Friday, July 31, 2015

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 24. Joy ride around Terceira and a delayed flight to Lisbon

My flight was scheduled for 5 pm, and I was not willing to spend all day in the lobby of the hotel, so once again I rented a scooter, with the idea of going around the whole island one more time. Unfortunately the weather turned on me, and I was facing some very grim clouds as I started in my ride. It was a fun ride, with many detours from the peripheral ring to look at impressive sea cliffs and boiling seas. I did get wet. In fact I got very wet, and then I dried off, got wet again, and so forth. Still, it was exhilarating to be on the scooter, free of care and wandering without aim.

I did stop in some of the bathing areas around the coast, and I have to say that the folks here are really adventurous and tough. All the signs indicate that on warm days the swimming holes are ready to accept many people for swimming and picnicking. 

I got back to Praia around 2:30 pm, had an excellent lunch, and then stopped by the hotel to pick my backpack. By 3:30 pm I was at the airport, in plenty of time for my 5 pm flight, only to find out that my flight was delayed until 6:30 pm. It seems I cannot avoid long waits at airports!

I landed in Lisbon around 9:30 pm, took the metro by 10:00 pm and then the train, and by 11:00 pm I was walking in the area of Belem toward my hostel. I was tired and hungry, so I stopped at a small restaurant to eat the equivalent to a ham and cheese sandwich, but baked into a flaky pastry, accompanied by a cup of milk and coffee. By the time I got to the hostel, around midnight, I found a beehive of activity (people here go to bed late) and was very happy to get a big hug from Maya.

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 23. Another Conde Naste Travel day.

Not much to report, because we had another luxury travel day, getting in and out of our comfortable mini-bus to look at yet another fabulous view of this verdant island. We also made a nice stop for coffee and cake at 11, and had another delicious and abundant lunch around 2 pm.

One thing we did that was different, was to visit the house that Elmano and Albertina Costa (who are part of our touring group) maintain here in Terceira. It is the house that his maternal grandparents built, and that they gutted and remodeled 10 years ago to keep as a vacation house. The remodel took them 5 years, but it is now a tastefully decorated house that blends old architecture with gleaming wood and all modern comforts. The floor of the garage is now a terrace from which you get a stunning view of the ocean. The concept of having a vacation house like this is certainly an appealing one.

For the evening we got together one more time for cocktails and “a light supper”, which ended being yet another very late night with way too much food. It was a congenial celebration, however, as we all wanted to thank our Azorean friends Elmano, Albertina, and Isabel Cabral for having lent us their tongues and their eyes so we could see deeply inside the Azorean land and its people. The islands are quite literally jewels in the middle of the Atlantic, and we are all glad we got to know them.

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 22. Around Terceira in a scooter.

The day seems perfect for a scooter adventure, which I started by going up the hill to see the statue of the Immaculate Hearth of Mary, who blesses the mariners who enter Praia da Vitoria, which is the small city where our hotel is located. I should note that out hotel is called Varandas do Atlantico, which I recommend without reservations. It is small, very comfortable and modern, and the staff is great (

Soon I came to the NATO base (established during World War II) and the airport, and then I was in open country. My plan was to cut across the island to look at the Caldera of Guilhemo Moniz (a name that simply shows who owned the land), which turned out to be a pretty drive through greenery, but with very little geology. Then I saw a sign that led to a volcanic cave, but the place was not open until 2 pm, so I would have to come back. I did stop to walk through a small fumarole field, whose main attraction was the fact that a golden red moss likes the warmth and sulfurous steam, so the vents were easily distinguished as fiery spots imprinted on the green vegetation carpet.

From the highlands I dropped to the city of Angra do Heroismo, the largest city in Terceira. Angra means a small bay, and apparently this was the only naturally protected bay when the islands were colonized in the early to mid 1400’s, so for centuries it was the de facto capital of the Azores. The city is heavy with history, and after reconstruction from the ravages of an earthquake in the 1980’s was rightfully included in UNESCO’s roster as a World Heritage Site. The topography around the bay is steep, so the city has a helter-skelter development pattern of narrow streets and public buildings huddling precariously against each other.

Serendipitously I met the other members of my group by the waterfront, and together we went to visit one of the fortresses that protected the town against the depredations of pirates like Francis Drake and other privateers of the same ilk. We parted ways after the visit, and I went for a cup of coffee and a sandwich in the old town, and to browse through a bookstore in search of a book by an Azorean author. I settled for the book Mar Rubro, by Dias de Melo, a native of Pico who has made a name for himself by writing about the life of the baleen hunters of Pico. I finished my midday with an informative visit to the city museum, which occupies what used to be the old Franciscan Convent. It is a very good museum and I highly recommend it.

