October 20 - November 7 2013 / Morocco/ West Sahara/ Cape Verde: Skimming the Surface
In Which We See Many Hard-Working People and Many Beautiful Places
Now we are in the Cape Verde Islands. The Cape Verdeans have had a long and difficult history. Some of it has to do with the American whaling industry. There were terrible droughts here, and no way to live and no way to earn money. Whaling ships called in the islands to take on supplies, food and wood, and the men went to work on them. Eventually when the whaling industry was tempered and then killed by the use of other fuels for light, the men became, some of them, ship owners of other sorts of ships. They emigrated and brought their families, and now there is a substantial diaspora of Cape Verdeans; we have many in Boston.
We docked around lunchtime here on Sal Island. Sal means salt. The docking was delayed since a ship was in our spot. The wind was extreme. Earlier in the morning we had spotted a tall sailboat at the horizon, and since there were quite a few of them in the small harbor here, we thought it must have come from or be headed here. It is a big ocean and I myself would not have wanted to have been in that small craft. Lunchtime was rendered difficult up on the outside deck because of the wind; we were afraid our water glasses would blow away. At length a pilot was found and our captain guided the ship around a corner, backed into a docking slot, with the help of a number of dogs on the pier, and we all got off.
There was a bird walk to be had, and John and I signed up for it; the alternative was to walk in the town and on a beach. Not of much interest to us.
Our leader for the bird walk is a self-effacing, funny Brit woman or is she a New Zealander I think, who’s an ardent birder. Our little busload of 16 first stopped by a craggy shoreline, of heavily-eroded calcite is it and volcanic rock everywhere, for these are all volcanic islands. I found a neon green grasshopper and kept the whole bus waiting while trying to make his picture. There were two cabbage white butterflies, and a fine little succulent plant. I always find small things of interest, for which I am so grateful.
A small pack of robust dogs, three of them, trotted along the barren landscape while we stopped and observed some herons.
Very little grows here, some acacia-like shrubs, some succulents, and little else. The land undulates slightly, and is reddish or tan. Quite bare.
So it is Salt Island, and we came to the salt pans. Here is a family chopping at the salt, slinging shovelsful into their truck. It is hard, hard labor and makes me either want to buy lots of salt, or none at all… The pans are marbled rectangles, with borders of crystal, of colors red, blue, pink, and the air is filled with salt which I could taste on my lips. The salt glittered and sparkled. We spent a long time there making pictures. A small family lives in a couple of tin shacks near the flats, and the children and their dog came out to see us.
We came into what I guess is the town. But all that seems to be here is unfinished hotels, and a few finished ones, garish, seemingly somewhat empty. We saw some European tourists, some honeymooners, and what were they thinking? The hotels look out on concrete slag piles and the water is far distant from them. They are trying to entice tourists here, for what else would they do for money, but it is a quite barren and uninviting place. The black people are handsome and dignified, and it is a pleasure to see young women flaunting themselves after the Muslim places. Kids in blue school unies wave and laugh as we pass by.
Hard by a preposterous walled resort complex (turreted towers?), is the turtle conservation place, and we along with several hundred resort-garbed reddened Europeans get to watch some newly-hatched baby hawksbill turtles excavated from where the turtle conservation people placed them as eggs. One woman tourist, with dyed bright red hair, has apparently sponsored a nest, and gets to help dig up her babies. When she finds one, the rapture on her face is stunning and heartening, and everyone applauds. She will always remember this thrilling moment. The babies are brought round the enclosure so that everyone can see them and take their pictures. They will be let into the ocean tonight. Perhaps they have already been released, and are now swimming in the sea.
A strange place. Filled with essence of artificial, and yet we have been told that the Cape Verdeans have a deep sense of family and strong cultural ties. I am sorry that they have had to do this to maintain themselves. I wish now that I had somehow understood all of this sooner, and I could have been a carrier of some object or greeting between someone here and someone in Boston.
John says, well you have hopes and expectations about these trips. Yes I guess that is true. I will still have to find the heart of this one.
We almost had some difficulty getting away from the pier: a line got stuck around the corner of a pier of some sort, and the guys could not at first get the line disattached from the great huge thing that holds it on tightly. John and I were the only ones who saw this. Help him! Help him! I shout down at the guy who stands there watching as his mate tries to disentangle the line. Our ship pulls away, dragging the huge line behind, still attached on shore. What will happen? Finally at the last minute, after some shouting, and several people grasping and pulling, we are free to go, and our big hawser is pulled in after us. And we go in to dinner.
