Saturday, April 13, 2024

Azores 2024 - Goodbye Green Island, We Will Return Soon

Our last morning. The flight leaves shortly before 5 pm so we still have half a day before we need to be at the airport. Ana and I take a final morning walk and have coffee at Sunset Beach. We talk about the trip, the things we loved, all the new discoveries, the crazy weather (from hurricane storms to sunstroke), the incredible people, all that is new, all that is old, and what role this island will play in our own future. Because it will play a role. This island is a special place for us.

About half the family shows up to say goodbye yet again. We pull out the leftover pizza and cheese and bread and all have lunch together. The conversation turns to menopause (as it seems to frequently with Ana) and she explains menopausal rage. I add my own explanation, using the Incredible Hulk as the most appropriate comparison.

“You guys know Marvel? You know the big green guy?” I ask.

“Yeah,” says Paulo. “Shrek.”

“No man, the other big green guy. The Hulk. He gets even madder than Shrek. That’s what menopause rage is like.”

“Oh,” Paulo says thoughtfully.

“But really, menopause is far, far worse for the man than the woman,” I say.

“That is total bullshit,” storms Ana as her face starts turning green.

“See,” I say pointing to her. “Rage.”

Natercia brought a bottle of strawberry infused sparkling wine and pours everybody out a measure. Paul delivers a classic toast:

“May our wives never become widows.”

After another round of goodbye hugs we are off for the airport. Natercia and Paulo accompany us in their car to help transport some of the luggage. After a quick stop for gas, then returning the rental car, Ana and I meet them and John and Maria in the terminal. We have a chat then say the final, final goodbyes. Ana is crying as she hugs Natercia. Natercia’s worn a different pair of fancy shoes today so I take a photo of those before hugging her, and she appreciates that.

We are going to really miss these guys.

I gaze out the airplane window as we take off. It is windy and feel like the plane is going to be blown sideways, but it takes off and we rise into the air. The plan takes a turn west and I watch as the island becomes smaller. I scan the ocean for whale activity, but see only the white flashes of cresting waves, and soon we reach the cloud line and everything turns grey. I don't know when we will next return, but I am sure it will not be six years from now, and Ana and I may well be in a different phase of our lives when we do.

At 10:00 pm on a cool Saturday evening, we step into our Paris home and hug our beautiful daughter Stella who has made it through two weeks on her own. Magnus is in Toronto and we'll be happy to see him next weekend. We really missed both of them.

And thus ends our 2024 trip to the Azores.

Friday, April 12, 2024

Azores 2024 - Lagoa do Fogo Crater Lake, Tea Plantation, Toenail Cleaning, and the Big Goodbye (with Pizza)

This is our last full day on the island. After two days mostly on our own, we take John and Maria on a day trip, but not before a big breakfast of eggs, fried blood sausage (morcela), fresh bread, and cheese. Ana and I had bought a full ball of Terra Nostra cheese on sale for eight euro a week ago and we’ve barely eaten half of it, despite picking away at it every day.

It is again a glorious day and as we’re driving I look up to see that there are no clouds at Lagoa do Fogo (Lake of Fire) which is volcano crater lake that seems to be perpetually wrapped in thick cloud cover, so we’ve only ever seen it once many years ago, on a semi clear day. I spin the car around and head south up the hill. We take a long series of switchbacks, passing by the Caldeira Velha thermal pools, then we reach the upper parking lot and walk up to the viewpoint. The view is simply awe-inspiring. The glassy and greenish-blue water, green foliage, black volcanic rock, and the artful meandering of the edges of the ancient volcano. There is a short hike or a long hike you can take from here down to the lake and around it, but we just take a few photos and enjoy the sight for a while as John and Maria are way past the point of hiking up and down hills. We feel exceptionally lucky to have found a clear day for this.

We drive back down the volcano and east to Cha Gorreana – one of the two tea plantations on the island, and take a short tour. There are loads of tourists here and the entire complex has been rebuilt and expanded since we were here many years ago. Despite the potential Perfect Storm of a lame tourist experience, this is not what you get here. First, it is free. You can walk around the factory on your own or wait for one of the guides who lead free tours. There is also a long walking trail that takes you up and down the hills where the tea grows – also free. The tea is free, you simply grab a cup and fill it up with any of the three tea varieties they produce here. There is a gift shop and the prices are reasonable. I pick up a bottle of passion-fruit flavoured gin for the same price it costs in the grocery store. Lastly, there is a café so we grab a snack and a beer, both very cheap. This is the thing that still surprises me – how you DO NOT get ripped off in the Azores. Usually these tourist places are dreadful and you come out feeling like you’ve been assaulted. Not here. A coffee costs a euro no matter where you get it, from the local old man’s café to the busiest tourist sites on the island. Same as beer. The cheapest half litre of beer I’ve seen is 1.80 while the most expensive is 3.00, but generally they cost about 2.30. You don’t need to even look at the price of these things because they are always reasonable.

