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Madeira Village Life 2018

  1. No light at the end of
    Madeira is bored through with tunnels. In fact, the saying in Portuguese is that ‘A Madeira está forada’ – the wood is bored through, ‘madeira’ being ‘wood’ in Portuguese.  These tunnels are engineering marvels that have advanced local transport immeasurably.  Forty years ago, it took three hours to drive from Boaventura, our little mountain village, to the capital Funchal.  Now it takes a mere 45 minutes.  I’m driving between Calheta and Ribeira Brava when my car starts shuddering, forcing me to pull over into an SOS alcove in the middle of a long tunnel.  I press the SOS button and they say they’re coming out, and then I hear a loud bang – it’s one of the back tyres exploding.  Luckily, we’re at a standstill – it could have been bad.  We could easily have tumbled down a vertiginous sea cliff and have landed in the Atlantic for some unanticipated snorkeling.  After almost two hours in the tunnel enduring the exhaust fumes of cars whizzing by, our car is on the breakdown truck and we’re in a taxi, thanks to the emergency services and the insurance company.  The taxi driver chats.  His main job, actually, is to drive tourists around.  ‘With all these tunnels,’ I ask, ‘what do tourists see nowadays when they come to Madeira?  Concrete?’  ‘  We take tourists along the old tourist routes, not through the tunnels.  Unless they turn out to be difficult.  Then we take them through the tunnels and they get to see a lot of concrete, a lot.’  The moral of the story:  Be exceedingly nice to taxi drivers in Madeira, else you’ll be staring at a lot of concrete.  Domed concrete tunnels.


  2. Roadside poetess
    It’s almost 07H45 and I walk along the footpath next to my home in Boaventura to the roadside to await the itinerant baker. The better baker that is, not the baker who comes at 11H30 with bread that crumbles and quickly stales.  At the roadside I come across Senhora Conceição, a self-styled poetess, also awaiting the bread van.  She is seated on a low wall.  She greets me, confirms that I am José da Luz’s son whom she knows from childhood, and says she composes new verses each year to be sung to music at church on Christmas eve (rumarias).  She has already been working assiduously on this year’s batch, she says.  The bread van is late this morning, so she has time to recite some of her work to me, should I in be interested in the slightest.  ‘Pray go ahead, let’s hear,’ I say.  Off she goes.  It’s not prize-winning material, she’s no Baudelaire or Keats, but as poets go in Boaventura, she’s up there with the best of them.  Her prosody is basic, being essentially ABAB rhyming quatrains set in iambic tetrameter.  The content is also invariable.  Her technique involves introducing a personage in the village – my father for instance, whom she cites by name – into the first line of the verse.  In the next three lines she hauls in our Saviour the Baby Lord Jesus to forgive us sinners, and to save the world from its woes and evil.  Now, I’m not wild about my father’s name being associated with sin in consecutive sentences in publicly sung verse in a church – there’s the confessional for that – but let’s grant her poetic licence.  Do you sinners get the message?  I get the message at least four times with variations before the better baker finally arrives to relieve me from her poetry.
  3. Mum and Princess Di
    Mother and Princess Diana have two things in common. First, they both got married at twenty.  Second, they both gave birth to a son ten months after their wedding.   I’m with my mother in the kitchen.  She’s doing the dishes with her back to me while I’m seated at the table paging through some leaflets of no importance, each in our own world.  Every so often we air our thoughts.  ‘Strange mother – you married in October and I was born in August … that’s rather soon … let me see …,’ and I start counting the months, to irritate her a little.  ‘Count! Count!’ she insists, haughtily.  ‘Let me see you count.  Go on and count the months on your grubby little fingers and let’s see …’  I count ten months.  ‘Ten months!’ she triumphs.  ‘  How dare you even question me!’  It seems so archaic today, but conception out of wedlock, let alone birth, was heavily frowned upon in Catholic Madeira in those days.  Things have changed today, quite changed.
