is deeper and very good, terra forte.”

The first two parcels were badly overgrown – I could still see the ancient walls running through 30 year old forest. The land is lower and has rocky soil that is only appropriate for orchards or vineyards. Being a big nature lover, the new forest looks beautiful to me. But to a farmer like Manuel Narciso, the properties are dirty and unkept. Then we saw other parcels, one that was higher up in the mato and good for summer pastures.

After the half day tour my head was spinning with new names of pieces of land and details about them. I began to develop a deep regret that I cannot settle here on Pico and farm this land that my grandfather used to take care of, at least for awhile. The feeling hasn’t left me, but I remind myself that I have a home in California where I was born, and I feel loyalty to that place as well.

Angelina was boiling a huge pot of taro root over a fire in the backyard. We ate the taro root with friend eggs and homemade sausage for lunch, and in the evening I took a bike ride through the fields around Criacao Velha, the small village where my cousin lives. Criacao Velha has a reputation for being full of hardworking people who still take good care of their land. I passed by little fields of beans, taro root, sweet potatoes, corn, pastures filled with goats or cows or pigs, imagining what my land could look like if I could just spend a few years putting it all into production. After fantasizing like this for awhile and watching the sunset behind Faial, I returned to my cousin’s house and went to bed.

Valter – My personal guide to the island; The climb up Pico Mountain

My best Pico tour guide has without a doubt been my cousin Valter. He’s my uncle Guilherme’s son, 26-years-old and a local expert on the environment of Pico. Over the past weeks we’ve spent the days visiting whaling museums, fishing, drinking beers at Horta’s Peter Cafe Sport, and exploring the cool natural areas of Pico. We’ve been talking about family history, about our personal ambitions and adventures as he gets me familiar with the island.

It’s great to have somebody who can stop me as we’re walking along and point out some endemic plant or a rare bird. As I was spending my teenage years scrambling up hills, through cattle pastures and spending days out in Henry Coe, Valter was exploring abandoned vineyards, lava tubes and Pico mountain. In him I can see the type of person I would have been if I had grown up here – involved in local music, trying to secure a job as a park ranger for the island, enjoying an intense personal relationship with the place he grew up and his family is from.

One day, we got together with a couple of Valter’s biologist friends to tag shearwaters, a pelagic bird species that nests on Pico. Valter is one of the two people on the island trained to do this work, and on some days during the summer nesting season, he tags and takes measurements on dozens of birds, that have to be pulled out of the nests they make in hidden-away lava tube caves along the coast. Saturday morning we went to an area of lava runs near Cachorro and successfully tagged three birds. We also saw shearwater eggs that were nearly hatched, and even heard the chicks peeping inside! It was crazy.

Like I said before, Pico is dominated by a huge volcano that has erupted in the historical memory of the island’s people. It’s scary and majestic and I have waited my whole life to climb it. We had been trying for several days to catch good weather so we could make the ascent, and one day a week ago it finally came. A reporter from RTP Acores had called Valter to do a piece about the ascent of Pico, and he arranged to take the reporter up with a group. Valter got a couple of his cousins together, Duarte and Joao Paulo, and on a clear Saturday the five of us headed up to the Casa da Montanha, the “mountain house” where all trips up Pico depart from, around 4pm in the afternoon.

The climb usually takes about 3 hours, but after a momentary scare that the weather was turning bad, and with all the filming, the trip took closer to 4 hours. We only left the mountain house around 5:30pm so by the time we got to the crater it was already dark. The climb went easier than I thought it would and the sunset was beautiful. I was extremely excited and happy the whole time, and when I saw the crater I was amazed. From the edge of the crater rises Pico Alto, a small mountain that formed on top of Pico during the last eruption, which we would climb in the morning. To think that I was on top of a volcano that rises 7000 feet above sea level, and drops thousands of feet down into the middle of the Atlantic ocean, was pretty awe-inspiring.

We made our camp in a little rock “corral” that previous climbers had made to shield their tents from the winds. In the morning we woke up around 6am and started to climb Pico Alto in the dark. We reached the top before the sun had risen, and I felt the hot sulfur gas escaping from vents at the top. This reminded me that this was a volcano and that I should be a little bit scared. The sunrise was beautiful and around us we saw Terceira, Sao Jorge and Faial, along with the high clouds that stretched out over the ocean.

I was thoroughly satisfied with the trip while we packed up our camp, climbed out of the crater and started our descent. The camera man had just complained that his shoes weren’t doing so well on the climb down when all of the sudden I heard a painful scream. The camera man was on the floor and had horribly twisted his foot. It was literally projecting out to the right side of his leg, almost at a 90 degree angle. Valter, his two cousins and I looked down at the screaming man and we were all stupefied for a minute. He yelled “Oh my god! Shit! Straighten out my foot!”

Valter was looking on and trying to assess the situation, and after building up a little courage he pulled off the guys shoe, yanked on the foot and twisted it. The foot popped back roughly into the right place with a sickening sound of grinding cartilage.

After that we calmed down a bit and sat down to think. Valter called the rescue team of Pico’s Bombeiros, or firemen. We pitched a temporary tent to protect us from the sun, and greeted climbers as they passed by on their way up the mountain. I took the opportunity to head up to the crater a second time and take a look around, and within two hours the first fireman arrived. He began the process of putting the cameraman out on a stretcher and starting us down the mountain. We took turns, four of us carrying the stretcher at time until more fireman, who had climbed the mountain more slowly than the first, started to show up. By the time we were half way down, there were 8 fireman, 6 of us carrying the stretcher at a time down the steep slope.

