Azores: Running with the Bulls in Terceira

Every Sunday from May to September, Terceira Islanders take to the streets for “tourada à corda,” a celebration of tradition, tenacity and togetherness. Touradas are similar to running with the bulls, except this bull is at the end of a long rope, which allows for the five men called pastores to control its direction and advance (to some degree). Another distinction is that the bull is not killed at the end of his run, though I doubt this fact will mollify PETA or any vegans.

The tourada has a state fair vibe to it: mobile vendors sell whole crabs, ice cream and donuts, older men in short-sleeved button-down shirts tucked into their starched blue jeans line up behind street level barricades while women and young children sit along the volcanic stone hedge walls that are prevalent in the Azores. 

Young men, eager to prove their bravery through bravado approach the bull head on, stomp their feet and wave their arms. Once the bull charges, it’s imperative to have a nimbleness about you, to react decisively and climb a wall ninja style.

Across many cultures the bull represents determination (AKA stubbornness), unpredictability, stamina, and an unbreakable will. The 400-year-old tourada tradition plays with this symbolism, and provides Azoreans with an adrenaline rush I’m not sure any other local activity could. Maybe cliff diving? Bars and restaurants offer highlight reels of the most spectacular leaps, dives and dodges. On occasion, a man misjudges, falls prey to the bull and is trampled or gored to death.

I was initially apprehensive, but the longer I watched, the more anxious I was to participate, even wearing a dress. I spoke to the pastores during an intermission, while the bulls were crated and spectators bought snacks.

At the start of the next round, I joined the older men in jeans at a driveway lined with hydrangeas. I didn’t even see the bull coming our way, but I followed the tide of men scurrying up the driveway, laughing maniacally. It reminded me of sneaking into haunted (abandoned) houses as a teenager, the thrill of the unknown eliciting giddiness, the perceived anxiety worse than any real danger. Later, the pastores amused themselves by letting out the rope’s slack and allowing the bull to chase me, the only woman runner, all the way to the safe zone, demarcated by two white stripes on the road.

Pastores removing rounded-tip brass covers from a bull’s horns.

The mere fact this tradition continues to exist ruffles some feathers. Maybe it is time to phase it out, though I’d approach it from the perspective that men dying in an attempt to prove their masculinity is problematic, rather than an animal rights issue. Something I’ve come to realize through living for over two years in a rural South African village as a Peace Corps volunteer is culture is more deeply embedded than a tick after a long hike. Merely proclaiming “it’s wrong, it’s evil!” without understanding the history or value behind the tradition doesn’t motivate practitioners to reconsider. Speaking up against what you perceive as injustice is a moral imperative, and part of an informed advocacy campaign is one which appreciates the value in the why, and offers alternative traditions. Practitioners must be partners in the change process, not simply on the receiving end of intolerance, benevolence or cosmopolitan ideas. As long as the touradas are tied to masculinity, and without a meaningful substitute, they will continue despite condemnation or deaths.

After being chased by the bull, with adrenaline still coursing through my veins, I walked around the corner and through the airport parking lot to hop on a 30 minute flight. Next stop,  Graciosa.

The Fisherman

Like so many Azorean men, he was shirtless and tan. His fishing rod was primitive: made from a 15 foot long bamboo rod, there was no reel; instead, the fishing wire ran its length, plopping into the water at the tapered end. With each heave, the rod wiggled up and down over the ocean. The Fisherman continuously rolled chum into balls in his left hand, while heaving the rod with his right, hiding the hook in these morsels.

I took some shots of him from a distance, like I was on safari. A boy about 9 years of age stood beside him, and nudged The Fisherman to alert him to what he already knew-my camera was aimed at them. The Fisherman glanced in my direction, then shrugged at the boy. I imagine The Fisherman had a cologne called Eau du Insouciance, and he bathed himself in it that morning.

I closed the gap between us, saying, “Bom dia. Any luck?” He responded in English, but it took me a few sentences to realize his accent wasn’t strictly Azorean; it was somewhere between Boston and the Azores. I was curious. I asked questions and was rewarded with stories: He was born in the Azores, and his parents moved to Lowell, Massachusetts when he was 7. He grew up there. Though his parents moved back to Sao Miguel, he stayed in Lowell. He thumped the right side of his chest with a closed fist, pointing out the tattoo of an older man’s face. His dad, with whom he shared a name, died just a few years ago and he moved back to Sao Miguel to take care of his mother, who was sick. I silently wondered why the tattoo of his father was on the right side of his chest, and not over his heart. He hated it here–life was so slow paced he found it unbearable, there was no work, and he felt trapped. I felt empathetic, but didn’t feel sorry for him, because I envied his access to the breeze, the view, the angle of the sun, even the slowness.

