In Lajes, an unpredictable tea

For Vera Sabino and Semy Braga

            When I arrived on Pico for the first time, a low cloud ceiling reduced the island to a very smooth green-gray bar slightly flattened at the ends. In vain I searched for that mountain that photos taken from São Jorge transformed into the perfect profile of a breast – a breast useless at night, as Chateaubriand would write.

            I took the remainder of the afternoon to settle into my room and rest up from my journey. After dinner, I set out on a brief foray through Lajes, a bit aimlessly but not forgetting some of the recommendations made by Mr. Amílcar, the Residencial’s proprietor. Truth be told, in Lajes one does not walk aimlessly, because the village’s layout almost predetermines people’s steps leading them to the main street, which runs parallel to the shoreline and from which the cross streets radiate on their way to the ocean. This was one of the features that had most impressed poet Wang Yong, who roamed there disguised as a humble traveler with a backpack, in which he kept lava samples, sheets of tissue paper with poems and erotic drawings, shells, pebbles, bits of Camilo Pessanha’s bones. It’s as if the urban grid obeyed a geometry that provided an inner life between the Cruzeiro monument and the Largo da Matriz church plaza, while at the same time maintaining a constant dialogue with the sea, a factor inseparable from the history and economy of the village – simultaneously isolated yet open to the world. But I could not fail to be amazed by the notable harmony and cohesion of the civic architecture that fills the space between these two poles, although only later did I come to identify the different epochal features that draw us back to the 16th century, perhaps even to the 15th.

            Unexpectedly, however, everything leads to the Igreja Matriz, in the enormity of its volume a Gothic shipwreck in the mid-Atlantic. It was this vision that haunted Raul Brandão in 1924 when he saw it still unfinished, the work on it suspended by the republicans’ extraordinary foolishness. That did not preclude the writer from doing justice to the determination of the priest who had, in vain, expended spirit and fisc in trying to make a dream come true: “A dead black carcass erected across from the ocean, and separated from land by thick hills that threaten to submerge it. Seabirds live there… It was a dream, and no dream comes to an end – dreams do not fit into the world.”

            For better or worse some dreams can actually come true, I was thinking as I arrived back at the Residencial, when only a faint light beyond the tip of the island revealed the world to the West. I was there to prove it, ready to fulfill a dream that had been taking shape since the Whaling Museum invited me to display photos I had taken at the Baía dos Golfinhos when I accompanied Edson Bittencourt’s scientific expedition to the Dolphin Bay habitat in southern Brazil.

            The next morning I awoke early. The mountain was still shrouded in its balls of ashes and wool.

            In the restaurant, a picture hanging over the buffet table caught my eye. In the background, a somber-toned landscape that could be seen through a window; the white impression of a horse was crossing the sky above houses and trees, its head and mane replaced by a woman’s face and hair – perhaps a centaur of the opposite sex. Inside, closer to the observer, a teapot in shades of yellow and pink, on which the figure of a woman in a long black dress was delineated; in her right hand, a lily anticipated the whiteness of the steam that was emitting from the teapot’s spout. On its lower section, a brief inscription: “Unpredictable tea of the imagination.”

            “A gift from the artist,” Mr. Amílcar said from behind me, seeing my interest in the painting. “He was here for a few days with his wife, also a painter. Brazilians from Santa Catarina. They split their time between fascination for the mountain and anxiety in the face of its mysteriousness.”

            Before mounting my exhibition I ambled through Lajes a bit more, and found myself walking along the wall that starts in front of the museum and ends out on the wharf that is used for mooring. Within this stretch, a recent monument breaks through the darkness of the basalt, its top curling over a gate that epitomizes the destiny of Lajes, perhaps even of Pico, between the ocean and the island. Seen from that vantage point, the village affords a better understanding of the nature of its setting on this spit of land resulting from ancient lava flows. It was also from that moment that I began to understand the insistence with which Fernando Alvarez speaks of Lajes’ dried volcanic ash mud called fajana in his book Islands of Fire.

            I busied myself that day installing my photographs. I had to rearrange them to suit the particular conditions of the available space, so as to make best use of existing frames and light, and that took longer than expected. In the end, I felt satisfied. My photos were finally receiving their full due in a museum where the voices of ancient whalers seem still to echo and the proximity of their deeds makes us complicit in an adventure of laughter and tears, euphoria and death.

            That evening I dined with Richard Johnson, an American entrepreneur also staying at the Residencial, whom Mr. Amílcar had introduced to me. The story he told me had the effect of dispelling my unconcealable initial surprise at the fluency of his Portuguese, spoken with only the slightest of accents.

