South-African sailors, Sian and Ian Carter are part of that group of foreigners that has been here for long. They tell me about a different time, when sailing wasn’t as simple as programming coordinates into a GPS, and when life in Faial was quite different from the one we know nowadays.
In the now distant year of 1989 they crossed from the Caribbean to England and stopped here, “like everybody does”. Even though that time they only got to stay for two weeks, it was a case of love at first sight and of a firm decision instantly formed: “one day, when we want to settle down, it’s going to be here”.
When I asked them what was it about Faial, they both agreed: “It was the people”, and it makes sense. There’s more to this island than the nature. There are many other places with beautiful landscapes and agreeable, even if somewhat unpredictable, climate. The calmness, the peace and safety are also important but “The people were so warm and welcoming. They make you feel that this was a happy place to live”, Sian tells me.
They recall the amazement they felt at the way they were received by their neighbours, a few years later, the first day they went up to their recently bought ruin. Several people from nearby Cedros village came up to the house with gifts. Their closest neighbour, a lady in her eighties, brought them two eggs from her chicken, apologizing for not having anything else to give at that moment. Simple gestures that mean the most.
Ian tells me: “When you’re a foreigner arriving in a strange place, not speaking any Portuguese, you’re a little bit nervous about the way you’re going to be accepted into the community, but within one hour of our arrival people were coming to the house to welcome us.”
People would always wave, smile and great them when passing by their house. Farmers, that back then used horses and old motorcycles instead of four-by-fours, on their way back from the fields used to stop just to offer them some freshly collected milk, for instance. “Their generosity was unbelievable”, Ian says. Faial was, and in many respects still is, an island that welcomes new comers with open arms.
Their journey to the Azores started many years before, in 1979, in Cape Town, South Africa, where Ian and Sian met, fell in love, and dreamed of sailing together the South American coast, down to Chile. “That was our goal, but Faial got in the way!”, Sian laughs, remembering the twists and turns of life that made them postpone to an unknown later date that voyage and the way that they decided to stay in the Azores. But “South America is still there”, Ian tells me, so you never know if these cheerful and smiling sailors won’t return to the Ocean in search of their youth’s dream.
They left South Africa with a thousand dollars to their name and a 9 metre fibreglass boat stacked with food and sailed to Saint Helena, as people do when sailing from Cape Town. Then to Recife, in Brazil, a good place to decide if they would continue South, to visit some friends in Argentina – “it was only a few thousand miles, no problem.”, Ian recalls – or North to the Caribbean, a good place to find a job and to save the money for the boat they would need for their South-American dream trip. A job, taking a sailboat from there to Florida decided it: “North it was.”
Sint Maarten was known in the Caribbean as a good place to find work, so that’s where they established their base. Also, in those days, it wasn’t easy for South African citizens to get work permits, but local authority’s attitude towards immigrants was quite relaxed and there was always the possibility of mooring in the lagoon and moving discretely between the French and the Dutch side of the island.
So finding a job there wasn’t difficult and Ian did several of them until he was hired to be the skipper of a 50foot charter catamaran. “A party boat!”, in his words. As for Sian, she got a job as a snorkelling guide, even though, she says, “I could hardly swim”. Nevertheless, she accompanied tourists from the big cruise ships, many of them for the first time on the water. She took her scuba licences and started working under the water, until the moment when she started to manage the shop. Surprisingly, Sian never dived here in the Azores because she “was spoiled”, as she puts it. “I started diving in probably one of the best places in the world… And besides that, here the water is cold!”
Don’t be fooled by the atmosphere of a tropical island, you do have to work hard if you want to save some money. So Sian and Ian worked all day every single day, seven days a week, during the busy season. Still, Ian doesn’t complain: “My work was party. I ran a party boat. You would sail two hours to a little island, do some snorkelling, a barbecue, party, and then sail back for another two hours. That was it.” Nevertheless, “doing it day after day, for several years becomes extremely boring”. All that partying wasn’t doing his brain any good. “Or his liver!”, Sian adds with a smile.
So, they felt it was time to close the Caribbean chapter and move to England to build a bigger boat, in which they could finally attempt their not forgotten dream of sailing the Pacific coast of South-America. In this crossing, they stopped for the first time in the Azores.
Cornwall, where they settled, was a good place to build a boat, all the materials were readily available. Ian had worked in boat building long before they left South Africa, so it felt good doing again something tangible. Ian had started building boats in his childhood. He built Optimist sailing boats and later other bigger fibreglass boats. The first big one he did was 39foot and was called “Random”.
