Cabo Verde West Africa – The Last Trans-Atlantic Stopover

After spinning our little track-web outside the harbor in Palmeira (if you didn’t catch that whole story you can check it out here) we finally got the engine started, motored in and dropped anchor. I spent 5 days on the island of Sal still aboard Cosmos, getting my first taste of what Cape Verde had to offer.

A few random facts to acquaint yourself with Cabo Verde.

  • The country was a Portuguese colony until it became independent in 1975
  • The nation’s expatriate population is greater than its domestic population
  • It is estimated that the islands have one goat for every two people
  • Total population is 570,000 people spread among 7 islands.
  • Portuguese is the official language but people also speak Crioulo, an Africanised Creole Portuguese
  • 53% of the population works in agriculture and fisheries. 75% of the food they consume is imported. There is almost no fresh water on the islands

So what was I up to during the couple weeks I spent in Cabo Verde?

I ate Cachupa, feijoada, and lots and lots of fish. I drank grogue (pronounced grog) and ponche.

*Cachupa is kindof the national dish, a slow cooked stew of corn, beans, cassava, sweet potato and some kind of meat. Feijoada is a Portuguese dish that is ver popular in Brasil where I first tried it, a bean stew with lots of random bits of pork. Grogue is the local fire-water, made from sugar cane, it is essentially the same as Cachaça and as in Brasil, is also often drank with sugar and citrus, like a Caiparinha. Ponche is more like a liqueur, very sweet, thick and syrupy, often made from mango or passion-fruit. 
This was a very typical mean for me in Cabo Verde. This would have cost about $3.50USD
Feijoada

I became acquainted with the other hitchhikers who were trying to get rides, most of whom had been in Mindelo for a couple weeks or more. There was about 14 of us, each with different levels of experience and plans. Every once in a while someone would find a boat and everyone is happy, a comrade gets a ride, the competition narrows, and hopes are rejuvenated. I spent hours each day hanging around the marina. I would use http://www.marinetraffic.com to see when new boats were arriving so I could be one of the first to chat it up with the new arrivals. I made a map of the marina and each morning would walk the pontoons erasing boats that departed and identifying new arrivals that I could talk with.

I found the island of Sal to be a windswept dry unspectacular island apart from the people. The winds thrashed the island constantly, the air was full of dust, the landscape was completely uninspiring. Was Cape Verde going to disappoint?

Frosty the Snowman suffering through a Saharan desert snowstorm in Sal

I spent my 40th birthday alone on the island of Santo Antão, the leeward island I had reached by taking several ferries from Sal. I was gleeful. Very happy for the solitude after spending so much time co-living in tight quarters on Cosmos. I could not have asked for a better place or way to spend my 40th, in this random far-flung corner of the world, an island nation off the coast of Senegal, absorbing truly unique and stunning landscapes. A reminder that life is a gift and if it’s true what they say (life begins at 40) then I got off to a nice start. No, Cape Verde was not disappointing me.

I swam for a good two minutes just one meter above a beautiful sea turtle, watching her glide through crystal clear waters.

I discovered that Cape Verdian people are great. They were really friendly, helpful, and curious.

Music is a really big deal in Cape Verde, the island I spent most of my time on was St. Vincent, where Cesária Évora is from (click to hear her music if you don’t already know it). I’ve been a big fan of hers for many years and was lucky enough to see her live once before she died so I was excited to be in her hometown where she is revered like a demi-god (The airport is named after her). She brought Cape Verdian “Morna” music to the world. There is a really vibrant music scene in Mindelo, the main town on St. Vincent, and the unique thing about it is that it consists mostly of small bars and restaurants that invite anyone to just come up and jam, and foreign visitors are just as welcome to join. So you might see 5 locals jamming it up on guitar, bass, percussion, shakers, cavaquinho, etc. and then some Belgian with his clarinet joining in. It’s really cool.

I was pleased to see the locals here also played mancala, a traditional African game, with bonduc seeds just as I had seen twenty years ago when I was in East Africa.

I ran into Richard, the Swedish captain who I sailed with from Lisbon to the Canaries and go the update…His Fiance Ivy had found a job in Las Palmas and he decided to sail alone to Cape Verde and leave the boat there while they focused on saving some money to ready themselves for the Atlantic Crossing the following year.

