I became quite ill after the rough flight to to the tiny island of Flores (The Azores). In a wild storm, and after several aborted landing attempts and a rugged one-wheel landing, I could barely stand up when getting off the plane.
There was dark magic in the roaring winds that sent wild waves crashing onto jagged rocks and a fearful wind that tore the leaves and branches of every tree on Flores. It sent waterfalls flying backwards into the air and onto the highway. Yes, backwards!
Photo Credit http://www.thisiscolossal.com
Flights were cancelled indefinitely. It seemed that the earlier prediction our guide, Humberto, had made about never returning from Flores was true.
Sometimes the ocean would come pounding through a cavernous natural arch of polished rock and smash violently onto the rough black volcanic rocks. It was at these times that one felt in awe of the vigorous forces of nature and the sea. To islanders the sea is a symbol of respect, limitation, and suffering. Almost everything they do has to do with the sea, but Azoreans say that they respect the sea more than they admire it.
In the airport, a middle-aged man approached and asked, in Portuguese, if we wanted to go to the Occidental Hotel. We used sign language to ask him to wait as we fumbled through luggage for the itinerary. Yes, the Hotel Occidental. The man said,
“Come with me. My house.”
He drove us the two blocks to the seaside hotel, all the while sincerely concerned as to my health. A brilliant rainbow suspended over the ocean in front of the hotel looked like a beautiful mirage. J scrambled to get a picture. Too late. We asked the driver,
“No, no,” he replied, “This my house.”
I was desperate to get to the room, embarrassed to be in such an unsociable condition. I lay down on the bed and slept. They sent up tea and melba toast – just the right things. I got up, but the room started spinning, and I had to lay down again.
A driver and guide arrived a little later and I tried to get up to go out and tour the island, but every time I moved my head, dizziness threatened to send me down. I could not leave. Freezing as well, I dragged myself to the bathtub and had a hot bath, and snuggling under a blanket, I spent the afternoon watching Portuguese TV, none of which, of course, made any sense.
By late afternoon my head felt worse, and thinking that I must have an ear infection, I asked if a Doctor could be located. Assuming that this might be a difficult task in such a small and remote island, I prepared myself to wait some time, and to have to drag myself out to a Dr’s office. They returned five minutes later with a Doctor in hand – apparently she lived in the hotel! She prescribed an antibiotic, an eardrop solution, and a powdered aspirin-type drink. It was then necessary for a taxi driver to pick up the pharmacist at home and take her to the pharmacy (this was the usual procedure) in order to procure the prescription medications.
While I lay in the hotel room feeling sorry for myself, J, ever diligent in his duty, went out to explore the island and take photographs. After one of these excursions, he ventured out again into the black night of wind and rain to walk to a nearby restaurant for his supper and to bring home some food for me.
Once outside he realized how dark it really was. He hesitated. It was black dark. He could see nothing. But he had a mission. He walked by feel. He could hear the sea to the right and got an occasional glimpse of the stone wall to his left on the inside. He remembers from the afternoon that there was no wall or railing on the cliff side.
“What the Hell am I doing?” he mutters to himself. He steps on a rock, down he goes in the blackness of the night.
“Shit.” His right knee makes contact with volcanic gravel and there is a burning sensation.
“Son-of-a-bitch, this black rock is sharp!” As he picks himself up he hears something fall out of his pocket. He gropes blindly on the ground around his feet. He finds it. One of his extra camera batteries. He is thankful and concludes that his injury, though bleeding, is inconsequential and continues on his mission.
He strains to see, realizing how sharp his sense of sight and hearing have suddenly become. He visualizes the road as he had seen it that afternoon, combines that with the sound of the ocean on his right, and the feel of the gravel under his feet. He remembers the sign he saw this afternoon!
The two-storey buildings he had seen in the afternoon show faintly against the dim streetlights on the other side of them. He can just barely see the row of windows on the second floor of the restaurant. He plods slowly and carefully ahead.
“Be careful.” he keeps saying to himself, “Don’t turn right too soon – the road has no railing or wall on that side.” He heads straight for the taller buildings and turns right down the gravel road behind them towards the warm glow of the restaurant windows. He finds the stairs in the dark and wonders why there are no lights. He stumbles across the room and into the lit restaurant.
