Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Stunning Beauty At Cape Verde

Map picture

Officially known as The Republic of Cape Verde, this island archipelago is composed of 10 islands located in the Central Atlantic Ocean approximately 570 km west of the coast of Western Africa. I had heard the name Cape Verde, but until yesterday, I had absolutely zero knowledge about them, so our day long outing was quite an adventure in many ways.

This island Republic was discovered by the Portuguese in the 15th century, and at that time, they were uninhabited. The Portuguese brought in African Slaves to work their plantations, and so today the natives speak both Portuguese along with their native Creole language. The country gained its independence from Portugal in 1975, and today is home to around 500,000 people.

Our vessel was the very first to use the new dock which had opened officially only the day before. We were visiting Porto Novo on the Island of Santo Antao, and as we departed the pier in our five bus caravan, I do not think any of us had any idea what to expect, except that we would be off the ship for a full day. Immediately upon leaving the dock, it was obvious that we had come to a developing nation. There was a market setup right at the dock area, and as we drove through town we saw almost no cars, and an “upscale home” appeared to be one made of cinder blocks, and if the residence was really upscale, then the cinder blocks were covered with a plaster surface which was brightly painted. Everyone we saw appeared happy and many waved as we went by.

The island was split down the middle by a very large mountain chain rising almost 4,000 ft. into the clear sky. For many years, this mountain chain was considered impenetrable so that it was not possible to cross from one side of the island to the other even around the shoreline. Our adventure today would be to drive to the other side of the mountain on the “new” road to where we would have lunch at a seaside community of Ponta do Sol. Along the way, we would visit local villages and a school. As we left the small town of Santo Antao and started our climb up the mountain, we could clearly see that we were crossing a dry volcanic landscape with occasional scrub trees. Most amazing, however, was the road on which we were driving. It was fairly narrow, so that two vehicles passing had to be careful, and it was quite steep in places, with grades exceeding 10 degrees. BUT what was incredible was the fact that it was a cobblestone surface, and that it had been built by hand over a 30 year period beginning in the 1960’s and ending early in the 90’s. The cobblestones were small, perhaps 4 inches square, and they had been carefully fitted together to create the driving surface. The road surface in the mountains had been literally chiseled out of the cliff sides, and in places, the cliffs were overhanging the road. Falling rocks are a constant problem, and so there are teams of men who walk the entire length of the roads each day to carefully remove the fallen stones. During the rainy season, the mud slides will frequently cause huge boulders to fall across the road, and at that point, traffic can become stuck, perhaps for days, until heavy equipment can arrive and clear the surface. In fact, had it been raining, we would not have been allowed to use this road out of concern that we could have become stuck. Building these roads required the construction of huge terraces to support the road bed in the steep mountains. These terraces were built by hand, stone by stone, and without mortar, merely by carefully fitting the adjoining pieces. It was absolutely amazing, and I hope that some of my pictures clearly show what I am describing.

During our climb we stopped several times to take pictures of the awesome, but largely dry and barren landscape. Little did we know that all of this was about to change and change abruptly!

As we neared the top of the mountain, the vegetation started to change. We entered an area of lush foliage and beautiful trees. Driving higher, we turned off onto yet another cobblestone road, but this was but a narrow lane. When we reached the top of a nearby ridge, the busses stopped and when we went to the ridge to look over – the view looked as if we had traveled to another island completely. In front of us were steep lush hillsides covered with terraces for farming. The vista was breathtaking, and in places the clouds hung on the mountain peaks.

During our long drive to the top, we had seen very few people, and they were only there to tend goats. We saw almost no one living on the “dry” side of the mountain. However, on the “wet” side we could see small villages dotting the hillsides which were covered with carefully tended stone terraces for gardening.

