Cabo Verde, second week

 

 

          In every town or city of any decent size, there are several Chinese-owned shops selling a huge variety of novelties and household goods. Cape Verdians I spoke to mentioned that these stores have made many items more available and affordable to the average family. I went into dozens of these shops, usually called Loja Chinês (“loja” meaning shop) or something else as generic. They were uniform in their similarities: a lone Chinese person at the cash register and several Portuguese-speaking Cape Verdians overstaffing small spaces that were filled with cheap clothing, plastic kitchenware, toiletries, and the like. I found the smell of the plastic to be overpowering and nauseating.

           My initial impulse upon entering these and any other shops, after all the time I have spent in Mauritania, was to say, “Salaam aleykum.” I had to stop myself from saying that several times, remembering to say, “Bon dia” or “Bon tarde,” depending on the time of the day.

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           I found this last week to be the opportune time to begin work on something that I had hoped I would have time to do while here: drawing. I haven’t had any formal training in this area, and I don’t know that I have the patience to pursue professional instruction. But for now, I am capturing scenes in ink in a small journal that my cousins Fran and Ed gave me. So far, I am pleased with the results, not only for their own sake, but also for the practice that they afford me of staying in the moment with what I see and am doing.

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           People look noticeably different here than on mainland Africa. Some men have earrings, tatoos, dreadlocks and other longer or unusual hair styles. Many men wear shorts. Women wear pants and much more revealing clothing. The attention to appearance is not as meticulous as it is in Dakar and Mauritania. There is more graffiti here, which is manifest in both spray painting and the plastering of posters. Overall, there is less smoking.

           Young children and teenagers circulate freely in the streets, individually, in pairs, and in small groups. It is evident that this is a safe society, and they can move about without worry of being harmed.

           Most people, seeing that I am caucasian, presumed that I was European and addressed me in French. I did not inform them otherwise. I thought, Well, if I do something rude, stupid, or awkward, let them think that I am French!

           Menus were almost exclusively in Portuguese, with an occasional one in French, and only one or two with English translations. Some of my favorite “English” dishes were “tunny fish,” “smached potatoes,” “sea feengers,” and “feesh croakettes.”

           In Mindelo, I walked into a Costco-style warehouse store - with its local twist, of course. Upon entering a fairly large lobby area, one sees that there is a counter that is staffed by about half a dozen people. Behind the workers, on a huge shelved wall, is the display of products that are on sale, along with small signs in Day-glo colors on which the prices are written. Customers tell the employee what they want by filling out an order form, after which the form is handed to a person who works in the back. The customer pays at the counter and then collects the purchases at the loading dock.

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           After my five nights in Mindelo (on São Vicente) and one in Ribeira Grande (Santo Antão), I was off to yet another island. Fortunately, the inter-island plane ticket that I purchased allowed for multiple changes without penalties. I had originally planned on going to São Nicolau, described in the Lonely Planet guide as “a great place for hiking.” Considering the kind of hiking I have seen so far on the first three islands - pedestrians having to share the narrow cobblestone roads with car traffic, which is not my idea of how I want to spend my day - I thought better of going to São Nicolau. I opted to go to the island of Sal, which the guidebook refers to as “the island where tourism is most developed.” That sounded more suitable to me.

           When I got to the airport to go to Sal, I saw two Italian women who had also stayed at my hotel, but to whom I had only nodded at breakfast during the previous few days. They were Mara and Marta, from Milano, and were going to Sal, too. There are two towns with hotels on Sal: Espargos, a small town near the airport (with the advantage of being more centrally located on the island) and Santa Maria, a more tourist-oriented place about 18 kilometers from the airport, on the south coast of the island. My inclination was to go to Santa Maria, but Mara and Marta, having been there before, suggested that Espargos was a better choice. Unless you have studied Portuguese you would have no way of knowing how to say "Espargos," so I will tell you that it has the unlikely pronunciation of "shpogsh:"

           I decided to go with them, which included checking into the same little hotel, Casa Varela - one that was not listed in the guidebook. I was happy with this decision, in that it was not only the nicest room where I have stayed on this trip, but also the least expensive (a little more than $15 a night, including breakfast the next morning). Adela, niece of the hotel owner, was visiting from Lisbon and made a very welcoming presence. Each night, she supervised the cooking of a vegetarian dinner for me. She also saved me from trying to turn Spanish into Portuguese, as she speaks English and wanted to use it.

           I like Marta’s impression of Cape Verde, as she expressed it in English: “No Africa, no Europe. Between, between.” In fact, I later came to find out that there are some residents in the northern islands who think of themselves as being part of Europe and the southern Cape Verdians as being part of Africa.

           My first adventure on Sal was to head east to Salina, the salt works at Pedra de Luma, from which the island gets its name (meaning “salt”). The next day, I went to Santa Maria to see the place where I was not staying. Mara and Marta were correct in that it is more touristy. At the same time, I thought that the hotels, shops, and restaurants are designed very tastefully, with none of the kitschy accoutrements that usually accompany same. It was the only place on the islands where I saw prolific signs in store windows announcing that they accepted VISA credit cards.