He was a good looking man with a fit body. But something was off, and I didn’t quite know what. His eyes were bleary and deep-set. I imagined they receded like a hairline, after years of negative experiences. They reflected a defeatism that his words didn’t overtly betray. My intuition whispered to me, but I couldn’t interpret its message in the moment; still, I trusted it would eventually reveal itself and I unconsciously set a boundary on how far I wanted this interaction to go.

Travel is a commitment to openness; openness of mind, to adventures, experiences, people, conversations, and food. Early in our lives, logic is held up as the ultimate guiding system, over intuition. Yet, women and people of color must hone their intuition to stay safe. We’re often told we’re being fearful, paranoid, anxious or sensitive in reaction to subtle yet pervasive inequality, so we begin to doubt ourselves, wondering if we’re just being bitchy, high maintenance, or putting up a wall. A “laid-back” woman is the Holy Grail on online dating sites, and the “angry black woman” is such a trope that we rarely reflect on what is going on in the lives of women and people of color to make us justifiably angry, high-strung, and wary.

When we’re not experienced in listening to our intuition, the voice can feel small, nagging, nebulous. It may be difficult to immediately decipher its meaning, so we may bury it, push it aside as insignificant or devalue its meaning in a world of big, brash words and instantaneous judgement, rating systems and feedback. When we undervalue our intuition and trust logic more than our feelings, we doubt ourselves and capitulate to other peoples’ visions of ourselves. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t investigate our feelings, or we should throw off all logic and rationality. It is to say we should hone both skills equally. In the balancing act between self-protection and embracing new, unfamiliar travel experiences, conversations with strangers and spontaneous adventures, we’re sure to sometimes slip and fall, but listening to our intuition provides equilibrium.

Three months later, as I was writing about my trip to the Azores, I wondered about drug use in the Azores. Drugs are legal in Portugal, but I wondered if that was the case in the Azores. In doing research, a strange “coincidence” occurred. Though I wasn’t specifically researching The Fisherman’s story, and didn’t even know his full name, I discovered he did 5 years in prison in Massachusetts, and was deported back to the Azores. He was married with 5 children.

Sometimes the hook is hidden in morsels.

 

 

Azores: Exploring Sao Miguel

The streets of Ponta Delgada in Sao Miguel are lively, but I suspect most people come to Sao Miguel for the natural beauty, plenty of which you’ll find below.

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I’ve written on what to eat and what you need to know about renting and driving a car because duh, food is good, and driving is the most efficient way to get to all the otherworldly places in Sao Miguel, from the hot springs to the hilltop church to the hiking trails and back into town to sing along with traditional dancers.


Caldeira Velha

Between Ribeira Grande and Lagoa do Fogo (the Lake of Fire) sits Caldeira Velha, naturally heated hot springs in the middle of a tropical forest. It’s a img_0295 visual feast for the eyes: rich green plants and rust colored boulders span the hot springs, while birdsong echoes throughout the jungle. Absorbing this surreal scene from a pool of hot thermal water is curative for body and soul.

Tips:

  • The official parking lot is small, so use your parallel parking skills, and finagle a spot along the steep switchback curve of the mountain.
  • Entry is super cheap: only 2 Euros. It’s worth much more.
  • Changing rooms and showers are available, but there aren’t any lockers. They provide a basket to carry your items between the two springs. I had to remind my NYC state of mind that I was in the Azores, and it was highly unlikely someone would steal my stuff while I soaked.
  • There are two pools-one hot, one warm (and more photogenic because it has waterfalls, but I preferred the hot one).
  • Wear a dark colored bathing suit. The water’s minerals stain light colored suits.
  • Take a waterproof camera.
  • Caldeira Velha is very touristy, but it’s unlike any place I’ve every visited, a tropical rendition of Myvatn hot springs in Iceland.

