Azores: Living a paradise life through a blurry lens

Azores is a very uniquely beautiful island in Portugal carrying a wonderful mix of crater lakes, beautiful beaches and ocean views, and green forests with beautiful flowers. The relatively cheap accommodations and foods compared to the rest of Europe is also another major draw for a student like me. However, I must say that I am at the stage of life where everything I perceive is twisted and blurred by my mental state – a major depression.

Even so, I still feel very blessed to have experienced this island and want to keep this experience of traveling through a blurry lens – a journey that gave me some heavy heart moments, hopes, and something to look forward to when everything is back to normal again. This blog is dedicated to whoever is going through a similar experience, and those who have accompanied me on this trip – who may not even know that I’m having this problem right now…

The beginning


I’m not even sure how to describe the way this has begun. I remember vividly that, during late May or early June, I was very stressed about how my summer is going to be. I knew that it would not be mentally or psychologically healthy for me to be stranded alone for two months. B, one of the only few people that know the extent of my depression at the time, was thinking of going to this island, and I’m not certain whether or not it was me self-inviting or he invited me to the trip. Anyhow, that’s how I was involved in this trip.


Uncertainties with respect to the number of people, quarantine, Covid-19 rules, dates, times, and accommodations all happened, as with many other INSEAD trips. At times, I was a bit frustrated, but at times, I also was really afraid that this will not happen. It’s strange because I would normally be okay just going on my own on other occasions. This time – I was really scared. Fortunately, despite all the uncertainties – we managed to get this trip started.

First glimpse of Azores: First Covid-19 test


The flight from Lisbon to Ponta Delgada can be very cheap with Ryan Air – we got a return ticket for EUR 44. However, we all didn’t check-in online before the designated time, so we all ended up having to pay extra EUR 55 fee for checking in at the airport – more than the return ticket price itself. Fair warning to all Ryan Air passengers…


The economic depression and downturn of the tourism and travel industry are quite real in Portugal. The plane was half empty. I was actually quite depressed that day and was experiencing a lot of anxiety. I wrote poems, which are my expression of my own negative emotions, and they were all quite depressing and dark. After releasing my negative thought, I was trying to listen to Harry Potter audiobook to put myself to sleep. Luckily, a combination of the soothing voice of Stephen Fry and sleep deprivation ended up working out well for me.


I missed the first glimpse of Azores as I was sleeping from the halfway through until the plane landed. Fortunately, B took a photo as we land, and it was beautiful! The first glimpse of paradise through the other’s lens.

Azores has a strict Covid-19 management policy (at least for those who are landing). Everyone either needs to provide proof of a negative test result that is less than 72-hours old or take the test at the airport upon landing. We all ended up queuing for almost an hour. A nose swap was not as scary as most people say for me actually. It’s almost like picking your nose very deep for once and that’s it. The only thing that was on my mind at the time was just “what will I do if the result is positive?”. I hate uncertainty…


As with Lisbon, the taxi from the airport to our house was very cheap – EUR 10! The main discovery of our drive from the airport to the house is that there is a lot of beautiful hydrangea in Azores! They are all “humungous” and fully blossomed at this time of year.

Our house is called “Azores Tree House” which is very economical with a lot of spaces for us to work, sit, chill, and relax. The house is nice, but I ended being more anxious and depressed because of the changes in the prearranged plan, uncertainties, and the feeling of being disconnected from broken promises. I needed drinks…

Exploring the city life


One surprising thing about Azores – especially Ponta Delgada – is the urbanization of the city itself. Our first AirBnB is a 5-minute walk from the main shopping mall Parque Atlantico, which is a 2-story mall with nearly everything you can think of – from a supermarket to mid-end clothing brands such as Massimo Dutti. The pharmacy is also very well stocked with some medication that I couldn’t find in a suburban town like Fontainebleau.


I volunteered to go shopping, with a hidden agenda to buy some strong alcohol to get drunk. I ended up finding a hidden gem – Remy Martin VSOP cognac, which can be very pricey in France and elsewhere, but it’s EUR 35 here! After shopping and everything, I ended up drinking my whole way through the afternoon.