Back on my scooter (and under a steady rain) I headed back inland, to visit my volcanic cave. Now, I have been in a couple of amazing lava tube caves, where the lava makes a stream, crusts over to make a tunnel through which the now insulated lava can move more efficiently, and eventually drains quickly at the end to leave behind a largely horizontal empty tube or cave (I in fact saw a fair example of this phenomenon later in the day at another cave, the Cave of Natal). But the cave of Algar do Carvao was completely different: It was a wide (10 m) shaft that descended almost vertically for a good 100 m, where the sides had been eroded by the swirling of the hot lava. The walls had structures typical of the draining of a fluid magma, although in some places the walls had partially spalled in. Water, dripping through fractures, had accumulated some stalactites and drape structures just like in a limestone cave, but in here the structures were formed by chalcedony (silica) rather than calcite. In short, what we have here is a fossilized volcanic vent. Normally such a vent would be full of tephra or crystallized lava, but in this case the lava that filled the conduit must have drained quickly and the spatter of the cone around it must had been agglutinated enough that it couldn’t roll back into the cavity. It is the first time I get to see such a thing, and I was dully impressed. This really looked like a point of entry for a Journey to the Center of the Earth!

I spent the late afternoon exploring secondary roads, all of which took me to places of great beauty. In one of the many vales I met a small milking operation, in which the operator had a portable, two-stalls milking machine, and the cows simply came down the slope, two at a time, to be milked and munch on some hay. All 60 cows must have taken a couple of hours to milk, after which the farmer would pull the machine and its tank back to the farm. The cows remained on their pretty pasture and never saw the inside of a barn. Talk about happy cows! 

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 21. Going around the island of Faial.

Easy-piecey kind of day, driving around the island and stopping here and there to take some pictures. Unfortunately it was raining, so I was the only one to get down from the bus to go through the tunnel (the wind was howling) and come to the vista point overlooking the caldera of Cabeço Gordo, a small but very impressive caldera depression, maybe 4 kilometers in diameter and 500 m deep. If you follow in my footsteps make sure to take the time to walk all around the caldera rim (about two hours) or even descend to the bottom (another couple of hours). Unfortunately the wind was blowing a storm right into my face, so I don’t even have a picture to prove I was here.

The island is beautiful, and the hydrangeas are in bloom, which makes for a very pretty countryside. In fact, given that these flowers grow like weeds the farmers have planted to border the pasture fields, creating the ultimate tableau of happy cows.

At lunch I had the chance to talk with our guide Lucia, a pleasant woman of 40 something, who freelances as tourist guide whenever she gets a chance. So what does she do in the meantime? Well, a few years ago she went to the US with her family, and they stopped in Dunkin’ Donuts to buy a few, very expensive cookies. Years later one of her sons moaned that he would like to have one of those cookies, so Lucia sought a recipe through the internet, experimented a few times, and finally settled on something she liked and baked a batch for each of her sons, who were going to be camping that weekend. The “Cookies from Cousin Lu” became an instant hit with the boys and their friends, and now she runs a profitable small operation known through the whole island of Faial. And to this day Dunkin’ Donuts stands high in her mind among the top American pastry makers!

One of our last stops was the westernmost end of the island, in Punta dos Capelinhos, where we came across the products of an eruption that took place in the mid 1950’s. What was peculiar about this eruption is that started out of nothing under the ocean. The water started boiling, and now and then an explosion would blast unto the surface, with black jets of tephra shooting through the air, and seconds later transforming themselves into plumes of the white steam. Powerful blasts of tephra rushed over the surface of the ocean, and slowly built up a low mound that was quickly washed away by the waves of the ocean. The tug of war between the volcano and the sea continued for several days, until eventually enough tephra had accumulated to isolate the vent from the sea, and the eruption slowly evolved into a Strombolian eruption, and the quiet eruption of lavas shielded the nascent island to secure a permanent addition of 2 square kilometers to the area of Faial. Unfortunately the Portuguese failed to publish the photos and reports of the eruption of Capelinhos, and a similar eruption in 1965 off the coast of Iceland got the glory of the name. So this type of submarine-to-subaerial eruptions are now called Surtseyan rather than Capeloan. No better proof of the old academic adage: Publish or perish.

