The best-kept secret

Striding toward the sun

linked arm in arm,

we always dive in headfirst.

We’ll make friends with squirrels

and fly with birds

until it’s time to reset.

I’d rather be idle

than on the go

when he looks so happy here.

Because life is simple

at its most grand,

blessed freedom and mother’s rays.

Chasing Magic in São Miguel

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.

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A Guy and a Gal in Galway (Part 2)

A vibrant tale about a couples’ first adventure abroad in a city where the Guinness flows like water and the locals are as friendly as the sheep

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The second leg of our journey begins in the heart of Galway’s city center (or centre) with freshly poured beers in hand, watching from the patio of a popular bar as men of different origins, muscle masses, and ABV contents compete for the eternal glory of hanging on a metal bar for the longest amount of time. This may sound trivial, but I assure you, it was treated like a world-class prize.

To make things more clear, a Galway local had the ingenious idea of setting up a tall pull-up bar in the middle of the city, luring people in with the promise that they’d win momentary glory for being the One who can hang on the longest. Completely enthralled by this epic display of drunk competitiveness, Rich and I watched the game ensue. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to watch the hero with the longest time display his hanging talent, but we did watch the others try in vain to surpass his feat – which, if I remember correctly, was a whopping 1 minute and 40 seconds. We spent the majority of that night laughing, completely in awe of this seemingly primitive sport. We toasted to the brave players’ valiant efforts and their many embarrassing failures. We watched as the night and the drunkenness progressed. Eventually, the game lured a large crowd of onlookers.

The longer we cheered the event on, the more we noticed that guys were merely stumbling out of bars and feeling inclined to show themselves off. Young jacked bachelors stepped up to the podium feeling all too good about themselves. Their group of friends would crowd around them to cheer them on, often one of them would be inches away from the hanging man, getting him going like a coach during a heated boxing match. We filmed some of these encounters, only because they were too priceless not to – heavy breathing, intense hand motions, lingering eye contact, and all. It was almost sensual.

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Though Rich and I found ourselves in countless bars, one in particular left a mark. From the moment we landed in Galway, we searched for the places that were recommended and frequented by locals, The Crane Bar being the most suggested of the bunch. After a long day of exploring, we made our way over, pushing the red door to find ourselves in a modest, dimly lit, and unembellished bar. There were less than a dozen other people inside. We sat at the bar and ordered a pint of Guinness. Hold on, let me rephrase, the best Guinness my lips have ever touched. If only it tasted this much like velvet sunshine back home.

We sat and smiled at the people sitting next to us, cozied up to one another and truly indulged in that all over body high specific to a quality vacation. Across from us a traditional Irish band set up their instruments. We heard the Bodhran first, an Irish handheld drum, whose soft beat cued the fiddle in. Then came the voice, the ethereal voice of a woman who projected loss, love, and centuries of history so tenderly it brought tears to my eyes. I looked over at Rich who shared my reaction. The bar fell silent apart from the echoing melodies of their music and the voices of those around us who sang along. We had been transported in time, taken into a world we were strangers to – soaking in the poetry bred into the very core of these humble and fierce people. It was so moving we didn’t have words to say when it was over. I left feeling full and deeply in tune, as though we were at the right place at the right time.

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At the risk of dragging this post on for too long, I want to conclude our Galway tale with the image of Rich and I hightailing down the steep hills of Inis Mor, the largest of the Aran Islands, on bikes we had rented for two hours. Picture the abundant green pastures of Hobbiton. Throw in some cows, horses, seals, farm houses, countless walls of stone, and you’ll have a pretty solid idea of what we were in for. In other words, biking through the island trails was like stepping into a lush and fantastical Choose Your Own Adventure book.

Instead of following a particular path, we kept finding our own way. Speeding down a hill overlooking the ocean, we stopped to take a photo of a family who returned the favor for us as well. Across from us, behind a stone wall and white rusted fence, lived a couple of wild horses who seemed to beckon us over. We made our way to say ‘hello’, tentatively, attempting to be gracious visitors in their sacred land. Within minutes, the horses had stuck their heads out over the fence to greet us. One of them flirted with Rich so clearly that the other grew jealous and turned away. Eventually he returned and I caressed his head gently in understanding. We had both been temporarily replaced.

As I attempt to conclude this piece, endless moments flood my mind begging to be documented too, like racing through the streets at midnight with new friends, shedding tears over a play about gay marriage being legalized in Ireland, raging to 80s music in an underground club, standing over the edge at the Cliffs of Moher, and the list goes on…

Looking back, I can say we made the best of a week spent in green paradise and there isn’t a moment I would change – except maybe forgetting my wallet on the way to the airport, but that’s neither here nor there. Most importantly however, I’ll cherish the wonder of exploring with my best friend and how fiercely bonded I felt to Rich when it was time to go, suffering from the post-traveling melancholia together.

It’s during these moments of beholding new sights, shaking hands with strangers, and feeling utterly minuscule within your surroundings, that life feels wonderful again – full of promise like it did when you’re a child and the world is infinite. I vow to never stop chasing this feeling in my lifetime.

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*Ireland’s eighth amendment was repealed! Did you hear that? Repealed! If you’re interested in learning more, check out the link below and watch the video capturing the moment thousands of Irish women discovered they regained ownership of their bodies. It’s breathtaking.

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/ireland-abortion-referendum-live-updates-repeal-eighth-amendment-vote-latest-poll-a8366691.html