Acores: Reflections on my heritage

“The world is a book; and those who do not travel read only a page. ” St. Augustine

We are now back from our whirlwind two weeks in the Azores. Specifically, we were on the island of São Jorge (pop. 10,500), where my family is from. What an incredible trip. We had very limited Internet availability, which partially explains my lack of posts during my trip. But there is another reason: I could not take my eyes off the scenery, and felt every minute spent staring at a computer screen was a moment I was not basking in the glorious natural beauty that is the home of my ancestors. I was determined to be completely present on this vacation, with minimal distractions.

GS and I were here eleven years ago, and some of the differences were dramatic. I glanced through our photo album from that trip, as well as the trip I took with my mom twenty (!) years ago. Even little rustic São Jorge has gone through some remarkable developments. Some are certainly for the betterment of the quality of life for the residents (more paved roads; better plumbing; nicer homes). Some of them are disconcerting with regards to the natural beauty of the area (building up the hillsides, clear cutting and burning, the Azorean version of McMansions). Looking back through the journals I kept in the previous trips, I had the same concerns even then.

From 1961 to 1977, about 150,000 Azoreans immigrated to the United States. The 2009 census showed an estimated population of 245,374, about 3,600 more than the 2001 census.

Some of these immigrants are now returning to retire there, and they are often showing off their alleged American wealth by building large American-style homes that are completely discordant with the local landscape. My mother’s cousin has told me that some people have returned to the United States after having blown all their money showing off. Some homes remain half-built while their owners work here in the US to make enough money to finish their ambitious projects.

I admit to having an itch for owning property there. I have felt this since I first went there twenty years ago (even offered to buy family lots from my grandmother, who refused my offer), and I feel that desire more strongly each time I’m there.


Our friends JJ, JS, RC, MN, JD, JM and LM joined us. The core group was JJ, RC and MN and the others come and went throughout our two weeks there. Their presence, good humor and enthusiasm for exploring made this one of the best trips of my life. I so loved to share this part of the world with them–the food, the scenery, the history. And they were game for all of it!

The usual suspects

We had two cars; I drove one and RC drove the other. I was always astonished at his trust in me, even when I took him down some of the windiest, treacherous, narrow roads! One such adventure was the drive to a restaurant called Fournas de Lava in Santo Amaro. After driving up into the hillsides and through a seemingly deserted village, we took a right down a narrow alley and up a rough dirt path. Just as it seemed we were driving into nowhere, a large building loomed. The stairs were completely overgrown and it there were virtually no signs of life. The first time we went there, I scouted the entrance and, indeed, they were open and ready to receive us. This is also where we spent my birthday dinner, as it turns out!

My birthday dinner

My fondest memories are of us all making dinner at our cabin in Porto dos Terreiros and eating, drinking, listening to the ocean and the wild calls of the Cory’s Shearwater birds. Some of us wished we had recorders to capture some of the funniest moments, the one-liners and themes that drove us to tears from laughter. I am satisfied of just being in the moment and while I’ll likely forget most of the specifics of the jokes, I hope I will always remember the feelings I had during those times.

Preparing for dinner on the veranda overlooking the Sao Jorge channel, with Pico in the distance (photo courtesy Swag Valance)

One of the biggest testimonies to their adventurous  nature was the memorable climb up Pico, a treacherous climb of 7,715 feet. It was hard on all of us. But after ten hours we were still laughing and joking. Our guide Cecilia was extraordinary. Perhaps the funniest moment was back in Lages, in the small whaling town where we stayed the night before and after our climb. We got beers and gin & tonics, and she was on a roll with jokes. But they were all in Portuguese, so I had to translate. The last joke had us so we could hardly breathe…the joke was mostly a play on the accent and (*ahem*) intelligence of people from San Miguel. So not only did I have to translate the words, I had to translate the accent. If I told that joke to any American now, they would not appreciate it–mostly because we were delirious from exhaustion.

Sunrise over Pico (aka, "Mount Doom") the morning of our climb
Above the clouds at the summit of Pico (aka, Pequeno)


This was also a deeply personal trip for me in terms of connections with family members I’d never met. From the overwhelming receptions at the airports, to the cousin on my father’s side who dropped by to introduce himself, I got to meet people that I wish I’d known long before this trip. My cousin was completely at our service the entire time, taking a small expedition to the fish market to help select dinner to driving us around his property–which used to be my father’s family land. There were orange trees, fig trees, bananas, and all sorts of other trees. We packed everyone into the back of the truck, with me in the front with my cousin, interpreting out the window. (Later I grilled some figs wrapped in bacon, and caramelized some bananas for the Nutella crepes.)

He showed the guest house had built on the property. He is also planning to build a couple more guest homes on the property to rent out–again, my fantasy.

He showed me an old bell that our grandfather used to hang around the goats when he hearded thousands of them here in California. He also showed me an old still that my father used to make aguardente. He restored it himself and it was beautiful. He also showed me the little cabin where they would make the liquor for sale. He also showed me an old family log book that showed who was born, who married, who died. It also had business ledgers, etc. I wished I’d had time to make some copies of it. A part of me wished I had that book, and the bell and the still. But I have no heirs and it would be lost to history. He clearly has taken great pains to care for these family heirlooms and he has two daughters who I hope will continue that tradition.

My father, Antonio Jeremias Avila, was born November 30, 1908.

One evening, JS’s last on the island before returning home, I called him after a walk from Faja dos Cubres to Faja da Caldeira de Santo Cristo. He was down by the port in Velas waiting for me to take me on a boat ride. So JS and I rushed down there for a short sunset cruise along the coast. He told stories of his memories of my father and what he knew about my family. (The rest of the group was en route home because they’d taken a longer hike around Serra do Topo).