Most of the firemen were volunteers, current or past mountain guides who knew Pico well and were used to rocky terrain. It was really fun listening to the dialogue of these men from Pico, some who were farmers, some who had just woken up from a night at the discoteca. They were constantly joking, arguing, cussing and talking about women. They ate candy bars and every once in awhile you’d hear one of their phones ring with a popular Portuguese song like “apita camboio.” It was sort of hilarious, but by about 4pm we had made it down the mountain and got the guy in an ambulance.

This happens about 40 times a summer, and it’s really tough work for the firemen. You are sometimes climbing down at a 45 degree angle over slippery, loose rocks. And even with us helping, the whole operation was long and strenuous. Mostly, the guys were pissed off that yet again, they had to spend 6 or 7 hours climbing 3000 feet up a mountain and risking injury by carrying a heavy stretcher. All this for just 40 euros each, when the Environmental Department could call in a helicopter that would have picked the guy up in one or two hours.

Anyhow, the guys managed to have a good time, and it was cool seeing some of the most bad ass Picarotos at work together. Valter and I drove down to Madalena and checked in on the cameraman at the village hospital. When the x-rays got back turns out he had broken his foot, and Valter had probably saved it from being lost by setting in back in the right place. My first climb up Pico was pretty memorable, but I hope that this next time we don’t have to call the firemen again.

A funny detail: Valter and I somehow seem to attract media attention every time I come here. 8 years ago, our picture ended up in the Pico newspaper during a festa. Yesterday I found out that a report on the climb up Pico had already come out on television, and a lot of people had seen it. I’m looking for the video but hopefully will be able to post it soon.

Arrival on Pico

July 14, 2009

(July 7)

Tuesday morning the same dense fog from the day before still hung over the island. I ate my usual breakfast of too much bread, cheese, butter – the people here are obsessed with dairy and can tell you when a cheese has been made in a dry year or not (the cows give different milk). We piled my luggage and that of my Tia Natalia into the back of Lena’s car and left quickly down the road.

We arrived at the port at 8am, said goodbye to Lena and headed towards the ship. It was a big Greek boat; Hellenic Seaways was written across it’s side and a Greek flag flew off the stern. Since we are the Medeiros family and we are all forgetful, there was a momentary panic when Tia couldn’t find her identity card to get on the boat. We settled into some seats inside on the bottom deck, and when the boat got moving I went outside to watch Terceira disappearing behind us into the fog.

Coming to the Azores during the summer is sort of a Mecca for Portuguese immigrants. The old men get to sit on the bench in their village where they grew up with their old, broken down friends, watch the traffic pass and talk about how the years passed so quickly. The old women make house calls on other old women and discuss births, deaths and marriages. The rich ones show off their wealth and set up shop in their summer homes along the coast, raising an American or Canadian flag along side that of Portugal. Children meet strange new sun-darkened cousins that spend all day playing in the ocean. Young people pass hours sitting in their houses, at a cafe, swimming or wandering the streets in boredom, or else spend all day sleeping and at night go out to the discotecas.

So I was staring out at the ocean for a few minutes before unsurprisingly I heard English, and struck up a conversation with an older couple who was talking with their grandchild. They turned out to be from Hollister and had a vague idea of who my parents were. Later on the boat, I spotted some folks who seemed American. They turned out to be distance relatives of mine, a family from San Diego that I used to visit when I was younger, “Our son is also arriving on Pico in a few days. He’s your age and he’ll be here with his friends from San Diego and he knows a lot of people on the island. You two will see each other in Madalena one day.”

I spent the six hour boat ride staring at the ocean. As we got into open water the fog began to lift and I watched as we passed Sao Jorge, the tall long island to the north of Pico. I saw the cliffs with their little waterfalls spilling off the island. As we got closer to Pico, I looked for the mountain but couldn’t see it through the clouds.

Like the other Azores islands, Pico was formed from a series of volcanoes that have erupted over the past three million years. If you drive through the interior of the island you can see the various craters that formed, but the island is recognized by it’s 2,351 meter high stratovolcano, Pico. Seen from the ocean, the mountain is huge, and to think that people have been living on it for over 500 years is incredible.

Though Picarotos are very skilled and successful farmers, a lot of the times they farmed in straight up rock. In places the soil has been built up into rich farmland over hundreds of years. The island is newest and the soil poorest near my parents home town Madalena, and in the early days soil was often brought from 50 kilometers away by oxcarts to make gardens for food. Between the Atlantic winter cyclones, the earthquakes, and eruptions, between the men getting killed hunting whales an shepherds freezing in the high pastures, children been sucked into the ocean by a rogue wave and people dying of famine and plague, the folks from Pico have developed a reputation for being pretty freaking hardcore.

I was thinking about all this as I watched little sailboats skirt along the coast of the mountains, and saw the steep corn fields and pastures, neatly parceled out by ancient rock walls, edge up to cliffs that drop off into the ocean. This is the place my parents were born, and the memory of the landscape had already been burned into my memory by previous trips and endless stories from my parents.

We arrived in the port of Sao Roque, where in 1971 my mother arrived again to meet my father, after having spent two years working in San Jose earning enough money to come back and marry him. I was met by cousin Luis, his wife Elza and their son Miguel, along with my uncle Guillermo and my aunt Helia. We drove along a road that I still remembered and I looked admiringly at the cornfields, watermelons and grape vines growing out of rock.

