Four hours later – Amílcar Cabral International Airport, Cape Verde. From a pleasant Mediterranean summer I got into the zone of an everyday tropical summer. Passengers on the Lisbon–Recife and the Milan–Salvador flights, arriving at the same time, have the opportunity to transfer here. My ticket is to Brazil too and I, along with the others, should transfer now. But I came up with a better idea!
We’re getting off onto the still warm asphalt in intoxicating odour of kerosene. The airport personnel divide us: transferring passengers from my plane are lined up to the left and wait until transferring passengers from the other aircraft finish changing planes. But I choose otherwise. The girls, with hi-viz jackets reflecting on them, lead me to the pleasantly air-conditioned terminal building. My backpack arrives here and then I’ll head to the island.
The airport, named after the hero of the nation’s independence movement, is relatively small, so luckily I can quickly get my stuff wrapped in cling film. However, soon the passport check reveals that I have to pay a so-called ‘airport security fee’. Of course, I knew about the existence of this €31 fee: this is the cost of the mandatory visa, which, as of January 2019, does not apply to EU citizens. Instead, they’ve introduced this tax ’for our security’.
How can I simply suspend my journey? Here’s the deal:
There are now quite a few companies flying between Europe and South America, including at least one low-cost one, with surprisingly good offers, which, I did take into consideration, of course. In this case, however, I would miss the opportunity to meet this small Atlantic archipelago. Cape Verde Airlines uses this airport as a transfer hub for its flights coming from European cities and flying to Brazil, firstly because of their medium-haul aircrafts, secondly to be able to offer passengers the chance to transfer, which means they can multiply the available destinations. I finally chose this company, because I managed to make two fair deals with them.
One of them is that if I have to transfer to get from Lisbon to Salvador anyway, it may be possible to take the second part of the journey by the next flight on the same route, four days later. In other words, can I do a short stopover on the islands without having to buy two separate tickets, which is more expensive? The answer was „yes, no problem”.
The other came for me from the first one: do I have to pay the above mentioned ‘airport security fee’ (tourist tax) if I do not stop for holiday purposes but to transfer and spend a few days here with a valid forward ticket in my pocket. The answer in this case, too, was “yes, in this case, payment of the fee is not required”.
As it turns out, the latter information is incorrect, but being a stubborn person and having the correspondence with both the airline’s customer service in my hand, I start a long argument with the immigration officer. Telephone calls reach the head of the local border guard and even the airlines headquarter. Finally I surrender. Since I do not want to arrive at my host’s apartment too late, I pay this tax, carefully keeping the €31 receipt as an attachment to the planned complaint letter. (Additionally I had another issue with this otherwise flexible company, due to which I also lost the same amount of cash, but I’ll write about that later.)
Anyway, I’m in the country
And I’ve already told my local Couchsurfing host, Sadio that I’m arriving soon. It’s worth making local friends for many reasons. One of them is that the lonely traveller can share their experience with someone and can get handy tips, such as how to catch a taxi in the evening. Well, not in front of the terminal building, because from there the cost is a flat 12 euros to the nearby town of Santa Maria. But a few hundred meters away, along the main road chances are to catch a colectivo, the local public transport option with a significantly lower fare or to hail a taxi right there as locals do.
At least during the day. But there’s not a single soul anywhere now. I’m standing under a street lamp, watching the distant lights of the city. It feels scary at first, but knowing that statistics mention this island nation as the safest country in Africa is reassuring.
And the border guard too, who stops shortly and advises me not to give the taxi driver more than 2 euros from here by the roadside – this is exactly what my host told me, so this should work. Unfortunately, he went to another place and did not have enough fuel, so he could not offer me a ride, but soon a custom yellow-and-blue taxi pulls out from the airport and stops. I only need to bargain a little as the young driver immediately feels that I know the local “order”.
In fact, I can only insist on the price, but I understand the principle too when I am dropped off at the edge of the city after a 10 km ride, from where, he drives straight home. So this is not a door-to-door service, but I can’t expect such for this price.
I walk another few hundred meters down the already deserted main street and on the promenade, and then, as agreed, I go to the last surf bar at the coast stretching out a bit. Despite the refreshing passion fruit juice, I’m already tired of wondering who this Sadio might be, who is currently battling in the kickboxing room. Meanwhile guests, consisting of locals and one or two older Europeans, dance to Latin and African music under this open wooden building touched by the pleasant breeze.
An evening full of surprises
Suddenly a physically fit guy steps up to me. This is Sadio, or as his friends call him by his French name Bouba (pronounced Boo-ba). He’s my host and hopefully my guide too for the next few days. We talk a little over another drink, then he grabs my big backpack with one hand and throws it comfortably on one shoulder – we’re going home now.
The real surprise is only coming now, though: where we are heading is a hotel. Pardon?
Although at first this piece of information sounded rather a joke, but Bouba is a quiet and serious character who really doesn’t seem to be kidding. It’s been ten years since I stayed in a hotel in Tunisia as part of the deal of my first and only package-holiday trip, and this hasn’t been planned now.
