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We got to the airport way before the airline was ready to check our bags, we waited in line, finally boarded the plane, slept for maybe an hour and a half, then landed in the Açores around 6 a.m. At this time, of course, the hotel was not ready to let us in our room, thus in our zombified state, my mother, grandmother, and I were forced to stumble about Ponta Delgada — the largest city on the island of São Miguel, “The Green Island.”

Some call it “the European Hawaii,” and I can see why. Every road and sidewalk consists of intricate hand-placed black-and-white stone forming stunning patterns throughout the island, like a hidden mural unnoticed beneath shoes and tires. Being a territory of Portugal, the island’s cars had European-style license plates and were small like you would imagine driving around the narrow streets in Italy. It seemed like churches popped up on every street, beautiful architecture and sculptures throughout, and terracotta roofs on almost every building in sight.

Then you look at the coast. Enormous green mountain ranges hiding in a distant cloud bank before a sparkling blue Atlantic ocean. It truly was like a European-meets-tropical fusion (which, of course, justifies the 1,000-plus photos I took). I could drone on about the incredible views and beauty of this island, but in my constant state of environmental concern, I couldn’t help but notice the little bits around me that hinted at subtle yet admirable sustainability. One of these included an amusing element unique to the Açores — the cows.

Imagine mountain goats standing at impossible angles as if suspended by an invisible tether. Now replace the goat with a dairy cow. The green mountainsides against the azure sea like an image from Scotland, topped with cows. I will now highlight that the island has around 140,000 inhabitants, yet they are outnumbered by their bovine companions. As a student of environmental studies, my train of thought typically proceeds as follows: cows=industrial farming=megapollution and megacorruption. While that unfortunately may apply to the United States, on this humble island, these cows are literally free-range and grazing on lush mountains with some of the most spectacular views I have ever seen — and that’s just their everyday life. They even have special road signs that issue a warning to drivers that “yes, the cows do cross the road here, so you will stop and wait on the side of this mountain while they do.”

I’m not jealous of the cows. I admire however, how they are a sustainable (and memorable) aspect of this island’s culture, providing all of their dairy products, including some rather incredible cheeses, all without the help of industry, aside from one small milk factory. The system really is as simple as cows grazing among the luxurious fields, farmers tending to them, resulting in a surplus of dairy products.

That brings me to the food. When I say fresh, I mean that if you order seafood, it’s almost guaranteed that your meal was caught that day, not to mention you know exactly where it came from. Sea-to-table meals combined with the rich flavors of Portugal make for a dining experience fit for royalty (and foolish American tourists such as myself).

While the islands have aced food production, they are small and do not have industrial production for some other essentials, so they are forced at times to import goods such as cars and furniture. However, this is no excuse to avoid eco-friendly practices in the stores on the island. Most notably, the little grocery store by our hotel was the first place where I noticed that they ask whether or not you want a bag; the choice is not simply because your pack of gum might not warrant the use of an entire bag, but because choosing to use a plastic bag means they will charge you extra for it.

When the ocean is quite literally your back (and front) yard, the reality of plastic bag waste affecting the wildlife is a prominent reality, so why give out something that will end up in the ocean across the street and contribute more stress to its inhabitants? I had mentioned previously that I’m a student of environmental studies, but I also study biology, and I am an intern with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s marine fisheries division. Conservation and sustainability is my thing, so as Rhode Island has decided to ban single-use plastic bags, I can fully stand behind the idea, having seen it in action in a faraway place less touched by humankind. It’s encouraging to see that people care and are willing to take the steps necessary to protect the beauty and life of the earth around them.

That said, when touring São Miguel, it was rather notable that there was virtually no litter anywhere. With many secluded and “off the beaten path” roads and trails, it should seemingly be the litterer’s paradise, an ideal place to toss a plastic water bottle or souvenir shop receipt — but no. When asked about this unusual phenomenon, our tour guide simply stated that “the people don’t do that here.” She explained that everyone appreciates the beauty of the island, and littering is essentially a taboo. It rarely exists.

In addition, one can find an abundance of trash cans and recycling bins throughout the island, on trails, between stores and restaurants, and just on the sidewalks. And get this — the recycling bins are separated into three or four compartments that further separate the objects you recycle. I was overjoyed at this further instruction; if only I could read Portuguese, then I would rest assured knowing my plastic water bottle was put in the right section of the recycling bin. Nonetheless I was ecstatic when I saw the implementation of this method and tipped my metaphorical hat to the sustainability gurus of the Açores.

Overall, this once-in-a-lifetime experience was unforgettable. It opened my eyes to a piece of nature I could have never imagined outside of a TV screen. Even looking back at it, the views still feel like they were edited in with a green screen — too flawless to be true. Though I’m embarrassed to say I don’t speak a lick of Portuguese, I’d like to say obrigada to “The Green Island,” which truly earns its name in every way.

The writer is a rising junior at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. She is a resident of Charlestown.

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