Only few more minutes and I will see the land I thought full of hope. After six hours of flying over the Atlantic I was sincerely fed up with being locked in this tin can floating above the ocean. I don’t like to fly you see and entering the plane at Heathrow airport I was praying silently for a safe (and quick!) journey. And now here it was, the moment I had been waiting for what felt like forever, the plane was finally landing at Boa Vista. I heard a little shriek of excitement inside my head.
Boa Vista, meaning good view, at first glimpse was not as majestic as the name suggested. We were almost touching the ground and all I could see was…sand. Not exactly the paradise I had imagined when booking my tickets to tell you the truth. But then again, this tiny island was mostly known for salt and dunes rather than lush greenery coming to mind when you hear about Green Cape. Despite its mere 29 km width, the islet is the third largest of ten islands that together create the Republic of Cape Verde. Once a Portuguese colony and one of the main points of the slave trade, today this archipelago is a retreat for tourists seeking peace and quiet with a touch of African exoticism.
The holiday atmosphere of this place hit me as soon as I reached the airport– warm yellow walls and upbeat music oozing from the speakers announced the relaxed ambience of the country. A board hanging next to the passport control welcomed me at Boa Vista and assured me that this airport is unique in the world and we would like to you be our guest in this atmosphere of peace and love. No other place had made me feel so welcome before, that’s for sure. The sign further informed the visitors that they should brace their lungs for the unique opportunity of breathing in the purest air – with just under 400 kilometres of roads in the entire republic and low income, the low emissions were not surprising. Surprising was everything else though.
Imagining Africa many Europeans start thinking of poverty, heat and rhythmic drumming sound that promises adventure. With the high education index and low corruption rates, Cape Verde was not exactly meeting those expectations. Arriving here I thought of my destination as Africa’s safe vestibule – I wasn’t yet ready for this continent at its fullest, but the foretaste of the Mother Continent served in the comfort of a sunbed was very tempting. This is what Boa Vista was promising. But would it keep its promise?
The safety of the airport was quickly replaced with a very different reality. Driving through the dusty roads winding amongst palm trees and desert landscapes, we passed a small village. A bundle of decaying low-rise buildings of this desolate place turned out to be the second largest city of the island. With less than a thousand citizens, lack of shops and sight of men bathing in the local well, Rabil was far from my idea of a “city”. I suddenly started to realize that nothing on this island was familiar.
We kept on going. Since we left Rabil behind better half of an hour ago, I had not seen a single house, not a single soul. I started feeling unease.
Finally, the hotel! Riu Tuareg resembled a majestic sand castle … and it was located in the middle of absolute nowhere. Rocky desert on one side, wild ocean on the other, and between them 18 kilometres of beach. Our new home was proudly named after this very isolation, so highly prized by the Berber Tuareg people. So there I was, a vulnerable tourist in this false safe haven on an island belonging to posterity of people sold by white foreigners into slavery. Placed in the middle of nowhere, surrounded only by sand and ocean. My heart started to beat a little bit faster.
As a purebred city dweller, this unexpected space and the ubiquity of unbridled nature began to scare me. I suddenly realized how tiny and fragile creature a man is, how completely defenceless we are against the power of nature. Living in places like London you create a false conviction that as long as there are people and shops around you are safe, that if anything goes wrong, someone will come to your rescue. Your friends, police, hospital are all only a phone call away; you’re never alone. Here, in the Touareg hotel I wasn’t on my own either, yet I was very aware of the fact that in case of an emergency my fellow cohabitants would be as clueless as I was. I had trouble sleeping that night.
The new day brought a new perspective as I woke up fully in-tune with this place. Before the breakfast I went for a walk. Standing at the beach I was watching with awe the waves disturbing the garnet of the depths, changing it into turquoise, transforming it into foamy whiteness, violently attacking the sand underneath my feet. I was a part of the Lacacao beach, I was a part of Boa Vista, a tiny part of Africa. In less than twenty four hours I moved from the concrete world ruled by the human, into a place fully possessed by the nature. Powerful ocean, burning sun, undivided kilometres of sand and rocks, which each day graciously allow the thousands of Cape Verdeans to exist in their kingdom. Maybe there is no point in trying to control everything around us? Maybe the so called “civilization” is just an illusion of safety we created for ourselves to convince ourselves that we’ve got something to say in the greater scheme of things? Maybe the truth was that we’re helpless? Admitting to this possibility was strangely liberating, fear was replaced by inner peace. Maybe I was fragile. But I was also strong enough to have survived in this world so far and here I was, facing the raw, and thus beautiful, nature. I felt like something inside me returned home.
Admiring the pristine landscape, I looked around and noted with surprise a human silhouette on the horizon. It was too early for the tourists, and too far away from anything for the locals. I decided to get closer. On the sand was a young man with braided hair, sitting calmly on the beach in jeans and a down jacket. With the temperature of over thirty degrees and already burning sun his attire was somewhat surprising. Aren’t you feeling hot? I asked. A bit, but I don’t want to get tanned said the dark-skinned man smiling. I decided to accept his logic.
