Anand Mahadevan: The Azores

November 18 , 2010, Ponta Delgada

This will likely be my last post before returning to Toronto. I’ve walked through the city taking last peeks at familiar corners, down streets that go to places that I know and trying to recall my first impressions of this city. It seemed so big the first day when I walked towards the centre from my landlady’s home. I had feared being away from it all. Now I can only smile at the naivete of that young visitor to the island. I could be anywhere on Sao Miguel and I would be in the centre of it all, at least that is what the rest of the Azores says about the largest island (not always kindly). It’s hard walking down to the harbor knowing that in a couple of days there will be no more swimming in the Atlantic under a bright, warmish sun. But more than the swimming pool, I’ll miss the quiet of the municipal library and public archives where without question a stranger is given space to work and to read. The public library, well managed and open, is the single greatest gift to a newcomer, a reader, a writer, a person.

There are many fond memories to take home along with bottles of honey, jams, tarts, chocolate, notes, stories and kilobytes of manuscript space in the hard drive of my laptop. Not as sexy as a sheaf of typewritten pages perhaps, but hopefully just as worthwhile. Toronto will be cold, but I am looking forward to the warmth of family and old friends and when winter turns to spring, I am hoping that some newer friends from the islands will visit so I can reciprocate their kindness in taking a stranger into their lives for three months.

November 8 , 2010, Ponta Delgada

Change is in the air. My time on the islands is winding down and in two weeks I will be back in Ontario. The summer ferries have left the Azores and returned to Greece where they will spend the winter between islands with names like Santorini and Rhodes. Meanwhile Nordic cruise ships arrive daily in Ponta Delgada. Ships with names “Celebrity Eclipse” and “Norwegian Gem” are putting into port for a day in their two-week transatlantic trip to New York. Then they head to the Caribbean for its tourist season.

These ships are huge, and from the outside one sees are lines of balconies rising like modern skyscrapers, all metal and glass. But their inhabitants are not young professionals. The fall cruise passenger is the North American retiree. The old folk are unfailingly polite, slow moving, and almost always lost. I gave an American couple directions to the Church of Santa Ana and went for my swim. When I returned, they were at the harbor having given up the uphill trek at the mere sight of the cobbled stone street. Then there’s the couple from Vancouver, spry and walking up and down the empty Sunday streets. I suggest they visit the Gardens, but they had already peeked in through the gate (the attendant charges a 2 euro admission). The man from Van hoped the cruise ship had stocked up on some of the island’s famous pineapples.

The problem with all-you-can-eat and everything-included is that some people turn into penny pinchers because they’ve become used not to pay for the small pleasures in life. What’s the point of coming to Sao Miguel for a day if you can’t bring yourself to spend 3 euros to see centuries-old rubber and incense trees drooping over you, to look at a medieval manuscript of liturgical hymns in the nave of Ponta Delgada’s main church, to eat chunks of fresh, ripe pineapple in the city square? Forget talking to the people and discovering our shared stories, these passengers are not even scratching the surface of this island.

My disappointment stems perhaps also from the fact that I was selling the island in my conversations. In many ways, I find myself at home here, and though I am looking forward to returning to family and friends, I will miss the blue skies, the warm waters, the steady presence of the islanders in my days – the librarian with the blonde hair like an astronaut’s wife, the short, stocky lifeguard laughing among the old men who sun themselves daily at the harbor pool, the woman at the supermarket checkout who tells me every time to get a Sol-Mar card so I can get a discount on my groceries, Gami whose story is too close for me to share on this blog, my landlady who keeps introducing me to characters on the island and even Francisco, who now teaches cooking classes to grade 8 kids. I’ll miss the fresh produce, the smells of tropical flowers, the heady warmth of a humid night, the sweep of Cory Shearwaters over my head…you get the point. Longs lists don’t make for great reading, so I’ll stop here. But the list is testament to time well spent I think.

Good times must also come to a close.

November 1 , 2010, Ponta Delgada

Today is All Saints Day. Everything is closed, the churches are full. The sun shines above in a cloudless blue sky. Being in Portugal has brought me back in touch with the role of the Bible and Christianity in Western life. Here holidays and the Church are still taken seriously and the contrast between secular Toronto and religious Ponta Delgada reveals that though one may consider oneself an atheist, the language one uses is flooded with words that have sacred pasts. Take a simple advertising phrase like “indulge your senses” from a chocolate company. From the Latin to be courteous and complaisant, the word was usurped in Medieval Europe by the Church which sold “plenary indulgences” to  raise funds for its wars against the Muslims in the south and for internal politicking. The stigma of sin was attached to the word even its secular context simply because of its history.

Words accrue meaning and continue to change as time passes, in that they are living and breathing members of the community of language. Some words die out, others are born out of the marriage of previous words. There is an ecology of language, populations of words that have characteristic accents, local meanings. Words migrate and are punished and praised. They even take on ornaments in modern society, a cedilla here, an umlaut there (think of IKEA). In a way, a writer is much like a shepherd (another Biblical image) trying to corral words into meaning between two cardboard covers, a little bible (from the original Greek meaning book) that tells a story, many stories. Perhaps it might have readers, maybe even believers. The evolution of the book, like its words, is unpredictable. What rules shape the changing morphology of language or taste? Which book written today will continue to resonate through time? Can Darwinian rules reveal the shifting nature of art? Only time will tell.

October 18, 2010, Ponta Delgada

I am a reluctant swimmer. Never learned it as a child, and there is another blog/PSA about teaching the value of swimming to immigrants in Ontario (who have the highest rate of water accidents in our province of abundant lakes). In this post, however, I want to discuss a more personal lesson. For several weeks now, I have been a regular swimmer at the harbor in Ponta Delgada. In the summer the water was calm, warm and the swimming pool busy with people. Now a rainy autumn has brought with it a roiling ocean (the ferries stopped running a week ago) and the harbor pool is almost deserted. Only the regulars come, and I know I am one because the lifeguard makes a point of saying “Asta Manha” to me every day. Me and the other retirees who use the pool every afternoon. The water is still warm (20 degrees Celsius) but two to three foot waves break into the harbor and send a fair bit of foam splashing along the walls and the rocks.

