Back to the Azores: a brand-new world

NORDESTE, San Miguel, Portugal — Danny Medeiros rests on his pilgrim’s staff as a silver Lexus skims over fresh pavement through the lush volcanic coast south of the town of Nordeste.

“This place looks nothing like the place I left,” says the 48-year-old building contractor from Hamilton, Ontario. Born here on San Miguel, Medeiros left the Azores for Canada when he was 11. He has returned with a group of fellow emigres for an eight-day religious pilgrimage around the island.

“I remember kicking up clouds of dust on this very road,” he says, two rosaries around his neck rising and falling with his breath. “I remember walking three or four miles every day after school to search for firewood. I remember villages without cars and families without food.”

Long the poorest region in one of Europe’s poorest countries, the Azores have recently leapfrogged into affluence. Set in the Atlantic Ocean 1,000 miles from Lisbon, the nine-island archipelago now enjoys per capita GDP levels approaching those of continental Europe.

New highways, roads and bridges — fruit of Portugal’s 1986 entry into the European Union — shorten the distance between Nordeste and Ponta Delgada, the islands' capital, from half a day to just over an hour. Modern airports on all nine islands put Lisbon, London and Madrid within two hours reach, and Boston and Montreal at just over five. Virtual distances have been shortened as well, with solid internet access, satellite television and a robust mobile phone network.

Horses in a barn in the Azores
Azores farmers struggle to compete in Europe.
(Ken Shulman/GlobalPost)

“We are not isolated as we once were,” said Pedro Moura, a journalist in Ponta Delgada who hosts Bom Dia Acores, the regional morning television news broadcast. “We can live and work here as we might live in Lisbon, or Paris, or London.”

Life wasn’t always so connected here. First settled by Portugal in the 1500s, the isolated backwater subsisted on whaling, fishing and tenant farming. Frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions — both products of the massive tectonic seam on which the islands perch — made a harsh life even harsher, and fueled a deep, fatalistic form of Catholicism that persists both in the Azores and in their broad diaspora. Migrants fled starvation in massive waves, first as crews on whaling ships, then to work in Californian dairies, Hawaiian pineapple plantations and New England textile mills. Between 1950 and 1990, 182,000 Azoreans — nearly half the region’s population — left their homeland.

The tide has certainly changed. The EU bounty, the brand new infrastructure and a blossoming tourist industry have brought migrants to the Azores for the first time in centuries. The inflow is small — about 8,000 over the past 10 years — but significant in a region with a total population of 240,000. Many of the new arrivals are returning expats from North America. Others are native Portuguese speakers from Brazil, Angola and Cape Verde. A few are eastern Europeans who came to rebuild Faial after the island was rocked by an earthquake in 1998.

“It’s a very positive sign,” said Jean Manes, American consul in the Azores since 2006. The consulate has operated continuously in Ponta Delgada since 1795, testimony to the strong ties between the Azores and the United States, which keeps an active air base on Terceira island. “The economy has flourished over the last 20 years. And people move here because they see opportunity.”

For economic migrants, the Azores are a land of promise, or at least employment. For returning emigres, the islands are almost a foreign land where nature is no longer an implacable foe. The volcanic substrata that still causes tremors now powers sleek geothermal plants that generate nearly 40 percent of San Miguel’s electricity. Azorean boats that hunted sperm whales well into the 1980s now carry passengers on whale watching tours. The Capolinhas volcano, which destroyed almost half the homes on Faial in 1957, is now a high tech research and visitor center and a major tourist draw.

The sweeping changes are also jarring for many who never left the Azores. Fishermen in rowboats scratch their heads over EU catch limits and price controls. San Miguel’s boutique dairy business — a cooperative of 1,700 small, family-owned farms that produce milk, cheese and yogurt primarily for export — survives on generous EU quota exceptions scheduled to expire over the next few years. And the Azorean dream of self-sufficiency on a plot of land with a garden, a handful of chickens and a single cow or goat slips into the past as young people migrate to urban centers in search of work.

“I take the ferry to Pico every week to tend my family vineyards there,” said Antonio Vargas, an architect who returned with his family to live on Faial after 25 years in California. The Pico vineyards are a UNESCO World Heritage site, a rolling maze of basalt drywalls that protect the vines from winds and rain. “But I know this will all end with me. A lot of small scale viticulture and agriculture will stop with my generation. Our children simply aren’t interested in it.”

With traditional lifestyles waning and traditional industries stagnant, the Azores have propped much of their future on tourism. The sector already fuels most new construction, along with a host of related service industries. But it will need to grow further before the archipelago stops living off the EU dole. And the visitors will come, drawn by reports of benign volcanoes, of hillsides exploding with azaleas, and spectacular basalt cliffs plunging into the sea. The only question is how this newest flow will shape life on the islands.

“We’ve learned in other places that massive tourism doesn’t bring any happiness to the population,” said Frederico Cardigas, a biologist and director of environmental affairs for the Azores. “Our strategy is to build an industry geared to a select group of discerning travelers. Of course this is what every region wants. But it’s even more important here. There are delights in every corner of these islands. We have to make sure these delights are preserved.”