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.


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