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IN THE VAN OUT OF THE VAN

happy smiley malasadas lady at Nordeste, two bites in and I’m pretty happy myself.

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.





running into our friend Sony from Bristol at the tea plantation was a trip, the making of the tea, the ladies in the van, waterfalls and food, what could be better.
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THE UPHILL CLIMB


THE UPHILL CLIMB

Guiltily opening up my laptop at breakfast, I was waiting for the disapproving stares of my fellow breakfast buffet goers. Breakfast included in my hotel stay is usually a cringeworthy addition to any vacation, but for this trip it was somewhat forced upon me by the odd travel agent from Fall River, Mass who “specializes” in Azore vacations. I used his agency, another something I usually don’t do when I go on vacation, but because my friend I was surprising used them, I thought it would be easier. It kind of was, but now that I am here, I would have planned my life for this first run completely different. Ahh the wisdom of retrospect. Anyway, in the case of the breakfast buffet though, it is a convenient morning yesterday as I woke up at six am bright and bushy tailed after already four glorious nights in this beauty of a place called Sao Miguel I have placed myself in. I have learned how to order a good cup of coffee and the meats, cheeses, breads, Azorean butters and fruits are a perfect early morning rise for this eager hiker ready to move and shake at nine am.

We had big plans for the day ahead to do a 4.5 km hike in Faial da Terra village. We started on Sanguinho to see the waterfall called Salto Do Prego which I looked up in my new handy Portuguese translator app and could only find salto= jump, prego= nail, hobnail. I emailed my fearless tour guide this morning and she translated it to iron stick jump. No idea what this even means, but the hike was like standing at the bottom of the hill called President Avenue in Fall River, Massachusetts and looking up at the top knowing you are going to have to walk up, straight up. Not to sound purposefully like a world traveler, I am not, but I have done a walking tour in Tuscany. The hill we needed to climb to get to the village of Montepulciano was the hill that made me realize how out of shape I was when I was newly forty as I watched my friend Kathy, blast by me and I was thinking I may have to call an Italian ambulance to save me. I didn’t and I made it which was one of the best hills I have ever walked. Thirteen years later and endless fitness routines and workouts, turns out I love walking hills. The feeling in my heart, my legs especially, my quads, wakes up every single muscle and organ contained in this one hundred and sixtyish pound female (because the Sao Jorge cheese and the waterfall flow of bolos and breads has surely tipped the scale and not in the downward motion I am always hoping for). There is a strength that happens in my soul that creates a nothing can stop me, I am a bad ass and do not fuck with me ever attitude that only a hill can bring out. Especially knowing that the top, the one with the view and the peace and quiet, the one that has no noise from traffic sounds and no internet (hopefully), the one that makes you want to take photo after photo but no photo is ever going to replace the moment between you and the earth and the world you get the privilege to be standing in because you said, No, I will not be a twenty minute tourist, I will use my phone only to research where to hike or how to speak Portuguese to a group of people who are only too happy to speak English.

Hiking sounds like I have a backpack (I kind of do, but it is more of a two strapped navy blue and white checked cotton purse worn from endless travels that I have slung on my back). Hiking sounds like I have on a pair of hiking shoes (I usually do, but since I did zero research on this trip, I neglected to bring them so instead am wearing my workout sneakers). Hiking sounds like a scary notion to people who do not hike. I am not a “hiker” like the kind that your brain is likely conjuring up. I have no plans to climb Mt. Everest or Kilimanjaro, but when I travel, hiking has been a linker for me and the outside. There are just so many towns and shops and museums one can go to. The outside is my museum and frankly there is nothing more that makes me feel like I have had a full vacation then being outdoors in the sunlight or the rain with the clouds, the random surprising and surprised chickens along the route, the birds singing to me and a waterfall as the main attraction.

As I traipsed up the hill, my heart pounding, the pace of my breath quickening, my muscles telling me that yes, alayne, you are alive in more ways than a heartbeat, we marched forth. Knowing that two or three hours from that moment would be a rush of physical and mental satisfaction yes, but more so the spiritual experience would be the shining best part at the end. When our tour guide Christina was coaxed into singing a Portuguese Folk song at the top of her lungs in the open air of the forest and tears welled up in my eyes for no apparent reason other than the moving of my heart, I knew I was lost and then I was found. Right there in the middle of the trees and the earth. No tour in a van could ever match that. My life is good.

