November in Funchal

After a short day-sail from Porto Santo we arrived on the island of Madeira. We called to book a slip in the historic port of Funchal, but, to our dismay, it was full. It had been for weeks, and would continue to be for weeks more.

Grudgingly, we put into Quinta Do Lorde, a new marina on the eastern tip of the island, built to handle the overflow.

This marina, nestled at the base of a mountain, was still under construction. So, its colourful facade was just that — a facade. Aside from washrooms, a few washers and dryers, and a café, there was nothing there.

While I sat in Inia’s cockpit whining, a dock neighbour strolled by and asked if we were planning to take in the festivities too. Realizing we didn’t know what he was talking about, he explained there was an annual event in Funchal to celebrate when their Christmas lights were turned on for the season, and that night happened to be the night. The instant he left, we packed our backpacks, locked up Inia, climbed the steep path, and caught the next bus to the city.

From the bus terminal, we hailed a cab and asked the driver if he could recommend an affordable, central place to stay. He assured us he knew the perfect place. After making a hair-raising U-Turn, he zigzagged through traffic to the downtown core, then turned onto a grimy side street. As he slowed down, I looked out at clusters of vagrants gathered in the doorways, worried he got us wrong. When he pulled up in front of a dilapidated hotel, the sign of which was missing half its letters, I was almost certain of it.

But it soon became evident he did understand. The hotel had been converted to a hostel. So, despite being blocks from the city centre, its rates fit a vagabond’s budget. We agreed we’d be fine for a night.

After registering at the front desk, David and I stepped into the antique elevator, pressed the ninth-floor button, watched both a metal gate and a solid door close, felt a lurch, heard a screech; then lifted off.

Our room was meagerly furnished with a three-drawer dresser, and two single iron beds made with white threadbare sheets, thin blue blankets, and lifeless pillows. Our large plate glass window looked out over a maze of brown and red clay rooftops. From it, we had a birds’ eye view of the street and its aimless occupants below.

I put our toiletry case on the shelf above the sink in the closet-sized bathroom and we took turns freshening up before heading out for the evening.

As we made our way down the hostel’s street, both of us looked straight ahead and walked with purpose, slowing down only after we rounded the corner and into the safety of the main drag.

Since it was still light out, we stopped at a local diner and, under its striped canvas awning, enjoyed a leisurely dinner of Espetada and wine while waiting for the sun to go down.

As darkness fell, Funchal lit up. Christmas lights dripped from every tree, lined every pathway, trimmed every building, and cascaded across every street. Some were of religious figures, while others were playful depictions of candy canes, teddy bears, bells and bows.

And, high above the ancient church steeple in the town square, a full moon and white and blue angels adorned the night sky.

Having grown up in northern Ontario, I used to believe Christmas couldn’t feel Christmassy without snow. But, witnessing the throngs of people; families, lovers young and old, Birkenstock-wearing boomers; body pierced skateboarders, tourists and locals alike; gather in a spirit of peace and goodwill, I had to admit I was wrong. The serene radiance of this Yuletide scene will stay with me forever.

On our return trek to the hostel, we passed the same men huddled by the building’s entrance. This time, though, I slowed down just a tad, made eye contact, and flashed a fleeting smile. Then in we went.

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