But let’s just wait for a moment… From the well-lit street with a South European atmosphere, we turn into a pitch-black parking lot. We’re cutting the road, I thought.
This is the first chapter of an adventure novel, and for me, it seems to be the reality.
The lights of the disappearing street filter through the once immaculate row of palm trees, the dust of the parking lot is stirred up by dogs fooling around, then they jump and bark at me, expressing their displeasure – obviously, this is their territory. And now for a while this is mine too, I acknowledge.
My accommodation is the Grand Ghost Hotel.
Bouba waves the dogs away as we move on quietly toward the back entrance. With asking questions, I try to break the silence and learn as much as I can from the plot of the novel, thereby comforting myself a bit as well.
We go up the back stairs using the torches of our phones. I have to be careful because my sandals can be easily poked through by the shards of glass, probably from the windows. I can already hear sounds in the dark corridor: conversations in a language I don’t recognize, sounds of a mobile phone game, music, a kid crying somewhere in the distance. My host is still pretty silent, but I’m not worried anymore.
Sailing off the safe harbour undoubtedly requires a lot more attention and common sense, but it also entices you with a way bigger, almost guaranteed prize.
So there is no going back. The flimsy door opens with a key… and voilà! After inserting the hotel key card, the mood lighting turns on automatically and gently…
Bouba is looking for a candle – there are two more in the shrink wrap. He glues one to the table and the other one for me in the bathroom where two big buckets of water are waiting. A real cure for my sticky skin!
I am a little embarrassed as I arrived from Europe with two bottles of alcohol and one and a half Lidl buns. Which should be the gift? Where is the souvenir? I ran out of Hungarian souvenirs (which were interestingly also alcohol), then after I find out about my host’s eating habits, it becomes clear that this stuff isn’t the best choice: Bouba doesn’t drink alcohol. I can’t offer him the buns, especially since I’m starting to get super hungry well after the no-gluten-no-fat-no-sugar dinner on board.
The warm candlelight is moving elegantly, breaking the cold feeling of our cellphones’ white lights, while making the room homely. Our conversation is becoming more and more friendly, deep and intriguing and I am getting to know Bouba as an infinitely kind and honest person!
He doesn’t let me crush on his couch, he would sleep there instead. I lay my sleeping bag onto the sponge on the floor. The steamy tropical air fills the room and even though the balcony door remains open to make it more bearable, I can’t fall asleep easily. There is no distraction now though, the silence of the night is broken only by the ocean waves.
A little housework
Sounds from the sea and laughing children wake me up. I listen for a while, then get out from my “bed” and step out to the balcony. I don’t even notice the rundown environment, as the background catches my eye immediately with its white sand beach and the endless blue horizon behind it! Life has already begun.
Bouba doesn’t complain when I ask about his night, but if the couch looks pretty small to fit even me, how could he sleep on it then? Slowly, he also gets up and asks if I would go help him around the house. “Of course” – I say!
The second floor corridor has a completely different atmosphere in broad daylight than it did the night before. As we walk towards the car park, my buddy greets his hotel mates, each with a few kind words. I worry about my backpacks left in the room, but Bouba reassures me that everyone in the building knows him well and he maintains a good relationship with everyone. Besides, nobody wants to nettle him anyway.
We’re heading towards the centre of the surprisingly tidy little town while he’s telling me a lot about his life. We run into even more of his buddies but I understand almost nothing of the words they exchange. He’s Senegalese and speaks the three languages that are used there. And of course he can speak Portuguese and English too. He used to be a truck driver in his country, but he moved here in hopes of a better life and is now a security guard in the largest luxury resort, working six hours a day. In addition to sending some money back to his family, he also can save another small portion of what he earns.
Many houses are not fitted with tap water, which is why we can find water houses around the town. The municipality fills the cisterns of these buildings with water tankers, and when they open on certain mornings, people can fill their cans. We pay around 10 local escudos or something like one euro for 60 liters to the guy managing the place. This is drinking water, but to flush the toilet we use water drawn from the flooded underground engine house at the end of the hotel (the groundwater level close to the coast is low, no more than 2 meters).
I can still feel my shoulders from carrying the empty cans in the morning even when we head downtown again. We are going to visit the small mobile shop of a friend of Bouba first and then we’ll grab something for breakfast….
Accessibility is vital. So upon arrival to a new country, I always visit a mobile shop to get a local SIM card. With this not only I can chat and keep in touch with locals, but I also can ask for help and advice. And my local hosts often suggest which company fits the purpose best (i.e. which network’s range is reliable even in end-of-the-world locations). I also prefer to go into stores, rather than buying one from a street vendor, because of reliability reasons and in a shop they can usually set up or adjust network settings that often does not change automatically on my device.
