Cape Verde is made of compacted cigarette ash, it’s covered in flies and the beer tastes of wet cardboard.
That’s all you need to know.
OK, I’ll expand a bit.
In weeks to come, the thought of a mere six days out of sight of land would seem like nothing but a brief hop. But at the end of that first week on board, the excitement of seeing land again was enormous. We all loved being on Europa, but the idea of some other stimulus – different people, different food, something new to look at and hear and smell – made us giddy from early afternoon that first Saturday.
There’s always a faint haze where the sea meets the sky, even on the clearest days, and land doesn’t just peek gradually up from under the horizon. It suggests itself as a grey outline, a rubbed out sketch, and you dismiss it as cloud if you notice it at all. Then you look again minutes later and it’s there, a silvery-olive hulking lump full of possibility.
There were two islands rearing up before us, and as they gradually took on definition, developing like a photograph, revealing cliffs and rocks and beaches, our mobile phones came out of hibernation. I was pleasantly surprised by how few people rushed to grab them when they realised we had a signal, but I was one of the two or three, desperate to call Liz. A week without speaking seemed like ages.
We sailed between the islands, ragged and volcanic in close-up. I was eager to see what this remote tropical island community looked like, and to start with, my reaction was… quizzical. We were making for Sao Vicente, the biggest island. Ruined, Biblical houses perched high on its grey cliffs, flat, square and monochrome with windows like eyeless sockets. Eventually the cliffs and houses gave way to Mindelo, a wide harbour dotted with rusting container ships and Second World War motor torpedo boats dragged from retirement to serve as coast guard vessels. Incongruous beside these, a few luxury yachts dawdled nonchalantly.
We moored at the very end of the concrete harbour wall, as if for a quick getaway. Ten minutes later, every surface on the ship was covered in a fine grey dust which must have been volcanic in origin, but looked and felt exactly like cigarette ash. Sheltered from the sea breeze, the air was suddenly hot and sticky. Workers rushed to help with ropes and then stood staring at the masts. It seemed to take an inordinate number of customs officials to clear us, and once everything was in order they hung on, as unwilling to leave as Alberto had been on Tenerife. This is what it must feel like to be going out with a supermodel, I thought – men staring at her wherever you go. I was proud that I was with her, accepting that I was invisible to others who desired her.
The harbour wall was a mural of different ships and the sentiments of their crews. American war ships had left bulldogs, giant eagles of fire and huge cannons, “War ready to preserve peace,” a tiny, permanent invasion with spray paint. Crews from countless other nations were content to leave their names and depictions of their ships, and messages no more warlike than “Welcome to Russia.”
In the sunset we could see a few palm trees planted on the sea front where it curved round the bay away from us, suggesting a little more affluence, the only break from grey earth tones. It struck me that whoever named this place Cape Verde was obviously suffering from colour blindness – the entire island was the colour of the ash that now coated Europa like ugly snow. But as I was about to discover, the very name of these islands was simply the greatest example of their favourite national pastime: lying.
Night fell quickly. We dressed properly for the first time in almost a week and struck out for the town. I fell in with Paul, Paddy, John and Cosmic Joe, strolling down to the port entrance self-consciously. We didn’t know where we were going or what we would do when we got there, but we were new friends on shore leave, giddy for dry land, eager to discover whether or not we would still be able to walk straight without swaying.
Outside the harbour gates local men were waiting for us. One immediately fell in step beside us. “I take you bars? You want see city?”
“No thanks, we’re fine on our own, thank you.”
“OK,” he replied, walking alongside us.
“No really, we’re fine.”
“Yes, I know. We go bars yes?”
Most of us being English, there was nothing else we could do at this point apart from allow him to take us to a bar, give him some money and hope he would be gone by the time we re-emerged.
To be fair, it was a fine bar. Upstairs a wooden balcony overhung the street and we colonised it, uncomfortable, wondering if we could feel our sea legs after all or whether the balcony was really swaying. We watched girls tottering past on stilt-like heels and men loping up the street carrying freshly caught dorada by the gills. The crumbling colonial architecture and big old cars made it feel like most people who have never been to Cuba imagine it to be.
The local beer, Strela, was fine served cold, but it only came in fun-sized portions – 25ml bottles that seemed to evaporate in the heat of the moment. After two rounds the bar had none left, so we moved on to Sagres. This Portuguese beer usually earns a little more respect than most of the world’s interchangeable lagers, but in Mindelo it really did taste like wet cardboard, and we couldn’t finish it.
We went in search of more Strela. Klaas had recommended we look for the yacht club, which sounded alluring, but we couldn’t find anything that looked as classy as the name suggested. In fact, we couldn’t really find much of anything at all. The whole town seemed to be deserted apart from the few people we’d seen earlier. Eventually we discovered another bar on the harbour front. It was empty, and the waitresses seemed surprised to see us.