            For several years he had worked for a Texas company devoted to exporting democracy, with major dealings in South America. For that reason he had traveled extensively to Brazil, where he stayed for long periods during the time of the generals. Later, the company turned its attention to Iraq, but by then Johnson no longer belonged to its ranks. He had discovered tourism and made it the modern passion of which Agustina Bessa-Luís speaks and that, like all passions, is verbose, listens little and precludes people from seeing anything going on around them. Now he was in Lajes on an ambitious and visionary project: transforming the village into a luxurious tourist resort with hotels, restaurants and casinos – because tourism, you must understand, sir, is nothing more than one continuous motion from the dining table to the bathroom to the gambling table. That meant dislocating Lajes’ population to an urban tract built from scratch on the shores of the lagoon at Lagoa do Paul, but with every modern convenience. Nothing extraordinary! One had only to bear in mind what had happened in Alentejo with the Aldeia da Luz or even recall the case of Sete Cidades on São Miguel, with its human community that was resettled on the shores of a yellow pond. Can you imagine Lajes transformed into a Las Vegas under the volcano, do I make myself clear? And he laughed heartily, visibly pleased with his allusion to Malcolm Lowry.

            I then told him of scientific studies on the predicted rise in sea level, which according to chronic pessimists will submerge Lajes within fifty years, or a century from now in the opinion of others more attuned to dealing with political discourse. All to no effect. Nothing would budge him. All this will occur gradually, so for some time still we can exploit the tourism potential of a Venice-on-the-Atlantic right here. But when total submersion does occur, covering the other towns on Pico as well – don’t think they’ll be spared! – we’ll have the opportunity to devote ourselves to underwater archaeology, the Azores’ great destiny at a time when “magical nature” will have become an obsolete and absurd slogan.

            When I said goodbye to Johnson he was still talking about his projects, with an enthusiasm not totally unconnected to the fig brandy bottle placed at our disposal by Mr. Amílcar (Romana Petri would perhaps prefer a glass of angélica, as she foolishly insists on writing to me). I requested a cup of tea delivered to my room, and before falling asleep set to reading El Mal de Montano by Enrique Vila-Matas. Rosario Girondo had already returned to Faial after his trip to Pico where he met with the writer Teixeira, who lived at the foot of the Mountain; he was now engaged in mapping Montano’s malady and had already recorded Pico’s volcano on it, because of the militant moles within its interior who conspired against literature.

            Gradually a sleepiness began to take hold of my body, leaving it in an overall state of relaxation. The portable player continued playing the Carlos Núñez CD, now the tune “Nubes del otro lado,” the strains of which were becoming ever fainter in the distance, until it was finally just a volume of sounds as undifferentiated as the mass of clouds that were surely still obscuring the Mountain. Sometime later, I’m not sure how long, I went whale watching aboard the Cigana; we were sailing along the Rua Direita and the spotter had sighted a pod of dolphins in the Largo da Matriz lagoon. We followed slowly and in silence, except for the voice of our guide, who was discoursing on whaling architecture and buildings from the 16th century, mixing balcony windows with wooden towers and corners made of basalt. I wanted to ask him for a clarification, but try as I might I was unable to utter a sound. Past the slight curve in the street, the tower of the Church of Notre Dame of Bruges suddenly loomed. The boat’s pilot served simultaneously as our guide; his name was Carlos and he spoke to us alternately in English and Spanish with a smattering of Portuguese words that attested to his ancestry, which was the same as his remote Burgundian eponym. He navigated recklessly along the canals, but at certain moments was filled with extreme care, advising us to stayed seated and very still as we passed under the St. Boniface Bridge. The Lago do Amor was filled with agitated dolphins. Carlos proceeded with a lyrical and vaguely erotic flourish before launching into an attempt at humor: Bruges is a very Catholic city with its more than 100 churches. And also very observant; it has 423 bars. The absence of reaction on our part left him disconsolate, and when we docked near the Nepomuceno Bridge, he was not even able to flash us a farewell smile.

            Waiting for us next was a young Flemish guide who refused to speak French and who took us to visit the inside of the Mountain. Before entering through the cave opening, she attached to her waist the tip of a long rope coiled up inside a wooden hamper. We hiked through dimly lit passageways, as little by little the sound of voices faded, leaving audible only the intermittent sounds of droplets falling from the ceiling. Finally we caught sight of a vast chamber where a brigade of diligent officials was feeding a huge bonfire with books. One of these officials came very close to us; on his shirt he wore a badge with the initials M.E. Ministry of Economics? of Education? I glimpsed some of the titles he carried in his arms: Fahrenheit 451The LusiadsDon Quixote, José Martins Garcia’s Morrer Devagar. Suddenly, we discovered that our guide had lost her cord linking us to the outside. We tried to retrace our steps, but there was no opening in the surrounding walls. In the ensuing confusion, someone threw me to the ground and dozens of moles scampered over me in a frenzied rush. My efforts to stand woke me up.

            In the morning, I recounted this dream to Mr. Amílcar. He smiled.

            “It was from yesterday’s tea. That of the imagination. And as you well know, Mr. Machado, that tea is totally unpredictable.”

Translated into English by Katharine F. Baker & Bobby J. Chamberlain, Ph.D. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA     [Urbano Bettencourt, Que paisagem apagarás. Ponta Delgada, Publiçor, 2010]

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