Friday, July 6, 2012

2012 Azores trip - Day 16

Day 16 – Thursday, July 4, 2012

Our final day in the Azores and to make the 4pm flight we’d need to leave home around 1:30, which gave us the opportunity to have one last fish lunch, prepared by tia Ana, who felt like our second mom by now

We had a great visit with tia Ana over breakfast then I took off on a solo walk as the kids were busy watching a movie and the two Ana’s were deep in conversation.  So I went for my last walk of the trip at a nice slow pace, taking time to try and notice the small things along the way.  The beautifully painted tile work on the buildings, the small, green vines growing out of the stone walls, the voices of the people I passed along the way, the “Se Vende” signs on the houses for sale, the smell of the salty air and, what I remember the most, the long slow rolling of the waves which curled and crashed upon the rocky shoreline.  We had been here for over two weeks now and it’s definitely been our favourite trip to the Azores, likely because the kids are older than previous visits, but we also kept to a reasonable pace, and the weather was excellent.  This is also the first time in my current job (almost five years) that I haven’t taken a Blackberry on vacation to keep up with the email, which is really the only way to have a true break.

We said our good-bye’s to tia Ana and tio Joe, then made our way to the airport, where we met up with several other family members.  We got checked in, then had time for a beer with the family, said good-bye, and were off to the gate, then departed right on time.  As I type, we are on the flight home, and just enjoyed a good meal and a great family movie (We Bought a Zoo).  Looks like we’ll be arriving in Toronto on time and should be back in our house by 8pm if all goes well.

Ana noticed something this morning that really sums up the Azores for us.  It was a short paragraph printed on the side of the milk carton and translated into something like this:

“This is milk from happy cows.  They eat from fresh Azorean pastures and breathe pure island air to the rhythm of nature.  All cows of the world want to live in the Azores!”

If we could only all be so lucky!

2012 Azores trip - Day 15

Day 15 – Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Last night at the big meal we were discussing various aspects of life in the Azores and contrasting it with how things are in Canada.  During the conversation, I said to Antonio, “In Canada, if you want to be normal, you have to be different.”  It often seems that people are so concerned about being unique, or at the cutting edge of something or other, that they all end up doing the same things, which to me, are not normal.  For example, of all of Ana’s family here, not a single one of them has a tattoo, food allergy/intolerance, dog that sleeps with them in bed, follows some goofy diet or has made a conscious decision not to have children.  Wait, tio Luis has a few tattoos, but I’m quite sure they were home jobbies, definitely done before they were in vogue.  It’s almost as if the clock has been turned back fifty years here.  I’m certainly not afraid to say that I find this style of living normal, though I guess that might make me appear old fashioned, which I probably am.

Does it make them happier?  I’m not sure, most people here seem pretty happy, even though they are definitely less well off monetarily than a typical North American would be.  But of course, it’s hard to tell when you are only here on vacation, to really know you would have to live here for a while.  I would have a hard time living here permanently, but could certainly do so for a year or so, and I think we probably will do that at some point, hopefully on a sailboat.

Back to preaching.  I think a good test to apply for anything you want to do in life, is to imagine asking your grandmother if she thinks it’s a good idea.  Like this:

“Grandma, I’m thinking of putting these things in my earlobes which will eventually create giant, permanent, droopy holes.  What do you think?”

“Grandma, I saw this really cool Chinese symbol in a magazine and I’m thinking of getting it tattooed on my neck, do you think I should?”

“Grandma, I haven’t been feeling too good so am thinking of cutting out all foods except strawberries and soy wafers, do you think that’s a good idea?”

As usual, I’m a hypocrite and have done more than my share of stupid things over the years.  Maybe it’s just a part of growing up and getting comfortable in your skin, who knows?  But I do know that both my grandmothers have always been intelligent, resilient, practical, healthy, and role models to all their children so I have always valued their advice.

Anyway, back to our trip in the Azores.  This was our last full day and I must admit, we didn’t do much as the weather turned from hot and sunny to cool and rainy.  I was lucky to finally catch the door to door fish man, so I snapped a photo of him holding a nice conger eel.

The one administrative task we had left to do was to change the address on our bank account which we have here.  Sounds simple?  Well, turns out to change your home address, you had to provide a passport, another piece of id with your address on it, a letter from your employer confirming your employment status, and a copy of your original Portuguese tax id, which they are already have on file.  We were in the bank with a teller and managed to come up with most of this, and the ones we couldn’t, we came up with something else that may or may not meet the requirements, will have to wait and see what the head office says.  See, old fashioned is not always good!