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Vila Franca Do Campo

Vila Franca Do Campo was the most developed town on the island until the 1522 earthquake destroyed it and buried thousands of locals alive in a landslide. The rebuilding efforts were slow to advance, so the capital was transferred to the current seat in Ponta Delgada. Today, Vila Franca Do Campo is known for two incredible landmarks: a hilltop church, and a surreal volcanic islet just off the town’s shore.

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Ilheu do Vila Franca

The islet was immediately visible when I pulled up along the waterfront. I’d never seen such a magical landmass, and have never had occasion to use the word “islet.” It’s fitting. The islet is a tiny volcanic island off the coast of Sao Miguel Island, centered around a crater lagoon where a volcano imploded and collapsed in on itself. Radical!

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Ilheu do Vila Franca is perfect for an afternoon of snorkeling in the crater lagoon and picnicking on the narrow beach. You can rent snorkel gear along the waterfront. A ferry leaves the pier every hour, though I was supremely unlucky: Hurricane Gaston was headed towards the Azores, making the water choppy and rough, and the ferry was cancelled. Enjoying the weather from under a tree near the pier, a tan, rotund, shirtless man wearing a gold chain offered his opinion that it would be at least two days until the sea would be calm enough for the ferry to cross. I’d be gone by then, having moved on to Graciosa Island. I was so disappointed, but that’s the thing about the Azores–the weather can dash your best laid plans.

Tips:

  • If you like to plan ahead, you can buy the ticket online for six Euros.
  • You’ll need to bring all your own food and beach supplies, as there are no amenities. Like much of the Azores, the charm can be found in the tranquility of nature.
  • Snorkel gear is for rent along the waterfront.
  • Check out videos of the Red Bull Cliff Diving Championships to virtually explore the majesty of the cliffs.

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Ermida de Nossa Senhora da Paz

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Visible from the center of town, Ermida de Nossa Senhora da Paz (the Chapel of Our Lady of Peace) sits on a mountaintop over looking Vila Franca. I set off to walk (the New Yorker in me wasn’t used to all this lazy driving), but I soon realized the sun was too hot and the road too steep to do so without a hat, sunscreen, or water, so I went back to the car and drove up. Good thing, because the road was steeper and longer than I suspected, perfectly designed to hermit religious scholars away from the villagers and temptations below.img_6670

The parking lot is bursting with hydrangeas, a bouquet of gratitude to the holy woman who exemplifies peace. Ten flights of stairs before the entrance to the church symbolize the Hail Mary prayer and the tilework (azulejos) depicts the mysteries of the rosary. The view is amazing, and so worth the pilgrimage up the mountain.

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Furnas

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Furnas is a town in the eastern section of Sao Miguel Island. The area boasts a chartreuse colored lake, an enchanting mossy forest, volcanic vents that shoot boiling water and mud to the surface of the earth, and a relaxing hot spring.

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The lake, Lagoa das Furnas, sits on the edge of the main attraction, the Caldeiras das Furnas. Steam emanates from cracks in the Earth’s surface and the bubbling mud, boiling water and smell of sulfur is a reminder that I’m walking on a volatile volcano. Why would people live here?! It’s fantastic and mind-boggling.

Thirty minutes at the caldeiras will do, and if you’re hungry afterwards, get yourself a plate of cozido das furnas, the local stew. Curious about the cooking process and ingredients? Check out my post here.


Poca de Dona Beija

The more hot springs, the better! Poca de Dona Beija hot springs aren’t as wild or natural as Caldeira Velha, but they’re still soothing after a day of hiking.img_0329 Amenities include a parking lot, changing rooms and lockers, and at 4 Euros for the entry fee, it’s a bargain spa experience. The sulfur will stain your bathing suit orange, so wear an old or dark one. Five different hot pots offer a range of temperatures, from hot to warm, while artificial waterfalls massage your aching neck. There’s also a gift shop with artsy jewelry, a rarity aside from the airport shops. They’re open until 11pm, and if you don’t have a towel, you can rent one there.

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I visited at night, after a day of hiking. I would have gotten better photos during the day, especially of the rust colored rocks, but bathing outdoors at night is so romantic, and I prefer romance to evidence.


