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.

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