I went to the Azores in late September for seventeen glorious days. As with all my previous visits, I go to the island of São Miguel. It’s not that I don’t want to see the other eight islands that make up this mid-Atlantic archipelago, it’s just that I still haven’t had enough of São Miguel to explore Pico, Corvo, São Jorge, Faial, Flores, Santa Maria, Graciosa, Terceira. One day I will, but for now I keep returning to my island, and especially to my city, Ponta Delgada.
I always start my visit with the city. It’s a duty and a sign of respect for the place where I was born. How could I arrive at the airport and just bypass it? Not with my history of leaving it as a child. The city would feel jilted, once again, and so I start there and stay for a respectable four or five days before moving on to the countryside.
Every time I go back, there is always the familiar waiting for me, but each time I also discover something new: a place, a different perspective, a revealed detail. These become part of my soul, my consciousness, and memory. Retracing my steps is my way of making up for those long years of absence. After immigrating to Canada, there were no further visits back. Leaving had been a permanent and final decision, one that had not been mine to make. Going back feels like a rekindling of that old strained relationship, a mending of a misunderstanding, a healing of a wound, and an awkward sense of wondering if the city and I can reconcile.
I’ve gone back several times over the last sixteen years, and each new visit brings me a little closer to a feeling of familiarity and belonging to the city of my childhood. I’ve developed certain routines when I am there: where I stay, what I do, and who I visit. I am fortunate to have a long list of people to see, and they treat me with kindness and welcome me with open arms; the years of absence never an obstacle to a kiss on the cheek as if they see me always.
There is only one place I will stay in Ponta Delgada, despite the sincere offer of relatives who would welcome me into their homes. At A Comercial, I am greeted by the staff like an old friend. My room is familiar and welcoming. O Torreão, the Tower Room, is on top of this charming two-story house, impeccably kept and infused with silence. My room has three windows, each providing distinct views. It has the best view of the church of São Sebastião and old terracotta roof tops, stretching out unto the doca and finally the ocean beyond it. I could not ask for better, nor is there better, in my opinion. It’s my home away from home and the owner and I have chats over a galão in the restaurant next door, where the best traditional meals are served cafeteria-style by a cheerful and hardworking group of beautiful women who indulge me by remembering my favourite dishes.
I love this city, Ponta Delgada. When I leave my room each morning to go walking its streets, my past becomes alive. I still marvel at the beautiful churches, so many for such a small place, each worth a visit, each a part of my childhood. I admire the beautiful old houses with traditional trim in grey and windows with shutters and ironwork motifs.
But as much as I am taken by the charm of the city, with each new visit, I have started to see it less from the heart. All of a sudden, I am aware of the chinks on the walls. It’s like a love relationship that’s lasted beyond the romance stage. I now see a city that, in some ways, feels abandoned, let go to deterioration, desprezada. The number of houses and buildings still standing in various degrees of decay, often right next to very well kept houses, is painful to see. And each time I go back, even years later, the same houses are still there, just more neglected, more abandoned. There is a beauty, too, to these abandoned walls and broken windows, but a romantic take on decay can only go so far, and it would be wonderful to see these houses and buildings restored and lived in once more.
I see a city that is trying to adapt and change, to be modern. There are new hotels, slick and sophisticated, rising above the decrepitude and neglect around them. There is also some restoration work being done to old historical landmarks. For example, the Carlos Machado Museum, http://museucarlosmachado.azores.gov.pt/. It had been closed for over ten years and I was lucky enough to be there for the much anticipated reopening this past September. It’s a beautiful treasure of a place, which includes the old convent church of Santo André, a church we used to go to for mass in the old days, now preserved as a museum space. I also visited the oldest Portuguese Jewish synagogue in the Azores, the Sahar Hassamain (Gates of Heaven), also newly restored and beautiful to see.
The old Jesuit church of Todos os Santos was restored several years ago and houses precious art and artifacts worthy of the best churches in Europe.
There is much to celebrate about Ponta Delgada. Its cultural heritage is quite impressive and unique for a remote city on an isolated island in the mid-Atlantic ocean. But I find walking its narrow cobblestone streets more annoying than pleasurable. I am always jostling to get by parked cars where many sidewalks are so narrow that only one person can walk, single file. These streets were built before the automobile and could have never anticipated the ugliness of today’s oversized cars. The wheels rumble noisily on the street where I stay, the sound is like thunder hitting the pavement. The sound disappears at night when I sit by my window and listen to the church bells chime the hours. The church tower becomes lit up and I remember with joy that this is the church where I was baptised, had my first communion, and attended all the feasts.
It’s a gift to return often to my city of birth, and to watch it from the window of my room, after a day of wondering the streets and visiting those wonderful people who are still there, connecting me powerfully to my past.
On my last day in the city, I stop at the market, O Mercado da Graça, and drink a glass of freshly squeezed pineapple juice from an entrepreneurial young man who has found a delicious way to entice tourists. He transformed the old market concept into something new, at par with what I might find at the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto.
After drinking the locally grown sweet pineapple, there is nothing left for me to do but head back to my room to pack and head out to the next part of my the journey, to the sossego do campo, the quiet of the countryside and the ocean, where I walk along black sandy beaches or sit on rocks, and gaze out into the infinite distance, comforted to know that my life in Toronto, a five hour flight away, is there on the other side of the ocean waiting for me.
Emanuel Melo is a writer and he lives in Toronto, Canada.