in real time

The Azorean weather is famously changeable. It’s one of the first points made by the two labour-of-love blog posts I have read, and re-read, while planning the trip. Take a raincoat, even in August! they scream. You can have all seasons in a day! Check this local weather website before you go anywhere!

I ignore them. We have become quite adept at drizzly holidays, M and I. Our time together collided with my increasing yearning for wildness. I drag him to strange corners of the world and then he nudges further - to take the winding roads not advised by Google Maps, to go out even if it is raining. We coast in reverse down cliffside paths in the car, get back drenched, all smiles. 

The plan was laid out: BBC weather said it would be sunny, and so we would go to Sete Cidades, home of the two twin lakes that comprise the Azores’ most picture-perfect spot. Like David Bowie’s eyes, they are two different colours: one green, the other blue, both filling a volcanic crater beneath winding paths. They are up high, so in order to see them it has to be a clear day - rare things in the Azores, which become a repository for mid-Atlantic mist. We checked the local weather website; it looked bleak. We went anyway. 

Driving there was like driving in Yorkshire. One of the Azores’ oddities is its unexpected similarity to more familiar things: dry stone walls, rolling green fields, cows and buzzards everywhere. Small roads blocked by tractors and little stone houses nestled into the hillside.  But then you turn and ocean is all there is, the curb stones are made from black igneous rock and tree ferns jut out from the landscape. 

On that morning, the mist was heavy. We drove through it slowly, not seeing where the road would bend. Skull-sized hydrangea flowers lined the roadsides like liquorice All-sorts. A gulf opened up as M shouted “Dip! Dip! Dip!” and we flew across the thing like it had been directed for a bad college movie. 

The signs for the viewpoints emerged from the gloom, and we saw nothing beyond them. A dismal coffee followed, and then a snoop around the little streets of the village nestled at the bottom of the hill. The gardens were feverdreams: dahlias and coleus, fiddleheads, flowering palms, towering cacti. Two men in suits knocked on doors, but otherwise the place was deserted. 

The mist remained but I sunk into it, its stubbornness, the way it stole things. In this dull light it made sense that they painted the church so starkly black-and-white. In the car on the way back we made a new plan: to look at the local website and drive wherever it looked good. The BBC could not be trusted, but could. It was something far more prosaic and practical than meteorological mind-reading - live feeds from a string of webcams dotted around the islands. Sete Cidades looked blank and grey because the lens was covered by the cloud that we later encountered. But other places were clear and bright, and we went there.  

The images are small, the website a little dated. But they report in real-time: as the sun rises, the most easterly parts of the island start to glow as the west stay dark. Dusk unfolds in tiles on a webpage, the pink streaks and fading light finally vanishing in Mosteiros, in the west, as everything else turns black for the night. 

I know this because I’ve become obsessed with What started as weather-based curiosity has become something more lingering. I love being able to see the changing skies, to see the cloud patterns shift a few miles down the coast. For most of our time here, the cams for Sete Cidades and a more truculently invisible crater lake, Lagoa do Fogo, have remained grey. But yesterday the clouds started to shift and I saw the lakes’ outlines for the first time. As I write this, I am watching the sun crest over the edge of the crater that surrounds Lago do Fogo. The other skies are pale pink.

Social media has condensed our holidays into images. On Instagram, I save other people’s photographs from places that look nice for future travel inspiration. And I post snaps myself too, things that look dreamy on one account, things that look funny on another. I deleted the app before this trip, and the Azores, while curious and beautiful, has been free of the immediate snap-and-post that can happen while away.

But while I know it should feel small, or depressing, to watch a live stream of the weather from a hotel room on the island of where it is actually happening (beyond the gauze of the curtains, the skies are the same pale blue with lumbering cloud, tinged pink like a conch shell), it doesn’t. Perhaps because there is no filter on if anything, the streams are pixellated. This is simply tuning into the sea and the skies, as if they were baby pandas at a zoo in China. 

Today is our last day on the island. We said we’d drive to Sete Cidades regardless; it’s en route to where we return the hire car, it’s our last chance. This morning, the webcam stream for the lakes is faulty. The universal web symbol for “broken image” sits there instead. Guess we’ll have to see what it’s like for ourselves.