Even if much quieter than big cities like London, Cornwall seemed to them too crowded. They wanted to live in a place “mais tranquilo” (quieter), Ian tells me in excellent Portuguese. During their time in England they also did some yacht deliveries that got them sailing through our islands, and the thought kept in their heads: “We must look for a place in the Azores.” In these short trips they took the opportunity to look around, to choose an area, to decide what sort of a place to buy. It wasn’t easy looking for a home in those days. “You had to knock on people’s doors and ask” and communication wasn’t always easy. But they relied on the help of another foreign couple that also decided to stay and had chosen Cedros area, to find them their first home in Faial, just across the road from where they live now.
As with all big long-pondered decisions, events precipitated fast. While Ian was away in South Africa visiting his parents, they got a phone call from their friends in Faial. They had found them a home. Sian jumped on a plane and, within a week, she had seen it and bought it right away, even before her husband could look at it. It was a half ruin, one of the houses that had been abandoned after the 1957 earthquake and had been empty since. It had walls and a roof but in bare condition.
By now their boat was finally finished and ready to go on their long dreamed adventure down to Chile, but they decided to spend one year here doing renovations and rebuilding the house. So they filled up the boat with the just about everything they could possibly think of: Building materials, like tiles, paint, plumbing and woodworking machines, two motor bikes, a bicycle, a fridge, a freezer, a stove, amongst much more stuff, they thought they could need and that wasn’t readily available in Faial at the time. “You couldn’t move inside”, Ian tells me.
They weren’t quite sure on how to make a living in Faial. Jobs available weren’t plentiful and they had difficulties with the language. So, they were always trying to think up businesses and ways to earn money. At first Ian put his boat building and fixing skills to good use, but later he started working in the big game fishing, and eventually was able to buy his own boat and start his own business, with the help of his wife, Sian, who took care of all the back office work. Ian loved it and did it for about 14 years.
It was hard finding the time to work on the house, on the opposite side of the island from the Marina. At first they built a very simple 4mx4m wooden cabin in order to be able to stay there and work. Still it took them about two years to get the house renovated.
Now Ian stopped working in the big game, to “concentrate on his hobbies, because I have thousands of hobbies… And Sian as well!” Sian has a more moderate approach and tells me she’s learning French, playing the piano and does needle and patchwork, weaves, and spins wool. It’s not a thousand but still more than enough to keep her busy. As for Ian’s hobbies, they revolve around mechanics and electronics, engaging himself in several projects that connect to his childhood love for tools, “that was always what I wanted to get for Christmas!”, he tells me. And I understand it still is when he shows me around his workshop.
When I ask them what they would like to see in the future for Faial, they reply in unison: “I would like it to go back the way it was 25 years ago.” Nostalgia of the old Faial or the notion that, in the middle of the many changes that made up the new one, something meaningful, something authentic was lost?
One of the certainties they have is that we’ll be getting more and more foreigners because of the insecurity and the political unrest in Europe. People want to find a safe place. Azores is a part of Portugal, and so it has at least some of the benefits that come with that, “but it’s remote”.
That will certainly increase the percentage of the “estrangeiros” and their impact on the island. Sian is concerned that local people won’t be always as welcoming to foreigners because of the many changes they bring to the island and its lifestyle. Obviously they acknowledge that they are also a part of that change, but back then “estrangeiros” were so few… It’s a cycle. As it happens in most migrant communities, the presence of foreigners ends up attracting others.
But there’s an upside, Ian tells me, in terms of “creating more opportunities, more work, bringing in more money.” A positive sign is that, twenty years ago, most young people were looking for opportunities to go to the mainland, but now, more and more are wanting to stay or to come here when they finish their education. “You won’t find many young estrangeiros wanting to come here, but you’ll find many young Portuguese, which is the most healthy thing to keep the Azores Azorean.”, Ian says, and adds: “I came to live in the Azores, not to live in England.”
“To live on an island you have to be the kind of person that is happy to be a little secluded. It’s like when you’re sailing and you spend weeks in a little place.” Sailing is the symbol of that “Self-reliance”, and they go on finishing each other’s sentences again: “When something goes wrong, you have to sort it out yourself, you can’t just pick up the phone and call the plumber or the electrician”, Sian adds and Ian continues: “It’s a challenge. When you’re in the ocean, using the sun or the stars to find a certain island, when you find it, you get such a huge sense of satisfaction. Nowadays, there’s not so much challenge and not so much satisfaction. The business of actually using your brain to solve a problem, that’s what I like.” And that’s what they do.
The island is a place of comfort, of safety, of community but, as all we “estrangeiros” (with or without a Portuguese passport) discover, a place that poses unique problems. In its apparent stillness, living in the island is, in its own way, a voyage of self-discovery and self-reliance.