I’m sitting in an African bar scratching a description of Praia, Cape Verde, into a notebook, sipping my third cup of passable Portuguese plonk. I don't know if it was my intense concentration on the composition, or the fact that I'd asked for the third cup of wine after the staff had already switched off the lights and bolted the door, but something clued the owner to the idea that I might be a travel writer. He introduced himself and handed me the card of his humble but friendly establishment.
I conclude that this gentleman has never met a real travel writer, because I neither asked the waitress to leave the jug, nor checked their cupboards for extra bottles. The fact that he didn’t refill my cup when he proffered his card leads me to further conclude that he doesn’t know how to get good copy out of a real travel writer – should he ever meet one.
Anyway, prior to this minor distraction, I was preparing to report that “de rigueur” rusted harbor-side cannon barrels overlook the listing skeletons of wrecked ships stuck in the oozy sand of Praia’s…umm…praia.
And that the beach itself is the color of brown beer bottles, which is not surprising considering the colossal number of empty Sagres beer bottles left there to decompose.
The upside to this alarming environmental news is that in this arid town with less grass than a putting green, where the afternoon air approaches the temperature recommended for baking a turkey, where the Sahara’s dust finally settles after its long journey from Mauritania, you are never far from a cold one.
Praia is the capital of a West African archipelago called Cape Verde, formerly part of the Portuguese empire. It fell into economic obscurity about 150 years ago when its main endeavor as a way station in the slave trade between Africa and the Americas was rendered redundant by the abolition of that activity.
Since the appellation “green” has about as much relevance to Cape Verde as it does to Greenland, the prospects for an agricultural society thereafter were hopeless. Deadly drought followed deadly drought.
Survivors fled to Massachusetts, Brazil and Lisbon. They left behind a few hearty souls to create a unique music style, to insanely celebrate the football successes of Benfica and Sporting Lisbon and to conduct extensive research into the biodegradable characteristics of beer bottles.
If you ever find yourself in Praia without the good fortune of being confined in a bar with a seemingly endless supply of cheap vinho tinto, I recommend a trip across the interior of Praia’s island, Santiago.
Santiago is about the size and shape of Barbados, but without grass, palm trees, steel bands, dark rum or powdery white beaches sprawling with topless tourists.
My guidebook tells me that with the help of the usual suspects, the U.N., U.S. and E.U., Cape Verde has undertaken a massive re-forestation effort using a “species of acacia tree particularly adapted to the area’s conditions.”
The day before I got locked in this wine cellar, I took that trip, and all I can say for certain is that this species of acacia tree is particularly adapted to catching and holding the millions of multicolored plastic bags passing motorists launch across the rubbled roadside. Some particularly well-adapted trees were adorned with as many as ten sacks flapping in the dusty breeze like a Chinese banner ceremony.
The trip across Santiago to the northern town of Tarrafal took three hours through landscape I would call “lunar” but I would be maligning the moon.
Despite this agricultural handicap, the irrepressible Cape Verde people have contrived to summon enough water from the earth and collect enough rainfall every year or so to cultivate occasional patches of mango, banana and sugar cane. The sugar cane they distil into a beverage called “grogue,” which will shut down your synapses before you can say, “Damn! This shit tastes strong!”
But left to its own devices, the land would yield nothing but dust and cactus. More remarkable than the stark landscape are the pastel stucco dwellings that appear to have been airlifted from the Algarve and set down on the high slopes of rocky pathless pinnacles.
I asked my driver how these people managed to exist up there and he logically pointed out that there was a grocery store only a few kilometers’ walk away. We passed this shop on our descent into Tarrafal.
While it wasn’t Whole Foods, it did have sufficient survival rations and even a few luxury goods, like tins of imported olive oil and chorizos. Where those mountain people conjured up the money to buy these goodies, though, is anybody’s guess.
When we arrived in Tarrafal, I learned that the main “tourist attraction” is the ruins of former dictator Antonio Salazar’s concentration camp for Portuguese and African political prisoners.
Anyone who has ever seen an abandoned concentration camp would never mistake this place, with its barrier ditches, barbed wire and gun towers, for anything else. One wartime writer observed that the only difference between Dachau and Tarrafal was that Dachau was ruled by “General Winter” while Tarrafal was ruled by “General Summer.” Hot, Dry, Airless, Savage all fall far short of describing the horror that would have been this prison.
Beyond that sobering site, the village has a small clean cove of a beach and a seaside terrace for eating fresh grilled fish and swallowing icy Sagres. Nice as it was, we couldn’t linger long over lunch. We had to hurry back to Praia. Benfica v. Sporting was kicking off early.
As I finish this article, chance has it that the friendly owner is ready to unlock the door to admit the first of the dinner trade and release me into another Praia evening, before he rushes to replenish his wine supply.