After this, we stopped at a local pottery factory to pick up a few things then went to the cemetery to see Ana’s grandma’s grave.  On this island, they actually dig up the coffins after a certain number of years, take out the bones, then put them into a smaller box, which goes into the family crypt.  We actually noticed a bucket of human bones in the graveyard, soaking in water, and I was thinking that if I was a rock star that would certainly be great inspiration for a song.  I’m thinking there would be a lot of guitar and likely some guttural screaming.

After the bucket of bones, we drove out to the place where they grow these specialty Sao Miguel pineapples.  It took us over an hour to find it, and certainly qualifies as the worst marked tourist destination on the island.  The complex was quite simple – two rows of greenhouses filled with pineapple plants at various stages of development.  Since it’s a working farm, there was really no information displayed anywhere on the process for growing these, which I understand is quite involved.  Once you’ve tasted a sweet and juicy Sao Miguel pineapple, you’ll realize they are obviously not grown the same way others are.  There was also a gift shop on the premises selling all sorts of stuff, beyond the pineapples themselves.

We then went back to Ponta Delgada and strolled around downtown for a while then went for a beer and coffee out on the cruise ship pier.  Oh speaking of that, we found out why we hadn’t seen a cruise ship yet – they only get two or three of them per month.  I was expecting there to be a whole lot more than that, but I guess there’s just not all that many trans-Atlantic cruises.

We had our final dinner at tia Ana’s house, then played some board games with the kids, watched a Brazilian soap opera on television, then called it a night.  Tomorrow we fly home and I’m actually looking forward to our return – it feels like we’ve been gone a very, very long time.  It has been such a fun filled trip, and we’ve been so very comfortable staying with tia Ana and Joe and have pretty much been treated like royalty the whole time we’ve been here.  Can’t ask for more than that.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

2012 Azores trip - Day 14

Day 14 – Tuesday, July 3, 2012

As the end of our trip loomed, Ana grabbed the guidebook to see if there was anything on the island we may have missed, and she found a place called Ponta da Ferraria, which is some sort of natural hot springs in the ocean and is located on the western side part of the island.  So after breakfast we packed up and drove there, along the way stopping at a lovely cafe up on a cliff overlooking a calm and deep blue ocean.

The hot springs themselves are on private property and a small complex has been built which houses a restaurant and what looks like a very nice spa.  You have to pay to get into the hot pools, and when we arrived it was occupied by a bunch of old tourists, floating around farting, so we decided to save the eight euro each and the hot pool the cold shoulder.  A short walk away down a lovely lava rock path is an area with a natural ocean pool, which we explored but decided not to go swimming.  The best part of the experience was actually the awesome view overlooking the whole area, which we stopped at before driving down the half dozen steep switchbacks which led to the complex.

We then drove to the town of Misteiros, which is located on the western-most point of Sao Miguel.  We had been here on previous trips, and weren’t overly impressed, but this time was a much different experience, perhaps because the weather was so beautiful, or perhaps because we weren’t dealing with screaming babies and poo poo diapers, but in any case, this was one of the best afternoons of the trip.

We first took a drive around town, went for a quick stroll to see the beach, whose jet black sand looked extremely hot, then found the natural pools, which looked like a lovely place to spend some time.  But first.....lunch!  We went to a seafood restaurant close to the pools, which actually looked sort of touristy, but served an excellent lunch and offered the cheapest 50cl mug of beer I’ve had yet at the bargain price of one euro and fifty cents.  I had a plate of swordfish, which was cooked perfectly, but the one thing that I’ve noticed is that there is little variety of vegetables served with meals.  Considering they can grow pretty much any type of plant on this island, meals are almost always served with boiled potatoes or french fries and sometimes a small garden salad.  And always bread, lots of bread.  Haven’t any broccoli, cauliflower, peas, carrots, asparagus, or any of the other vegetables you might typically see served in a North American restaurant.  Maybe that’s why the kids have been eating so well.

After lunch, we went back to the pools and found an amazing spot which we had to ourselves all afternoon.  It was a set of two natural ocean water pools nestled into the black volcanic rocks, hidden away from view.  As the ocean waves rolled in, the larger ones would surge into the bigger pool, then the water would cascade into the smaller pool and then empty back into the ocean.  The pools were large enough to snorkel in, which we did, and found all sorts of fish, crabs, coral and a bunch of the tiny creatures which resembled mini lobsters.  The water was cool, refreshing and crystal clear, so a perfect relief from a hot day.  Ana and Stella found a nice flat spot on the rocks, laid down some towels, and did a couple hours of sun tanning, while Magnus and I swam around and did some exploring in the rocks, looking for crabs. 

The entire time we were enjoying this paradise, we couldn’t figure out why there were no other people around, but as we left and drove a bit further up the road, we found another natural pool area which is where everybody was, likely because it also had a sand beach, change rooms and a small cafe.

