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Decked out for a festival, the steeples of Santo António overlook Funchal, where cinemas and cafés, boutiques and BMWs add continental élan to the city’s subtropical surroundings.

AT SANTA MARIA MADALENA’S festival in honor of Santa Rita, the saint from Portugal who, when all other saints fail, can make miracles happen, enough wine was flowing to make even an atheist see visions. I arrived a little before seven, just as the sun was setting. The narrow road that passes through the centre of town was filled with people.
I pushed toward the focus of all the excitement: A temporary stage set up in front of the village church, where a local band dressed in tight black trousers and gold-lamé jackets was performing a Portuguese-accented version of “Volare.”
Soon I detected a disruption in the rhythmic swaying of the dancers, and a couple of teenage boys crashed through the crowd and onto the pavement in front of me. Rolling on the blacktop, they drunkenly pummeled one another. After a while their friends descended upon them and pulled them apart. Seamlessly reassembling itself, the crowd again happily danced as one for about 15 minutes, when another fist fight broke out.

The next morning I returned to Santa. The village, now shrouded in an impenetrable fog, was empty. Following the strangled sound of a bell, I made my way to the small church and there found the entire population of the village wedged inside. I spotted the boys who had rolled at my feet the night before, sitting side by side in the back pews. Their hair slicked back, their faces swollen and bruised, they bowed their heads in respectful prayer.

Religious festivals like the one at Santa are constant events in the Madeiras, and drinking, it seems, is part of the ritual of such celebrations. In a place where even the slightest eccentric act can cause people to knit their fingers  a uniquely Madeiran gesture in which you move your fingers as if knitting and then swoop your right hand over your head to prepare the listener for a piece of gossip  religious festivals offer a kind of socially sanctioned excuse to tie one on.

Some worry, however, that Madeirans are increasingly finding reasons outside of festivals to drink too much. According to a recent investigation by the leading daily newspaper, O Diário de Notícias, alcohol is involved in more than 90 percent of homicides. This rise in alcohol-related crime has occurred not in urban areas, where one might expect, but in the countryside. When asked about this unsettling trend, many Madeirans will tell you that it is the fault of American TV.

While 20 years ago much of the news from the outside world was gleaned from scratchy radio broadcasts from the Canary Islands, today television sets are found at almost every turn: In restaurants, in the front windows of stores, above the checkout lines at the hipermercados,  hypermarkets, or really, really big supermarkets.

A teenager from Câmara de Lobos, which  fairly or unfairly  is known around Madeira as a village of toughs, dismissed the television theory, however. One of the island’s three principal fishing villages, Câmara de Lobos lies on the most crowded flank of the island. Leading me through labyrinthine alleys, where houses are virtually stacked up on top of one another, the young man said, “You want to know why people an Madeira get violent? Just look at the way we live. We’re practically sleeping in one another’s pockets. When you live like this, you get sensitive. Here in Câmara de Lobos, the worst insult you can give someone is to say they’re messy.”
Messy?
“Yes, well, a messy person is someone who doesn’t sweep up, who leaves trash lying around. Someone who doesn’t respect his neighbors. You have a couple of drinks, you get mad, you call someone messy. And then, well, things happen.”

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With a glide in their stride after attending a friend’s wedding, Lucina Branco and her boyfriend, Manuel Calaça, check out the scene at Caniçal’s annual summer festa. Music, food, floats, and the traditional procession of fishing boats across the harbour -  it's all intended to bring good fortune and favor from Nossa Senhora da Piedade, Our Lady of Piety. “I don’t believe in that 100 percent,” says Luciana, but she doesn’t let her skepticism spoil a good time. She and Manuel danced, ate, and drank wine with friends until dawn.

Messiness is known not only in Câmara de Lobos. Despite the Madeiran people’s respect for their land, many are incorrigible litterers. It is virtually impossible to admire one of the islands’ breathtaking views without noticing, from the comer of your eye, the glint of an empty bottle or the glitter of a discarded Coke can.
What to do with garbage is a problem that concerns all islands. The Madeiras’ answer is a series of landfills, including the main island’s principal dump at Santo da Serra, where bulldozers relentlessly gouge the arcadian landscape as they work to bury the increasing supply of hipermercado refuse.
For Raimundo Quintal, Madeira’s leading environmental activist, it is junked cars, the surest sign of prosperity, that concerns him the most. Quintal estimates that about 3,600 new cars enter the port of Funchal each year. “It’s a cultural problem as much as an environmental one,” Quintal told me. “Cars have become an accessible status symbol now. Everyone wants one. Because Madeirans think that if you are in a car, you are a different person  a better person.”

Newly rich, Madeira’s golden youth is doing its best to accelerate the pace of life. When they are not in their cars, they can be seen at Funchal’s many high-tech dance clubs, frantically spending cash. Visiting one such establishment on a Friday night, I fell into conversation with a 30-year-old banker, who disdainfully regarded the throng of nattily dressed, Scotch-drinking teenagers that surrounded him and remarked, “Look at these people. Just look at them. Materialism has infected them like a disease.”

Before there were discos on the islands there were tascas, a kind of bar-cum-convenience store-cum-neighborhood living room. There, amid cans of Vim detergent and Dum Dum insecticide, old men still gather to drink house wine and eat olives.

At one cramped tasca in the old part of Funchal, a group of day laborers playing a game of dominoes invited me to join them. Wearing traditional barretes de orelhas, or ear caps, which are woolen hats with earflaps and a big pompom stitched to the top, they filled a glass for me and told me that they have been coming here to drink wine and play dominoes for more than 40 years.

Slapping yellowed dominoes against a scarred wooden tabletop, one man said, “I don’t know where we'll play when they close this old place down.”
They’re closing your tasca? I asked.
“The government says they’re not ‘dignified.’ But let me ask you this: What dignity will we have when all of our traditions have been outlawed?”

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