In the afternoon we took the plane to Terceira, where we will spend the last three days of our adventure. Tomorrow is a free day, so I think I will rent a scooter and see what I shall see.

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 20. Fog and drizzle in Pico.

Early this morning I got a message from a friend, reminding me that “it could have been fog and rain instead”, and that is exactly what we got today: Windy, drizzly, and foggy. Still, brave tourists that we are we took a boat to cross the strait between Faial and Pico. Our trusty guide, Lucia, was with us and keeping her chin up got us into the bus to start the tour around the island.

This is a peculiar island, dominated by the Pico stratovolcano, which has fed lava flows all around its periphery, which gives the lowlands a very “volcanic” aspect. There are no beaches to speak of in Pico, but the clever locals have blocked some of the crags to form pools, and apparently they are very popular among the locals when the sun shines. There is not a lot of arable land, however, so when the first inhabitants settled in the 1400’s they had to deal with rocky slopes and howling wind. Quite naturally they started building wind-barriers (thin walls of aa lava fragments), one thing led to the other, and pretty soon they were building walls around any of the plants they wanted to raise.

So this is an island of little walls, defining labyrinths that go for acres and acres, inside of which there are vines or fig trees, from which come the “volcanic” wines of Pico. The story goes that the black rock soaks in the sun, gets hot, and then radiates the heat back to the plants in the course of the evening. Of course the frequent rain does miracles to keep the fruits growing, but the heat encourages the grape to grow sweet, and the highest the natural sugar content of the grapes, the wine can reach a nice high level of alcohol and crate a smooth, dry wine. The figs, on the other hand, are allowed to ripen and then are put through fermentation and distillation to produce a pretty hefty grappa.

For the rest of the day we were simply group tourists, stopping often, getting out of the bus, snapping a couple of pictures, and getting back on the bus.

One rather unique stop was to visit “The King of Yams”, a friend of Elmano and Albertina, who markets yams in California and has build an empire on this lowly tubercule, and who every summer escapes the heat of the Central Valley by coming to Pico for two months. We came, all 14 of us plus Lucia and our driver Sinhor Antonio, to the family house to say hello, and he and his kind wife were waiting for us with all sorts of appetizers and open bottles of “volcanic” wine. The best welcome we could have expected!

We made our way all around the island, and as we were approaching the dock Pico volcano almost showed itself. I sat on the top deck, looking back at the fog shrouded volcano, and had a flashback when I left Sakurajima volcano in Japan, after a similar fog-shrouded day, when all of a sudden the fog blew away and the volcano started erupting! (The only time I have actually witnessed an erupting volcano). Alas, it was but a dream, and Pico kept itself quiet and shrouded, waiting for another time to show its power to us mere mortals.

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 19. From Sao Miguel to Faial

I woke up late, and didn’t come down to breakfast until 7 am. I had to eat quickly, because I had but short three hours to make my final scooter exploration of the island. My goal was to reach Lagoa do Fogo (the Fire Lagoon), which is a crater lake inside Agua du Pau volcano. It was a long steep road, but I was rewarded for my efforts when the shroud of clouds opened at just the crucial moment to reveal the sun-reflecting lagoon inside the deep green crater of the volcano (and at the same crucial moment my camera decided to run out of battery juice).

Agua de Pau was also of great interest to me, because it is here that the geothermal power plant is located, which provides for 40% of the electricity consumed by the island. One must remember that this is a small island, with maybe 50,000 inhabitants. Assuming 2.5 inhabitants per residence to make the math simple that would give us about 20,000 houses, or an average energy consumption of 20 MW, and 40% of this would be about 8 MW provided by geothermal energy. Not huge, but not too shabby either.

I made it back to Ponta Delgada just in time to return my scooter and take a nice, lazy walk to my hotel, pack, and be ready to go at noon. Then I got a reminder of the first of the reasons why I dislike group travel. Somehow everyone else’s ticket had been bought, except for mine! The travel agent was very apologetic, but he would have to find out from California, and it was 5 am there, and … I finished buying my ticket and will have to see if I get a refund when I get back.

A quick 45 minute flight landed our expeditionary force in Faial, the westernmost of the central cluster of islands of the Azores archipelago (the other islands in the central cluster being Pico, Saint Jorge, and Terceira; Sao Miguel is the only island in the eastern “cluster”; and Flores and Corvo form the western cluster). We were met at the airport by our new tour guide, and half an hour later we were installed into our new hotel.

