We arrived in Madeira and settled in the town of Camara de Lobos about four months ago. It’s the first time we’ve stayed far away from home for so long. The experience has been new, sometimes controversial, but very exceptional – because Camara de Lobos is an exceptional place. And now it seems we already have some expertise to say why.
1. The language. Madeira has its own accent as compared to the continental Portugal, and Camara de Lobos has its own accent compared to the rest of Madeira. It’s called xavelha (read sha-vel-ya), and it’s more of a slang spoken in the streets. Initially xavelha means a small fishing boat, and every morning in the town center you can see a group of fishermen playing cards after the morning shift, screaming and betting fervently in a strange accent – this is xavelha.
Very few people in the town speak English. To survive, you need to learn Portuguese very fast. The good thing is that normally locals are tolerant to your mistakes and pronunciation, even shop owners helping to learn things by asking “and this is called how?” when you buy vegetables. Now after these months we can more or less understand what people say and express ourselves. Although I know we often sound like retarded.
2. The small town. Camara de Lobos is a suburb of the capital and has all signs of provinciality. When we need materials for our activities, our boss sends us to the shop without money but with a note “Please give them what they want”. Everybody from small kids to the President of the town knows local drunkards and weirdoes by name. Actually, everybody knows everybody by name, even before introduced. This is why if you are not local, you are very visible. Smiling tourists are sold drinks double price (I suffered from it the first week), although it’s still twice as cheap as in most European countries. Groups of tourists arrive in enormous quantities every day but few of them stay overnight – because their headquarters are in Funchal. All it makes Camara de Lobos a perfect place to understand what real Madeira is.
3. The huge town. Being home for more than 35 000 inhabitants, Camara de Lobos seems very small if you live in the center and huge if you want to leave it. Going by car or by bus we often ask our friends if we are still in the town or not, probably sounding like Donkey from the Shrek cartoon “Are we there yet? And now? And now?”. The town has 5 neighborhoods spread on high hills for many kilometers. One of them – Curral das Freiras, a picturesque fairytale-like village surrounded by mountains from all sides and reachable only through a tunnel – is also a part of it.
4. Commuting. My grandparents had to walk several kilometers every day to school which was located in other village. I always remember them when we take a long walk to the nearest shopping mall located on the outskirts of Funchal. Yes, we walk to another city – both for money saving reasons and to enjoy the ocean breeze along the promenade. In general, commuting is widespread here. People live in one town and travel for work to another. My English students are from towns all around Camara de Lobos.
5. Hospitality. When people find out that I am Ukrainian they decide immediately that I moved here for work. Madeira has a long history of hosting Ukrainian immigrants who worked in construction when the island was developing. Most of people we spoke with have Ukrainian friends or ex-colleagues. No matter that there are very few employment opportunities on the island, normally the locals don’t treat you as someone who came to take their jobs. They are open and generous – and can give you things for free when you don’t expect it, for example a handful of fruits on the top of your purchase at the market.
6. Beauty. Camara de Lobos is a concentrated, distilled beauty of Madeira. The harbor, houses on hills, palms, flowers, banana trees, fishing boats, lava rocks, a huge green cliff, Cabo Girao, Pico da Torre – when your car makes a turn and you suddenly see it all together – the view is breathtaking. I don’t know how many years you need to spend here to get used to it. We are definitely not there yet.
7. Local products. This might be disputable but we’ve heard it from several sources: most famous local rum based drink – poncha – was born here when fishermen were looking for some refreshment to warm up in the ocean. Traditions of cooking black scabbard fish, the delicates which lives in nearby waters, also started in Camara de Lobos. And it seems our town has most of banana gardens on the island.
8. Addiction. Whatever your religion or beliefs are, abandon them – now coffee is your god. Enjoying this drink with friends or alone with a cigarette and a newspaper is a favorite pastime for the locals. The amount of small coffee shops is incredible and the amount of coffee sold – even bigger. However you will not find here standard latte or espresso – or better to say, if you try to order them a waiter will look confused. You need to have a coffee dictionary because it’s called differently. There is “uma bica” (like a bird’s beak) for espresso without milk, “um garoto” (means “a boy”) for a small cup of coffee with milk, “uma chinesa” (Chinese) for cappuccino etc. Funny thing – when you try using these names on the continent, waiters look at you confused: they have their own codes. Double strike.
9. Mesmerizing. You can forever look at two things: the waves bashing the pier in Camara de Lobos and local girls dancing samba. Now that we are preparing for the carnival, I was at risk of breaking my neck watching one girl doing basic samba elements – so natural and so hot. Can’t imagine what effect it has on men!
10. Worst but best. In a recently published survey Camara de Lobos took the first position among the worst places in Portugal in terms of living standards. Generally we think it nonsense, but from what we already understood, the town stands out at least on the island: it indeed has slightly bigger criminal rate and social problems, and when people from other towns ask about our place of residence they take a small pause before saying something else. But it’s the controversy which makes this place so special. In 1970th New York suffered from the same problems (in much bigger scale of course), and the city administration made an advertising campaign. They hired Hollywood actors known for their roles in blockbusters for a short commercial in favor of New York, the Big Apple. Imagine Sylvester Stallone holding an apple and saying: “They say New York is tough (bites an apple). But I like it”.
Peeling a banana grown in this picturesque town in Madeira we can say the same.
Photos by Andriy Petryna