On Graci*sa one night I walked through Santa Cruz from the square to the church. In the pictures I had seen, the village looked of a decent size, but as I walked, distances seemed to contract. I turned a corner and there was the church, barely a block from the square. I walked to the doors and found them locked. I had not seen inside an Azorean church yet, and I stood silently outside in the gathering dusk, hoping for the chance.
For many nights during the trip, I found myself alone in my hotel room because I couldn’t be in the smoke-filled Azorean restaurants, or even outside on the balmy sidewalks. Smokers were a feature of the islands, although I discovered early on that a bill banning smoking in public had already passed but would not be enforced till January 1st of 2008. “I wish,” Zeke said one day, “I’d taken a picture of all the ‘no smoking’ signs with people smoking all around them.” Smoker defiance was the attitude that reigned during my time there, a challenge for one so hypersensitive to smoke. Early on I realized I’d have to forgo the extended evening meals, with all their intricate social interactions. Instead I walked, or read, or on the days Zeke stayed with me, we’d find some special activity to make our evening special.
Our second night in Graci*ca is my favorite on the island, one of my favorites on the trip. Nada came with me for a walk after dinner. The square was hopping with music from the fiesta of the day. We walked around the ponds, then up to the church. The doors were open. “Look,” I yelled, and ran to the building. Inside I saw immediately a small knot of women gathered at the altar, talking amongst themselves. Nada and I kneeled to pray, the church silent and shadowed about us. After a moment the group at the front began singing acapella in Portuguese. The words rose to the arched ceiling, filling the nave, haunting me with their yearning. We prayed for a few moments and then Nada nudged me. We left quietly. Outside, he told me that we had walked in unwittingly on a private service for someone who was to enter the hospital for surgery the next day. The women were praying for him. I wished I could know Portuguese too, could have used music to pray for the anonymous man as the women in the church had done. I still remember the clear tones of the music, the way the light intensified around the group of women as they prayed, and the way the heavy wooden doors closed behind us, silencing the women’s voices and closing off the light so that we stood in the darkness of the night with only the memory of the light and the music to accompany us.