In the morning we arrive at St Anthony Island, Santo Antao. How different it looks, from the ship. This land is green. The great improbably jagged peaks—once, in the Tahiti airport, I said they looked like torn construction paper, and that is still a right description—mass on the horizon, and the town below. Dogs assist in the docking. How long ago did this landscape appear? Was anyone here? What lived here, when these great volcanoes spewed their death?
In a small bus, we are skillfully driven up and up and up and into the clouds, on a road, made a hundred years ago of carefully-cut small blocks of basalt, laid in a lovely pattern, even with a center line down the middle. All is terraced. For there is no flat land here on which to plant. They are growing corn, and there are corn plants in every crevice. The road winds higher and higher and then we are in or on the mountains, and cloud fills the canyons and drips from the tips of pine needles and spruce. There are spruce and pine cones on the road. We are allowed many stops, and alongside the road is magnificent geology, complex, undulating, telling the history of this place. There are layers and undulations and foldings and many colors. If only if only I could run the videotape backwards! And see how all this came to be.
Some terraces are not planted, but grow greenly with grass. Most are thick with corn plants, and there is sugar cane too, tall and tasseled. I snatch a chance offered to sit in the front seat, my preferred place. The driver does not really speak English, but I see he appreciates my interest in what I am seeing, and makes small adjustments to make my picture-taking easier. Now and then he names something—plants, for he sees I am interested in them, or various other sights. At the end of the trip we exchange cards! Also I pass my card on to our two guides, who seem surprised and pleased. I do not know if they actually own computers, but they have access, and maybe they will visit my website.
We have a stop at a home which runs a family business of making “grogue”, and we are told about the process, and see the various animals round about, goats and cows, and we are offered various baked goods which are pretty coarse, and some thick coffee, and we get to sample the liquors, amid much merriment. Unlike our time in Morocco, this time is slow and feels unscheduled, which I appreciate so much.
The mountain heights are sharp, dangerous, precipitous. And yet here are people living on the very edges, and making a precarious living on the points of earth. How wondrously adaptable our species is—like flies or rats or roaches, even, those admirable, opportunistic animals..
We come down from the heights on a new road, paved with bitumen, an amazing thing built through the heart of the mountains with the aid of several tunnels. It seems this was financed by a consortium of a number of countries, including of course China, in return for some fishing rights hereabouts, and which they are already overfishing. The road seems not heavily used, but it is a marvel.
Still, I like the old, stone road better.
Then to the ship, and lunch. It is too windy to eat outside, so we must go below. The first hike is tomorrow and I am still quite nervous of it. There seems no information about length or underfoot. I do not want to embarrass myself, or to hurt myself.
In the afternoon, after a sail of an hour or so to get to the next island, Sao Vicente, we take off into the town. It’s a Caribbean-feeling place, with an in-your-face style, brilliant color everywhere, an easy, African feeling. We have heard a great deal by now about the relationship here between the early whaling ship days and the present, and how this island is supposed to be more European in feel, but I don’t really see it. To me it’s African, with that consummate ease of body and joy in color, sound and movement.
We visit a few markets, fish, vegetables, goods of various sorts. Men hang about outside the fish market playing cards and other games. People do not smile back at me, which is interesting. I was able to photograph two eels, ready to be scaled, and some shining small fish. Some huge green and orange striped squash.
We are to visit a church but there is a funeral in progress—all at once the mourners and the deceased and the choir and the priest emerge, and we stand aside respectfully (except for The Smartest Man In The World, who, unbelievably, moves forward to take a picture). The deceased is placed in a vehicle and all follow him, to the cemetery. After a few minutes, we move inside; the church is plain and scented with incense. A quiet time for us.
There’s an art museum or academy of some sort, with great imaginative textiles, exuberant constructions of sticks, a set of glasses and decanter gaily outfitted with knitted covers. Model boats to be used in dance, which our guide demonstrates with brio.
At the end we are taken to a tiny shop on a small street, the atelier of a famous guitar maker. He is handsome to distraction. He shows us how he makes his machines, and then he, a singer, a young guy who uses a box for a drum, and our guide on tambourine, play for us. The shop is dark and close and I am transported by some of the music, though not all. Little kids push in and stand watching. One young boy has been there from the start and is desperate to play drums, tapping the windowsill and patting his feet, and moving.
