“Gabriel, look at that”! He gazed at the purple and orange sunset disappearing behind the mountain, but quickly lowered his eyes back to the clothes pegs he had been playing with. He handed me one, with a condescending expression that could only mean “why are you wasting time with that? Here, check out one of these”. I accepted his offer, shrugged my shoulders, and looked back at the sunset while twiddling the peg between my fingers. Sitting in that porch overlooking the sea and the mountains, we both got back to appreciating the dwindling moment, each one with our very own notion of beauty.
This is the second instalment of our trip through Azores, a Portuguese archipelago that sits on the Atlantic Ocean, roughly a third of the way from Lisbon to New York. Read the first part here.
São Jorge is a long and thin strip of land, a mere 20km (12 miles) from the Pico island. On a clear day, there’s not many places you can hide away from Pico’s mountain, Portugal’s tallest summit. Amidst puffy white clouds, it seemingly floats above the surrounding ocean.
On our first day at São Jorge, Jules and I would endlessly stare at that steep and barren old volcano. At lunch, we asked for a table overlooking the sea and the nearby island. The waiter offered us a puzzled look – not unlike Gabriel’s – and swept his arm across the room, pointing out that every single table had the same inescapable view.
We sat down and started looking around us, rather than beyond us. It was still early for lunch, so only a couple of tables were occupied. On one, a lively group of old classmates, now working on different islands, enjoyed the get together they had been trying to organize for months. On the other, a painter that had been touching up the place gladly accepted the owner’s offer for lunch, chucking aside his packaged sandwich.
The owner had an eye on the painter and another one on Gabriel, who was now blaring “pa, pa” (“bread, bread”) while wolfing down his soup. He came over, bearing a basketful of home-made bread and two glasses of wine. With the same level of enthusiasm, Gabriel took care of the former and Jules and I of the latter.
Perhaps things are more rushed during the summer months, when Azores receives the bulk of its visitors. During those early May days, we were made to feel at home right from the start.
At the airport arrivals hall, there were two signs with our name, two more than we were expecting. One was from the car rental place, which had brought the car to save us a trip into town. The other one was from the lady that rented us an apartment, who wanted to make sure we got there safely. Both sign bearers were merrily chit chatting when we got there, and warmly welcomed us like old friends.
While sipping wine, Jules and I theorized about what made Azoreans so hospitable. Gabriel is certainly part of it: from the first time we traveled with him, we noticed that people became particularly welcoming, as if parents are somehow more approachable and trustworthy.
Perhaps Azores’ diaspora also has something to do with it. In North America alone, there are more than a million Azorean descendants, more than four times the archipelago’s population. Many have also moved to mainland Portugal, creating bonds and familiarity with both the West and the East.
With the bottom of the glasses quickly approaching came the most fantastic theory: the hospitality of Azoreans was rooted in their acknowledgement that our existences are too brief to become bogged down by suspicion and estrangement. Indeed, Azores may look like paradise on earth but, deep beneath its surface, an untameable clash has been going on for millions of years.
The archipelago sits on top of a triple junction, where the North American, Eurasian and African tectonic plates meet. Throughout the centuries, dozens of earthquakes have created havoc. In the first day of 1980, the people of the Terceira, São Jorge and Graciosa islands – still groggy from the New Year festivities – were shaken by an earthquake that left 25% of them homeless.
Our days in São Jorge passed away, but our theory on the origins of Azorean hospitality remained untested, unproven and unconvincing. Nevertheless, there were many other chances to witness the effects of the island’s ill volcanic temper.
On the north-western tip of the island, called Ponta dos Rosais, once stood Portugal’s most advanced lighthouse. The six families that lived there had to abandon it after the 1980 earthquake, as the structure – built very close to the cliffs – risked tumbling down to the ocean.
In the small village of Urzelinas, only the bell tower of the old church survived the earthquake, and now stands stoically in the middle of an orchard.
The island itself seems to have been shaped by a mythological clash of titans, with steep and jagged cliffs on all sides. At the very bottom of some of these precipices there are “fajãs”, flat slabs of land formed over time from landslides and falling lava.
In my early teens, I remember hiking the steep path down to one of these fajãs with my uncle. When we got there, we saw an old man sitting on the porch of a small stone house. Like the few others that surrounded it, the house was in disrepair and seemingly on the verge of collapsing.
“Good day youths, what brings you down here?”
“We saw the steep trail down the cliff and wondered where it led to. Do you live here?”
“Yes, I was born in this place and lived here all my life. We’re just four now, but used to be more. The others slowly left over the years. Some moved to the village on top of the cliff. Some moved further, to other islands or to the mainland”
“That sounds terrible, don’t you feel alone here?” asked I, with the finesse of a thirteen-year-old. He laughed gently, brushing off the discourtesy. “I do”. He looked around him, briefly pausing at his house, then the small plot of land next to it, and finally resting his eyes at the ocean.
“But it’s home”.