After a bit we arrived at Luis’ house in Areia Larga, a little port near Madalena. Luis’ house is that in which my father grew up. Luis is the first born male of my generation and a real picaroto. He’s all about fishing in a boat, fishnig with a spear, hunting rabbits and birds, drinking wine and growing food.His backyard butts up against the rocks and the ocean. When asked if he had any land, my grandfather would point out to this stretch of water and say, “This is my garden.”

From the back porch you get a view of the Ilheus the two iconic islets in front of Madalena, and Faial, the island across the way that’s known for the famous port of Horta. “Here on Pico we have three ilheus,” My cousin Luis explained, “The Ilheu deitado (the laying down islet), the Ilheu em pê (The standing up islet), and the Ilheu com luzes (the islet with lights, referring to Faial).” The folks from Pico have some beef with the folks from Faial, who they say are rich and snooty. Sometimes this prejudice is just friendly and joking and other times it’s a little bit hostile.

After a moment of settling in, Luis, Miguel and I headed to the port of Areia Larga to go swimming. I knew the moment I would have to jump into the water of the port was coming and I had been a little nervous. I can swim, but not well, and throughout my life my dad had given me thousands of warning against the sea. “NEVER turn your back on the ocean, Mark,” he would say with a crazy look in his eye. But I guess I would be the same way if I had grown up by an ocean that routinely swallowed up my friends. Well, when I jumped in the water it felt like my baptism, and I swam around happily feeling relieved.

After awhile Luis put on his flippers and snorkel and got out his spear gun. My uncle Guillermo and his son Valter arrived. Guillermo is my dad’s brother and partner in crime from his youth, and he spent a long time explaining landmarks to me that were important to them when they were young. My cousin Valter is 26 and a guide for Pico Mountain. I brought him an antler from the hills of San Martin since he is a fellow naturalist. After awhile of watching the ocean together an waiting for Luis to come back, we watched as he climbed out of the water with 7 large sized fish, vejas, which are very good eating. We returned to the house to clean them and drink beer, and Luis bought a kilo of lapas (limpets).

The ladies of the family prepared dinner and we sat around a long time talking and watching the sun go down behind Faial. I took a walk through Madalena with Valter and talked with him about the state of affairs with Pico’s environment. We had similar complaints about farmers who farm badly and developers, connecting in that way.

The moon came up behind Pico, and we walked back into Madalena where I left him. The Filharmonic band from the village of Sete Cidades was playing on the stage in the little town, and I listened to the music nostalgically as I walked away from town. It was late but I was overwhelmed with the feeling of being in Madalena, a place I had waited so long to come back to and I felt like continuing my walk. I started walking up a road that starts behind a church, with a hunch that it led to my grandfather’s old farmhouse.

The house is where my mother grew up, it’s higher up from the ocean in a little area called Cabo Branco. The place sits above Madalena in an area of good deep soil that is far enough away from the coast to be sheltered from salt water spray. Since I’ve been here more than one person has told me how good the soil is.

Our house in Cabo Branco is a little bit ancient by Californian standards, maybe 200 years old. It has survived multiple earthquakes and waited patiently as it’s family left it for America. My mother’s cousin Manuel Narciso has farmed the three good acres behind it for 40 years now, since my grandfather immigrated.

So I had a vague idea of where this house stood, and I wandered the silent streets for awhile looking into the fields of corn, beans, potatoes, at the little neat stone houses that I still remembered. After awhile of navigating under the moon I came on a big banana plantation, and I knew it was the land of Senhora Rosalina, her daughter Ercilia and son-in-law Sergio, the old well-to-do neighbors of my mom who are like family. In a second I spotted our house. It was like I remembered it but a little bit naked – the fig trees and other bushes that I remembered surrounding it wasted away without anyone to tend them and had to be cut. But the field was beautiful, it had corn taller than me had already put out silks. I sighed and spent a long time happily looking over the fence into the field. At least this land is still cultivated.

I walked away from the house back towards Areia Larga, where I would stay for a few nights before moving into Cabo Branco, thinking about the new family characters that have come into the trip and all the catching up there was to do. I also thought about my cousin Manuel Narciso, who I knew would show me my family’s other remaining farmlands in a few days. There were still lights on in the house when I arrived: Luis, Natalia and Elza were waiting up for me. After I was settled in the house became quiet.

Last Week on Terceira

July 13, 2009

I am on Pico Island now and trying to catch up with narrating my trip. This covers my last days on Terceira before I left for Pico last Tuesday. More to come about this week in the following days. And I’m not lying about those pictures: I’ve been taking plenty but it’s been difficult to get them up because of a slow connection.

Saturday, July 4
This past Saturday I went on another awesome hike with Lena’s friend Alvaro, this time with a group of slightly older kids from the school. Are destination was Serra de Santa Barbara, the highest point on the island of Terceira and the only historically active volcano there, even though it hasn’t done anything for a couple hundred years.

We took a beautiful 30-minute drive up to the mountain, with views of the ocean, the villages along the coast disappearing as we climbed higher. The land is full of pastures with fences made of hydrangeas and tall Cryptomeria, imported japanese conifers that are used for wood. There are dairy cows and fields with 20 or 30 black bulls, that will eventually be destined for the bullfights in Angra and all over the island. The pastures and trees disappeared below us and we ended up on a tall bald mountain with a bunch of cellular and radar antennae, Serra de Santa Barbara. From there, the view of Terceira is beautiful – often on this trip I’ve wondered how my parents could have decided to leave the Azores.