We decided to head back and drove to Ana’s cousin Carmelia’s house, where they were having a big dinner.  Ana’s dad had told everybody that we were leaving on the Wednesday (it’s actually Thursday), probably to sneak in another massive family gathering, so there was a huge crowd, pretty much all the same people who had joined in at the previous feedings.  They have a lovely outdoor dining area and outdoor kitchen and had cooked the entire meal in a wood burning oven.  As usual, there was plenty of food and wine and the dinner lasted until well after dark.  We arrived back at tia Ana’s house feeling well tanned, well fed and ready for bed.

2012 Azores trip - Day 13

Day 13 – Monday, July 2, 2012

We went to Ponta Delgada in the morning to confirm our flights and also to buy two of the cooking stones so that we could cook those nice filet mignons back at home.  The night before, after 11 consecutive days of fish, Magnus and Stella finally said, “Fish again?” when faced with another fishy dinner.  So Ana and I decided to take them to McDonalds for lunch, which was officially and undoubtedly the worst meal of the trip, at least for me.

After lunch, we took off for the waterslide park in Vila Franca and spent the afternoon riding the slides and enjoying the lovely hot weather.  The only bad part of the day was when some little kid, who was a little “deficient”, as they say in Portuguese, whipped down his swimsuit, and peed all over his little brother who was sitting happily in the paddling pool.  Then he came over to me and starting asking me where to find somebody called John.  Considering half of the men in Portugal are named John, I couldn’t really help him, so he eventually shuffled off and I got back to doing nothing, and remained doing so for the rest of the day.

2012 Azores trip - Day 12

Day 12 – Sunday, July 1, 2012

Lazy Sunday.  We went for a big walk in the morning, had a nice fish lunch with tia Ana, then sat on a blanket out on the balcony enjoying the sunshine for a couple hours.  We left around 3pm and drove over to cousin Natercia’s house for an afternoon visit and, of course, meal.

Natercia and Paul live in an ancient part of the island called Socas.  Leading to their house is a twisty, single lane road flanked by ten to twenty foot rock walls.  Their house is also old, but has been renovated and is very nice and roomy inside.  Like everybody else, they have a huge backyard, which is home to egg laying hens, a big fat piggy and a wide array of fruit trees.  After a tour of the house and property, we set up shop at the table under the covered patio and prepare to polish off yet more food and drinks.

People of the Iberian peninsula, namely Spain and Portugal, are the masters of the meat snack.  On the table before us are at least half a dozen different types of meat treats.  First, there’s a nice little bowl of blood sausage filling, called morcela, but without the casing, so perfect for wiping on crackers or bread.  Next are four different types of meat based pastes, again used to lather on a suitable bread based host.  There is a plate of sliced chorizo sausage, but there are much skinnier than normal, and have a flaky crust that almost looks like it’s been double fried.  There is a tray of toothpick-lanced meat chunks, half of which are like sliced wieners, but not the junky kind we’re used to, these are a different colour and absolutely delicious.  The other half are cubes of meat which look something like head cheese and are very tasty.

Besides the meat, there are fresh buns, corn bread, olives, peanuts, fava beans, pickled onions, several types of cheeses and a bowl of delicious, boiled quail eggs.  The fridge is packed with beer, so we have everything we need to plant our butts on the chair and remain so for several hours.

Midway through the meal, Paul appears with what looks like a paint gun, and proceeds to give us a demonstration of its power.  His first target is the ancient rock wall, then he next focuses his attention on a shed at the back of the yard, then a wooden chair.  This is when his unloved white cat, who obviously has terrible timing, appears on the top of the fence and Paul shoots him in the head with a green paintball right on his first shot, clearly he is an expert marksman.  We didn’t see the cat again that day, but I bet he looked pretty cool with a green face.

Natercia then took us on a walk to see a nearby religious site called Santa da Lapinha.  As we walked through the winding streets, some neighbours also joined in for the mini pilgrimage, so by the time we got there we were a formidable group.  The path to the actual shrine led us through a thick forest, where one of the neighbours pointed out a tree, then pulled off a leaf and gave it to me to smell.  It was a bay leaf!

The shrine itself consisted of one small chapel, which had some religious icons, plants and flowers inside, and a grotto built over top of a small cavern, inside which was a sultry looking statue of a young woman, in a somewhat suggestive pose, surrounded by flowers.  We heard stories from two of the group as to the origins of this place, though the stories didn’t really jive, so this may be another Wikipedia project when I get home.  In any case, Ana’s mom remembered coming here nearly every Sunday when she was a child, after first attending church then visiting a nearby orphanage.  I suppose it could be quite a tranquil and holy place, but with well over a dozen crazy Portuguese people talking, waving their arms around, kicking soccer balls and laughing, it feels much more like a festival.

