July 21, 2014

Day 20: Ponta Delgada, São Miguel

It was a little hard to say goodbye to sweet Lajes and start heading for home. But it is that time. I so enjoyed getting to know the Meireles family and friends, and my hosts César and Cidalia were exemplary as well. It was my first time on Flores but I hope it won't be my last.

I flew back to Ponta Delgada on São Miguel, and after checking into this nice little B&B I met up with my friend Emanuel. She took me to her lovely house in nearby Lagoa, where we went for a last (for me, anyway) swim in the piscina natural that was more or less right outside her garden gate.

Afterwards, we sat and chatted with her oldest daughter Julia and adorable grand-daughter Violeta and drank some herbal infusion made with something she had just pulled from her garden (lemon balm?). Then we went to pick up her youngest daughter Alice in Ribeira Grande. Finally, we had a good meal at a place just down the street from where I am staying. Emanuel was a big part of making my time in Ponta Delgada so rewarding and enjoyable, and I am so appreciative of her help and friendship. Emanuel will be moving next year to join her partner in Angola, where many Portuguese are moving to find work, and soon Julia and her family will be moving to Goa, India. As always, it seems, people have to leave the islands to find other opportunities and to expand their horizons. It's a beautiful but small place, with some definite limitations.

Tomorrow I fly home with a load of rich experiences and strong memories of all the wonderful people, beautiful places, and amazing sounds I've encountered here, along with a rather huge feeling of responsibility. Having come this far and done all of this field work, I feel an obligation to do this experience justice and make something really good out of it all. It's a bit scary because I feel like three weeks was barely enough time to scratch the surface here. Even three months would have been too brief. I know there are many elements I am missing because I simply didn't have time to wait for things to happen or to develop the kinds of relationships needed to go deeper. But I will do my best with the material I have, and hope to make something worthy of bringing back here to present and share with these people who have made my time here so fulfilling. No pressure or anything.

At the same time, it will be good to be home, to reunite with my wife and family and friends, to get back to my life, and to dig into working with this material for the next year or so. I know that as I do, the sounds I've recorded will evoke strong memories of my time here. And that will be a pleasure.

July 20, 2014

Day 19: A Coração da Festa

This morning was probably the most important part of the Festa do Emigrante, and hardly anyone was there — a procession down the main street of Lajes to the church, in which people from the various other churches in the parish brought crowns representing the Espirito Santo (Holy Ghost).

For those not familiar (most of you), the cult of the Holy Ghost is pretty much specific to the Azores and is carried over to the Azorean communities in the US, Canada, and Brazil. As far as I know it doesn't really exist much in mainland Portugal. I won't go into great ethnographic detail now, but you can get the basics here. There are special festas (feast days) and rituals devoted to the Espirito Santo, but it tends to make an appearance at any major event here.

What I find interesting is the absence of humanized iconography. There is no visible "person" being worshiped or represented. No images of Jesus or Mary or any of the saints. Instead, the only symbols are a nearly transparent crown, sometimes a scepter, and a dove. That's about it. These are housed in a special small chapel called an imperio, and there is usually nothing much else in there except the banners and other items used during the processions (the two photos below were taken on Pico during my previous trip). Those of you who know me know that I am not at all religious, but I find this kind of unmediated, "minimalist Catholicism" quite beautiful and interesting.

The procession this morning consisted of groups from each church in this freguesia (parish) bearing their banners and crowns, each accompanied by its own folia, an ensemble of men playing drums and cymbals and singing stark hymns. As they marched solemnly down the street, the foliões alternated singing, first one group then another, until all had been represented. There were only a handful of people there watching, most of whom I think were associated with the participants.

I've been worrying that the ethnographic part of this project was getting a little lost, so I was happy to make recordings and take photos at the same time (thanks, little Canon point n' shoot!). In some circumstances I might have felt self-conscious about doing this, but there were plenty of other people documenting the event, and I was probably one of the more discreet ones. There was a TV crew there, and a number of people with video cameras and tablets and shooting still photos, all of whom were getting up much closer than I was. There was even one old guy who was recording all of the sound on an ancient boom box.

The procession ended at the church, transitioning directly into a mass, which was better attended than the procession. I didn't understand a lot of what was being said, but at one point I could tell the priest was talking about all of the emigrants who have moved from the Azores to California and New England and Canada and Brazil, and how they have kept alive the Espirito Santo traditions there. I recorded the whole thing from up in the choir loft (along with several other photographers and the guy with the boom box), including some fabulous bell ringing in a continuous "strumming" style I've never heard before — again with the minimalism! At the end I went up in the bell tower and the sound was really intense. In the photo below you can kind of make out all of the crowns lined up on the two side altars, thirteen in all.