  4. Prized Property
    Alfredo, who is sozzled by late-afternoon, part-owns a postcard-sized courtyard which my property surrounds, and as such has easement over my property, which is nigglingly intrusive to my privacy. It would help me consolidate my property and sanity if he would sell.  He has hitherto feigned disinterest in transacting, but now seems keen.  Must be the tougher times.  He approaches me with a half-full half-empty bottle of whisky outside my kitchen door, which abuts on his ninety square metres of land.  On the open market the land is not worth 10 000 euros, but to me it’s worth 25 000.   ‘I love this piece of land,’ he slurs, ‘I value it a lot.  I hear you’re interested but we haven’t spoken price yet.  I want 60 000 euros for this splendid piece of land, that is all, 60 000 euros.  What do you say, Senhor Alexandre?’ he says-burps, pouring me a stiff tot.
    ‘60 000 euros???’…
    ‘60 000 euros!  Yes, here it lies, a bargain.  In fact, there is a buyer from Funchal who is very interested’, he lies, rather artlessly.  ‘So, what is your offer…?’
    ‘I can offer you a frank 25 000 euros for this, nothing more.’
    ‘25 000?  Only?  What?  O quééééé???  What did you all spend on this house of yours?  And you can’t even pay a measly 60 000 euros for my prime piece of land?’
    ‘25 000 at a push is my final price I’m afraid, Senhor
    ‘As I said, there’s a buyer from Funchal who is dead keen.  I could even get interest from the continent!  You had better move.’
    ‘I suggest you sell it to him then, it’s better business for you.’  He stares at me for some moments, confronted by his own lie.  Then, as if to bridge the yawning gap between the bid and offer prices, he takes a hard swig of the whisky and says:  ‘Bah, I don’t need the money.  I’m happy to own this land and to come around and look at it now and again.  It gives me a certain pleasure.’  I bet it does.  The pleasure of irritating me by exercising his servitude over my land.
    A little later, a woman on the path asks whether I have closed the deal.  Everyone knows everyone else’s business.  ‘Which deal?’ I ask, playing dumb.  Despite there not being anyone within a radius of 100 metres from us, she casts furtive looks around, cups her hand over her mouth and whispers forcibly ‘Alfredo’s land!’  ‘No, I haven’t.’  ‘Ah, well done.  You would have sunk your money there.  With a little more than what he is asking, you could buy a flat in Funchal.’  To Alfredo, she of course would suggest that he continue to apply the squeeze; you survive here by being everyone’s friend.  But I’m not capitulating.  I thank her for having burdened herself with the imponderables of my situation.  Mother is less diplomatic than I.  She told Alfredo to sell to the prospective Funchal buyer, quickly, because if he did, her son would thenceforth have a better neighbour than he, Alfredo.  She’s not short of a crisp retort, Madeira-village style, and gives as much backchat as she gets from the locals, sometimes with 20% interest in return.  These little verbal victories are inwardly satisfying and serve to deflate social irritations that accumulate over time.
  5. Antique wine flask
    Ricardo, whose wife and son appear to be back with him after their last domestic squabble, came around to the house to get the money for the goat he had slaughtered for us a few days previously. Or at least, he did not come directly to the house to get his money, that would be too unseemly.  He rather happened to be walking by on his way to do a job for somebody, and somehow happened to position himself in the vicinity of my door in a favourable position to be spotted, when I did indeed spot him and invited him in.  ‘There’s no rush with the money, Senhor Alexandre, no rush at all.  But thank you all the same.  And apologies for not having an old rooster for you this year.  I know you like that hard, dark meat, as do I, but I’ll only have some next year.  The fowl disease has been particularly bad this year.  I lost a lot of fowl, just about all of them …’  The travails of subsistence farming.
