Cape Verde- Islands at the Edge of the World (Guest Post)

by Sarah on December 26, 2009

Just imagine yachting the crystal clear waters of Cape Verde, an isolated cluster of twelve islands off the coast of Senegal, with the waves gently breaking against the bow. The ocean stretches outwards forever, with only the islands decorating its surface like a precisely positioned Feng Shui landscape. While sipping champagne in crystal glasses and watching the lazy sun paint the sky, it is a perfect romantic evening for …..seven? Eight if you count the captain.

“Mom? What’s for dinner? Mom? Mom, What’s for dinner?”

For Sari, intrepid adventuress, this was the question which invariably came up several times a day while island hopping with her five children in tow. As an observant Jew vacationing in a destination where few people have ever visited, yet alone have heard of, coming up with dinner was not such a trivial matter. Kashrut, or Jewish dietary law is part of the culture and daily life of a Jewish home but outside the community it is much more difficult to adhere to. This is partly because these laws pertain not only to the food which is eaten but anything touching it, including all utensils, ovens, pots and silverware. While most religious Jews choose to vacation with the hoards to accommodate kashrut and other religious laws, Sari and Johnny together with their family sailed off the beaten track taking their cooking utensils with them.

So why did they choose Cape Verde in the first place? What did they eat? Who lives on these isolated islands? This and more will be the topic of Sari’s next post.

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They say that the Cape Verde Islands were created from the crumbs that fell from God’s hands as he wiped them clean at the end of the creation.  These bits of dust appear every year or so in sailing articles, as one yacht or another passes them at the beginning of a cross Atlantic passage, but apart from that nobody seems to pay much attention to this peaceful archipelago.

We had decided to take a three month break from our daily lives together with our five children, Shimi (16), Ben (14), Josh (12), Aaron (10) and Rebecca (4). We wanted complete disconnection from our normal world, and we looked for mountains for hiking and deep blue seas for sailing.

Hours spent trawling through back issues of sailing magazines and emailing sailing forums didn’t come up with much – and in the end the final destination of where to go was solved in a surprisingly serendipitous way. While Johnny, my husband, who is the skipper of the family, was running through Manchester Airport he tripped near a bookshop and hit a travel guide display.  A book toppled on top of his head (or so his story goes….), he picked it up, bought it, bagged it and continued running to the gate – and it wasn’t until he was sitting comfortably in his aisle seat that he saw it was a travel guide to the Cape Verde islands. By the end of his flight it was clear that these unvisited islands, with their magnificent sailing possibilities and the variety of hiking on mountainous terrains or smooth deserted beaches, were the perfect destination for us.

Cape Verde is slightly more than 4,000 km² in area with an estimated population of under 500,000. The majority of the population lives in Praia, which is the capital of Cape Verde on the island of Santiago.  Historically, the islands were uninhabited before they were colonized in the 15th century by Portugal.  They were used as the main trading post for all slaves coming out of West Africa on the way to the Americas, and today much of the larger villages have a distinct Portuguese character.  Cape Verde attained independence from Portugal in 1975 and the people are a nation forged out of many different African tribes, with a fair dose of mixing from their colonial masters.  This has led to a strong and unified democratic republic of proud citizens of many shades and colors.

Locals - Paul, Santo Antao

Ribeira Grande, Santo Antao

Geographically, the islands are not a part of the African continent; they are all volcanic of origin but each island appears totally different due to their differing ages and climates. Fogo is the youngest, a still active volcano, which rises abruptly 3,000m out of the sea, has a large caldera of black lava with the younger peaks rising out of it.

Portela, Fogo

Climbing up, Lava, Fogo

and running down, volcanic ash, Fogo

Boavista is one of the oldest islands, rising to only 300m, is covered with Saharan sand dunes, and has endless beaches which are virgin and empty, constantly being weathered by four meter translucent turquoise waves.

Sand dunes, Boavista

Santa Antao is half tropical and half dessert, with the north side of the 2,000 meter high island, green, wet and lush with stunningly striking vistas and the south side is brown, dry and barren.

Preparations for our trip took a lot of Johnny’s attention for nearly a year, and as we started telling our surprised friends, they all reacted with the same recurring questions of amazement.

You’re taking three months off work? (Yes) How? (Just am)

You’re going with the kids? (Yes), All of them? (Yes), Even Rebecca? (Yes, yes, yes),

What will you eat? (Local produce) How will you keep kosher? (We’ll manage)

Really? (Really, really, really)

Assamada, Santiago

In Cape Verde there are mini-markets (mini – means a room with shelves covered with a couple of items) to stock up with supplies, but as everywhere on the islands, the choice is small. We would go there to get our rice and pasta, olive oil, tins of tuna, chick-peas, mushrooms and red kidney beans most of which are imported from Portugal. The milk is not sold fresh, but UHT and although I bought expensive boxes of Nestle cereals the kids never really got used to that for breakfast. Due to limited refrigeration there are no yoghurts or any kind of milk products. Cheese is nonexistent unless you buy fresh goat cheese at the market but because of its short shelf life we bought it only twice; each time the smell permeated our living accommodation. Eggs are small and as I was ensuring a kosher diet and checking each egg for a blood spot, half of them were discarded.

For fruit and vegetables we went to the market in Santiago where we spent two full weeks, I became very good friends with the market ladies and it was there that I bravely took my first steps towards understanding the different types of produce and learning the Creole words for it. In general we bought onions, garlic, bay leaves, four different types of yams/sweet potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, lemons, bananas, apples and mangoes.

