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

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 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.

         Throwback to 2001 – Lamu, Kenya                       
On the streets of Mindelo 2020

I ran into Richard, the Swedish captain who I sailed with from Lisbon to the Canaries and got 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 justice 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 of 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