    I pour him a shot of Beirão liqueur, which he downs in one go, village-style, then plonks his glass down, indicating receptivity to another tot.  I pour us another shot each.  ‘Senhor Alexandre, I have a present for you.  It’s a 20 litre glass wine-flask which is over 100 years old, a true antique.  I would like to give it to you.  Someone down at the Laranjeiras gave it to me in lieu of money for a job I did for them a few years ago.  You must take it to the weavers to have it covered with wickerwork.  You will then have something special.
    True to his word, he brings the flask around, and true to my word, I take it to a weaver in São Vicente, but his job card is full, and besides, he does not have the correct type of wicker to cover the bottle at present.  I promise Senhor Ricardo that I’ll fill it with aguardente in distilling season, and that we will enjoy some shots out of it then.  We will too.  My naïve nephew, through whom the milk of human kindness flows and who is rather prim and proper for his age, asked me why I speak to spouse-beaters when in Boaventura.  Because, dear nephew, if I don’t, I’m going to spend my time there soliloquising.  Does he want his uncle to spend his days utterly alone, does he?
  6. Desperate pressure
    I go to the pharmacist in the village. Outside a mute old drunkard solicits for cigarettes.  He gestures for money, rubbing thumb and forefinger together, then for smoking, inhaling and puffing out smoke from an imaginary cigarette lodged in his fingers.  I ignore him and enter.  The pharmacist, from the continent with a continental Portuguese accent and manner and all, addressed as doutora (doctor) by the clients, warns me against giving him money.  I join a queue.  The rather impatient man in front of me must have his blood pressure  ‘Doutora, please take my pressure, quickly,’ he begs, jumping the queue.  ‘I have been abstaining from drink all morning in order to improve my blood pressure reading, but I can’t hold out much longer.  Please take my pressure now!’  Doutora obliges under sufferance.  His pressure is ‘regular, given the circumstances’ she announces, whatever that means.  The man is elated.  ‘Doutourrrrrra,’ he purrs, ‘I am now going to drink, I am now going to drink,’ he lisps, inclining body and soul in the direction of the bar next door, head leading.  I can’t help bursting out laughing the moment he’s out the door.  Doutora remains circumspect and composed.  It’s probably no longer funny to her, and after all, she has to maintain a professional bearing.  But I don’t, so I laugh, I belly laugh, because I perfectly understand.
  7. Godfather’s infidelities
    My godmother Ariette (a sprightly 82), who spent twenty years in Venezuela and whom I got to know only in my forties, dropped in to visit, coming expressly from Funchal to see me. ‘Oh my dear child, so good to see you, how are you!’  Hugs and kisses.  She settles down to cake and tea and then falls away into the story of her life.  ‘My husband, your godfather, was a good man to me in the first twenty years of our marriage.  But when we returned from Venezuela, he changed.  He lent out most of our money to friends who lost it all and never repaid him.  After that, or because of that, who knows, he started womanising right here, in the village.  He would also beat me when I complained, and his women would also threaten me if I interfered with their trysts.  Heavenly crosses, what in the Lord’s name did I do wrong to deserve this?  He had up to four women at a time, right here.’
    ‘Here godmother?  Here?  In our God-fearing village with its besainted denizens?  I thought there were only good people here.  How did he get away with it under the penetrating gaze of the people?  I can hardly breathe here without everyone knowing my moves …  Besides, it’s only the foreign women who are bad, I’m told, or so Mum says.’  At this, Godmother deflates, turns her head and rolls her eyes at her godchild’s bumbling naïveté.
    ‘Oh my child, if only you knew …  Shameless they were – (now lowering her voice) putas all! – (now in full voice again), but passing themselves off for respectable women.  I won’t mention names, but Bernadette, for example, whose husband was in Africa, was the most despicable.  One day, on the pathway, she threatened to beat me with a rod she had hidden under her shawl if I said anything.  I got final proof of your godfather’s infidelity when Manuel Casca, may the Lord bless his departed soul, crawled silently onto the roof while my husband, your godfather, was at it with two of his women.  Once Casca had secured himself on the roof, he removed two tiles and espied their carnal sins, may Hail Mary full of Grace forgive them.  That’s what had to go and happen to your poor godmother.’