We stop at the Continental supermarket in Ribera Grande on the way back to pick up a ball of cheese to take home, plus some beer for tonight’s pizza party (Ana and Natercia had cooked up a plan to have everybody over for dinner tonight to say goodbye). John and Maria are ready for lunch so we drive to the Beach restaurant at Populo. It is packed full of “heavitos”, which is a term we learned in Dominican Republic and refers to the well dressed, young, rich, beautiful locals who tend to get their way because their parents own all the companies and land. Now I don’t know if everybody in the restaurant are heavitos, or if it even works like that here, but they sure are young and beautiful and well dressed. Anyway, we have to wait a while for a table, and when we finally do get seated, the server completely ignores us for 30 minutes, so we leave. Hey, we can live with one bad experience in two weeks. It’s too bad because this is one of our favourite restaurants on the island.

Instead, we go to the Ondas do Mar restaurant, a place John remembers from when he and Maria traveled here with Ana’s brother Mark and his wife Stella many years ago. At first glance, it looked terrible. A big restaurant with dozens of tables and a rapidly cooling buffet line. Tourist trap, set up to receive busloads of touristos. But the location is amazing – right at the water’s edge, within view of a natural ocean pool.

We sit down at a table outside and the server brings over menus. The prices are crazy high and there is stuff on here we haven’t seen anywhere else, like lobster meals for 130 euro. But I notice they have a “fried chicharros” option for ten euro which both John and I get. The meal arrives - there are at least a dozen perfectly fried little fishies, plus fresh steamed vegetables on the side. It is absolutely amazing. Both Maria and Ana find a local dish too and love it. The half litres of beer are 2.10. Our last lunch turns out to be incredible as we eat together to the sounds and sights of the ocean. There is also a beautifully built walking path so Ana and I take John and Maria back home then return, first for a swim in the amazing natural ocean pool, then take a long walk on the path along the ocean. It is a perfect afternoon and the sun beats down on my already burned face, impregnating me with even more vitamin D.

Along the path we see a very strange thing. A tall man is sitting on a concrete bench with one of his bare feet out and a smaller man wearing what looks like a municipal worker vest has a pocket knife and is cleaning out the big guy’s toenails. We walk right by them and they don’t seem shy at all; the big guy smiles at me and waves. The little guy doesn’t even notice us as he’s hunched over, working that toe jam out of the tight spots. So I don’t know if you can just ask the municipal workers to help you out with little jobs like this, or if these guys had a special deal or what. When we are returning along the path a while later they are still there but just wrapping up. The big guy’s feet look fabulous and the little guy looks proud of his work. As we pass them, they both get up and head down the path together happily, side by side, looking much like the Azorean version of Archie and Jughead.

This is our last night in São Miguel and once again the whole family turns out. We have six huge pizzas from two different places plus an assortment of snacks and drinks. The family gathers every Friday night at Tio Manuel's house. The girls first give the house a good cleaning and then they sit down and eat together - everybody brings a dish or two of food. It's so inspiring to see the strength of this family and how they get along, support each other, and have such a fun time. We are lucky to be part of it.

Francesco and Cidalia also stop by and we have a great visit with everybody. I, however, am feeling the after-effects of the abundance of sunshine and think I’ve picked up a bit of sunstroke, so every once in a while I sneak upstairs and lay on the bed for a while. I make it to the end of the night and we all say goodbye to everybody. Tio Luis gives me a huge hug and his smiling face just warms my heart every time I see it. Natercia has worn a pair of fabulous shoes so gets herself and Ana positioned on the chair so I can take a photo of them, focused of course on the shoes.

It’s been a great trip and this family is simply the best.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Azores 2024 - Popping Man-of-Wars, Ocean Swim, Beach Nap

This may be the most beautiful morning of the trip. I am up early and out for a long walk under clear skies, a slight breeze, and 18 degrees of glorious sunshine. The bushes and rock walls are literally writhing with thousand of lizards, coaxed out of their winter dormancy by the heat. I find a coastal path which leads to Sunset Beach, then to Populo Beach, and here I play a game of “pop the blue bottles”. The Portuguese Man-of-War is this amazing creature (actually four creatures in one) that often washes up on beaches at high tide. It travels through the ocean by inflating a sack with gas and using it like a sail as it floats across the surface with its tentacles reaching down into the water, sometimes at an incredible length of 50 metres. Today there are dozens of these guys on the beach and the organic “pop” they make when you step on them with your shoe is immensely satisfying, so I step them all, being careful not to get any on my bare skin as they leave a nasty sting. The quantity of these blue terrors makes me rethink swimming in the ocean here, as I’ve been stung by them before and it is incredibly painful.

