Terceira Island, Azores, Portugal. Home to 56,437 inhabitants, double the amount of cows, and Inês Machado Borges.
An agricultural outpost was not what we had in mind when we booked flights to the seemingly exotic islands of the Azores. We had expected a colourful, unusual, breath-taking experience. We were rudely shocked and surprised with how uneventful this island was, with no surf and weather akin to northern Europe, we may as well have taken a surf trip to the German countryside.
Terceira takes you back to an agricultural society one hundred years ago; the pace of life is slow, the landscape is a mere smothering of farms, more animals than people.
A field of cows, a flock of gulls, a drove of goats.
Each afternoon the local farmer walks his stock from one paddock to the next. As he meanders down the winding roads the bells that are tied around the necks of goats jingle out of tune. An eery scene.
The farmer nods as he passes, tightens his jacket cord as the cold wind beats against his weathered skin.
At first we would wake with anticipation and search for the waves that we read about in the legends of the Azores, yet every day we were met with disappointment as the winds and swell direction failed to synchronize and inconsistent weather patterns of the Atlantic Ocean failed to create waves. The only surfer we saw in two weeks was wearing a helmet and body-boarding a wave that was so dangerously close to a sharp volcanic rock that one would wonder if he had a death wish or vision impairment.
We were experiencing a common trap of modern day travel - we had stored up a backlog of images in our minds that we had seen through our various digital media devices, allowing us to construct a utopian ideal of this island that reality would surely fall short of. We expected instant gratification, the type you get when swiping left on Tinder or search for an answer on Wikipedia which results in a small certificate of expertise. We wanted Terceira to provide us with grand enlightenment, to bask in a world greater than our own.
Terceira did just the opposite.
The island closed in on us, suffocating ourselves with ourselves, magnifying our minds to our minds. Sure, the nature was accessible, but the sporadic, unpredictable weather systems made it difficult to plan outdoor activities. The towns were barren, people were scarce, life crawled at a wretchedly slow pace.
Terceira starved us from our beloved ocean waves, it rained on us daily, dirtied our clothes, dampened our spirits, and drove us to a deep understanding of the ‘island fever’ phenomena.
Then we met Inês Muchado.
She was seated at a cafe, sipping her espresso coffee and smoking a cigarette in her ray-bans. A typical European scene. When she saw us arrive she butted her cigarette, flashed her pearly white teeth and invited us to sit.
Her energy was enigmatic. Her laugh was contagious. It was a confusing sight. What was this beauty from the mainland of Portugal doing living on a remote island with a harsh climate and even colder citizenship?
We engaged in light conversation for an hour or so and her upbeat energy and worldly interest had us more confused than ever. How is she surviving here so optimistically?
Then she removed her glasses; her azure eyes exposing to us, if ever so briefly, a chamber of life experience; a world of complex thought; a wisdom and depth that she kept well hidden with her glistening accessories and well-trained smile. The storm continued to circle and we were momentarily disarmed - eye to eye, human to human. The cafe owner delivered our espressos and the glimmer in Iñes’ eyes vanished as soon as it had appeared. She continued with her stories of adventure, diving with dolphins in the alive ocean of the Azores, watching her partner Hugo surf Nazaré in 30 meter swell.
Birds, sharks, turtles, fish, more birds.
There was a storm on the island that day and the wind was throwing around chairs at the cafe, but it seemed to circumvent Inês; she remained perched amongst the chaos as comfortable as a penguin minding it’s young in an Antarctic blizzard.
Like a Portuguese façade, Inês mesmerises her onlookers, bedazzles her audience with her charm and charisma. When speaking of the island she wears a contagious smile and reverberates a magnetic energy.
As time passed it became clear to them that this island was not simply an exotic dream to Iñes, her attachment with Terceira was much deeper than that, which was the most perplexing point about her - Terceira was far from their idea of romantic and life here was not easy. She exclaimed, simply, “Whenever I feel down or depressed about the island I go on this walk and it makes me feel better, every time. There are nuances to be noted on the island.” A matter-of-fact tone. We nodded in silence and exchanged looks that indicated a mutual lack of understanding.
It seemed that Inês had truly come to understand that home is where the heart is. Or at least home is where the heart of her dog is.
