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A World Apart

Close yet distant. Accessible but isolated. The Azores may brim with beauty, but they remain …

From ISLANDS (Mar 2010)

From ISLANDS (Mar 2010)

By Andrew McCarthy

I’m on the rim of a Volcano—fifteen hundred feet below, inside the caldera, two lakes shimmer beside a whitewashed village. This is Sete Cidades, the most popular postcard shot in the Azores. Yet I take in the vista alone—a solitary hawk circles overhead. Down in the village an old woman in black headscarf shuffles into her home, a small white dog rambles down the road, a teenage boy peddles his bike. On the lake there are no boats, no one is swimming. There is no advertising, anywhere.

Why are these islands almost completely ignored? I’ve come to try and find out. Just over four hours by air from the east coast, I’m suddenly very far from home. The nine Azores Islands hide in plain sight, alone in the Atlantic, eight hundred miles out at sea. With scenery that rivals Hawaii, they’re an autonomous region of Portugal, but make no mistake, “We are Azorian first, Portuguese second,” Eduardo Elias da Silva assures me with authority. Eduardo is a resident of Sao Miguel, the largest and most populous of the islands, and like many locals, he scrutinizes an outsider with a wary look from the corner of his eye.

The economy here is still dominated by farming and dairy. East of Sete Cidades, I’m forced off the road to let a farmer herd his cattle down the street. Then I’m along the coast beside a restless sea and then up over the rim of another caldera. I drop down into the town of Furnas. The work of the volcanoes isn’t finished here. Hot thermal springs bubble up, gas and steam rise high above the rooftops. The smell of iron is strong.

“Do you ever feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere?” I ask Lubelia Moniz, a Furnes native.

“No, because I know where I am,” she replies without irony. I nod my head, chastised. People here move quietly through the streets, as they do in most places I visit on the islands.

I haven’t darkened the door of a church in years, yet perhaps because of the contemplative mood around town, I slip into Nossa Senhora da Alegria, a simple Portuguese structure. The church is empty. I settle into the last pew. It’s silent, but there’s something about the quality of the silence that pulls at me. It has no hum, no heaviness. It is simply, silent. I realize how rarely I am surrounded by quiet. I emerge back into the evening, and look up into the forest-covered cathedral walls of the crater encircling town. The sensation is one of security, of being held in the palm of nature’s hand. Walking toward dinner I’m content to be very small in a suddenly very big seeming world.

* * *

“I have been hit. It is not a good experience.” These words come from Rui Costa. He is, of course, referring to being hit by a bull, a not uncommon occurrence on the island of Terceira, the third largest of the Azores, and a twenty-minute flight west of Sao Miguel. By way of explanation, Rui leans back and tells me, “I was born into this, I have no choice, I love the bulls.” It’s a sentiment I hear often on Terceira.

The Azorian version of bull fighting bares little resemblance to the ones in Spain—for one thing, the bull does not die. For another, there is no pageantry or formal code of conduct, there isn’t even a matador in fancy dress-up, nor are the fights usually held in a stadium-sized ring, but rather, in town squares and on village streets. In fact, it’s not really a fight at all.

In essence, a bull is let loose, held somewhat in check by foolhardy men grasping at the end of a long rope, after which the beast charges at anyone foolish enough to run past and taunt him. It turns out, many are.

There is talk of the bulls in every café I enter, and televisions in shops play loops of ugly looking mishaps all day long. Between May and October, there are more than two-hundred-and-fifty touradas a corda on Terceira—the natives can’t get enough.

Someone once said, “To understand America, you need to understand baseball.” The same might be said for this island of fifteen thousand, and the bulls. So, late one afternoon, after spending a very civilized day hiking in a forest of pungent Eucalyptus, and strolling the streets of the UNESCO world heritage city of Angra do Heroismo, I make my way along the coast road to the outskirts of Sao Sabastiao, a postcard ready, working class village, perched just above the ocean. The crowd gathers around a crossroads that forms a natural, if primitive, amphitheater. It’s bordered by stone walls, except at either end, where traffic can move through. The entire village is here, they’re two and three deep behind the walls and makeshift barricades. A hundred or so, mostly men, also loiter in the street, where the bull will be let loose. Mist is rolling in off the sea and up over the hillside, the air is moist and fragrant. A skyrocket goes up. The brown crate at the far end of the square is opened, and a large, black, unhappy bull is let loose. The men who had been lingering in the street are suddenly alert, and ease back to the far ends of the square, where they can escape up the road if need arises. Half-dozen young men step forward and begin to take turns racing past the bull at close quarters, some play matador with open umbrellas. There is no order, no structure. The bull occasionally gets it into its head to charge the large group of men who have begun to creep back closer. They flee like mice while the men in black hats holding the long rope around the bull’s neck, eventually give it a good yank, and bring the bull back to the center. It goes on for twenty minutes and then the bull is reeled in and repacked in his crate.