Serra de Santa Barbara is also mostly the laurisillva ecosystem but it also has some features that I didn’t see over near Pico Alto, which is a little bit lower and on the other side of the island. Mainly, the ground is spongy and hard to walk in because your feet are constantly sinking into thick moss. In the low places, there are deep bogs that you can sink into up to your waste.Actually, the hike lasted most of the day, and started with a struggle through a large stand of cedro do mato, after which we ended up on the edge of a deep, menacing bog which almost stole one of the students shoes. After finding the main trail, which by American standards is pretty dangerous and unmarked, Alvaro led the way to the edge the volcanic crater.

We continued around the edge of the crater in attempt to get to a mountain lake that is very beautiful and very hard to find, but that adventure was unsuccessful and at the end of it we were all pretty tired. I was impressed with how much the students knew about the local ecosystem and how comfortable they were with getting soaked up to their thighs with bog water.

After the hike, I came home and tried to get some rest, because that night I knew I would be out late again with Pedro and Lena. We visited a variety of bars at the waterline of Praia and then headed over to Angra to check out 3 or 4 spots there. Towards the end of the night we ended up at  a discoteca, a different this time higher up in the mato, which we stayed at until 5am. Pedro and I were tired, but Lena, being the partyer that she is, complained, “But it’s so early!”

On Sunday, the whole family piled into the car and went on the mandatory trip around the island called the Volta Ilha. The day started off with great weather, and we were all ready to go to the beach, but 20 minutes into the trip it started to rain. We stopped in Biscoitos, an area of recent lava flows that is known as wine country because of the poor soil, and there we ate loads of organic strawberries that were being sold by an old farmer man from the area. We passed even more beautiful rocky coast, and also stopped in a place called Serreta. In that area there is another volcano, off the coast in the ocean, that people sometimes see erupting, with large rocks surfacing and then floating back to the bottom.

We all got home exhausted and I spent the rest of the night reading The Pilgrimage by Paulo Coelho. It’s sort of the preface to his book The Alchemist and describes his trip through Spain on the road to Santiago. The book fits perfectly with my trip. At times Coelho describes how he’s unsure of why he left Brazil on this pilgrimage, when he had his wife, his friends and so many important things going on at home. At other times he’s in a state of euphoria because of the important lessons he is learning about himself and the past and the world.

The moral of the story is that it takes courage to fulfill your destiny and your personal legend, and I guess that’s what I’m trying to do. I left California at a time that was very inconvenient. Veggielution had just made a deal with the City of San Jose, and we had just put half an acre of vegetables in the ground. Recently, especially over the past two years, us San Jose folks have built a community concerned with sustainability and social justice. I’ve felt very committed to being a part of that. I had been with my girlfriend Megan for four months, and our friendship had grown stronger, even with my three month absence looming above us. But I had to go. I knew that it would only become harder to leave for any length of time. I knew that to overcome the initial shock and awkwardness of being in a new country, to see what I needed to see and do what I needed to do, it couldn’t be a quick trip of a couple weeks.

Over Monday I thought about all this as the rain beat down fiercely outside. I slowly packed my bags and tried to make contact with more farms on the islands and on the mainland and line up stuff for myself over the next few months. In the afternoon I decided to take a walk despite the harsh weather, and I headed out the door into the dense, cold fog. I started up the road that Senhor Antonio took me when we went up to Serra do Cume.

It was dark and quiet, the pastures shrouded in the low clouds, stone walls covered with lichen and dripping moisture and dairy cows silently grazing. I decided to go as high as I could, under the trees that grew along the road, past corn fields and higher where the wind blew harder and I could see even less. To my left I saw a piece of land with no fence, only a thin rope separating it from the road.

I decided to do what I had always done in California when I saw a beautiful piece of land separated by a fence – I crossed over to the other side and was immediately rewarded. It seemed that the wind picked up behind me and ahead I saw a milhafre – the Azores’ native hawk – hovering over me, flying into the wind. After a second it pause and swung off to the right behind a line of incenso – the native laurel – that was growing into a high wall. I walked over to the incenso, plucked some leaves and crushed them between my hands as I had always done with the bay laurel in california, then continued up the hill. I jumped a stone fence and climbed a little more, staring into the fog in the direction of the ocean, listening to the wind in the trees and feeling the cold and moisture seep through my clothes.

After a little bit I started back down the hill, my shoes soaked through but completely satisfied. On the way back I stopped off by the house of Antonio, and said goodbye to him and his wife Fatima. “Perfect! I was just looking for somebody to do some work!” He said jokingly, pointing to a bunch of boxes of tile that he had ready to redo the interior of his house (he was referring to my offer to help him in his fields someday, which he declined with a lot of laughing).

I told them I was leaving to Pico tomorrow but I would be back in August to pick up Megan from the Airport. We arranged to go on a little passeio together to the furnas do enxofre, some volcanic vents where sulphorous gas comes out in clouds. He quizzed me on other places in Terceira that I might have not seen, and satisfied that Lena had taken me to all of them, said that there are still some things to see. “After all,” he said, “Your cousin is from Pico, she can’t know everything about this island that somebody from Terceira would know!” We had a long protracted goodbye and he said not to forget my new friend. That night I went to sleep early knowing that the next day I would be on a boat early in the morning.

