“I’ve never left Canada.” For years, that has been my favourite line to say during icebreaker games of Two Truths and a Lie. Most people can’t fathom the possibility that someone has been born and raised in a country without ever having ventured somewhere else. But as of very recently, my go-to line for the icebreaker is no longer something I can use. This summer, I flew to Portugal and had the most life-changing period of reflection.
This year was a whirlwind for me. I reached milestones I wasn’t expecting or planning to reach. I lived through moments of complete confusion and heartache. I was picked up by optimism and sacred moments on park benches. I was then left in a state of questioning myself: was I good enough? Was I afraid? What was I looking for out of my life?
So, on a whim, I decided it was time to try something new. I wanted to see something different. I wanted to connect and be a little uncomfortable. I also wanted to share something meaningful with my father who had a big birthday approaching. All of that led me to plan a family trip to the Azorean Island of Sao Miguel.
In mid-August, we left and were greeted at the airport in Ponta Delgada by a huge gathering of family. They had all woken up early to come welcome us. Two of them spoke well enough English that I instantly felt relaxed even though I was making an effort to speak as much Portuguese as I could muster. And truly every day after that was a unique adventure.
Here is some of what I took away:
There is value in not having expectations. Most days felt like incredible school field trips. But the very first night was a quiet one. I had fun with family, but we mostly stayed at home and while jetlagged, I briefly wondered if I had made the right decision to travel. I was unsure what the next week and a half would bring, and that was scary. But by not knowing what to expect, I was able to be wowed by everything that followed—which as it turned out was quite a bit.
It is important to try new things and trust. During one excursion, my cousins encouraged me to jump into some freezing cold water along a trail. The scene was beautiful. There was a waterfall hidden amongst the trees and swarms of people were taking refuge away from the heat by diving into the water. In my own case though, I can’t swim, which led me to feel fear. But thanks to my cousin who went in first to assess the depth of the water—and also told me she would hold my hand—I felt it was worthy of plunging into just to experiment. I did exactly that and felt instantly refreshed—and proud of myself. Admittedly, I didn’t explore much of the water, as it was a spot where swimming really could have been a useful skill, but it was a first step. Later that day, we went to some hot springs and the water once again looked fairly deep. There were people in the distance swimming, rather than just lazing. Two of my cousins went in first and told me to jump in. In that moment, I felt such an immense level of trust that I just flung myself in and was relieved to feel that I could touch the floor. Unlike with the first body of water, I ventured off a bit more here and tried to feel what it was like to move and bob around. I eventually got about neck-deep before I felt like that was enough, but the warmth of this iron-infused water was so soothing that I lingered for a while. Up next was a steaming hot jacuzzi, which I had no fear in entering since it was quite obviously just a big bathtub, but while there, I began to realize how these small wins were super meaningful. The best part was that I didn’t plan or stress about them beforehand. I had some nerves, but I quickly moved past them because I felt trust in others and myself. I also appreciated that it’s not every day I’m in a foreign land, so going with the flow seemed like a good idea. And that mentality served me well on the trip in other places, too.
Going into the darkness doesn’t mean you won’t find any light. On one of the days, my cousin promised my mother and I some fantastic views of the capital city. To get there, we had to climb a few flights of stairs in a clock tower at City Hall. We all ventured off and began climbing. Once we reached the near-top, there was a very narrow and dark passageway to climb further into. This was the peak of the tower. My mother decided she had enough at this point, so chose to wait back. I hesitated for a moment, as well… the entry was so black and so tight. There is no other way of saying it: I was very scared of the unknown. But again, feeling as if this could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for all I knew, I decided to follow my cousin. We walked slowly and I felt some claustrophobia kick in. I wondered if anyone had ever been stuck since the walls were just so all-encompassing. As I continued to feel my way through though, I was relieved to see that if I just maneuvered cautiously, all was okay. Before I knew it, I saw light peak through from the top. So, I resisted my urges to cry from lingering fear and I took in a beautiful sight of the city. After stopping for a few minutes to chat and take some pictures, we descended back downwards. At first, this was even scarier… I felt as if I was lowering myself into blackness. And I had no idea what I would do if someone was trying to come up while I was going down. I used both hands and feet to climb down by grabbing onto the winding pillars and stones. Once again though, I saw the light in no time. I’m happy that I walked away with this story, a few pictures, and a memory of a beautiful view. Had I not even tried, my story would have been one of “I almost went up, but fear overtook me and I can’t help but wonder…”
Just keep climbing! As I write this now, I’m genuinely only realizing how much adventure was on this journey. But one key moment for me came on a trail that my family had taken me to after learning that I loved being outdoors. They took me to a trail in Park Grena. None of them had explored this one before though fully, so we were all taken by surprise when we saw it had some staircases. And not just one or two… but dozens. There was a grand total of 634 stairs to walk up. I might love a good incline, but this was not something I’d seen in Canada before. After climbing up the first couple of hundred of steps, I remember thinking: “I can’t do this.” The stairs were not even and many of them were spread apart enough that if you are short like me, you really had to put your all into climbing… and I just wasn’t sure how much was left in my tank. But, I asked myself what options I had… should I turn away and just climb back down two hundred steps? That also seemed like some work. And although everyone else was tired and one of my cousins was pretty vocal about it as she joked about this being a huge mistake, they were all still going, nonetheless. So, I took a few sips of water and kept moving, too. Eventually, I stopped worrying if I was leading the pack or at the back of it. I just told myself to keep going. Once at the top, we saw another waterfall and a sea of rocks. I took pictures as my cousins went to take a mini-shower. After about 10-minutes we then descended the 634 steps, which was mostly easier, aside from the fact that they were sometimes angled and shaky. We all took our time though and were surprised to see that we had done the whole thing back and forth in just about an hour and a half. I learned that the human body is definitely more capable than we think it is. The story of being shocked by so many stairs became one that we all joked about afterwards. I’ve never spoken more perfect Portuguese than when I cursed at my discovery of all those staircases.
Appreciate quiet moments. Some of the days were filled with mostly just some driving to lookout points and shopping. We also had family game nights, as well. But these were all beautiful experiences too and a nice balance to our more active experiences. I learned a lot about the importance of having a range of activities on this trip.
Be grateful. My family opened up their home to me. They played tour guides with us all. In many cases, they took days off work to be present and connect with us. They didn’t let language differences get in the way of anything. (You’ve never played Pictionary until you play it with a group of people who lets you use a translate app and then proceeds to guess out answers in two different languages.) And just as they had greeted us as a group, they also came to the airport to send us off, as well. I learned a lot about gratitude.
Don’t underestimate the importance of family. I get it—family isn’t always healthy. But when you have a good family, that makes the difference. Seeing my father and his brother joke again on a daily basis and shed tears as they parted was especially a great reminder of this. And one of my own cousins who I instantly connected with also drilled this into me when she spoke of family in a broader sense. She sent me an island song when I left and wrote: “remember, you are a daughter of the island, too.” From that, I learned a lot about love, family, and belonging.
Having now explored part of Portugal, I’m hungry for more. I don’t believe we all have to be constantly moving and I don’t think that there’s anything wrong if you’re a person who hasn’t travelled. Some experiences aren’t accessible to us all, or they may not be of interest to us. But for me, this experience showed me so many things that I’m excited to see what else I reveal about myself in the future by seeing new places.