While on an amazing hike along the north coast of the island of Santo Antão on my birthday, it occurred to me that even if the sailing world does call to me, and I am excited to fold it into my lifestyle. In my heart I will always be a land-traveler. I understand that for some the vastness of the sea opens their mind and heart to the wonders of the word, but for me it will always be the mountains and valleys, the rivers and lakes, the smells of a busy Asian market, the chaos of a Latin American bus terminal, and all the thousands of faces you encounter, each a grain of salt sprinkled onto your experience, each giving it just a little more flavor.  The earth below my feet, the strain of my leg muscles as they haul me up a mountain, the changing landscape and passing people.

I spent most of my time in Cape Verde in the town of Mindelo where the only marina is on the islands. It’s also the second most touristic town in the country. It has a certain charm to it with its small but bustling fish market and central market, a nice city beach, and the architectural leftovers of Portuguese colonization. It reminded me at times of parts of Brazil (such as Salvador). I enjoyed walking out into the streets that became more and more familiar to me each day….

…the exception to this was the days when a cruise ship was in the port, it was as if each time one arrived the bow of the colossal ship tore through the fabric of the town completely changing the atmosphere. Two thousand European tourists pour through the rip in the fabric, skin freshly rouged by the African sun. Red cheeks hide behind cameras pointed at the marketplace, the municipal building, the guys playing samba near the port for spare change. They spend their 20 euro contribution to the local economy on a caipirinha, a bottle of water and a souvenir sea turtle made out of a coconut shell and then they are back on the floating beast. They have no time to actually get to know the culture or have a meaningful conversation with a local. Maybe I’m just bitter from the terrible experience I had in my limited days working on a cruise ship, but I would be happy if I never saw another one in my life.

Mindelo on a day when there was no cruise ship in port

On the evening of my birthday after a long day of hiking, it’s already dark when I arrive back in the town where I am staying after hitchhiking from the other side of the island. Walking through the streets I hear music and follow the sound to an abandoned building where I find a samba band practicing for the upcoming carnival. There is no roof on the building and the moon competes with a single light bulb to dimly illuminate 20 people banging on drums in unison creating a sound that is so loud, so intense, that despite the fact that it sounds more like noise than music to me, I cannot pull myself away from it. (The video does no just tic to just how LOUD it really was)….

With the Cosmos guys the day they set sail for Suriname

The Cosmos crew arrived in the marina in Mindelo a couple days after I did. I hung out with them often as they were getting Cosmos ready for the crossing to Suriname. William introduced me to a French captain named Thibault who he had gotten to know while dealing with some boat issues in the Azores. Will and the rest of the Cosmos crew tried to convince him to take me on as crew but he insisted he was a devout single-handing sailor who never takes crew. Worth a try.

The day after my birthday I did another amazing hike even more impressive than the first. I hiked for 4.5 hours along a beautifully constructed stone path through terraced mountains with occasional views of the sea in the distance. During the first 3 hours of the hike I only ran into people one time, this old couple who were slowly carrying sacks of grain up a hillside on bent backs. They came across me as I was taking some photos and were curious about the camera, I offered to take their photo and got this nice one (followed by a few more from the hike to give a sense of the landscape):

I hitched a half dozen rides around the island of Santo Antão during my stay there, one of them was a couple from France and Lebanon, they were on vacation and had rented a car, but neither of them knew how to drive it! It was a manual transmission and they had managed to make it to where they picked me up, but shortly after I jumped in the road entered the mountains and became very steep. The first time the car had to stop for some goats in the road the guy didn’t know how to work the clutch to get the car moving again with such a big incline. And so it was that I was able to return the favor for their picking me up by becoming their chauffeur 😉.

The day after the Cosmos guys set sail to cross the Atlantic, Thibault, the devout single-hander finally caved and offered to take me on as crew. We would leave the next day. The conditions were that I would be in charge of the provisioning and all the cooking. The destination…Grenada. Offer accepted, after 8 days of thumbing it I was going to cross the Atlantic!

