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.