Inês came to the island with her partner Hugo after their hometown of Peniche on the mainland of Portugal became overcrowded with tourism and their local waves became packed with competitive surfers. Hugo Vau is a big wave surfer, one of the world's few that dare to ride the enormous swells of Nazaré. Hugo and his comrades have been surfing Nazaré since the discovery of the wave, but over time he became disheartened with the commercialism and ego involved in big wave surfing. He found waves on the outer reefs of Terceira and moved his life there, Inês following in his wake. The island became more of her home than his, as he frequently travelled to chase swells she remained content in her Terceira world.
It took a while for Inês to let us into her blue chambers again, trust had to be worked for and after two weeks on the island you begin to understand why. The people of Terceira are generally conservative, Inês told us she had to be careful with how many times she was seen in public with any male other than her partner Hugo, in case the town started talking. She was aware of her stand-offish demeanour, lovingly admitting this as she made a self-comparison to her animals who “enjoy cuddles, they want to be touched, but not too much” She laughs and makes a dusting gesture off her shoulder. “thats enough”, straightening her posture, breaking into one of her infectious giggles.
Inês has a definite opinion on societal norms and expectations, which she has attempted to evade at multiple times throughout her life, craving simple living, not falling into line for the sake of conformity. She feels however that her and Hugo have somewhat failed at this. A simple example is their resistance to buy an iPhone - they said they would never get one, they didn’t need to be connected constantly, that’s why they came to the island in the first place, yet societal pressures and running a remote business saw them buying the latest model. Inês accounts: “So Hugo was going to a meeting…and he broke the iPhone, and he just told me “oh my god, you don’t know the meaning, the importance to have a good iPhone” (note here the argument has progressed to a “good” iPhone, not just an iPhone full stop) “because the guy I was meeting with all the time was looking to the telephone, to type of telephone that I had, and because it was broken he had the feeling that he lost [his] credibility. Especially Hugo with his looks like long beard, long hair, you know. And it comes to a point that for you to survive you have to be…” She ponders. Then concludes, tone inclining: “to give up. And to be on the trend”.
Her philosophical side finally made an appearance, “We fall in the society rules. Again. So we tried to escape, and life forced us to learn, that we had to go back again. Whether Nazaré, whether Gigante, whether you have a business or your working for someone else”.
I prompted her further and asked if it weren’t for their tourism business Gigante if she would not participate in “the iPhone trend”. She responded immediately - “Yeah. I mean I just had the Nokia phone… I mean of course there are a lot of good things [about the iPhone] and now I’m actually addicted to it, but its for the information”. She added, somewhat confusingly, “but I have the computer you know not the iPhone… I need the computer, I love the internet, I couldn’t live in the Azores without the internet, but ah, iPhone is too much”. A pause, an afterthought - “I only like it because of the camera. I would leave it at home if it didn’t have the camera”. Apparently we aren’t the only ones here on the island struggling with ourselves.
At dusk I would run, for lack of activity options and in attempt to exhaust my mind into inertia. Day after day, scaling the mountains. Trees dashed by my vision, eucalypts scattered between old pine, moist foggy air cooled my insides. The mist seeping through the gaps in the forest, absorbing what dim light was left of the day. Maybe these were the nuances that Inês was referring to.
Idealisation of place is a dangerous approach to travel. Even if you are the peak of Patagonia or on a beautiful island in the midst of the Maldives, you are still yourself. You still have your thoughts and your feelings and you remain inside the same body. You don’t transform into that beautiful palm tree, swaying carelessly in the breeze. Regretfully at times, you cannot escape yourself.
This is a theory I can comprehend, but when you are on an isolated island with only two other people to hold a conversation with, it is difficult to put this theory into practice. On Terceira Island I was reminded frequently of Machiavelli’s statement on idealism: “Slavishly adhering to utopian ideals will only lead to one’s downfall”. Slavishly adhere we did, trudging through the days on Terceira our moods changed like the weather due to external inputs: a smile caused by an email, a frown watching the American elections on television. When quotes from one of politic’s darkest masterminds are in the forefront of your daily thoughts, you know you’re in a dark place.
At least Inês was there to show us the light.