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By Inge Perreault  e-mail Inge at ladyauthor@sapo.pt

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 Azores-Journal 03

NEW FRIENDSHIPS, FARMERS’ MARKET AND FISHERMEN………

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Roland checking out batatas at the farmers' market on Saturdays in Ponta Delgada

Well I promised to tell you about my new friend the donkey down the street. Azoreans treat their animals well; especially the milk-cows which reminds me of the old ad during my years in Europe (La vache qui rie - the cow that laughs – a brand of cheese) and I swear in my next life I want to come back as a cow in the Azores. Munching on green fresh grass year-round, no need for barns and being treated with respect, what could be better? Plus being a cow I would love to eat THIS grass……..
Horses likewise are treated very well though most of them look old and tired but they are content drawing their loads behind them or being ridden without a saddle. Things have gotten better for pets though not always to
my liking but I see more dogs on leashes less neglected and hopefully the neutering of cats will soon take hold as there are many feral cats – too many.
We feed them, once you start they are your daily guests, but you feel sorry for them as they often have diseases and our house-cats live like Queens. Our veterinarian though assures us that things have improved dramatically over the past 10 years, people just did not have the money to have a cat or dog neutered and let nature take its course.
Next to the old fountains to be found along roadways and in towns there are oftentimes separate drinking fountains for the horses and watching a Smart (tiny European non-gas-guzzler but snazzy) passing a horse-drawn wagon with milk-cans, manure or whatever just makes you smile.

So let me tell you about my donkey-friend: I see him grazing out of my bedroom window every day in fresh spots (guess he is permanently retired and “long in the teeth”:). One day it struck me that he looked sort of lonely, much in need of some serious petting and a little conversation. On my daily walk to the praia (beach) to watch the awesome waves crashing, I stopped the next time he was munching contentedly next to the road and scratched him behind the ears after allowing him to smell the back of my hand. He loved it! His tired but beautiful eyes looked into mine gratefully, and so we spent a good 20 minutes in each other’s company. I told him what a beautiful gentle donkey he was to which he listened intently, while my hand gently stroked his muzzle and a friendship was born.

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Pulling ashore a fishing boat at the harbor of Caloura

The next time I passed the same way he immediately raised his head when he heard my approaching footsteps, ready to receive my attention and sad to see me leave. Well that did it – this donkey is MINE, if not in ownership but in my heart. Asking my landlord if burros eat carrots he looked at me with disbelieving eyes. “carrot to be followed by a second,Genouras?” Why don’t you put them in your “sopa” instead of wasting them on a burro?” He could not fathom my wanting to part with a fresh carrot or an apple, (maca) never mind a few lumps of sugar (acugar). A natural animal lover, I was not deterred by his reaction but set out on my walk carrying a bag containing 3 carrots, one apple and a few lumps of sugar.
The donkey could not believe his good fortune after he ate the firsta third and then desert.
The sugar just totally enthralled him and the gratitude he showed was heart-warming. Looking back towards the house we are renting I saw the landlord who had been attending his vineyard peeking through the Hibiscus hedge and waving to me – most likely thinking: “these crazy Americans……

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One of the oldest churches on the island and former home of Santo Cristo do Milagres in Caloura.

But who cares? Now every time my new friend greets me with a loud “hello” in donkey language and he was most unhappy when his owners put him in a location I cannot reach. Last week he called out to me before I could even see him and this week he is grazing halfway up a mountainside. Looking out of the window I have the distinct feeling he stands there for hours looking at the house where his friend lives (me).
Hopefully they bring him down closer to the road again soon – just purchased a “ton” of carrots at the farmer’s market in Ponta Delgada on Sabado.

We have made it a habit to visit the huge farmers’ market in Ponta Delgado every Saturday morning now, not only because it is FUN to walk amongst the many stalls offering fresh veggies, fruit, fish, meat, cheeses, craft-items and flowers but because it also saves us a lot of money. The produce is freshly harvested and a fraction of the price you would pay at the market (mercado). Fragrances of fresh cheeses being cut from wheels mixed with all the others waft through the large covered hall, people compare prices as well as quality and the friendly ambience with lots of joking amongst competing farmers/customers is a wonderful experience we look forward to. Though the farmers’ market is open on some weekdays in the early morning, the best turnout of course is on a Saturday and there is a huge parking garage right underneath.
However we prefer to walk a bit on the artfully constructed ancient cobblestone streets with their interesting patterns to pass some of the best architecture and milestones of this very old capitol. As we approach the market people come our way carrying loads of fresh produce and once we enter we feel that we have reached a different time zone

