According to the Lonely
Planet West Africa guidebook, Cape Verde has the highest life
expectancy rate in all of Africa, one of the lowest growth rates in West
Africa, and a 68% literacy rate, which makes it the highest in West Africa.
It is an archipelago of nine inhabited islands, of which the population of
445,000 is about 80% Roman Catholic.
There are four southern (leeward) islands and five northern (windward)
ones. The distance off the coast of Africa is reckoned as 450 kilometers,
but I don't know the exact point among all these islands to which that is
During my stay here, I
came to find out that there are more Cape Verdians living outside of the
country than in Cape Verde itself. The U.S. population center is New
England, with many living in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. There is a
regular non-stop flight from the international airport on the island of Sal
to Boston. Perhaps it is this New England connection that accounts for the
abundance of people wearing T-shirts that bear some of the designations
that I saw: Boston, Martha's Vineyard, Milton, Boston Red Sox, Harvard,
Boston-New York AIDS Ride, and Newport.
Cape Verdians in Europe
are concentrated in France and Holland. My visit to their tourist office in
Rotterdam in 2002 added to my motivation to come here. It is the Cape
Verdian diaspora that is keeping the economy alive here, with fully 25% of
the country's GDP being sent in by those family members who are living and
working abroad. Individual average income is $1,500. There is a movement
afoot to get retired Cape Verdians who have earned their living abroad to
come back to their country; even if they have a modest pension, it would
offer them tremendous buying power here, and they would be able to live
It took just under two hours to fly from Dakar to the capital, Praia,
located on the island of Santiago. Clock time is one hour behind the
mainland that I had left. The plane made me feel like a giant, as I could
barely stand up in the aisle without my head hitting the - well, I am sure
that people who know about airplanes don't call it "ceiling" but
that's the only word I would have for it. There were just eleven rows of
seats, with two on either side of the aisle, which explains why it was so
difficult for me to get a flight here.
My first stop in Praia
was the office of the Peace Corps, and I made sure to ask one of the flight
attendants how to pronounce it. The Portuguese sounds like "Corpo dah
Posh," and that was just the beginning of my fun with local
Oddly enough, the PC
office was closed. I had thought that since our bureau in Nouakchott is
accessible 24/7 that that was a global policy, but it sure is not. The
guard explained to me that it would be open on "second day,"
using the local custom of naming days by the order that they occur during
the week. All I needed to figure out was the day of the week when they
start counting. On the one hand, since it's a Catholic country, maybe they
use the Biblical
approach, which would make the "second day" Tuesday. I later
found out that Saturday and Sunday are named, and Monday through Friday are
referred to as the second through sixth days.
I checked in with the
PC on Monday morning, and got my next surprise: visiting dignitaries such
as me are not allowed to use the Volunteer lounge computers! In Nouakchott,
we have had many PCVs visit and use our computers with no problem, just as
it was not a problem for me to use them in Dakar. In fact, in Praia, the
local PCVs are only allowed to use their computers for "official
business." The administrative officer explained that the Volunteers
get enough money in their living allowance to allow them to use Internet
I borrowed an
English-Portuguese dictionary from the office, and had to sign an affidavit
that I would return it before I left the country. One of the Volunteers
told me how to find the PCV transit house, which PCVs from other countries
are allowed to visit but not stay in. I wanted to go there because that is
where the lending library is located, and I had some books to exchange.
It was fun to meet
several of the CV PCVs, including two of the married couples. They gave me
helpful travel information, such as what the correct fares are to pay in
the minibuses, and on which days the market would be better in certain
Talk about transit
system! Its appearance is the best I have seen so far in Africa, and it
consists of the following: (1) taxis in Praia that are spiffy, clean, white
compact Toyotas; it is very rare that I even notice the make of a car, but
with the surplus of these on the road, I couldn't help but notice the logo
of three ovals gleaming in the sun; (2) there are buses in Praia - not
huge, but very comfortable and modern; (3) Toyota minivans, most of them
red, that go from town to town on the island, the model named HI ACE, which
is pronounced "yoss," with the "o" sounding as it does
in the word "stop;" and (4) pick-up trucks that have been fitted
with canvas-covered frames over the open beds, making them appear like
modern-day Conestoga wagons, carrying passengers on benches that line the
long sides of the beds.
