Monday, April 16, 2018

Azores 2018 : Day 16 - An icy return to Canada

We were packed up and out of the apartment by 8:30. Realizing we had some extra time before we had to be at the airport, we made one final stop in the town of Machico. It is one of the few places on the island that has a beach, so we found a cafe and enjoyed a final, ocean-side coffee before heading off to the airport to catch our flight.

The flight home was long, but good, at least until we got close to Toronto where there was a wicked ice storm in progress, delaying our landing by over an hour. Then we had to deal with international arrivals at Pearson terminal 3, which was a mess as usual. They have installed a vast number of these fancy immigration machines that are supposed to automate the arrivals process, but they also make you stand in four separate lines just to make sure you don’t get through too fast. You first stand in line for the machines. After that you stand in line for somebody to look at the receipt the machine produced. You are then either directed to the next stage or to another queue to speak with a regular immigration agent (just like the old process), where they ask you a bunch of intrusive, irrelevant questions and then write a secret code on your receipt. It seemed that well over half of the people arriving were directed here. You then stand in line at another queue where somebody looks at the receipt and the secret code written on it, and they can send you to a different queue for additional screening and inspection. If you make it this far you finally get to the baggage area and wonder what third world country you’ve dropped into - there’s two tiny tv screens listing flights and baggage areas, and they’ve put the screens right at the entrance so everybody had to stop there and look at it, blocking all the people coming up behind them. Out of the 3000 people jammed into the baggage collection area, about half of these need to use a bathroom, and they’ve got a grand total of two small bathrooms - one for men and one for ladies, which are always an utter disaster. The baggage trolleys are now free, but my favourite Pearson process was years ago when all the baggage trolleys were tied up in a machine and you had to put in a loonie to get one, and there was nowhere to get change. But that didn’t matter, because most foreigners wouldn’t have any Canadian cash yet anyway, so the carts often went unused. When your bags finally arrive, you must go through yet another queue where they reserve the right to send you off into further inspection of your bags.

Here’s how it works in Europe. You get off the plane and go into immigration. There are lines for EU passport holders, which they always breeze right through, and lines for other passport holders, where you must talk to an immigration officer. They never ask you where you work, or what three countries you last visited, the name of the place you are staying at, or much of anything else. After this you get your bags and then walk through either the “Something to Declare” aisle or the “Nothing to Declare” aisle. At the second one they pull random people out to check their bags. At the first you show them what you have. And then you are done.

Sorry, I had to get that out. Canadian and US airports, their security and their processes are simply horrible. I really don’t know why this is, but over the years of traveling to so many different countries, the only place where we consistently and predictably have problems, inexplicable delays, and terrible treatment are in Canada and the US. And no, I do not feel safer for it.

It took nearly three hours from the time we landed to when we were finally at our van, and just under ten minutes to chip off the quarter inch thick sheet of ice that had accumulated on all the windows. We considered getting a hotel for the night, as the roads were horrible and risky, but in the end, we really wanted to get home so we took our time on the roads, kept each other awake, and made it home before 1 am.


Man, was I in a bad mood when I wrote that! Now that I’ve recovered from my Pearson airport experience I can think clearly.

We had such a fantastic trip. Seeing all the family again in Sao Miguel was just the best. They are all such lovable and fun people, with hearts of gold and a sense of hospitality that is enviable. Ana and I always feel so comfortable there and find that the values they hold match so well with ours. I do think that in the future if we do not end up living there, then we will definitely be spending substantial amounts of time in the Azores. And the way I see it, living on a boat could be a perfect fit - spend the summers in the Azores or the Mediterranean and the winters in the Caribbean. Sounds like a dream, no?

Adding on the Madeira portion of the trip really capped off the vacation. Seeing a brand-new place, exploring, and getting that extra couple degrees of temperature was simply fantastic. We even managed to return home with a bit of a sun tan.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Azores 2018 : Day 15 - A final walk, a mango tree

On this, our last day in Madeira, I had only one request - to go on a levada walk. The levadas are stone and concrete irrigation channels that began being built in the 1400’s, but the most recent of which were constructed in the 1950’s. They were built for transporting the ample quantities of rain water that fell in the mountains in the north and west of the island to the more populated south and east where most of the productive farmland was located. In yet another miracle of engineering on this fascinating island, these 2000 kilometres of levadas were built mainly by hand and run through mountains, valleys and forests, all built with sufficient slope to get the water to where it is needed. To maintain these levadas, small trails were built beside them and then “levada-keepers” are assigned to particular stretches to ensure they are kept free of debris and do not develop leaks. Although not originally intended for this purpose, the levada trails are a hiker’s dream.