On our drive down the mountain we stopped at several little villages, and at each stop people were friendly, but perhaps shy. We got to take pictures with, and of the children, who were not so shy. The highlight of our journey down the mountain was our visit to a local primary school. We arrived unannounced, but our guide knew the school, and quickly we were invited inside. Before coming to Africa, Silversea had asked each passenger to bring along school supplies to be shared during our visits. The ship collected the gifts, and packaged them so that each school we would visit would receive a share. While our guides distributed the supplies to the school staff, we got to visit with the children. It was a little difficult since they spoke only Portuguese or Creole, and of course we spoke neither. But as always a smile, and some pictures shared on a digital camera soon broke the barrier, and they tried to speak English while we tried to say some words in Creole. Frankly, a good time was had by all. It was interesting to note that the children were well fed and happy. They all wore school uniforms, which were clean and neat, and while the school was pretty bare bones, it, too, was clean and neat. We learned that each “village” has its own primary school, but still some of the children must walk miles up and down the steep roads to attend. High School is another matter. There are only six on the island, and where it is not practical for the kids to walk back and forth to the school, they have dormitories where they can stay during the week, returning home for the weekend. Schooling is mandatory, but not free. Parents are expected to pay for school, but if they are too poor, then the State will subsidize the child’s tuition.

Finally as we reached “the other side” where we found the main city, Ponta do Sol. There each bus went to a different restaurant for lunch, since all of the venues were just small home run “cantina” type places. Frankly, except for a plate of rice, there was nothing I personally could eat, but most of our fellow travelers dove into the platters on the buffet as if they had not eaten in a week. The tables were covered in freshly ironed table cloths, and each of us had freshly pressed white napkins. It was a pleasant environment, and it could not have been better.

After lunch, we snapped some pictures of the town which is the Capital of this Island, and then rejoined our bus for the coastal drive back to our ship in Porto Novo. They kept telling us that we would get to drive on the newly completed “highway,” but all I could see in front of us was the same old cobblestone roadway winding around the coast. We did stop at a typical little fishing village for pictures.

As we were still driving on cobblestone, I started to wonder when we would reach this “new” highway that had been talked about all day, and also why we kept hearing that it was not possible to go around the mountain by the coast, when here we were doing just that. Suddenly we came to a roundabout, and our guide announced that we would now continue along the coast on the new “highway.” Until this road was opened a few years ago, this was as far as you could travel along the coast. From this point into Porto Novo was only 15 miles, but it had taken six years to build this section of road even with today’s modern equipment. Soon we came to a location where the mountain quite literally came down and out into the water, in effect erecting an impassable barrier in the past. However, a new and long tunnel had been constructed, allowing the road to now continue its journey.

We continued until our guide and driver decided to do something a little different. We turned off on a sandy road towards the cliff where the bus stopped. Our guide announced that anyone who wanted to go swimming could do so, and that we would stop for 30 minutes. This was nuts! None of us were prepared for a swim, although in the 100 degree heat, it sure sounded good. Anyway, we were parked on top of a steep cliff, and the path down to the sea was narrow and steep. To my surprise, a jolly group goes literally running down the pathway following none other than our expedition team leader. Reaching the bottom, she starts removing most of her clothes, and then jumps into the surging seas, followed almost immediately by 7 or 8 other people. From my distance, I had enough of a view to wish I had binoculars, but I did enjoy the screaming little group which was clearly having fun. Returning to the bus all wet did not seem to bother any of them in the heat, and so we returned to the ship, hot, parched, and tired with a few wet tag alongs.

Today we are at sea and headed back to the East towards Senegal. I think our next days are going to be quite interesting, so I hope you are enjoying our travels, and that you are doing well.


PS. I forgot to tell you something very amazing. As we drove along the coastal road, only 14 miles away was the neighboring Island of Saint Vincent, the largest and the most important of the Cape Verde Islands. Our driver said that on most days the visibility was crystal clear; however, today there was a slight sea mist. Even so, there was clearly visible a wide sandy scar that seemed to run from the shore up to the mountains and which filled a valley. Our guide explained that St. Vincent has a wide sandy stripe all the way across the island, and that the sand is deposited there from the winds blowing off the Saharan Desert 600 km away!

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