We enjoy a nice walk back to Natercia’s house, on the way getting pulled over by a different neighbour and forced to drink some delicious home made liqueur, then sit down to enjoy some more food and drinks, then head home and crash for the night.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

2012 Azores trip - Day 11

Day 11 – Saturday, June 30, 2012

The weekend arrived, which meant another massive lunch at a family gathering, this time at the home of Antonio and Manuela, who live on an acreage in the north-western part of the island, near a town called Finais da Luz.  We decided to do some exploring on the north coast before lunch so left home after breakfast and drove to Ribeira Grand, which is the second largest city on the island.  Last time we were in the Azores we visited this city briefly, but didn’t find much of interest, so figured we must have missed something.  Well, turns out we didn’t.  There is a new pool complex, which is very nice, and a river flowing through the city but beyond that, it is about the least interesting place we’ve been on the island.  We walked through what seemed to be the main shopping area and even Ana couldn’t find anything interesting there.  The only place which was busy was the one big shopping centre outside of downtown, called Sol-Mar Continente, which is pretty much like a Canadian Superstore or an American Target.  Maybe this is what sucked the life out of downtown?  Once again, it reminded us of the deficiencies of North America, where you have big box stores built well outside the residential areas, necessitating a car to do your shopping.

After Ribeira Grand, we drove west along the coastal road to see the next town over, which is called Rabo de Peixe – the biggest fishing centre on the island.  Well, you could smell the fish a mile away so it wasn’t hard to find the fishing harbour.  This town too didn’t have much to offer and looked to be quite run.  It is known as one of the poorer parts of the island, so that really didn’t come as much of a surprise.  The entire north coast is a lot different than the south as the ocean side is mainly rocky, there are few beaches and the ocean is generally much rougher.
It took us a while to find the town we were supposed to meet Ana’s cousin, mainly because we had switched rental cars the day before and forgot our map in the old one, but, like anywhere on Sao Miguel, if you do manage to get lost, you won’t stay lost for too long as most places are well signed and people are happy to give directions when you stop to ask.  Of course, it helps if you speak Portuguese, or better yet if your wife speaks Portuguese, then you can just sit in the car, listen to the radio, and watch the arms flailing around and vigorous nodding as directions are given.

We arrived to a beehive of activity as everybody in sight seemed to have been assigned a job; Tio Luiz was weeding the front garden, Tio Manuel was crawling around in the bushes doing something, somebody else was cutting the grass, the ladies were all in the house preparing lunch, and even the kids were busy feeding the horse.  I grabbed a pair of gloves and helped Tio Luiz weed for a while, then found the beer fridge and henceforth avoided any sort of work activity for the rest of the afternoon.

The lunch was ridiculously diverse, massive, delicious and long.  Every species of edible animal was present and accounted for and they seemed to have budgeted two litres of wine per person, which seemed about right to me.  After lunch, we miraculously mustered the energy for a barefoot soccer game, thanks to Magnus’ pestering.  Their giant backyard includes a huge soccer pitch, so we started with an exhibition match which included many of the kids and ladies, using a giant bouncy exercise ball, which Stella took directly in the face early in the match which put her out of competition.  After a short beer break, and Magnus’ insistent pestering, we put together a three per side match and played some hard soccer.  Both Magnus and sustained toe injuries, which is expected, but despite our valiant efforts, we lost by one goal.

I was informed that this was a two phase lunch, so we sat down and ate again, which was good because I think I used up most of the previously consumed calories in the soccer game.  As we were eating, I noticed the speed and fury with which Tio Luiz was eating, and had John ask him how he managed to stay so scrawny with the amount of food and booze he consumes.  He said, simply, that the more he eats, the fatter his wife gets.  I didn’t probe for more details.

After second lunch, Antonio took the kids out in the back of the property and let them feed and sit on the horse.  Stella, in particular, absolutely loved it and had us take plenty of pictures.
The “lunch” finished around 9pm, so we packed up and head back home, stopping for a coffee at one of the beach restaurants along the way.  And we were instructed to show up the next day at cousin Natarcia’s house for family dinner at 3pm to do it all again.

2012 Azores trip - Day 10

Day 10 – Friday, June 29, 2012

I really struggle with Portuguese.  Even after over ten years of being around Portuguese speakers, I can still hardly say anything beyond the absolute basics.  I think my problem first started after we had visited Brazil, where I had taken Portuguese lessons for a week, intent on learning enough to be able to talk with Ana’s mom, who doesn’t speak much English.  On our first visit back to Ana’s parent’s house, I came face to face with Maria and said, “Bom dia”, which means “Good morning”.  She turned to Ana and said in Portuguese, “What did he say?”  So I said it again to her, as clearly as I could, but still nothing.  So Ana said to her, “He’s saying bom dia”.  Then Maria said, or at least what I think she said was, “Ohhh, bom dia.  Well what’s he trying to speak Portuguese for, he can’t speak Portuguese, he speaks English.  Why doesn’t he just speak English?”