I did a bit of basic research and found one that was very close to Funchal, so we drove to Jasmin’s Tea House, one of the access points on this 10-kilometer-long trail. This quaint tea house is run by an English couple and sits on a hillside, overlooking the ocean, with its outdoor patio completely enveloped by jasmine bushes and many other flowers, giving off an intensely intoxicating aroma. We enjoyed a most lovely cup of tea, and in such situation our young Stella always develops a right proper English accent, that drives her brother mad. Before long Ana started joining in with the accent and Magnus nearly threw himself over the jasmine bushes. Fortunately, they stopped just seconds before he was ready to jump.

We met a lovely lady who I think was the mother of the owner. She had been living in Madeira for 20 years and told us all about life here, and how it’s changed so much over the years. She also told us a love story about how her and her Portuguese husband met each other, after each losing their spouses, and have lived their happily ever after in Madeira ever since.

The levada walk was serene, and quite unlike anything I’ve experienced before. Although it was located just on the outskirts of Funchal, most of the trail ran through forest, and there was little sign of civilization. The levada channel itself seemed to be about three feet wide with perhaps 18 inches of water, but the capacity to hold twice that. As I looked at it, I could imagine trying a couple of pool noodles around my waist, jumping in, and enjoying the longest Lazy River in the world!

During the walk we passed a few houses, one which had a barn full of chickens we could smell far before we reached it, one other tea house, and about six other hikers in the span of a 90-minute hike. The family was initially not too keen on doing the hike with me, as we seem to have gotten more than we bargained for on the previous hikes this trip, but this one was flat and easy. I admit, this was just a very small taste of the levada walks that are available on the island, so the next time we visit (on our own boat…if all goes well!) I would love to do more of these. Actually, I would like to hike all of them.

This was our last day and therefore our final chance to absorb some sunshine before returning to the miserable weather they are currently experiencing in Ontario. After the levada walk we drove to the Lido swimming complex in the west end of Funchal, where most of the large hotels are located. It was only about 18 or 19 degrees, but it was quite sunny, so that was just warm enough to be able to lie in beach chairs for two hours and slowly roast. It felt great and I think both Ana and I fell asleep for a while. The water in the pool was quite cold, but both of the kids went in for a short swim, but I was just too lazy and comfortable to take the plunge.

We left at 3:30 to ensure we could get a parking spot back at the apartment, which we did, and then Ana and I enjoyed a drink on our balcony while the kids did some homework. We talked about the Azores, we talked about Madeira, and of course we talked about future vacation ideas, which is what we nearly always do at the end of a vacation. Gotta have two trips in the hopper!

Our final dinner was at a restaurant called Jardin de Carrera. The grubby front of the restaurant opened into a huge, beautiful courtyard that had a nice garden, a patch of banana trees and, incredibly, a giant mango tree, with ripe green mangos hanging off its branches. I finally got a chance to eat lapas, which are these small, local clams in star shaped shells that are cooked in garlic and butter and are predictably delicious. As we ate, Ana watched as a ripe mango fell from the tree and hit the ground. I went over, picked it up, and put it on our table with the thought of slicing it up later for dessert, but the waiter came by and grabbed it, plus another he had found, and returned at the end of the meal with our mangoes carefully sliced up and arranged on a plate, ready to eat. He received a handsome tip.

With that, we wrapped up our final day in Madeira.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Azores 2018 : Day 14 - Hipster cut

I got a haircut today. After trying to find a barber shop in the Azores that was open and didn’t have six people waiting in line, I had given up. But today I passed two of them, and the second one was in the back of a tattoo shop where they were playing great hip-hop music, so I slipped in, sat down, and asked for a cool haircut. My barber - a 35-year-old tattooed dude from Luxembourg, was happy to oblige. He must have spent 20 minutes with four different types of clippers just doing the sides and back, and then a few minutes snipping the top and he was done. I’ve been sporting the exact same haircut for, well I’d say approximately 30 years. In elementary school I had a rat tail for a year or two, but my hair was so curly it just looked like a big fluffy bun on the back of my neck. Then in high school I had a checkerboard cut into the sides, but people started calling me Archie, so I abandoned the look and went with a basic “short on the sides, a bit longer on the top” which has served me well all these years.

