San Miguel – Hiking in the land of swollen udders

Our latest column from William Thomas

I recently returned from a hiking holiday around the island of San Miguel of the eastern Azores group in the middle of the Atlantic, thought by scholars to be the last remnants of the ‘Lost Continent of Atlantis.’ First let me say – what? – hell, yes I travel a lot. You spend a winter in a place like Wainfleet, a nice community mind you, but a place where the locals regularly stop me and ask: “Have y’ever bin’ to The Bog, Billy?” Trust me, three months of ‘rhubarb in the can’ jokes and you’d keep a packed bag in a locker at Pearson Airport too.

So where was I? Oh yeah, backpacking through the lushest, greenest mountains on semi-tropic earth and stepping carefully along coastal footpaths above a white and turquoise surf crashing across the black volcanic rock piles a hundred metres below and let me tell you – there are way, way, way, WAY, WAY, WAY, WAY, WAY TOO MANY FREAKIN’ COWS ON THAT ISLAND.

There are 800,000 cows on the island of San Miguel, a Portuguese paradise that is home to 140,000 people. That’s more than five cows for every man, woman and child and believe me when a baby is born in the Azores and has to look after five cows before he’s able to walk, later in life he develops a great appreciation for toys.

Think about that – 800,000 cows and one very busy bull. His name is Lo Velho Vaca, which in English means “The Old Cowpoke.” Yes, vaca humoristico or cow humour was all I had going for me as I tramped through pastoral villages that dot the pastures and forests of the volcanic Green Island. There may be a whole new career for me doing stand-up bovine comedy.

Two cows standing in a field: “Geez Louise, have you looked at yourself lately? You’re saggin’ baby.”

“Erma, go sit on a salt lick and rotate.”

There are cows on the sides of mountains, cows in field, cows in pens, cows in barns, cows in the back of trucks, cows on trailers pulled by motorcycles, small cows in cars, big cows in downtown backyards, cows in city parks, cows on ferries, cows driving RVs, cows checking passports at the airports. I saw one cow hopping along on a pogo stick being chased by a farmer holding out an empty milkshake container.

Don’t get me wrong, they’re fine specimens of cud-chewing, milk-producing animals bred by the very latest in agri-biological techniques. In fact, they’re so sophisticated some cows have done away with the traditional cow bell and can now be seen with cell phones hanging around their necks. Cows need bells because … their horns don’t work!

Two cows talking on cell phones: “Ida? There’s a geek wearing a blue backpack and a Toronto Blue Jays hat headed your way. Can you get up on the overpass and drop the brown bomb on him?”

“Karen? Is that you Karen? Karen? Sorry, you’re breaking up honey …” Vive vaca humoristico!

One cow, a farmer and a stool. Cow: “Dammit Nordesto, would it kill you to warm up your hands?” (And that right there is the reason the cow jumped over the moon!)

Farmer: “Ay, yi yi! Yesterday she had a headache!”

And the cows all stare at you as you walk by, from a vast sea of sad eyes and then once you’ve passed they make these low mooing noises and you know damn well they’re talking about you. That, or they’re telling hurtful and racist jokes about the oxen across the road.

It’s troubling to walk by a field of 200 cows with 400 stomachs knowing that while they’re standing silent, perfectly still and seemingly happy, they’re actually puking and regurgitating on the inside. Like Donald Trump at the microphone trying to show he’s smart and in charge.

And all these cows have big, bright orange identification plates stapled to their ears and huge udders bursting at the … at the … just bursting. The farmers have so many cows to milk they don’t always get to some herds on time and some udders are being dragged along in such a way they look like they require their own licence plate. Some of them are so exhausted they just … cowlapse. (Okay, look I’m sorry about all this, but I was alone and felt threatened by all those beasts and this real bad humour was my only defense mechanism.)

Azorean farmers see so many udders every day, many of them have just lost interest in topless bars. Vaca humoristico: The cow that tried to jump over the moon but forgot about the barbed wire fence at the far end of the field. Una completo catastrofio: Or, an udder catastrophe.

Yes, cow humour is meo vida. Two cows standing in a field. One cow says: “MOOOOO!” The other cow says … pretty much the same thing.

Vaca humoristico. Two cows sitting by the hotel pool wearing sunglasses, smoking cigarettes and drinking vodka tonics from glasses with tiny umbrellas … There’s no joke here. “I’m telling you they’re everywhere!!!”

San Miguel, a beautiful verdant sanctum in the middle of the Atlantic where sweet and simple people are outnumbered and surrounded by way too many cows. A place where nobody ever needs to ask: “Got milk?”

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