The owner-chef-waitress comes with the menu. In the style of all waitresses, she pleasantly explains the specials of the evening. He is speechless. He did not understand one thing. He makes a helpless gesture, she leaves. He stares at the menu. It is meaningless. She returns. He points to the PEIXE section, guessing it is fish, and shrugs his shoulders. Then he points to her and to the menu items. She understands and points to GAROUPA. He surmises that it must be Grouper, so he nods.
She asks about VINHO. They establish that he would like white wine. He tries a series of gestures to indicate one glass of wine. She nods and leaves. Bread and cheese arrive, followed by a full bottle of wine. He resigns himself to drinking a whole bottle of wine.
The food arrives and it is excellent, perhaps a little salty, but he is hungry. The wine goes well with the garoupa. A couple leave and a young black man and a white woman sit down near him, chatting amiably in Portuguese. His meal is done and it’s time for dessert. He shrugs again. The waitress goes to the counter and returns with a small plate holding a sample of each dessert. He tastes one, then another, and another. He smiles. She smiles. He points. She nods. The dessert is terrific but he wonders how he is going to explain that he would like to take some food back with him.
When she returns to clear the table, he gestures that the dessert was good. She understands, pleased. He begins gesturing and pointing in a feeble attempt to explain that he would like to take out some food. She shrugs and holds her hands palm up. He looks around thinking he might try to speak to the young woman at the next table. Gratefully, she speaks English and he explains what he would like to do. She translates.
The waitresses senses that someone is at home ill and is eager to help. He asks the young woman to thank her for her fine choices of food and for being so helpful. He is pleased with his experience now and waits for the check, then wonders how much it will be as he comes to the realization that he has only 2250 escudos ($22.50C). There is an item for 300 escudos on the paper which he does not recognize. She points at the bread and cheese. The total is 2180 escudos. He puts the 2250 on the dish, smiles, and walks out the door into the black night with the treasure of food stuffed into his jacket pocket.
“God, it’s dark,” he says out loud with no one to hear. He turns to the left to make his way down the stairs, but he can barely see the steps of the stairs. There is no street lighting either. He looks to the right and it’s ink black but he can make out the silhouette of a lamp post near the last tall building.
He heads past the buildings toward the lamp post thinking that it would sure be nice if this lamp post had a lamp on it. At a suitable distance from the last building he makes a beeline for the post, knowing that he must judge this distance correctly because on the left there is a pile of scattered vehicle parts, garbage, and the edge of the cliff, and nearer to the buildings more vehicle remains.
“Damn good thing I walked here this afternoon.”
At the lamp post he stopped. He stared. He starred some more. All he could see was blackness. Looking in every direction, he could not make out a thing!
“Have I lost all my sense of direction?” Finally he thinks he has his bearings. He sets out. The feedback through his shoes tells him that he’s on the black gravel. Good. Suddenly something feels soft. He stops, peers into the darkness, but can’t see a thing. He returns to the lamp post, reflects on the event and concludes that he had come close to the cliff. He pauses, wondering if his Will is in order.
He starts out again, this time a little more to the right. More feedback – soft under his feet again. He didn’t know black gravel could be so reassuringly important. Back to the lamp post. What should he do? Go back to the restaurant? Maybe he should not have drunk so much wine.
Maybe he could go across the big grassy field where that cow was grazing this afternoon and across to the hotel. That would mean he’d have to climb those stone fences in the dark, and then there were the hazards of walking across a freshly grazed pasture, at night.
He decides to try to find the black gravel of the road. He reflects and visualizes. It seems to him that the lamp post was a bit further to the left than he was allowing. He backtracks a bit. Starts out again. Feedback is positive. He goes further than before and then, soft. The whole experience was like walking into a soft black wall. Back to the lamp post. Talking to himself. Let’s see, if I go about the same way but make a slight curve to the left that should keep me on the road. He sets out again crawling – it’s the only safe way. It goes well and he is further than the previous times. The gravel feedback is positive.