After knocking on the door for minutes and trying to make a phone call, the door finally opens. This is Mo. This is how Bouba introduces him, a real businessman, from Gambia – and of course he’s still on his phone…
Mo invites us to his roof terrace speaking excellent English, while I’m trying to recall the colonial map of Africa. Bouba converse not only in the official language of Senegal (French) but also in Wolof language, commonly used in his country and in neighboring Gambia. So they can chat with Mo when I’m not listening. Gambia’s colonial past, on the other hand, can be traced back to the British imperial times, which explains Mo’s fluent English. And because none of us speak either the Portuguese or the local Creole (which is basically Portuguese blended with some West African languages), English remains our lingua franca.
But what has led to such a high degree of ethnic and linguistic mix?
European explorers, again, of course. In this case, I really consider them explorers, as Cape Verde (or Cabo Verde) is one of the very few lands that were uninhabited until the arrival of the Europeans. These islands, just 600 kilometers off the west coast of Africa were spotted first in the middle of the 15th century by the Portuguese. It is interesting that it got its name from French Africa’s Cape Verde (or Cap-Vert), which is the westernmost tip of the continent as well.
Cabo Verde – or correctly Kabu Verdi in local Creole, is colorful not only because of its linguistic composition but because of its mixed culture and multi-ethnic background. Descendants of European settlers and African slaves from the mainland make up the majority of the island’s population, which is indicated by their skin’s lighter shade of brown. My friends, on the other hand, are ebony black and are among the many other foreign nationals who came in for the hopes of attractive job opportunities.
With a good reason.
This archipelago has always been of logistical importance. In the age of the Portuguese conquests this was an ideal re-supplying point for ships navigating via the South Atlantic slave-trade routes. After nearly five centuries of European rule, the region’s long struggle for independence finally ended successfully in 1975.
Today, it is considered one of the most stable, pluralistic democracies in Africa and a dynamically developing market economy. As a result of the investor-friendly measures of the government, significant foreign direct investments have been realized, especially in one of the fastest-growing tourism markets in the world. Thanks for the prosperous economy, in 2007 the UN has classified Cabo Verde as a developing nation rather than a least developed country. It therefore has a higher standard of living than the average of the nearest countries, which also attracts a significant number of economic migrants, mainly from the West Coast countries of Africa.
Gosh! What am I doing here!
The main direction of immigration is towards the main tourist magnet, Sal Island. Within the country’s total population of 500,000 (2019), Sal’s value is most noteworthy for its dynamic growth.
And this is just the number of people living on the island, as in the first half of 2019 alone, hotels registered 414,000 guests, with 2.5 million overnight stays in the country as a total. And now comes the point! This small Sal accounted for 42.5% of this, which is more than 1 million overnight stays. In half a year!
But where are the tourists?
A day around the city
After the breakfast, we take a tour around the town. Although tourists spend some 2 million days on this island in total, and supposedly they spend some time in Santa Maria too, the streets are still pleasantly empty. At about 10 am, the hustle and bustle begins, but even then, souvenir shops, restaurants and beach bars don’t seem to be either overly commercialized or pushy. What’s more, I particularly like it so far, especially because based on the information I read about this place it is felt like a barren and boring tourist paradise. I also had a kind of concern about what I was going to do here for 4 days… I guess not what the holiday makers do in general: I came here to find a few new interesting details of our world rather than to kill the time in the resort complex.
On the outskirts of the city I find row of buildings made up mostly of rusty corrugated metal sheets, which appear to be the industrial zone. Dogs roam about the area, but the tropical sun bothers me much more as my feet will get sunburned-red soon – maybe wearing sandals was not the best idea… Bouba is my tour guide who is happy to spend his day off to show me around. Shortly we reach one of the big suburban salt evaporation fields. We don’t find a single soul here except snow white sodium chloride. As far as the eye can see. Needless to say, that one of the important export items of the island is salt.
So where there is sea (salt water) and high number of sunshine hours (rapid evaporation), chances are that we find not only holiday makers, but this kind of economic activity too.
The Grand Ghost Hotel
I invite my friend for a lunch to thank him for being my host, because as a typical European I brought alcohol as a gift. But luckily I didn’t give it to him (the vast majority of Senegal’s population is Muslim).
After the city tour and the big chunk of fish we head back to our residence.
The hotel was one of the very first ones in Cabo Verde with high-end services. Up until the Russian owner was charged with a crime related to drugs and was sentenced to prison years ago. It was then managed for some time by its original management team, who rented the rooms out and entrusted Bouba – who was moving to the island at the time – to take care of the building. He collected the rent and utility bills from the tenants; he was the on-site representative and the caretaker at the same time.
Then all of a sudden utilities were shut down and everything was over. There was no reason to pay a penny for anything anymore, and as a free stuff it started becoming attractive to the particularly price-sensitive members of the society. The nicely working system organized from above was replaced by self-organization, or with other words, disorganization: vacant rooms were occupied uncontrollably leading to even violence sometimes. Meanwhile, the future of the property is unclear or rather hopeless due to plenty of legal obstacles.
That’s it for today, but don’t go too far away!
When I come back with the next part we’ll further discover this island with its astonishing landforms, people, kitchen, and yet another hidden gem.
So keep on following. And if you don’t just want to enjoy it yourself, let your friends know about Terrainfinita by simply sharing this story! Would you? 🙂