Like most people, I hadn’t heard of the Azores either. My travel partner and I were looking for the most interesting trip out of the eastern coast of North America, and a casual browse on a travel aggregator website led us to find a flight to what seemed like the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Upon zooming in on the map we discovered the Azores.
The Azores are an archipelago of 9 volcanic islands, Flores and Corvo to the West, Graciosa, Teceira, São Jorge, Pico and Faial in the centre, and São Miguel and Santa Maria to the east. The islands are located 1360km off the main coast of Portugal and are under Portuguese jurisdiction, but the people were proudly Azorean, with their own dialect, culture and cuisines.
We picked an island at random: Graciosa, only 10km long and 7km wide. It was love at first sight.
The natural landscape was gorgeous; sweeping green hills, dramatic cliffs plunging into the sea, jagged rocks rising above the crashing waves, and a vast expanse of blue ocean as far as the eye can see. As the Azores are located between the three tectonic plates of America, Africa and Europe, the archipelago is susceptible to earthquakes and consequent avalanches and volcanic eruptions, which makes the place all the more beautiful in its fragility.
The cliffs appear like they’ve been sliced with a giant cake knife, while the volcanic soil is fertile ground for vegetation to grow lush and wild. And truly, it was a wild place. The winds could rage on for days, the weather could go from clear sunshine to violent rain in a flash, and often the sea levels rise high and the waves churn fiercely. The storms would get so bad that access in and out of the island would have to be cancelled; no ferries or planes for days at a time. Such was life in the Azores, subjected to the whims of nature.
There was a grand total of one movie theatre on the island, and one “discotheque”. There were no shopping malls, but somehow there was a loja Chinesa, or Chinese shop run by a Chinese couple that sold everything you could think of: suitcases, apparel, stationery, household appliances. On Wednesday evenings, men would gather at the sports and recreational hall in town to drink and play chess. Their days were spent tending the land, while afternoons were best enjoyed with friends lounging around at the local cafe and watching football. The only tourist attraction was the caldera of an inactive volcano in the middle of the island. There was not a whole lot to do for fun.
And yet the people seemed content. Here are some of them I met during the 2 months I lived on Graciosa.
A WORLD NOT WITHOUT STRANGERS
Fraulein Sibyl had inherited Quinta Da Gabriele – the 150 year old estate we found on Airbnb – after her lover was taken by cancer. The estate comprises the two-storey main house, with a guesthouse, hothouse, servant’s quarters, pool & sauna, farmyard & vineyard, scattered across the lush, flowering grounds.
It is said that the ashes of the lover was kept somewhere in the Quinta too, and there were nights when I swore I could still feel him around. When I got bored enough I would run around the garden chasing the ducks and chickens, or Sibyl’s two dogs, Sexta and Feira. The dogs were rugged, adventurous-types, but she prefers to keep them within the grounds after one of them killed the neighbour’s chicken.
The neighbour’s son recalls getting into a fight with Sibyl about hunting rabbits behind her house. He gets a sense that she wasn’t very fond of his shotgun, and conversely, she gets a sense that the locals secretly resent the foreign settlers like her and their wads of cash buying off chunks of the land for their holiday chalets. Such was the politics on small islands.
A WILD LIFE WITH WILDLIFE
This very same neighbour, Joe, keeps their ginger cat FooFoo on a leash. Juan Carlo, his elderly father, had described how he cried when he found FooFoo’s brother run over by a car, and it had moved me immensely. Roadkill was a regular occurrence on Graciosa because there were no traffic lights on the island and everybody speeds, even the elderly farmers with the mildest temperaments. Regardless, FooFoo regularly escapes.
On one such morning, I spotted him crouching on a wall in Sibyl’s defunct vineyard. He was visibly terrified by the sound of aggressive moo-ing and grunting somewhere in the distance.
