Episode 208 – Land Ho! We’ve Reached Africa!

#myvikingstory

February 24, 2022. 75°F/24°C

After nine days at sea, it’s difficult to express just how excited we were to see land this morning, and the view certainly didn’t disappoint.

Officially the Republic of Cabo Verde, and part of Africa, Cape Verde is an archipelago of 10 volcanic islands off the coast of Senegal. They’re in the same ecoregion as the Azores, the Canary Islands, and Madeira. The islands gained their independence from Portugal in 1975, and have since 1990 been the most stable democracy in Africa.

We’re visiting one of the larger islands, São Vicente, which was uninhabited until 1476 when various Portuguese explorers in quick succession laid claim to it. Once settled by the Portuguese, in the 16th and 17th centuries the island became a hotbed for pirates, privateers, and the Atlantic slave trade. In the 19th century, the location and great harbours that had made those enterprises so profitable also made it a great place for commercial ships to re-supply; in fact, Cape Verde was the first stop of Charles Darwin’s voyage with HMS Beagle in 1832. Mindelo, where we’re docked, was an important international shipping port when coal was a major fuel source, and is still the second most important port in the archipelago.

With very few natural resources, Cape Verde’s economy is heavily (almost 70%) dependent on tourism and its related commerce. 350 days of sunshine per year, a temperate climate, gorgeous sand beaches, several small airports and a large harbour are all attractive to holiday-goers, as is the lack of rain (only about 250 mm per year) – great for tourists, not great for agriculture. Our tour guide, Carlos, native to Fogo Island (where the wonderful coffee of the same name is grown) but now living on Såo Vicente, explained that the islands have been in a drought period for over SEVENTY years, with São Vicente the hardest hit. The biggest non-tourist industries are naval construction and fish processing. Interestingly, the Cape Verde Islands have the highest standard of living in West Africa.

Ted took the 3 hour included tour, and I took the last available seat on the full day tour. I apologize in advance for the fact that my pictures are nowhere near up to the standard of what Ted takes, but hopefully by combining mine and his they’ll do their job, which is jogging our memories when we look back at this post.

Before setting off, we were all issued with a copy of yesterday’s negative PCR tests, which, in addition to being vaccinated, is Cape Verde’s requirement for allowing us on shore. We were also reminded to wear our masks, even outdoors, as we’ll be interacting with the local population. Our ship is maintaining a zero Covid case count, and we want to keep it that way in order to continue to be allowed to do independent exploration in future ports of call. According to the most recent statistics I could find online (Coronavirus (COVID-19) Vaccinations – Our World in Data) only 52% of Cape Verdeans are fully vaccinated and another 10% partially vaccinated.

Our crew, some of who have not been off the ship for 6 months, we’re especially excited to be allowed to touch land today. A few chose to defer that experience until we reach Funchal in 4 days because they’re getting their booster shots today. Thube, one of my World Café favourites, was excited even by the landscape, which she said reminds her of her native Cape Town.

Both tours took us around the town of Mindelo, although Ted’s tour was a panoramic drive, and mine was a leisurely narrated walk through the town’s main sites. We both got the “massage ride” 774 metres to the top of Monte Verde (Green Mountain), up winding hand-laid cobblestone roads with hairpin turns, to get a panoramic view of the harbour. We both visited Baía das Gatas (Bay of Nurse Sharks), and Praía Grande (Big Beach). We both got to taste the national drink, grog.

My tour group also stopped at Praia Lagriuna, visited a local luthier’s atelier, and had a traditional Cabo Verdean lunch overlooking the bay.

I’ll try to (mostly) let the pictures tell the rest.

We arrived just after sunrise and docked. Walking outside it was amazing to see how little water was under the ship at low tide, and how HUGE our “small” ocean ship looked from this perspective.
Mindelo is a thriving port.
Driving along the shore we could look back at the harbour. Notice the Marlin sculpture. We’re at low tide. At high tide, the fish appears to be jumping out of water that reached its midline.

The architecture ranges from colonial Portuguese (the exteriors of those buildings are protected by heritage rules, although the interiors can be modernized) to modern, in a variety of colours. Construction is cement block and mortar, covered by stucco and then painted. Since property taxes are not paid until a building is complete (as is the case in Peru), it is normal to see homes with one or more exterior walls left un-stuccoed, while the front facing the street is beautifully finished.

