The flight to the island of Maio was full. As the tiny propeller plane bounced over Atlantic air currents, I was the only passenger to gaze out with a lick of fear at the mighty mid ocean below. Inside the plane everyone else seemed to have forgotten the sea. All was exuberance, chatter and a roaring laughter. The passengers were young men in polished shoes, expensive trousers and heavy gold jewellery. They spoke in a Creole that was too rapid for me to grasp and I wondered what interest Maio – flat, dry and quiet even by Cape Verdean standards – could hold for them.
As I watched, the music still playing behind me, I thought: this is the reason to visit Cape Verde. There are fine mountains, wildernesses of desert dunes and warm waters. But what makes Cape Verde take hold of your heart is that rare moment, that flush of empathy, when you begin to understand what they mean by sodade.
A few days later I was driving through the north of Maio, mesmerised by its endless stony red plains where the goats eat rock and the people eat goats. I reached a village – a single street of dust, two rows of parched, single-storey houses. ‘This is Alcatraz,’ the driver said. The street was quiet apart from a few of the ragged, wideeyed children who populate the poorer half of the world. Some of the houses were nothing more than bare concrete carcasses while others were painted in greens and pinks and blues and even had glass in their windows.
From the front door of one of the smarter houses a family appeared. I crossed the street and asked if he minded if I took a photo.
‘Not at all,’ the man replied in perfect English. ‘But don’t you remember me? I was on your flight.’
My perception jolted and suddenly I saw the urbane passenger, representative of a richer world, gold still gleaming at his neck. And then my world altered again and
I saw a poor village, forgotten even within Cape Verde. He must have noticed my perplexity: ‘I live in Holland,’ he explained. ‘I work on the ships… I’ve come back to see my wife and children.’ The woman at his side, uncomprehending, scooped a child on to her hip.
‘How long have you been away?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘But we Cape Verdeans – we have hard lives.’
That is one of the paradoxes of Cape Verde. There is a widespread cosmopolitanism that dates from centuries ago, but it lives side by side with poverty and isolation. For generations the young men have gone abroad – to the USA, to Europe, to the African mainland – because the land cannot sustain them, because their families need money. Back at home their relatives mourn not just the loss of their own sons and husbands but the painful emigrations of generations before. They mourn the peculiar lot of the Cape Verdean, stranded on outcrops in the Atlantic, abused over the centuries not just by the waves but by many nations. They mourn in a particularly beautiful way which I first discovered on Fogo, the volcano island.
I was clinging to the bench in the back of a small truck as it jolted up and down the steep cobbled roads of the old Portuguese town of São Filipe. Every so often the vehicle would halt in front of a house, the driver would shout and a man would appear in the doorway clutching a violin and scramble in beside me.
Soon we had gathered the band back together and we careered up into the foothills of Fogo’s dark volcano till we reached the house of Agusto, a blind musician. Inside his white-painted, two-roomed home the men dragged chairs and benches together and I sat in a far corner as the violins made their awakening screeches and the guitars were tuned. Then the music began: sweet melodies and melancholy harmonies. The music was so sad, it was as if the sorrow of generations had erupted in the house.
The Cape Verdeans express through their mornas the sorrow of sons lost to the wider world, droughts, famines and relatives drowned at sea. Their music is exquisite, an Atlantic art form with influences from the four continents that surround it. But soon the sadness was done and there came the lively strains of a funaná. Now we were celebrating … what, I wondered? I knew the answer, though. We were celebrating the same notion that had just made us cry – Caboverdeanidade, the essence of Cape Verde.
I absorbed it all in the dim room with its rough furniture and garish crocheted ornaments. Later I stepped outside where the sun was dissolving into the ocean. As I watched, the music still playing behind me, I thought: this is the reason to visit Cape Verde. There are fine mountains, wildernesses of desert dunes and warm waters. But what makes Cape Verde take hold of your heart is that rare moment, that flush of empathy, when you begin to understand what they mean by sodade.