After breakfast, Ana and I drive into Ponta Delgada and I set myself up at a snack bar with my laptop to do some writing while Ana shops for gifts for the kids. There are three cruise ships in port today and many more tourists around than we’ve seen so far. I eavesdrop on my coffee-drinking neighbours as I write and most of them are American or English.

We walk down to the Portas do Mar area and I get changed into my swimsuit and take a glorious ocean swim. There are many people here today, locals pulled from their winter slumber into a preview of the summer season ahead. The Azoreans have built so many amazing natural ocean pools that you are never far away from one on this island, and they are always free. The water is chilly but manageable and I float around in the ocean for a while as Ana soaks up the sunshine. I wish I had brought along my goggles so I could see what ocean creatures are swimming around down there, but I wasn’t sure if I’ve even get a chance for a swim on this trip.

We hang around downtown for a while longer then drive back to Sunset Beach for a long and easy lunch at the seaside restaurant. The black sand beach beckons us over so I lay out the small towel we had brought, and my shirt, then we both lay down and instantly fall asleep to the music of the surf and the seabirds. The full sun does a number on me and when I look in the mirror back at the house, a red-faced vacationer stares back at me. After a long sunless winter, I don’t mind some colour.

With John and Maria we make our final trip over to Ana Margarida’s house for a visit, then we walk over to Tia Ana’s house to go through all her possessions which are stored in the garage. Tia Ana asked us to go through everything, take what the family in Canada might want, then donate or dispose of the rest. We take a whole box full of photos, some blankets, and a small amount of jewelry, all to be distributed to the family in Canada. We say our goodbye’s to this wonderful lady and thank her again for taking such good care of our aunt.

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Azores 2024 - Villa Franca, Jungle Walk, Povoação, Lighthouse Thigh Burner

After yesterday’s full day of administration, Ana and I wanted to make the most of today and do an island circuit. We left the house earlier than normal and drove east to the village of Villa Franca – another of our favourite places on the island. We drove through the winding streets down into the marina and went for a walk. The marina is small but perfectly sheltered on all sides and was all local boats with the exception of maybe one or two. We have coffee on the patio of the marina snack bar, enjoying the 19 degree weather, and read through a local newspaper that has a story about a new 101 room Hilton hotel opening in Lagoa – their first in the Azores.

From here we take the twisty road to Furnas and before long find ourselves in the clouds once again. We arrive at the caldeiras and pay three euro to get in. This is the place where the ponds boil and sulphureous steam rises from the earth. There are also holes in the ground where pots of food are lowered then covered and left to steam and boil for hours, producing the “cozido” stew that Furnas is known for. Is it good? Well, it is certainly unique, and if you like a sulphureous flavouring to your meat and potato stew, you’d love it.

Incredibly, a new privately owned nature park called Parque da Grená has opened since our last visit six years ago. We pay the comparably steep ten-euro entrance fee and step into another world. Waterfalls, ancient forests, jungle stairs and bridges, spectacular vistas, mansion ruins, hot tubs – this is an amazing place and well worth the admission. We spent two hours hiking and exploring and leave mesmerized.

Another drive along impossibly winding roads leads us to the town of Povoação, another of our favourite towns on the island. The centre is surrounded by tall cliffs and feels as if it’s been cut into a mountain. There is a small, well protected marina here too with mostly commercial boats. We walk around the town, admiring the elaborate patterns and images built into the cobblestoned streets and pedestrian walkways (the best on the island in my opinion), but are then saddened to find that the small municipal zoo has closed and the animals are gone. There used to be monkeys here as well as peacocks and many other birds. Not sure what happened there.

After a delicious lunch at one of the restaurants in the main square, we continue our drive heading east then turn northwards as we reach the easternmost end of the island. We stop at two of the incredible miradours (lookout points) to see the mind-bending views over the island and out to sea. There is hardly a breath of wind today so the ocean looks far happier than it has in recent days.

We continue along to the Farol do Amel – a lighthouse on the easternmost point of Sao Miguel and park in the small parking lot. There is a sign warning visitors not to take their vehicles down the steep road leading to the lighthouse, but it says nothing about the heart attack you are sure to experience if you try doing it on foot. Ana and I start our walk down the impossibly steep paved road and start getting a little worried when we see the people hiking back up – all of whom have red faces, are dripping sweat, and are sucking breath greedily. At one point the road is so steep that I can hardly believe that anybody would be able to get a car down and back up unless it was a 4x4. I check online later and find that it is a 500 metre walk and the grade is over 20% in places. We walk together until we can see the lighthouse then Ana decides to start making her way back up. I walk down the remaining hundred metres or so to the lighthouse which is interesting, and has a great view to a waterfall spilling over a cliff, but I’m not sure if it was worth it, especially since the lighthouse was closed and you couldn’t go in. The walk back up is an absolute killer and it feels like my heart is going to burst out of my chest by the time I catch back up to Ana. We crawl back to the car and collapse into our seats and take a break before continuing on to the town of Nordeste.