“I’ve resolved to build a home here.” personal journal, June 14, 1990

On my mother’s side, we visited with her cousins on both Sao Jorge and Terceira. In Sao Jorge, we were shown where my mother’s family’s property was.

Pointing out the property lines

These, too, were precious moments that I cherish.

My mother met my father at his cousin’s house. He wrote her a letter to introduce himself. She was 20; he was 49. They were married two years later on January 16, 1961 and spent their honeymoon in Faja da Caldeira de Santo Cristo.

Faja da Caldeira de Santo Cristo, where my parents honeymooned.

My father came to the United States in September 1961 to work on a dairy in Novato. My mother joined him on May 2, 1962. My mother plans to celebrate 50 years in this country in 2012 by going on a cruise.


Both GS and I have noted that the food at restaurants seemed better this time around. The clams were amazing. The only place in the island to get clams (ameijoas) is the Faja da Caldeira de Santo Cristo.

The fish was the freshest possible. We discovered boca negra (blackbelly rosefish, Helicolenus dactylopterus), which was an amazingly delicate white-flesh fish that we grilled one night without any additional ingredients. This is a deep water fish found in soft bottomed areas of the continental shelf and upper slope. It feeds on crustaceans, fish, cephalopods. It’s apparently venomous and is find in Easter Atlantic Iceland to South Africa and the Western Atlantic.

Boca negra on the grill; three fish fed six of us. Luckily we didn't listen to my cousin who suggested we buy one fish PER PERSON.

Another popular fish was cherne (Wreckfish, Polyprion americanus), also a deep water fish that dwells in caves and shipwrecks. It has a wide distribution from the eastern to western Atlantic and southwest Pacific.

We made friends with the ladies at the bakery, and I loved taking the two-mile roundtrip walk early in the morning to buy fresh rolls for the day.

The great joke was the timing of the ovens. You had to be at the bakery at very specific and narrow times–between the time the bread and pastries came out of the oven and the time they were loaded up into the trucks for delivery throughout the island.

One of the rare days we got to the bakery in time for pastries (photo courtesy Swag Valance)

Rolls (papos secos) came out in the morning. Pastries were available at 1 p.m., and bread (pao cazeiro) came out around 3 p.m. And God help you if you were late and had a taste for a sweet. This became the great scheduling challenge of our trip–timing the trips to the bakery!

“Bread, bread, bread. Cheese, cheese, cheese. Potatoes, potatoes, potatoes.” personal journal, September 14, 1999

We celebrated three birthdays on this trip, including mine. I ordered a chocolate cake for each celebration and we all made a valiant effort to eat our way through them. The Portuguese cakes were not nearly as sweet at what you get here in the US and it was fun to surprise friends with a cake that had the words “Parabems, <insert name>.” Even though I ordered and picked up my own cake, I did my best to act surprised when JJ walked to the deck with a cake and the candle. It was an Academy-worthy performance.

Tips for travelers (from my personal journal, June 1990, on my first trip to Portugal: (1) pack less, (2) talk to people; everyone, (3) don’t take guided tours, (4) don’t stay in hotels.

The Book of Lies

Taking on a 20-year-old joke based on RC’s “Book of Lies,” this trip also inspired a series of short chapters when people felt they were led astray. Here are the chapters I remember. Fellow travelers, please feel free to contribute in the comments section.

  • Chapter one: Pastries

The time and location of alleged availability of pastries was difficult to nail down. One woman at the bakery told me that they load up the trucks soon after the pastries come out of the oven. So our window of opportunity between oven and truck was quite small. When I asked where the trucks go after departing the bakery, I got a suspicious look as though I were plotting to rob it. The thought did occur to me.

  • Chapter two: Faking a language

There was mounting suspicion in the early days of the trip that perhaps I did not speak Portuguese at all and was simply faking it, like Jen in IT Crowd.

  • Chapter three: Hiking distances & degrees of difficulty

Promises of milestones, finishing lines, and grades of difficulty were clearly in the eyes of the beholder.

  • Chapter four: Food portion sizes in restaurants

When the menu says “2 pessoas” it doesn’t actually mean “2 persons,” but actually the population of two islands. We made a grave mistake our first night. After that we learned that three entrees easily fed six to seven people, particularly when you included clam appetizers and bread.

Final thoughts

Greg says he recalls some cabin fever I had the last time we were here in 1999. I’ve read through my journal on that trip and there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of it.

I can say unequivocally, however, on this trip I felt no such urge to end the trip or to leave the islands. I’ve said for 20 years that I could easily spend a summer here, going from island to island. If I’m fit and physically capable, even better because I can then enjoy the multitude of hikes and outdoor adventures that the islands offer.

I had been thinking about climbing Pico for the last eleven years, and I’m so glad I did it now. I have little interest in repeating it because it would be like re-reading a book–there are too many other things to experience!

Check out Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” episode on the Azores.

I am so glad I was able to share this special place with our friends. To see the islands again, this time through fresh eyes, was a blessing. I think their presence intensified the experience–the colors were brighter, the food was tastier, the jokes were funnier.

It’s been a big year of travel, and now I have to concentrate on my business and career. It may be a while before I go anywhere else (ex-US, that is), but these memories will sustain me.

2 thoughts on “Acores: Reflections on my heritage”

  1. I loved your travel journal. My Grandmother was from Sao George. She died in San Rafael, Ca but always wanted to go back. I have Sao Jorge on my bucket list for her and for me as well. Thank you, I enjoyed reading about your experience and seeing the photos as well!

  2. Thanks, Julie. So sorry your grandmother was not able to return. Most of my family never returned, but my mother did go back several times before she died last year–and I was able to go with her shortly after I graduated from college. Such great memories. You should definitely go. It is a magical place. What village is your family from?

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