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.


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