I think that was the last time I made an effort.  Maria really does prefer English, she actually understands quite a bit, but just doesn’t like saying much.

So it’s mostly my fault, but I must say the language itself is pretty damn confusing, especially when surrounded by island people who have been in Canada for 40 years fully butchering both languages.  I could write a book on the craziness of Azorean “Portuguinglish”, especially the dialect invented by Ana’s dad.  As he’s gotten older, we’ve noticed he cares less and less about getting words right so if you don’t understand what he’s saying, too bad for you.

Today we had an interesting conversation about lunch.  We were telling tia Ana about ordering lunch in Terceira, and how Ana’s folks didn’t get what they were expecting.  It all hinged on the word “choulleta”.  In the Azores, choulleta seems to mean “pork chops”.  Ana’s parents use choulleta to mean “ribs”.  They call pork chops “pork chopsh”.  In the Azores, ribs are called “entrecostas”.  But considering her parents are from the Azores, I don’t know what the hell happened to this word in their 40 year absence.  This led to a conversation about the words for lunch and dinner.  They couldn’t seem to agree on the right Portuguese words for this.  C’mon folks, if three people from the same village can’t agree on what to call a pork chop or the right word for lunch, my chances of learning this strange language are slim.

We spent the morning doing laundry and relaxing around the house then took off around 1pm for Villa Franca to check out a new waterslide park.  We arrived to find a beautiful new complex built right next to an amazing beach...but they weren’t actually open for the season yet until the weekend.  So we got settled on the beach and sent the kids off exploring.  The beach was sparsely populated when we first arrived, but as the afternoon went on more and more people arrived.  One thing we’ve noticed since being here are how fit people are, in fact, there are very few obese people at all.  When you take a good look at their lifestyle, especially compared to ours, it is no mystery.  Their diet consists mainly of fresh fish, fresh bread, fresh vegetables and small amounts of fresh meat, nearly all of which could probably be considered “organic”, whatever that word means now.  The reason I know it’s organic is because they don’t use the word “organic” here – it’s not necessary.  And the apples, lemons, pears, and other fruits are not perfect round and waxed.  Also, the strawberries actually taste like strawberries.

Besides the food, most people walk everywhere, and it’s a very hilly landscape.  Also, the towns are so dense that everything you need is within walking distance so there’s no need to use a vehicle most of the time.  Besides that, even owning a vehicle is beyond the financial means of many people so it’s not even an option.  In the Azores, they have a siesta period mid day which is basically a two hour lunch break where everybody has time to go him and have a big lunch, which is the primary meal of the day.  Then they work until 6 or 7 in the evening and have a small meal when they get home.  Contrast this to our meal routine where we usually have a small, fast breakfast, if we have time, then snack on junk all day long, and get home to prepare a giant, heavy meal, right at the end of the day when your body least requires it.

So later in the afternoon, we waded through the sea of fit birds and ripped ab boys (I made sure to suck in my gut) over to the marina, which was close to the beach, and found a nice cafe to have a coffee.  Actually, I had a beer, Ana had a coffee and the kids had ice cream, which is our standard mid afternoon cafe routine.  The marina here was smaller than the others we’ve seen, but very nice, and about three quarters of the slips were occupied, mainly by smaller power boat, but also one or two larger boats and a few sailboats.  And yes, every time we are sitting at a marina-side cafe we do imagine ourselves docked there with our sailboat, living this lovely lifestyle described above.  And the best thing about this fantasy, is that it wouldn’t have to be a fantasy at all – the price to dock a boat is less than 300 euro per month, which includes everything, so beyond that the only expenses you would have is food (cheap), wine (cheap) and clothing (optional).  I am now quite sure that our future holds a sailing trip across the Atlantic with a few months spent in the Azores exploring the islands.  Now that is something to look forward to!

After our beach day, we head back to tia Ana’s house.  Oh, remember a couple days ago when I was talking about taking your kids everywhere, not dumping them off with the family, blah blah blah?  Well forget all that, not sure what I was thinking - we dumped the kids with tia Ana for the night and took off on our own for a couples night.

We were thrilled to find that our favourite restaurant, called “Beach” from our last trip five years ago was still here, located next to the beach area called “Praia das Melisias”.  And they still served our favourite meal, called “Bife no pedra” which is “beef on a rock”.  Imagine a 16 ounce piece of raw filet mignon served on a 500 degree lava rock, brought to your table where you cook it to your liking.  The rock somehow holds this intense heat long enough for you to cook the meat and enjoy a nice slow, long meal.  The waiter told us where to buy the stones so we’re planning on picking up a couple of them tomorrow so next time we invite you over for dinner, there might be an interesting meal in store for you!