Sim a vida é boa. Indeed.








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THE CAFÉ

THE CAFÉ

(I wrote this the day before Jane arrived, thought it would be different to try my hand at some amateur travel writing.)

The baking hot sun with the slight ocean breeze, air filled with smoking and smells of Galão and layers of warm pastries. The clanging of the church bell begins the count down reminding me it is 10am and I have missed the first five hours of my day again by drinking too much Dao wine last night, eating too much cheese and just staring at the 7/8 filled moon from my sixth floor balcony in a five star hotel. I watch an older woman dressed in mostly black holding on to her sturdy but aged husband wobble towards the bus stop. They look tired, of each other, and their lives, but dependent too like they have been together so long they can’t imagine any other way. They have probably been married since they have been teens and they have seen much on their lovely small island that just got cars only forty years ago.

It is another magical day in this paradise only four short hours away from home. Sunny, hot, breezy. They jokingly say it is the only island that has four seasons in one day. People are kind, warm, friendly, easy, slow. There are tour busses everywhere reminding travelers that this place is a hot bed for tourism, oddly undiscovered and a rare gem. Sitting here with my coffee and half milk, Galão a Portuguese version of Café au Lait, I type at the outdoor café as the world goes by. Today is my last day before the mayhem begins with all of the crazy ladies arriving at 6am tomorrow so I will take my time today and try to stop my chatty head filed with what I should do rather than what I am doing right now. I am drinking this Galão because my tour guide Paula told me yesterday that the milk served in all of the Azores is produced here on Sao Miguel.

As I marched around yesterday on scenic trails in Sete Cidades and the surrounding areas with my tour guide, Paula at the helm giving me a detailed tour of the city she was born and raised in like we were old friends visiting after a long absence, there were free roaming cows everywhere. I am not speaking of the “free roaming” cows barricaded by a fence on one farm, I am speaking about cows who roam wherever they want on the volcanic mounds disguised as hillsides. The farmers go to them to do their milking, rather than the other way around. In my own non scientific opinion, it seems to me that the milk in my coffee today as a much more healing energy than any half gallon of grass fed six dollar milk found at Whole Foods that I have been told to stay away from anyway because of its estrogenic energy and my breast cancer. I am curious if this fact can be backed up by any alarming rate of breast cancer on this island where milk is like water. It has occurred to me that we are all under the illusion of eating natural farm raised beef, dairy and eggs unless we actually witness the natural farm they are raised on. I have witnessed this and am humbled greatly.

As I suspected, yesterday in the lobby, I hear, “Alayne?” Yep. Someone I knew from a few towns over, Barrington, here with her family. I was afraid she would want to take a picture and I am trying to stay undercover for one more day so I explained my surprise as she waited for the very slow elevator to arrive. Then off she went and I haven’t seen her since. I want to hike this whole island. It is magic here. I want to learn Portuguese and travel to all of the other islands. I want to be a part of this fabric of simplicity and peace and pride.

As I sit here drinking my second cup of coffee, buzzing because their coffee is espresso and anything else is nescafe, an older man stops to chat and comments in Portuguese, (I am guessing here,) to stop working and enjoy the sunshine. Communication is miraculous as he points to my laptop, to me and then sweeps his arm around to the sky and I hear the word Sol. He doesn’t realize that I am. Writing is my sunshine and without it, it is dark and cloudy. We don’t discuss this, we discuss where he is from, how he arrived here and his life on the island. He tells me as he walks away to enjoy my stay and the people, “We are a calm people,” he says. I well up for some reason at his simplicity. It feels like something I identify with and I am again humbled and satisfied with my choice to sit at the simple café recommended by Paula because I asked where to get a good cup of coffee. Tomorrow I will set my alarm for five am and make my way down to the lobby to blow my friend’s mind. I don’t know if I am more excited to be here or to surprise Jane. I love this place and I don’t want it to end.