A Fado for Faial

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 Blue whales, São Miguel, Capelinhos Lighthouse, Faial, Azores, Horta, landing strips, passion-fruit juice, Estado Novo, Franco, Lisbon & telegrams 

In 1963, my paternal grandmother drove a two-stroke Saab fifteen hundred miles from Huddersfield in Yorkshire to Lisbon, passing through Chartres, Bordeaux and Salamanca along the way. At the time, Spain was controlled by General Franco, and Portugal by the authoritarian Estado Novo. My father’s job was to navigate, and he sat in the passenger seat, reading the map and watching the countryside go by. It was just the two of them, a middle-aged woman and a fifteen-year-old boy, one still grieving for a husband, the other for a father.

They left the car in Lisbon and from there they took a boat, the MV Funchal, across the Atlantic toward the Azores, an archipelago of nine volcanic islands a thousand miles to the west. The boat was new at the time, which was unusual. Many of the rusting vessels that plied the same route had once been German merchant ships that ended up in Portuguese hands by way of a reparation deal after the First World War.

More than a week after setting out from Britain, they reached Faial, one of the smaller islands. In this distant place, the young boy—my father—had a cousin by marriage who was the manager of the Cable & Wireless cable station.

It was just the two of them, a middle-aged woman and a fifteen-year-old boy, one still grieving for a husband, the other for a father.

The Azores are about as close as you can get to a halfway point between Europe and the Americas. Ever since ships started sailing to the New World, they have stopped at the Azores on the way. During the Second World War, both Britain and the U.S. built landing strips on the islands as a base from which to defend the Atlantic convoys from German U-boats. By the time my father visited, there were no fewer than three cable stations on Faial. Telegrams and, later, telephone calls were transmitted via these stations at speeds that seemed extraordinary at the time, but that we, in our world of fiber optics and satellites, mobiles and broadband, would now consider ridiculously slow.

My father remembers everything about the trip—the fresh pineapple on board the boat, the jug of passion-fruit juice on the table at breakfast and the purple and blue hydrangeas bulging into narrow roads. He remembers swimming in the harbor at Horta, Faial’s only town of any size, with the children of another cable manager.

He remembers the stink of sulfur at the base of the Caldeira Volcano crater and his visit to Capelinhos in the very east of Faial, a part of the island that had been devastated just six years before by an enormous volcanic eruption. Once, the lighthouse marked the tip of the island; now, following the eruption, which spewed new, barren rock out of the sea, it was inland. In the wake of the disaster, thousands of Azoreans left the islands for the U.S. and Canada.

He remembers the long, thin whaling boats hauled up on the beach at Porto Pim, their bows bright painted. There were lookouts positioned along the cliffs, too, straining to see the splash from a fluke or the spray from a blowhole so they could point the boats in the right direction. Tourism was virtually nonexistent then, but there was money in whaling.

This was his only visit. By 1969, new technology had been developed and all of the cable stations had closed. The cousin by marriage retired to England. But the memories lived on, and my father kept all the slides he took with his bulky black camera. From time to time while I was growing up, he would dig out the little wooden box of slides from the back of a cupboard and show them to us. My mother would sigh and busy herself in the kitchen while my sister and I begged him to turn on the television.

He somehow planted the seed in my mind that the Azores were an exotic place, full of adventure and beauty. One Christmas, grown up, married and with a daughter of my own, I persuaded him to dig out this wooden box again and show us his pictures.

The ash is still so deep around the lighthouse, he can almost touch the top.

They depict a dramatic landscape of mountains and volcanic craters, of beaches with black sand battered by Atlantic storms. They show people living a basic, rural life. The roads are empty, because there were few cars then and no tractors. Farmers counted themselves lucky if they had a bull and cart to plow their small fields. If they didn’t, they and their families plowed the land by hand. In one of the pictures, my father stands proudly by the Capelinhos lighthouse. The ash is still so deep around it, he can almost touch the top. He is tanned, in his short-sleeved shirt and shorts, almost grown up.

I knew then that we had to go back and relive the memories. More than fifty years later, that is what I did—my husband, daughter and father. We flew from London to Faial via Ponta Delgada, set on the largest Azorean island, São Miguel. We passed the time wondering how the islands might have changed now that they were so easy to get to, and dreaming of blue whales concealed deep beneath the rolling waves.

My father did not find Faial much changed. The roads are better, and there are more tourists, but not as many as there should be for such a beautiful place. No one needs to plow their fields by hand, because there are plenty of tractors, but some of the older farmers prefer to get around using a horse and cart. The locals still drink passion-fruit juice, even if they do buy it in a supermarket. For the most part, their lives are a world apart from the wealthy yacht-owners who now moor their elegant boats in the harbor at Horta before setting sail for Bermuda and the Bahamas.

The cable station has been turned into a modern secondary school. It is very successful—one of the best schools in Europe, they say. But there are not enough jobs on the islands for students when they graduate. The manager’s house, where my father stayed, is right next door. Now it has become an office building, owned by the local sports association. A group of its employees showed us around, lining up to shake my little daughter’s hand with exaggerated politeness and trying to follow my father’s stories about that long-ago holiday.

At Capelinhos, much of the ash and pumice has blown away, and the lighthouse towers above visitors. Little grows here, though, even after half a century. The landscape is empty and gritty.

As for whaling, the siren no longer sounds when the whalers bring home their catch. The narrow boats have been replaced by whale-watching Zodiacs. Lookouts still stand on the cliffs, binoculars to their eyes, but they report their sightings to marine biologists, not hunters. The old whaling station has become a bar and museum. There are plenty of locals who remember how the water at Porto Pim would turn red with blood when the catch came in. Now, out in the Atlantic, the whales swim fearlessly by.

Looking out at the water, I remember the fado, a traditional Portuguese song often about the sea. The songs are known for their sense of longing—for something that cannot be recaptured. I ask myself, did my father find what he was looking for by returning here? Did I, in bringing him back?

Camilla Macpherson lives in London, England, with her Canadian husband and their daughter. Her first novel, Pictures at an Exhibition, was published by Random House in 2012 and has been translated into Dutch and German. She is currently working on her second novel, which is set in cold war Berlin. Find out more at her website, www.camillamacpherson.com


Lead Image by Paulo Valdivieso


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