This is cocktail hour, Terceira style. The crowd chats and mingles. Old men gather in twos and threes, leaning on umbrellas. Women congregate around open windows, a small child is passed around. Young boys try to peek inside the crates that restrain the bulls, girls munch chips. The few daring men who were in close quarters with the first bull accept the affections of young ladies. It’s all very social, very work-a-day, very relaxed—a close community enjoying its closeness.

Another skyrocket goes up and everyone scampers back to their spots. The next bull is loose. Without forethought, I hop down and join the group of men at one end of the corral. It all seems harmless enough, and it feels good to be in the midst of the crowd—a temporary member of the community, however anonymous. The same six hardy souls taunt the bull and I puff up my chest with the others watching from a safe distance. Then the bull stops. He turns his attention in our direction. Now he’s charging, fast. Where did everyone go? Somehow, and suddenly, for an instant, there is no one between the bull and me.

I had no idea how fast I could run.

* * *

“Faial is an Oasis,” Scotsman Frank Mallard assures me from the bow of his boat. “It’s very rare the person who passes it by. Everyone stops in here.” Everyone one, that is, who is crossing the Atlantic in a private yacht. Blessed with a deep harbor and slips for over three hundred boats, Faial has been a port of call since American John Dabney helped create this harbor in the 19th Century, during the hay-days of the whaling industry. (The channel between Faial and its neighbor island, Pico, is still one of the most densely populated whaling grounds in the world.)

Sitting on the western edge of the central group of islands in the Azores, Faial, shaped like an irregular pentagon, is just over thirteen miles long and nearly nine wide. It’s dominated by the 3,400-foot shield Volcano that formed this island, roughly two million years ago.

I stand on the cone’s unbroken circular rim, gazing down into the crater; clouds cover its verdant floor twelve hundred feet below. Not a soul in sight. I begin to walk the overgrown two-mile trail that traverses its circumference. In short order, clouds start to roll up and over the volcano’s edges, filling the caldera like a bowl of soup. My view is gone. I’m engulfed in fog. I turn back the way I came; I can see no more than ten feet. I walk on. Rain begins to pour down on me. The wind begins to swirl, then howl. I stagger against it. And then it’s raining up at me, and from all sides at once. Within minutes I’m drenched. Laughing like a fool, I stumble back to a tunnel carved into Caldiera’s rim and take refuge.

A thousand feet closer to sea level the weather is fine, and I make my way down to the western tip of the island, past miles of hydrangea and sloping green fields, where another volcano, Capelinhos, erupted much more recently, in 1957. It rewrote the geography of Faial, adding nearly a mile of dusty, gray earth. Desolate, haunting land waiting for life to take root, it’s a stark contrast to the swirl of activity a few miles away at the marina, which dictates this islands rhythms and gives it a vitality unique among the Azores. A quick stroll dockside reveals boats from as far away as New Zealand and Argentina and South Africa.

Everyone aboard those boats, at one time or another, finds their way to Peter Café Sport, gathering place in the heart of the Atlantic for the sea faring set. A storefront bar down by the docks in Horta—the main settlement on Faial—Peter’s is the unofficial social center for visitors and locals alike on this island of fifteen thousand. “I’ve been dreaming about this place for two weeks,” Pablo, a heavily bearded Spaniard promises me in the over-packed bar (the only crowded place I encounter in the Azores). “It’s my fifth crossing and it was the worst one yet.” He leans close, “I had an idiot for a captain.”

Covering the wood-paneled walls are nautical flags from boats that have passed through, from Russia and Australia, Japan and Brazil, Sweden and the U.S., and hundreds more. An oceanic U.N. meeting takes place every evening at the bar in French and Spanish, German, English, Portuguese, and Italian.

As much as Peter Café Sport buzzes, I find myself relieved to reemerge into the subtler attractions of daily life here. A hunt for toothpaste turns into a five-person discussion at the pharmacy. At dinner I find myself chatting with a plump waitress with purple streaks in her hair. We carry on a muted flirtation without motive, taking unspoken pleasure in the transient connection. Rain comes and passes, boats moor and move on, cars driving over the cobblestone streets call out for attention only for the fact that so few do so.

I’ve found myself captured by the sense of solitude in these islands, and in the people who live here. The locals strike me as both distant and intimate simultaneously. They’re dependant on, and connected to each other, the way all people who live on an island are, yet they seem also to be detached, singular, aware and yet apart. Much like the islands themselves, they’re inviting, yet separate. And content to be that way.

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