Madeira, 11 April 2022
The expected chaos at the airport failed to transpire. Instead of long confused queues of people waiting to check in their bags, then even longer queues of people at the security scanners, we were met with quiet efficiency. There was no line at check-in and our bags were processed immediately; we arrived at the security hall – clutching our fast-track vouchers – only to discover that non-fast-track travellers were fewer in number and they had more dedicated scanners, so were processed faster. It didn’t help that, for reasons that were not explained, my bag did not scan, so it sat in the “let’s have a closer look” queue for about 10 minutes before being put through the scanner again, the second time sailing through without incident. Our minor drama was nothing compared to that of the gentleman in front of me who discovered someone had taken his Apple laptop – presumably in error – leaving him with one that was similar, but which was definitely not his.
It was surprising how, after a tumultuous two years in which a global pandemic forced us to forego foreign travel, the sights, sounds and habits of airports and air travel seem so normal, familiar and somehow reassuring. While we are still in the middle of a global pandemic that is still threatening to overwhelm our health services even as our government tries to convince us that everything is OK, the ability to catch a flight and flee this country, even if for only two weeks, is in a way comforting.
One thing the pandemic seems to have done, at least for now, and at least for the flight we were taking, is eliminate some of the madness when boarding and disembarking the aircraft. In an attempt to ensure a semblance of social distancing and order, people were firmly told to sit down and wait until they were called to board by row numbers. Most people obliged, with fewer crowding round the gate. The airline did spoil it, however, by eventually deciding to allow a free-for-all, perhaps the staff enjoying the entertainment of the ensuing stampede. Our experience was more prosaic and had a rewarding outcome. My checked-in bag had burst open and the ground staff could not close it because of the clearly ineffective padlock. We were guided down to the aircraft steps to confirm the bag with a leg of a camera tripod sticking out of it was indeed mine, after which we were led to the front of the boarding queue. Our luck continued, for on a flight that was almost full, we had three seats all to ourselves, and the food we ordered online was actually palatable – if not in fact quite tasty.
Disembarking was also more civilised – or at least the flight crew tried to make it so by instructing people on more than one occasion to remain seated until their row was called to exit. Of course, there was still a rush of people anxious to get to passport control a few seconds sooner, but there was none of the jostling and racing that was a common feature of low-cost travel in the pre-pandemic world. So, we sat calmly, waited our turn, then made our way to passport control – for the first time as non-EU citizens, despite the claim printed in gold letters on the cover of our passports. We had to stand in a long line to have our passports checked and stamped and our intentions and duration of stay confirmed, all the while watching as people with valid EU passports sauntered unmolested into Portugal. The queue, while longer than normal, did move at a fairly brisk pace, and our border guard was perhaps one of the most pleasant and friendly I have ever come across. She seemed charmed when I responded to her questions in Portuguese, and proceeded to make some pleasant small talk as the computer processed our passports. While I am used to Portuguese border guards being generally indifferent and uncommunicative, our Madeiran guard smiled and entreated us to enjoy our holiday.
As someone who will occasionally look for silver linings to the clouds in an otherwise overcast sky, I can say that the additional time it took to get through passport control meant we did not have to wait for our bags to arrive on the carousel. No sooner had we arrived at baggage reclaim than our bags appeared. No waiting. Result. After that, nothing could have been more simple. We found the travel company representative who directed us to the transfer bus that would take us to our hotel. It was all smooth and it was all efficient. And the sun was shining and the ocean was sparkling and the mountains and gorges steep and green.
Our driver was Luis, and we were the last ones to be dropped off. We chatted in Portuguese on the way, and he told us about the island and about how he was working two jobs and that after he had dropped us off he needed to get back to the airport to take more people to their hotels and that he would finish about 10pm, then be up again at 8am for a 5-hour shift at a local hospital before jumping back in a minibus at 3pm to ferry tourists from the airport to their hotels until 10pm. He said because he has a young family he has resisted the pressure to move to continental Portugal for higher-paid work: he believes Madeira is better place to raise a family. Yet, he admitted times are hard, and that he does what he must do to be able to stay on the island and make ends meet. As we continued through the tunnels leading to our hotel in Calheta, he pointed out the best places to visit and where to get the best views; he showed us a road through a steep narrow and very green gorge that he said was the main route from the south to the north of the island, and insisted that despite the north of the island being darker, cooler and wetter than the south, the people of the north were just as happy and friendly as the people of the south, then continued singing the praises of the island until finally dropping us off with a smile and a wave at our hotel.
Zita was at the hotel reception to welcome us. Nothing was too much trouble as she checked us in. Upon being informed we were tired and hungry, she immediately offered to assist, by taking our bags into her office and leading us down to the restaurant, which was just about to close. Then she helped organise my surprise for Linda’s birthday on Wednesday, all the time with a bright smile.
And so we arrived in our suite, exhausted. Two very large rooms, a very large bathroom and a sizeable balcony overlooking the beach and marina. Of course, by the time we arrived it was already dark, so there was little to see or hear other than the twinkling lights of the fishing boats on the horizon and the sounds of the waves caressing the shore and lulling us to sleep.