The night before I was supposed to set sail to cross the Atlantic I had a small bout of “What the hell am I doing?”. Something even with my entire life experience of doing this kind of thing I am not completely immune to. It usually only appears briefly and in those twilight hours laying in bed when we tend to review and evaluate our day’s decisions. The full extent of my very non-conventional life rarely stands out to me. It’s just my life, for me it’s normal. But every once in a while some if the absurdity of it comes into focus and I see more clearly just how out of the ordinary it all is, and in those moments sometimes a rogue spark ignites a tiny flame of doubt.  Not so big…just big enough to enhance the adventure “Tomorrow I will board a small boat with some guy I barely know and will sail from Africa across the Atlantic ocean?” Yes. You will.

And that brought my time in Cabo Verde to a close. The main event had arrived. I would cross the Atlantic on a 33ft.(10m) boat named Moya with a crew of two people, me and Captain Thibault. More on that soon….

In the meantime a few more photos from my time in Cabo Verde

Santander…Colonial life, Fossils, and Big Ass Edible Ants

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This post covers May 3rd – May 10th

From Bogota it was an easy 2.5 hour bus ride to a small colonial town called Villa de Leyva.  Silvia had planned to travel this leg of the trip with me but she got tied up with things in Bogota so made plans to meet me in San Gil.  So I arrived in Villa de Leyva solo just after dark and walked around the quiet little town till I found a little guesthouse to stay in.  I only spent one day and two nights in Vila de Leyva and the one day I was there the weather was not so nice so I don’t think I got the full experience but it was a nice time walking through the gigantic central plaza and down the small cobblestone streets past whitewashed colonial buildings.  From there it was 5 hours between two busses get to San Gil, a small city of about 50,000 in the mountains of Santander, a large province in Northeastern Colombia.

In San Gil I had contacted a couchsurfer who lived with her mom and roommate and were willing to host me and Silvia.  Basically I struck couchsurfing gold with Eliana who turned out to be an amazing host and an inspirational person.  We stayed up late talking about her plans to unite the San Gil community to embrace sustainable tourism, and literature, and poetry (she had won a scholarship to a poetry program in Austria).

So after months of trying to make it happen Silvia finally joined me on some of my Colombian travels!  She arrived early the next morning and we jumped into Eliana’s jeep along with her mother Luz Marina and drove past mudslides, waterfalls, and breathtaking views of a huge gaping valley until we found ourselves at Dona Patricia’s in the heart of Barichara.  Dona Patricia is an artist of the highest degree, her medium…cigars.  She’s a friend of Eliana’s and invited us into her house which doubles as a factory, restaurant, and cigar store.  We found her larger than life, propped in a chair with a cigarette in one hand and a handful of tobacco leaves in the other.  She welcomed us in and we had a nice chat over a cup of coffee about how to select the right leaves to make the best cigars.

Dona Patricia on the left, Eliana's mom Luz Marina on the right.
A grasshopper we found in Dona Patricia's garden
Near Barichara on our way to the top of a 400ft. (120 meter) waterfall
Standing above the waterfall
Barichara

 Barichara

Barichara

The next day Elaina was busy but recommended a hike to us.  We returned to Barichara by bus, spent some more time walking around the little town and then set off for a 3 hour hike to a tiny town called Cabrera that is WAY off the beaten path.  I had heard that if you looked hard, you could find fossils in the valley we were hiking through.  So when halfway through the hike we stopped next to a small river for lunch I started picking up rocks and looking for fossils and within the first two minutes had already found a rock with the slightest hint of some sort of fossilized shell in it and that was it…I officially had fossil

Me trying to smash open rocks on the the trail looking for fossils

fever.  My obsession for finding a clearly distinguishable fossil took over me like a crack addiction and while Silvia joined me in my frantic search she maintained a better grip on reality and a suspicious eye on me as if wondering when she would have to stage a intervention.  And so for the rest of the hike I walked with eyes glued to the ground picking up any rock that “seemed promising” and if I deemed it necessary, smashing these rocks against others to see what was inside.  Silvia thought I had lost my mind and I had.  I managed to pull myself away from my fossil hunt a couple of times to admire the amazing descent into Cabrera.  The last hour of the hike was along an ancient stone trail partially built by Indians and finished by the Spanish.  It was speckled with tiny waterfalls and views of the valley below and yes…fossils!

Silvia and me on the trail
Eureka!!!
A view of the town of Cabrera from the trail we hiked in on.