In the afternoon I was invited to join Regina Meireles and her family for lunch, but had no idea it would be at such a special place. Her daughter Ana picked me up and we drove about five minutes out of town, then pulled over by the side of the road. We got out and walked down a barely visible gravel path to an old stone mill house, set next to a creek and shaded by many large trees, a secret patch of heaven. Regina's parents met and courted here — it was where girls used to come to wash clothes, and boys would come there to meet them — and they eventually bought it because they had such sentimental feelings about it. All of the family I met the other day in Fajã were there, plus a couple of other young friends of her daughters. After a big lunch one of the guys got out a Portuguese guitar, and Manuel got out a classical guitar (called a viola here), and Regina's husband Armando began to sing fados from Coimbra. He has a beautiful voice, and I'll be hearing him sing later this evening with a grupo folclórico as part of the festa events. Again I must say that the kindness and hospitality shown toward me by this family has been truly wonderful, and I can't think of a better way to have spent my last afternoon on Flores. As Regina said to me: "We are not rich, but we are rich in other ways." Indeed.

July 19, 2014

Day 18: Lajes das Flores

One of the signature sounds I've become obsessed with here is the sound of waves interacting with rocks. There are countless different gurgling, glugging sounds, and you only have to move a few yards to hear something quite different. I find it endlessly fascinating, and it really reinforces the feeling of being on a hunk of volcanic rock in the middle of the ocean, miles from nowhere and surrounded by the sea on all sides. So I've been making a point of recording the sounds of waves and rocks whenever I can. This is not always easy, given the geological situation, with cliffs dropping right into the water. Today I managed to climb down and scramble over a bunch of large boulders to get to a place far from the noise of the harbor and the town.

When I climbed back up to the port, they were getting ready to put in three of the old whale boats. I've really come to love these boats, which are a huge source of local pride, a way for people to stay connected with the heritage of whaling and the ways of their ancestors. The old whalers really are revered here, and it's so tied in with the history of emigration. At the regatta I attended on Pico, I was impressed with how many women were involved, and here it was great to see that one of the boats had an all-female crew. I'm pretty sure there were no women whalers back in the day, and I wonder when they started to participate in whale boats for sport. I'll bet there's an interesting story there.

Sadly, I haven't really been able to make good recordings of these boats due to so much other noise going on around them. For example, while I was watching this there was a guy cruising nearby on a jet-ski and a bunch of machinery noise from the port, all of which would have drowned out the sounds of the oars, etc. One of the best sounds was when they brought out the oar locks, which seemed to be all tied together and rang like bells when they carried them. Still trying to figure out how I might be able to get a decent recording of that.

It was fairly hot and humid, and by now I was getting tired and hungry. Fortunately the supply ship had come in the night before, so I knew there would be groceries. I went to the local supermercado and sure enough, it was all a-buzz. The people who worked there were busy, furiously filling the shelves with goods that had just been unloaded, and there were a lot of customers stocking up. It's a big deal here when the ship comes. By the end of that two-week period, the shelves are nearly empty. So it's a real symbol of the important connection to and dependence on the outside world.

In the evening I headed back down to the festa, which by now has grown considerably. I'd say there were at least twice as many people in the street as the night before, maybe more. Tonight's main entertainment was the marcha, dance groups that parade through the street accompanied by marching bands. It's "folkloric" in the invented tradition sense, but festive and fun and it makes people happy.

There were two dance groups, which seemed to be accompanied by the same band. First one group marched down the street to the plaza, then all the band members walked back up the street and a while later came down again with a different dance group. I saw Regina on the street and she invited me to have lunch with her family tomorrow. How could I refuse?

July 18, 2014

Day 17: Ilha das Flores, west and north

Today I set out to explore the west coast of Flores, heading up toward Fajã Grande. In case there was any doubt, the west coast is just as lovely as the east. Lots of high waterfalls too, though the light was not in my favor for photographing them.