When I first began swimming in this harbor, the boundaries of the pool marked out with a line of buoys seemed quite far away. It took me a quite some time and energy to make it around the edge. But as the weeks passed,  the pool  gradually shrank in size. I know it better now and can reach its ends faster. So easy had it become to swim, to dive down to the rocks at the bottom, and to chase after the numerous fish that I began to wonder if the challenge had gone out of swimming in the sea. But the autumn winds blew that confidence away. My proficiency is gone, and the waves have given me back the earlier excitement of swimming. The waves bob me up and down, pitch saltwater down my nostrils and force me to the surface gasping for breath. The rhythm of motion is lost in gasping for air, and I am once more learning to swim. I struggle through the waves and currents to the other side of the pool and walk up the steps to dry land with a sense of achievement. Safe in the harbor, my glasses restoring vision to my eyes, I gaze upon the water and the sight is a strange disappointment. From outside, the water looks neither scary nor exciting. In fact it even manages to look docile with the ripple of undulating waves moving back and forth. The heroic struggle is revealed to be passe.

The same lesson holds for my writing. When I am in the library, I swim among words and ideas. Thoughts crowd me, push up against characters and emotions, squelch the very breath of narrative as they all seek to have their voices heard, their actions played out. It’s thrilling and tiring. But once I am out of the writing mode and I look upon the pages, I notice only the ebb and flow of text. What was all that fuss about? I wonder.

Then I think of those writers who are not swimming in a sheltered harbor behind the protection of breakwater. Those proficient swimmers who are out in the ocean swell where words can sweep you away for miles, pitch and turn you a hundred times over in one spot. How do they do it? Did they all start out in a small harbor or a lake? Did they learn to swim downstream first before deciding to turn against the current? Or is it just that some of us will swim the Atlantic, cross the channel, while others never to leave their backyard pools and shallow ponds? The world is full of swimmers, not all are champions.

In the harbor of Horta, many years ago, a sailing boat berthed. Nothing quite unusual about this. For centuries the harbor has seen sail boats arrive from Brazil, from the Americas, from Africa and Asia. But this boat came with a crew that painted a square patch of the concrete breakwater. Today every bit of the harbor’s exposed surface is marked by emblems, drawings, markers of the visiting sailboats. Some are retouched to reflect return visits. The harbor is famous for this “tradition” and to some the sight is colorful to others unsightly. This brings up the next question for writing: If everyone made their mark on the wall, then the wall would have no distinguishing mark at all. Or would it?

October 12, 2010, Ponta Delgada

My morning walk to the library skirts the southern end of the campus of the University of the Azores and passes by a primary school. The primary school has high walls and a gate guarded by a porter’s cabin. Not unsual but still a bit of a surprise. What is unusual is that the university campus is also gated and fenced in. And on Sunday, I noticed that someone had carefully chained the gates shut. At a primary school, one assumes that the gates and walls are as much to keep the children inside as strangers out, but to lock up the grounds of a university, what purpose can that serve?

The University of the Azores has two campuses, one here in Ponta Delgada and the other in Angra on the island of Terceira. It serves the islands and is the reason for why Ponta Delgada has so many young people youth in its downtown core. My apartment building houses a young couple, a tall and reedy young  man with curly hair and a friendly young woman with straight brown hair. I’ve seen her at times with a child’s backpack and him wearing a garbage bag with blue fuzzy ears and rabbit tails stuck on it. We haven’t actually met in the stairwell so I imagined them to be primary school teachers. The Azores tends to get young, inexperienced teachers from the mainland who come, gain experience for a couple of years and flee to their own towns and cities on the continent for…who knows for what? But then I walked by the campus and saw others dressed in similar outfits. Trash bags adorned with paper cutouts and bits of toy fur. Groups of university-aged men and women engaged in some form of elaborate gaming exercise that now goes by the moniker of  “team building” at companies and other organizations. Their faces are intense but gleeful. Their attention split between the clues on the paper and the sights and sounds around them. Some spy on the other groups making their way through the campus and city streets to gain clues. But for their sizes and the cigarettes in their hands, they could be schoolchildren in a playground.

Maybe there is a reason for gates and wrought iron fences around this university after all.

October 8, 2010, Ponta Delgada

The time between my blog entries is growing.  Some of the blame lies in the earlier entry when I reported falling into a pattern. Patterns are useful. They generate rhythm and predictability that eases one into the lives of others. I, for example, am a regular at the library now, exchanging looks with the other regular patrons. The thin scrape of chairs, the nod from the youth at university who takes several cigarette breaks, picks at his nose, answers emails and text messages while his page remains open to the same 6-transmembrane domain G-protein coupled receptor that I saw when I first entered. Except every afternoon as I leave, I notice a few more sentences have been highlighted. Perhaps by the time I leave the island, the whole page will be glowing neon yellow. Then there is the old gent who has an easel propped on his desk upon which he lays editions of the local newspaper “Acoriano Oriental” and studies them. I have looked at copies of this journal from 1968 when it used to be four pages long, printed a poem in every edition and carried among recipes and news, a regular column from an expat in California, but my old friend is looking through newer editions, probably only a few years old. It’s a library, so we see each other but don’t talk. Around noon, most of them scatter for lunch. The uni student leaves his bags and papers for me to inspect when he goes for his break. The afternoon crowd is more mixed. A mother drops her daughter in the table in front of me around noon. A gaggle of high schoolers bring the levity of youth to the reading room. And through all this, I try to write. To be sure I am not much better than the student studying membrane channels. For in the past three weeks I have managed to write only twenty pages worth of prose, though I count as work reading War and Peace, The Idiot and am now into A pair of Blue Eyes. But blogs are hardly made up of lists of what someone else is reading. At least not an interesting one, and this I hope explains the absence of a post till now.