Nordeste is a very small town but we stop for a coffee and a look around, then continue up and around the coastline, then drive westward across the top of the island and stop at two more viewpoints along the way. The scenery is stunning and the gardens built around the viewpoints make you feel as if you are a character in a fairy tale.

We finish off the day with a great evening at home as Natercia stops by to join us for dinner and to eat up the leftover food from John’s party.

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Azores 2024 - Tourism on the Island

Today was all administration. We dropped Maria off at her oldest sister’s house for a visit then went back and picked up the men and went to the bank to finish straightening out our account, which took over two hours. Went back to get Maria then drove to downtown Ponta Delgada to meet with a lawyer and review Tia Ana’s situation with her will, mental state, house, property, and caregiver Ana Margarida. From there we drove to Pico da Pedra and visited with Tia Ana at the care home where she lives. Finally, we completed our family dining tour (on day 12) and had dinner with Manuela and Antonio at their home in Sao Vicente and saw the lush and fruitful lemon tree in their garden. Here, we are eight parts family, and two parts tourist. This is why we love it here.

So today I will instead write about tourism. Sao Miguel’s quest to expand tourism on the island really began in 2008, when the 
Portas Do Mar cruise ship terminal was unveiled. It was a daring and bold project from a small island nation in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. I remember being in the small shopping centre downtown during one of our visits leading up to this date. There, they had a scale model of what the complex was going to look like. The marina area was under construction and the entire harbour was an unrecognizable mess of barges, concrete, machinery, and workers. The model blew my mind. It just didn’t seem possible that such a small place would be able to visualize, design, execute, and support this massive facility. And it wasn’t just a cruise ship terminal – they also built a huge new 670 slip marina, a walkable jetty (full of restaurants, cafes, shops, and even a bowling alley), two swimming pools – one natural ocean pool integrated into the boardwalk, open year-round, and free to anybody, and one a paid swimming complex with multiple pools. Beyond this they also built an outdoor theatre and an incredible underground parking garage that integrates seamlessly into the waterfront, running along the entire span of the curved Avenida, providing 344 perfectly disguised parking spots, and multiple stairwell exits that pop you up right in the middle of the incredible waterfront. The audacity of the project still amazes every time we visit and the design is masterful, appropriate, durable, graceful, and honours both the ocean and the land.


It is now sixteen years later. What has been the result of this bold experiment in tourism? It took a long time to get going. Remember, before this, the main tourism here was Azorean ex-patriates returning to visit their families, and a few early movers, mainly German, with most living near the western end of the island in Mosteiros. During our first visit after Portas do Marhad opened I remember checking the cruise ship schedule and there was typically about one arrival per week or fewer. And I think it was like that for a long time. But this week, there is one arriving nearly every day, and there will be three ships in port this coming Thursday. This has driven a huge number of tourists to the island, but these visitors only stop for about eight hours or so. I suspect though that many of these people return on their own for future trips after getting a glimpse of this wonders here.

Another change that happened around 2015 was the liberalization of the airline industry. The carrier monopoly was broken up and low cost airlines like Ryanair and EasyJet could now fly here, bringing a whole new tourist demographic to the island.


In 2023 in the Azores, there were 3.8 million overnight stays and 1.2 million visitors, a massive increase from the previous year and far, far more than what they had in 2008 and before. This mirrors the significant increases in tourism in Portugal as a whole including continental Portugal and Madeira. I think it’s fair to say the experiment has succeeded in attracting many tourists to the archipelago.


I’ve asked many of the cousins what they think of this increase in tourism and how it’s impacted their lives. Overall, most seem to think it’s a good thing, but haven’t seen any direct benefits because of it. They are willing to share and show off their beautiful islands. One of the cousins does have strong concerns about it, not against the tourists themselves, but because the  benefits are being realized by few instead of many.


As for us, I was expecting the worse, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by what I’ve seen. Outside of the main tourist areas, you don’t see that many visitors. But the prime sites are busy, especially Sete Cidades and Furnas and I suspect locals probably avoid these places now during peak tourist season. We are here in mid-April so I can only assume it is much, much busier in the summer, and I expect the tourism will continue to grow here. Fortunately, the pleasures of the island are found in small places, just as much as in the popular sites, and there is so much to explore and experience that I feel there is room to grow without it ruining what’s here.


Everywhere I look here, I see opportunity. Tourists arrive with pockets full of money and the locals who embrace it and look for ways to provide them with unique experiences and products will prosper. The problem is, the locals are not used to doing this, so it takes a person with entrepreneurial spirit, a risk-taker, and I fear many of these people will come from outside the Azores – returning ex-patriates, folks from the continent, or other parts of Europe. For example, there is now a craft brewery on the island, run by an Azorean couple who left here in 1998 to live in the US and recently returned to start this business after seeing the potential with non-Azorean eyes.