Salto do Prego hiking trail

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Roca de Velha
If you’ve ever wished Avatar was real life, this trail is for you. Moss shrouds thick sinewy roots while leaves as large as my torso, thick and deep green, sway in the light breeze. I breathe in the unfamiliar perfume of Roca  de Velha. In yet another nod to Portuguese exploration, the flower is endemic to India. Since it’s arrival in the Azores, it’s become an invasive species. img_5730

Like a crescendo, the trail rose and the roaring, soothing sound of falling water became unmistakable. The forest opened up to spaciousness, to a jungle amphitheater, the star of the show a picturesque waterfall above a chilly rock bottom pond.img_5912

Point your GPS to the village of  Faial Da Terra. It’s a relatively easy hike, only 30 minutes to the waterfall, and under two hours roundtrip if you swim or have a picnic, though it is steep at sections and can be muddy.


Traditional dancing

After dinner one night, I heard music in the open air plaza of Igreja Matriz de Sao Sebastian, the Church of Saint Sebastian in the middle of town. Rows of locals sat in chairs facing a raised stage where traditional dancers in white shirts, the men in tweed pants, the women in bright pink and blue woven skirts, twirled in a complicated partner dance. The women’s hair was covered by blue woven fabric, looking very “Girl with the Pearl Earring.” Azoreans are incredibly ethnically mixed as roving bands of sailors stopped over in the islands, and these outfits were reminiscent of their Flemish heritage.

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Some songs were joyful, others measured and tempered. The song that resonated most deeply with me was full of saudade, a word that cannot be fully translated into English. It is simultaneously melancholy and nostalgic, somewhere between our romantic notions and salty reality. As thousands of immigrants, like my great-great-grandparents, left the nine volcanic islands in the Atlantic Ocean and made a home in the USA, they certainly must have felt saudade at the distance between homeland and adopted home, not just in geography, but in yearning for lush jungles, verdant vistas, fresh sardines for dinner, and a shared history and language.

116 years, 5 generations and 4 planes later, I was making my way to tiny, remote Graciosa, my ancestral homeland.


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Azores: Car Rental Quirks

A word on renting a car in the Azores. It’s necessary because public transportation is infrequent and won’t get you to the most remote, most stellar places without embezzling hours from your exploration time. If you’re in an AirBnb, your host will likely have a friend who is willing to “lend” you his car for $25/day, and in this case, there’s no need to book in advance.

If you survive the cliffs, hills, and careening drivers, you’ll be glad you didn’t waste your time on the sporadic and time consuming bus system. Read on for some Azorean driving lessons learned.


Hills + cliffs + stick shift = death trap

I rented in Sao Miguel and Graciosa, and took a taxi in Terceira because I was only there for a few hours. Graciosa is small enough that you can traverse the island, including it’s interior, in a few hours. There’s a smooth network of highways across Sao Miguel, but the beauty lies on the backroads, through green hilly hedged fields bursting with hydrangeas, cows living it up in farmers’ fields. In stark contrast, the streets in the city centers are alarmingly narrow, leaving you to hold your breath while you hope you don’t smash either sideview mirror into another car or someone’s house. Careening is the best way to describe the style of driving here; it’s like locals avoid slowing down so they don’t have to downshift for any reason, even a good one, like making a left turn. Not only that, but the ubiquitous San Franciscan-like hills are nerve-wracking to an American used to automatic drive.

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The most treacherous of these experiences occurred when I pulled down a lane to get a view of the waterfront, only to realize it was an insanely steep dead-end followed by a cliff leading down into the Atlantic Ocean. A bystander encouraged me to simply reverse back up the lane, but I couldn’t lift my foot from the brake to the gas quickly enough without the car sliding forward, edging closer and closer toward the cliff. A man leisurely smoking a cigarette stared at me blankly. In two minutes time, his entertainment had transformed from a serene sea view to witnessing a woman provoke a death trap. Hesitating to get involved, he eventually took a position behind the car, motioning for me to turn the wheel this way and that while shouting directions in Portuguese. So here I was, doing a 19 point turn in a street that couldn’t have been more than 7 feet wide, sweating profusely from the fear that I might end up trapped in a car under the sea like James Bond, except this was no Lotus Esprit. I cannot believe I, and the car, escaped unscathed.


The quirks of driving in the Azores:

Signs, signs, nowhere are the signs

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I prefer these over, “Rt.240E,” don’t you?
On both islands the signage confirming you’re on the right track is sparse, and in every case I had to drive much farther than I was comfortable without reassurance that I was headed in the right direction. Rely on your phone’s GPS. Or ask an Azorean farmer for directions.