I am not one for late nights. But patterns are made to be broken and having fallen into one on the islands, I decided to spring out of it by inviting my landlady and her husband to dinner last Tuesday. My landlady is sweet if eccentric. The universe communes with her, and some Indians in Central America, on meeting her, apparently told her that she was an ancient soul of their tribe. Such experiences energize her. The islands bore her because she has become too familiar with them. As she told me over dinner, “I know everyone. The man who stands in the doorway of the shop three doors down till his hair reaches just here (and she gestures to her ear) then the next day I know he’ll still be standing with a haircut. I can tell you how he’s going to look ten years from now.”

She brings with her, a friend named Joao, who has spent six years in India studying Yoga in Mysore. She thinks he will be interesting for a dinner with a writer. And he is, though he is about to leave for Syria to ask the father of his Arab girlfriend if they can marry. I like him because he is ready to recite the Shahada and become a Muslim for his wife. His plans to continue on to Yemen disturbs even me, who likes traveling the world. And I like the feeling of being surprised. The evening passes off well and Joao, my landlady’s husband, and I get into a spirited argument about whether mankind has progressed in the last three million years or if we are still the same beast. Nothing new is said. We cycle through the old European arguments, throw in some Yogic philosophy, and take a detour on the question of happiness. Wine is drunk, cigarettes smoked.

But Joao gives me his number and takes mine. On friday, he rings me up. Since he is leaving, a few friends are gathering for a dinner. Would I like to join. He wants to introduce me to people who live on the island so that I can get to know them better. I say yes, though the dinner is late for my taste, starting only at 10 pm. Joao being a vegetarian, we meet at Rotas de Ilha Verde, the only veggie/vegan place on all the islands. There I get to know Francesco, who owns an apartment building in town and has a farm on the north coast, and Alfredo, an engineer whose German is entirely composed of barks and sounds learned from watching actors play Nazis on television and film. Francesco speaks German well enough, having worked for ABB in Switzerland, and when we begin to talk amongst ourselves, it takes me a couple of minutes to realize that Alfredo has been speaking gibberish the entire time. The accent and tone are perfect, there is almost an appearance of syntax in his phrases, and the sing song manner of his talk and actions made me think first that he was speaking Swiss German, then that he must have a strong Portuguese accent. But the twinkle in his eyes as he waits for my response (which is a half-open mouth and a mind at a complete loss) gives him away. He’s at the dinner with his wife Sofia and their three-year-old daughter Mariana with whom we play games, and who scurries under the table to tug at our pant legs. Dinner lasts for several hours and it is almost one in the morning when Alfredo hoists his daughter on his shoulders, and the family goes home. American parents will probably throw up their hands at such parenting, but I am all in favor of Alfredo’s and Sofia’s style of living life with child not living life for child.

But Francesco is not done. He wants to get a drink, so we walk downhill to the bars dotting my street. The first one is too crowded for Joao, and we end up at a fancy Swedish-owned restaurant for a single round of drinks that costs me 11 euros. We discuss agriculture. Surprisingly, Francesco is for the way we Canadians only label organic food and not GM food. Joao and I join forces to try to convince him that given pollination and dispersal, organic crops are getting increasingly contaminated, but Francesco is the sort of man who loves to hold court and disburse his opinion (Sofia leaned across the dinner table and warned me of this after we attempted six times to have a conversation that Francesco interrupted so he might have his audience). It’s almost two by the time we leave, and Joao begs off so that he can still wake up and practice yoga at a decent hour. I would like to leave with him, but I tell myself that I must be open to new experiences. Francesco wants to go on and I agree.

We continue to a small cafe with several outside tables. Here Francesco offers me pot or a line of coke. Now I am not so pleased to be with him. I decline and we sit down to beers. I am boring him, and when Antonio joins our table, Francesco decamps. Antonio is in his forties, a heavyset man with several days growth on his face. He scrutinizes me carefully and asks, “What are you doing here?” There is something offensive about his tone. I try to be polite and tell him about my project. He listens and interrupts. “You are a writer? I tell you what. I have a book.” This is not unusual. Everyone has a book they want to talk about. “You pay for my drink,” Antonio tells me. I am ready to leave, but one cannot always be safe and learn something new. I beckon the waitress, knowing that he thinks I am a schlump. “I have a house in Rabo de Peixe,” he tells me referring to the poorest village in Europe and the most backward on the island. “What say you? For one week you come live with me. No money, I pay for everything. I feed you, house you and I will tell you my story. You write. Just write what I tell you. It will be amazing book. I no ask for nothing. Just write it for me. Then you can sell it if you like.” This too is not unusual. I smile and shake my head. “That’s not how it works.” He leans away in his chair and considers me for a moment, then waves his hands desultorily. “You no writer.”

A slim old woman with a long face and plastic rimmed glasses joins us. Antonio greets her and introduces her to me. Her name is Monica. She’s about sixty. Antonio tells her in Portuguese about me, and I can see from his face and hand movements that he’s declaring me a phony. Then he falls silent in his chair, like a puppet with relaxed strings. Monica smiles at me. She’s from Hamburg and has lived on the islands for 12 years. We begin to talk in German. She tells me how she came to Flores, opened a hotel with her then boyfriend. They operated it for seven years before the two fell apart. Then she managed to get ownership of the hotel and stayed longer before coming to Ponta Delgada. The waitress comes out to announce last call and we get another round. One for Antonio too. She closes the door to the cafe but the lights stay on, no one leaves. Monica and I keep talking. Antonio is from Corvo, the smallest island in the Azores, right next to Flores. He’s a child at heart, she tells me, and I believe her. There was the pique of childhood hurt when I refused to write his story under his conditions. I did think about it, wondering if I was ready to go so far as to put myself under the power of a man, who had such ideas for how his story should be told. But I am not ready to jump that far. It’s three am. A light rain begins to fall. The discotheque next door is still taking in people. They are mostly young, teenagers in high school or university. In the street behind us, two beer bottles crash against the cobblestones near a group of girls walking away. Words are exchanged.