    ‘Godmother, did you not take any lovers yourself by way of balance?’ I ask, stirring.    Once she recovers from it, she stands up, closes her eyes, clasps her hands and raises them to the roof in protest and prayer.  ‘Oh my God of all Saints.  May all the angels of heaven be my witnesses.  I promise on my salvation that I have only ever known one man in my life, as I vowed on my wedding day, and that was my husband!’
    I tell Mum and Dad about godmother’s visit.  Dad is totally unimpressed.  He says that Godmother’s stories stink, even to dogs.  ‘Instead of praying for her dead husband, who was my best friend, she goes around harking back to the same old story, spreading it to all and everyone who will listen.  It’s all lies in any case.  I go into hiding when she’s around to avoid her.  Her stories nauseate,’ sneers Dad, eyes asquint.  Dear Papa has a vested interest in upholding the puritanical fable around here.  But Aunt Maria independently confirms Godmother’s stories, to the detail.  I’m keen to hear more from my godmother though, especially on roof-spying tactics, which could provide some curious voyeurism around here on a slow day, given what one hears…
  8. Slow service made quick
    I go to Oliveira’s Winery for a tasting of Madeira wine. Madeira wine, at least the famous fortified wines, are sherry-like in consistency and alcohol content (around 19%).  They differ from sherry in that there is no flor yeast, and Madeira wines are matured in casks which are subjected to natural solar heat in cellars in attics.  This Maderisation process, a fault in other wines but expected in Madeira wine, came about by accident.  When wine came back on the Portuguese ships of old, having spent a few years in the tropics, they discovered that the wine had taken on a mellow, rich, ‘baked’ feel.  They tried to replicate this on land with little success, at first rocking the barrels as they thought wave action at sea was the cause of the transformation.  Today we of course know it is heat.  The best wines are heated naturally at ambient temperature and take decades to mature.  They cost.  The cheaper Madeira wines are heated artificially in what are called estufas.  From driest to sweetest, the main varietals are Sercial, Verdelho, Boal and Malvasia (Malmsey), with the fabled Terrantez being the rare, outstanding varietal, and Tinta Negra Mole being the varietal to avoid.
    Well, I’m at Oliveira’s just after opening time on a Monday morning for a tasting, seated to be served in full view of two assistants.  They natter away behind the counter about their weekend and husbands, totally ignoring me, the paying customer.  I was brought up not to butt in, so I wait, I wait.  Suddenly a man arrives through the front door, a no-nonsense authority figure, clearly the boss, who falls in behind the counter with the women.  ‘Bom dia, bom dia,’ he says to them, rather bemused.  ‘What’s all this nattering?  Aren’t there people to be served?  To work, on with it!’  They do, one with a rather curled lip, but they skip and hop on the double, straight to my table.

  9. Levada walks
    Madeira is a verdant island with no shortage of water, but it has to be channelled into the water supply like everywhere else. To this end an extensive system of levadas has been establish over the centuries.  Levadas are water canals on contours at various levels in the mountains from which furrows lead downwards.  These levadas are the lifeblood of the island and are maintained by professionals called levandeiros.  Because they are high up, in the purest air and have spectacular views, people come from all over the world to do levada  Madeira has over 1 000 km of levadas and varedas (footpaths), the better known ones crisscrossed by tourists.  If you want to do a levada walk, take the road less travelled.  Take the levada grande above Achada do Castanheiro in Boaventura.  It is a spectacular walk, is easily accessible and will give you a great morning’s outing.  If you’re more adventurous, you can take the levada de cima – around 200 metres higher.  There you won’t see tourists sporting the latest hiking gear from Outdoor Sports, just the odd local if anyone at all, or a levandeiro going about his job.  Senhor Isidro and his wife, after threatening to take me for a levada walk for years, offer to be my tour guides.  They take a bottle of wine with them, which we drink at determined vantage points.  A fabulous morning’s outing.