My hope is that some of the cousins here will find a way to harness the tourism potential and prosper. It will not be easy, but it is possible. And they deserve it.

Monday, April 8, 2024

Azores 2024 - Morning Walk, Visiting the Farm, Sofia and Tiago

I’m up at 8, but feel a little groggy from yesterday’s activities so I go downstairs and have a coffee with John, who instantly tells me that yesterday was the first time in his life he’s ever drank wine at seven in the morning.

After breakfast Ana and I take a long meandering walk down to the ocean and along the coastline to the row of restaurants and snack bars in front of the beach Prai Populo. We have a slow coffee and watch all the action in front of us: surfers and boogie borders trying to catch a wave, municipal works cutting grass and trimming dead leaves off palm trees, a driver in a “Sao Miguel Fruiteria” delivery van unloading boxes of bananas, oranges, papayas, and apples, joggers running back and forth along the pathway, and several stray cats prowling the premises looking for scraps of food. Mondays on vacation are really something special, being able to fully enjoy not being at work.


We wander back home and run into Tia Genoveva along the way, who is out for her own huge morning walk, but without Tio Luis as his legs were hurting from all the dancing yesterday. We gather up the Gang of Grey back at the house and drive to Cidalia and Francesco’s home, which is just down the street in the Socas neighbourhood, where Paulo and Natercia live. We first met them the last time we were here and had an incredible meal and afternoon at their house, and here we are again. After a slow and magnificent lunch of baked fish, cod casserole, fried chicken, quiche, fresh bread, wine, and Francesco’s homebrew made with cinnamon and honey, I’m ready for a nap but instead they take us on a tour of their farm. We walk down into the main property across the street from their home, passing pasture land and happy cows then arrive at a long line of greenhouses which are full of new plantings, but also grown tomato and cucumber plants. From here we continue walking into another property, all of which are bordered by ten foot high ancient stone fences. Here, their son Dario is building a new home for him and his partner. It is a concrete house and they take us through every room. I don’t remember ever seeing this kind of construction before – it’s fascination. Concrete is far less forgiving than wooden 2x4s and drywall so you better figure out exactly where you want your switches, plugs, and lights because you’re aren’t moving them later.


Just when I thought our short lunch visit was complete, we’re taken back to the house for more drinks, freshly baked bread, and fresh Sao Jorge cheese. We’re now into our seventh hour of lunch and have just one more thing to do before we move onto the next party. Francisco takes us behind their house and down a hill into the huge fruit orchard we didn’t know existed. Our target is the avocado tree, which is hung heavy with hundreds of avocados, so we pick the “low hanging fruit” (do any of the idiots in the business world ever get to actually see low hanging fruit, or just talk about it during Powerpoint presentations?) then start exploring ways to get the higher ones. I find a long stick and start jumping up and beating the fruit until they drop, and I get about eight of them using that method. Francisco has climbed up a rock and yanks down on a branch so I can reach a few more. Ana’s been shaking branches which has shaken a few more loose. They are all extremely hard and will take days to ripen, but they send us off with a big bag full, along with some black heart fruit and a bunch of cucumbers. It’s been a glorious afternoon.

From here we drive into Ponta Delgada and barely manage to squeak through an impossibly narrow street, with both mirrors tucked in and spotters measuring the remaining centimeters on either side of the car, before reaching Ana’s cousin Sofia’s place. We’re welcomed in by her husband Tiago and daughter Matilde and they tour us through their incredibly cozy and cute apartment and the surprisingly large outdoor space and garden out back. Every house here seems to have a garden, and that’s the first place they take you to when you visit. I love it. 

Of course, there’s a huge spread of food on the table so we eat again. Blood sausage, chorizo, Azorean pineapple, chocolate covered cream balls, cupcakes, crackers, chocolate cake, nuts, and I can’t even remember what else. We have a great visit, but the oldies are fading fast. Manuel is falling asleep sitting up. John has developed a neck cramp and is scowling. Maria quietly sits in her chair, struggling to keep awake. Before leaving, we offer them our house and hospitality if they even find a way to visit Canada, and I hope they do someday. We say our goodbyes and are back home in about twelve minutes – nothing is far here.

Sunday, April 7, 2024

Azores 2024 - Dinner for Breakfast, John’s 80th, Dancing with Tio Luis

The rain and wind returned and pelted the bedroom window all night. We are up at 5:30 to get ready for a very special breakfast, at Restaurant Faria in Ribera Grande, but we have to get there by 7am otherwise we won’t get a table. Paulo Fernando, Natercia, Leonor, and their neighbour Francisco meet us at home and we follow them in total darkness to the restaurant (Tio Manuel and Maria opt out so it’s just the three of us).