Top left: the Marine Museum, built to look like Lisbon Portugal’s Belem Rower. Bottom left: a door within the art center, a Portuguese era building.
Top right: a typical downtown Mindelo business centre street.
Centre right: more Portuguese architecture, now converted to apartments.
Bottom right: The “pink palace”, now a museum, was built by a Portuguese governor who wanted to move the capital of Cabo Verde from the island of Santiago to São Vicente. Portugal’s kind denied his request, so the “palace” was donated to the town of Mindelo to use for offices.
Street art is everywhere. Graffiti is not! One of the most important pieces of mural art (top right above) is the tribute to Cesaria Evora (“Cize”), a Mindeloan singer/songwriter who rose from poverty to gain international prominence in the 1990’s and won a Grammy in 2004. CesariaEvora
There are all kinds of shops and markets, from indoor boutiques to outdoor stalls. The “booths” shown top right are official shops, for which vendors pay 100 Euros per month. They lock, and goods can be secured inside. Open market spaces like those in the bottom photos cost only 5 Euros, but must be completely emptied and disassembled every night.
My group visited the fish market (top left) where most of the vendors did not want their photos taken, but the conch vendor (lower left) agreed. I’d never actually seen what conch look like before they’re turned into yummy fritters, but that’s a huge tub of them bottom right.
Top right: fish resellers crowd the pier to negotiate for the best catch. Some will clean the fish and sell it in the market, but others will simply sell door-to-door from a cart filled with ice.

Almost no food is grown on São Vicente due to the severe lack of water. The island has a desalination plant, but bottled drinking water is imported from other of the islands that have fresh water – as is virtually all fresh food with the exception of fish.

Everything São Vicente needs or wants is available, though, brought from the other Cabo Verde islands by ferry and beautifully displayed in the fruit and vegetable markets.
Nossa Senhora de Luz (Our Lady of Light) is the oldest church on the island. Although most Cabo Verdeans are Catholic, due to centuries of Portuguese influence, very few of them get married in a church – or at all. Our guide had been with his wife for 22 years and had 2 teenagers, but they’d never seen a reason to formalize it. As he put it, “if we split, she gets half anyway.” In Cabo Verde, the woman is considered the head of the household. So there.
On the streets of Mindelo, we saw several mimosa trees. These, along with acacia and palms, can thrive here because they need very little moisture, AND are able to process salt water!
There are ownerless dogs everywhere. A few years ago, because the dogs were causing problems for livestock farmers on Cabo Verde’s agrarian islands, the government began a program of euthanizing them. But remember, nothing grows on São Vicente, so the people here rebelled against that program. In the end, the government put the equivalent amount of money for euthanasia on this island toward hiring extra veterinarians to spay and neuter all the dogs. The dog population is incredibly lazy – probably conserving energy since they’re not being consistently fed – and sleep everywhere, including in the middle of the road. Twice our bus had to stop to wait for a dog to wake up and saunter off.
The traffic infrastructure is well maintained, but we noticed that there are no stop signs or traffic signals, only caution or yield signs. According to Carlos, they’re just not needed. Even at “rush hour” drivers are just “polite”.

We drove to the top of Fort Hill for a panoramic view of the harbour. The island is very windy, and the higher the elevation, the stronger the winds feel. Carlos our guide joked that the only things São Vicente exports are the hurricanes whose winds collect here and cross the Atlantic to North America.

You can certainly see why this hill would be a good location for a fort, with its commanding view of the harbour.

We had a short delay driving through Mindelo when we found ourselves behind a funeral procession on foot, complete with casket and musicians. We couldn’t see more than a few of the mourners from where we were, but we could hear the music faintly.

Ted’s bus ride took him past one of the walled cemeteries.

Our first of 3 absolutely spectacular beaches today was Praia Laginha, where the sand was perfectly round grains, about the size and texture of uncooked couscous. It’s winter here, so the air temperature was 75F/24C, but the water was around 68F/20C. I wouldn’t have wanted to be immersed, but it felt lovely on my feet (and my backside when I was surprised by a wave).

From the beach, we headed to Atelier Baptista. Luis Baptista is a second generation luthier (guitar maker) who also creates violins, cellos, mandolins, and more, and gives music lessons too. In his words, “São Vicente is a small island, so you have to do more than one thing. You need to eat!” He learned his guitar making craft from his father, but studied in Italy to learn to make violins.

After showing us his workshop (a second floor space of about 200 sq ft that was full of instruments in various states of construction and was very crowded with our group of 14 in it), he took us back downstairs to an even smaller room where we all sat in a circle to listen to him and his uncle and brother play 3 tunes. The first was a Morna, the national music of Cabo Verde, sung in Cabo Verdean Creole and a bit reminiscent in rhythm to zydeco or cajun music, especially if there had been an accordion added, which is often the case. That was followed by a faster folk tune, and a Carnaval tune. (São Vicente hosts a huge Carnaval celebration in normal/non-pandemic times.)