As I was putting gas in the rental car, I checked with the attendant to make sure I was going the right way. He confirmed that I was, and added that Fajã Grande is the "Algarve of the Azores." Well, sort of. The Algarve is mainland Portugal's major beach resort area in the south. But here in the Azores, there are very few sandy beaches. Most of the islands, and especially this one, either have tall cliffs that drop vertically into the sea, or jagged lava fields that give way to the ocean. In the lava rocks there are often natural pools that have been enhanced for swimming (see previous posts), but actual beaches are rare. The "beach" at Fajã Grande is a fairly steep slope covered in small-ish rocks. Admittedly, it's the closest thing to a beach I've seen on Flores. But still — definitely not the Algarve. The town itself seems to be experiencing some growing pains. I saw a lot of very unattractive new vacation homes going up, many apparently owned by foreigners. I didn't feel inspired to spend much time in the town, and headed on to Ponta da Fajã, a smaller village of maybe 25 or 30 inhabited rustic houses further up the road that ends in hiking trails.

The trails lead out to a point which is the furthest west you can go on Flores, making it also the western-most edge of Europe. From here, there's nothing but ocean until you hit New England.

After a short hike and some recording, I headed back into Fajã Grande for lunch at a funky little cafe near the swimming area — a small but very good salad of octopus, tomatoes, onions, and parsley. There was no menu, and I didn't bother to ask the price first. Really, how much could it be? €17 — yikes! By far the most expensive meal I've had on this entire trip, and yet another sign of the socio-economic shifts happening here. While I was eating lunch, Emanuel called from São Miguel just to see how I am doing, which was a happy surprise.

I had been invited by Regina Meireles to visit her family home here after 2 PM, and she soon called to say they had just finished lunch and now was a good time to come over. Turns out their place is one of those charming, rustic little stone cottages out in Ponta da Fajã, so I headed back out there and found it pretty easily. As I said before, it's not like I have any direct connection to these people, yet they welcomed me into their home and treated me almost like family. This has been typical of my experience here so far and is something I will always remember fondly. It makes a huge difference in my experience of traveling when I can connect with local people, much more important and memorable to me than the pretty landscapes.

I met Regina's husband Armando, who sings Coimbra-style fado; her brother José and his wife Ilda, who had lived in New England for a while; her two daughters Ana and Joana (both nurses in Ponta Delgada on São Miguel) and the latter's boyfriend, Manuel (a surgeon at the same hospital), all really nice folks who speak good English and patiently indulged my lousy Portuguese. Regina fed me delicious home-made flan and chocolate mousse (made with their own eggs), followed by good red wine and some truly stunning port. We had interesting conversations about many things, including the history of the whalers and the people who left. At one point we were talking about music and Ana asked if I like Godspeed You! Black Emperor (interesting experimental band from Canada). Yes, I do, in fact. João Vieira, the historian neighbor Regina wanted me to meet wasn't around. Too bad, he looks like an interesting guy. But all's well. I felt very well cared-for. And I'm here for two more days, so I could still run into him.

After a while, folks had to go back to work or drifted off into other activities. I had to get going, and Ana, Joana, and Manuel wanted to go swimming so I offered them a ride to the natural swimming pool. I figured I had time for a quick dip before I had to return the rental car in Santa Cruz. But the swimming area had a lot of jellyfish (águas-vivas = "living water"), so Ana suggested we go to a freshwater swimming hole she knew about. Assuming it must be nearby, I was all for it. We ended up driving pretty far up into the mountains, then getting out and walking across a large, boggy field full of cows until we got to a little creek running through some lava rocks — the other folks doing all of this wearing flip-flops! We followed the creek for a while and ended up at this great pool; the next pool further down runs off a cliff and turns into one of those spectacular waterfalls I'd seen earlier.

I only had time for a short swim, as I had to return the car soon and was getting worried that I wouldn't have time to take them home and still make it back to Santa Cruz by 5:30. But they assured me they were fine and could get home on their own, though it felt to me like I was leaving them stranded in the middle of nowhere. I hope they made it home OK! So I said goodbye to my new friends and tromped off through the soggy fields, making sure to avoid eye contact with the bull.

This place felt very remote, but was actually about half way to Santa Cruz, and I pulled up to the car rental place at 5:31. César offered to come from Lajes to fetch me, but I didn't want to impose upon his generosity any further than I already have. I assured him I could get a bus, so he told me where to find the bus stop and I walked across town to the little plaza near where I had stayed. Unfortunately, the last bus to Lajes for the day had left a half-hour before. So I walked up to the traffic circle headed out of town and stuck out my thumb. Didn't wait long before some guys picked me up who were going all the way there — three young construction workers from the mainland who are here working on the new museum in Santa Cruz, nice guys. We stopped at a cafe for a drink and Marco the driver paid for my sparkling water before I could pay for his coffee. Again, the kindness of these people! They dropped me at the bottom of my street and all was good.