We spread out across the empty seats, and talked about Europa. None of us were booked on for the Antarctic voyage, and I was now starting to think that this might be a great trip to do. It reminded me of a story one of Liz’s friends told me not long after we were together, and I couldn’t resist sharing it. Liz once saw a nature programme, or someone told her about it, which pointed out a new crisis for Antarctica’s penguins, as if they didn’t have enough to cope with already. An increasing number of planes are flying over the Antarctic, and because the penguins have never seen them before they look up to watch them go past. But they’re not accustomed to looking up, and often they fall over on their backs. And once a penguin falls on its back, it can’t get up again. OK, seeing it written down the story looks less than convincing. But Liz is the most compassionate person I know and immediately resolved to go to the Antarctic to help up penguins who had fallen over while looking at planes.
Everyone laughed except Cosmic Joe, who seemed troubled. “Ah, but they are a nuisance, you know?”
“Penguins? A nuisance? How’s that Joe?” asked Paul.
“In Cape Town, it is full of penguins. They are everywhere, tearing up gardens. They are destroying property prices. They are a menace.”
Cape Town? In South Africa? Penguins?”
“Yeah. They are menace. It is very bad.”
I tried to work out if there was a word in there that Joe had misunderstood, and then a fail-safe mechanism kicked in to prevent me trying to think like Joe did. It could be dangerous. We ordered another round of drinks instead, but with our first one we’d drunk this bar dry of Strela too.
From here we wandered back in the direction of the ship. There was nowhere else to go. There was one more bar to try, promisingly named Club Nautico, but it turned out not to be the yacht club as we had hoped. Locals glared at us, and my pubsense told me we were sitting at their regular table. Anton strode by, determinedly, on some kind of lone quest. Cosmic Joe drifted away. Five minutes later, he was back, telling us that the mythical yacht club was just across the road, and everyone else was there.
And so they were. The entire crew of Europa (except Anton) sat along the bar and took up half the floor. Even Val had stopped working. Everyone was dressed in their smart clothes, looking uncomfortable, as if at a school disco.
You’d never describe the yacht club as stylish or glamorous, but I was starting to realise that Mindelo wasn’t the place to come if that’s what you were looking for. It was busy and lively, and that was good enough. Our crowd occupied the entire space in front of a stage in one corner. Two guys played guitars and sang a mixture of Cape Verdean and Brazilian tunes and old jazz standards, and very good they were too. Cosmic Joe stood swaying on his own, eyes closed, grin splitting his face, dancing in a trippy style of his own making, possibly to the music being played on stage, or perhaps to another tune only he could hear.
Margriet was also enjoying herself. Her holiday reading was an encyclopaedia of jazz, and her most treasured possession was an antique saxophone. She carried a picture of it with her, and showed it to us like a baby photo. The band started one number, which she later informed me was a famous international jazz standard from the 1950s.
“Oh, I love this one!” she cried when she recognised it.
A local man sitting near her leaned across. “Ah, you like this? This is a very popular Cape Verde tune. My nephew wrote this!”
Dieter, wankered off his tits after two small beers, decided it was time to demolish the myth about Germans and their sense of humour once and for all. He approached Margriet and me and announced, “A man fell down a flight of stairs. He turned to his wife and said, ‘I’ve lost my hat.’ She said, ‘Oh, I thought you said you had lost your head.’”
We waited a few seconds to see if there was any more of the joke, but that was it. I thought I must have misheard, or missed some of it, but a few days later I was talking to Janet and Peter and they told me they’d had the same joke inflicted on them too, and that was definitely how it went.
After we’d drunk the yacht club out of not just Strela but all its beer, and the band had packed up (to catch a plane to play a gig at Madison Square Garden, I’m sure) we decided to head back to the ship. It was midnight as we boarded, and straight away Val started applying rubber sealant to the planks on the main deck, without even pausing to change out of her party clothes. The poor girl hadn’t worked for at least two hours.
With no watch necessary, the rest of us went to bed for a full, uninterrupted night’s sleep. Or so I thought.
I woke up at 4am unable to breathe. The air was so hot it felt like the oxygen had been burned out of it. I staggered up to the deck and collapsed onto a seat in the deck house, where I was a little cooler. I dozed, and woke up three hours later covered in flies.
Sunday morning in Mindelo is dog washing day. The children of the town marshal the surprisingly healthy-looking mutts that run free in the streets and drag them determinedly into the sea to be scrubbed (some more willing than others). I paused to watch for forty five seconds, and just as it occurred to me that Mindelo is much more attractive when you have your back to it, Umberto sidled over for a friendly chat.
“I show you Mindelo?” he asked after telling me his name.
“I’ve seen it, thanks.”
“I take you to bar? To girls?”
“No, I have to go back to my ship now. I know the way. It’s right over there, look. Anyway, nice talking to you. Goodbye.”