It’s funny how when you are depressed, doing some activities such as climbing on the roof and lie down, getting upside down, or any other dangerous thing becomes quite attractive. It’s almost like you wanted to be on edges all the time. That was exactly my feeling.

By 10 pm on that day, I was knocked out and went to bed – knowing full well that the next morning will be rough, but at least I survived the night…


One funny note is that one of our housemates was to arrive on that night. I told him that to ping me saying that I will likely be the only one being sober that night... it turned out that I was the only one man down haha

Enough of the heavy stuff! I just wanted to explain how fucked up my brain has been. There were ups and downs along the way and throughout my time here. Let’s talk about the key highlights of the trips – the great spots and activities around San Miguel, the main island of Azores…


Lake Fogo


After being a good citizen and stay put for two days (not going out doing activities, but some shopping with a mask on). We finally received a confirmation that we are all “clean” (phew…). We picked up cars, and start planning our first sightseeing in Azores.


I initially suggested Serra Devassa as it appeared as the highly recommended and among the top 5 on some lists. In the end, however, we decided to trust the locals and went to Lake Fogo instead. The viewpoint of the lake itself was 20-30 minute drive away from our place. We ended up not doing any hike/trek and just take it easy. Even so, a few of us ended up trying to hike on the cliff to no end. That was quite fun actually. Sometimes you just want to try, see, and figure out later how to get back.

However, here comes the blurry part. While everyone enjoyed the stunningly beautiful view, I decided to separate myself out and sat alone on the rock looking at the lake. It was beautiful, retrospectively peaceful, and very calming. However, my mental state at that time could not process any of the positivity. I sat, sunk, and remained quiet.

“Dude! You are in very deep introspection, are you?” said D, one of the boys

“Yea… this kind of scene really made you feel insignificant to nature” I replied. It is actually how I felt at the time as well. ‘I am insignificant to anyone and anything really.’

“I don’t think we’re significant, but rather one with nature” contradicted D.


Then we started making a move.


Regardless of how I felt at the time. Looking back at those photos, I really wish I have taken my pro camera to really capture the moment. For a person with my mental state, it probably is more important that we capture the moment irrespective of how we feel so that once we are back in a positive zone, there is something to look forward to.


First beach and sunset


After stopping by the 100th viewpoint. We finally decided that we have seen enough of the lake and it’s time to go grab something to eat or go to the beach. Ribeira Grande’s Santa Barbara beach was our destination. It’s a long stretch of black sand beach from the volcano on this island. The sand is soft and the water is quite chilly. Once again, I acted as an odd one out and walk along the beach alone. For some reason, the feeling of cold water hitting my feet as I walk as if there is no destination was quite a feeling that I seek. As the sound of waves crashing the shore is quite loud, I was able to sing my favorite song like Color of the Wind without anyone hearing. Singing was therapeutic…

Dinner at Alabote nearby the beach with the view of the sea with skyline was quite a nice idea. The seafood here is amazing and the portion is huge! I was pretty sure that I can roll myself down from the restaurant to the beach after I finished the food and beer.

After dinner, we watched the sunset by the beach together. Some quiet and reflective moments – seeing the sun hitting the skyline and gently disappear while giving rise to night time…

The night was actually tough with a few episodes of anxiety and depression kicking in. I was actually on the verge of being suicidal… but I guess it’s all okay now. I’ve survived…

First (off-the-trail) hike – Sete Cidades


Sete Cidades is one of the most well-known trails for whoever visiting Azores. I was really looking forward to this since it’s supposed to be an easy but long hike. Finally a chance to exercise in a while… and we really exercised that day.


Right when we reached the starting point of the hike, we realized that the hike is actually 15 km there and back (the trail is 7.5 km one-way). As such, we decided to go on a rather unofficial path, which I believe is actually the path for people who live there. The hike was nonetheless very interesting. We got to see both lakes, the bridge and eventually came down to the lake and the bridge itself.


