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Madeira Toasts the Future
By John McCarry
Sep 15, 2000 - 11:20:40 AM


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Madeiran prosperity was given a vigorous boost in 1986 when Portugal  and the archipelago along with it  joined the European Community, now called the European Union (EU). A cacophony of construction is audible in almost every comer of the main island; half visible through churning clouds of dust are signboards proclaiming yet another project funded by the EU. The regional capital, Funchal, bustles with the kinetic, coin-jangling energy of any European city.

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Dragging their boat ashore, fishermen in Porto Moniz will face a stiff challenge from the better equipped fishing fleets soon to arrive from the Continent. To compete, Madeirans will need to buy bigger boats and stay at sea for weeks, an unpleasant prospect for family men. “They’re worried they’ll get lonely out there,” says one young bachelor.
Yet with growth have come difficulties. Conflict and contradiction have slowed the process of integration in all parts of the EU  and the Madeira Islands are no exception. Although generous amounts of European money have done much to stoke the engine of the incipient service economy, strict EU directives are transforming agricultural production, which still employs 21 percent of the workforce. While young people have embraced these sudden and dramatic changes, an extremely cautious older generation has, for the most part, been left confused and intimidated by them. But if there is a generational rift among Madeirans, one thing that unites them is their deep and touching devotion to their island home.

Standing on a hillside in the arid and empty interior of Porto Santo, Maria Emilia Menezes lovingly groomed a calf with a stone. A smiling woman in a straw hat the color of the wheat fields before us, she told me, Porto Santo is the painting God made.

Twenty-five miles away, on Madeira itself, I felt no less close to the divine. Soon after arriving on the island, I set out on a drive along the rugged north coast. The experience, meant to be an exploratory jaunt, turned out to be a motor tour through the morning of creation. In contrast to the spare, dry beauty of Porto Santo, Madeira blooms like a garden. Iridescent waterfalls crash over the treacherously narrow road. Dreamlike flowers glimmer through a mist of rainbows. Exotic fruits dangle from primeval tree limbs.

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God and government make a powerful pair in Funchal, where the Church of St. John the Evangelist rubs elbows with City Hall Because most Madeira’s are Catholic, the church exerts pressure on politicians, most of whom belong to the powerful Social Democratic Party (SDP). “If God could vote,” priests have been known to sermonize, “he’d vote for the SDP.”
Feeling dizzy from this endless roadside psychedelia, I stopped the car and wandered into a garden. There I saw a pink rose, perfect and enormous. Ive never seen such a huge rose! I exclaimed to an old woman who had appeared at my side.
Snapping its stem, the woman handed me the flawless blossom.
I have, she said.

Madeirans loyalty to their soil is matched only by their loyalty to one another. Again and again during my visit I was told, We are like one big family. Mention the name of one Madeiran to another Madeiran and if he does not know him personally, he will rack his brains trying to place him somewhere an the islands family tree.

The Madeiras low unemployment rate -  just 4 percent compared with the Portuguese national average of around 5.5 percent when I was there last year - might perhaps be attributable to this extraordinary familiarity. Ceclia Albino, a young woman from Lisbon who has lived on Madeira for more than a year, said to me one afternoon over coffee, Every Madeiran loves Madeira. And why do you think that is? Because they never need anything. You need a job? Ask your uncle. You need a parking ticket fixed? Talk to your friends father.

At the caf tables around us, people exchanged kisses, hugs, jokes. Although it is unlikely that any of these young office workers had spent more than 24 hours apart, the collective rendezvous seemed more like a high school reunion than a daily lunch break.

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Counting sheep keeps two shepherds awake as they work in the pastures of Faial - a plateau region. Muzzles prevent the dogs from biting the flock and the wildlife; burlap bags neutralize the nip in the air.
More than a quarter of a million people crowd onto these tiny islands. Nevertheless Madeirans are intensely private people. In a place where anonymity is impossible, the only seclusion available seems to be in ones own mind. As a result, I found, Madeirans can be contemplative to the point of morbidity. Wandering through the ghostly interior of Porto Santo in pitch darkness one night, a Madeiran friend turned to me, her face spectral in a wash of moonlight, and said, My only concern, John, is that you may not be sad or lonely enough to really understand this place.

Sadness is a virtue, loneliness an accomplishment for Madeirans. Like my friend on Porto Santo, many believe that no outsider is sad or lonely enough to really understand them  not an American journalist, and certainly not someone from Portugal.

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