August 16, 2018

Building an Azorean Whale Boat

I just came across this beautiful (wordless) film of master boat builder João Tavares of Pico building an old-school canoa. He is the same boat builder featured in the wonderful book Twice Round the Loggerhead by Lance R. Lee & Bruce Halabisky. This boat now lives at Terra Azul whale watching in Vila Franca do Campo, São Miguel. Next time...

April 19, 2017

Last Day: Pico

I had previously been in touch with Terry Costa, an Azorean guy who grew up partly in Canada and moved back to Pico several years ago, where he now runs an organization called Mirateca Arts, producing various arts events throughout the year on Pico and other islands. He expressed interest in my project and encouraged me to look him up if we came to Pico. It’s a short ferry ride from Horta to Madalena, Pico, so we decided to make a little trip on our final day here.

Terry kindly met us at the ferry terminal and offered to take us to see his “garden.” We were not prepared for the scope of his project: he's taken over from his father several hectares of walled grape vineyards and citrus orchards bordered by dense woods, with various sculptural installations by visiting artists scattered throughout. It was a truly impressive undertaking, and he is justifiably proud of it. [Photos coming soon-ish.] It was really interesting to hear about the history of this place and how it all "works" – EU mandates for "modernizing" the vineyards versus subsidies for maintaining them in the traditional style (this whole part of Pico has become a UNESCO World Heritage site). Then we had a nice lunch and Terry graciously showed us a few more sites in the area before dropping us off back in Madalena, where we caught the next ferry back to Horta.

April 18, 2017

Faial: Horta

We arrived in Horta on the day before Easter, and most businesses were closed for the holiday weekend. On Sunday the town was practically deserted. We did a lot of walking around but it felt strange to see the streets mostly empty and everything shut down.

On Monday things were back to normal, with shops open and lots of people out doing things. In the morning we ran some errands and had lunch at CASA (my favorite place to eat in Horta and possibly on Earth). In the afternoon we went on a whale watching trip and had good luck: we saw a fin whale, a blue whale, and many frolicsome dolphins. It was a small group, with only five of us passengers on the boat plus the pilot and two naturalist guides.

Then back to CASA for some dinner, where Eugénio finished us off with some homemade tangerine liqueur for Mary and something called nêveda for me. Needless to say we slept well.

On Tuesday we rented a car and toured around the island, stopping at the botanical garden on the outskirts of Horta, making a few side trips to little villages and scenic beaches. We had a good lunch in Cedros on the north end of the island, followed by a hike around the Capelinhos volcano.

In the evening it was back to CASA for our last meal there (they’re closed on Wednesdays and we leave on Thursday) and to meet up with my friends Angie Reed and Pedro Escobar for dinner. Angie is an American artist who lives in Cedros, and Pedro is a local guy who used to live there too but now lives in Horta. Both of them were very kind to me the last time I was here, and it was really great to catch up with them. Pedro was my connection to the whale boats on my last trip, introduced to me by filmmaker Luís Bicudo (who made a good documentary about the old whalers). Pedro and Luís and another friend of theirs recently started Our Island, a business specializing in eco-friendly adventure and historical/cultural expeditions. After Eugénio finally got us to leave CASA, Pedro took us to see their new office, and Luís, who lives up above it, came down so I got to finally meet him as well. They are lovingly restoring a beautiful space that had been a hardware store for 65 years. After much ooh-ing and ah-ing over the amazing old built-in cabinetry, we finally said our goodbyes and headed home to bed.

April 15, 2017

Flores: Ponta da Fajã

About half-way up the west coast of Flores is the town of Fajã Grande, a small beach resort town, with summer homes, restaurants, and a large beach that is almost entirely covered with rounded cobblestones. Beyond the town is the tiny village of Ponta da Fajã, with its lovely little church and a handful of houses. In 1987 there was a big mud slide here; there was no loss of life and only a couple of unoccupied buildings were destroyed, but the authorities did some geological studies and decided that it was too dangerous for people to stay, so they told the residents of Ponta da Fajã that they had to leave. Some relocated to nearby Fajã Grande, or to Santa Cruz and Ponta Delgada on the east coast, or elsewhere. They were allowed to keep their places here, and encouraged to maintain them and continue farming or whatever else they did; they just weren’t supposed to actually live or sleep in their houses anymore. But of course people continued to live here anyway, or keep them as summer homes.

