Thursday, December 13, 2012

Cape Verde: Wild, Fertile, Lunar


I recently went on a vacation to Cape Verde!  Why?  Because when else in my life would I ever get around to visiting this small chain of islands right off the coast of Senegal?  Plus, Cape Verde came with rave reviews from every visitor it’d ever had.  Called a mix of Africa, Europe, and Brazil, the islands were colonized by Portugal (and pirates), so everyone speaks Portugeuse and Creole.  The Peace Corps program in Cape Verde recently closed because... they achieved development (I mean, not really, but kind of really). Cape Verde sounded like a magical, magical place.  I almost expected to find fountains of chocolate and swans of gold.  (Side note: I did end up sitting at the bottom of a rainbow.  There was no gold though... unless you count beautiful memories as gold!)

But anyway, Cape Verde.  I went with three girls from my stage, Alana, Katie, and Sharon, and it was lovely.  Instead of taking you day by day through our trip, I’ll just share a few things I learned:

1. Cape Verde: the country where people approach you not to trick, rob, or harass you, but give unsolicited directions
 Cape Verde’s hospitality freaked me out.  In Senegal, I’ve become so accustomed to ignoring everyone who yells and approaches me in urban, public places that Cape Verdeans made me incredibly uncomfortable with their friendliness and lack of motive.  We were stopped in the street, unsolicited, and offered touristic advice... that had absolutely no benefit to the person giving it.  We were given names and numbers of helpful individuals by total strangers... who then happily went on their way, never proposing marriage or asking to be introduced to other potential American wives.  Not one person ever tried to charge us more than the local price.  It was frightening for me.  Mostly, I responded to these warm and engaging displays of kindness with discomfort, shifty eyes, and flight from the scene.  I have fully integrated into Senegal. 
My friends eat accurately priced street food.

2. Climbing a volcano requires appropriate footwear
We spent time on the capital’s island, Santiago, and Fogo, home of a destructive volcano.  Actually, the volcano isn’t super destructive, though it is active. No one perished during its last eruption (1995), and the lava was pretty contained to a specific part of the island.  In fact, as we drove the village at the base of the last crater, we got to see the shift between the lava-land and the untouched areas.  Most of our drive was lush, beautiful, and green!  
Beautiful Fogo!
Then, we turned a corner, and suddenly, in the immortal words of our guidebook, the landscape was “wild, lunar, and fertile.” 
WILD LUNAR FERTILE
The top edge of the lava crater, the highest point on all of the islands and basically a giant mountain, loomed in the distance.  Our Fogolese mission was to conquer its summit (and its heart).   Everyone who had done the climb before said it was super fun!
You will be conquered.
Scaling this peak turned into one of the most challenging experiences of my life. 

Island mountain climb, to me, conjures images of winding, grassy trails at a subtle but steady incline, possibly with playful goats leaping around me.  The Fogo climb turned out to be a three hour, near vertical, near-rock climbing experience through rain and clouds where one wrong step meant plummeting to my death.  I’m not even kidding. During the climb, I thought a lot about how people with life threatening illnesses do things like climb mountains, feel good about it, and star in yogurt ads.  I did not have any of these feelings as I climbed.  Also, I was wearing Chacos.  Without socks, which was a grave, grave error.  I also kept thinking about how we were the only living things on the mountain and how the mountain could easily kill us to keep a clean record.  Other than the occasional flower bursting through lava rock, it was just us and the ash. 

But I was very impressed when I got to the top.  It was pretty cool to look down at a volcanic crater and see the sulfur rising from the ash.  And I did have mild yogurt-ad adrenaline.
Yaayyyy!  No deaths!
Unfortunately, descending the mountain proved an even greater problem for my Chacos, as we had to wade through tiny rocks for most of the downhill.  At one point, the pain of tiny rocks cutting into my fragile, sacred feet led me to take off my shoes, sit down like a frustrated child, and tell everyone to go on without me. 

Luckily, my fortunes soon changed... because Sharon gave me her socks AND the descent opened up into a giant ski run that we practically slid, skid, and somesaulted down.  And THAT was awesome.  I think that’s exactly why no one had told us how hard the climb was: the descent completely wipes out memories of the ridiculously difficult journey up.

But I swore I would not forget. And that is why I dedicated so much space to Cape Verde lesson #2: No Chacos on the volcano.  But ultimate moral of the story:  You should still do it!  Wear sneakers.

3. Evangelicals all around the world use the same tricks to get you into their church
So while we were in the volcano town, Portela, we befriended a woman at the local “museum” (which was actually pretty informative, I shouldn’t knock it... it told all about volcanoes and the history of the island, focusing especially on a French duke who was “captivated” by about 9 different beautiful Fogo women and spawned the numerous blond haired and blue eyed anomalies who exist all over present day Fogo).  Anyway, we asked this museum lady to give us directions to a wine place, and she complied.  Later we found out that she invited some other tourists (our French bffs Jean “Farley” and Helene) to a traditional music ceremony.  Not inviting us must have been an honest mistake!  We’ll go anyway!

So that night, we head to the “traditional music performance.” The songs were lovely at first.  But then it turned into an epic Seventh Day Adventist church service.  In Portugeuse and Creole. For 90 minutes.  The woman made us sit in the front and there was no escape.  OLDEST TRICK IN THE BOOK!  She got us good with her promises of “traditional music.”  And obviously we weren’t originally invited because we were the heathens searching for alcohol.
Eating and drinking alcohol with our new friends not at a church

On the other hand, the church service was part of a 33 day celebration of marriage and family, which we scoffed at until seemed we learned that our volcano guide is one of 37 children and his Catholic father has three different, unmarried baby mamas.