I went out for a beer
with a few of the PCVs. While we were there, another one came along with
her father who has been visiting. As a means of introducing me to the
Volunteer and her father, Amy said, "Jay has a really interesting job
in Mauritania. He is writing sex books." This got a quizzical look -
not only from the other Volunteer, but from me, as well.
I asked her what she
meant by that, and she said, "Isn't that what you said you were doing?
Writing sex books?" No, no, no - not SEX books! TEXT books! We had a
good laugh out of that one. I'm going to have to be sure to pronounce that
initial "t" in the future!
I spent my first three nights in Praia, then took an overnight trip to the
other end of the island, Tarrafal, and back to Praia for one more night
before I went off to the island of São Vicente. I like the name Tarrafal,
which reminds me of the street and streetcar name Taraval in San Francisco.
When I got into the HI
ACE in Praia, to take the trip to Tarrafal, I noticed that there was one
major difference between the Mauritanian and Cape Verdian approach to
public transport. Though drivers in both places want to make their trips as
full as possible, the Mauritanian drivers remain parked until the vehicles
fill up, whereas the Cape Verdians drive around to drum up business,
calling out the names of their destinations. My first destination, since I
was going to Tarrafal via the coast and coming back via the mountains, was
Calheta (kahl-YEH-tuh), so the driver called out his window, "Calheta,
I do not understand
Portuguese, so I don't know exactly what the driver and prospective
passengers said to each other during the times that the driver stopped to
talk. One would think that this was a fairly cut-and-dried situation, in
that a person either needed/wanted to go to the destination or he didn't.
But on a few occasions - and I hope I can get somebody to explain this to
me - the driver asked a random person on the street if he wanted to go to
the destination, the person shook his head no, and then the driver got out
of the car, talked for a few minutes with the person, and - I'll be a son
of a gun - the person decided to get into the car to make the trip!!!! This
happened when leaving Praia to go to Calheta and when leaving Tarrafal the
next day for Assomada.
The road all the way to
Tarrafal was made of cobblestones, painstakingly laid in a chevron pattern,
with the lines radiating from the center of the road. I can't imagine the
amount of effort that that took!
Throughout the island, the primary architectural motif is the cinder block.
In the center of towns and cities, the buildings tend to be stucco and
painted. In the rural areas, though, most houses are either unpainted
cinder blocks, have paint that has faded, or painted on one side. Many
houses are unfinished, with no signs of work being done to complete them.
The countryside in the
interior is fairly mountainous. This is the dry season, so the hills are
brown and reminiscent of the appearance of Northern California during the
The people are warm and
friendly. Their appearance is varied, as may be expected with the mixture
of black and European people. The range is that there are some people who
appear all black, some all European, and many who are mixed and have the
appearance of the peoples of the Caribbean.
It's hard to tell what
language(s) a person can speak just by looking at him. Portuguese is the official
language, but most people speak Creole. I was at an Internet café in Praia,
trying to find the port for my Flash Disk, when a person who looked native
to the area said, in an English that sounded like it was right out of North
America, "I don't know if you're going to find a place for your Flash
That's how I met Sergio, the son of a Cape Verdian diplomat who has lived
in Hong Kong and Washington, and went to college in New Brunswick, Canada.
One of the married PC couples lives in Assomada, the largest city in the
interior of the island. They invited me to call them when I was coming
through, so they could show me around. They said that one of them taught in
the morning and the other in the afternoon, so one of them would be sure to
be there when I was in town.
I arrived about 10:20
to find nobody at home to answer the phone. After trying for an hour, still
finding no answer, I walked over to the schools. Kids here wear uniforms,
so it was easy to find the school by following the uniformed kids. When I
found the school, I was pleasantly surprised by its bright and modern
appearance, inside and out, with features that we take for granted in the
US, but I have never seen in Mauritania: windows, clean tiles, desks that
are not falling apart, and classes that accommodate a maximum of thirty
I found out that this
school is only three years old and is the nicest one in the country. There
are three PCV teachers there, and they agree that they are lucky to be
placed in this school. The wife of the married couple invited me into her
classroom, where I spoke to the students and answered questions. Her
husband has been delayed in Praia, which accounted for his not being home
to answer my call.
Students go to school
either from 8:00 AM to 1:00 PM or 1:00 PM to 6:00 PM. Schools everywhere
are run on this split session because if all students went at the same
time, there would not be room for everyone in the classes. As is the custom
in many countries I have visited, the students remain in the same room for
all their classes and it is the teachers who rotate. In the school that I
visited, there were no decorations of any kind on the walls of the
classroom. Its appearance was bright, clean, fresh, uncluttered, and
Several students live
on campus because their homes are too far away for daily travel. They live
four to a room and go home on alternate weekends. Their families pay for
them to go to school.
