I recently traveled to the Azores, back to the island I was born on for the first time alone since we immigrated to the U.S when I was four. I had visited a couple of times in the past with my parents and friends, each time as exhilarating as it was absolute chaos. We were always spread too thin in the short amount of time we were there – sights to cram into our schedule, relatives and my parents’ childhood friends crawling out of the woodwork for various get-togethers. The experiences pass in a flash and the scattered fragments of my memories there all blend together into a kind of fever dream. They always leave me wanting more.
On September 3rd, I embarked on my own to Sao Miguel – something I couldn’t fathom until I was sitting between strangers on the plane and not my parents. There I was, soon to be in the arms of my grandparents without anything or anyone pulling me away from our time together. It felt like I was heading home after an extended vacation in America or like I was leading a double life. Mariana in Sao Miguel: exclusively Portuguese-speaking, sun-kissed, nature-immersed, and temporarily anxiety-free, shedding the skin of Mariana in Boston: always on the move, Vitamin D deficient, and out-of-place. It was a difficult contrast to absorb, much harder to accept on the plane ride back.
It’s important to note that returning to the Azores always simultaneously contributes to my spirit and takes a piece of my soul away in the process. It’s nearly impossible for me to enjoy it lightly, as it probably deserves to be enjoyed being a tropical paradise and all. For me, setting foot on Sao Miguel soil is like an endless glimpse into an alternate reality where my life would have been opposite to the one I was allotted in America instead. While I’m grateful for this life, it’s too enticing to imagine the kind of person I would’ve been on the island that hosted the wildest and most magical experiences my parents shared from their youth. The friendships they made, the jaw-dropping natural beauty as a backdrop to their adventures, and the tranquility of it all – I envied this the most. Whenever I felt deeply misunderstood, I’d imagine myself as an alien who had simply been away from her planet for too long. Somewhere, on an island most of my peers didn’t know existed, I had roots to come back to that accepted me as I am.
For the short week I was in Sao Miguel, this was no exception and I felt my color return. My grandparents and I toured what felt like the entire island from the ocean to the mountains, but one day in particular stands out. In the town of Ribeira Grande, the three of us drove up the mountainside until the altitude set off popping in our ears. We traveled from one end of the island to the other, leaving behind clear blue skies and ideal beach-day-heat behind us to find ourselves under clouds full of cold rain. This became a theme of the trip, navigating the different weather conditions in various regions of the island and chasing the sun.
As we drove uphill, my grandmother, Rosita, filled me in on why the place we were approaching was special. High up on the mountainside, surrounded by forests flourishing with wildlife, was Lagoa de São Brás, a lake so tranquil Rosita had deemed it her peaceful place. Even though raindrops piercing the lake’s surface broke the silence my grandmother had promised, I felt my heartbeat slow down and settle into a steady beat for the first time in months. Anxiety couldn’t find me here. I wasn’t searching for more or better. We walked silently around the lake together hand-in-hand, just listening to the rain and the conversation among ducks. Eventually we found our way to a forest, a spot Rosita had saved for my eyes.
The second we emerged into the forest, I felt like I had been punched in the gut. I was transported into my childhood when my grandmother used to read a fiction book series to me called Anita. It was about a rambunctious young girl’s endless adventures, either traveling to different parts of the world and immersing herself in the culture or sharing experiences from her own backyard. Rosita read dozens of these books to me in Portuguese and I always imagined Anita’s life as a mirror for what mine might’ve been like if we stayed in Sao Miguel. In one book (my favorite of the series), Anita climbs into an old folktale. She jumps from page to page through enchanted forests maintaining her courage in a foreign place, at times afraid but mostly thrilled by the mysticism of it all. In this enchanted world, Anita finds a way to fit in, and her fierce empathy forces the inhabitants to miss her when she leaves.
I would often fall asleep with this book beside me. The forest and the magic inside felt like home to me. The same kind of home I later found in the pages of Harry Potter throughout my youth – another story to escape into that felt more familiar to me than my real surroundings. As my grandmother and I walked into the forest of Lagoa de São Brás together, I felt these worlds align. I understood why I had always been chasing magic; my roots were teeming with it. I took my time playing with the moss, running my fingers through tree barks, and climbing uphill as high as I could go. I was eight again and everything was alive.
I can’t put this entire week-long trip to Sao Miguel into words because it was a feeling I took back with me this time, not a random assortment of planned experiences that beg to be described. I held tight to that feeling of belonging on the plane, which left me empty when I arrived at the airport. I still feel the void heavily, and my heartbeat is already begging to beat faster again. For that five hour plane ride, I thought about how the kind of magic I wished was real as a child was actually symbolic for the belonging I feel when I’m home, surrounded by nature and the people who love me as I am. Now I know that places keep pieces of our souls and guard them. It’s important to rediscover these bits of ourselves and to soak in that fuel when the timing is right, especially if it’s waiting there for you in the very place you came from. Something tells me I’ll be back in Sao Miguel again soon, absorbing magic and chasing the sun.