A young boy maybe twelve years old wanders past our table, his brother even younger, scarcely eight or so, follows him. I look at my watch. Monica follows my movements. I am not pleased with children being out this late on their own. “Probably the father is in America,” she tells me. “The mother asleep. There’s a lot of drugs on the island.” She’s sick of Ponta Delgada. In Flores, she has fond memories of the whole village coming to her restaurant for dinner, dancing in the square and listening to Andrea Bocelli together. “There they are more curious about the world,” she tells me. “Here they could care less. In two years, that boy will be selling himself for a cigarette, then a beer before some man gives him a line of coke.” The bitterness in her voice is clear. She smokes cigarette after cigarette as she talks. I’ve switched to water but she’s still drinking. Antonio gets up from his chair and wanders off, making rude noises about our speaking German. I tell Monica about my project, and she invites me to her restaurant in the harbor. It’s a a meat and fish place, nothing for me to eat, she tells me, but perhaps I can come for a drink. We begin to talk about writers, and I realize that I am very tired. For when I try to tell her about Wolf Biermann, his name escapes me. He’s one of my favorite writers, and one whom I met and adored at BU last fall on the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Monica surprises me by naming him to my description. She’s met him, she tells me. Had breakfast with Willy Brandt in the sixties. I am awestruck. At three in the morning, in a small nondescript cafe in Ponta Delgada, an old woman who has made her life on the islands tells me that she was once a party worker for the SPD and close to Willy Brandt, Helmut Schmidt and used to call Biermann “Wolfie”.

But how much of what she said is true and how much was the beer talking? She tells me the story of when she was still in Flores, a German national. The mayor was to be reelected and he came to her for a vote. She told him she could not vote in municipal elections as she was not a Portuguese citizen. “Vote for me,” he told her. “You live on the island, you are a citizen.” “I won’t.” “What will it take?” “My restaurant needs a new oven. You get me an oven and I’ll vote.” Monica got the oven. So politics is troubled the world over, and she’s a gritty woman, no doubt. I too have played my bit of the naive young writer that night. But it’s hard to reconcile the machinating restaurant owner with the bright-eyed SPD functionary she claims to be. What drove a woman to sell everything and cut all ties in Germany to make her home in an island of 800 people? People who flock to obscurity don’t always have tales they want to tell strangers. And as I finally walk home that morning (4 am and 8 euros later for the whole tab at the cafe), I wonder if the stories they want to tell me are smoke and mirrors to distract me from their real lives? I know this because even as I read over this blog entry, I can see that what I write is just a small fraction of what happens to me on the islands. And out of the context of the remainder, this blog narrative becomes a fiction. I am no more special the the man next door. So s/he too creates and shapes fictions out of experiences. The nature of storytelling demands that one dimension be plucked out and another suppressed. We all do it every day of our lives, and with successive retellings, a story can become a memory. Fiction takes the place of fact in our minds and our hearts. Memories can be learned and unlearned as the uni student in the library would tell you, if he ever finishes his book on neurobiology.

September 27, 2010, Ponta Delgada

A gradual transformation has occurred over my trip to the central group. I no longer feel like a tourist in Ponta Delgada. This weekend, a planeload of Swedes have dropped into the city. I watch them, a large family asking my neighborhood cafe owner for a toy store to calm a wailing kid. A couple walking up and down the streets towards the Carlos Macado museum, consulting their maps, unaware that it is closed on Sunday. Later that afternoon at the free swimming pool in the harbor a young man tells his girlfriend in accented English that she cannot change in the municipal bathrooms without paying a fee. I listen to all of them, without getting involved. I could tell the family to head to the commercial centre near the Santa Ana palace, stop the couple in their useless trudging through the streets, or correct the misinformed young man. But I remain silent. I am not longer a tourist, but neither am I an inhabitant of the city yet. I occupy some nebulous in-between space. I have my daily routine: the library in the morning, a walk about the city to the harbor for my afternoon swim, an evening in a cafe. The people on my route know me, the librarians expect me to be among the first to arrive, the old timers in the harbor keep an eye on my bag when I am in the water. But they are curious about this man who speaks so little Portuguese and who smiles through their attempts at conversation but lingers unlike any tourist. I know how they feel for I feel the same way.

September 18, 2010, Faial

Clouds sweeping into the marshy floor of the Caldera in Faial

Clouds sweeping into the marshy floor of the Caldera in Faial

Unlike in Sao Miguel, the bus service in Faial is good for islanders and bad for tourists. If I want to see the museum located at the site of the volcanic eruption of Capelinos, the catalyst for the Azorean migration to the States and Canada, I must either walk the 30 km or hire a car. But luckily for me, I encounter a shack with scooters for rent. I can have a 50cc machine for 25 euros a day. I have not ridden one of these since 1994, when I used my mother’s Luna to get to high school in Pune. But those skills are not lost, and together the motorbike and I make it up to the central caldera of Faial island. The weather gods are against us . Clouds surround the peak. From time to time the mists clear and I can look into the caldera. There is something unearthly about it, distinctly lunar despite the greenery within.

Following the visit to the volcanic crater, I drive around the coast stopping at various miradouros to take pictures of the beautiful coastline. I have to admit that a man can get used to anything, even beauty. Even as I snap the pictures, I  sense that I am no longer affected by the sight of a mountain slipping into the sea.