We arrived in Cabrera just in time to catch the last bus back to San Gil but decided to stick around and spend the night there.  Cabrera has a population of just a few hundred people and has pretty much zero tourism and of the few dozen tourists who make it there every year I think it’s safe to say almost none stay the night.  But we asked if there was a guesthouse in town and were pointed to a colorful unadorned door on a cobblestone street next to the church.  There was a woman there who rented out rooms and she welcomed us in with an almost excessive kindness and cordiality and showed us to a nice room with a bathroom and three beds that she let out to us at the rate of 15,000 pesos for both of us (about 8 dollars).  We cleaned up a bit and went out to the small plaza as the sun was setting and instantly made friends with a half dozen local kids who were interested in our apparent strangeness.

They served meals in the back of the small general store on the plaza and over dinner we got to chatting with a local military policeman in full uniform who was stationed in Cabrera.  He told us about a nearby waterfall and since he had the next day off he offered to take us there In the morning.  I slept well that night and dreamt of fossils and waterfalls.

We were up early at 6am and set off looking for our new friend and soon enough the three of us were trekking down a back road on our way to the waterfalls.  The policeman kept us entertained with story after story, probably none of them true, of all the major drug lords of Colombia that he had helped put behind bars with his fearless attitude and quick thinking.  After the first few I lost interest and my fiendish eyes fell to the ground where I kept up my search for fossils.  By the time the waterfalls were in sight it was too late to get up close to them because we had to catch the next bus back to San Gil but they were impressive even from a distance…and we later found out they were the same waterfalls that we had seen from the top the day before!  And so, with a backpack full of rocks we headed back to San Gil, grabbed lunch and jumped on the next bus to Parque Nacional Chicamocha, the “Grand Canyon” of South America

So this is the same watefall that I took the picture of from the top the day before

We made the big mistake of paying to enter the “Parque Nacional” to see the canyon instead of just seeing it from the road.  It was like “Wally’s World National Park”, the cheesy theme park atmosphere complete with rides did a good job of cheapening the actual experience of seeing some amazing natural wonder of the world.  But it was still cool  and definitely worth the trip.

Chicamocha

The next day was the big event, El Primer Encuentro Internacional Caminantes SaiaVita. (The First Annual International Meeting of SaiaVita Hikers).  This was a community event that Eliana helped plan to get locals out onto the nearby trails to see the natural beauty

Hikers at our final destination

that San Gil has to offer and to promote sustainable tourism throughout the region.  They had a great turnout of a hundred people or so, young and old who did the 3 hour hike from San Gil, through the mountains, and ending at a nice river.  I was the “international” part of the the event so lots of people wanted to talk to me about where I came from and what I was doing there in San Gil and it was great to connect with so many locals out on the trail.

After the hike we had to jump on our bus back to Bogota but before we did we picked up some of the local culinary delicacies to try out.  They are called Hormigas Culonas or “Big Assed Ants”.  They are the queen ants of a local leaf cutter species.  They are cooked in a hot pan with little or no oil and eaten salted.  I thought they tasted like eating a pumpkin or sunflower seed with the shell on.  Not bad!  So we sat in our bus waiting to pull out of the station chomping on ants.  The bus ride turned out to be one of the worst I have been on…we were the back two seats right next to a stinky toilet and the bus was so bumpy that I thought my head was going to hit the ceiling, not to mention that it was supposed to take 5 hours and took 8 hours.  But we had some good laughs and all in all it was a fun bus ride. And so I was back in Bogota, the next day I would find myself on the Amazon River, and little did I know that ne next time I was in Bogota I would be with my hospitalized brother!

More on all that later.  To see more pictures from my time with Silvia in Santander, CLICK HERE. 

News update:  Scott Claassen, recent graduate of Yale Divinity School, part time rambler of the world, full time philosopher, and songwriter extraordinaire has embarked on a mystic and epic journey across the United States on bicycle to promote awareness of climate change.  Scott and I have conquered mountains together, explored continents, and emptied more than a few bottles of wine together in celebration of life.  Check out his blog…he started a few weeks ago in Los Angeles, California  and was last seen peddling past Mt. Shasta in Oregon.  www.carbonsabbath.org