  10. The real espetada
    You have to have a typical Madeiran espetada before leaving, but the real thing, not the upside-down suspended metal skewers you get at Portuguese restaurants such as e.g. The Dias Tavern in Cape Town. You have to have the right meat – preferably from free-range grass-fed animals.  You have to have the right cuts.  Fillet is too tender and not tasty enough.  Sirloin (lombo) is excellent and the tighter-grained rump steak (alcatra) is also good.  Buy your meat from a specialist butcher like O Caçador opposite the fish market in Funchal, owned by Boaventurans of course, distant cousins of Dad’s, so the money is so to say kept in-house, yes.  Outsource the seasoning of the meat to Papa (white wine, garlic, bay leaves, thyme, coarse salt and spices).  He knows just how.  Now for the most important thing: the skewers.  They have to be straight skewers freshly cut from a bay tree on the day, preferable young sprouts.  Luckily the serra above Boaventura abounds with them.  So put on your hiking boots, take a pair of secateurs and walk up and along the levada grande.  There are huge bay trees all over.  Strip the cut skewers of their bay leaves and bark and sharpen the point with a knife.  Cut the meat into one-inch cubes and pierce each piece with the skewer until there are around twelve to fifteen pieces per skewer.  Roast over coals.  The taste of the laurel from the skewer penetrates the meat.  Once done, serve by pointing the skewer (espeto) in the direction of each person in turn, who takes a piece to be eaten with bread, wine, fried maize cubes, etc.  Repeat several times to general merriment.

  11. Slow shuffle
    I’m in my kitchen and I hear the approaching slow shuffle of footsteps, punctuated by a regular knock of a walking stick. Slow-shuffle knock, slow-shuffle knock …  It’s a grim rumble of impending foreboding, a signal of decrepitude.  Who can it be?  It is Mum, approaching with a walking stick down the lane.  Physical frailty and debility have caught up with her, especially after her fall.  They’re never the same after a fall.  It’s going better with Dad, but not much.  Horror!  My parents, once paragons of dependable indestructibility, reduced to this!  Is this a mirror of what awaits me, through consanguinity, or indeed what awaits us all?  Luckily their minds are still as limpid as crystal springs, and the will for some fight and feistiness is still there, giving one comforting glimmers of their able youth.  Who is this joker called Aging?  Who is this uninvited intruder that infiltrates our core, enfeebling, immobilising and then imprisoning us?  Of what use it he to us?  Away with him!  He should be given a passport to a distant world and let us be.
    ‘Son, could you please take me to São Vicente to the physiotherapist tomorrow?  My arm is killing me,’ pleads Mother.  ‘Of course, Mum.’
  12. João and the Beanstalk
    Alfredo approaches me again on the border of our properties with another drunk in tow. ‘Senhor Alexandre, por favor, if you do decide to build here again, please tell your builders not to piss on my land.  I know it’s close, open and convenient, but they pissed, spat, sweated and who knows what else on my land.  They used my land as a pissoir with a view.’
    ‘Yessshh,’ hiccoughs the drunk.  ‘Your buildersssh pisshed here.’
    ‘I’m terribly sorry, I was overseas while they were building.  I shall speak to them.’
    ‘In fact, while they were building, it was almost as messy here as when João Barbosa caught a spell of drunkenness a few years ago and shat all around my beanstalks,’ accentuates Alfredo.  ‘Jeez, did he shi_t.  He sprayed rivers of crap around my beanstalks, from both ends.  Son of a bitch, it was the devil the way he shat.  Mind you, I’m hanged if I know what fodder João Barbosa shoves down his maw, but he shat out good guano, my Jesus in heaven was it good guano!  Did we have beans that season!  We farted like hell all the way through the summer.  You know how farts linger in the windless heat.  It was farts to the left and farts to the right, farts during the day and farting at night!’