The futuristic foyer of the underground museum in Capelinhos

The futuristic foyer of the underground museum in Capelinhos

But Capelinhos is a different world. There are no trees here, just wind whipping up dust devils among the lava rocks and basaltic sand. The volcano erupted in 1957 and began the large scale migration of Azoreans to the US and Canada in the twentieth century. Here in Capelinhos, the museum has been buried underground. It is a futuristic site built so that the landscape remains inviolate. The barren moonscape is a reminder that it has taken nature hundreds of thousands of years to transform these islands into the lush green paradise they are today, and that another eruption or quake is always in the offing. There are microquakes everyday, and the islanders worry only when the ground goes ominously silent under them. Then the big one is brewing.

Capelinhos is a great museum because it gives both the science and the sociology of the volcano and its effects. There are artefacts of migration, passports and papers, acts of congress and registers of boats. While the focus is on America (what else is new), the details are exciting to behold and to understand. My mind is racing with the possibilities of using this material in my collection.

September 16, 2010, Sao Jorge

At the top of Pico Esperanza, Sao Jorge

At the top of Pico Esperanza, Sao Jorge

The island of Sao Jorge is a basically a ridge rising out of the ocean and looks like a long cigar. A line of volcanoes form the central hump of the island, which falls into the ocean with tall cliffs for most of its length. Sometimes, there are flat areas called Fajas, formed either due to lava flows or massive landslides, which allow for boats to dock with the island. Here the earliest settlers established a foothold on Sao Jorge and began to grow crops. The microclimates of these Fajas are conducive to growing cereals and vegetables, while the slopes of the volcanic ridge are mostly used as pasture for cattle.

Having arrived in Velas the previous day, I plan to climb to the top of the highest peak on the island today, Pico de Esperanza. The island is poorly connected by buses, and I have to hire a taxi to drop me off at the start of the trek . I make my way in mist along a gravel track. Through the clouds I hear the lowing of cattle and for some reason I am reminded of New Zealand. Here on the island, cattle outnumber people the way sheep outnumber the inhabitants of middle earth. I part a herd of cattle as I climb up. A brisk northern wind brings low clouds that hide much of the world from me. I pass the site where, in 1999, a SATA flight crashed into the mountainside killing all passengers and crew. Looking around at the murky clouds, I am not surprised that the pilot saw nothing till the last moment.

By and by I reach the peak of hope. When I reach the top, the sun shines through, and I allow myself to be drawn into a larger narrative of a kindly god opening the clouds to give me this blessing of light. I take pictures, a video, and am thoroughly pleased with myself. As I gather my belongings for the walk down however, I notice a single slug on the path I have trekked uphill. How long had that poor creature crawled to reach this height? The clouds close up behind me as I make my way down towards Faja Ouvidor and the taxi waiting to take me home.

A view of Faja Ouvidor from the central ridge of Sao Jorge

A view of Faja Ouvidor from the central ridge of Sao Jorge

Sao Jorge is famous throughout the Azores for its cheddar-like aged cheese, which is exported in quantities to the mainland and North America. On the way back from the Faja, my taxi driver and I stop at the milk cooperative to take a tour of the facilities. We see how hundreds of gallons of milk are curdled and the curds pressed into rounds. We walk into vast temperature controlled warehouses storing hundreds of thousands of rounds, which are cured, turned, and inspected before being shipped. There is a pungent smell, and the tour guide is surprised as I sniff it up, reaching for the rounds with mould growing on them. The best cheese has a complex set of flavors and aromas, the worst a simple neat finish. Throughout my walk that morning, I had smelt mountain thyme, spearmint, and lain on banks of heather. Now I begin to comprehend how the flora of the high slopes are making their notes known through the cheese of the island.

In the evening as I am relaxing and watching the local newscast on television (the best way to learn a language!), my landlady’s son comes in to fix the leaking faucet in the bathroom. He only speaks a few phrases in English, and as I watch him try to repair the leak, he asks me where I am from.

“Toronto,” I tell him.

He looks at me as if unsure and wipes his hands. “Where in Toronto?”

I laugh. “A small street, you won’t know it.”

He demands again, “Where?”

“Emerson,” I say.

His lips widen into a smile. “Emerson. I know Emerson. Near Dufferin Mall.”

My mouth has dropped open.

“My cousin live on Emerson. Three weeks this summer I live there. You like?” He’s holding up three fingers as he talks, now excited.

I can barely believe the fact that in the middle of the Atlantic, in a village of 800 souls, I have come across a man who walked past my house in Toronto this summer. Renaldo now drags me down to the yard of his own house and introduces me to his wife, who speaks much better English. He begins to clean the fishes he has caught this evening as I talk to the two of them. They both love Toronto, its malls, and Renaldo tells me his favorite restaurant is “East Side Marios”. Cathy’s favorite is the Mandarin buffet. They ask me a lot of questions. Where do I party at night? What things should they see next time? Cathy brings me a glass of port wine and a bag of local sweets “espices” that her friend had made that afternoon.

“No can get in store,” she tells me proudly.

I watch Renaldo cut off the fins and begin scaling the fish still enraptured by the idea of being  usso different yet sharing so much. Above us, the Cory Shearwaters skim the night sky like bats and beyond the village church, moonlight glimmers on the ocean channel beyond which Pico rises into the grey clouds. We talk long into the night and Cathy and Renaldo are now ashamed that I have had to pay to stay at their house.

“Next time,” Renaldo says, when I refuse to take back the money, “you no stay in tourist apartment. Next time you come, you stay with us. No pay.”

“Only if you promise to visit with me in Toronto,” I tell them.

