Fishing, Farming, and animals you will never smell again

August 20, 2009

“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.

Farming
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!

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