I sat next to him, admiring the rows of wooden figurines displayed on the sand. Alex was showing me one by one, explaining which he had carved himself and which had been made by an uncle he lived with. As I soon found out, my new friend was born on a neighbouring island and moved to Boa Vista to support his mum and sister – aside from tourism Cape Verde did not offer too many career paths for ambitious entrepreneurs like him. Here, in the (relative) vicinity of hotels, he lived off his handcrafted timber-men and pumice turtles. And he was happy. I’ve got here my family, friends and beach all year round. I have roof over my head and food in the stomach. What else is there to want? asked Alex, while I wonder why I spent my whole life chasing that else.
The next day I decided to check if other residents of the island are as optimistic as my new friend. Curious to test my hypothesis I left the hotel in the morning to explore Boa Vista. First stop – the seemingly deserted Rabil.
After a visit to the local pottery workshop I sat outside in the sun listening to a man playing guitar. As I sat there doing absolutely nothing but enjoying the moment, a little girl opened the door of a neighbouring house and looked at me shyly. I waved at her and smiled. Her eyes glistened and her face lit up with a bright smile. She pointed at the pavement below her house (the entrances were raised a meter above the ground) and once I moved and stood in front of her she jumped into my arms laughing. I spun her around and placed safely back down. The little girl run back upstairs and repeated her leap of faith giggling. Her laughter summoned her sister who after very brief analysis of the situation jumped into my arms as well.
From Rabil we headed east to the Deserto de Viana, a sand desert famous for its dunes. While climbing the unsteady and soft surface, on the nearby rocks I noticed an old man on a donkey following his flock of goats. They moved slowly, sleepily observing their surrounding. The next point on the agenda was Praia de Santa Monica, one of the island’s most famous beaches. On the way there we stopped at Provoação Velha, a small village in the south of the island. Amongst piles of rubble stood few houses, a dilapidated lorry and an empty container with the Coca-Cola logo. I walked around the cobblestone streets, looking into the two shops with local art. Aside from jewellery made from colourful beads and seeds, they offered paintings made of coloured sand depicting African warrior masks or everyday life on the island. Equipped with a souvenir I decided it was a time for a little break in the local bar. I sat outside with a drink in my hand, listening to three men playing cheerful music. We were joined by a small group of tourists whose guide was friends with the musicians. He requested a more up-beat melody and dragged outside a woman who worked at the counter. She protested laughing but when the band started playing, she followed the rhythm and happily succumbed to her dance partner’s lead.
One swim and 30 minutes of sunbathing at Santa Monica beach later, I was back in the jeep. The drive to the shipwreck of Cabo Santa Maria was very challenging. The corpse of this transport ship can be seen from Boa Esperanza coast and is only accessible in a 4×4 to those with strong stomachs. After a short roller-coaster drive we got to the beach where the wreckage was just meters away. The ship crushed here in 1968 and proved to be godsend for the locals, who quickly loomed its entrails. Apparently Cape Verdeans carried out a car from there with their own hands! Leaving the sad skeleton in peace I headed to my last destination of the day – Fundo das Figueiras. This small village in the eastern part of the island, known for the church of Saint John the Baptist. I was more interested in the village itself than the chapel however. There wasn’t much there, one shop, one restaurant, one bus going to the city once a week, but it didn’t seem like the residents were missing anything. The colourful houses looked as cheerful as smiling people sitting in front of them.
Thirsty, I walked into the shop where a young woman served me while her children chased each other around the counter. I bought some coke for them too and the two girls shyly accepted, suddenly becoming very calm. Their mum looked at me gratefully as she seemed to enjoy a moment of silence. The older girl stayed in the cool shadow offered by the building, while the younger one run outside, joining a group of kids playing outside. There was something very calming about the freedom these children had. It reminded me of when I was little and was running wild with my friends, our parents knowing we’ll be safe as someone from the neighbourhood always kept an eye on us. Maybe they didn’t have the newest dolls or iPads, but these kids had love and safety, and isn’t that all that we need really?
During my stay at Boa Vista I visited Alex every day, listening to stories from his life while I told him about the places I saw. He made me a bracelet, so that I have something reminding me to smile and a little pumice turtle, so I can take Cape Verde home with me. My beach friend was just one of the many people I was lucky to meet during my short stay at Cape Verde, but like the rest he made me see life in a different light. Cape Verdeans did not appear resigned, they seemed to appreciate the little things in life. Their focus was not on what was missing but on what they already had. Amongst the painful history of the island, swaying slowly to the melancholic melody of the local morna music, exposed to nature’s grace, Cape Verdeans seemed happy. I am certain they have problems just like anyone else, their hearts get broken and they worry about their future. And yet they walk with their heads held high, bravely facing everything that fate sends along. And they smile, because they know what really matters in life.