I focused my eyes on the distant sea and slowly brought them closer to the shore. As I did so, the dark blue sea lightened up into softer and softer shades of turquoise, before twirling into slowly moving white foam. We stood on top of the same old lighthouse that, barely 60 years so, witnessed this same very sea boiling in anger and spitting out a giant mushroom of lava and ashes.
This is the fourth 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 parts here, here and here.
The eruption of the Capelinhos volcano lasted for 13 months and had a profound impact on the island. Not only did it add 2.4 square kilometres – the equivalent to 500 football fields – but it also drove almost half of the population into exile.
Slowly, Tomás went up the spiraling steps of the old lighthouse. It was just before dawn, and he struggled to shake the torpor of the ill-slept night from his legs. The end of the Summer was nearing, and the chilly breeze from the sea reminded him that he had left his jacket downstairs. But there was something far more uncomfortable running through his mind.
Last night, he had witnessed a procession at a nearby village, a plead for protection against the hundreds of increasingly stronger earthquakes that had shaken the island over the last few days. Tomás was not a particularly religious man, but he was still moved by the power of those prayers, strengthened by the shimmering lights of thousands of candles and the tears running down women’s faces.
They all knew that the volcano was merely dormant, a giant sleeping for as long as they could pray for. Their only wish was that those recent earthquakes were merely a stretch from that giant, rather than an omen for its full rouse.
Halfway up the stairs, Tomás heard the dreaded signal from the whale watchers. It was a pang to his heart, as he knew was happening. From their posts, the watchers had surely seen the water boiling and rising. There wasn’t a moment of hesitation on his mind: whale watchers knew the shapes of the waves and the smell of the winds like no one. He rushed downstairs and picked up the phone to sound the warning.
Not even an hour had gone by, and the sea was now raging in full fury, roaring with deep guttural sounds. Enormous clouds of dust, ash and smoke filled the sky. Fire and water shot up to incredible heights. The sea, always his companion in loneliness, was now a terror instilling foe.
Paralysed by both fear and an illogical sense of duty, Tomás just stood there, unable and unwilling to leave his post. Alone in that lighthouse, he stood as the first line of defense against the rising hell.
All over the island, the buildings that had survived the earthquakes from the previous days were now buried under a thick mantle of ash. Crops were ruined, cattle was dead. Tears trickled down blackened faces of both men and women, young and old, brave and skittish.
Afterwards, and for countless years, Tomás would tremble with fear whenever he saw the now iconic black and white photo that shows his old lighthouse engulfed in thick clouds of smoke. In one of those tiny windows stood Tomás, the man who refused to abandon his post.
The volcano would continue to spill its guts for more than a year, until finally falling back to sleep in October 1958. By then, nearly half of island’s population had emigrated, many to the US under a special decree signed by John F. Kennedy, then a lesser known senator from Massachusetts.
Faial had always been an island with two distinct realities. The cosmopolitan Horta – home to a harbour well known by all those crossing the North Atlantic – stood in stark contrast to the rural villages scattered throughout the rest of the island. By poisoning fields and preventing agriculture for decades, the volcanic eruption further broadened this gap.
If you visit Faial – and you should – you will be hard pressed to find any signs of the eruption, apart from the old lighthouse and a few other buildings that were left untouched, seemingly as a peace offering to the sleeping giant.
And there’s certainly no blackness in the islander’s hearts, which remain as colourful as the thousands of flags painted along Horta’s harbour. The large 20th century passenger ships and whalers that used to stop at Faial on their way across the Atlantic are long gone, replaced by small sailing yachts.
Many of these diminutive crafts, apparently too fragile for anything longer than a Sunday trip around the island, are in fact making multi-year-round-the-world trips. As Verne, Gabriel and I strolled through the harbour, we saw several of their crewmen – which ranged from retired couples to entire families – painting new flags with depictions of their wanderings.
The ritual left an impression on all of us, but particularly on Verne, perhaps because his father is a retired navy officer and they always lived by the sea. The next morning, he woke up before dawn to return there. I briefly considered joining him, but the calling of a soft pillow and a warm blanket took the better of me, so I’ll let Verne tell you this part of the story:
When I got to the harbour, the sun had not yet appeared above the horizon. Hundreds of mast silhouettes were cast against a soft orange and purple sky. Apart from the gentle rocking of the waves, the boats stood motionless.
As I made my way onto the pier, the sun suddenly appeared from under the horizon, prompting a flurry of movement. Some of the crewmen were busy getting ready to set sail. Others appeared more relaxed, enjoying a cup of coffee while sitting on the deck.
A kid, perhaps eight or nine, jumped from one of those boats and walked towards me. He had a big smile and the tan of a sailor, and set his tripod next to mine with the familiarity of someone that had done it hundreds of times, perhaps while witnessing other mesmerizing sunrises around the world.
Later that day, the three of us drove to Caldeira, a giant volcano crater in the middle of the island. As we made our way up, Verne enthusiastically told us tales of savvy sailor kids that collected sunrises. If it wasn’t for the fact that we know nothing about boats, we would have probably convinced ourselves into making a sailing version of our round-the-world trip.
Not all was lost though, as the Caldeira hiking trail would take us on a circumnavigation trip around the big volcano. The entire crater was filled with thick clouds, twirling around like a boiling soup in a cauldron.
Gabriel, although thrilled with the hike, quickly succumbed to the gentle rocking of his carrier and fell asleep.
Verne and I continued our way around the volcano. Almost imperceptibly at first, and then faster and faster, the thick clouds gave way to an unimpeded view of the bottom of the crater. The entire scene seemed plucked from the pages of Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island.
Somewhere, deep beneath that monumental crater, slept the same giant that had awaken 60 years ago, spreading fire and fear throughout the island.