After the meal, we went down to the city centre in Ponta Delgada, went for coffee and dessert, then hung around the Portas do Mare for a while.  As it was Friday night, the place was swarming with people, almost entirely locals, and all the restaurants and bars were quite busy.  It occurred to us that we still hadn’t seen a cruise ship in port yet, which seemed strange, considering the enormity of the port expansion and the impressive facilities, but maybe there still aren’t that many ships coming though?  Or maybe the peak season is July and August?
After our lovely couples night, we returned home sometime after 11 to find the kids still up watching a movie.  They had a nice time with tia Ana which was no surprise to us, so we spent a little bit of time with them then got them into bed, and followed suit shortly after that.

2012 Azores trip - Day 9

Day 9 – Thursday, June 28, 2012

Morning arrived and there was no time to waste as the ferry back to Sao Miguel would be leaving at 19:15 sharp and we had a lot of ground to cover.  The hotel, which was 50 euro per night, included a nice breakfast of fresh buns, cheese, sliced meat, cereal, juice, bananas and coffee.  We threw our bags in the car then embarked on a walk to explore the town, finding the winding streets much easier to navigate with the help of daylight.  We went down to the marina and found a huge, flat, freshly groomed beach, a beautiful cobblestone walkway, promenade with restaurants, shops, all of which was in the shadow of a cliff which had a huge obelisk topped with a bronze statue of Mary, and what looked like a stone walkway cut into the hill.

After a long walk, a stop at a grocery store to pick up snacks and check out the wine deals (99 cents a bottle for white, 1.59 for red), then a coffee break at an outdoor cafe, we assumed the sardine position and packed into our small car, headed for the capital of Terceira, called Angra do Heroismo.  I had asked a few people what the word “Angra” meant, but nobody seemed to know so I’m going to have to visit my old friend once we were back home where online time was not an infrequent luxury.  We decided to take the highway there to save some time so in less than half an hour we had cut across a third of the island and were in Angra.  The landscapes were similar to Sao Miguel, though John did notice that the land was almost all pasture and there were hardly any crops planted.   This made the thousands of cows we saw everywhere very happy.

As we entered Angra we realized we had no plan, no destination, no good map and no clue where we were going so just started following the traffic and soon found ourselves in the centre of the city.  We spotted what looked like a castle, so tried to get there and got stuck into the same pattern as the night before – lots of dead ends, steep hills, narrow streets, one way wrong ways and wild reversing.  We eventually gave up and simply found a parking spot and set out on foot.  The downtown area was frantic – full of shops, people and activity, actually quite different from the centre of Ponta Delgada, which is less dense.

The main claim to fame of Terceira is bullfighting and “bull chasing”.  The former is as you imagine but the latter is completely unique to this island.  The way it seems to work is like this: all the men of Terceira between the ages of 15 and 75 pile into the streets, start drinking at ten in the morning and drink all day long, awaiting the arrival and release of the bulls.  At some point, a big, mean black bull, tethered by a rope to five guys in white suits, is released into the mob.  The drunken dudes have all sorts of items to taunt the bull with, including red flags, umbrellas and assorted projectiles and proceed to do so until the bull is furious and charges the closest person.  Since everybody is drunk, they can’t run as fast as usual and the bull picks off the slowest dude and flips him up in the air, waits for him to do a header into the stone street, then stomps him down.  Since the participants are feeling no pain, they are usually able to pull their injured bodies out of harm’s way before the bull actually kills them, unless they are knocked unconscious, which happens regularly.  If they remain lucid, they then run for the safety of high ground or just jump into any open window.  The bulls have become very smart over the years and are capable of a lengthy pursuit so often smash down the door of the house and chase the victim down until he either gets stomped again or jumps back out the open window and lands on the road.  The bulls can also climb stairs, jump fences and destroy walls so this provides all sorts of opportunity for innocent bystanders to get gored, stomped, knocked over, heart-attacked, head-butted, throttled, dunked and otherwise injured or at least scared nearly to death.

How do I know all this?  Well, every second store we passed had a television in the window playing bull attack videos from years gone passed.  The women had to pry Magnus and I from each screen as it was the funniest thing we’d seen thus far on the trip, though the ladies didn’t agree, except Stella – of course she liked it.  We were tempted to buy one of the videos for twenty euro, but by the end of the day I think we had seen the entirety of pretty much every video.

We stopped for lunch at a nifty cafeteria style restaurant in the marina.  Every meal came out topped with a fried egg, and if there’s anything I’ve learned in Portugal, it’s that you can slap a fried egg on any type of food and it will taste better.  Maria and I polished off a full bottle of wine, which gave our faces a healthy glow and made my jokes for the rest of the day much funnier, at least to Maria and I.