My new friends Senhor Antonio and Peixoto; a street bullfight; hike to Pico Alto; and other fun stuff. Take a look at this post during the next few days cause Ill be posting more pictures.

It´s been a little bit difficult to get on a computer to write news of my time here, but generally the week has been beautiful. Last Sunday I spent a slow day at the festa watching a children´s parade with the family and then heading to the carnival, where my cousins pedrinho and Inés played on rides while Lena, my tia Natalia and I looked at the booths where all sorts of things were being sold by Indians and gypsies.

On Monday I spent a slow day at home until around 2pm, when I started down the road towards Porto Martins. Porto Martins used to be a small fishing village until about 30 years ago, when Americans and previous immigrants began building their summer homes there, and now the town is a small colony of ex-patriots from Canada and the United States. There are also some very nice natural swimming pools there and a dock with good fishing. I was about halfway down the road when a dilapidated little truck stopped after passing me. I saw an arm come out the window and wave me up to the car. It was a red faced fat man with hardly any teeth with his family in tow behind in the back seat.

«You going down to the piscina?»  he asked.

I hesitated and said, «Umm yes, wherever»

«Salta» he told me to jump into the back of the truck.

With that we continued down the road past locals walking up from the coast with their beach towels and little old houses lining the roads. On every empty piece of land there is food growing, whether its a vegetable garden, pastures for cows or corn for feed. Iwas sitting at dinner yesterday with Lena´s husband Pedro´s family. His father is a farmer and a long discussion started about their little piece of land behind the house and how sad it was to see the land go to waste. Some ideas were tossed around (Maybe two or three orange trees at least? The land is so good and it´s just sitting there!).

Gardening isn´t so much a hobby as it is a fact of life. It´s as though families who don´t keep a garden when they have a piece of land are neglecting a normal part of housekeeping. Two days ago I was sitting up in my room and looking out a little field full of weeds that belongs to the next house up. I looked down at my book for 10 minutes and when I looked again, there was a whole family in the field working, the parents, grandmother and children. In about half an hour the land was cleared and now it sits empty waiting for the next piece of work to occur. Im curious to see what they plant.

Anyway, the old fat man had just waved me into the car and we were on our way down to coast. We arrive pretty quickly and I jumped off the back of the truck. We were at a little water front with a café and some breakwaters built out into the ocean a little ways to form swimming pools that filled at high tide. Along a road about 1/2 km north along the coast there is another fishing dock with one or two other cafés. Two the south there is an area of rocky coast where two days early Pedro had instructed me that I could catch minhoca, or sea worms, that are good bait.

The man stepped out and introduced himself. His name is Senhor Antonio and he´s a semi-retired farmer who has a job as a gardener working for the city. He had just come down to Porto Martins to water a little field of sunflowers that he maintains in front of the swimming pools. He has a huge paunch and only a few teeth on the right side of his mouth and wears sandals because his toenails are swollen and black with fungus. Out of the car came his wife Fatima, who after two days of visiting with them has only said 5 or  6 words to me, his two little grandaughters and a friend of his whose called Peixoto. Peixoto is another character, he´s a lot smaller and darker than Senhor Antonio and about the same age, late 50´s or early 60´s. He wears a bushy moustache, walks with a limp and talks with a foreign Portuguese accent that later I realized was from Angola.

Senhor Antonio asked where I was from. I explained to him that I was from California, that I started an organic farming project in San Jose and that I was hear to visit with family, take care of some family business in regards to my grandfathers land, and see the agriculture of the Azores. That satisfied him and when he found out that I had come down to the coast to fish, he referred me to Peixoto, «Hey! he doesn´t know how to fish.»

Peixoto nodded and told me to follow him to the rocks that were a little off to one side of the dock. It was as though my not knowing the local techniques of fishing was a problem that had to be quickly remedied. This kind of thing happened all the time, and it was the responsibility of the older folks to take care of it.

He stepped over the rocks lightly even with his limp leg and quickly found some sea snails and one or two limpets I could use for bait. With his help I quickly set up a rig for fishing among the rocks, one with a couple of different sized hooks and a short leader to avoid getting snagged. While we worked he talked to me about his life.

He had grown up in Angola and was in the Portuguese army when the revolution started there. Angola was like Portugal´s Vietnam and I have an uncle who spent some time fighting there – most families have somebody who went there and came back screwed up one way or another. When the fighting turned bad Peixoto had to escape from the country in the trunk of a car. Peixoto has been living on Terceira for about 30 years, working odd jobs here and there and hanging out with Antonio, his best friend.

After I was set up for fishing he left me and joined Antonio in watering the sunflowers. After about 30 minutes I caught one little rockfish. After a little while longer my line got snagged. It was getting cold and about to rain, so after another hour of screwing around I hopped back in the car with them to get a ride back up to the house. Antonio and Peixoto weren´t done with me though, and for the rest of the afternoon we drove around in their truck visiting the local pastures and driving up to a mountain called Serra do Cume. Up the road we chatted about the way the local farmers maintain the fields, the breeds of dairy cattle, the pieces of land that give good corn and the ones that don´t because of poor soil or exposure to wind or whatnot. We also talked about the different areas of the island that produce oranges, olive oil, tomatoes, onions. «In one village they´ll produce olive oil, but just one village. 2 km down the road and the trees will no longer grow. Each place because of the weather can produce different things.» There are many little pockets of hot or cold air and geological history that affect what´s grown.