4. Cape Verdeans take shots at 10am (shot o’clock)
One of the most confusing aspects of our trip was trying to discover when Cape Verdeans eat.  It seemed that every time we went to a restaurant, we were the only ones there.  Furthermore, we never saw any of our Cape Verdean hosts actively eating food.  During our trip, we eventually ate in restaurants at every hour of the day but never solved this mystery.  On the other hand, we did make one discovery at 10am.  While we dined on our breakfast in an obviously empty place, a man came in.  Life!  He promptly bought a shot and then left.  Immediately, two different men came in.  They downed shots and left.  The stream continued... all in all, about 12 men came in, took shots, and left.  All of them were public transportation drivers.  It was 10am.  We had been warned that most Cape Verdeans enjoy imbibing to excess, but didn’t quite believe it until this moment.  After this point, we started realizing that yes, most people around us were drunk all the time.  So it goes in Catholic countries!  Luckily, the intoxicated Cape Verdeans seemed to be, uniformly, happy drunks.  The alcohol never seemed to bring out tears or anger, as it does at so many American college parties.

5. Senegal holds a surprising, subtle advantage over Cape Verde on one singular aspect of transportation
Initially, we were awed by Cape Verde’s public transportation fleet.  Instead of old Peugeots, Cape Verdeans hail down shiny Toyota vans, and instead of taxis that continue to run even when the keys fall out of the ignition, Cape Verdeans drive brand new Corolla taxis.  It was all very fancy.  But when we tried to cross Santiago, traveling between two of the island’s biggest cities, we found Cape Verde’s weakness: getting people into their cars.  In Senegal, cars are filled one at a time.  Sometimes they fill fast, sometimes they fill slow; this system frustrates us Americans used to transport leaving at a set hour, full or not.  But Cape Verde... seems to fill multiple cars halfway... then have them drive in very, very, very small circles, fighting over passengers who never seem to appear. 

We got in our car thinking it would pick up a few more people and soon head out, but instead, it started driving in circles.  The first rodeo ride around the block was fun.  The second wasn’t so bad either.  But the fourteenth and fifteenth turns around the tiny town square started to make us car sick.  At one point, I saw a man with a bag and yelled at our driver, “THERE’S ONE!”, trying to enjoy the fun game of winning passengers.  I nearly killed us all.  Our driver burned rubber turning around, took corners on two wheels, and raced two other vans who had spotted the same guy.  When we got to him, the man on the street threw his hands up in defense.  “I’m not going anywhere!  I’m a doctor!  I’m walking to the hospital for my shift!”  Fail.

Eventually we asked to be dropped off at a restaurant until the car filled up enough to leave.  No problem, said the easygoing Cape Verdeans.  And they did let us off, then came and got us 30 minutes later.  Which would never happen in Senegal, so add that point in the column about shiny vans and Corollas.  Cape Verde still ends up ahead in this race.

6. Only Germans on cruise ships come to Cape Verde in November
For a semi-tourist destination, Cape Verde was eerily empty.  True, it is not the high tourist season, but we hardly expected to be the only young backpackers... anywhere.  On our first day in Praia, the capital, the only tourists we saw were retirees on a day trip from their cruise.  Furthermore, we ended up on the same vacation as a large group of older German couples, but they managed to beat us by just a few minutes to every destination and somehow always take the last hotel rooms.  Even as we reached the top of the volcanic crater, the Germans were already there to “cheer” us on (and criticize my footwear choice... thank you, Fraulein, I AM AWARE THESE CHACOS WERE A POOR SELECTION).
Ready for an exciting night on the town!  With elderly tourists.
 We did manage to make two tourist friends, the aforementioned Jean “Farley” and Helene.  In a twist that could be poignant and beautiful (but was actually just lazy), we never even learned their last names.  They were a French brother and sister dynamic duo, not much unlike Katie and Charlie Pollak.  They came to represent all of our hopes and dreams, and we will hold them in our hearts forever.

We also met two travel writers from Lonely Planet.  Their first words to us were, “Where are all of the other young people?”  Then they wrote down some of our tips and observations, because we were young people.  They also gave us an excellent recommendation for a fancy, tucked away dinner hideaway where we (along with Farley and Helene, obviously) had one of the best dinners of our trip. 

7. Cape Verde shows the best stuff on TV
 Cape Verdean television... is amazing.  We were treated to Brazil’s Funniest Home Videos, a strange movie featuring Rob Schneider as a prisoner teaching his fellow inmates that rape is wrong but true love between two men can be beautiful, Glee, music videos from 1996, inspiring documentaries about men without limbs, news clips entirely about the success of Gangnam Style, and Schindler’s List.

Moreover, on International AIDS Day, we were treated to a local parade and a nighttime concert.  I thought the concert was jammin’ yo.  Until Sharon whispered in my ear, “Maybe we should leave... I think this is offensive.”  I was shocked.  “What?!  Why?  Why would this be offensive?!”  She stared at me, then motioned toward the stage.  “Lisa. They’re all... midgets.”  And then I looked harder.  And my God, I had thought the stage was sunken.  But indeed, all of the rappers on stage were little people.  So... that was weird.  And maybe offensive.  But they were good rappers!

In all seriousness though, Cape Verde was a lovely place – beautiful with lush green mountains, beaches, wild lunar and fertile volcanoes, delicious food, and incredibly hospitable people.  But at the end of the day, I still wanted to come back to Senegal, because at this point, it is the country (other than America), that I know best: I can speak the language, communicate with the people, know what to anticipate and expect – and that is comfort. 

Plus, this guy running out to meet me when I came home didn’t hurt either. 
BEST FRIENDS!!!!

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