Initially, the area was very foggy, and we couldn’t really see much on the way down to the lake. However, as we walked down to the lake, the fog started to disappear and uncover the beautiful scenery of Sete Cidades that we expected.

As a photographer, one thing I really like about this lake at this time of day is that there are so many interesting silhouettes that I could see. The shape of trees, grasses, and benches. The lighting is also perfect for photos.

The hike up was practically a cardio work out. Because the way down is all but downhill slope, the way up turned out to be steep uphill. This is not too bad if you have been doing a lot of cardio recently, but for me, it was quite deadly. However, the defogged view from the top after we got back made everything worthwhile. I will let the photo speaks for itself.

After we finished Sete Cidades, we decided that we want to go dine with sunset at one of the most famous spots. However, as we reached there, we found that the place only had burgers and hot dogs. We decided to split and drove back to eat somewhere else. It turned out the decision to drive back was not the best decision… While we enjoyed the food, the pool at the sunset spot was very unique and gorgeous. It’s perhaps one of the few regrets that I have on this trip, to be honest…

Above is the place I didn’t get to see with my own two eyes.

Furnes


I’m a big fan of onsen. The first time I have heard that there is a possibility of showering in a hot spring, I was super pumped. However, one of my friends has also warned that the hot spring shower is not open due to Covid-19, so I’m also forewarned about the possibility of no showering.


The place we went to is called “Caldeiras Vulcânicas” which is practically a collection of hot spring, and when they say “hot” it’s really HOT! The water temperature can probably boil you into a human soup. Another very unique thing about this place is that once you reach the place, you know automatically that there is a hot spring because the smell of sulfur dioxide is very strong. I was lucky that I have brought my lip balm with the fruity smell with me as I walk around exploring different pools.

I don’t really know why, but I was very tired on that day. By the time we reached the restaurant (which is actually quite late), I was completely dead tired and could have fallen asleep anytime. It also didn’t help that at some point, my anxiety kicked in and I needed to take Xanax to calm myself down, which also, as a side effect, made me feel extra sleepy.

Nevertheless, I managed to get home and sleep just fine.

After a day of just chilling and eating good food. We finally decided to sign up for whale watching. While I have swum with whale sharks in Oslob, Cebu before, I have never really done whale watching, so this idea was quite exciting.


However, on that day there are more important things that happened. My psychologist reached out being worried about my condition. Apparently one of my friends raised the concern to the psychologist. This is a very nice gesture, but I was also truly scared. I was, at the time, on the verge of recovery, and there is nothing worse than opening the can of worms and get more things in my head. The issue was finally escalated to the Director of Psychological Service due to my ignorance of the email. I eventually had to respond, get another session with a psychiatrist to make sure that I have enough medication. While I’m living in a paradise, things have not been that easy at all…

Above is the poem that might have triggered my psychologist.


One thing that I remembered quite well about that day was the moment that I walked into a church and just sat down. I’m not a religious person – agnostic actually. However, at this time, it felt somehow soothing to just bow down and ask for help from whoever may have a higher power. I had a one-way conversation with Jesus eventually. It was quite a nice feeling, to be honest.


Afterward, I apologized to my friend who reached out to the psychologist on my behalf. I really do know that it was with good intention, but the idea that I actually need help and that I am a danger to my own self is something that I still cannot comprehend… If you are reading this, and you know who you are, I’m sorry.

Whale watching


The start of the day was quite hectic. As a J (MBTI reference – someone who really loves to and stick to plans), I was up quite early and try to make sure we are there at the dock a bit ahead of time. Some hiccups happened, and we ended up waiting for the boat to get ready.


The expectation was that we can see a sperm whale and sei whales. According to the agent/ticket seller, they have been seeing these two for the past few days. The trip costs us EUR 40 per person for around a 4-hour trip from 9 am to 1 pm. The company we used was Moby Dick Tours, which is cheaper and allows more hours on the boat.


The trip started off on a very positive note. I was very excited to see white foam and many shades of blue ocean water by the boat. It was such a beautiful thing to see, observe, and eventually let thoughts flow with it. I have even asked B to paint some of these someday from my photo.

