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.)