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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. “I’ve 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. Cecília 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 friend’s father.”

At the café 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.

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 one’s 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.


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

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