Life is really that simple here. Friends are made over wine and food, and as I sit with them, I realize that for all my education and sophistication I don’t know how to take leave of such good people. It is the truth that every islander knows someone in Canada and the USA. Cathy and Renaldo have made several trips to Toronto, to Boston and Oakland but never been to Lisbon. At last they tell me shyly that they want to live in Canada, try it out for a year, and I begin to realize that the dream to emigrate has not dimmed yet. The islands may be beautiful but jobs remain scarce and opportunities to try oneself are few. As much as their lives attract me, so does mine attract them. And with that we take leave for the night. In the morning, they will both be at work by the time I wake up, and I will leave the keys to my room in their mailbox as I board the ferry for Horta. But we will always have Toronto.

September 14, 2010, Biscoites

Verdelho wines aging in barrels

Verdelho wines aging in barrels

I arrived in the island of Terceira yesterday on the Hellenic Wind. This Greek ferry has been put into service by the Azorean government, and runs mostly empty given its gigantic size. Maybe because it is empty or because the waves are particularly rough that day, the boat pitches and rolls quite a bit on the journey, and I am glad for my scopolamine patch.  The poor man sitting beside me is retching for hours. I think I have some Dramamine in my medicine bag, but unfortunately I’ve only packed gravol, trusting to my patch. I am no help to the poor man, who barely gets an hour’s sleep during the four hour ride.

I saw Angra, the second biggest city on the islands, and a world heritage site. It is beautiful, but in a touristy way so I will not write more of it. Today I am in Biscoites, in the north of the island, where wine making was a big deal in the past. At the wine museum, I identify myself as a writer on a fellowship, and the tour guide takes me for a special tour through the vineyard and the winery. I hear much about the role of sailors from India, Macau, Timor, and Brazil who stopped by the islands enroute to Lisbon and how they sold spices and furniture in the island because the authorities would confiscate such purchases on the mainland.

In Angra, there is a famous  sweetshop “O largo” which sells a small cake named after Amelia, the last Portuguese queen. I discover at the wine museum that the cake was originally called a “Bolo Indiens” because it was made with spices brought over from Goa and only renamed as a publicity stunt when the last king visited the island in the early nineteenth century.

This tiny fruit from Brazil is a cousin of the guava

This tiny fruit from Brazil is a cousin of the guava

The vines in Biscoites produce the famous verdelho wine. As we walk along the fields I am surprised to see the grapevines lying flat over the basalt stones the way squash would cover a garden in Toronto. There are no stakes here, no supports to grow the vines away from the ground. In fact, there is no soil here either. The roots simply disappear into fissures in the basaltic rock and are irrigated by channels of rainwater that carry away the minerals from the lava-born rocks. Basalt heats up well in the sun and radiates its warmth through the night, allowing red grapes to grow well on the northern slopes. Maria, the tour guide, has taken a shine to me, so she gives me a small fruit to eat. It tastes just like a guava though it is the size of a cherry. She is pleased with my report and tells me that the aracal is a fruit from Brazil, a cousin to the guava. When I leave, she will empty a whole basket of them into my bag. But for now, she takes me on a tour of the equipment people used to make wine. I see a washing tub carved out of a single piece of basalt. Usually used for clothes, once a year grapes are crushed in the tub and the juices drained away to make wine.  The tub, the sweet aracal berries and the anecdote about the Bolo Indiens make me happy because already I know that they will figure in the story I am currently working on.

But there is more. Inside, Maria shows ropes made of the tail hair of cattle and out of the nerves of whales, locks made out of wood with keys also carved out of wood. The ingenuity of the islanders forced to make do with what was available to them amazes me. I leave the winery quite drunk as my hosts insist that I try all the wines and spirits made on site and pour me generous portions. They are happy to have a writer visiting them, and they question me on my work as they ply me with figs, with these little guava fruit. By the time I leave them, we are on firm footing as friends. I wander to the bus stop and realize that it is barely noon!

September 11, 2010, Ponta Delgada

It’s a somber day in America, but a celebration is afoot in the harbor. All summer long, the Portuguese have been voting on the seven wonders in their country, and tonight a gala ceremony is to be held and the results announced. There is dancing, light shows, fireworks and the Azores gets two of the seven spots. Sete Cidades is chosen as one of the natural wonders of Portugal as is the mountain Pico, the highest in Portugal and in the central group which I am planning to see next week.

September 10, 2010, Sete Cidades

The lake in the crater is at the forefront, the ocean behind the rim.

The lake in the crater is at the forefront, the ocean behind the rim.

The bus to the village of Joao Bom “John the good” leaves Ponta Delgada harbor at 9:30 AM. By 11 AM, I am on the trail climbing, climbing the 500m to the top of the volcano of Sete Cidades. This is the westernmost volcanic mount that forms the island of Sao Miguel. The walk up the slope is grueling and within minutes I think of turning back. A jeep of farmers passes me by, another SUV comes down the hill. These are not isolated paths for walkers and ramblers, but in fact well used farming tracks. Now seen by others, my resolve is firmed. I push down my twin walking sticks and keep climbing. The lowing of cattle is the first sound that something is headed my way. I push myself against the wall of the trail, into the thickets of Himalayan ginger as a herd of Azorean cows come towards me. They halt at my sight unsure what to do. Beside me, someone has left the gate to the farm open, and they ramble past me into the fields. The cattle are being herded by three children, a woman barely out of her teens and her siblings. The boy is youngest at  twelve and gives me a shy smile as he runs to gather the errant cattle. The girls in their gumboots are happy to let me video the cattle as they make their way downhill.

I keep walking up, my encounter with the farming family is also a chance to catch my breath. I do not know why, but it gives me intense pleasure to watch young people working in farms. In the market, I see young men flicking dry kernels of corn at each others’ ears while they wait for customers, and it gives me hope for the future. In Canada the farmers I meet are mostly grizzled old men, but here sons and daughters don’t desert the land for cities and desk jobs. For once progress does not seem as golden as it always appears.

