July 14, 2014

Day 13: Santa Cruz das Flores

Standing in line to board the plane to Flores, the woman just ahead of me noticed my passport. “You from the States?” We began chatting and enjoyed it enough to continue our conversation on the plane. It’s one of those great things that happen when you travel, running into some interesting person under random circumstances with whom who you have an instant rapport.

Rosanne Thomas is a writer (several novels, a memoir, misc.) from Massachusetts traveling with her lovely daughter August, also an aspiring novelist and scholar of Turkish/Ottoman culture. Roseanne is here doing research for her next novel. She didn’t want to give away too much, but one of her characters has some connection to the Azores and she wanted to come absorb some details about the landscape and life here. They are on a whirlwind tour of what sounds like most of the islands, and will only be on Flores for two days. After we landed in Santa Cruz we parted ways, making a plan to meet up at their hotel for dinner later.

The place where I am staying is in the south end of town, near the old harbor, at the bottom of a quiet street (finally!) that ends at the ocean about thirty yards away. There was nobody here when I arrived, so I called the number on the door and a woman said she’d be here in five minutes, which turned out to be more like ten. The room is cheap (€35/night) and huge. Not much of a view out the only window (the laundry area), but I’m not paying for a great view. Or a great bed, apparently. So it goes.

It was a beautiful day, so I decided to go check out the piscinas naturais (natural ocean swimming pools), which has increasingly become a top priority wherever I go. There is actually a swimming area at the bottom of our street, but since it is not listed on the map I opted to check out the one that is, figuring it must be nicer. This turned out to be the case. It’s a really beautiful spot, with extensive paved deck areas where one can lie around and bake in the sun between dips.

It is also the Big Teen Hang-out Spot. When I arrived there weren’t too many people, but within an hour it was looking like a Frankie and Annette movie. Every teenager in town must have been there. At that point I left to wander around town. I pretty quickly found the cemetery and decided to look for maybe-relatives. I met the groundskeeper, a friendly old guy who spoke no English whatsoever. Somehow we managed to have a nice little conversation. I found lots of stones with Freitas (or de Freitas) and Avelar (or Avellar) names, some with both names on the same stone. I have no idea if my ancestors came from Santa Cruz, but it’s a small island and there is a good chance that some of these people were distant relatives.

Santa Cruz is not exactly a charming city. It’s fine, not at all unpleasant, just kind of unremarkable and not especially photogenic. It feels more suburban than any other town I’ve seen in the Azores. I’m staying in the old part of town, which feels a bit more like what I’ve experienced elsewhere — big old church, narrow streets, multi-story common-wall buildings. But as you get farther north the construction becomes newer, the houses larger, free-standing and more spread out. At the far north end of town it gets more industrial, with warehouses and such. There’s a spiffy new soccer field (sorry, futbol), and the old whale factory, which is in the midst of being turned into a museum. The latter has a rather gruesome display out front, a fake sperm whale that has been bisected.

Right next to the whale factory is the Hotel das Flores, the slick new hotel where I’d be meeting Rosanne and August. On my way there I noticed a restaurant called Baleia Ocidental (Western Whale) with a sperm whale painted on the wall outside, about a block from the hotel. We decided to check it out and had a great meal of grilled fish (not sure what kind) with potatoes, salad, bread and cheese. We spent a very enjoyable evening comparing notes and projects, sharing our travel experiences and other interests. I accidentally left my wallet in my backpack at the hotel, and Roseanne very kindly picked up the tab, for which I felt a little guilty but grateful.

My new pals are planning to take a boat trip to Corvo tomorrow, and invited me to join them if there is room on the boat. Corvo is the smallest island in the Azores, and very nearby (you can see it in the above photo of the pools). There is only one village there, with about 350 inhabitants. I’m a little ambivalent about going because there isn’t much to actually do there. On the other hand, it is just right over there, and it would be one more island in the chain I will have visited. So I’ll see how I feel tomorrow, and have a tentative plan to meet them at the harbor in the morning.

Speaking of Corvo, there are two films about it that I learned of recently. One is It's the Earth, Not the Moon, a three-hour documentary that I haven’t seen, made by a guy whose mother is from there.

The other one is North Atlantic, a short (15 minutes) film based on a true story, very moving.

I don't have any personal contacts on Flores, so I'm not exactly sure what will happen here. I might have some contacts through the genealogy world, will wait and see. I'll be in Santa Cruz for two days and then go to Lajes, for the big Festa do Emigrante, when many people who have emigrated return to see family and friends. I'm planning to record at that, and maybe interview some people. Fingers crossed that something cool happens.