As the trip approached the second and the third hour, we almost gave up on the chance that we will see any whale at all. At that moment, we actually saw a school of pilot whales. There must have been 10+ of them around the areas as we were almost surrounded by them left, right, and center. To me, the pilot whale looks almost like a shark or a dolphin as we could only see the fin at the top. Unless you have a good pair of binoculars or a good camera lens to zoom in very closely.

After getting excited by the pilot whale, we managed to find one sperm whale that is around 18-meter long. It’s quite fascinating to see the sprouting water and the big animal surfacing only the top of its body for us to see. I really would love to see the entire body of the whale…

Anyhow, we ended up following him so that we get to see him dive and take a good shot of the tail… and I did. However, I also would love to get my hands on the video of the whale diving down. It would be such a cool thing to have!

The misty trek - Serra Devassa


After the morning hike, my energy level has dropped significantly. We finished moving to a new house – nicer and bigger but also more expensive. An hour after we moved to the new place, we ended up deciding to do another hike – Serra Devassa. This is a hike that started close to Sete Cidades and went up the mountain to see 3 lakes. There are also options to swim in the lake as well.


I started off the trek very energetic after a few hours of a breather, but mid-way through, my mood sunk very quickly. I separated myself out of the group again, pretending to take photos, but actually, it was me feeling very disconnected and I didn’t want to actually feel so. In my head, the best way was to separate myself out in order to avoid being hinted as such. The only good by-products are a lot of nice photos from the trek.

The entire place was very misty and foggy the whole way through. We only had a few opportunities to see the lake from the hill because of the fog. However, it was also quite a mysteriously beautiful experience. If only I’m in the right state of mind to enjoy it…

After the trek, we went to a great restaurant that serves very good grilled tuna and steak. It’s probably the best meal we have had in Azores, but the price is also quite steep by the Portuguese standard.


Given my mood on that day, I then decided that I would like to be blacked out on that night. I didn’t think I could deal with my mood on that day. I drank a mix of many types of alcohol that night, and, for the first time in my life, I couldn’t remember anything after my last glass of gin and tonic...

Nordeste hike


Waking up at 3 pm after with a severe hangover, I don’t even think I could function at all today. Yet, perhaps because I had enough sleep and the air quality here is quite nice, I was able to function to ~60% of my normal state.


While everybody else went to the beach, I ended up trying to gather myself together and get ready for the late afternoon hike in Nordeste – the northeast part of the island.

The trek is a circular trail with a lot of elevation change (aka hills). It is the type of hike that allows you to see different aspects of nature from the mountain, rocky shore, and waves, as well as rivers. I really enjoy seeing and climbing my way over different rocks.

The best part of it was when we reached the end of the trek before circling back, we ended up sitting on the rocks – walking around – seeing the waves hitting the rocks harder and harder as time goes by. The serenity of the scene is still clear in my head now.

However, having consumed a lot of depressants (alcohol) last night, the depressing effect kicked in throughout the day. I was quite quiet and I couldn’t really socialize. On my way back to the house after the climb, I have experienced the worst anxiety I have ever had. My entire body was shaking for 15 mins. I told my friends that I am severely hungover, but I know what I am experiencing. I skipped dinner that night. Took a pill of Xanax, but I couldn’t sleep until late – 1-2 am.

The next morning, before anything else, I had an appointment with my psychiatrist. The conclusion was that my dosage of antidepressant – both Zoloft and Xanax, and that I need stronger medication which is Seroquel. It was quite unnerving because I don’t want to be dependent on medication – especially in order to overcome my anxiety. However, I also don’t really know the cause of my anxiety. My psychotherapy will not be able to start at least until August. Yet… I still am keeping it not so obvious.


Having experienced my severe anxiety yesterday, I decided to get moving on the medication right away. And yes, everything can be found in this small island in the middle of nowhere.


