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Tragedy in Madeira stirs memories of paradise

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News reports of the horrific flooding on the Portuguese island of Madeira refer to it as a popular tourist destination, and it is -- if you happen to be British or German. It is not so well known here, even among Americans affluent enough to take vacations abroad. In fact, before the scary videos of the mudslides hit television over the weekend, I would bet most Americans had never heard of Madeira, one of the most beautiful places on earth.

And I don't make such an assertion because my father was born there, or because my visit to Madeira rekindled some strange, almost haunting bond with the place, as if I'd been there before.

This is -- or was -- truly a little piece of paradise, a speck in the Atlantic about 300 miles off the coast of Morocco that seemed to have been safe from all disturbances, natural and manmade. Centuries ago, the industrious Portuguese carved roads into the mountains, and they created ways for fresh water to flow from the high country to the lowlands so that farming could take place. With the rains that fell over the weekend -- said to be a month's worth in just eight hours, the heaviest in memory -- those roads, modernized in recent years for increased development and tourism, filled with mud that flowed in homicidal torrents down through villages and the capital of Funchal.

Having traveled on those roads high above Funchal and the coast, in search of my ancestral ghosts, it was too easy to imagine the worst outcome -- ferocious brown water streaking through paradise -- and 48 dead seems like a low, preliminary count.On a family pilgrimage several years ago, I stood on one of those hills gazing down at centuries-old terraces of green, and the richest shades of green, where bananas and sugar cane grew. Every house had a terra cotta roof and a garden beside it, and fruit trees and tons of flowers. There were small farms that grew flowers for the European market, and vineyards producing grapes for the famous sweet wine that comes from the island. Madeira seemed to be a massive, terraced garden in the middle of the ocean, a "floating flower bed," I think someone called it.

Roads wound through the central volcanic mountain range, up and down and through ravines that stretched to the sea. Wherever there was a house along a road, and usually a stucco house with shutters and trim painted bright blue or red, there were more flowers -- everywhere flowers.

I remember standing there, on a sun-splashed roadside, and looking down at the lush, green steps, wondering why anyone would have left such a place.

Of course, years ago, when my father and his parents lived there, they concluded the grass to be greener elsewhere -- perhaps in Canada, where many Madeirans landed, or the United States -- but it was hard for me to imagine a greener place on earth. Why leave paradise?

Of course, my grandparents were poor, at least in terms of money and opportunity, so they must have figured things would be better somewhere else.

But the greenery, the climate -- comparable to that of Hawaii -- is so exquisite, I concluded that Jose and Justina Rodrigues had made a hefty sacrifice by deciding to pick up stakes and move to a New England town with long winters and a dominant WASP culture.

How did they bring themselves to do it? It never occurred to me to ask such questions then, but only later, after I visited Funchal.

On the last day of my visit, I hiked part of the way to the church where my father had been baptized. It was a sunny day in a neighborhood called Achada, on a hilly street -- almost all the streets are hilly -- and the street was lined on both sides with a stucco wall, and the wall crowned everywhere with grape vines, the leaves starting to turn yellow with autumn.

A wooden door opened and an elderly man in a yellow shirt, his face tanned and his eyes in a squint, asked if he could help me, and if I would like to come in for a glass of wine. I was so shocked I could hardly speak -- not at the man's random hospitality, but at his resemblance to my father, deceased several years by then. This, I thought, is what my father might have looked like had he stayed and grown up in the rich Madeiran sun and the salty air. I took the offer and the wine, and we sat in the old man's garden, oddly familiar to me, and the old man probably wondered why I stared at him so much. He tried but could not help me locate any remaining relatives in Achada.

So I remain through all these years a bit haunted by my walk through Funchal, up the hill to the church and back down again, with so many questions and no one to answer them. I think about that place frequently, and seeing Madeira flooded with tragedy I was overcome with sadness, sympathy and empathy, as if I'd been born there.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM.

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