Now it’s time to go. We pile in, drive back through the small town, and to the ship. The walls around the pier are autographed by all of the visiting ships, as is the custom in ports, and I see with pleasure that the Rotterdam, of Holland America, a ship I have been on, has visited. There are ships from Turkey, Ukraine, Russia, America, Senegal and I don’t know where else.
So now we have passed briefly and quite tangentially through their lives, the people here, and it is past time for dinner. Later this evening we will go out for music and dancing. I am going and maybe John. Maybe I will have a good time.
Later. Well, not so much. I’d thought the drinks chits at the music place might be for glasses of wine or beers or so, but no, just coffee, water, and soda. So I had a coke and sat quietly and listened to the music, which I like a lot, and everyone else was laughing and drinking. They brought out some dancers in Carnival costumes, and they were great, flexible as eels and exuding sex and energy. I was majorly embarrassed by the stolid appearance of the old men from our ship in the front row. God! How these people must laugh and shake their heads over us after we leave! Do they take no joy in life? At least a few of our group took to the dance floor and partnered each other with grave elegance.
So today, on Sao Nicolau island, is to be the first of the dreaded, much-anticipated hikes. In crowded vans we drove up and away from the harbor, through a small town, on the ubiquitous lava-rock roads, each rock cut by hand and laid by hand and still here. The road winds upward. Little groups of people, men, women, kids, watch us come, most impassive. What do they know of our worlds? And what do we know of theirs? These mysteries are painful.
There’s a stop at a glorious overlook. All these islands are volcanic and surely this one has the most extreme of peaks. Fingers, crags, knife-edges, cones, implacable above the tiny homes and cobbly streets, the hard-working farmers whose corn yields this year are withering on the stalk. What will they do for food?
There are some places, higher up, where there are groves thick with banana plants, their lovely huge leaves (big brothers to mine at home) lift to the sun, and fringe as they die. There are some papaya trees laden with their big fruit, nestled like a face under the pretty leafy crown. There are little forests of sugar cane, a grass writ big.
In these more prosperous places, more favored by rain, men and women hack and chop at their crops, loading big white bags and lining them up along the road. On the way back we saw them loading these into a truck.
But the overlook. A small village lies deep in a narrow valley, and up the precipitous slopes perch terraces, for farming, some used and some not. So—every day you must go up and down these to do your work. If you don’t go up there and tend your plantings, you will not eat nor will your family.
The first part of the hike is to go DOWN from where we are to that village down there. Everyone starts out and so do I, gamely, hoping for the best…alas, alas. The underfoot is the same cobbles, but degraded and broken in many places. There are lots of switchbacks for sure, but that does not help me. I try to use my stupid cane, but since I also want to take pictures, it’s more of a hindrance than a help. I feel the pressure of “hurry” as I try to pick my way safely down the very steep road, and of course that makes it worse. John sticks close but I really want to be alone.
Here and there are little houses, with the kids, dogs, women and men. They, of course, trot up and down in their flipflops with great ease.
Oh well. It’s their home place. I expect my trotting about confidently in the subway at Park Street, Boston, might prove daunting to them.
It’s a long, long, long , long way down. The staff has been trying for days to get information about how far everything is, and what altitudes and all that, but to no avail. So nobody knows for sure where they are going. But they are all, every single one of them, ahead of me. Humiliating and depressing.
Finally, at last, at the bottom [which turned out to be 1500 feet down], there is a rest place. The rest of them are now to go partway back up the road, take a different fork, continue on up, and then down. Obviously I cannot do this. So, with my faithful husband and a few others who have given up, we are ignominiously driven away.
We are supposed to meet the hikers at some kind of restaurant. There is no communication. Our driver speaks no English and our travel company person no Portuguese. So there is a wait of about an hour, more or less sitting in the vehicle, two ladies and I, observing some dear little Iago Sparrows (endemics), a male and female, chirping and fluttering near our open door, and hopping hopefully onto the edge of our window. All three of us have great pictures of these birds since there was nothing else to do. I felt I could not walk another step. John and our ship guide went off to see if the hikers could be located.
