Friday, February 6, 2009

Madeira : First Impressions

Just touched down in Madeira, an island deep in the Atlantic Ocean, but still technically owned by Portugal. Much bigger than I expected, the island is surprisingly densely populated and if you didn’t know better you would think you were five miles from some major city. When seeing the volcanic island from above I was struck by the raw beauty of the natural landscape, cliffs rising from tropical forests, and terraced plantings winding themselves up and down steep ravines. As equally striking if not entirely disconcerting was the presence of all of the homes dotting the remote island. From 6000 feet plus they are reduced to monopoly houses; albeit white-walled and clay-roofed toy dwellings. The homogeneity of the buildings surprised me greatly not because they were all the same, but that they were all the same as any place you would find in Portugal, or Spain for that matter. Most all of the houses are new construction, and I hope to find out more about when the island went through its current transformation. They have enough infrastructure and commercial businesses to make Berkeley look coarse, though they are in the middle of the ocean, a two hour flight from the first sign of land. Everything not native to the island must be imported and has to go a long way and therefore the prices are hiked up. But the fact of the matter is that they still get the items they want. There are no real signs of wanting so far and most of the people here seem to be white haired vacationers from England. That’s a stereotype to be sure, but the fact remains that there is an obscene amount of wealth abound. A once raw, untamable, volatile island seems to have been horse whipped into the service of the industry of tourism. These are my first jagged stones of thoughts that have yet to be smoothed by experience, but I thought them to be important from a first impression standpoint. I’ve also read though that there is a sharp divide between the coastal tourist draws and the interior native part of the island. I’m anxious to explore this relationship further as soon as I figure out how to get deeper into the aforementioned heart of darkness. Transportation here is hard, and by that I mean expensive. Everyone here drives, the problem being that they are rich and a rental car here costs upwards of 30 euro a day! Capitalism, it would seem, has a hard time traversing the waters of the ocean to encourage some healthy competition in prices. I asked someone about renting a bike to get around and the Madeira native laughed at me, but I’m hoping he didn’t understand the question. So far I’ve heard they have a few public buses so hopefully it won’t be as bad as I think.

I’m staying in Funchal right now, which I guess would technically be the capital of Madeira. Funchal feels size wise something similar to the downtown of Savannah, Georgia; though I’ll have to check and see if that is even remotely accurate. I felt like I circled the entire city 4 times with my roll behind before a nice taxi driver named Dantes helped me find where I was staying. He’s got two nieces in Engineering on the island, but said they were headed to Gana soon, hope that works out. I’m staying in an apartment a Bret Favre’s stone throw away from central Funchal. Good views and a nice landlady that showed me how to plug in a refrigerator and what a microwave looks like. We spoke for a while, her in fluent Portuguese and me in broken Spanish, neither one understanding the other, each leaving thinking it had been a good convesation. When the business end of the deal came up she called her granddaughter over to make sure we were in fact talking about the same monetary number for rent. Luckily we were and remain fast friends now. I’m staying below an Italian couple apparently, well Simona is Italian and her husband Andy is English, though their adorable daughter Amy would be a mix of the two. They live North of Venice right now and run a bed and breakfast. I don’t have internet in my apartment and they were nice enough to let me use their connection and give me much needed sage advice on the car rental front. Luckily the weather here is much better than Porto, which seemed to be getting even more moody and depressed as it foresaw my departure. If it wanted me to stay longer it shouldn’t have been so temperamental in the way of precipitation.

Tried to climb the mountain my apartment rests at the foot of today. Either out of sheer stubbornness or stupidity, I’m still not sure which one won out. It was probably after my 4th, 5th, or maybe even 8th wind that I finally gave in to come back down. Tomorrow I’m going to try and go by Paulo David Architects to get some on the ground insight about what the history of the island contains.

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