Whenever Antonio stated something like, «Now look carefully… this land here? You see this land? This land gives corn too, but only small corn. And this corn also is used for feed. They don´t grow corn for flour anymore!» Peixoto would chime in «Oh yes, this land gives corn, yes it does, but only very small corn.»  It was really fun hearing the back and forth

At the top of Serra do Cume I saw experimental wind turbines and a beautiful vista where I could see a big volcanic valley with a mosaic of pastures.

Up at the vista there was an abandoned dog that ran around sniffing us as we studied a map, pointing out different landmarks. At this point one of the granddaughters, who had been with us this whole time, tugged at my shirt and revealed to me that she had already been up there three times today – once with here father and another time with Antonio. After another look at things it was time to head down.

We took the long way home, and Antonio took me around a variety of backroads surrounding Fonte do Bastardo (Fountain of the Bastard), the village where he and my cousin Lena live. I asked if Antonio had lived here his whole life and he said proudly, «Yeah, I live in the same house that I was born in and that´s where I´ll die! I know EVERY ONE of these roads.»

It was really cool seeing the pride of these simple folks in the land that they live on. They must drive up the road to Serra do Cume  hundreds of times each year, and having seen a stranger walking down the road, they already had showing me these places in mind. It was dark now and after dropping off Peixoto at his house, Antonio drove me back to my house. I said thank you many times and he gave me his phone number. We arranged to meet again before I left for Pico next week.

Tuesday  – Bullfight in Villa Nova
It would be very easy to write such a long winded story about each day, but it´s a beautiful day and I want to get outside. On Tuesday I farted around similarly most of the day. I remembered that Senhor Antonio had said there was a street bullfight in Villa Nova that afternoon, so I gave him a call and we arranged to go together. I took a walk through Fonte do Bastardo and passed a tall skinny man wearing an orange shirt and holding an umbrella more than once. I said hello each time but he just nodded his head and gave me a thumbs up. I thought that was curious but put it out of my mind.

At 5:00pm Peixoto came walking by my house to pick me up. Together we walked to Antonio´s house talking about bulls and the dangers of street bullfights and he told me how when he was a young man, he got tossed around badly by a bull, «There are local guys called capinos that are sort of famous and are very good with making passes at the bull. it takes a lot of practice and a lot of knowledge to be able to do that. Be careful! Don´t go in the street! They toss people in the air like they are soccer balls! The worst is when they get you under the belt by the horns, then it´s over… theyll shake you in the air until your dead.»

We arrived at Antonios house and took a few moments to look around his kitchen. Its a very oldstyle house with cast iron pots and walls lined with gourds, traditional staffs for herding cows, and similar such things. Antonio and his wife Fatima were really proud to show me all this, and then we got in the car and headed towards Villa Nova. When we arrived the streets were filled with people from all over the island. A lot of Americans were there too. I saw the man in the orange shirt again, and I pointed him out. «Oh him!» Antonio said, «That´s the village mute of Fonte do Bastardo. He can´t talk but he´s a very good capino, god he loves chasing bulls!»

Antonio took me up to the bull cages and I was impressed by the scene. There were a bunch of local guys standing all around and every once in awhile you could hear a loud boom as one of the bulls angrily smashed his horns up against the side of the wooden cage. We climbed a wall up behind the cages and waited for the first bull to be released. Someone behind me sent a homemade firework up into the air to signal the start of the tourada and the first bull was released.

I was immediately shocked and afraid about the size of the bull. At the ring bullfight I went to last Friday I saw that they were big, but being so close I realized that it was no simple thing to run past a bull. They had tied a thick rope around the bulls neck as a leash, and 10 men held onto the rope from a safe distance to keep the bull somewhat under control. In the street a bunch of young guys ran around chasing the bulls and following it up and down the street to watch the action, while the older men, women, children and tourists sat watching from on top the walls. I think next bullfight I´ll be brave enough to get down into the road, but only from a safe distance.

There were four bulls that each ran for about 20 minutes, and some pretty good shows from the local bullfighters, who worked with jackets or umbrellas sort of like matadors. On the third bull a man didn´t run away and was mauled pretty badly as he was trying to escape around a corner. The bull got him between his horns and smashed him into the wall repeatedly. An ambulance came and after a delay of about 20 minutes the bullfight started again. I was a bit drunk at this point but even then, I was a little bit shocked at how unphased all the locals were.

After the bullfight we drove quietly home, with a little detour through the backroads to see if Senhor Antonio could catch a rabbit in his headlights and run it over for tomorrows dinner. Unsuccesful, we drove home.

Wednesday – Hike to Pico Alto with Alvaro and his students
On Wednesday, Lena arranged for me to go on a hike with her colleage Alvaro to a natural area of Terceira called Pico Alto. I got into a van with a group of 8-10 year old students and spent the day hiking through a natural ecosystem called laurisilva – a forest of heather bushes, local, trees called cedro do mato which used to cover large areas but were cut like the redwoods and cypress in the United States because the wood resists rot and is very good for construction. It was a beautiful day and Alvaro and I spent the day talking about the Azores local ecosystems, geology and the attitudes of our respective communities in regards to the protection of the environment. On the way we passed an immense caldeira, the crater left by an extinct volcanoe. The students were cool and well behaved except when Alvaro informed them that they could collect obsidian there, at which point they all went crazy looking at the ground for the little shiny rocks.  Tomorrow I might go with Alvaro called Serra de Santa Barabara, we´ll see.