Then something hard is under his right foot. He edges his foot forward and the ground dips down. He squats down and as he’s feeling the concrete, he recognizes that it’s the concrete water trough between the gravel and the stone wall on the inside of the road. He feels like he has finally penetrated the soft black wall.
He proceeds with hesitant confidence, with the left foot on the black gravel at all times, and the right foot on the smooth concrete. He judges his proximity to the stone wall by occasionally squatting and squinting into the black night toward the hotel. He rounds the long curve to the right without incident and cruises along the sharp gravel. As he approaches the hotel and the fluorescent sign beside the entrance comes into view to the right of the black road, he releases a great sigh of relief.
Now he begins to relax, realizing how tense his body had become as he walked what he called, “the black road of death” on Flores.
Many say that Flores is the most beautiful of the islands, that it has more lush vegetation, thicker trees, more water, lakes and waterfalls, and while that was in evidence, the tempestuous wind storm that raged through the seas continuously for three of the four days that we were there, was by far the more commanding. A ferocious wind enveloped the minute island and sang a terrifying song of triumph and tyranny assuring me of the belief that ultimate respect belonged to the sea. One could barely stand up against the frenzied wind and the sea frothed white and swollen. The constant roaring of the wind hurt my ears, and though I have always loved storms and been intrigued by them – even a blinding snowstorm at 40 degrees below zero in Canada – this storm frightened me.
The severity of the storm prompted me to ask Silvio, our guide, to confirm that this must be one of their most intense storms.
“For us it is a normal storm. Sometimes it is worse.” He said this calmly, and I was silent as visions of worse storms collided in my mind.
Silvio was a special guide. He owned and operated the only taxi on the island, and although he was not employed by the Turismo, he assumed the role of guide, and did so with enthusiasm. We were truly impressed with his initiative and generosity, not to mention his knowledge of, and genuine pride in, his island. But perhaps most important of all, Sylvio drove slowly along the winding roads through the mountains and valleys, allowing ample time to actually see the countryside we were driving through, and it was only then that I realized how much we must have missed on other islands as we zipped up and down, and trees whizzed past.
Only our friend and guide, Humberto, who called to inquire about my health, and to see how he could help us get out of Flores, lightened the sinister presence of the storm. As I picked up the phone, an aureate voice sang a few bars from “The Beautiful Woman of Bonneville”, and in his usual enchanting manner, he announced that it was a song that was popular when he was a boy, and of course I was too young to know it.
Of my health, he declared that perhaps I was with child, and that I would have a beautiful Azorean baby which I could call Jean Flores, and then I would settle in the Flanders valley of his own island of Faial. We laughed heartily and I felt less alone and trapped on this dot of an island in the middle of a wild Atlantic Ocean storm.
Humberto said he would try to make new flight arrangements. He called later.
“Leaving Flores on the 31st or the 1st is impossible because it is New Years and there are no flights, and after that it is impossible as well because the flights are fully booked. When people from Flores have booked a flight, there is no changing. It is like people escaping, like an explosion was occurring behind them, so we cannot wait and hope for a cancellation. We told you that Flores is the end of the world, and that once there, you have great difficulty to escape, but you do have a plane to Canada on the 4th, so the only possibility is tomorrow, the 30th. It is booked however.”
I was almost ready to resign myself to staying in Flores indefinitely, after all the people were wonderful, and since the storm died down, I saw that the island was indeed beautiful with thick, lush ravines and forests, flowers everywhere, and panoramic hills. I could live here for a long time I thought to myself. Just as I was about to admit my true feelings, Humberto decided that he had taunted me sufficiently.
“With some maneuvers, however, I think I can get you on the flight to Faial instead of Sao Miguel, even though they are the same flight, but different – it’s all very complicated. Do nothing – I will arrange it.”
In the end we were booked on the flight to Faial on the 30th but when we arrived at the airport to leave, they said the weather was bad again, and that the flight was cancelled! Back we went to the hotel, wondering if we ever would leave Flores, and realizing that there was a lot of truth in Humberto’s statement that,
“… when people go to Flores, they never come back. Flores, she is at the end of the world.”
The next day we did, finally, leave Flores, but with paradoxical mixed feelings of elation and wistful disappointment.