We’ve been here once 
before and I’ve been looking forward to a return visit ever since. The restaurant is already full and we get one of the last tables. There are about four or five choices for breakfast. I have the beef stew, as do a few of the others. John and Leonor have octopus stew. Paulo Fernando has a dish called doblema, which is a stew of cow stomach and beans. Ana sticks with bread and cheese and a coffee while the rest of us drink red wine, which is served in half litre glasses called quartelos. I’m sure most people have eaten breakfast for dinner (eggs, bacon, toast) but you haven’t lived until you’ve tried dinner for breakfast at Restaurant Faria. The origin of this meal is very old and legend has it that this proprietor (or probably his father or grandfather or perhaps further back) began serving hearty meals to the fishermen who would be out on the ocean fishing all night and back early in the morning tired and hungry, and not looking just for a light snack. I don’t see any fishermen in here this morning, but there is a group or two of late-night partygoers who are at the end of a big night, while most are just tables of locals enjoying a special Sunday breakfast.


The food is hearty and delicious and served with big baskets of bread to mop up the sauce. Our server comes around with a huge stainless steel jug and tops up everybody’s wine. I stop after a glass and a half so I don’t get too plastered to drive. It’s a great start to the day for John as today is his 80th birthday and he’s enjoying the first morning drinking session of his life. He leans over to me at least three times during the meal and says, “This is the first day of my life I’ve ever drank wine at seven in the morning. Francisco stands up and leads off the Portuguese happy birthday song, with everybody joining in except for me because I don’t know the words, so I just hum along.

Shortly after this, a guy at a table just over from us starts choking and his buddies all drag him out to resuscitate him. Paulo Fernando looks over to the abandoned table and says, “Let’s go grab their food,” and walks over, then just takes a photo of us and returns.

We finish our meals and step outside into the day. Next stop is an espresso at a gas station down the road. Of course it’s not a normal gas station – inside are espresso machines, a display with fresh baked goods, racks of wine, and a nice seating area. We sit there for a very long time visiting. Francisco and his wife Cidalia are a lovely couple and live just down the street from Paulo and Natercia. He asks us to join them for lunch at their house tomorrow which we gladly accept.

After our long coffee we drive back to the house and start getting things ready for the birthday party we’re throwing for John. By 1:30 the house is full of people, food is on the table, drinks are in hand, and it’s loud as hell. We had picked up a huge bag of these little baby chorizos in Feteiras yesterday so we cooked those with the wood fire bbq outside. Ana made a squash and apple casserole and a big salad and the rest we ordered from a local place – grilled chickens, French fries, fish fillets. I think we have about 22 people in all and everybody digs in for a long loud lunch.


The wine and beer melt down inhibitions and I find myself dancing with Tio Luis in the kitchen to a slow Bryan Adams song. Paulo saves us from further embarrassment and puts on “Summer of ‘69” which gets everybody going and a full dance party ensues. It’s a lively bunch today. New people arrive sporadically, including Cidalia and Francisco, and some other friends we hadn’t met before.


“You probably want to go sit by Cidalia so you can speak English, hey Kris?” asks Natercia from across the table. She can barely see me through the fog of Portuguese conversation.


“Oh no,” I say. “I prefer speaking Portuguese. Your dad and I have been staying up late, spending hours speaking Portuguese together.” She looks at me incredulously. She doesn’t believe me. “Go ahead and ask him,” I say, pointing in his direction.

Natercia gets his attention and rattles off the question in machine gun Portuguese. Tio Manuel looks over at me, sees my enthusiastic nodding, then tells her that yes, we sure have been speaking a lot of Portuguese together and I’m getting pretty good (or something like that; I can barely understand any of it, but by the look on Natercia’s face I know Tio Manuel’s backing me up). I might be able to bluff my way through this language after all.


I can tell John’s having a good time. He’s taken each person aside and told them how this was the first time in his life he’d ever drank wine at seven in the morning. He’ll get some good traction out of that story back in Canada too, which is good as he needs some new material. I think he especially likes when the girls bring out a gigantic birthday cake and everybody sings the song then he vigorously blows out the two candles without any accidental release of dental plates or posterior wind.

Sunday Funday starts winding down around 8pm and by 9 we’ve somehow already moved onto the next party – just a block down the street at 
Carmelia and Pedro’s house. The deeply ingrained hospitable nature of the Azoreans means you have to be careful with your jokes. After we walk in, and after a full day of gluttonous eating and drinking, I say in Portuguese, “I’m really hungry. Do you have anything to eat?” Our hosts fly into action and before I can say anything there’re dishes of food and bottles of beer on the table and we’re forced to eat again. Even after I tell her I was joking, and that Portuguese people can’t take a joke, Carmelia packs up a plastic container of soup for me to take home. Portuguese people can’t take a joke…but it usually works out in my favour.