The haircut came out so well I considered getting a tattoo as well. I was thinking maybe a big sperm whale on my arm, or a Portuguese flag on my leg, or some cool Chinese script wrapping around my neck, or maybe even an image of Daryl Hall and John Oates, one on each butt cheek. But then I remembered that I really don’t like tattoos, even if I did love the idea of Hall & Oates aging along with me as my butt wrinkled and sagged into the golden years.

After yesterday’s frantic automobile adventures, we decided to leave the car parked and explore Funchal on foot. After breakfast in the apartment we walked several long blocks west to find a purse store Ana was interested in. She bought a purse in the airport in Sao Miguel and somehow found out there was an outlet of that same store here, giving her an opportunity for swapping out her current purse for a purse she loved even more, or maybe even keep that one and get a new one. Nothing excites Ana more than purse shopping, and it gives me a chance to stand outside and do nothing for 30 minutes, which can be fun if there’s enough interesting things to look at, and there certainly was here.

We continued wandering and Ana’s retail radar started pinging off a shopping centre a couple of blocks away, so she zeroed in on that and we followed. That’s when I serendipitously found the barber shop, so we split up Scooby-Doo style and each went off on our respective missions. At the end, Ana was thrilled with my haircut, but not as thrilled as I was to see the beautiful hundred-euro ring she bought.

With the retail therapy accomplished, we walked down to the marina and went into the CR7 Cristiano Ronaldo museum and saw all his trophies, awards, accolades, golden boots, Ballon d’Or, and other awards he’s won over the year. It made me wonder what ever happened to that participation ribbon I was awarded when I played soccer in grade 7.

There were three cruise ships in port today, and thousands of tourists wandering around - many more than in previous days, so we wandered around like tourists ourselves, enjoying just being out on such a lovely warm day and enjoying that sunshine and ocean breeze, especially after hearing that the weather back in Ontario was still crap and freezing rain was in the forecast for our arrival.

Strangely, we chose a lunch place right in the tourist area and the meal was predictably mediocre. We usually try to get out of the tourist area to eat, but the kids were starving so we gave in. But after that we went to McDonalds to have ice cream as the McDonalds ice cream is one thing you can always rely on no matter where you are in the world. Along the way we passed these two middle aged tourist couples, who had plopped themselves on chairs on a busy pedestrian street, right at the street edge so people had to walk right in front of them to get by. The men had taken off their shirts to expose horrific home-drawn tattoos, pasty white skin, and impressive beer guts. Thankfully the women hadn’t taken off their shirts yet, but it looked like they were just getting started on the booze so maybe the big show would happen later. After we passed I said to Ana, “I bet they are English.”

“How do you know that, they weren’t talking when we passed by.”

“Because they are all wearing watches. English people always wear watches when they vacation in sunny countries so they can take them off when they get home and have all their work buddies notice the white band around their wrist and ask ‘Where ya bin ya lucky bawstid?’”

We passed by them again after our delicious ice creams and heard one of them say, “Get ee aw sore-ed mate” which proved my suspicions correct.

The kids wanted to play on the gym equipment we saw the other day, so we walked over there and Ana and I went to investigate the cable car ride while they played. It was packed with tourists and the return trip was going to be about $70 so we decided to skip it. Instead, Ana and I sat down on the break wall of the ocean walkway and soaked up the sun while the kids goofed around. I laid down on my back and had a luscious power nap with the sweet rays beating down on my face and freshly exposed, white skull. Magnus played so ferociously on the parallel bars that he blistered his palms and was asking for band-aids.

The gang decided to head back home for a chill-out session, and along the way we stopped at a grocery store and picked up some pizzas to cook for supper (and band-aids). The plan was to eat at home and then go out later for a drink, but once we got settled we were quite happy spending the rest of the evening reading, writing, watching tv and relaxing.