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Published: September 21st 2012
21 February, 2012 Tarrafal, Cape Verde
It was the first time I saw the shut door open. Curiosity was going to make this a late evening. Bracketed by walls of rock and mortar piled high enough to hide all behind it save for the top of a lone palm tree, there has never been anything notable on this quiet street in this quiet coastal town. Until tonight. A diadem of lights woven into the palm's crown blink red, orange, yellow and green. And the door's open. Hard soles and heels scuff cobblestone streets out from the shadows and towards the light cast by a single bulb over the door and the hand painted wooden sign above it : "5al Pedra & Cal". "Why not" I think and not for the last time this late February night. On the other side of the door was a suited gent with a welcoming voice saying this was a graduation party of sorts and to come on in and make myself comfortable. Behind him was a courtyard half occupied by a bevy of half occupied metal folding chairs and a few card tables in various states of disrepair but functional enough to get one
more festa out of them. Maybe two. All chairs more or less were aimed towards the rear wall and the small empty stage before it.
The base of the palm served as the back of a makeshift circular bar. After some smiles and handshakes, with nightcap in hand, I find a chair at a polite distance from everyone else who obviously know one another. The courtyard was dimly lit which added to the overall ambiance for yours truly and despite the cobblestone ground making for wobbly chairs, the eyes and head couldn't help but drifiting upwards beyond the tops of walls and palm to check out the twinkling canopy of stars floating overhead. There were some constellations I recognized from star watching on my deck back in Maine but here, somewhere between the Equator and Tropic of Cancer, they occupy a different part of the sky. Orion and his faithful dog, Sirius are now directly overhead. At Orion's feet are the headwaters of the river constellation, Erindanus, whose faint stars wind and plunge downwards towards her mouth which, in Maine is well below the horizon, but here in Tarrafal was enough above it to reveal the river's end Achenar,
a brilliantly white first magnitude star and Erindanus's brightest.
The ears pull the eyes back to earth when 4 cats climb the stage, grab some instruments and begin playing. They play music from most of the islands but heavy on the home island. From guitar wizard Katchas's Santana-esque 'Semi Lopi' to metaphoric 4th gear Finacon, the energy level ramps up when Santiago is in the house. Even though this music has local roots, it was a treat and a rare one to hear live music in this otherwise sleepy fishing town. When the band toned down to a soft morna, the breeze was heard from as it rustled palm fronds, clincked lights and ushered into the soiree sounds of surf and sand. Times like this take little or no effort to live in the moment. Courtyard conversations are in the audio mix with Kriolu, Portuguese and a smattering of French thrown in. My home in the Pine Tree State is far, far away until I hear something I haven't heard in 3 weeks. English. Not just English but American. Eyes and ears follow the familiar accents to a half hidden table in the night shade also politely beyond the crowd. There, I see the Americans.
After a moments mull, I figured "Why not?" and walk over to a couple of 30-something dudes each sipping from a bottle of Super Bock. "Where ya from?" I ask. The dark haired guy closest to me puts down his beer and replies "United States". "I know that", I wise crack in my best Jersey accent, "But where?" "Wisconsin", answers Bob, the dark haired one. "New York, Finger Lakes" adds shaggy blond haired & round bespectacled Toby. They invite and I join them. Given that this town takes an effort to get to even by Cape Verdean standards---especially if one travels via the rugged, other worldly 'Litoral' which is a three hour bumpy, twisty, dual mountain-ranged ride from the capital, Praia...I ask the obvious "What brings you here?" "Work" says Toby. Then he adds with more than a hint of pride "We're in the Peace Corps."