           Most of the activity in Santa Maria is centered around the beach, where there are people SCUBA diving, sailing, windsurfing, paragliding, and in similar activities.

           For my third day, I walked west to the port town of Palmeira - not that there was anything to do there, but at least walking there and back (about an hour each way) gave me something to do.

           On Saturday, it was back to Praia for my final two nights. I headed over to the PC transit house to return the Portuguese-English dictionary and several other books I had borrowed and finished. I found several PCVs I had already met, along with some new ones. I spent an enjoyable evening chatting with them and comparing notes about our PC lives. There are three big differences for the Cape Verde PCVs: (1) They do not pay their own rents. This is taken care of by either the PC or the agency for whom they work, so it is not factored into their living allowances. (2) Most of them live with other PCV roommates, a practice that is not just discouraged in Mauritania, but absolutely forbidden, except in rare instances for two women who may have security issues. (3) Their Country Director petitioned PC Washington to allow the continuing use of their transit house, and it was approved. In Mauritania, the house that served the same purpose was called the maison de passage, and it was eliminated in Nouakchott a few years ago. Since our former CD didn’t like its being there, she never petitioned for its continued use.

           On Sunday morning, I was eating breakfast at the hotel and heard the sounds of North American English - not common in these parts, other than among PCVs. It turned out to be three members of a volunteer group I had not previously heard of: the Geek Corps. This is a group of Information Technology experts who are volunteering their time worldwide to help in computer-related work. These three are working for non-profits in Dakar now, and were in Cape Verde for a one-week vacation. (If you would like to read about the Geek Corps on the Internet; you can find them at www.geekcorps.org.)

           On my last day in Praia, I went to the cemetery, where there is a small handful of Jewish gravestones. Then, in the afternoon, I met John so that I could return his book to him and repay him for my hotel room in Ribeira Grande (see last week for details). Since my last post, my friend Carl in San Francisco made a valid and worthy point concerning John's comment last week about Barney Frank: that just as Jews have been discriminated against for many years, so have gay people. Of course, I had thought about that when John said it, but it took me by surprise and I didn't say anything to him about it. Carl's response and some time to think gave me enough time to consider how I could bring it up and talk to John about it.

           As our time worked out, though, he did not have enough time to stay with me so that we could discuss the topic. I will have to bring this up with him via e-mail.

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           During the three weeks of my vacation, I took seven flights from five airports. The three airports I used in Cape Verde are small and very easily accessible, even by foot: no freeway overpasses, underpasses, exits, interchanges, or long access roads, as well as an absence of signs on the order of "NO PED XING." The terminals are small structures, generally with very little setback from two-lane roads, with small parking lots in front, no traffic jams, and definitely easy-in/easy-out, as if one were going to a small and un-crowded shopping center. They are modern and pleasant. The Dakar and Nouakchott airports are larger, but still nothing on the magnitude of a typical US or European international airport.

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           Today I had a morning flight from Praia to Dakar and an evening flight from Dakar to Nouakchott. Since I knew that that was coming, I saved for today some sights that are close to the airport. I was delighted to see that the airport has the old-fashioned service at which it is possible to leave baggage for the day, so I left my luggage there and was off.

           Nearby is the town of N'Gor, near the water. I took a walk through its narrow back streets. Then I was off to the Pointe des Almadies, at the tip of the Cap Vert peninsula where Dakar is located. I wanted to go to this place because it has the distinction of being Africa's westernmost point. Take a look at a map of Africa, find that little curve furthest west into the Atlantic, and you will see where I was today - not that it was easy to get to:

           The guide book informs its readers that this little piece of land is actually on the property of Club Med. The Lonely Planet suggestion is to "scramble over some black rocks" and "you, too can take the stroll west - just act as though you belong!" I am going to have to tell them that this approach doesn't work any more. There is a guard station now, and I did try to walk by as if I looked like I knew where I was going, but the guards stopped me and asked for my room number.

           I told them that I had no room there, and that all I wanted to do was walk "over there, the furthest point west in Africa." They smiled, told me it was forbidden to non-guests, and then said I could go, just as long as I stayed in their view, which I did.

           That accomplished, I took a walk to the swanky hotel Le Meridien, grandly situated with spectacular ocean views from the Pointe des Almadies, and enjoyed their buffet lunch to celebrate my last day of vacation.

           There was enough time after that to stop at a cyber cafe so that I could get caught up on e-mail and writing this post. It was good to be back to lower public Internet prices. In Cape Verde, the cost was anywhere from $2 to $4 per hour, but in Dakar it is 50 to 70 cents an hour.

           What a day: I woke up in Cape Verde, spent most of my daylight hours in Senegal, and then went to sleep in Mauritania. Mamouni met me at the airport to take me "home," (as I am thinking of Nouakchott, compared to San Francisco, which is home without the quotation marks). Outside of the fact that I now have no clean underwear, all is well.