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Blind turns, lane merges and roundabouts  img_0262

Slow down! And rely on these see-around-the-corner mirrors.

Parking

Not nearly as stressful as alternate side parking in img_0266Brooklyn, but, people park in the traffic lane, so swerving or slamming on the brake for oncoming traffic is the norm, as already narrow streets become one way.

When you park, hug the wall, and pull in your mirror so it doesn’t become a casualty for the cause.

 

Cows

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Cows in truck beds, cows blocking the roads (be careful!), cows in the fields making some delicious Sao Jorge cheese. They’re amusing.

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Views

They’re gorgeous and plentiful. I’m thankful for the independence a car provides, so I can ogle these vistas for as long as I like before moving on.

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The law

And finally, I was pulled over by a police officer who told me I had made an illegal left. I apologized, but he sighed as loud as a donkey and dramatically rolled his eyes. Whether he was more frustrated by my mistake or my English, I wasn’t sure. Thankfully, that was the extent of our interaction, and he waved me on. Phew.

 

Azores: What to Eat in Sao Miguel if You Don’t Eat Seafood

Even Beyoncé Can’t Bribe Me

I’m deprived, uncultured, basic even. At least, everyone who hears I hate seafood–literally anything from the sea (except canned tuna!)–tells me I’m missing out. Indeed, going to an island in the Atlantic Ocean known for its fishing img_4885industry makes for some dining difficulties.

Because of this barrier, I was driven less by yelp recommendations lauding the fresh catch of the day and more by hunger and curiosity during my short three day layover in Sao Miguel, the largest of the nine Azorean Islands. I was making my way to remote Graciosa, the Azorean island my great-great-grandparents came from, and the only way from either the U.S. or mainland Portugal was to pass through Sao Miguel Island first. With only two flights to Graciosa from Sao Miguel per week, both of which require flying 20 minutes to Terceira Island to either hop a ferry or a connector flight, I decided to allow myself a few days to discover Sao Miguel’s natural wonders. Overall, my taste buds weren’t overly impressed with anything specific (except the pineapples!), so I amused myself with engrossing conversations, learning about distinctive cooking processes, and getting myself into some ridiculous situations.


Bad vegetarian

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baguette and Sao Jorge cheese
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passionfruit soda

I was hungry for a light meal after landing and yelp told me the vegetarian spot Rotas da Ilha Verde was nearby. I trounced over around 3pm, but it was closed. A café was open next door, but only serving espresso and cigarette smoke. Lesson 1: Most places close at 3pm and reopen for dinner at 7pm. So I wandered and came upon a blue-tiled restaurant called Casa de Pasto Taveres. It was open, but empty.

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bife de vaca

From a hand-written menu I chose bife de vaca (beefsteak) and maracuja (passionfruit) soda made in Sao Miguel. Chunks of passionfruit floated in the glass.

The bife de vaca was hearty, stewed in garlic, onions and red pepper. Over the next week, it would become my go to meal when I couldn’t decipher anything else on the menu and wasn’t feeling adventurous.

The table, like every other in the Azores and Portugal, came set with crusty bakery-fresh white bread and cheese that was an additional, not included, charge. It’s always worth it, and I hope you set your carb-free dairy-free deliciousness-free diet aside. From the sobremesas (desert) menu, I chose “um café.” Lesson 2: Coffee is always an espresso in the Azores and Portugal.


Chocolate Salami

One of my favorite things to do when traveling is to go to the grocery store. Knowing nothing of how it tastes, this was the most incredible item I found.

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Volcanic Hot Spring Stew: Cozido das Furnas

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Not a grave!

A perk of living on a volcanic island is that you can let the Earth do the cooking for you!

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As simple as Blue Apron?

Fill a pot with cabbage, carrots, beef shoulder, pork shanks, blood sausage, yam, and potatoes, bury it in the ground, let it sit for 6 hours in volcanic steam vents, and viola! You’ve got cozido das furnas, “hot-spring stew.”

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“Boiled meat” doesn’t sound as appetizing as “cozido das furnas.”

Cozido das furnas at Restaurante Banhos Ferreos cost me a pretty $16, and as person suspicious of that much meat, it was surprisingly delicious! I even ate the blood sausage, which may have been my favorite of the meats!

