“I love my island” the guide said, gazing across the majestic vista of land and sea.
She fell silent for a few moments, then, when she turned toward me, I saw that her face was flushed with emotion.
“Every time I come up here, it seems to catch me anew.”
She was referring to Terceira, one of the islands of the Azores, and then she continued to point out and explain various historical sites and points of interest. Her love of the island was not difficult to understand. Dreamy panoramas of ocean, hills and sky caused small gasps of awe to escape from my lips followed by wistful sighs. Miles of purple hydrangea bushes and fields of every flower one could think of made me wonder if this was a scene from I Must Be In Heaven.
There are no poor people on the Azores islands, with the exception of Sao Miguel Island, which has only a few rich families owning most of the land. On all of the other islands there are no families that are considered poor, but there are many rich, traditional families.
One often hears references made to these rich and traditional families in the Azores. When we inquired as to how they became rich, the question was met with uncertainty and confusion. In retrospect, we realized that this was because the question was a typical North American capitalistic entrepreneur-based question that expected an “He made it big in oil” type of answer. Eventually we came to understand that wealth and property were handed down through many generations, after all, their history goes back to the 16th century, while Canada is just an infant a little over a century old. At any rate, some average families who lost their homes in the 1980 earthquake in Terceira and have received government assistance to rebuild, have purchased some of the rich old houses. It was obvious to many Azoreans that these families could not possibly be accepted into the rich-old-traditional-family category of high respect, and were seen as play-acting.
The next day we went downtown to cash some traveller’s cheques, first stopping at a snack bar, St. John’s Cafe, on St. John’s street. The three young girls running the shop were all smiles as they tried to communicate in English. We ordered some sandwiches, desserts and tea, and gave them a traveller’s cheque to pay for it. There was a great fluster and profound discussion as they calculated the conversion. As we sat outside at our table looking at our change, we suspected that they had given us far too much.
When our guide arrived, she verified our suspicions, and we went in to explain that they had given us American exchange instead of Canadian. They corrected the amount in that direct and pleasant way that indicates the expectation of honesty from their customers and from each other. Another thing our guide and now, us, love about Azore Islanders.
Later, our guide checked at the bank and said the bank would charge too high a service fee to cash our traveler’s cheques, and she took us to see a friend of her’s who owned a local business. An older lady, dignified, but working in an old shop with wooden floors, selling factory type goods such as large tools, bags of flour, fertilizer, etc., cashed our cheques with no service charge. After we left, our guide explained that the woman belonged to a very wealthy, very traditional, but conservative family, and that the business had been in the family for many generations. She said the family still lived upstairs, above the business, and continued to work in the store every day.
Although towns have no parking meters, they do have buses and taxis. Streets are cobblestone and extremely narrow, leaving room for sidewalks with widths ranging from six inches to two feet wide. Needless to say, it is often difficult for one person to remain on the sidewalk and impossible for two to walk side by side. Quaintness and charm aside, everything in the Azores appeared to me to be in miniature. Tiny houses, tiny shops, tiny cars, tiny villages, tiny farms, but then these were tiny islands. Was this Heaven or a scene from The Incredible Shrinking Man?
The people of the Azores are Roman Catholic and their religion is deeply important to them. Even young people who have left the islands to study in Lisboa (Lisbon), and who are otherwise enamoured with big city life, are true to their religious values, and after living on the mainland, often find that they prefer to live in the tranquil islands. One young man we spoke to said that he found that people in the cities are rude and don’t even speak to each other.
“Here, you walk down the street and in twenty metres three people have said hello. Or you walk into a shop and several people inside want to chat with you… I missed that”, he told us wistfully… “I missed the sea too.”
Religious festivals are celebrated throughout the year, especially during the summer months, and streets covered with flower petals and long processions through the streets are not uncommon sights on any given day on any island during the summer. Sweets and other delicacies are served on these occasions.
At about 6:30 a.m. on the morning of my third day in the Azores, I woke to a very strange noise echoing in the air. I puzzled over it for a long time as I drifted in and out of sleep. Finally, I dreamily recognized that it was a rooster crowing. I sat up. Impossible, I thought for a moment, then no…, it was a rooster, and how perfectly in keeping with the charm of the Azores. Just one more thing to love about the Azores.