Atlantic Ocean / Cape Verde - March 5 to March 15, 2008
05.03.2008 - 15.03.2008 82 °F
Clearly the voyage has gotten ahead of me – at least from the standpoint of “salty ruminations.” Perhaps, therefore, it makes sense to rotate my gaze backwards at the risk of turning into a pillar of salt. Regardless of the outcome, I do so with no regrets.
First stop, Cape Verde aka Cabo Verde. We arrived there from Cape Town, an eleven-day journey that proved to be our longest stint at sea and the undoing of many bright minds. In addition to having lost a faculty member who threw in the towel and disembarked permanently on the first day in South Africa, a number of the students and staff began to show signs of wear and tear. The days at sea were one thing but the clash between academic pursuits and extracurricular ones became a battle royale. In between mixers, dances, cultural shows, performances, workshops, global scholar (i.e. guest scholar) lectures, the students began to feel crushed between the rock of entertainment and the hard place of course mid-terms in the form of presentations and papers. The faculty was just as pressed to produce exams; assign group projects and presentations; and turn in grades. In the LRC, I was unable to escape the stress which took many different forms – students close to or actually in tears because they had waited too long to begin their research, technology failures, student employees who needed micromanaging, a holdings inventory that seemed to be taking much longer than necessary, and other things.
But eventually, on March 15, we made it to the Cape Verdean islands, Cape Verde being a very different animal than the Seychelles. Whereas Seychelles is a bit of a paradise, Cape Verde is what happens when paradise begins to get lost. São Vicente, the island where we landed, reminded me a bit of Isla del Sol, ironically near the Cape Verde islands, except it is a rock in the middle of an Atlantic Ocean nowhere, a place where planes land to refuel. In a way, my characterization is unfair. Isla del Sol truly is just a rock with a landing strip and filling stations. São Vicente is peopled with pleasant folk - about a quarter of the people are African, from Senegal and other places and there’s a nearly negligible amount of Caucasians on the island - but I couldn’t shake the feeling of weary sadness, a sadness that is the basis of Cape Verde’s most famous musical style, the mournful songs of longing aka as fado or the Cape Verdean blues.
I was sad because São Vicente is dry as a bone – we were told by a tour guide that he hasn’t seen rain since 1984. I hadn’t imagined a place so brown. Once upon a time it used to rain on the island, and it was green. But that was then. Now they import all their vegetables and fruit from the next nearest island. It made me sad because I felt the absence of a future for those who live there. There’s not much to do except procreate and indulge in social problems. Two thirds of the population are under the age of 30 and less than 10 percent of are over 60. One of the sites we visited in Mindelo, the capital, was littered with used condoms and our tour guide told us that most people there have large families, and almost half the births there are illegitimate His grandfather had 47 children, his father had 24. He joked that the “energy” lessens with the generations – he himself, a young man in his early 20s, doesn’t have any children. Yet. In the center of town there’s a sculpture – a monument really – of an eagle with its wings spread. It’s meant to symbolize the first plane that landed on the island. I heard that the locals say that if a virgin walks underneath the statue, it will take flight. Despite the parade of women of all ages – pre-teen and up – the eagle remains.
Nearby is another monument of interest – a replica of Lisboa’s Torre de Belem, a five-story, fortified lighthouse on the Tagus. The influence of Cape Verde’s former status as a former Portuguese colony was evident everywhere. The citizenry is mostly Creole – a mix European with Blacks from the days of slavery. I bought very little of the currency – the Cape Verdean escudo - and was hoping that maybe they’d use the old Portuguese escudos that I remember from before the advent of the Euro, but they have their own currency, which like the Seychelle rupee is a soft currency. We were encouraged to pay for things in Euros or U.S. dollars. Other than lunch, I didn’t buy a thing. As is typical of such locales, everything is imported and thus expensive.
I think life there is probably difficult. I didn’t see anyone starving or in the streets, but the unemployment rate is tremendous and many of the buildings are in poor condition - crumbling, roofless, or otherwise unstable. Fish sells for three euros or less per kilogram, but meat is 11 euros per kilo. Feeding a family of 5 (the average household size) or more is probably a mean feat. The pace of life is slow and laid back, but it seemed monotonous as well.
For me, lunch was nice – I had creole-style amberjack fish which came with sides of baked yucca (or possibly cassava root), yam, sweet potato, russet potatoes and beets. The mixture went down well with a capharina and a beer, and I enjoyed my company that day – N. (a professor), G. (the Director of the LRC), and her friend and our newly added global scholar, Guatemala’s Minister of Education. After lunch, N. and I went in one direction and the other two women went in another. I was happy to stumble upon a killer band playing in a little Internet café/bar. Unfortunately, the place had already become a haven for a horde of (drunken) TSS students looking to stay out of the sun. I neglected to wear sunscreen that day and found myself looking particularly ashy for the next few. N. and I strolled around a bit, peeking into some of the shops and businesses. As for local products, many people were peddling homemade trinkets but nothing that spoke to me. I didn’t speak to many people either. Most speak Criulo, a Creole dialect, but Portuguese is the official language.
I didn’t get to practice either one very much because we had to board the ship by eight p.m. since our visit was only for one day to break up the monotony. In the interest of being frugal, I decided to eat dinner on the ship, which meant returning to the ship early. Once there, I saw no point in going back out. I’d had my fill of Cape Verde. When I listen to Cesaria Evora, I now know where she's coming from, both figuratively and literally.