A few of Luis’ custom instruments, as well as a guitar in progress, our concert, and a few photos from the workshop. Note the guitar top left that can be disassembled for transport!
He proudly showed us the violin he crafted to graduate in Italy, as well as a modern travelling instrument that can be easily taken apart and reassembled for easy transport.
Our group was taken to a beautiful 3rd floor open air restaurant overlooking the harbour, where we indulged in a variety of Cape Verdean dishes and local beer. Check out that view back to our ship!

After lunch we visited another beach, Praia das Gatas, where the sand was made of shells crushed into granules by the Atlantic’s waves (reminiscent of the sand in Myrtle Beach).

The more closely you look at the sand, the more obvious are the shells.
Our group had the chance to walk out on the pier at high tide and witness those majestic waves crashing into and over the volcanic rocks that line the shore. This is where next month we’d be able to see breeding humpback whales that return each March through May.

From Praia das Gatas we got our first glimpse of the island’s famous dunes (across from us in the bottom photo above). Although the entire island is volcanic, the dunes are soft white sand, because the sand blows here from the Sahara Desert!

The area just outside Praia das Gatas was a fishing village until Cabo Verde sold most of the fishing rights to the Chinese. A few fishing boats remain, but it is largely becoming an area of upscale homes.
There are certainly many lovely homes being built, but there is little landscaping done except fences, since water is far too precious to use on plants.
Our third beach of the day was Praia Grande, where thousands of nesting sea turtles will appear later in the year. Here we saw firsthand the fine pale Saharan sand for which the area is known.

From there we took the exhilarating drive to the top of Mont Verde. 774 meters (just 0.774 km/2539 ft/0.48 miles) doesn’t sound like much, but when you’re talking about vertical height to the top, and reaching it in a vehicle on roads just 1-1/2 cars wide, it is a long (sometimes a bit scary for those of us not thrilled with heights) ride. The road is mostly cobblestone, with retaining walls less than 1 meter/3 ft high – and those only around the sharpest hairpin turns or steepest drop offs. The views are breath-taking in every sense of the word.

Look inside the red circle. That’s our tour’s other bus!
At one time, Mont Verde really was green, with terraced farms, but decades of drought has left it brown, dry, and uninhabited . No grass means no livestock, except a few hardy goats.
At the very top of the mountain, our driver stopped, put on the bus’s handbrake, and we all got out for a taste of grog. I have no idea why this little bar was located up there, but we were welcomed to a small wooden hut, with a patio, and served 3 versions of Cabo Verde’s national drink.
Bottom left: proof that we’re at the very top, with the media antennae.

The wind on the mountaintop was fierce, creating a temperature drop of about 10°C/18°F, making it feel like 57°F/14°C instead of the 75°F/24°C we had on the beach. The shots of grog warmed us up though! The clear liquid is pure cane sugar “rum”, at 40% alcohol. The green has the same alcohol content, but has local herbs added to it. Carlos referred to it as “medicine”. The brown version has added molasses and honey, making it more like at liqueur at 43% alcohol. Ted’s tour group also tasted “Ponche”, a lower 25% alcohol flavoured version.

After the grog, everyone agreed that the ride back down the mountain was much less scary. (No, our driver didn’t join us for shots!)

Our guide told us that on the opposite side of the island, the government is trying to encourage a resurgence of farming by offering cheap land and subsidizing the cost of water for irrigation. I didn’t see that, but Ted’s tour circumnavigated the island and he was able to photograph a portion of that area, being run a bit like a kibbutz (below).

Original plans were for our day to end with a sunset beach party on shore for our entire ship, but at the last minute the Cabo Verdean health authorities nixed that. They don’t have to (and didn’t) give a reason, but I suspect that a party for 600+ people when pandemic restrictions are still in effect on the islands would be a public relations nightmare.

Sailing away, one last look at Farol de D. Luis lighthouse on the islet of Ilhéu dos Pássaros, 1.3 km off the coast of the island of São Vicente,

What a day, and what a surprising and beautiful country!

7 comments

  1. What a comprehensive and fascinating look at somewhere not many of us will have the opportunity to see for ourselves.
    Your reports continue to entertain and inform us all.
    Thank you both.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Rose, we are not personally acquainted but I have enjoyed so much taking the Viking Cruise with you and Ted via your blog posts. Thank you so much for taking me to areas I’ve not had the opportunity to travel to. Happy Trails, Verena

    Like

  3. When we lived in Dakar, Senegal from 2001-2003, we had a lovely household helper who came from Cape Verde. She spoke excellent French and was very dignified, graceful and talented. I would have loved to get a look at her country. I’m not surprised that it seems to be in good shape politically and that the traffic works on politeness! Thanks for another great post.

    Liked by 1 person

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