Thursday / Today
Thursday was relatively slow – I took the bus into Angra and walked until the village of Sao Mateus. Today, Im in Praia and will spend the day fishing and swimming. I´ve been enjoying my free time and have read several books while Im here – covering some of the last novels I haven´t read by Steinbeck and a few new ones by Paulo Coelho. I´ve also spent a considerable amount of time with my little cousins Pedrinho and Ines, who are sometimes a handful but very sweet. I have no kids in my family back home so its good to spend time with the little ones, learn to supervise them and have fun playing like a kid. However, it has reminded me that I do not want children anytime soon. This morning at breakfast Lena, Tia Natalia and I talked about this and I said, «I think Im going to start with a dog. Im going to see if I can raise one and train it well, and afte that, we´ll see.»

Pedrinho was screaming in the background and causing chaos as usual, «Well at least with a dog,» Lena said laughing, «You can chain him in the back of the house and put a muzzle on him. And children aren´t so easily trained.»

So Im having a great time, but Im getting ready to get on to Pico, my home island. Miss you all and more news next week.

Friday was insane. After running in the morning I stepped out the door and got on a big comfortable bus for the 20 minute drive to Angra. I got to see a little bit more of the country.Apparently in the past few decades farming has shifted much more towards dairy production, and even more fields are planted with feed corn than there used to be. After the corn is grown they wrap everything in plastic and form big balls of feed that ferment for a few months before being used. I’m interested to see what my cousin Manuel Narciso says about what the emphasis on growing feed corn is doing to the land, whether it’s depleting the fields or if they’re still using traditional ways of maintaining fertility.

I looked out at big flat ocean and remembered that I’m in the middle of the Atlantic and should be in the water all the time. This weekend is busy with the festivals so maybe next week I’ll begin swimming as often as possible. Angra do Heroismo is a little town with a cool rennaissance layout, little narrow cobblestone streets, big churches, hole-in-the-wall stores and cafes and a big beautiful marina that sits about 20-30 feet below the city, which is built at the edge of a little cliff.

I saw the Bullfight Arena right as I came into town and decided to get off the bus right away and figure out how to buy tickets for that night’s fight. I walked around the back of the Arena and found a bar that seemed like it was the hardcore macho hangout of the local bullfight junky guys. There were a lot of mounted heads of famous bulls all over the walls and heavy smoke in the air. I ended up waiting for an hour before the ticket booth opened up with a bunch of other early birds, who were very friendly and let me, being a foreigner, take the front of the line when the booth opened and buy my ticket.

That being done, I headed into town and just scoped out the people. It seems like there’s a huge amount of teenagers walking around, maybe it’s just because in California I don’t see them, they’re all corralled into malls and other places I never go. Visited some old churches and wore myself out even more before the bullfight.

I arrived at the arena at 5:30 and things were just like I expected. Inside of the arena a wide and tall walkway runs in a ring around the entire thing where people congregate drinking beer and eating bifanas (pork sandwiches) before the fight and between bulls. I walked up the stairs and into the open air of the arena. It’s pretty old and has a traditional layout, with a special box in the bleachers for the local marching band (that plays bullfight songs at appropriate intervals during the show) and another one for the four “master of ceremony” type guys. Down in the ring there are four doors that face the four directions, and a 6 foot wooden wall that runs in a circle, leaving a space on the outside of the ring that separates the bullfighters and other officials from the actual ring.

So I was pretty freaking excited when the fight started. I’ll spare you too many of the details but the main attractions were a portuguese cavaleiro that rode these beautiful well trained bullfighting horses, a portuguese “suicide squad” (forcados), and a spanish Matador. The Forcados are awesome, it’s a group of 8 guys that stand in a line and taunt the bull until he charges. One guy basically grabs the bull around the head with his whole body and the other guys grab onto him until they subdue the bull. On the last bull of the night, the forcados took three times to actually catch the bull, leaving the guy in the front totally bloody.

There were 6 bulls and a lot of oohing and ahing from the crowd. Every aspect of the bullfight is wreathed in ceremony and tradition, and the sophisticated crowd had a lot to say when a matador or other character did something badly or well, or with good style. After each bull the cavaleiro and front man of the forcados or the matador parade around and get stuff rained down on them from the crowd (flowers, hats, water bottles, whatever). At one point they even honored the breeder of the bulls by parading him around the arena too. I would really go to a bullfight every week if I could, but it’s a little bit pricey. Aside from the ring fights, I guess there are public street bull fights almost every day, where local young men are the “matadors,” dodging the bulls or using umbrellas to make passes. I have yet to see one but after seeing todays fight, it’s going to be hard to not get into the street and try myself! We’ll see.

After that I headed back into the festival. At this point things were really picking up – the whole town was flooded with people eating and drinking and there were several stages spread out through the town. I hooked up with my cousins Lena and Pedro, who had left the kids at home with Tia Natalia. We watched a concert at the festival until 3am and then headed out to a discoteca, where we stayed until about 8am. Every story about my cousins being hardcore partiers proved true last night. By this morning I was totally exhausted. I woked up at 5pm today and I’m ready to do the whole thing again. I guess this is what vacation is for!

I’m excited for the next few days on Terceira, there is still a lot of stuff to do. My mom talked with my second cousin Manuel Narciso, the man who has been farming on our families land for 50 years. He is ready to receive me and hopefully he’ll put me to work in his vineyards and taking care of his animals. We’ll see, but so far I’ve noticed my relatives resist very strongly whenever I try to work.