Soon I heard the bands doing sound check for the Festa do Emigrante, and after making a salad I wandered down to check it out. I was expecting a much bigger scene. Instead, there were probably less than 500 people hanging out on the main street, eating at the food stalls set up along the way. I checked out an indoor flea market but didn't find anything. It started to drizzle so I headed home and listened to the band from here — "Proud Mary" followed by "Dancing in the Dark" followed by "Stand by Me" and a couple of other songs I didn't recognize. The last thing I remember hearing before I drifted off to sleep was an ABBA tribute band. And frogs.

July 17, 2014

Day 16: Ilha das Flores, east and north

I thought it would be good to rent a car and see the rest of the island. Of course, there are a lot of people coming here now for the big Festa do Emigrante (Feast of the Emigrant) that happens this weekend, so rental cars are in short supply. But César managed to find one for me back in Santa Cruz and volunteered to drive me over there (25 km) to pick it up, because that's the kind of guy he is. I thanked him for going to so much trouble on my behalf and he said no problem, it's his "responsibility." Stand-up guy, that César. I stopped at a grocery store to get some food to make at home, but there was very little on the shelves. There is a ship that supplies the islands that comes every two weeks, and they are waiting for it to arrive tomorrow. Things like that really remind that we are on and island in the middle of nowhere.

Nearly everyone I've met here has told me that Flores is the most beautiful island in the Azores. I can't verify that, and I'm not about to diss anyone else's island, but I can say that Flores does indeed pack a whole lot of beauty into a small hunk of rock. It's about the same size as Faial, but with less than 4000 people has about a quarter of the population. Flores is also the most far-western edge of Europe. I'm just going to post a bunch of photos working my way from Santa Cruz on the center of the east cost to the northern tip in Ponta Delgada. Please don't expect me to remember where they all were taken. But it's like this at pretty much every turn in the road. And yes, those volcanic rock fence rows are all covered with hydrangeas.

The photo above is looking down at Ponta Delgada, the town at the north end of the island. (Note: many of the islands have towns with the same names as towns on the other islands, so this is not the same Ponta Delgada I was in two weeks ago — that was on São Miguel.) This Ponta Delgada is of interest to me because I think it may be where my great-great grandmother Maria Isabel Avelar came from. I went to the cemetery and indeed there were many more Avelars buried here than in the Santa Cruz cemetery, and relatively few Freitases.

Apparently, putting volcanic rocks the size and shape of large yams on your roof helps keep the tiles in place. I don't recall seeing this technique anywhere else, but it seems to be common practice here.

From town there's a road that goes out to the lighthouse on the northern tip of the island. You can see the tiny island of Corvo in the background.

From here there's nowhere to go but up. So I headed into the mountains, where there are numerous volcanic caldeiras with lakes in them. And lots of clouds. It's very windy, and the landscape changes dramatically to wind-blown cedar, short grasses, and heather-y ground cover.

When I got home I had a visit from Regina Meireles, the cousin of John Vasconçelos, who I know only from the Azores genealogy email list I subscribe to. So this is a cousin of a guy I've never met and only exchanged a couple of emails with, and they haven't seen each other in something like fifteen years. Regina generously made time to come over and meet me (I can see her house from my porch) and we had a nice chat in English and Portuguese. She kindly invited me out to their other house at Fajã Grande tomorrow. Her daughters from São Miguel and other family are visiting and staying out there to get away from the noise of the impending festa here in Lajes. I was planning to see the west coast tomorrow and go to Fajã anyway, so this will work out nicely. She also has a neighbor out there who is a historian, to whom she wants to introduce me.

After our meeting I went and had some dinner and then did some more recordings of the cagarros. Instead of going down to the cliffs by the harbor, this time I headed up the road toward the lighthouse here in Lajes, where I got lucky and came across a few individual nests just off the road. I was able to record from maybe ten feet away, and it was great to get the isolated sounds of just a few birds as opposed to the insane cacophony of the entire flock. I also recorded the frogs that live right outside my window. They are loud and very active, but I enjoy them immensely and they don't seem to keep me awake. I've slept better here than anywhere else on the trip.