For our last day on Flores we drove to the end of the road behind the church in Ponta da Fajã and went for a hike on the trail that runs through some cow fields and then along the side of the cliffs above the ocean. The first part of the hike is quite easy, but soon it starts to go up on a very steep, very narrow, and for me somewhat scary path that leads to the top of the cliffs and then probably to some trails through the mountains. At least I assume so. We stopped when we got about halfway up the face of the cliff. We turned around not only because we were getting tired of climbing and I was getting freaked out about the heights; we had an appointment to meet my friend Regina Meireles at her summer place in Ponta da Fajã.

I met Regina on my last trip here, via a cousin of hers who is on the Azorean genealogy email list. We met and she welcomed me to join her various family gatherings and we’ve stayed in touch ever since. She and her husband are both firmly rooted on Flores. Her father was once the Mayor of Lajes, and her husband Armando was the Assistant Mayor. Her parents were from Fazenda and Lomba, both small villages near Lajes. Except for a couple of years in Massachusetts after the revolution in 1974, she has lived her entire life on this island. She and Armando own a charming little traditional stone house on the outskirts of Ponta da Fajã which they use mostly in the summer, and this is where we met her for tea and snacks after our hike.

Armando wasn't there yet when we arrived, but Regina's brother José (Joe) was there. I had met him last time and he remembered me. He spent more time in the US, and speaks very good English. They both shared some very interesting details about the reality of life on Flores. For example, there is no real hospital here. Women giving birth have to fly to Faial, which is where Regina had both of her daughters. And as Joe put it in no uncertain terms: "This island is dying." What he's referring to is the ever-decreasing population. Anyone of working age or looking for a mate is likely to leave. Kids go off to college elsewhere and never come back. There is simply not enough economic opportunity or social life to keep people here. Most of the people who stay are older and retired. There is an influx of tourists in the summer, and some people come back to visit, but overall it's a matter of brain drain.

Regina and Armando also own an incredible old mill house on a river not far from Lajes. It was the place where Regina's parents met; in the old days, women went there to wash clothes, and men went there to flirt with the women. So it is loaded with sentimental meaning for her. I went to lunch there three years ago, and she encouraged me to take Mary and show it to her. Mary was completely smitten, and says, "This place is straight out of a storybook. It's the most enchanting house I've ever seen. It's heartening to know there are still places that can wake that up in me." (She took all of the photos in this post, by the way.)

April 14, 2017

Flores: Fajãzinha

Since the last time I was here, I found what I believe to be the baptismal record for Caetano Freitas, my great-great grandfather who emigrated to the US.

It says he was born in Fajãzinha, a small village on the west coast of Flores between Lajes and Fajã Grande (closer to the latter). I had driven past it on my previous visit, but having this new information made me curious to check it out this time. It’s a beautiful village nestled down in a valley that ends at the ocean. Many years ago it had over 800 inhabitants, but today the population is only about 80 people. The fact that it has one of the largest churches on the island indicates that this was once a much more substantial community.

The place where we were staying in Lajes had a nice library, and I found a book I hadn’t seen before: Pierluigi Bragaglia’s Flores, Azores: Walking Through History – A Guide to the Island’s Paths and Past. Not only is it a good source for finding out where to hike, but it also puts the various walks in a deeply historical context. There were a few things in this book which have caused me to reconsider some of what I’ve previously imagined about Caetano’s life.

The family story is that Caetano arrived in the US in 1865 as a “stow-away” on a whaling ship. This is a common trope in Azorean genealogy circles, and is often viewed with a certain amount of suspicion as being a bit of romanticized drama that was likely used to embellish immigration narratives over the years of telling.

