National Geographic : 1994 Nov
God and government make a powerful pair in Funchal, where the Church of St. John the Evangelist rubs elbows with City Hall. Because most Madeirans 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 on 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 extraordi nary familiarity. Cecilia Albino, ayoung 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 cafe 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 JOHN MCCARRY, a journalist based in Washington, D. C., last wrote for the magazine on Hunza (March 1994). Freelance photographer MEDFORD TAYLOR'S most recent story was on Lake Superior (December 1993).