I didn’t think much of the sounds but thought I would inform Juan Carlo of his precious cat’s whereabouts. The old guy was thankful, and in returned warned me not to go over there, he pointed vaguely down the street. The strange grunting noises came from that direction, and were getting louder and more frequent. “You know torro?” he asked. Bull fight. I imagined a festival; dark, hunky matadors waving crimson flags, a colosseum of witnesses, finally some sort of excitement on this sleepy little island – but the reality was way wilder. Two bulls were head butting each other, because nature.
REAL LIFE ISSUES SEEM SO FAR AWAY
Antonio’s wife was the helper at our estate on Graciosa. His wife assisted Sibyl with everything, from cleaning to tending the garden and running errands, while Antonio was occasionally the handyman. In the evenings, Antonio runs a Facebook page where he uploads his amateur hobbyist photography, mostly of the landscape on the island.
He had been a fisherman in the Atlantic Ocean for 20 years, and didn’t believe that sea turtles are endangered. “Not allowed,” he said, about the sea turtles. It’s against the law to catch them, he meant. “They (police) say it’s almost finished (extinct) but we see everyday many many, one day more than twenty,” he said. They eat the turtles sometimes. “Is good with garlic and butter!”
Antonio’s next story is even more gut-wrenching. One time, his boss had ordered them to kill a small dolphin. Of course it was illegal; he said they’d all be in trouble if the coast guards found a dolphin carcass in their boat. So the dolphin was hacked apart at sea and its meat used as fish bait. He recounted, “All the other boats don’t have many fish. Only our net have more than all the other people.” The next part of his story was the worst. “It taste like cow,” he said. I guess they don’t believe in wasting food. He continued his story placidly: “But the mother come, swim around the boat for long time, she crying, crying, crying for the baby.”
HOLDING UP AGAINST EXTERNAL INFLUENCES
A modest €5 in Graciosa gets you the Prato do dia – Plate of the day – 3 courses of bread basket & local cheese, homemade soup and a simple main dish comprising meat and potatoes. More commonly found on the menu in local restaurants however, were burgers and hotdogs – no doubt influenced by the islands’ proximity to North America – but served with savoury Portuguese sauces.
Creatures plundered from the Atlantic were sold for profit, but beef was a humble staple of their diet, and as such our bovine friends were very well taken care of, spending their days roaming free. The cows would watch us take our daily walk; they would wander over if we stood by their fence, and listen intently to us speak.
Most of Graciosa is farmed land, and the population of cows vastly outnumber the 3,500 people that call the island home. Growing up in Singapore, I thought I understood living on a small island. But in Singapore, the density of the population and the diversity of the people constantly coming in and out of the island, makes the place seem bigger than it actually is. On Graciosa, everyone inadvertently becomes a part of your extended family.
It was customary to greet every person you come across on the street, stranger or otherwise, with a wave and a cheery bon dia! A passing car once stopped to give my partner and I a lift; they knew not a single word of English, but knew where we lived despite not having met us before. The community is very tight-knit on Graciosa.
But times are changing, and the younger generation of Azoreans are growing restless. I met Carlotta while she was babysitting her brothers at the recreational hall, and we got talking about her plans for the future. She was on the cusp of graduating high school, but confided that she would much rather be a stewardess for the local airlines than go to Uni. She said most of the young adults on the island move away for school, and choose not to return after becoming besotted by the bustle of life in much larger places.
I asked her where she would live, if she had a choice. “America,” she said with a bashful smile. We chatted a little bit about Hollywood movies, and how the sitcom How I Met Your Mother played a crucial role in helping her learn English. Later on, I spoke to Juan Carlo about why many Azorean youth choose to leave their islands – his own son had lived and worked in the US for 20 years – and he blamed the Internet. He said the children go online and start to imagine another life they could have. The Azores becomes too small for their big dreams.
On one hand, I could relate to their discontent; it was the drive behind my desire to travel, to get out of the same old environment I’ve always lived in, to see and experience new things. However, despite the occasional boredom, there was something about the Azores that forced me to appreciate a slower pace of life. Instead chasing one distraction after another to fill up my time, I learnt to find peace wherever I am.