Saturday, April 6, 2024

Azores 2024 - Exploring Feteiras, Sausage Factory, Sunshine

The weather has turned and the sun has appeared. It’s only 13 degrees when I leave at 7:30 for a walk, but it’s bright and beautiful. I walk for ninety minutes, down ancient pathways to the water and along the coastal road, dipping down dead-end streets to get to the rocky coastline and admire the ocean without getting blown off my feet and covered in salty spray. I walk west and pass by Sunset Beach and its beach volleyball nets and oceanside restaurant, then through a beautiful public park with a full basketball court, playgrounds, and public seating. I continue along the expansive Populo Beach and the ocean here is peppered with surfers and paddleboarders, riding the swells which are consistent and decent, likely a spillover from the previous days of vicious south winds. There are a series of restaurants and snack bars across from here, and several are already open, serving morning espressos and pastries to the many patrons enjoying this beautiful day.

I return to the house, have breakfast with Ana, then we take off for Feteiras to have another look at our land, a better look around the town, and to see if we can meet any of the neighbours. The town itself hangs off a steep hill and consists of one main road that runs parallel to the coastline for two kilometres with a few cross-streets left and right. There are a few small “old man” cafes (open to the public, but really a place for local men to smoke, drink coffee and moonshine and talk football) along the road, the town church in the main square, a small grocery store which also has a nice café and snack bar, and a Salsicor sausage factory and butcher shop. We drive slowly by these places then park near our lot, which is on the western end of town. Ana rings the bell at our neighbour’s house, and a young lady who introduces herself at Bianca appears. They have a long chat and she tells Ana all about the town, the area, and how there are always realtors sniffing around trying to find out who owns our lot. She tells us it was the municipality who cut down all the cane and bamboo on our lot and cleaned it up as people has started dumping junk in there. They exchange contact details and we’re thrilled to have finally met somebody here.


We walk over to the Salsicor factory to investigate the butcher shop. We’ve tried to do this in the past but never been able to find it, but today we do and it’s fantastic – they have a bunch of frozen seafood, meats, and other stuff plus a butcher counter where I see all sorts of cuts of beef and pork, plus a bunch of different kinds of sausages. We pick up a big bag of mini-chorizos which will be perfect for the birthday party we’re hosting for John tomorrow.

From here we drive the couple hundred metres up to the highway to check out the grocery store we didn’t know was there. It’s called Casa Cheia and has a good grocery selection plus a small bakery and deli counter, and also several rows of hardware and dollar-store type items. There’s also a gas station next door. After these discoveries I am feeling much more optimistic about Feteiras and I like it much more than I did yesterday.


We return to Livramento at one to pick up the folks and drive to Ana Margarida and her husband Pedro’s house. She had arranged to pick Tia Ana up from the care home and bring her back so we could visit with her again. Ana doesn’t remember seeing us the week before, but is not as totally surprised as she was the first time so I think there is a glimmer of memory. We have a long visit and long, delicious lunch and don’t leave until after six, then from here we head over to Paulo Fernando and Natercia’s house for more food and drinking.

This vacation stuff is exhausting.

Friday, April 5, 2024

Azores 2024 - Church Donations, Wrassling Street People, Partying with Tio Luis

The weather this morning is fucking atrocious. Last night it felt like the wind and rain was going to smash through our bedroom window. Now, as I sit typing on the laptop, the rain has turned to hail and is pelting the window and roof. No walk this morning and there’s been talk of heading to the shopping mall with Ana’s folks.

After shivering through breakfast we pack John and Maria into the car and head to the Parque Atlantico mall. There, I set myself up with the laptop in the food court and have 90 minutes of joyous, solitary writing while the rest of them browse the retail delights. Normally I can’t pass within a hundred feet of mall food courts, but this one doesn’t have that sickening smell the ones back home do, which I’ve always suspected comes from Subway. The place fills in as noon approaches and soon it is packed. I notice that most people are eating the American fast food junk like KFC, Burger King, and McDonalds, all of which are here, instead of the more traditional Portuguese ones. God help their waistlines and arteries.


Ana learns from her mom that one of her Portuguese neighbours had given her twenty bucks and asked her to donate it to a church in downtown Ponta Delgada. Back when Maria and John lived here as teenagers, we are told, people went to this church with donations and gave them to these nuns who lived here, then in exchange they would get a small medallion. Maria tells us this story.


“And you think that fifty years later, it still works like that?” Ana asks.


“Oh, I don’t know,” Maria says. But she knows. Somehow.


Because the weather is still bad, but improving, we take on the donation mission and drive downtown and have a hell of a time finding parking near the huge downtown church, which is the one we assumed we were going to and nobody in the car said anything different. We finally snag a spot, then walk with John and Maria to the Igreja Matriz de São Sebastião, a magnificent architectural wonder right in the heart of the city.

