National Geographic : 1994 Nov
Dragging their boat ashore, fishermen in Porto Moniz will face a stiff challenge from 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. her way to shore aboard one of Duarte Drummond's sailboards. Drummond, a 25-year-old entrepreneur who rents sailboards to tourists, stands beside me. A sturdy young man with a well-developed tan, he wears only a bathing suit and a watch that is set not to local time but an hour ahead, to continental European time. In a voice plummy with confidence, he tells me, "Now is when everything is beginning for the Madeiras. This is the moment when everything is going to take off." Such contrasts are not uncommon in the Madeira Islands, a region of Portugal cast between the Azores and Africa that includes Madeira, Porto Santo, and two groups of uninhabited isles known as the Deser tas and the Selvagens. Thought by romantics to be part of Plato's lost continent of Atlantis, these pristine islands of farmers and fishermen remained virtually unchanged for centuries (maps, page 97). That is until 1974, when a revolution in Lisbon ended 42 years of dictatorship in Portugal and the Madeira Islands. For the first time since the islands were originally inhabited in the 15th century, Madeirans took hold of their own destiny. Losing no time, the newly elected local government mapped out a bold path of economic growth: While aggressively promoting tourism, which today has replaced small-scale farming as the islands' economic main stay, the region also made plans to turn itself into an international center of offshore commerce. Madeiran prosperity was given a vigorous boost in 1986 when Por tugal-and the archipelago along with it-joined the European Com munity, now called the European Union (EU). A cacophony of construction is audible in almost every corner 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. 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 touch ing 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 con trast 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.