After my five nights on Santiago, one of the southern islands, I flew to
Sâo Vicente, one of the northern islands. I dutifully arrived at the
airport at 7:00 AM for my 8:45 departure, only to find that nobody else on
the flight bothered to show up until well after 8:00. This relaxed attitude
spread to the airport personnel itself, as there was an X-ray machine for
inspecting luggage, but it was not staffed; people just walked right by it
and into the departure lounge.
Mindelo is a
picturesque town. It is the most European in appearance of the communities
I have seen here so far. There are clean and spacious plazas and parks.
Streets are swept and tidy. The auto traffic is light and the drivers
actually wait for pedestrians to cross the streets.
Thanks to the amazing
power of the Internet, I was able to find some members of the Jewish
community in Cape Verde. One of them, John, had e-mailed me before I left
Praia, saying that he was "out of town" and would be back to
Praia on Friday night. When I got this e-mail, I was in Mindelo on Sâo Vicente,
so I e-mailed to tell him that when he got back to Praia, I would not be
there. His return e-mail surprised me, as the "out of town" where
he was was Mindelo, in a hotel just a few blocks away from mine!
John invited me to meet
him in the lobby of his hotel that evening. He introduced me to Ben, an
American who is working on behalf of Cape Verde's accession to membership
in the World Trade Organization. By the time we met, their work in Mindelo
had been completed; the next day, they were taking a day trip to Santo
Antão, the island to the west, and invited me to join them. He also lent me
his copy of Jews of Cape Verde: A Brief History by Dr. M. Mitchell
Serels, which I was able to read during my stay.
John speaks excellent
English and received his college education at Northeastern University, so
he is quite familiar with the Boston area. He told me that Congressman
Barney Frank is a frequent visitor to Cape Verde, as many of his
constituents are Cape Verdians who vote in overwhelming numbers to re-elect
him regularly. "That's all right," said John, "as long as he
keeps his personal life to himself and doesn't come near me."
We had a wonderful day
together, with John serving as our tour guide. He introduced me to a Jewish
family in the town of Paúl and showed me the Jewish cemetery in Ribeira
Grande. A highlight of the day was lunch at Pedracin Village, a new hotel
nestled into the hillside, built as an ecotourism center, in which all
vegetables served are grown organically on the premises. We ate lunch with
Jopan, the owner-builder of the hotel, a friend of John's.
The scenery of Santo
Antão is spectacular, with terraced land built into the hillsides and
beautifully engineered by using local stone. Villages are situated in some
of the most improbable and picturesque places. The mountaintops were
shrouded in mist and drizzle, with plenty of pine trees. The two-laned
roads of Santo Antão are cobble stoned, like the ones on Santiago, but the
pattern of the stones is different. The Santo Antão approach is to have the
gray stones put down in a haphazard manner, with one exception: two rows of
white stones clearly run down the center of the road, serving as a
permanent means of dividing the lanes of traffic.
John and Ben left me in
Ribeira Grande, where I decided to spend the night; they had to catch their
plane to Praia. Originally, I had intended to stay in Ribeira Grande all
day Saturday, returning to Sâo Vicente on the afternoon ferry. But there
wasn't much to do there, so I opted for the morning crossing.
When I left the pension, about 7:15, nobody on staff was in sight. I was a
little unsettled because I was supposed to be given breakfast and was told
it would be available as of 7:00. The trip to the port would take about an
hour, and it was not easy to know how long I would have to wait in my HIACE
for it to fill up, so I thought it was better just to get to Porto Novo in
time for the 10:00 ferry departure and get breakfast there.
The crossing was calmer
than the one the previous day, fortunately. And once I was back in Mindelo,
thinking about not having had breakfast at the pension, it hit me: I had
left without paying! When I registered, I pulled out money to pay
immediately, and the lad who gave me my room key said, "After."
I went to an Internet
café and sent an e-mail to John, telling him of my blunder. He wrote back
to say that he would ask Jopan to stop by the pension to pay; I later got
an e-mail saying that this was accomplished. Jopan is a representative in
Cape Verde's legislature, so he is going to Praia soon for a session. John
will pay back Jopan and I will pay back John when I return to Praia next