So similar yet so different…

Hello all!

It’s been quite the roller coaster since I last wrote – this past week was Semana do Mar (Sea Week), the biggest celebration on the island of Faial. Lots of happenings, both related to work and related to fun. I’ve walked in the procession for Senhora da Guia, patron saint of whalers, interviewed a 92 year old whaler who was the official on the whaleboat that killed the last whale in the Azores in 1987, heard whaling stories mixed with love stories, and had one of the most interesting conversations yet with a man who told me his least favorite part of whaling was that they had to kill whales. For now, however, I’d like to touch on some of the more personal notes of my time here.

I was fortunate enough to be able to accompany the statue of Senhora da Guia, patron saint of whalers, on the boat that carried her after she was brought down from her church atop Monte da Guia. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

I’ve been out of the country for a month and a half now, and gone from my home in Seattle for two. For me, this is just a drop in the bucket of how long I’ve been away in the past. I’m realizing now that circumstances, intention, and expectations make for very different perceptions of time. I’ve had the unique privilege to come back to a country I experienced during my Watson, under very similar circumstances project-wise but very different circumstances expectation-wise. Four years ago I was here from July 16 to September 6th – this time I am here from July 13 to August 28th, meaning I’m here for the same festivals and events as last time. I am afforded the opportunity in so many moments to look around myself and know that I was standing in the same place four years ago, bringing with it a stark understanding of how different things are for me now.

Cidalia Maria Silveira da Silva and her husband Francisco Soares da Silva tell me stories of the whaling life and how they met and married. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

I am not just out of college. I am not on a fellowship whose main purpose is for me to experience the world on my own time and in my own way. I used to write every day in my journal, now my writing has been solely for grant-related pieces. My priority is not myself, but my project, which is a huge distinction. I used to spend a lot more time alone, which was both a good and bad thing. I am now surrounded by people who have done so much to help my with my project, making the work I do here infinitely more streamlined and possible. My work with the whalers is richer now than it ever could have been during the Watson, and I feel the most joy in my life here when I am speaking with these men.

Francisco “Barbeiro” Joaquim Machado, age 92, a whaler from 1935 to the last whale killed in 1987. Not many men who have that many years in whaling – a real honor to speak with him. Photo by Rui Preito.

Part of what I’m getting used to is that knowledge of my existence is preceding people actually meeting me. I’m starting to meet people who, when we start talking about why I’m on the island, say “oh yeah, I heard about you!” which is both exciting and unnerving to learn. National Geographic’s name is carrying me places that I’d like to believe people would offer without it, but I’m not so sure all the time. It also makes me consider the way in which I conduct my interactions here in a way that the Watson didn’t. As an American, I feel like if people see me acting “unprofessionally” (I use this term very loosely) that it will somehow reflect badly on National Geographic as an institution. I feel like I am the face of NG to everyone here, but what I then consider is that, as Portuguese, people here are probably more apt to think badly about me if they didn’t see me having some wine and relaxing every once and a while.

Manuel Homem, age 77, holds a harpoon head in the whaleboat workshop of João Tavares where he works in Ribeiras, Pico. One of the most interesting men I’ve spoken to yet, with the greatest compassion for whales I’ve encountered. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

Also, I miss food. A lot. And good beer. A lot. I’m realizing that during my Watson, fresh out of college, I was more open to adapting to various lifestyles (and diets). Something I remember writing in my last quarterly report (or maybe my final…) was that the Watson helped me learn which things for me are open to compromise or not. It afforded me the chance to hear myself in a way that no other piece of my life has, and I’ve taken that with me and let it settle in over the last three years. I became more flexible in some ways and less in others. I learned about the type of person I want to be and the ways in which I want to live my life, which leaves me wondering now if travel can be the same when you feel rooted in who you are.

Whaleboats line up end to end in the harbor in Horta before the Semana do Mar regatta starts. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

I’ve been in the Azores for one month and have just over two weeks left. They are going to be full, with some very long days coming up! I’ve finally started making trips to Pico island, where a lot of the whalers are and where I’ll be basing myself out of for part of this upcoming week. I’ve had 17 interviews so far and this week should bump that number up quite a bit!

A boat from Pico sails in to second place in the sailing regatta, with the city of Horta as a backdrop. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

Thanks to all who’ve been following my work here – I really appreciate your interest and support. I’ll be writing a new post for Nat Geo tomorrow (usually takes a few days to go up) so there will be more whaler-related stuff in there. If you haven’t checked out my most recent one about the man who survived being pulled underwater in a sperm whale’s mouth, you should! Amazing story. For now I’ll leave you with a view of Pico from a few nights ago and a shot of me getting put in my place with the women’s rowing team – enjoy! Até logo!

Fun clouds over Pico island, as seen from my house across the channel on Faial. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

The women put me to work with a little rowing practice in the whaleboats. Those oars are wicked heavy.