January 29, 2014
Strange Days – Mindelo, Cape Verde
My first day on Cape Verde quite literally left me speechless and that takes some doing. But, more of that later. The fabled Cape Verde Islands have a dark past. This tiny cluster of islands which lie around 350 miles off the coast of West Africa were uninhabited for centuries. Consisting of ten volcanic islands and covering approximately 1,500 square miles, Cape Verde (or the Republic of Cabo Verde, as the United Nations decreed it should be renamed in 2013) is mainly a barren environment. The present population of about half a million people could not survive on the minimal amounts of food that the islands can produce and 90 percent of their supplies are imported.
The Portugese sailors, the “desoberta,” who discovered the islands in 1456 found them completely uninhabited, but soon began to colonize the area. From the very beginning, Cape Verde’s population was diverse and strange. It became a place of refuge for Jews and others fleeing the Inquisition. Political prisoners from Portugal were exiled there and leper colonies were established on the island of Boa Vista. But the archipelago’s unique position between Africa and the Americas made it a perfect staging post for the transatlantic slave trade for 300 years, from the sixteenth century until the trade collapsed in the nineteenth century. This mass movement of people taken from their homes and transported across thousands of miles of ocean was a dark chapter in Cape Verde’s history. However, slaves and their masters led a much more integrated life here than elsewhere, leading to the amazingly diverse mix of European and African races and cultures that gives the country its special feel today.
Wandering around Mindelo one can see and hear this mixed heritage everywhere, in the creole language, in the music for which the locals have a great passion, and in the faces of the locals. Tourism is beginning to grow, taking advantage of the wonderful climate and yet there is little evidence of the tourist trade in the main towns as the holiday makers who jet in are whisked away to self-contained hotel complexes leaving places like Mindelo mercifully unspoilt (for now at least). With little in the way of tourist attractions in the normal sense, Mindelo is a place to drift around slowly on the shady side of the street. The fish market, though, was a much more frenetic experience. Crowded and crazy, with people shouting and laughing loudly, the market is a hive of activity with small skiffs bringing fish from tiny silver slivers to huge sharks, right up to the jetty outside.
It was later, when I had wandered away from the center into the dirt road back streets, that I lost my tongue. Seeing a bunch of obviously happy men clustered around a small shop front I walked up to see what was going on. A young guy told me in perfect English that this was a “Grog Shop” selling Jungle Juice, the strong liquor made from palm sugar. “This is our rum” he said proudly. I squeezed my way in and my new mate ordered a shot for me. I knocked it back, tasting the powerful sweet juice as it hit the back of my throat. The locals laughed when I shook my head and grinned. I downed another, but this time it was the “special” brew, much stronger and sweetened with honey. The third shot went down more slowly as I relished the unidentifiable solids floating in the golden liquid. But then they stopped me, “No more, you will fall over in the sun” they joked. After more laughter, bear hugs and photos they sent me on my way refusing to let me pay. I felt OK for twenty minutes, but then I felt my tongue go numb. It spread to my throat. I couldn’t speak. My tongue moved strangely in my mouth and my lips were dead. I was anesthetized by Grog. Several strong coffees and a good hour later I recovered and every time I thought of those wild but welcoming guys in the Grog Shop I grinned. Mindelo is a cool, cool place.