Tuesday, 12 March 2013
Lizards, Cane-work, Fruit, Flowers and Embroidery
A colony of little solar-powered lizards flatten themselves against the warm black volcanic rocks. As they reach optimum temperature they raise themselves on their four tiny legs and scamper off, zig-zagging between the cobbles on their frantic lizardy business. I sit so still that the flowers on my skirt interest one of them who skitters up for closer examination, then skitters down again for a quick look in my handbag.
These little creatures are brownish-khaki with white stripes and vary between four and eight inches in length.
I am in Madeira, so they may be Portuguese or Madeiran, because the origins of many things here seem to be open to debate. I sit still in warm sunshine while they continue their important businesses, turning over tiny scraps of leaf and finding things infinitesimal but delectable underneath.
I hear that it's snowing back in England, so I sit some more, only discovering too late that I have burned in the hot sun and stiff Atlantic breeze.
More active humans pass by and the lizards flicker into the myriad cracks of the stone walling but they, in turn, generate shrieks of horror from the German ladies tramping past.
Everyone seems scared of everyone else. But not of me. Old ladies can be invisible.
I am sitting in the President's Garden in Funchal.
What a kind President.
He has beautifully labelled and manicured gardens, and when the gates are open anyone can stroll in and enjoy them. The only thing I'm not too keen on is his collection of Macaws in an aviary. They scream constantly, and have an avian monopoly on the place. Madeira is not on any of the great migration routes and there are not so many other birds around apart from sea-gulls and pigeons, so the Macaws are unchallenged as they shriek their messages over the marina.
I have not been here before, and I am captivated by the drama of the landscape and the fecundity of the rich red earth, so rich that it goes on producing fruit, flowers and vegetables all through the frost-free year. Three crops of potatoes a year, bananas by the ton, papaya and sugar-cane, all grown on steep terraces on precipitous hillsides. The work is all done by hand, the land being too steep for machinery.
Willow is grown, often to spectacular heights in the damp mountains. Then it is peeled and boiled and hand-woven into baskets and furniture and mirror frames as well as into a veritable zoo of creatures, including anatomically correct dogs.
Camacha, in the hills above Funchal, is the centre of the cane-work business. It remains a cottage industry, with workers being paid by piece-rate, but the village is now dominated by showroom, shop and parking facilities. Madeiran crafts are threatened by much cheaper imports, mainly from the Far East, and the makers attempt to protect their products marking them with a seal of authenticity under the IBTAM ( Instituto be Bordados, Tapecaria e Artesanto de Madeira). Conservatory furniture remains expensive and difficult to transport back home.
A few of the thousands of embroidery patterns stored by the factory of Joao de Souse Viola, Funchal.
Sadly something of the same may be said of the other Madeiran craft of cut-work embroidery, which was probably at the zenith of its fame in Victorian times, having been made popular by the Great Exhibition of 1851. The emboiderers are still home-workers, paid by the stitch, although the 'factories' print the cloths, prepare the threads and market the finished products. These 'factories' now hope to survive on customer loyalty, with a client base of rich customers for whom they make personalised items such as table wares of specific sizes, embroidered with armorial bearings. Their work is of very fine quality, but however much I love my grand-daughter I am not able nor willing to pay upwards of £80 for a baby-sized dress.
As I continue to sit among the lizards I look at all these giant, rampant plants that I fail to grow at home. Things that struggle in a conservatory reach up to twenty feet here - the Bird of Paradise flower is a tree, as is Aloe Vera, and Agaves are great succulent things that people carved their names into. Bougainvillaea clambers everywhere, turning walls purple, and orchids bloom happily in flower beds - and yet it is still technically winter.
There are dates and passion-fruits and mangoes and there is, of course, Madeira wine.
The lizards and I like it here.