I even tried several new vegetables and fruits although I have no idea what they are called, some went down well and some didn’t. On Fogo, the Volcano island, we had the most amazing small red grapes that my kids couldn’t get enough of and they disappeared within a couple of hours, leaving only red stained hands and tongues.

Market - Tarrafal, Santiago

Market - Assamada, Santiago

Spices - Praia, Santiago

Carrying their wares - Tarrafal, Santiago

Potatoes - Rabil, Boavista

However, we discovered that as we traveled round the twelve islands some of the markets were more plentiful than others. As water and irrigation is always an issue for the Cape Verdeans, some vegetables that we took for granted at the beginning of our trip, were no longer available to us towards the end.

Cabbages

Irrigation, Xoxo, Santo Antao

The funny thing is that it didn’t really matter what I cooked, whether it was a soup with all the root vegetables, pasta with tomatoes, onions and garlic or rice with tinned mushrooms, after a hard day’s hike the kids would say ‘It’s delicious’ and gobble it down.  My response was always ‘It’s only because you’re starving’ and Johnny laughed that I used garlic, which I detest, as a staple to season almost every endeavor, saying that I would need to carry on when we got back home to Israel.

Pasta and tomato sauce on the yacht

Every morning, before each hike, we would head out to the ‘paderia’ or bakers of that particular island.

Bakery - Vila Nova Sintra, Brava

We bought forty ‘pao’, twenty of which were eaten by Shimi, my skinny as a rake sixteen year old son (I have no idea where he puts it).  The other twenty we shared between us with either jam or chocolate spread but we were not always in luck as the amount of bread available to buy depended on the good will of the baker.  In the larger islands, the ‘paderia’ was a proper establishment and the only issue was that they baulked at the amount of bread we wanted to buy since it meant they had to bake another batch. Forty!?

On the smaller islands – the baker didn’t always get up in the morning – especially if there had been a lively party or saints day the night before.  If that was the case, we would supplement our lunch with dried crackers, and let me tell you, starving kids will really eat almost anything….

Fresh fish - Tarrafal, Santiago

Cooking fresh fish - Tarrafal, Santiago

Fish Market - Praia, Santiago

Once on board our yacht, it was clear that they would not let us get away without at least one attempt at fishing. Our only previous experience of fishing was netting our goldfish, Jimmy, in order to clean out his bowl, so it was pure hunger that finally made us succumb to our kids nagging to let them fish for supper.  Our non-fishing and equally reluctant skipper Geri, got hold of a hook and line and as we set sail the kids let out all the line and set up a watch to ensure no swimming creature would escape.  Two weeks later we still hadn’t eaten our own freshly caught fish, but that’s when we met Thomas and Tatiana.

There was a passage worn aluminum yacht anchored next to us in Praia, Santiago, the capital of Cape Verde.  It wasn’t long until we had struck up a friendship with an equally passage worn German sailing couple. Thomas and Tatiana were on their way home on their custom built yacht, Breakpoint, after 6 years sailing around the world.  We spent a great weekend with them, listening to their stories and being entertained by outsiders for the first time in five weeks.  The kids were very excited to hear that they had frequently caught their own tuna, and being kids….insisted on a lesson.  Thomas started by looking at our excuse for tackle, which made him laugh uproariously, and he sent them off to the fish market to buy a decent sized hook.  They returned with a frightening looking piece of metal, nearly 30cm long making Thomas laugh even louder. Wanting to help, he traded our mammoth for his very own, custom made super-catching-hook, which had already notched up many tasty repasts.  He shared the secrets of successful large tuna bagging with the kids, instructed Johnny in the art of dragging the tuna aboard and clubbing it to death, (“Don’t worry about all the blood, it washes off…”) and he graphically explained to me how to clean, gut, and cook the poor beast.

Sailing - Rebecca and Geri the captain

We parted ways, as they continued on their passage north, and we went west towards Fogo.  The boys sailed at 5 knots, the optimum speed for catching as they had been taught and let the line out with the super-catching-hook.  Johnny and I sat up on the front deck hoping and praying that they would not catch a thing.  After just 5 minutes we heard Thomas’s clever little bell signaling ‘all hands on deck’.  Johnny let out a scared wail as he made his way back to the cockpit to help draw in the line.  As we watched the boys struggling to pull in their catch, we realized it must be a biggy, just as Thomas had predicted.  Johnny began to prepare himself for his dastardly deed. After a few minutes of hard reeling in, the kids started to pull in much faster.  Club ready in hand, Johnny prepared to make battle.  The kids gave a final pull to reveal that our prayers had been answered.  Johnny made a real empathetic show of grief and disappointment as they brought in the last bit of line – less one ‘custom made’ super-catching-hook which had just been eaten.  So, if you ever catch a large tuna with our hook in its belly, please do not return.

Despite this and other attempts to catch our own fish – we did not give up and finally decided go professional.  We joined the local Cape Verdean fishermen – who took us on their boat and taught us how to fish with a line and live fish bait.  Under their watchful supervision, we managed to catch ‘salamonita’ and ‘garouper’ which we cooked for our supper in various creative ways.

With or without the fishing, Cape Verde was the ideal  vacation with ten unbelievable weeks of hiking and magnificent sailing. It was a dream come true and I  know that our family memories are something that will sustain us for many years to come.

For more information contact jonathan@prais.me.uk

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