Uma Boa Iniciativa
Intro + Photography by Will Jivcoff
Story by Alex Furtado
How do you pitch a two-week skate trip to a group of people with the prospect that there could be no skateboarding at all? It was a concept we were trying to wrap our heads around when Alex Furtado originally proposed the idea of a trip to Sao Miguel Island in the Portuguese Azores. He made it sound absolutely dreamy – a beautiful, paradisal island in the Atlantic Ocean formed by volcanic activity that offered warm weather during Canada’s winter months, and unspoiled by the skateboarding world. It felt like a no-brainer.
However, there were two concerns lingering over our heads. First, it was so uncharted for skateboarding that there could be nothing for us to skate, and second, it was the island’s rainy season. Like any good adventure, the idea was certainly attractive but precarious. Nevertheless, Japhey Dow, Scott Varney, Scott Balkwill, Dylan Fulford, Kevin Lowry and Nestor Judkins all trusted our hunch enough to jump on board for the adventure. “Well,” we thought before our trip, “if this is a complete miss, we’ll just go whale watching or hike a volcano.”
Sao Miguel is the largest of nine islands in the Azores, located in the Atlantic Ocean between Canada and Portugal. My family is from there, and my last name hints towards why - Da Costa-Furtado loosely translates to ‘the coast thief.’ Apparently, my ancestors were vikings or pirates. My sister would tell me, “Similar to what the Brits did with Australia, Portugal did with the Azores. Except instead of sending their convicts to an island where everything could kill them, they sent them to a lush paradise with no known predators.”
Azorean pride lies not only in how beautiful and relaxed the atmosphere is, but also in their sense of isolation and community. Those two words are seemingly contradictory, but in the Azores they are found in association with one another. The landscape, cheap food, beer, wine and smokes are all they desire to live a simple, quiet life away from the bullshit happening in the rest of the world.
As a first-generation immigrant, I experienced life through two cultures - Portuguese and Canadian. Living in Canada, I watched my father get frustrated with his struggle to communicate while my mother attempted to bridge the gap between my ancestry and the Western world. One of the ways she would do this was through short, blunt phrases that would go right over my head in their banal repetition. Two things I often heard were “paciência, querido” (‘patience, my dear’), and “bem feita” (‘well done’ – most often said sarcastically after someone made a mistake). I saw no value in these phrases and treated them like slaps on the back of my head, only letting them linger as long as I could hear them. Patience was a virtue I couldn’t be bothered with and consequences were overshadowed by determination. It wasn’t until I experienced the Azorean lifestyle through skateboarding that I began to understand how the gentle balance of patience and determination could make life, and skateboarding, easier.
At every point of this trip our patience was tested. Getting to and from the island, we had seven flight delays and a cancellation. The weather was a steady 16-20 degrees Celsius, but it would rain every morning, afternoon, and night. Even if the forecast made no mention of rain, there were just enough low-lying clouds and mist to make the idea of skateboarding questionable. Every spot, while picturesque and idyllic at first glance, was deceivingly rough, steep, made of hand-laid bricks and riddled with cracks. If the ground was smooth, it was probably covered in moss ready to throw your knees out on the wrong step. Then, there were the locals.
We quickly learned in the Azores that the squeakiest wheel gets the grease. For the most part, the laid back stereotype of islanders is true, but the Portuguese temper prevails. In a special display of intensity and impatience, a man came barrelling down the street in a fit of boiled-over rage as we skated in front of his closed bar and had a small picnic on his plastic patio furniture. Feet and fists were flailing, traffic was stopped, old ladies were looking out their windows, our filmer Joel was getting kicked, and a board was thrown at Will. Fortunately (or unfortunately for the man) it ended up hitting his friend’s tractor instead. This all took place with his wife clinging to his arms, pleading for him to relax and not attempt to fight nine guys in the street. My mother had definitely encountered more than a few characters like this living in Portugal, which is probably why she would so often repeat “paciência, querido.”
By the latter half of our trip we had given up on trying to gauge the weather, the reaction of the public, and timing spots with work hours. In a bizarre twist of events, Japhey was welcomed by the one of the residents to skate off his mother’s roof, onto her wall and into the narrow road below. We would have never expected such an embrace at this point in the trip, but they were so excited to have us on the island that they sent us away with two loaves of fresh baked bread. Only near the end did it become clear how Sao Miguel was a place of ephemerality and that it was important to take what the island had to offer while it was up for grabs.
Though there were days that felt trying, there were others where we had no choice but to succumb to the island lifestyle. We soaked away sore muscles and stressed minds in geothermal hot springs, and drove around the island consuming whatever local cheese, wine, seafood or steak the village restaurants had on the menu. The occasional traffic jam caused by herder-less groups of wandering cows and the unpredictable storm clouds that rolled down the volcano and out into the Atlantic Ocean offered no shortage of scenery either.
When you’re at home, falling into conversation with someone on the street is common but avoidable. When you have a group of nine moving around in unison, most of which have cameras around their necks, it becomes inevitable. This is especially true in a place where you and skateboarding are foreign to the locals. For the most part, we were welcomed around the island. Locals loved it when we would show up to plazas and let the neighbourhood kids fool around on our boards. If we came back to a plaza to hang out at a cafe, we were often recognized and stopped for a quick chat.
On the other hand, when moments of aggression occurred it was due to the fact that most spots were homes, businesses, or places of refuge. All of these things are a source of pride for Azoreans and they won’t think twice to scream their opinion if you’re in the wrong. Admittedly, if someone was coming at us with aggression in their voice it was either because they’re Portuguese and that’s just sort of how they talk, they were looking out for their own good, or they were looking out for the perceived common good of the community. By trying our best at broken English-Portuguese conversations, hearing out the individual’s concerns and finding a common ground with them, it usually meant another few tries, minutes, or the chance to come back to the spot later.