Bragaglia’s book gives some more detailed info about the history of whaling on Flores that I hadn’t known before:

“A short cruise through the history of the whaling era reveals that the Azores’ first coastal fleet was from Flores and started around 1856-57. The first two boats, ordered by José Constantine da Silveira e Almeida in the USA, were based in Fajã Grande for the first four years and finally captured Flores’ first whale in 1860...

[T]he Azorean whaling stations rank amongst the earliest coastal whaling stations in the world...The most adventurous Azoreans, taking advantage of the earlier whaling ships visiting Flores, exported their experience acquired on land and sea to North America and also to the Southern Oceans, where they helped establish the first coastal stations in Chile, Australia and New Zealand.

By December 1864, Flores had three whaling fleets and, from 1860, the island’s people were promoting this new method of fishing on Faial from where whaling spread to the other islands of the Azores... Flores’ early whaling supremacy is easy to understand: it is the closest island to North America and it was Americans who introduced whaling to the Azores, using Flores as a port of call from as early as the second half of the 18th century. Flores thus pioneered the industry in the archipelago, with this early pioneering period being known as the American phase.”

But what I found even more interesting and perhaps relevant to Caetano’s story is the section titled “The Paradise of Illegal Emigration”, which paints a much clearer picture of why and how he would have left. He quotes a letter sent by one Francisco Gomes from Rio de Janeiro and published in the weekly Iris newspaper of the island of Terceira:

...from the second half of the 19th century onwards the United States, in particular the state of California, replaced Brazil as the main destination for emigrants. And not even the patrols stationed in Santa Cruz, Lajes, Ponta Delgada and Fajã Grande or a corvette which, in the seas of the district of Horta, opens fire on any attempt at illegal emigration...seem to have been enough to deter the people of Flores from the lure of the new El Dorado. Apart from economic betterment, the other key factor which encouraged emigration was the fear of compulsory military service. In 1863, of the 75 youngsters registered for military service in the municipality of Lajes, 35 did not go before the military authorities, because they were absent in some unknown place – the majority would certainly already be on the other side of the Atlantic. Of the rest, 17 alleged various physical malformations, 14 argued that they measured less than the requisite 1.56 meters and only 9 were suitable for service.

Bragaglia then continues:

"On Flores, the most distant island from the government and the law, people only traveled on foot or by boat, as did the authorities who were unable to stop either the smuggling of goods on whaling ships or the trafficking of people – those without passports who, to avoid military service, escaped justice due to desperation or a desire for adventure, and took ship illegally. It is only natural that the west coast of Flores, the furthest limit of the archipelago, was the “paradise” of illegal emigration in the Azores, the coast most suited to escape “pelo alto”, a slang expression from Flores (meaning literally “by the high”). So it’s little surprise that Fajã Grande was the place sought out by people attempting to emigrate from other islands...

"Such intense emigration activity around Fajã Grande led the authorities to establish an armed counter-illegal emigration patrol which kept watch over the whole surrounding area. It could not, however, expect any support from the local population, most of whom had been subjected to centuries of repression under tenant farmer and state taxes and had developed a high degree of civil disobedience: they were not of a mood to assist the arm of authority whose purpose was to prevent escape from servitude.”

This lends a fair amount of credibility to the stow-away story if we tweak our definition of the term just slightly: Rather than thinking of it as someone who sneaks onto a ship without the captain’s knowledge, it probably makes more sense in this case to think of a stow-away as someone who sneaks onto a ship without going through the legal channels of obtaining a passport and emigrating. The captains of the whaling ships were likely well aware that Azorean men were coming aboard as crew, but the men still had to sneak onto the ships to avoid being caught by their own authorities and forced to serve in the military. I have previously imagined that the story of Caetano as stow-away was probably sketchy, and figured he may have left from the old port in Santa Cruz, Flores. But that would have been pretty blatant. Bragaglia’s book makes it seem entirely possible that he did leave pelo alto from Fajã Grande, not so far away from where he was born in Fajãzinha, in order to avoid military service.

In any case, it was very meaningful for me to walk around Fajãzinha and imagine Caetano here in the mid-19th century.