I set off down the promenade, and Umberto fell in step beside me. “There are no jobs in my country,” he began. And for the next twenty minutes he talked in a spiral, weaving a Gordian knot from a mouthful of deceptively simple strands. First came his visits to England: “I’ve been to London, Belfast and Brighton. People do not believe me when I tell them I have been to Brighton. But I say to them, you know the large container port near the pier? You come out of there and there is a big disco on the left. Then they know I tell the truth.”
Second, he was at pains to point out his honesty, so unusual on these islands: “I want to earn money, I want to feed my babies. I no rob you, I’m not like that.”
And finally, back to his one-man efforts to promote Mindelo as a pleasant tourist destination: “If only we had met last night, you would have had a good time. I show you things. I show you all of Cape Verde. And maybe girls? Some people take you to see girls, and while they are there, they rob you. Not me, I’m not like that. I tell you, I am honest.”
We neared the harbour. “I’ve got to get back to my ship, sorry. I know the way, it’s right down here. I’ll be fine from now, thanks.”
“You want to drink some beer?”
Oh, why the hell not?
“I tell you my story,” said Umberto.
Fine. I wanted to know a little more about life here. I had an hour to kill (not that he knew that), I could use a beer in the heat, and maybe if I asked the right questions, I might learn something interesting.
We entered the ferry terminal that serves the passages between the islands. On the fly-blown tarmac outside, a few women sold odd pieces of fruit and anything else they could lay their hands on. Inside, a bar selling not just drinks, but also chocolate, biscuits, shampoo and razors, provided us with the first draught beers I’d seen since leaving Oceana. “Can I have a cigarette as well?” asked Umberto. I nodded. Seconds later, he was back from the bar with a packet of twenty Marlboro. “Thanks,” he said, waving the packet before pocketing it.
I tried to persuade him to elaborate on his rote speech. He repeated that there were no jobs on the islands, and said most of the money in Cape Verde comes from handouts. I struggled to understand why the islands campaigned for independence from Portugal. There’s nothing here on which to base a free-standing economy, apart from ash and flies. I realised this is where tourism comes in. “Have a look at the property out there,” Liz had told me, “all the magazines say it’s a great place to buy holiday homes as an investment.” That can only be because the government here are being very persuasive in making such a case. They must be desperate. I couldn’t believe that Lamb woman off the holiday programmes had fallen for it. They must have sent her a better liar than Umberto.
“I left Cape Verde when I was eighteen, nineteen. I followed my brother onto the ships, and on my first voyage he died!”
“That’s terrible,” I said.
“I still wanted to work on the ships. I went to Greece, to Marseilles, to England. I went to Belfast, London and Brighton. You know the big container port in Brighton?”
And we were off again, the same few lines. I tuned out while Umberto talked and smoked.
“Where are you going on your ship?” he asked suddenly.
“Brazil,” I replied.
“Ha. Brazil. Cape Verde is better. We have more beautiful women here. And more beautiful beaches.”
“You have beaches here more beautiful than Copacabana and Ipanema?”
We finished our beers and Umberto insisted on walking me back to the harbour gate. I gave him all my change, the unwanted Portuguese escudos that the old mother country had no use for after the introduction of the euro. There was the equivalent of about six euro worth, which I thought was a decent half hour’s work for him given how hard I had tried to explain I didn’t need walking back to the harbour, then bought him not only a beer, but a packet of Marlboro. But Umberto disagreed. He tried to push the change back on to me, saying, “No, no, you keep this as a souvenir of your time in Cape Verde. You give me paper money. I want notes. Haven’t you got any paper money?”
No I fucking well hadn’t got any paper money. Actually, as a matter of fact, I knew I had one 2000 escudo note left in my wallet, (about 20 euro). But I’d had enough. I decided to keep that as a souvenir of my visit to Cape Verde instead. “I walk to your ship with you. I come in with you,” Umberto was saying. The guard looked at me and I shook my head. Seconds later, I was on one side of a barred gate and Umberto on the other. A pro to the last, he actually had the gall to look affronted by my cold, parsimonious behaviour.
By the time we were ready to cast off, a thirty-knot wind was barrelling through the straits between the islands, sending breakers crashing over the sides of a battered old cargo freighter anchored out in the strait. As soon as we were clear of the protective harbour wall Europa heeled over, every sinew straining, singing in the wind. Getting the sails up this time was a serious, tightly controlled operation. While I was working on the main deck, a wave hit me square in the back and swept me across the planks, and we all realised we needed to be careful.
Once we were in front of the wind we shot forward, peaking at eleven knots, only two below Europa’s maximum recorded speed. Our jet-propelled escape seemed to lift the spirits of everyone on board. We all felt dirty. Everyone wanted a shower.
The sky was thick and steamy, and as the sun sank the light took on a solid hue. The whole sky turned a pale, golden straw colour, and the sea was purple.
It took a week to get rid of the flies from the deck house.