A group got together to go to the afternoon mass in the parish church (today is Saturday June 27, 2015) at 6 pm, and then we learned that a dinner reservation had been made for us at 7 pm. Church was lovely, but I managed to get every prayer mangled trying to say them in Spanish while everyone was reciting them loudly in Portuguese.

Then we headed for the restaurant, and then I remembered my second thing I don’t like about group travel: An order of 14 dishes saturates the kitchen, so your 7:00 pm dinner turns into a 9:00 pm dinner. So you wolf down your meal, hoping that by 9:30 pm you can head for a well deserved night of sleep. The end result is that it was close to 10 pm when we got home, and this is the third time in a row! I am bushed.   

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 17. Another dreaded visit to the dentist.

That’s it. I slept poorly, feeling my face getting swollen. Yes, when I woke up I looked like a hamster. There is no question. I have an infection and will have to go to the dentist today. Crap! That means foregoing the luxury tourist thing, because they are leaving at 9 am. And I so wanted to go to the caldera of Sete Cidades, and the geothermal power plants L

The hotel gave me the address of a clinic on the other side of town, and since I am too cheap to take a cab I only got there about 9:45. The nice receptionist took my info, and told me the doctor would see me in a short while. Fifteen minutes later I was called in, and I met my doctor, a middle-age woman who spoke perfect English (like many Azoreans, she immigrated to the US when she was a kid, got her degree in Boston, and then chose to come back to practice in paradise), and who listened very sympathetically to my plight. She took a brief look and told me that, yes, I have an infection, and that until the infection is controlled by strong antibiotics and anti-inflammatories there is not much more she can tell me. If it is an opportunistic infection then the antibiotics should clear it and I should be able to hold until I see my dentist in Mexico. Otherwise she hopes I can get the thing looked at in Germany (definitely not Morocco); clearly she doesn’t know of my past experiences with German dentists (described in gory, bloody detail in my letters from 1988).

So she wrote me a prescription for Clavamox (875 mg, which is a dose that should be just about right for a horse) and Iboprufen (600 mg), plus an emergency pack of Rosilan (30 mg) corticosteroids just in case I need help during my trip to Morocco. She also gave me a medicated mouthwash from the samples she had in her examination room. Total cost: $50 for the consultation and $20 for the meds at a nearby pharmacy.

Feeling that now I was pretty much healed, I started bemoaning the fact that this untimely visit to the dentist had robbed me of the opportunity of seeing the caldera of Sete Cidades. I was commiserating in this way when, what do I see? An outfit of scooter rentals! A few minutes later I drove out of there in my very own scooter ($40 per 24 hours) heading out of town toward Sete Cidades volcano.

It was a fabulous ride. First I took the road less travelled, around the south side of the island, with fabulous looks of marine cliffs and quaint white-washed towns. Then I started the climb to the soma of the volcano, where I had a sweeping panorama of the caldera, the ring-fracture volcanoes, and the lake that occupies the center of the caldera. I was a good 3,000 ft above the level of the lake, so the view was like that a soaring eagle would have. Fortunately I came up the road less travelled, so none of the tourist buses were there to ruin my view.

I rode into the caldera, to the village of Sete Cidades to have my lunch, which consisted on a plate of grilled limpets with a cold beer, and afterward I rode all the dirt roads around the lake taking beautiful pictures.

Eventually I headed out of the caldera and reached the north shore, once again reveling on the smooth ride, the beautiful coast, and the incredible scenery. But then I started getting sleepy (was it siesta time?), so I stopped at one of the bus stop kiosks, parked the scooter out of the way, and proceeded to have a very nice siesta sitting against the warm sides of the kiosk.

I finally came back to the hotel, and at 7 pm rejoined my group for dinner. We walked a good 20 minutes to Solar de Graça, which looked more like a car garage than a restaurant, but which turned out to be a 60-year old “eatery” that offered a typical Azorean buffet and entertainment. The available menu included rice with fish, a bread pudding with tomatoes, bacalao with spinach, breaded young macarels (not oily at all), and diverse dishes with pork and bacon. The desserts included flan, maracuja pudding, apple pie, and a bean pie that was surprisingly tasty. This hearty dinner was followed by a show of traditional Azorean music and dance by a local group. It was pretty energetic dancing, as Albertina and myself were able to find out when we were invited to the dance floor. I think we did alright for mere beginners.