Farmers from all over the island come and present their goods, some of which I would not know what to do with, but the congenial bantering makes you realize they have all known each other for a long time. While prices do differ slightly, a sense of being overly competitive is entirely absent. After we pick our fruit and veggies for the week we always end-up at the stand where fresh bakery goods are being made and eat our fill of freshly made malasadas, still hot and totally delicious. The two women whose stall it is know us by now and though they speak a strange dialect of Portuguese that can be found in some parts of the island, we get along fine. Often we sit down with a cup of local Cha (tea) that is grown right on the tea plantations of Porto Formosa or Gorreana. The market place is clean; people are polite, extremely honest and while the pace of selling is faster than any other place I have been to yet, the quality of service and the sense of orderliness while waiting in line is not compromised at all. So unless we have special plans, the farmer’s market on Sabado will be on the weekly agenda until further notice.

If you want really FRESH fish the place to get it is at the Caloura Harbour, (or others on the island) in our case just a short and very scenic walk from where we live. Last spring when we first came here we went there often because the walk alone is worthwhile. You will actually pass the oldest church in all of the Azores which is covered in the traditional blue and white tile entirely. At one time this was the home of Santo Cristo do Milagres who now has his own very large church in Ponta Delgada. The structure and the adjacent buildings with magnificent grounds are now in private hands. They were convents built in the fifteen hundreds as well as a summer retreat for priests. The buildings must have been magnificent a few hundred years ago and are kept-up extremely well. I hear that during the summer months the present owner once in a great while allows the public to enter the church – something I will make certain not to miss. The entire property is being guarded by walls and gates as well as two magnificent Azorean herding dogs, a breed of dog I had never seen before. They are quite intimidating looking but well trained as watch dogs and normally protect the herds of grazing cows. In this case they protect the huge estate where peacocks and other fowl roam about. From what I still have not been able to find out because there are NO predators on the island unless they are possibly human. Hedgehogs are not exactly known for an affinity to abduct cows, peacocks and other exotic birds!

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One of the oldest Convents on Sao Miguel, Caloura
(now in private hands)

At the Caloura harbour is a sheltered cove with very steep cliffs hundreds of feet high and usually you can observe a mix of traditional double-keeled Portuguese fishing vessels as well as some we in the States were familiar with. There is a special building where the fishermen sell their catch to local restaurants or supermarkets and even to the occasional tourist, friend or neighbour who is hungering for a traditional Portuguese meal. The price of fish and even that of salt-cod in the Azores has increased just as much as in other parts of the world – fish is no longer less expensive than meat. On the contrary, usually fresh fish per kilo costs substantially more and comes in a great variety.

The local fishermen are truly SALTY characters and hardy to say the least.This is hard work and the boats are not that large.
Thus it is a dangerous undertaking during the wintertime.

When the waves are often enormous they cannot go out to fish and so during that time they receive a government subsidy. While there is a nice sitting area under shade trees of New Zealand origin that never shed their leaves, there are also a small caf?/bar and a diving school. What first intrigued me was the pier built out into the small harbour, the extension of which is a beautiful swimming pool filling constantly with fresh ocean water. When we first arrived it had been just repainted a beautiful bright blue but the storms have left their mark and I gather it shall be repainted just before tourist season begins. It is there at the very tip I like to sit and watch the boats come in while observing the seagulls getting excited, anticipating the imminent feast. Usually the boats are manned by 6 to 8 fishermen and near shore the two youngest will jump out, walk ashore in high rubber boots in order to prepare bringing the boat on land.

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The mighty Azorean herding dog............