“This isn’t the right church,” says John shaking his head.
“What? What do you mean?” asks Ana, confused. “This is the big church downtown.”


“Nope. Not this one. It’s a different one,” says John.


“Well why didn’t you say something before? How far is it?”


Muito longe,” says Maria, pointing far off into the western horizon.


“Can we walk there?” I ask.


Nahhhhhhhnao e possivel,” says Maria, shaking her head and abandoning the plan.


“Well let’s try, we have nothing else to do,” says Ana.


We begin walking west along the beautiful walkways, intricately patterned with black and white cobblestone. It has stopped raining and is now just windy, but not awful. After walking two short blocks we see another church.


“There it is,” says John, pointing. “That one!”


Ana and I look at each other and shake our heads. I guess things always seemed a bit further when you were thirteen years old. We walk up to the front doors of the church. There are two young guys there holding out plastic cups, asking for money. They looked completely drugged out so we shuffle past them and go inside. There are a number of people there praying and John interrupts one of them in his booming deaf-man voice and asks where the donations are made nowadays. She points out where to go and we leave, hurrying past the street dudes again, avoiding eye contact. As we are walking up the street, John’s hat is flipped off from the wind and blown beneath a car. One of the druggies and I lock eyes, then look to the car. It’s a race. I race over to one side, he goes to the other, then we are both prone on our stomachs reaching beneath the car for the hat. I know if he gets it first we’ll have to pay him, and I’ll be in big trouble with Ana if I give money to a druggie. Just as he gets a finger on the brim, I hook the back of it and pull it towards me, success! This jolt of happiness is quickly replaced with a sense of dread, wondering what wrestling a mentally ill and drug addicted, poverty-stricken young man in front of the holiest church in the land will do to my karma count, but I’m thinking the donation to the nuns might even things out.

John and I catch up to the ladies at a side door to the church. They are standing in front of a weird wooden roller thing built into the stone church wall. Ana says, “Kris we can’t reach the rope – ring the bell.” I look to where she’s pointing and see a rope dangling from an ancient bell. I walk over, grab the rope and yank it, which produces a mighty ring. Nothing much happens, so I ring it again. Suddenly, the wooden dumbwaiter starts to move. I walk over to take a closer look and arrive just in time to see a twenty-dollar bill on a plate sliding across the concrete mantle and disappearing into the church wall. There is a pause. Then the wooden dumbwaiter rotates again, exposing another plate with a religious booklet, a wooden rosary, and a keychain. Maria pockets the goodies in safekeeping for her friend. Ana tosses a euro tenner on the plate and waits a moment, then the wooden thing spins again. Seconds later, a plate appears with just a rosary, and Ana snatches it up. Our karma count is reset.


Once again, we’re proven wrong by Maria, and fifty years later the only thing that’s changed with the donation system is you can no longer see the nuns. And the prizes seem a bit better. 

After a nice café lunch of cod and chips, the folks decide to take the bus back to Livramento, leaving Ana and I to browse around the city for a couple of hours. She browses some shops, we go for coffee and snacks, then I go on a wild and uncharacteristic shopping spree at the Peter’s Café Sport shop near the marina. I buy a sweatshirt, tshirt, hat, and coffee cup, all branded with the sperm whale logo. If you are a sailor you probably already know about Peter’s Café Sport, but if not, pop it into Google for an interesting read.


It's Friday night and of course there’s a party to go to.
 Tio Luis and his wife Genoveva are celebrating their grand-daughter Iris’s 18 birthday and we got a golden ticket. One thing about Azoreans – they are consistent. Whenever you visit an Azorean’s house, they will first take you straight back to their garden to show it off. That’s just what they do. It doesn’t matter if they have just a few tomato plants, or a grape vine canopy over their patio, or, in Tio Luis’s case, a sprawling garden with kale, rosemary, lemons, oranges, onions, carrots, coriander, tangerines, dill, grapes, plums, potatoes, parsley, yams, bananas, and three goddamn coffee trees from which they make their own coffee. The garden is always the first place you visit. After that you get to see their house, meet their wife, and sample two or three varieties of the home brew they have displayed proudly on the hutch.

The party is epic. Though the main floor of their house is fairly small, they still manage to seat thirty people at multiple tables. Ana and I ask to get reassigned from the table with her parents and Manuel (who we’ve been spending 24 hours per day with) to the so called “young table” with a bunch of cousins who are mostly either pushing fifty or already there, plus a few in their twenties. They are all a hell of a lot of fun. 

It is a long and leisurely dinner and I’m positioned by the fridge so every thirty seconds or so I do my bartender duty and retrieve beers or wine. It’s mostly a barrage of Portuguese but a few of the cousins do speak English, or at least some English, sometimes reluctantly, so communication is fun and an odd mix of both languages.


We leave sometime after midnight, but the fun continues, as the young kids have started up a big game of soccer in the backyard. It was a great party.