Finally, yes, yes, here is the first hiker; we take him in to our van and then there is supposed to be a “short walk” to the restaurant, which we drive. For the rest of the hikers this turns out to be about 3-4 kilometers, uphill.
Eventually all are reunited and we have a simple lunch at somebody’s home, outside, with musicians to play to us. I spend the time looking at corn. I am tired and very, very sad.
Back on the mother ship at last, people talk about their hike experiences and I must put the best face on mine…
There’s a ferocious wind, and for about 90 minutes the Captain cannot get the ship away from the dock. Finally he does, and John and I snuggle together and hug.
This morning at Fogo Island, comes the second hike, which is to be “moderate.” Once again piling into the vehicles, driving up steep, narrow cobbled streets. Many people lounge about. Children with nothing to do. Most of them seem not even to be playing. Maybe children don’t play, here where it is so desperately poor? Men in groups seem not to be playing cards or other games, although I did see the African game with colored stones and egg-carton-like boards. Women hang in groups and everyone stares at us as we drive by. I snag the front seat—again!—and although my view is obscured by placards put in the windshield, and sun screens and stuff, I still like being there. I have room for my knees.
It’s over an hour of driving to get to the Volcano Park, for it is a national park here, and Fogo means “fire”. The landscape slowly fills up, fills to overflowing, with lava. The most recent eruption was only 18 years ago. Buildings are built of black cinderblocks. Our guide says, Yes, he remembers it. There was a big earthquake, too, and his Mother hurried him and his siblings outside, since, you know, the houses can fall down on you.
Then there are no buildings, only the horrible lava, all of it on the surface, the ferocious, unforgiving a’a [sharp-edged lava], piles and piles of it, that visual definition of chaos I wrote about in Hawaii.
But also there is the cinder cone, smooth as sugar, angle of repose steep here for it has not had time to settle farther downslope. Black sugar, a gigantic sugar-cone.
Here and there messages have been spelled out on the smooth cinder fields in lighter-colored rocks, just as they do in Hawaii. This all looks different from Hawaii, though—more of these smooth and enticing fields of cinders, very little pahoehoe [ropy coils of lave] to be seen, and the little road cuts right through the most vicious a’a fields.
Here is our trailhead. We are to climb up this smaller cone. Since we have been ascending rapidly, negotiating dozens of constricted switchbacks, I know with sinking heart that the altitude will absolutely do me in. Turns out we are at about 5,800 feet, over a mile high, before the hike even starts.
But I do start, and I tell them right away that I will surely be turning back. Mercifully, it is decided that I don’t need a minder to get back to the road. It gets steeper and steeper, and finally I am reduced to 15 steps and a stop, 15 steps and a stop. There’s a goal, a flattish place with a few big rocks one can sit on. Finally I make it. I think to sit here, alone, for fifteen minutes.
But no. Because we have to leave this island early, in order to try to find a good place for the eclipse two days hence, there is once again a hurry-up thing, and I am told no, I need to get back to the vans down on the road. Because we can’t linger, we have to finish the hike, have the lunch, and get back to the ship. So we can set sail for the eclipse.
I do take about five minutes near the bottom to examine the wonderful volcano apples, what else could one call them, small apple bushes with ripening apples.
John joins us, having gotten already to the summit and come back down. I am so happy he got to the summit, and I am so happy he is back down here with me.
Fog fills the road and obscures the peaks. We drive into the caldera where there is a small village in which they make wine and have for generations. A guide walks us through the fog. Small children try to sell us bags of red peppers or miniature houses made of lava. They are all selling the same thing, and they range in age from about five to perhaps twelve. I can hardly bear it, to say no, or worse, to ignore them.
Figures walk here and there in the fog, women carrying large loads on their heads, men carrying loads on their shoulders.
We wait a very long time at the restaurant. Once again the whole setup is messy and confusing. Finally, after a few other people arrive from the hike, the vintner, a smart man from Turkey, married to a local woman, explains to us about his three kinds of wine, and we taste them. Then there is a very good lunch, and then back on the buses, through the grim lava fields, down the wretched road, back through the somnolent town, to the pier, onto the zodiacs, and home to our ship.
So those are two stories about the hikes I did not do. I am filled with melancholy. I feel lonely, cheerless. We are now entrained in the search for clear skies for the eclipse. I want to go home. I miss my house, my cat, my food, my bed, and my girls.
I doubt I will be able to post this journal. Who would want to read it??