What a week…

Hello all!

Since I last left you it’s been a bit of a roller coaster, both in great and scary ways. On the upside, I’ve had five interviews with whalers this week, visited several old whaling ports and vigias, and had some really interesting discussions with the people I’m working with here. On the scary side, my computer crashed Tuesday morning and was at the computer hospital (i.e. the one person on the island who knows anything about fixing Macs) for two and a half days before coming back to me healthy again.

Rui explores the remnants of a vigia (whale watching post) at Capelinhos that was destroyed during the 1957-58 eruption of the volcano

I have a blog post waiting to go up on the Nat Geo site that I don’t want to copy too much of here, but I want to touch upon something that I’ve found really interesting this week. I’ve been speaking with the whalers about whether or not they’d like to go whaling again if they could and what they think about whaling in today’s world. The conversations that have ensued are making me want to ensure that there are always people in my life who will challenge me and my beliefs, even if I’m 84.

When I hear these men talking about how the Azores should still be whaling, it’s clear to me that there’s no real sense of how badly commercial whaling (of which the Azores contributed to, but in such a minute way) decimated global whale stocks, or that with current technology the products we sought from whales have no market anymore. One whaler, Luís Matos, said that it wasn’t fair that some countries were allowed to hunt whales and Portugal wasn’t.

Luís Matos, 83, outside his house after our conversation about whaling’s past and future

Rui, my friend and translator here, and I agree that it is not our place during interviews like these to challenge these men, who are being incredibly kind to let us into their homes, photograph them, and talk for hours about sometimes very intense parts of their life (e.g. Luís Matos’ father dying in port after returning from a whaling trip). Rui tried a polite interjection as this point, however, saying that the countries still hunting whales used them for food (which Azoreans never did). This point didn’t seem to phase Senhor Matos, and we continued on with our talk. I know there is a time, a place, a person, that’s right for having hard discussions that challenge our viewpoints and that my time here is none of those, but it still makes me think that when I’m old I want somebody in my life who will always tell me the hard truth about things…

I’ve also gained more and more respect this week for the work that whalers did in both the physical and emotional sense – it must have really been brutal. But they seem to have loved it above anything else. A visit to the old “harbor” in Salão, an important whaling village on Faial, had me thinking “these guys were crazy!” The harbor is but a mere pile of rocks arranged in such a way that there’s a bit of shelter, followed by a giant steep climb up a cliff. Even if I felt compelled to whale, I can’t imagine having to do it out of this port. Which of course leads me back to what I find one of the defining factors of whaling here: machismo. From pretty much any angle you look at it, these men were hardcore – and knew it.

Luís Jorge Borges, 77, and José Edvino da Silveira, 70, are still hardcore.

I’ve also discovered that some of that immunity I built up during the Watson to watching whales die (on film) has dissipated, which means I’m a little more nauseated now but also feeling glad to know that when we harden against things it doesn’t have to be forever.

The “harbor” at Salão, amazingly one of the most sheltered places on the north coast of the island. The whaleboats would come in on the right and in the old days the whale would be processed on the rocks in the water. Note the giant hill leading up the cliff.

In other news, Márcia and I bought five kinds of cheese when grocery shopping yesterday, which I mention solely because most people would find that indulgent, but I’m happy to report I live with someone who sees this as just as much a necessity as I do. Coming up, this week should be another exciting one. Monday I’m headed to São Jorge, one of the islands I haven’t been to, to interview some of the whalers there. I’ll also have my first visit this trip to Lajes do Pico later this week, arguably one of the most important whaling towns in the area on the island of Pico. And for now I leave you with the awesome view of Horta from Monte da Guia!

Running up Monte da Guia for a shot of sunset over Horta

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