The waitress at the restaurant drew us a fantastic map to the castle and `Monte Brasil` so we walked back to the car and did manage to find it, though the streets were so poorly market it would have been impossible otherwise.  The castle itself was now an active military base, so we couldn`t get in, but we did explore the mountain, which had the best views on the island, and even a small zoo on top.  It was then we realized that we haven`t yet had to pay admission to get into any of these amazing places.

It was then about three in the afternoon so we decided to head back and spend the rest of the afternoon hanging out in Praia da Vitoria.  We thought of taking the backroads along the coast, but the sketchy map we had didn`t really show any good roads along the coast so we blasted back on the highway.  Once back, we parked down by the beach, the ladies and Magnus went shopping, John hit the beer patio and Stella and I went for a walk.  We explored the marina then decided to see if we could climb all the stairs up the mountain.  I had my doubts that Stella could make it but was proven completely wrong as she charged all the way up the 289 ancient stone steps all the way to the top, what a trooper!  And I was happy to find that my new sandals stood up well to the rigors of mountain climbing, I`m sure happy I decided to buy new sandals, I tried telling Ana those crummy old ones were no good, but sometimes she just doesn`t listen.  We snapped a couple photos then did our descent and joined John back on the patio for celebratory drinks.  The ladies arrived soon after then, and before long we were back in the car and off to the ferry terminal.

The trip back was smooth and uneventful and three hours later were back in home port.  We squeezed into the car one last time and returned to tia Ana`s house full of stories, but ready for bed.

2012 Azores trip - Day 8

Day 8 – Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Today was going to be a bit different, as we planned to take a 24 hour trip to Terceira, which is the second most populated island in the Azorean chain, and located approximately 75 miles north-west of Sao Miguel.  Ana’s mom and dad had decided to come with us so Ana took off first thing in the morning to pick up her mom and buy the tickets, then go out and do some shopping, unencumbered by children and husband.  For some strange reason, both the kids wanted to join her on the shopping expedition but I talked them into staying with me with promises of adventure and ice cream.  All they really cared about was the ice cream.

Before leaving for the day, I had to snap a photo of the day’s planned evening meal – bottled German hot dogs and a nice fresh cavala fish, the wieners obviously for the strange North Americans.  After breakfast we walked down to the Lagoa pools and though it was drizzling a bit at first, the clouds broke up and it turned into a lovely, warm sunny day.  The natural ocean pools make it a paradise for exploring, and Magnus spent two hours scouring the rocks in search of crabs and any other marine life which crossed his path, while Stella and I lounged around and swam a bit.  We noticed one of the lifeguards pointing to something out in the sea and we looked to find a huge pod of dolphins heading towards us so we jumped on the highest rock we could find and watched them speeding and leaping through the water, locked in a race to get....whereever they were going.  Stella was quite thrilled to see them, and we did call Magnus over to see but he was much too busy crab hunting and couldn’t be bothered.

Ana arrived some time later and we had a nice lunch at the poolside snack bar, then all went for a swim in the invigorating ocean water, which was probably about 19 degrees so provided a bit of a shock upon entry.  Magnus and I put on the masks and did some snorkeling, along the way finding a few crab shells, sea cucumbers, crab claws and saw hundreds of nice tropical fish.

After the pools, we head back to tia Ana’s house for a quick bite, packed up our stuff, then head down to the ferry terminal.  We were able to take a car with us for an extra twenty euro so I drove the car in and the others went through the passenger line and we all met up inside.  The ferry was huge and inside had a store, a restaurant, televisions and plenty of comfortable seats and tables.  As the seas were flat the crossing was smooth so the only concern was the outcome of the Portugal/Spain soccer game, which was playing on the radios as the tv signal didn’t reach the boat out in the water.  At full time, the match remained scoreless and, sadly, Portugal lost in penalty kicks. Fortunately, the Portuguese are not completely insane, so there was no violent uprising.  If it had been an England match on the same ferry, and England lost, those limey blokes would have started smashing the place up, ripping out seats, overturning the popcorn machine, and demanding more beer.  The Portuguese accepted the defeat gracefully and were probably glad it was at least a close match.

3.5 hours later the ferry docked at the town of Praia da Vitoria, which is located on the east side of the island.  We piled into the car and head off to the city centre in search of the hotel we booked, called Espirito Santo, for which we had an address, but no clear directions.  The towns are so densely packed that addresses don’t often help you much anyway, the only way to find places are to know the landmarks.  So we drove up and down winding streets, around roundabouts, back up the same streets, through one way streets the wrong way, up a pedestrian only walkway which sure looked like a road to me, then nearly down a staircase which I didn’t notice but was saved by Ana’s dad screaming at me and pointing furiously.  We finally pulled over and Ana asked some folks at a cafe, who set us in the right direction and we were able to find it.  They checked us in quickly and took us to our rooms, which were simple but very clean and would do nicely for the night.

