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Portugal: Journey to a proud, coastal, striving nation

By Staff | Jul 20, 2017

West Maui is our world. We live here, work here, pay taxes here, raise our families here. We drive the roads, enjoy the parks and beaches, and participate in our communities, be they schools, churches, sports teams or charities.

Whether we have resided on Maui for months, years, decades, a lifetime or generations, West Maui is the paradise stage where we play out our lives.

Yet it can be easy to forget that Maui is a tiny rock in a massive world. It can be easy to forget that Mauians represent .002 percent of the world’s population. Our issues matter immensely to us, as of course they should, because this is our home and these lives are ours.

But the world beyond our shores is full of other people striving to live well, be good, solve problems and shape the world around them. We do well to pay attention and learn all we can from the world beyond the sea.

This summer, I was fortunate to take a road trip with my wife through Portugal. We started out in the bustling Atlantic Ocean Capital of Lisbon, then drove out to the westernmost point in Europe (Cabo de Roca). We then navigated hundreds of miles of coastline through the hot and dry Alentejo region to the Muslim-influenced south, the Algarve, a region of resorts, fishing villages, sandstone canyons, super highways, mass tourism and majestic nature. (Full disclosure: I had surf maps in hand the whole time, and though the onshore wind tore apart the swell, I could see exactly why, per capita, Portugal is the most surf-crazed nation in Europe.)

With some 11 million tourists a year to Hawaii’s nine million, Portugal has a lot in common with Hawaii. Sunshine, stunning landscapes, a warm and hospitable people, a proud and deep history (Portugal is the oldest country in Europe), a world-class culinary tradition, incredible surf and a reliance on tourism as an economic driver.

Portugal also shares challenges with Hawaii: Coastal erosion, microplastic proliferation, overfishing, insufficient sewage treatment, haphazard development and messy politics, to name a few.

I kept my eyes open as I moved through cities, villages, resorts, campgrounds and beaches. I read books, talked to residents and kept my nose to the ground.

What I discovered was a nation and a people who have lessons to share with Maui, and lessons to learn from us.

What can we learn from the Portuguese?

First, their commitment to renewable energy leads the European Union. In 2016, 58 percent of power produced in Portugal came from wind, sun and waves. For Hawaii, which strives to be energy autonomous, we should follow Portugal’s example, the result of policy priorities set in motion in 2001.

Second, trash disposal and sorting in Lisbon is clean, clear and organized, with bins for paper, plastic, biodegradables and recycling. As an island, Hawaii has unique challenges in this regard, but we can do better.

Finally, the European ethic of appropriate consumption persists. It’s not utopia, but people seem to eat, drink and consume more moderate amounts of things, which has implications up and down the chain of consumption and trash disposal. Reigning in the “Bigger, Better, More” American ethos could certainly help us in Maui.

What’s so encouraging is how much I felt Maui could teach Portugal after this trip. The Portuguese have a long way to go. Sewage treatment is far too rare, with dirty industrial and residential sludge flowing into the River Tagus and out of the city of Porto, compromising water quality in many of Lisbon’s best beaches.

Cigarette smoking is disgusting and ubiquitous, with filters littered all over the beaches and waterways.

Looser European regulation allows restaurants, bars, hotels and vendors to set up shop on various beaches, which can be charming and inviting in one regard, but without a culture of rules and compliance, these operations can lead to filth and pollution. On the best surf beach in Sagres, the stunning southwestern Cape of Portugal, on a beach with caves, big waves and secret coves, I saw a bar in the corner of the beach surrounded by plastic bags, packaging and cigarette butts. It made me wish for a few more lawyers and laws to to create a cleaner, better environment.

The goal isn’t to judge but to learn, and learning is a two-way street. My wife and I were utterly taken with Portugal, and despite its challenges and imperfections, and in part because of its striving and idealism, we want to return.

May Maui and Hawaii celebrate our progress and virtues, own our imperfections and constantly learn from the Portuguese and others to make our beloved home even better.