The story continues past the meal…in typical Sao Miguelian fashion, my parking spot was narrow and steep. In trying to turn the car around in a 16 point turn, I got stuck between the building and a raised platform, revving the engine while I attempted to ramp up backwards without sling-shotting too far forward.

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Apparently I was quite loud and annoying during my ordeal. A waitresses came out and asked me, “Is it a normal car?” I stared at her deadpan, on the verge of laughter, wondering if she meant to insult me. I said, “No, it’s stick!” She smiled and responded, “Yes, so normal for me. Can I help?” I had been working at it for at least four minutes, had just began to sweat with frustration, so I gladly accepted her offer. She turned that sucker around in less than 30 seconds! While I was relieved, I chided myself for underestimating a woman who was “merely” a waitress…and for not shooting a video of her extraordinary feat.


All in Flavor, Say Aye!

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Merely four food trucks lined the pier in Ponta Delgada at sunset. You could say the industrious couple cornered the market on fresh, local ingredients; the other trucks served hot dogs, pizza, and soft-serve ice cream. Tonight’s special at Areguinha (The Sweet One) was simple: fava beans with carmelized onions, an “ancient recipe with spices from Morocco brought back by the pirates…I’m trying to make you into a pirate,” said the chef, winking. If that’ll help me on the road to owning a boat, then bring on those fava beans.

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Opening just a month ago, the couple meticulously put together a fruit salad for me, complete with Sao Miguel’s ubiquitious pineapples, while I waited for my fava beans. The unhurried locals and tourists walking along the pier to enjoy the cool breeze occupied my imagination while I impatiently waited 25 minutes for a bowl of favas.

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I kept my musings to myself, for fear of distracting the chef and further delaying his painstaking process. Served in a biodegradable bowl, with a fork of the same material, the fava beans were worth the wait, and I was happy to support the first hipster food truck in Sao Miguel.


A Farmer’s Market and Fresh-Squeezed Juice

Mercado da Graca is a good stop to pick up fresh ingredients to cook at home/your AirBnb. It’s a covered open-air farmer’s market selling local fruit, vegetables, cheese and all kinds of locally caught fish. Pineapples might as img_4905well be on Sao Miguel’s flag they’re so ubiquitous (and more succulent than the average). It’s here you can buy the buttery, tangy Sao Jorge cheese, made in the neighboring Azorean Island of the same name. I lived on this cheese! With a soft local-style English muffin called bolo levedo and a locally made tangy maracuja jam that I’ve never seen in the U.S, it was my go-to road trip snack for my day-adventuring.

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One of my favorite finds at Mercado da Graca is Sabores Local Foods, where I stopped to get a freshly squeezed pineapple juice from Ricardo, the head-honcho. The ingredients are different everyday, depending on what’s fresh in the market. Strangely enough, I literally ran into Ricardo on Terceira Island a few days later, and he shared his insights on island comparative politics.


Desperation

One evening, I returned to Ponta Delgada late from adventuring around the island all day. I was hungry, impatient, and desperate, so a bland queijo tostada (cheese toastie) on white bread from what can be best described as a outdoor corner store shamefully came to be what I chose to put into my body that evening. The exciting part was when the local biker gang started to gather nearby. I found myself wondering like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, “Are you a good witch/biker club, or a bad witch/biker gang?”

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Leftovers

Associacao Agricola, on the northern shore, is decent for a dinner after a day at Caldeira Velha (the natural hotsprings), but I wouldn’t make a special trip for it. I had their acclaimed steak, but wasn’t impressed, and it’s quite expensive by Azorean standards. On the plus side, their bread was luscious and I tasted vinho verde for the first time. Highly recommended! It’s crisp, light and summery, and pairs well with dinner in the Azores!


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Restaurants, cafes and bars line the pier in Ponta Delgada.

What and where did you eat in Sao Miguel? What do you avoid eating at all costs when you travel?

Ancestral Soul Voyage

In 1900, Joze Machado da Silva emigrated from Graciosa, one of nine volcanic islands comprising the Azores, a bucolic autonomous region of Portugal. Settling in Lowell, Massachusetts, USA, he became Joseph Marshall. Five years later Maria Pereira made the same trip, from luscious Graciosa to frosty Lowell. She became Mary Perry, and together they became my great-great-grandparents.

My great-great-grandparents Maria Pereira and Joze Machado da Silva with their children; John Marshall, my great-grandfather at middle.