Hot spring


Another chance at hot spring finally comes, and this time we actually can swim and shower – Ponta de Ferrarier. It is a natural swimming pool with steam coming from the bottom of the pool that gets cooled down by water from the ocean, producing perfectly warm water.


The preparation for this outing is very fun. B and I are in charge of preparing sandwiches for everyone. We did grocery shopping but ended up forgot the most important part – the eggs. B ended up calling a nearby supermarket asking if they have eggs. I walked over to get the egg, and the shopkeeper asked if I was the one calling them earlier. That was quite funny.


As we reached the destination, we did a bit of detour to see the view around. It was a very nice cliff with a lot of rock formations in the sea. I also walked to the cliff and looked back at the cliff to see waves crashing the shore and cliff. It was a sight to see!

The swimming pool was very nice. It was warm enough to feel relaxing, but not too warm that make you feel stuffy or burned like in some hot bath. There is also a nice spot that you can jump and dive into the pool. I especially love it when the new wave of cold water hit the swimming pool and feel the change in the temperature.


I left the pool a bit earlier and managed to catch the sunset just before the sun got behind the cloud. Afterward, many others came up and we all chatted, drank beers and watched the sky slowly turned into darkness.

The effect of Seroquel made me feel a bit tired and drowsy quickly. However, my anxiety didn’t hit as badly.

BBQ


After a few days of constantly going out, we finally get to taste the local meat products of Azores with house BBQ. One of the cool things about this island is that it has a lot of cows, which means a lot of good quality beef. The farmer market also sells everything at a very low price. I was responsible for cutting since I’m useless when it comes to grilling and setting up the fire. We had a few grill masters stationed at two grills. Then we also had one bartender making a very mean cocktail that got nearly everyone drunk. I ended up having to cheat drink non-alcoholic gin and tonic (aka water).


This was also the first day that my full double dosage of medication start. 2 tablets of Seroquel is really calming, but at the same time, the sedating effect is also nearly unbearable when you want to have fun after dinner.

Beach day


One of the disadvantages of coming from a warm country like Thailand is that you can’t deal with cold water. I can’t swim in cold water at all. Hence, since the start of the trip, apart from the warm swimming pool, I have not had a chance to get into the water. Luckily, we have found a beach today at Agua de Alto. At first, the water seems very cold, but it turned out to be quite okay. I survived and had a bit of fun riding the wave.

Kayak


Kayaking (freshwater and ocean) has been one of the main activities on our list since the start of the trip. After 20+ phone calls by B and a direct drive to the operator, we ended up landing a very good deal. The kayak is from the shore of Sao Miguel to and around Vila Franco do Campo.


I am no expert in kayaking – having only done it no more than 5 times in my life – let alone aggressive waves of the Atlantic ocean. However, I never say no to any sporting activities, especially those that will occupy my brain and concentration. Being the smallest (for once in my life), I ended up sitting at the front of the boat and was supposed to control the direction of the boat. However, I ended up feeling such a noob and got a lot of help from my friend at the back of the boat instead.


The experience was magical nonetheless. We paddled into the lagoon. Some of us snorkel a bit but found that there weren’t that many fishes in the lagoon. We paddled out to around the islet and found a superb spot.

Another cool thing is the small and tiny cave that we can kayak into and just look up to see all the formation. The cave itself is very dark but gigantic. Cool – yet may be dangerous experience had we gone further into the cave.

There were some competitions on the way back to with a one-man-show kayak being the fastest (the person an Ironman), and us being the last (please do not blame me).


There were some casualties along the way as well. My old iPhone and my friend’s phone were completely drenched despite the back being water-repellent. The waves and splashes were too strong that it slipped through the back. I’m not even sure if my Beats headphone survives – will need to try that later on. Sorry to all that lost your valuables in my backpack!


Wine and cheese night


After the kayak, we had a wine and cheese dinner at a viewpoint. Funny thing was that we were not the only group there! A couple of people bought cheeses from the market. I was tasked with buying wines (I’m a French wine lover, but have no idea about Portuguese wines at all). I ended up buying based on Vivino’s profile, and, surprisingly, they were all quite good. B made Sangria for us, and they were all very tasty. The local cheeses were spectacular – you just can’t get enough of fresh milk and cheese in Azores.