    ‘How indelicate, Senhor  I shall talk to my builders.  Despite the ready convenience of your land, I shall sternly request them not to urinate on it.  We certainly can’t brook any of that around here.’

  13. Military coffee
    Isidro’s father, a military man, demands absolute punctuality when he invites people around. He got this über-punctuality in the army.  His major quirk: he has not drunk coffee in sixty years.  Early one morning in his army days, a bugle was sounding for the parade and he had not yet finished his coffee.  So he quickly swallowed it to be on time, burning his lips in the process, and was in any case late for the parade, which earned him two clouts from the corporal.  Which is why he no longer drinks coffee, he has not drunk coffee for sixty years.  Lucky man.  Would that a burly corporal take leave from his barracks to clout my coffee addiction out of me…
  14. Cirrhosis cleans up
    The drunks who used to drink it up at my Aunt’s are no longer around (see ID No. 52: Rubbish at Tia Maria’s).  ‘So, Dad, where is Luis Aguiar?’  ‘Aguiar?  He died of cirrhosis of the liver’.  ‘Where is Ronaldo Bastos?’  ‘Bastos?  He died.  Of cirrhosis of the liver.  ‘And Gaba?  Where is Gaba?’  ‘Gaba died of cirrhosis of the liver’.  It’s those home-made, over-sulphured, dry, sour wines of Harbemont and Jacquet varietals that do them in.  Banned in the European Union yet still tolerated here, it eventually rusts their mechanism.  That, as well as the abuse of aguardente from a young age.  They take drink, but it eventually takes them, it takes them out one by one.

  15. Catholicism rules OK
    Catholicism still runs deep in the villages. Mum and Dad recite the Rosary every night for the souls of the departed and for the good intentions of their loved ones.  I try to respect their prayer times by keeping away, but sometimes they start later, so I catch them at it during my evening drop-in.  There they are in the gloom, praying.  Mum holds the prayer beads and recites the first half of the Hail Mary or Our Father, Dad responds with the other half, it’s all rather formulaic.  There are fifty Hail Mary’s in a rosary, each set of ten preceded by the Lord’s prayer and followed by a Glory Be, after which come a host of other smaller prayers like the Salve Regina, followed by intentions pleading for various people both alive and in purgatory.  You have to truly believe to go through this every day, like most Catholics of their generation.  Despite my agnosticism, I automatically fall in with their ritual, mumbling the recitations I vaguely remember from catechism.  It means so much to them.  They were model church-goers all their lives, but given their current frailties hardly ever go these days.  It’s time I took them there again.  ‘Church is at ten tomorrow,’ I say.  Mum says she can’t, Dad says he’ll come along.  The young village priest is over-worked.  He drives around this village and two others, servicing various churches at different times.  There is a shortage of priests, and also a shortage of believers to fill the churches nowadays.  This is in part due to depopulation, and partly due to a general loosening of faith.  Father and I go to church.  The Bible reading of the day is from Matthew 16:13-17.  The priest preaches about being steadfast against the wavering of faith, about belief and about Christ – ‘the Christ of today, the Christ of yesterday and the Christ of always’.  The Christ who may mean different things to the priesthood than to the peasantry.  Observing that Sunday morning scene made me realise that attending church here is about much more than belief.  It’s about listening to a language that is above the demotic and even the crass.  It’s about a vision that lifts the peasantry out of their mundane existence in the fazendas and into another realm, it’s about participating in a sense of community and conviviality as people chat in the church square and have coffees at the café just after the service.  If ever forced to live in this village, I would in all likelihood attend church every Sunday despite my long-faltered faith.  Here, deep in the countryside, far from the concert hall, the opera house, the theatre, the lecture hall, the library, the debating fora, far from all things that have meaning for me, it would be a lifeline of sorts, it would quite literally be a glue that would keep me hanging on.