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           In all, it was a valuable vacation for me. In addition to seeing the places I saw and meeting the people I encountered, it solidified in me something that I had not put into so many words before: my spirit is fully urbanized, and my urban eyes long for the cityscapes that most people are trying to escape when they go on vacation.

           Forested hillsides are lovely for a few minutes of gazing, but I prefer sauntering on tree-lined boulevards. Fields of wildflowers can be dramatic, but I like to see my flowers enhancing the window boxes and gardens of homes. And I like to get a glimpse, even if it’s fleeting, through the doors and windows that the flowers grace.

           I can’t tell the chatter of one bird species from another. More challenging and exciting is figuring out the languages that people are speaking, what they are saying to me and each other, and trying out their language when I talk to them.

           Beaches hold no lure for me. When I’m on a beach for five minutes, it’s been four minutes too long. Make that four and a half. I don’t care to gaze at the ocean or stroll in the sand. What really does it for me is seeing how people present themselves in parks and plazas.

           The vistas from mountaintops and meadows pale when compared to the vibrancy of manmade monuments and museums. I like to see the results that the human hand has had in art and architecture. The sunlight, the moonlight, the stars twinkling on their velvety background offer me transitory joy when compared to the way that Van Gogh, Monet, and the Impressionists have mastered the mortal limitations of paint on canvas.

           Rather than communing with Nature, I see cities as my natural setting, the places that communicate to me, where I feel most at home. Being in Nature is not my nature.

           My needs are simple: I don’t have to gaze at dramatic scenery to get lost in my thoughts. I don’t associate tranquility or peacefulness with a natural setting. All I need in order to recapture my inner peace and calm is to spend time by myself. It frequently works to have a comfortable chair and a good book so that I can spend some time with the thoughts of a clever writer.

           I like to see the creativity that has gone into the design of lampposts, bus shelters, phone booths, metro maps and stations, cathedrals, synagogues, bridges, fountains, courtyards, cafes, grocery stores, and hotel lobbies. The functions of these items are universally the same, yet the approach to their assemblage frequently reflect local talent, tastes, and twists, which I enjoy observing.

           When I am at home, I do as little shopping as possible, trying to limit my retail experiences to the “get-in, buy-what-I-need, and get-out” approach. But when I visit a new place, I like to see the way consumer goods are displayed for sale. It’s all the better when I don’t need to buy anything, so I can view the scene as I would look at anthropological artifacts on display, with the store as their museum, their price tags as their labels, and the customers as the inhabitants of the culture.

           I don’t clamor for the wildlife of the countryside or the wild life of the cityscape, but the simple pleasure of living harmoniously with other people. Ah - my fellow humans! I like them well educated, open-minded, and well-traveled. It is a joy to walk among them as an unremarkable and unnoticed traveler, not calling attention to myself by virtue of my clothing or skin color. When I meet them, I like for them not to get flustered or bemused when I tell them that I am gay, Jewish, or vegetarian. I want these out-of-the-mainstream parts of myself to be met with understanding rather than puzzled stares, shrugged shoulders, and derision.

           Each of us has what Howard Gardner refers to as Multiple Intelligences, through which we view our world and learn from it. In my study of the Multiple Intelligences, I discovered a few years ago that my least developed is the one he calls Naturalist. A person with a highly developed Naturalist Intelligence knows the differences among species of flowers, animals, trees, and the myriad variety of Nature’s world. I know a few, and am just as satisfied with being able to say “pink flower” or “red bird” than to learn more specific nomenclature.

           A couple of years ago I laughed out loud when I read the first essay in David Rakoff’s Fraud. A New Yorker, he told of his aversion to the outdoors. He advises, “You want greenery? Order the spinach.” Yes, David! I’m with you!

           Over the years, my enjoyment of the communication process has developed ith the times. When I first traveled in the USA and Canada for a year during the Seventies, I sent my mother a postcard from every place I visited. This served the dual purpose of keeping her informed of my whereabouts and, since she was saving all the postcards to return to me at the end of the trip, as my own diary.

           During the Eighties and Nineties, I kept trip journals, with detailed entries concerning the people I met, the places I visited, the new words I learned in the local languages, and the money I spent.

           Now I can’t imagine traveling without frequent access to the Internet. Even though I am trying to develop my patience, I don’t know that I would find it enjoyable to have to wait as long as I would need to for letters to make their way to and from my correspondents. E-mail is my lifeline to sanity. My journal writing via computer allows me to go back to what I have written, edit, re-organize, and clarify my thoughts. My writing helps me with my thinking and communication. I am glad to have it available to me; reliable Internet access is now something I look for and depend on when I travel.

           Among the other enjoyable aspects of my travel, I appreciate having had the opportunity to develop these thoughts and put them into words. I enjoy having a sense of better knowing myself, my needs, and my interests.