Cape Verde Boblog – written by Purser Kate (Bob) Addison
The Barque PICTON CASTLE is at sea again, letting the fresh trade-wind breezes blow the red sand of Africa from our rigging; we are westward bound transatlantic in the steady fresh trade winds of the tropics.
We just sailed from the port of Mindelo, on the north west corner of Sāo Vicente, one of the ten main islands of Republic (and archipelago of) Cape Verde. A little more than 300nm off the coast of Africa, Cabo Verde is an independent and savvy young nation with its own strong identity, but maintaining excellent relations with Africa, Europe and America. Its links with New Bedford, Massachusetts, and South Eastern New England are especially strong because so many American whaling ships called here in the 19th century to pick up crew and then never brought them home again founding the large emigrant population of Cape Verdeans in America. This remarkable immigrant group grew and grew with Cape Verdeans making their way to America in their own sailing ships sailing to New England up until the mid 1960’s in such vessels as the CAPITANA, The MADALAN, the MARIA SONY and the ERNESTINA. These vessels hold pride of place and the countries coins and currency underscoring the nation’s identity with the sea and venturesome spirit.
These arid, volcanic islands were uninhabited until the mid-1400s when they were claimed by Portuguese explorers in sailing ships. They became important as a stopping off point between Europe and Africa to the east and the Americas to the east. Used for trans-atlantic cable laying and as a coal bunkering station for steam ships, the islands were also used for many years to collect and hold slaves destined for Brazil and the Caribbean. The friendly and colourful market where we went to buy eggs, bananas and vegetables to feed our crew was originally built as a market for buying and selling people.
The architecture in down town Mindelo is still typically European colonial: tall, square buildings painted pastel colours with elegant wide steps and balconies. The suburbs are developing rapidly, with heaps of buildings still at the breeze block-and-mortar stage, you can see where the staircases, windows and doors will go, but for now they are just gaps and zigzags in the grey. But these are certainly proper buildings and not the corrugated iron and cardboard shanty towns that surround so many of the world’s cities: a testament to how quickly this country is developing and how well it functions.
And it really does function. Most of the people seem to have much the same laid-back attitude as in the Caribbean, so going to the bank or post office or shops can take a little time. It’s perfectly reasonable to be first in a long line at the bakery but hold up proceedings for a few minutes while you greet a neighbour with kisses on both cheeks and enquires about their grandchildren and a joke. But there’s no need to get anxious or frustrated, no need to rush or stress, your turn in the queue will come and everything gets done, and done with great energy and no problems.
The national dish is called catchupa: cheap and delicious, I think I ate it at every restaurant in town. A simple mush of beans and different types of maize, the style of the catchupa varied a lot from place to place: sometimes the beans were soft and white and fluffy with chickpeas and white maize, sometimes haricot beans and stock making a reddish stew, sometimes yellow and oily with fried corn, it was almost always served with a fried egg on top and a few slices of paprika-red chorizo sausage on the side. Delicious.
There were hundreds of tiny shops all selling much the same stuff as each other: sacks of flour or rice, gallon jugs of cooking oil, different types of beans and pulses for making catchupa and the usual assortment of cookies and candy in shiny packages. Some of the shops seemed a little random in their selection: one sold pink sparkly outfits for little girls, small electronic devices and a good selection of bicycle tyres and parts. Which made finding all the odds and ends a ship needs a little challenging but fun.
We were lucky enough to see another side of Cape Verde too – our visit coincided with the annual carnival, and they say Mindelo has the best carnival in all of Cape Verde. Based on the Catholic feasting before the austerity of lent, it seems like the Cape Verdeans have taken some cues from their Brazilian cousins to make Mardi Gras and the week before into one giant party. There were parades though the streets every day: groups marching with insistent drums, Samba and Mandingo dancing, half-naked blackened people, blacked up even more with face paint, dried grass around their legs and waist, brandishing a staff and leaping about – somewhere between culturally interesting and terrifying. Groups of children in Disneyfied costumes got to stay up late after the children’s parades for special treats of ice-cream and popcorn after trooping en mass behind floats drifting along with pastel coloured papier mâché elephants and improbable giant flowers. We saw ladies walking with armfuls of ostrich feathers and glittery costumes, and girls shopping for Minnie Mouse headbands and sparkly outfits, beautiful men in silly rainbow afro-wigs with rippling muscles all covered in glitter. There were huge sound systems set up in a different square every night and stands selling everything to eat and drink, but the parties didn’t even get started until after midnight.
Out in the harbour, safely anchored with both hooks down and holding well, among the anchored freighters we heard the music blasting out until late at night, though by the time it got to us the sound was softened by distance and the hot dry off-shore wind. This is the ‘harmattan’ which blows from the deserts of central Africa for hundreds of miles offshore. The dust that it carries into the atmosphere made everything look weirdly foggy though the air was very dry, reducing visibility to less than five miles, making a smudge of the horizon and leaving a thin layer of reddish dust on every surface. Freshly tarred rigging turns pink with this fine Sahara sand. In the words of Charles Darwin who visited here during his famous voyage aboard the BEAGLE, the “impalpably fine dust … falls in such quantities as to dirty everything on board” Turns out we’re not the first crew to have spent extra time scrubbing decks while visiting this fascinating corner of the world.