One small adventure was that we lost one member along the way because there is a split on the way to the viewpoint. Because there is no phone signal, two volunteers were sent to on a search mission. 15 minutes later, the lost person showed up, having figured out that he went the wrong way. However, we lost our volunteers. In the end, we finally have everybody… phew…

As the sunset and darkness fall on us. We finally see all the stars in the sky. The beauty of the night sky in rural areas with no lights from the building is just this… We also eventually saw a comet – sadly no shooting star for me. Had there been one – I would love to just ask me to be cured so that I can really enjoy this experience fully…

Sunset BBQ


All good things come to an end at some point. The last night and dinner for us ended with an outdoor BBQ that was originally planned to be an extravaganza dinner at the place we all really liked.


After a full day of giving cases (and some of us doing cases and works), we left to buy supplies for the BBQ. As always, I’m in charge of alcohol (wine and beer). The amusing part was how we initially plan to just spend 15 minutes at the supermarket, yet we ended up getting more and more ideas for veggies and snacks – eventually spending nearly half an hour at the supermarket.


Arriving at the spot, I was amazed by how “zen-looking” it is. A line of rocks emerging from the body of water. If you are familiar with the rock garden in Kyoto, you will know what I mean. There is just some peace in simplicity…

Knowing how long it takes to set up, we started setting up right away. 2 grill masters started cleaning up the grill, two on cutting and preparing meat and veggie, and one making sure the view is nice by cutting all the bamboos that are within our line of sight… well, at least we made use of the bamboo leaves to clean up the grill in the end…


It was a pleasant dinner – the best way to end our journey on this beautiful island. We had a few photos – finally, one where we didn’t have to ask other people to help, didn’t have to sacrifice one person to take a photo, and one that is not a selfie. It’s quite good to be self-sufficient.


A few of us also ended up meditating in front of the ocean. I actually would love to join. However, self-introspection is the least I want to do at the moment. Clearing my mind during this stage may not be a wise idea… However, I’m also not sure how can people meditate with all the noises around them.


We had our last toast with B, our unanimous leader giving a small speech. Our last official toast to end this trip – though the informal drinking continues (at least me and my bottle of wines on the hike back up to the car).


After the toast, I had a very candid conversation:


“You know. This experience really made me want to get better and come back to fully experience this.” I said.

“You know when you said this, you are making a promise to this island and nature here” the response

“For me, a promise to a friend is more important. But yes, I promise that I will get better and come back here” I replied.

“And then we can go to Flores…”

“Yeah… maybe we can go to Flores”

Coming back to tall buildings, street light, and civilization of the city, I sometimes miss the simplicity of Azores. I remember looking at the night sky at a rooftop bar in Lisbon and think “the sky is much more beautiful back in Azores”. The rooftop view is beautiful nonetheless, but I guess the natural and candid beauty is what I need at the moment.


I ended the Azores trip with a heavy heart from the thought of isolation, a refreshed spirit from being immersed with nature, a mixture of sweet and bitter memories from random conversations and my mental dip, and last but not least, a hope that someday I will be back fully healed.

As a last note, and I don’t know if anyone will have enough patience to read up to this point, I would like to just get this out of the system:


To the originator of this trip, I really am grateful for the invitation, the patience, and the effort in helping a fucked-up friend like me. Being the only person who knows about my struggle, and the only person I turned to when this happened, I know I must have been quite a pain in the ass, and I’m very sorry that you had to deal with it.


To all the friends I have met on the trip, you probably now know why am I so weird throughout the trip. I hope my strange actions did not kill your mood too much. You may have a question of why I express this now, and, if I were to be honest, I’m very scared to be judged and treated differently.


To all that are reading this, thank you for reading my babbles. I hope at least that you get to enjoy a bit of Azores or get a bit of insight into a depressed person – or maybe this is a fun read for you.


‘Til the next journey…

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