First few days

June 25, 2009

I slept for 18 hours Wednesday night. The jet lag got me bad. I woke up and saw a little sliver of light coming in from the window and thought it must be from the street lamp. I heard my little cousin pedro yelling downstairs and thought, “God, I can’t imagine putting up with this every night.”

In a few minute I woke up to a knock on my door and it was my aunt Natalia. “I just wanted to check on you, Lena was starting to worry that you were dead.” I walked downstairs and everybody was in the kitchen and the light from the overcast sky was pouring in.

So Thursday was kind of a lost day. I left San Jose on Monday and flew overnight to London. There I met a Portuguese guy with an English accent who does consulting for companies on social networking technology. “There are many different permutations of Portuguese people,” I thought. We got on a plane together and arrive in Lisbon at 10pm on Tuesday. I noticed that I was in a country of my own kind of people now. Dark eyes and hair, short bodies and Arab or Welsh or Mediterranean features.

That night I looked around for a safe and quiet spot to sleep. I found some benches where a little colony of overnight passengers had congregated. I was thankful that I brought all of my camping gear with me on the plane. I stretched out my air mattress under a row of seats and made a comfortable nest for myself, slept a few hours at a time, waking up to read chapters of Earth Abides by George R. Stewart.

In the morning I woke up and was still in Portugal. I got on a plane at 8am and arrived on Terceira Island at 9:40am. I watched the approach the island anxiously and caught the first sight of my parents home country, saw cows standing in little fields carefully divided by stone walls, greenhouses and the blue ocean. I got out of the plane and noticed that the air was cool and fresh smelling – I remembered the islands being humid and a little smelly.

My cousin Lena is like I remember her, alert and straightforward and comfortable. She arrived at the airport with my aunt Natalia and my two little cousins, Ines (9) and Pedro (3). Ines is a very smart and kind girl that immediately made herself comfortable with me. She’s my new Portuguese instructor and corrects me regularly. Pedrinho is a little crazy ball of energy that terrorizes his family, very cute and smart though. I’ve begun to fill up my notebook for him with pictures of helicopters and buses, tractors and cars and police motorcycles.

The first day we ran some errands and I got my first sight of Praia, the town nearest where I’m staying, and the surrounding countryside. There are fields of corn about waist high right now, fields of potatoes and pastures for the cows. Everything is very orderly – it looks like the size of the fields have been long established and the chores of farm work are an old routine. Even in the village there are litte fields of corn and cows tethered to ropes. I caught sight of a big ridgeline towards the interior of the island that I will need to climb soon.

So the last couple of days I’ve been cooped up. It rained hard for the whole evening on Thursday, which prevented me from getting out some more. But today ought to be good. I ran down to Praia and saw some English sailors discussing stuff next to their big sailing yacht – now I’m on a mission to make friends with some rich sailor folks so I can tag aong from island to island. I’m hanging out with Pedrinho now and in a little bit I’ll eave for on bus to Angra, the other big city on Terceira. That’s the town where the festival of San Joaninas is going on right now. In the afternoon we’ll see a ring bullfight if the weather permits, go out on the town for a concert.

So I’m content and well fed but a little bit restless. We’ll see how the weekend of festas goes!


June 16, 2009

My name is Mark Anthony Medeiros, and I am a 24-year-old Californian that is visiting the Azores Islands for  4 months this summer. I just graduated from San Jose State University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology. I also co-founded a San Jose non-profit called Veggielution, an effort to create large community farm in San Jose that will address a diverse set of social and environmental justice issues.

My parents are from the Azores – they immigrated to the United States in 1969. My mother came first and worked for two years, earning money to go back to the islands and marry my father, who was in the Portuguese army at the time. They first moved into Little Portugal, the neighborhood on Alum Rock Road just east of 101, near Five Wounds Church. But after both my sisters and I were born, our family migrated down to San Martin, a little rural town between Morgan Hill and Gilroy on the southern end of Santa Clara Valley.

That’s where I grew up, and I love the yellow hills of the Diablo Range, the redwoods in the Santa Cruz mountains, and the cold Pacific Ocean. But throughout my life I’ve been constantly reminded of my parents’ home islands in the middle of the Atantic. There’s a family mythology surrounding them that colors my imagination and those of other Azorean immigrants who left those rocky coasts. Stories of my grandparents making their lives by fishing, farming and living in their small cooperative community have been a major inspiration for my environmental activism.

This is my fourth time going back, but it’s been a 8 years since my last trip when I was 16. That is a very long time to be away, even by the standards of many 1st generation Portuguese-Americans. So it’s time to go back and try to establish a relationship with the place that created my parents. I’m going to live in my family’s near abandoned farmhouse in the town of Madalena on Pico island, which is basically the 7,000 foot cone of an immense underwater volcano. I’m gonna see if I can climb the mountain, jump in front of a bull or two, catch a big fish, and spend some time just catching up on all the stuff that is hard to accomplish when you’re living your regular life.

So I wanted to say goodbye to all my friends in San Jose, and I’ll see you soon. It’s extremely difficult to leave for so long, especially now that the farm I helped create just acquired an additional acre and summer is starting full bore. I’ll miss my friends and the land but I think some pretty good times await me over there. If anything, I’ll be more prepared to continue my work in San Jose once I get back.

So if you want news of me, look here first and I’ll try to be consistent about updating the page each week. You can also e-mail me at markanthonymedeiros@gmail.com – I won’t be totally disconnected!