It takes me the better part of an hour to climb up to the rim of the volcano, but I get there huffing and puffing. The sight is like a spell that lifts the tiredness from my legs and shoulders. A cool breeze fans over the crater with its two lakes, one blue and the other green. Behind him the Atlantic ocean is calm as a pond. Lazy clouds drift over the sun from time to time. The rim of the crater is broad like a road and I walk along the curve alternately peeking into the steep insides and the shallower slopes outside where cattle and corn are grown on the usual small allotments. There is a town inside the crater, and the image of life inside the volcano reminds of Switzerland in summertime. This is perhaps the most beautiful part of the island I have visited so far.

I head down the hillside to the town of Remedios and catch the afternoon bus back to the apartment. I am exhausted and my knees are bothering me, but the sight, sounds, and smells atop the volcano balance the physical tiredness.

September 8, 2010, Ponta Delgada

Farmer's tracks along the way to Moisteros

Farmers' tracks along the way to Moisteros

Yesterday, I went on my first long walk through the south-western part of the island. The early morning bus dropped me off at Rabo do Asno and with a trusty Sunflower guide in my hand, I walked down along a farmer’s trail towards Moisteros. The town literally called “monastaries” is about 11 km away, and the path wanders past small fields planted with corn and cow-sheds. Both are hidden behind tall rows of giant reeds Arundo donax which help break the wind from the ocean and allow for crops to grow. In the oldest farms, the reeds grow atop a wall made of small stones, a testament to the hard work of the first farmers who had to clear the land of the lava born rocks and stake out their territories before they could begin planting their first seed corn.

The difference between country dogs and town dogs is simple. A country dog will begin barking at the stranger’s scent and continue to announce his displeasure all the way till the stranger has disappeared down the trail. A town dog on the other hand coolly lifts his head and tracks you as you walk past, knowing full well that the street is not his domain. On my way down to Moisteros, I often met farm dogs mercifully chained to their posts, and I was glad for my two walking sticks. But beyond these snarling guardians of their farms, I also met ruddy men watching their goats, pushing their cattle from one pasture to another and working among the tall corn. Once a chubby farmer on a tractor passed me by pulling a tank of water behind me. Ten minutes later I saw him return, having filled a trough for his cows. In the olden days the troughs were made of stone. They are beautiful long tubs. Now, however, tastes have changed. A fridge and freezer unit, doorless and lying on its back, serves as the watering hole for cattle.

The old whaling lookout

The old whaling lookout now herded by cows

But the men and the dogs are few and far in-between. For much of my walk, I am alone save for the rustle of a lizard moving through the canes, a flock of partridges taking to the air. On the top of a hill, a lone lookout stands amid a herd of Azorean cattle. Till 1986, a man would stand inside this structure and scan the water’s surface for a puff of water and air. The blowholes of the sperm whales would give away their location. Men would hurry to their schooners, smaller than the beasts they meant to capture and row out to the whales. Now the lookouts are either abandoned or refashioned to serve as guides for the whaling boats that take tourists. The whales are still hunted, but with cameras not harpoons.

Albatross nesting on a cliff face

Albatross nesting on a cliff face

Three hours into my walk, I reach Ponta de Escalvados “Bare Point” overlooking the town of Moisteros. A glimmer of a story has begun to appear in my mind. I interpret the nesting pad of the Albatross native to the island on a rocky shelf as a sign of good luck. By the time I reach Moisteros, nestled against a sea brawnier than the waters around Ponta Delgada, I am tired. I lay on the black sand beach and allow the reel of the morning’s images to begin forming a narrative.

September 2, 2010, Ponta Delgada

The rocks of Ponta des Caetanos

The rocks of Ponta des Caetanos

The sea is perfect for swimming, the cobbled stone pathways great for walks. Less so are the basalt rocks lining the sea at Ponta dos Caetanos. I was trying to walk along the seashore clambering over spongiform rocks that look like a moonscape when my knee decided to let me know that she was unhappy with such misadventures. But we were only halfway through the area, and limped along past a limpet pirate, who smiled at me cheerfully but wouldn’t move a muscle as soon as I was within a fifty metre radius. He used a wide flat blade to scrape them off rocks but like a child, hid it behind his back as I passed him. Finally I reached Lagoa and made my way back along the road to the beach at Sao Roque. There I let my feet hang out in the ocean for hours in the afternoon.

Now I am in my apartment in Ponta Delgada. A quick trip to the supermercado reveals that some things that are expensive in North America are dirt cheap here. Wine can be had for a couple of euros, cheese for a little more. But forget about tofu at 4.40 euros for 200g. Fortunately, there is “Rotas de Ilha Verde” the only vegan/veggie restaurant on the island which is about 500 m from my apartment and serves delicious lunches for 5 euros. Today’s meal consisted of a tomato and black olive quiche in a pie crust, a salad, curried veggies on rice and the island’s own green tea. Oh yes, apparently the Portuguese make tea on the island, having smuggled the plants along with several hundred Chinese workers in the heyday of the empire. On the north coast of the island, they still make tea at Gorreana, and my Landlady’s husband Joao is apparently from the grand tea making families of the region. More on that later.

About a hundred meters from Rotas de Ilha Verde is the Biblioteca Publica. It’s a grand building with old stuccoed buildings connected to a new metal and glass structure. The ground floor is laid out like a museum with tea rooms and exhibitions. The lady at the front desk told me to go to the second floor to settle in for work, and trained in North American building semantics, I walked up a flight of stairs into the children’s reading room. Then I realized that for the rest of the world, the first floor is one flight up and the second two flights of stairs. Now I am happily set up with my computer able to download articles and upload blogs amid the serious work of editing my second book and working on my collection of stories. Wish me luck!

August 30, 2010, Ponta Delgada

I’ve arrived. How soon does one know that one is in love with a place? What little I have seen of the island is beautiful. I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking here.

