Flores, the “enchanted” island

Fazenda at sunrise

I was asked if the photograph that accompanied my previous post had been taken in the Azores.  And yes, it was. The image in question is the tomb of Antonio de Freitas which is located in the idyllic village of Mosteiro.  De Freitas, born in Mosteiro in 1792, left his homeland for Macau and made a fortune in opium trafficking and child slavery before returning to Flores in 1845.  In an effort to relieve his conscience and atone for his sins, de Freitas established a church in Mosterio, the “poorest place of his island,” and set about decorating the Igreja da Santíssima Trindade (Holy Trinity Church) with religious ornaments and cloths brought back from China. He had also brought back with him a beautiful Chinese-Portuguese wife, Ana Pulcreana. Driven by jealousy, de Freitas often locked her in their home. Plagued by loneliness, Ana became ill and eventually died, along with her young daughter, several years after her arrival on Flores.  After his own death in 1864, de Freitas was buried in Mosteiro in the cemetery located behind the Holy Trinity Church.  His tomb is unusual in its sinister details: tiger paws support a coffin adorned with a sculpted skull among two crossed shin-bones.

The small village of Caveira (skull) on the southeastern coast of Flores is home to the Legend of the Luminous Skull and as recently as ten years ago was also home to a young and charismatic witch doctor, Carlos Medeiros. People from all over the island would travel to his residence in Caveira to learn about their future, acquire monetary gains or to have curses cast on their enemies. As it turns out, one of his sons works as a laborer for my husband’s sister in Fazenda. He was amused, or perhaps surprised, to discover I had heard of his father’s reputation by way of a book (Flores, Azores: Walking Through History by Pierluigi Bragaglia) but not as amused when I asked if he had inherited any special psychic powers.

On my last night in Flores, we drove around the island’s southwestern hills before heading back through the town of Lajes to visit the marina one last time. Slowing at a corner, I looked out the window upon an older home tucked behind a stone wall. In the garden, naked dolls with dark eyes and missing limbs were hanging from a clothesline over a garden of kale and fava beans. If this was the Florentines’ version of the North American scarecrow, it was certainly effective on a scaredy-bird like me.  The effect of the moon shining down upon this strangely unsettling vignette only served to cement my belief that the island—or rather, its inhabitants,  are cursed—or blessed?—with a sense of the macabre. Goodbye Flores, my freaky little friend, I thought.  I’ll return one day. Maybe.

Many of the YouTube videos featuring the Azores seem to be accompanied by cheery or tranquil music which I simply can’t relate to as the islands harbor far too many mysteries and complexities to ever  be mistaken as a typical tourist destination.  Clearly, the folks who created these videos have never delved into the dark underbelly of the islands. However, the following video incorporates stunning time-lapse photography with a menacing soundtrack and an increasingly ominous progression of cloud formations that should be a warning to some of you… You will not come away from the islands untouched.

Here is the Place

here is the place where sadness
has the depth of a well
and the face of absence
here where my shoulders
are submerged
coincidental with distance and permanence

let it be a poem where water
is always near
water and music of seaweed against rocks
let it only be an image in the mirrors
growing in silence against the bones

but if I write to you water
water liberates
it spells your name
it drinks your splendor
here on this page
the sea rises up
floods me dissolves me
in its furor

~Madalena Férin
Translation by John M. Kinsella, Voices From the Islands

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That Damned Island…

Mosteiro gravesite large pix


Damned island

where a day has months, lasts years
island of waves and disappointments
island of tiredness and misfortunes:
what enchantment do you hold?
what truth is only yours?
that makes me leave
thinking of leaving forever
thinking of leaving alone
but I take with me
as a stigma, a punishment
the certainty of a desired return,
the incapacity of leaving definitely
your company that I didn’t want
and you make me return, now without pain
now, all of me, once again, pleasure and happiness

~Gabriela Silva
Translation by Diniz Borges


Ilha maldita

onde a dia tem meses, dura anos
ilha de marés de desenganos
ilha de cansaços e desditas:
que encanto é o teu?
que verdade é a tua?
que faz com que eu parta
pensando ir de vez
pensando ir sozinha
e leve comigo
como um stigma, um castigo
a certeza de um regress desejado,
a incapacidade de partir de um só vez
a tua companhia que eu não queria
e me faças voltar, já sem dor
já toda eu, outra vez, prazer e alegria

~Gabriela Silva

The Florentine poet Gabriela Silva perfectly captures the enchantment of the small island of Flores and its effect upon both residents and visitors alike. I’ve been reflecting on my six weeks in the Azores this past summer, most notably on the four weeks I spent on Flores. It was my third visit in seven years and I am no closer to resolving the hold this place has on me. In my previous post I confessed to the “stoic breakdown” I experienced upon my return home. I was only half-joking. My sister, upon hearing of my “misadventures”—and we shall call them that in order to protect the innocent—insisted I never return to the island, but she, like my brothers, don’t understand my fascination with the place.

Flores is a damned island. I believe it is home to magic, some old-school thaumaturgy that begins to work its strange powers the moment you set foot upon its earth. It is a magic that permeates its landscape, its people and its history.   The Island (yes, it totally deserves capitalization) began working its dark magic on me within a few days of my arrival. Between bouts of truly gloomy weather, a family feud involving my capricious elderly aunt, graveyard visits, talk of exorcism involving a local teenager and the unrelenting weight of memory, I struggled to set aside a little time each day to write. More often than not, the urge to shave my head or jump off the cliffs into the churning waters interrupted my thoughts.  After two weeks, I gave up. True, I had some internet connectivity issues with my laptop the first week but once that was resolved, I was able to post on my blog. But I didn’t. There was simply too much to process while I was there, on that Damned Island—and I’m still processing. Not to make light of those who struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but I believe I’ve been suffering from Post-Flores Melancholic Disorder these last few months.

I don’t wish to portray my time on Flores as a completely miserable experience. I did have some wonderful times. There was an unbelievably scenic boat trip around the island. Long hikes on treacherous but breathtaking cliff-side paths.  Watching the breaking waves swirl in among the glinting rocks at Santa Cruz during a midnight dock-side concert.  Strolling through the mist-covered—and strangely empty—village of Mosteiro and experiencing a sudden rush of skin-prickling déjà vu. Exuberant family dinners that began late in the afternoon and went on past the midnight hour.  Getting my very own copy of Roberto de Mesquito’s Almas Cativas & Poemas Dispersos, a book that is all but out of print and impossibly hard to come by.

But I had expected to be swept off my feet in a blur of church festivals and dances, days filled with laughter and sunlight and writing inspiration galore.  I had expected carefree coffee-shop afternoons reconnecting with relatives and friends I hadn’t seen in years and swimming for hours until my skin puckered like a raisin in the warm salty ocean. I had expected The Island to steal my heart again.

And it did, but not in the way I had expected.