Cabo Verde, first week



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 measured.

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 very well.

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 pronunciation.

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 "God-created-the-earth-in-six-days-and-then-rested-on-the-seventh" 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 cafes.

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 cities.

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 So 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, Calheta, 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 summer months.

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 caf 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 Disk there."
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 students.

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 inviting.

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 So 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 So 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 Anto, 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 Pal 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 Anto 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 Anto are cobble stoned, like the ones on Santiago, but the pattern of the stones is different. The Santo Anto 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 So 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 caf 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 week.