IN THE VAN OUT OF THE VAN
“Alayne, roll the window and take a few pictures,” Jane commanded as we drove by an incredible scenic view in Ribeira Grande, Azores, “the place where the first settlement happened,” our driver guide, Jaime said as he made the curve around the blend of “sweet” water and salt water. By this time it was almost five in the afternoon and the seven women ranging in age from sixteen to seventy seven were a bit spent. (not to mention our male tour guide who probably had enough of this estrogenic bunch). We had completed a whirlwind tour of Nordeste, the northern most tip of Sao Miguel in a Mercedes Sprinter having left at nine am. The frequency of stop, get out, look around, pee and get back in was starting to take its toll on this variety of traveling women.
I don’t usually travel like this. My preference is a full day outside in one area exploring and walking and breathing in the scenic air, learning a little about the landscape, but more so experiencing it with my body and mind and the strength of my legs. This is how my partner and I travel. We are both fit and like to incorporate movement with our lessons of the world. But in this case, I really wanted to see this area, I really wanted to be with this dynamic group of women and be immersed in non stop Portuguese for over nine straight hours. I think. No, yes, definitely. I was willing to take the hit for a day as the van winded and twisted up the hillside in this magical place called Sao Miguel.
I am a solo traveler who surprised her friend so I am in the unique position of saying yes to a day or no to a day because I am not part of the original traveling party. This works for my personality who can easily get annoyed with too many decisions and discussions about where and when to meet for things as simple as dinner. I know myself well and this day of Nordeste in a van full of women speaking Portuguese allowed me to be a witness to two families who argue, love, talk over each other, say it like it is and genuinely enjoy each other’s company through all of it. I am the lucky one as I sit in the front seat with Jen who gets carsick like I do in a tight fit van climbing and then descending the roller coaster experience of the northern drive up and back down again.
Because I had been here for three full days before their arrival, I had already seen a little bit of the towns leading to Nordeste. Because my guides are professionals and knew I was going there, they were careful not to duplicate the journey but instead took me on a deep dive to some real out of the way places within some of the more predictable stops we were likely to go on in the van. Agua de Pau, a coastal find and one of my favorite stops took my breath away as I was surrounded by cliffs and water and volcano remnants that make up this entire island. With my tour guides and my desires, there were no drive bys or drive throughs. We got out of the car, and really walked around, had food, smelled the air and dove in. The opposite of the day with the ladies to Nordeste, but both served their purpose and both were an experience. I don’t’ really even know what we saw yesterday other than one hundred percent beauty, gardens, oceans, cliff and churches.
We had lunch at a place that had the name, Melo in it, Jane’s maiden name, which was in a little town in a hillside that served a buffet like I will surely dream about when I get home starving for just one more plate of Bacalhau. Codfish, for those who are not in the Portuguese know of the translation. I always thought that Bacalhau was the word for the layered yumminess of soaked salted codfish with potatoes and onions, kind of like the Portuguese version of lasagna. Here I have discovered that, no, it just means codfish and the versions of it are endless on every menu here. Kind of like the way one might find the word, pasta in Italy. At least this is my opinion, perhaps this comparison is sacrilege. I don’t know, but I can’t get enough.
When we finally made it to the northern tip, we were greeted by a park with small trails and waterfalls. Water from the mountain running through an actual home that is now a tourist walk through led us to a woman who was selling homemade Malasadas, a Portuguese doughboy, but that word is almost insulting. Like a bottle of wine at a particular special occasion, hard to recreate by buying the same exact bottle later on, it is the experience that we knowingly had that made that glass so delicious. Maybe it was a cold fall evening in a chair by what you would know would be one of the last fires outside after dinner and after a stunning foliage season that made this wine taste so good in retrospect. This malassadas was like that, eating it in an old home handmade by a local woman who had a smile that was part of the sugary joy of the first bite.
The food here is deliciously authentic and homemade beyond my dreams. There is the bread at every table and the local butter and cheese and the ice cream. All taken from the cows I saw in the midst of blue and white hydrangeas that grow like a weed on the hillsides they have instinctively made ridges in with their hooves so they don’t roll down the steep volcanic hills. Organic and au natural like no farm in America could ever claim. Oh and the wine and the tea. We stopped at the tea plantation along the way to learn how they make tea and it was fascinating to make a connection between what goes into those individual bags I drink daily. At least here I got to see how completely natural and pure the process is and understanding that local tea at this plantation is the real deal. I promptly bought twelve boxes because I am insane and am already worried I will not be able to drink it again until my next visit.
And as anyone from Rhode Island would predict, at the tea plantation we ran into someone we all knew from Bristol also visiting here and immediately took a photo. I have seen over the years of travel that no matter where I go, I always run into someone I know or who knows someone I know from little state of Rhode Island, the smallest state in our country. Add this to another element I love about where I live when I do finally make it back there. There is a simple and slow quality here and even though where I am staying is mobbed with tourists at the major points of interest, there has been no pushiness or impatience even with the American travelers I have encountered. (well maybe a little with the Germans, but we can talk about that in my next writing). My friend, Jen, keeps joking that we are in a place that runs on PST, Portuguese Standard Time, and though she says this jokingly, I have learned in my short stay that this is a compliment. We need more slowness to our lives. At least I do, anyway. Getting in a van and out of a van all day with my self proclaimed adopted family who has welcomed me like I am one of their own was a glorious experience that I will never be able to recreate. Once was enough, but the once was a gem in my life and I am so happy I said Yes again.