There are wooden gadgets reminding me of dollies which are very heavy that once brought to the water’s edge receive the keel of the boat, a rope is hooked to a wench and the boat slowly pulled ashore. Since there are not enough of these gadgets for the entire distance the youngest and strongest fishermen take the ones from behind the boat and carry them to the front until the boat has reached firm land. Amongst joking and jostling the catch is carried ashore in large plastic containers to the cleaning area where they are gutted. At this point the seagulls really get excited, dinner is “about to be served!” In buckets the fishermen carry the parts that cannot be used to the edge of the ocean and dump them there causing a feeding frenzy amongst the seagulls. I have seen some fly away with parts of an octopus in his beak to be followed and have it snatched away by another gull in mid-air.
So far I have not ventured to approach the vending stalls.
That is something my husband will have to do because there are NO women in sight entering this area, and I do not wish to interfere with the local customs
Certain cultural differences need to be honoured; yet as a “liberated American woman” I do commit a faux pas now and then. Such was the case when I sat at the end of the pier watching an old man with the traditional Azorean fishing pole that consists of a long bamboo stick and is rigged-up with the proper fishing line, hook and fish bait for about an hour. I found it relaxing; he found it annoying since he did not catch anything. I had done this on a prior occasion at a different location and watched a fisherman surf-casting with a double-hooked fishing pole pulling one fish after the other out of the waves and he must have not minded my presence. Apparently I was bringing him luck. This old man however was dealing with an extremely clever fish or a bunch of them, since every time his line strained and he reeled it in the bait was gone and no fish to be seen. After I had watched him for about an hour repeat the process of baiting, casting and catching nothing I smiled at him and told him in Portuguese that apparently he was dealing with an extremely intelligent fish. If looks could kill I would be dead – his pride and manhood were wounded if not insulted though that surely had not been my intent. He immediately packed-up his fishing gear and stomped off. The next time I am witness to a similar situation I shall keep quiet!

Now let me just share one of THE best experiences we had since landing on Sao Miguel. This was our first drive up to Lagoa do Fogo and the wonders that took our breath away. It was no doubt the most beautiful day weather-wise we have experienced in the Azores so far. The sky was totally blue as was the ocean, not a cloud to be seen anywhere. Even on our first visit we had missed it since often the mountain is shrouded in clouds but the view from there into the Caldeira, the “lake of fire,” now filled with water, is one of the major attractions. There are different areas to stop to gain different perspectives, all of them wonderful and I regret not being young enough to have the strength to follow the well-marked hiking trail and go for a swim at a beach way down there. But the trail takes you 3000 feet down the steep crater and I hear in years gone by people were able to rent mules or donkeys to ride down into the Caldeira. Now it has become strictly a task for the serious hikers. Apparently we get our drinking water from a large reservoir of exceptionally good water beneath Lagoa do Fogo. Only once in a great while the system of pipes is chlorinated but the water is fantastic and has NO taste at all.

Taking the road up from Santa Cruz which leads up and up beyond the tree line we had stopped a few times to admire the view. At this point Sao Miguel is at its most narrow point and so from the stops we made at special look-out areas we were able to see Ribeira Grande on the side facing the North American continent as well as Caloura and Lagoa facing Europe. From Santa Cruz the drive takes at most 20 minutes along a serpentine road with no guard-rails. But the rewards are well worth the journey and as you reach the higher points past the tree line the temperature drops quite a bit and the winds increase. A sweater, even in the summer, is advisable to take. The fauna likewise at that height is very different, there is heather blossoming in white and violet as well as a number of Alpine flowers I was familiar with from the high Alps in Austria and Switzerland.
Truly, it was THE most beautiful view I have ever seen in my entire life. I was speechless and as my family and friends know, it takes a lot to render ME speechless. After a little while from the Caloura side some clouds started moving in (the air-streams move very rapidly here) and we found ourselves above the clouds feeling like we were in an airplane. Within minutes you could no longer see Lagoa do Fogo or the large amount of birds hovering over the crystal-clear lake. Yet, a few minutes later it was clear again and we descended on the other side stopping here and there at few times to admire wonderful vistas. And all this without my husband's camera and me without my note-book!!!!

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Heavenly view from what feels like the top of the world looking down into the Caldeira of Lagoa do Fogo

What also made the experience so special was the absence of people. We were alone up there aside from one man who briefly came to check on the instruments at the weather-station located at the very top. The difference in temperature from the high 60’s at ocean level to the low 50’s made him get back into his car quickly and leave us to admire the heather and other interesting vegetation to be found at this height. On the way down on the other side towards Ribeira Grande we passed several geothermal power plants and of course tons of cows. No wonder they call these islands Islas Verdes (green islands) because you have never seen such green in your life. Since the weather was so grand we decided to take the opportunity to head towards our favourite part that is most sparsely populated, Nordeste with the spectacular forests and cliffs, water-falls and hiking trails. All you see are small Azorean villages (Lombas) out of the last century or centuries before and COWS with an occasional horse-drawn wagon coming your way or a donkey standing in a field.
But there will have to be several entries devoted to the treasures of Nordeste including Furnas where boiling water comes out of the ground and forests reminding me of parts of the Black Forest in Germany. Only here they grow on taller and steeper mountainsides.
And it is only January - temperatures in Massachusetts were in the teens while here it was sunny to partly cloudy and 62 degrees Fahrenheit......................eat your heart out!

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