"So what's the Peace Corps up to in Tarrafal these days?" I ask. Toby replies"I teach English here in town." When asked if he thinks he is making a difference, he takes a swig of beer and then sighs "I don't know. Unless I talk about Snoop Dog or M&M, they don't really listen." "All of them?" "No", he replies, "There are one or two who practice and get it. You know, English being the language of business and all that, I try to make them understand that knowing it can open doors that are otherwise not always ulocked." "Pouco, pouco", I smiled "I'd like to think that since the Peace Corps arrived here back in 1988, put all those English lessons together, there has to be a fair amount of people who have picked up the language and has hopefully it has made some difference in their lives." Bob joins in "Same here, my mission is helping people start up and sustain small businesses. You almost have to start from scratch...things like having a sign, inventory and the importance of accounting. Some make it, most don't but I'm happy for those that do." I recounted that when I first visited here almost 20 years ago, it was a different Tarrafal. Cobblestoned streets were luxurious as most roads were hard, rocky dirt. Not that roads mattered since the only transportation at the time were black bodied and green roofed ancient Mercedes taxis mostly confined to the city limits of Praia and beyond there were either Toyota pick-up trucks with canvas roofs over the beds that contained a couple of wooden benches or fast, careening Toyota Hiace vans holding usually no less than 10 people and their cargo. Locals pronounce 'Hiace' as 'Yass' and the Yass is legendary in Cape Verdean culture. To this day, it is still an integral if not entirely safe and legal part of their 'mass' transportation system. Back then also, litter ran wild mostly in the form of colorful plastic bags swirling in the dust and trade winds with some getting caught on Yass antenna, flapping in the breeze and others getting caught in acacia trees giving the appearance of a stand of desert island Christmas trees. Adding to Tarrafal's isolation back then was a sporadic supply of electriciy and water. Being the only one or one of a very few aid agency games in town from the late 1980's - mid-1990's, the Peace Corps or 'Corpo da Paz' as known throughout Cape Verde, had a daunting mission. English, as always, was taught as well as help with community development, health/sanitation and water resource education, sustainable agriculture and enviromental awareness. These past missions of Peace Corps volunteers the past 24 years have led to Toby and Bobs current missions.
The world has grown smaller since Corpo da Paz arrived here back in 1988 and this once forgotten and ignored island nation is now on the radar screen of many larger nations such as China, France, Portugal, The Netherlands and Sweden to name but a few and they have funneled huge amounts of cash into catchment dams, roads and solar and wind farms which now produce 25% of Cape Verde's electrical needs. There's also mass innoculations and health education. "And" Bob adds, "as much as I despised George Bush, no President....or shall I say 'no administration'... has done more for AIDS in Africa than him. Not Clinton, not Carter, not Obama. Then there's his Millenium Challenge Account which has expanded infrastructure like paving the majority of roads in the archipelago and expanding the Ports of Praia and Mindelo which helps support an expanding economy." He continues somewhat more wistfully "Back to Tarrafal. With all of this aid and development, the Peace Corps is not sending any replacements to Tarrafal when we finish our 2 year mission in August. In fact, by November, we'll be out of all of the islands."
A thoughtful hush descends on the table followed by a toast to the Peace Corps. Silence follows sips. It's a comfortable one with no need to fill with words. It's part of the rhythm of Tarrafal.
Eventually Bob speaks up "You know, the Peace Corps is funny. After training they asked where I wanted to go. I said 'Southeast Asia' and they said 'Cape Verde' and I say 'Where's that?" I smile because that's the exact same thing I said the first time told me about this place.
Toby swallows and follows "After my time is up, I'll definately come back here to visit. It's paradise. Every morning I go to the market, buy a couple of hot rolls, a papaya and a bag of coffee and I pinch myself realizing how lucky I am to be posted here."
The band takes a break and the ceremony commences. An old microphone stand topped by a tinny sounding mic which delivers congrats and pronouncements in Kriolu works intermittently while a lone guitarist strums in the background. All are patient and applaud as one by one people go up to recieve their diplomas. It seems like we three are the only non-recipients in the courtyard. Bob looks at them with great affection, "These people are so sweet. They are all probably related and have a great sense of communiy. This sense of community has been here long before we arrived." A friendly silence returns nourished by wind, waves and stars. I steal a glance of the Peace Corps pair and each has a look of one who knows that trail's end is near. I know 'sodade' when I see it and Bob and Toby have it.
This time, I break the silence, "One thing that has changed since my first time here is that now, everyone has a car. Heck, I'm even thinking of getting one. Crazy, huh?" Toby smiles and announces with pride, "Not us. We're with the Peace Corps and we still take the Yass!"
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