Friday, February 4, 2011

The Ladies In the Windows

The State of Maine had docked in the port of Funchal, Madeira, the previous day.  A former troop transport of Korean War vintage, she now served as one of the training ships for prospective mates and engineers of the United States Merchant Marine.  She carried a large contingent of young men—if they could be called that—in their late teens and very early twenties.  While the range in age was small, the range in maturity levels was larger.  Some of these young men had learned, through shipboard experience, to remain focused on long-term goals and not live impulsively for the moment.  Others, less mature, let their impulses govern them.  The pleasures of the moment, for them, reigned supreme.

About twenty or so of these young men were going ashore in their off-duty hours one afternoon.  They piled into four or five taxi cabs on the pier.  The taxi drivers’ native language was Portuguese, but they understood enough English to understand the young men’s instructions to drive them downtown.  Years of chauffeuring American tourists around the island had no doubt taught them that much of the language and more.  The drivers wended their way through the extensive dockland area, passing moored ships and dodging stacks of cargo.  After a couple of miles of this, the city proper came into view.  It looked inviting.  A Mediterranean style seaside town with whitewashed walls and red tile roofs, Funchal stood firmly on the side of a hill and overlooked the broad Atlantic from which its ground rose.  Madeira was actually the top of an undersea mountain, a larger than normal specimen of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.

While the geography was thus not exactly unique but certainly out of the ordinary, we were soon to learn that the same would not prove true of human nature.  People are, after all, true to character.

As the city proper came into view, the little fleet of taxi cabs convoyed into town on one of the main streets.  After some distance, this street divided.  One could go left on the high road, which as we could clearly see led uphill into the center of town, or one could go right on the low road, which as we could also clearly see led downhill into a backwater neighborhood. The taxis all took the low road.  The five of us in the third car in the line exchanged puzzled looks.  Two or three told the driver, “We want to go the other way, downtown.”  The driver calmly assured us in pidgin English, “No worry.  I take you downtown.  I take you someplace you like.”

All the taxis in the parade pulled up in front of the “someplace you like.”  It was a two story structure of rather dirty whitewash rising from the paving stones of the low road.  As the taxis came to a halt, the twenty or so young men alighted and were greeted in the street by several middle age men.  These greeters gesticulated lavishly, motioning the taxi passengers towards the open front door of the dirty whitewashed building.  “Right dees way, my friend,” they oozed over and over again.  “You have good time here.”  A glance upward at the building revealed several young ladies in their underwear lounging seductively on the ledges of the open windows on the second floor.  Two or three of them puffed on cigarettes as they gazed with bored expressions at the street scene below. 

It did not require any particular stroke of genius to figure out that this was a setup.  All these people—the drivers, the greeters, the girls—obviously worked for the same employer.  No doubt there was also a cashier inside the open front door, waiting to collect cold, hard, American cash from the young men.

I was one of those young men.  Despite having all the inherent immaturity of a twenty-year-old, I knew better than to let myself be roped into a scheme such as this one.  There were several of us who felt the same way.  Once we had taken in this remarkable scene, we glanced around at each other and agreed, “Let’s get out of here.”  We walked the rest of the way downtown.  Without realizing it, we were following the counsel of Mormon: “Be wise in the days of your probation; ask not, that ye may consume it on your lusts, but ask with a firmness unshaken, that ye will yield to no temptation” (Morm. 9:28). We were wise enough to know that the goings-on at the “someplace you like” were just plain wrong, and we wanted no part of them.

But some of the young men from the State of Maine had a different reaction.  The sight of the ladies in the windows generated excitement and enthusiasm from those inclined toward impulsiveness.  “This is great,” they exclaimed. “Let’s go!”  They rushed toward the open front door and disappeared inside.  We didn’t see them again until many hours later, when everyone was back aboard the ship.

Those of us who walked the rest of the way downtown enjoyed a wonderful visit to Funchal.  There were inexpensive souvenirs, good food, and friendly people.  A few of us hired the driver of an antique touring car to take us on a ride around the island.  This was a very interesting experience.  We saw far more of Madeira than anyone else from the State of Maine, from the streets and squares of the city to the farming villages on the hillsides to the overlook near the top of the mountain.

Tucked into an indentation in the side of this mountain was a small chapel of wood frame construction.  We followed the touring car driver inside.  He spoke with unbridled affection as he told us about this modest but beautiful building.  Sunlight streamed into the chapel through several stained glass windows whose designs depicted scenes from the life of Christ.  Beautifully carved woodwork surrounded the altar, and perhaps a dozen or so varnished and gleaming pews stood ready to accommodate a small congregation.  Immaculately clean, this little chapel was obviously well cared for by dedicated parishioners.  From its perch on the hillside, it overlooked a large part of the island.  Like the proverbial beacon set on a hill, this chapel stood in luminous contrast to the “someplace you like,” making its dirty whitewash seem like a tarnished bridal gown.  But that was not visible from the chapel.  Instead, visible in all directions was the magnificently beautiful island of Madeira.  I’m grateful that I was able to go there.

More important than any sightseeing tour, however, was what we did not experience.  The scriptures inform us, “he that looketh upon a woman to lust after her shall deny the faith, and shall not have the Spirit” (D&C 42:23).  We did not lose the Spirit; we kept it with us.  And on a purely practical level, we did not do anything of which we would later be ashamed, or put ourselves at risk for an infectious disease.  The only aftereffects of our visit to Madeira were happy memories.

(Note:  The abbreviation D&C in LDS terminology refers to a book of scripture titled Doctrine and Covenants.)

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