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Fim do Mundo, the end of the world, nothing more than a self-mocking name for a bar in a small village on a small island. One might think.
If one didn’t know that in Norte Pequeno it’s true. In two ways. One of them intentional, the other one not.
Older nautical charts already had the Azores marked as vague spots in the sea or as remnants of Atlantis, but only from 1427 on the islands were properly discovered. From a European point of view, they marked the end of the world, the end of the Atlantic Ocean, the point of last return to avoid falling off the edge of the planet.
Only when Christopher Columbus came to the Azores and was disappointed that he couldn’t enslave anyone here, he took a defiant wrong turn and thus found America. Yay!
So much for the intended allusion of the name Fim do Mundo.
What the creative coffee roaster, who opened this bar shortly after Columbus’ visit, could not have guessed: Soon, the end of the world would indeed come over this northwestern corner of the island of Faial.
A dark end.
A violent end.
But, to set up a cheap arc of suspense, I am already alluding to something that I don’t know myself as I am leaving the bar. I want to set off for the old end of the world. On foot, because it’s only two kilometres to the west coast of Faial. “You can take your time”, the other guests in the bar joked when I announced my walking plan, “there is a lighthouse at the end of the island. So you’ll even find your way in darkness.”
The path is called the Trail of the Ten Volcanoes, and I guess I have entered it at the seventh or eight volcano. Compared to the first, largest, central volcano, the fiery hills are smaller, but ascending and descending them still takes a toll on me.
The last volcano is the hardest, not only because I’m getting tired, but because it seems to be a rather fresh one. My boots find no tread on solid rock between green plants, sinking in the ash instead.
Looking back, the difference becomes obvious. Pitch black here, green there. Ash here, earth there. Bald emptiness here, lush vegetation there. But don’t worry, little volcano, in a few thousand years, flowers will adorn you too!
Only around the lighthouse, a few bushes grow, as if to hide the longed-for goal from me. Lighthouse means coast, means edge of the island, means end of the walk. I will knock on the door to ask for an ice cream or a beer.
Nobody is home.
Something else strikes me: The island isn’t really over yet. There’s another volcano, a rather large one. It’s not marked on the map. I didn’t take a wrong turn and end up on a different island, did I?
An old man is leaning against a wooden railing in front of the lighthouse. I ask him: “Say, what’s the name of that volcano in front of us?”
“This is Capelinhos.”
I am squinting at the map, but the volcano just doesn’t want to appear on paper. I don’t want to ask stupid questions. Luckily, the gentleman, who probably used to be a navigator for captains who kept getting lost, realizes the situation: “Maybe you are using an old map?”
Well, one from World War II.
“Capelinhos is a new volcano, it won’t be on your map.” Now he looks happy, being able to explain something to a stranger. If I had known how long the story would take, I would have sat down, but at least I can warn you now. Prepare yourself a cup of hot chocolate or a gin and tonic.
His story begins in September 1957: “Back then, we had two hundred earthquakes in two weeks,” he says, repeating: “Two hundred!” What should have been a warning from Mother Earth led to people getting used to it. Whenever it shook and rumbled, a house collapsed or someone fell into a crevice, they just looked up from the newspaper briefly, thinking: “Oops, there goes another one.”
Some wanted to flee, to evacuate, to take precautions. The scientists of the Royal Azorean Seismological-Volcanic-Geodesic Institute warned that something big was going on. But others said: “Oh, these so-called experts are always changing their minds. Sometimes the volcano is dangerous, sometimes not.” The priests reassured them: “All we have to do is pray.” And the Conservative Party begged: “We can’t shut down the economy!”
On the morning of 27 September 1957, a volcano erupted. But, rather insidiously, not one of the known ones, but a new one. About 1 km west of Faial, in the sea. It began with a cloud of smoke. The water bubbled and steamed and boiled and hissed. And a new volcano pushed its way from the depths of the Atlantic into our world.
And the earth continued to tremble. Fissures opened from below. From above, it rained ash, lava and rocks. It was like the end of the world. People were swallowed up. People were buried. People got scorched, burned, vaporized.
And all of that on an island. Where nobody can escape.
Now, as you have been imagining all of this as realistically as possible, sobbing “Mamma mia!” all along, you will be thankful for my recommendation to mix yourself a strong drink and to sit down. Because the big shock is yet to come:
This hell on earth lasted until 24 October 1958. For thirteen months!
In the end, the new volcano born by the ocean was so large that it connected with the island and enlarged it by 2.4 square kilometres. “Therefore, Sir, the lighthouse no longer stands on the coast, where it once did. As it logically should.” (You can see the lighthouse at the very bottom of the next photo.)
The volcano has created new land. But land that is of no use to anyone. Nothing grows there, even 60 years later. You can’t climb the new volcano, because crevasses keep opening up or cliffs are breaking off. It will take a few million years for ash to turn into stone. And anyway: Who wants to walk around on a grave?
So, after having thanked the gentleman for the explanations, I prefer to go in the other direction. When you walk across the cinder field down to the water, it feels like being on the beach. Only black, not sand-coloured. It would be idyllic if the gable of a buried house did not suddenly rise from the warm ash.
Now, with my eyes sharpened for the drama that took place under my feet, I see more and more evidence of the village of Comprido, which did not escape the forces of nature in time. Like Pompeii, only with a better view.
Occasionally, branches or little trees have dug their way up, like belated cries for help from the dead. I tread carefully, so as not to wake anyone. Especially not Mr Volcano.
Hopefully, I get to survive the remaining three weeks on the island without a volcanic eruption. Maybe I should go to church and light a candle. Speaking of churches, I’m working on a story that requires a lot of research and long conversations in pubs. If you’re interested in the small chapels all over the Azores, maybe you want to collect some euros in your parish to support this blog? I assure you of my profoundest gratitude.