It is unclear why my great-great-grandparents changed their names. Maybe it was a point of pride, a trophy representing their successful journeys. Maybe they anticipated the positive results: the switch alleviated pronunciation challenges, and improved not only my family’s social standing, but also our earning ability. While this access to economic and social gains is a privilege darker-skinned people wouldn’t even have had as an option, for my family the change annulled my Latin ethnicity and allowed my ancestors, and by extension their descendants, to enter into the exclusive Anglo-Saxon country club called Whiteness.

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Maria and Joze had seven children, the first of whom was my Grandmother’s father, John Marshall. John was born in Lowell, but after the birth and death of Maria and Joze’s second child to measles, they moved back to the Azores for about 5 years. When John was 7, on the day they were supposed to board a ship returning to Lowell, John ran into the mountains to hide, refusing to return to cold, snowy winters. Sadly, I only know the beginning of that story, and the end…he ended up in Lowell…but I so wish I knew what that coaxing session in the volcanic mountains sounded like.

A decade later, Catholic John met Baptist Lillian, a Russian immigrant, in Lowell. They impatiently waited for her 16th birthday to tie the knot. It was considered a “mixed-marriage;” neighbors and family members warned their lives would be torn asunder by ostensibly dueling religious doctrines and cultural traditions.

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Connie

It was not so; no duels, no identity crises or mass hysteria, though my grandmother, John and Lillian’s oldest child, Constance, sure did cut her own path. Aspiring beyond a typical job in one of the leather factories for which her hometown was famous, my grandmother left at age 18 to join the army, and was sent off to Germany during the Korean War, eventually becoming a drill sergeant. To this day, 65 years later, she still stands like one, chest out, back straight, her hands in loose fists, thumbs aligned with the seam of her pants. She relished the sense of adventure, the self-sufficiency, and the weekend train trips to Germanic mountain towns.

Connie’s trip to Germany at 18 was her only physical connection to her father’s homeland, and it’s tenuous, at best: her plane stopped to refuel at Lajes airport on Terceira island, still a 30 minute plane ride away from Graciosa Island.

connie-and-lillian-uniform
Connie and Lillian, daughter and mother

She met my grandfather in the army base’s dining hall in Germany, and he pursued her with such vigor that she broke off her engagement to another man, choosing Grandpa instead. The second of their four children is my mother, who took a DNA ancestry test about a year ago. The test revealed the exact island, neighborhood and street Joze Machado lived on in Graciosa, as well as baptism and marriage records, which I used to create a travel agenda for my ancestral soul voyage to the Azores.

These days, Grandma Connie still carves her own path. She insists on her own unique pronunciation of certain words (“Well, I say hair say-lawn”), and feels no visible shame at the cornbread she consistently embezzles from ALL buffets, wrapping it in a napkin and saving it in her purse for later. She’ll even throw in a banana (also nabbed) to create a well-balanced snack for any grandchild who expresses the slightest hint of hunger.grandmas-majesty

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In chasing the stories of my ancestors I am conflicted. So often we look to the past to inform our present and inspire our future. We’re proud of our heritage, though we did nothing to create it. We have parades celebrating our people’s strengths and struggles, while we tend to ignore the brutality they perpetuated in becoming the victor, or how the spoils they gained in war protect and benefit us today.

The very things for which I admire the Portuguese–embracing uncertainty, taking calculated risks and bold, brave action–are the very tactics by which they dominated and plundered, whereas cooperation and equality could have just as easily been on their agenda. For example, the Portuguese were trailblazers in world exploration, developing new celestial mapping techniques and more effective sailboats to create the most expansive global trade network at that time, still in use today. Admirable, until we consider they dominated the transatlantic slave trade for 100 years, setting the foundations for 18th and 19th century iterations of a global slave trade along these same networks.

portugues-exploration-map

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It’s disturbing to see the sausage being made, to see our complicity in and deference to white supremacy, to see the process through which we become people who “believe ourselves to be white.”*

“Isn’t this a travel blog?” you ask. Yes, and this IS my brain in travel–it leads me to reconsider what I’ve been taught as true, right, and without alternative narratives. A few months after my mom took a DNA ancestry test, I went to the Azores in September 2016 on an odyssey to rediscover what my family lost and gained through our assimilation over the past 116 years. What I found was a wellspring of dueling dualities and uncertain conclusions.


*Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me