25 December 1998
Faja de Agua, Brava, Cape Verde Islands
Merry Christmas to all from the shores of Africa, where there are no Christmas carols on the radio. On the other hand, Christmas trees and turkey are in pretty short supply. We are winding up our tour of the dry dusty barren Cape Verde archipelago, in a village described by everyone as the greenest, wettest place on the greenest, wettest island at the extreme western edge of the Cape Verdes. That is to say, if you drill deep enough, you can find water, enough for the 100 villagers here and the 8,000 inhabitants of the rest of the island to drink, do laundry, and even irrigate crops in a limited way. There are even a few flush toilets on the island. And in Faja de Agua palm trees and papayas can find enough water to grow, which gives the eye a small patch of green on which to rest, amid all this expanse of brown rock and dust. At one time, we are told, there was even a stream here running down from the mountain, year-round. Now there is a brief flow of water after a brisk rain, all of which is carefully diverted to reservoirs and cisterns, lest it be squandered by running uselessly into the sea.We actually had rain here last week, for several hours, which completely cleared the Harmattan dust out of the air. Hallelujah.
Water is a central theme in the Cape Verdes. The first island we visited, Sal, is entirely dependent on a desalination plant (ironic, since the island used to make and export salt), and there is no excess for fields or even family gardens. Apart from the tenacious acacia trees, there is simply no vegetation on the island, not even cacti, and the island generously contributed to the load of red Harmattan dust from Africa whenever the wind blew hard, which was almost every day when we were there. (Actually, we shouldn't make too much of this dust business: overall, the climate here is delightful, with no mosquitoes and the breeze quite cool except in the middle of the day.) Palmeira, the town off which we were anchored, had one source of water, a building called the Fontaneira, with 4 taps, connected to the desalination plant. For a few hours each day, the gates were opened and people streamed in with whatever battered plastic jugs they possessed to pay 1 escudo/gallon (about a penny), and then stand in a long line until the battle axe superintendent admitted them to the communal faucets. One false move, or any wasted water spilling over, and she was in their face, screaming. Mad Max, Tank Girl, Waterworld and all the other post-apocalyptic movies we have seen had nothing on this scene, played out daily. We did get some water there, but believe me we didn't spill any.
Sal had other redeeming features, which kept us there almost a week. We went to a wonderful concert by Cesaria Evora, the queen of Cape Verde music, held in a large concrete amphitheater with walls and doors, but no roof. (Why bother, with rain once every 10 years). People were also very friendly, and we felt like we had really made human contact, not just as tourists and not just with crews of other yachts, for the first time since Flores. We also enjoyed meeting crews of some of the other boats: at one point there were 35 of us in the harbor, which is the most protected anchorage in the Cape Verdes. Very few American and British boats, almost all we have met are French, Belgian or German. As in all the islands, we were able to get excellent, fresh-baked bread at 5-7 cents/loaf, and our grand total for harbor and entry fees for the entire month in the Cape Verdes was $10. Overall, a very inexpensive place to cruise.
The Cape Verdes are an interesting mix of Portugese and African culture, in proportions that vary from island to island. The first 2 islands we visited, Sal and Santiago, were much more African in terms of dress, color, and language, speaking mostly an African/Portugese Creole. The islands of Fogo and Brava have been much more Portugese in flavor, more like the Azores, with a more recognizable Portugese being spoken. Here we are seeing more intensive cultivation with irrigation levadas and terraces, houses that tend to be more of finished and painted stucco, and lighter-skinned people with more European dress. Still quite the rainbow of skin color compared with Maine. All the islands are appallingly poor, with an economy based on low-technology fishing from small boats, subsistence agriculture (where water can be had) and lots of informal aid from relatives abroad in lieu of exports. Tourism is talked about, and there are apparently a few small hotels on the nice beaches, as in Sal, but this is in the fetal stage at best. There are about 300,000 inhabitants of the Cape Verdes who actually live here, and another 400,000 or so abroad, mostly in the US. Brava's population is even more distorted, with 8,000 on the island and 37,000 in the US. This was a major port for the New Bedford whalers, with an excellent protected harbor in Porto da Furna, and close ties have been maintained between the 2 communities ever since. We have had a royal welcome here on Brava simply because we are the first American yacht anyone here has seen in a long time.
While we were in Porto da Furna, the other harbor on Brava, the Prime minister of the Republic of Cape Verde came to the island to visit. There is a tiny airport but it is almost never used because it is so dangerous, so he arrived aboard the Cape Verde navy, which is a 100-foot patrol boat with no guns. He went ashore in a rowboat rowed by local teenagers, like every other cargo which arrives here including cars, and walked into a political hornets nest. It seems the Bravans are chronically unhappy about the fact that they get more public works accomplished using dollars from New Bedford than with Escudos from the capital in Praia. I met the minister of state the next day, and he was still a little shaken up. So Bill Clinton is not the only one who don't get no respect.
There is much more to say, especially about Santiago and Fogo, and one of us will get around to it soon. The boat is ready for the next big jump, probably starting tomorrow, weather permitting of course, although there isn't much weather here other than the northeast trade winds this time of year. All that's left to do is have Christmas Dinner, get a few eggs, some fruit, maybe a chicken, and we're off to Tobago, 2100 miles to the westward. So it's out with the Old World and in with the New.