2012 Azores trip - Day 7

Three weeks before the start of our trip, I was summoned by my wife to the spare room to start packing.  Since our marriage, I have relinquished all packing responsibility to Ana, as she completely rejects my traditional packing system (developed and perfected in the bachelor days), which is to assemble your requirements exactly one half hour before leaving for the airport, usually in a state of hangover.  If you can’t find a suitable luggage, it’s perfectly fine to use a plastic grocery bag, just make sure you tie the handles together so nothing falls out.  Now the rationale behind this is simple – when you are packing under pressure, you will ensure that you get everything you need for the trip.  Packing in advance of this only results in over thinking your requirements and trying to take along everything you could ever want.  But like many other bacheloral standard operating procedures, I’ve found that in marriage it’s better to just give up and give in, so you can get back to watching tv instead of scrapping with your wife and save yourself a whole lot of stress in the process.

One of the decisions I was asked to make was which shoes to take.  Now Ana had run every possible Azorean social circumstance she was likely to encounter through her mind and come up with the exact five pairs of shoes she would need to satisfy the requirements.  The way I saw it, the majority of the time would be spent drinking and eating with family, and I could definitely remain shoeless for that.  Getting to and from the airport would require some sort of foot wear, as would any serious walking excursions.  I wasn’t planning on attending any formal occasions, so my requirements boiled down to one pair of running shoes and one pair of sandals.  I only have one pair of running shoes, so that was easy.  I own several pairs of sandals so I now had to narrow those down to the right pair.  I wanted to take my Pakistani chappals, but Ana said they were too heavy for the luggage.  Another pair I have are quite comfortable, but often fall off when walking, plus they make me trip, so those were out.  Flip flops are okay, but not good for longer strolls, because of that plastic stopper between the big toe and second toe which will eventually slice through your skin like cheese.  So I was left with my all time favourite, multi-purpose, twenty dollar, ten year old Payless Shoes sandals.  They were comfortable for walking, airy, broken in, proven effective, and in the past, had got me through everything from wedding receptions to all night drinking parties to concrete work to soccer games to ten mile jogs.  When I found them in the garage they were caked in mud from the last building project we did in our backyard, but Ana did agree to wash them and give them an inspection, which they somehow miraculously passed, though I had to do a lot of convincing.  I did know that the Velcro fasteners were full of fuzz and didn’t really work anymore, some of the threading was coming out, and they were pretty close to falling apart completely, but I figured they had at least another 18 months of life left in them.

Well, yesterday, my sandals were declared dead.  On the way home Magnus was convinced I had stepped in bird poo, so I had to show him the bottom of my shoes to prove this was not so.  The left one looked fine, but there was definitely something wrong with the right one – half the sole had disintegrated.  That explained that strange hollow feeling I was starting to feel in the middle of the shoe, plus the small bits of rubber tia Ana had been finding on the floors.  Fortunately, this was a simple fix, once we arrived back at tia Ana’s house she got me some masking tape and six winds later the sole was successfully repacked and reattached to the sandal, and they actually stayed on better too so I thought the problem was solved.  Well, Ana banned the sandals from leaving the house, though I was still allowed to play soccer with them, although I must admit feeling a bit of doubt creep into my mind when, after a huge kick, my left sandal flew off and nearly cleared the fence into the neighbour’s yard, which is inhabited by three vicious dogs who would have eaten it.

After this I pleaded with Ana, “Please don’t turn this into a shopping mission.  I know what you’re like, you’re going to drag us to the shops and force me to buy new sandals.  I don’t want new sandals.  I’ll just wear my running shoes, I really don’t care.  Honestly.”

So this morning I put on my running shoes and we took off for Ponta Delgada, on the way stopping at a cafe which had wireless access to check email and post the blogs.  Once we got downtown, we strolled around for a while, passing a couple shoe stores which she suggested we go into and I flatly refused, then after that narrow escape we went to the pools, which had been newly constructed a couple years before and looked fantastic.  We spent a few hours there enjoying the sun and salt water pools then walked over to the Portas du Mare for a nice seaside lunch.  This is when Ana went on the attack, mentioning the shoe stores and sandal shopping.  I didn’t even object, because I know there was no way out.  I could either get cranky and refuse to go, in which case she would keep picking at me until I gave up, or I could give in, get some sandals, and get back to doing fun stuff.  It only took five shoe stores until I had a pair of nice sandals, which set me back sixty euro, but now I could trot in peace.  And they really were very comfortable.

We spend a nice evening back at tia Ana’s house and I tested out the new footwear in a rollicking soccer match in the backyard.  I did lose by one goal, but the sandals stayed on my feet the entire match so it was a great success.