Interview with Murray Stewart

02/06/2014 11:47

Written by Murray Stewart

Murray Stewart, updater of our Cape Verde guide, discusses the islands, his travel memories and tips on making it as a travel writer.

Cape Verde has nine inhabited islands – are they all the same? Do you have a favourite?

Although they are all volcanic in origin, in terms of terrain they are all very different. The ‘older islands’ – such as Sal, Boavista and Maio – have been eroded by the wind for millions of years and are largely flat and barren; the ‘younger’ ones like Brava and Fogo are only a few tens of thousands of years old and are rugged and mountainous. (Fogo has a marvellous, dormant volcanic cone – a great climb). For prospective visitors, it’s essential to be well-informed in advance about what each island has to offer and to choose accordingly. The ‘older’ islands have perfect white-sand beaches, superb water sports, swish ‘all-inclusive’ hotels…and not much else. Santo Antão and São Nicolau are walkers’ paradises,  São Vicente has the best music and a riotous, Brazilian-style carnival in February. And that leaves Santiago, an island with a little bit of everything Cape Verdean. If you twisted my arm for a favourite, I would pick Santo Antão, for its lush valleys and stunning mountains.

Cape Verde by Murray Stewart

Cape Verde has been touted as ‘the new Caribbean’. What are the similarities, what are the differences?

‘The new Caribbean’ was an unfortunate tag given to Cape Verde a few years ago, when property speculators and others were touting the archipelago as the ‘Next Big Thing.’ Inappropriate comparisons can be destructive, I think, as people’s expectations become unrealistic. Cape Verde is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, not the tranquil Caribbean; the islands with the stunning beaches are barren, not lush. Cape Verde’s stands on its own merits as a destination, with year-round warmth, varied scenery, superb walking and water sports, hospitable people and lively music. It has a fusion of cultures, including Portuguese and African. At times, the relaxed, laid-back vibe reminds the visitor of Cuba, Brazil or Tobago – so I suppose some Caribbean elements are present.  

People may have heard about Cape Verde because of its music. Can you tell us a bit more about it?

As the Cape Verdean Creole language has little written-down heritage and little literature, music is hugely important for Cape Verdeans as a means of cultural expression, both within the archipelago and on the world stage. In truth, I suspect that not many British visitors will be familiar with Cape Verdean music, though it is better-known in mainland Europe, particularly France and Portugal. Cape Verde’s musical ‘grande dame’ was Cesaria Evora, a hard-living, whisky-loving singer who performed barefoot. She died a couple of years ago, but her legend lives on. Cape Verdean music actually has a huge variety of genres, from beautiful, soulful songs of loss and longing through to high-energy styles that defy you not to dance, and much in-between. Any visitor to the islands simply has to find some music, though it may find you first! I was recently invited to contribute to a lecture at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, covering Cape Verdean music, and was astounded at the range of styles such a small country offers. But music of all types is definitely rooted deep in the soul of the islanders.  

You only learnt two words of Creole prior to visiting the islands. How important is learning the language in travelling?

Learning every language is impossible, but I believe that when visiting a country, learning a few words of the native language is essential. Turning up and expecting everyone to speak English is, to my mind, disrespectful. People sometimes forget that we are all foreigners, except when we’re in our own country. Greeting someone in their own tongue endears you to most people. Although my knowledge of Portuguese and Creole are still minimal, I felt that learning some of each was crucial to my Cape Verde visit, for the above reasons. I am lucky enough to speak French, Spanish and German – and I used all of these while I was in Cape Verde! 

Fishing on Brava, Cape Verde by Murray Stewart

What is your earliest travel memory?

For foreign travel, I remember going from Glasgow to the Costa Brava in Spain with my parents, when I was about eight years old. We went all the way by train, quite an adventure, though it was a package holiday. For some reason, I remember that it cost £44 each, for two weeks, including travel and full board in a hotel. I also remember badgering my father to let me try drinking beer while I was there (I think I had seen an advert on TV!) and eventually he relented, just to shut me up. I hated it, though it didn’t put me off beer in later life.  My brother and I had great fun crashing dodgem cars into unsuspecting Spanish kids at the funfair on the beach. I am a better-behaved traveller these days.

Which destination would you most like to visit?

So far, I have been lucky enough to have visited about 55 countries, but even within those already visited, there are loads of places I would love to go. What makes a place really special for me is the warmth (or otherwise) of the people, so answering your question is difficult in advance. My most recent trip was to mainland Greece and I was bowled over by the hospitality of the Greeks. Now, I had better answer your question, or I’ll sound like a politician! Colombia is a country which I have had on the radar for some time. Also there is an epic train journey from Istanbul to Tehran – I would love to do that soon.

What prompted you to make the career change from corporate restructuring to travel writing?

Well, it certainly wasn’t the money! Seriously, I had been in corporate restructuring for twenty years and I don’t regret it, though I maybe stayed too long. It was always interesting, a great learning experience and taught me a great deal about business and how the corporate world operates. But making people redundant and restructuring companies is not the most cheerful career and I wanted to challenge myself with something new. To me, travelling is the best university in the world, as it teaches you that there are no right and wrong ways of living life, just different ways. Embracing those and then telling people about them… well, that to me is a big part of travel writing. If you can inspire just one person to pack their bags and go somewhere, that seems to me like a job well-done. 

What tips and advice would you offer the aspiring travel writer?

First of all, make sure you can write! Ask for opinions from good friends on what you’ve written, remembering that a true friend is someone who is prepared to tell you what you may not want to hear. Second, get yourself published – even if it’s for free, getting yourself in print gives you a buzz. There are plenty of free local magazines which welcome contributions. You can build up a portfolio of features and then build on that. Thirdly – and I am very bad at this – get an on-line presence and maximise it. Fourthly, don’t underestimate face-to-face contact, even in this ‘New World’ of Facebook, Twitter etc. My first commission came from ruthlessly stalking and cornering a magazine editor at a travel show.

Finally, don’t give up. Unless you’re very lucky, your pitches to editors will usually draw either silence or a rejection. At first, I would celebrate a rejection…because it was better than getting no reply at all! Finally, don’t expect to get rich as very few travel writers earn a full-time living from it. Having an alternative income-source, or marrying someone wealthy who will indulge you are good options. (Just for the record, I haven’t managed the latter. Not yet.)

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