A view of Ribeira Brava on the island of São Nicolau © Guillohmz/Dreamstime
Aisling Irwin and Colum Wilson
When Colum and I first visited Cape Verde two decades ago it was, for the British, an obscure destination. The annual number of tourists was a few tens of thousands, of which Brits were an infinitesimal fraction. Now tourism is in the hundreds of thousands and the development of hotels, apartments and condominiums surges ahead. The country is riding a rollercoaster with the added excitement that no-one knows how safe the structure is. I gaze through the estate agents’ windows, at the developers’ plans, at the construction sites and I try to extract meaning. Who will be living in these fairy-tale condominiums? What corners of the world will they come from? Will there be any Cape Verdeans in there? What will it mean if there aren’t – and what will it mean if there are?
I believe, though, that you will have your most fulfilling holiday if a little part of you goes as an anthropologist, interested in whatever the archipelago throws at you.
Now, when I visit, development has made things easier (though the air and ferry connections between the islands are worse than they were a decade ago). But now I am also finding disappointment among tourists. I have heard complaints about sullen service, about the endless wind, flies, the lack of anything to ‘do’, and the high cost of living. The main reason for their negativity is that they were oversold their holidays. Cape Verde is – hilariously – being touted as the ‘new Caribbean’ – when the islands for sale tend to have a barrenness approaching that of the moon.
So I find myself in a strange position now: instead of raving about Cape Verde, I sometimes advise people not to go. I’ve even inserted a small section in each island chapter on ‘lowlights’ so you know what not to expect. Here is my reasoning: I want you to treasure Cape Verde, and if you’re a person who won’t find it treasurable, I want you to know beforehand.
So: go, if you love the sea and have a cracking watersports holiday on Sal or Boavista; go, if you love outstanding mountainous landscapes, particularly if you enjoy hiking in them – enjoy Santo Antão; go, if something inside you responds to a barren land with a harsh black coastline pounded by a frothing white ocean; or to a convivial people with the time to strike up a mournful tune over a glass of thick red wine.
I believe, though, that you will have your most fulfilling holiday if a little part of you goes as an anthropologist, interested in whatever the archipelago throws at you. Be like one of my contributors, who responds to notorious Cape Verdean punctuality with the words: ‘It’s great how these people refuse to be intimidated by time.’
Cape Verde is, at heart, a place not to be consumed, but to be understood.
Aisling’s words, written opposite, keep returning to me: ‘you will have your most fulfilling holiday if a little part of you goes as an anthropologist’. My two months in Cape Verde demonstrated the inherent truth in those words. Memories reinforce the statement. Cape Verde does not have a wealth of obvious treasures, few museums, no art galleries, a mere scattering of historical sites. So, travel as an anthropologist and little treasures will appear and quickly turn into big treasures – treasures to store in the memory.
But it is none of these attractions that won me over, rather the gentle patience of the archipelago’s inhabitants, their ability to intimately share both time and space with each other (and me), their commitment to live life communally.
I recall the large, matronly lady in Santo Antão who stood in front of the aluguer and refused to let it continue its journey until she had finished an impromptu song she was singing. None of the passengers complained. Then I remember the face of the fisherman on Brava, stretched taut – it seemed – with that island’s centuries of loss and longing, his emotion heightened by a few too many shots of grogue, singing me a morna until the tears spilled down his cheeks and those of his three-person audience. Had I understood Creole, I have no doubt I would have wept, too.
Recollections of shared lunch tables, pick-up trucks groaning with an overfill of people and their purchases from the Assomada Market; an uncomfortable, inter-island journey on a chartered fishing boat during which a local woman sitting on the deck simply wrapped (without asking) both her arms around my leg, to steady herself against the effects of the 4m-high Atlantic swell …
All of these come back to me, finally allowing me to bundle them together and explain to myself why I love Cape Verde. Yes, the Fogo volcano is stunning. Yes, Santo Antão’s craggy peaks steal the breath with their starkness. Yes, the glistening beaches of Sal and Boavista defy you not to curl up your feet and scrunch the white grains gleefully between your toes.
But it is none of these attractions that won me over, rather the gentle patience of the archipelago’s inhabitants, their ability to share intimately both time and space with each other (and me), their commitment to live life communally. What haunts me is the feeling that the ‘developed’ countries have lost that ability, and that we’ll never get it back. This brings me my own sense of loss and longing, but I can’t sing a morna.