The sun, the sea, the church and the landscape

The sun, the sea, the church and the landscape

My flight arrived around 8 am, and I was settled into my place for the next two days by 9 am. Having showered and ready to face the day, I hiked in from the village of Populo to Ponta Delgada. The sidewalks are narrow and sometimes disappear when houses butt right into the street, but the spongiform basalt stones used to make the old walls are amazing to watch in the morning. Lizards and geckos scurry as you walk past the wall. They have been sitting on the warm igneous rocks, soaking in the sun. Ponta Delgada is beautiful except the Marina facing downtown where a row of concrete, steel and glass buildings are rising up as bastions of modernity. But under a bridge, there was sign still of left-wing revolt as graffiti protested war and Bush.

My current place is beautiful with a view of the ocean and a beach down the street. Haven’t been there yet, but am heading down as soon as I finish writing this blog entry.

So far, I’ve walked about 10 km today (that’s about 6 miles for the folks stuck in the American imperium), got my cell phone set up in five minutes to receive free phone calls and connect to the interweb (Vodafone and Europe rock!). I walked past my apartment for the next 78 days and stopped in at the farmers’ market beside it and walked away with my first welcome gift: an authentic Azores grown pineapple.

My welcome to the Islands gift

It tastes even better than it looks!

I met Rendall and Gammi, who have a farm stand at the Mercado Graca. Besides giving me free fruit, they have als0 decided to take me in. I am helping Gammi run her stand in the afternoons once I move into the new apartment. When I told her I am here to work on a collection of short stories, she said I would get my pick of tales working in the stand. My language skills in English, German, and the noises I make in French are to be used with tourists. “I get mad with tourists,” Gammi tells me with a big smile.

Rendall is a Scottish expat by way of Bermuda with a grandfather buried in the NWFP fighting the Afghans when the British ruled India. Gammi is Azorean and has already decided that I am going to stay at her parents house in Furnas, on top of a volcano for creative inspiration. Merrily, she folds her hands in mock meditation and shows off  how a volcano would explode under the seat of my pants while I am in a state of cosmic relaxation. It matters little to them that my stories are set in Toronto about an Indian family in a Portuguese neighborhood, and I hope they are right.

There will be more on Rendall and Gammi, that’s for sure.

Now that I am connected to the world with my iPhone, time to switch it off and lay on the beach for the next few hours. The weather is perfect, sunny with cloudy breaks, a swift sunshower or two, and a seabreeze to keep the heat at bay.

August 23, 2010, Toronto

I’ve begun packing. Visits to the doctor’s office have led to prescriptions for Dukoral (an oral vaccine against cholera and traveler’s diarrhea), a scopalamine patch for sea-sickness (witches used this drug to create feelings of “flying” and communicating with god back in the day – where did those days go?), and the usual precautionary bottle of Cipro, vitamins and such to keep oneself alive out of one’s home.

More interesting are questions like: How long does a bar of soap last? Or a tube of toothpaste for that matter? And like with all things, I turned to the Internet for answers. The very fact that the internet will answer almost any question makes me realize that I don’t have a single unique thought or idea in my head. Anything I can think of, has probably been done. The Internet is merely the way we can confirm this suspicion easily now.

In case you are wondering, the average bar of soap lasts between 3-5 weeks, assuming daily usage in the general vicinity of hygiene. A 4 oz tube of toothpaste will last about four weeks as well. With such measures, one can begin to pack. SATA, the airline of the Azores, allows a generous 50 kg in its checked in baggage section. The danger is that I might actually try to reach that limit with hiking boots, walking poles, books (eternal boon/bane) and clothes. Clothes for dry weather and wet, for town and country, for sea and land. Watch this space. If I become a homebody, it’ll be fun to look back at the grand plans and trunks I packed for this trip!

August 2, 2010, Toronto

Getting ready to leave for the Azores seems to have turned into lunches at L’Espresso Bar Mercurio, my favorite haunt in downtown Toronto, where I am catching up with friends  with links to the Azorean community in Toronto and learning about all the delights the islands have to offer me as a traveler, writer, and soaker-up of culture. Tara regaled me with stories of her own adventures in play writing and teaching English to Portuguese women in a factory setting in 1990s Toronto. Anthony, who is nothing but generous with his time and assistance, is I think a little jealous that he cannot be in the islands to show off his home. I cannot wait to see his hometown on Sao Miguel. Terceira is apparently the party island, I am told.

American and Canadian tourists rarely visit the Azores despite the great connections from Boston, Toronto, Montreal, and Oakland. This may be a blessing for the islanders because they appear to be visited mostly by eco-tourists from Europe. My guidebooks are arriving from England (walking tours) and Germany (auf Deutsch). It’ll be interesting to be on the islands particularly as the summer tourist season wanes in September. Apparently the flight to the Island should be mostly filled with Azoreans from the GTA, so I am hoping to make some friends on the way. Else I might just be hanging out with Germans and Swedes during the traveling phase of my trip.

Of course, as my European friends tell me, the way to recognize a Canadian is by the MEC gear s/he is wearing, so I have ordered up sturdy hiking boots, the requisite walking poles, a Suunto Compass from Finland, and downloaded the latest walking trails into my iphone. Now if only the doctor will give the A-OK on my knee tomorrow, then I will be clambering in and out of volcanic Calderas and hope to scramble up the sides of Mount Pico, the tallest mountain on the islands and if you measure from the ocean floor, the tallest in the world. The weather in Ponta Delgada right now is perfect – mid seventies and sunny — now if only it will stay that way when I arrive at the end of the month.

Fingers crossed!

April 28, 2010, Boston

Anand Mahadevan: The Azores
Anand Mahadevan: Azores

This Fall I will be traveling through and visiting with returnado families in the Azores as I turn my BU MFA thesis into a book-length manuscript.  Azorean families who immigrated to the U.S. and Canada and returned to the islands after long stays in North America are the milieu for my novel, which traces the lives of Indian immigrants in a distinct neighborhood of  Toronto.  I am so excited to live and breathe among the island inhabitants in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.