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Published: September 21st 2012
21 February, 2012 Tarrafal, Cape Verde
In all my years, I never saw that patched up green wooden door open Until tonight. Curiosity was going to make this a late evening. Indented into a wall of orange rock and unpainted mortar piled high enough to block from view all beyond it save for a lone palm with a diadem of blinking red, orange, yellow and green lights woven into its crown. There has never been anything notable on this quiet street in this quiet coastal village on the northern tip of Santiago island. That is until tonight as the door has swung open.
Just below a single bulb over the door jamb reads a hand painted sign "5al Pedra & Cal" and from the surrounding shadows hard soles and heels scuff the cobblestoned streets making towards the door. And not for the last time this tropical February evening, I think to myself, "Why not?"
At his post beyond the door, a suited gentle giant stands. With large warm eyes and a welcoming voice informing that this is a graduation party of sorts and come on in and make myself comfortable. Behind a courtyard courtyard lightly primed populated by
a stand of metal folding chairs and a few card tables all in various states of disrepair but with enough rigidity to get through another function or two. All are more or less orientated towards the back wall where a small stage is illuminated by a rickety pole lamp.
The blinking palm who's base cleaves into the neat rows of cobblestones before shooting skyward, serves as the back of a makeshift circular bar. There, after a round of handshakes and smiles, I depart with nightcap in hand, searching for and finding a lone chair in the dimly lit courtyard on the fringe of the budding assemblage all whom seem to know one another. Settling into the chair in a fashion to maximize stability and minimize the wobble, eyes drift upward beyond the top of the stone wall, past the blinking twinkling lights stitched into the top of the palm and settle on the canopy of stars floating overhead in the Tarrafal sky. Remembering I am somewhere between the Equator and Tropic of Cancer and not on my back deck in Maine adjacent to the 45th parallel some of the reoriented constellations greet me like an old friend.
than laying low as they do in the northern latitudes, the hunter 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 then plunge below the southern horizon towards her delta which, cannot be viewed in in Maine. But here in Tarrafal, the mouth of this celestial river reveals itself with the constellation's only first magnitude star; the brilliant Achenar.
The liquidly starscape has a soundtrack and ears pull eyes back to earth to reveal 4 cats climbing the makeshift stage, grab some instruments and commence on a melodic tour of all the islands; each with their own unique sound. But when they strike up the rhythms of this home island of Santiago, and the crowd responds accordingly. The energy ramps up when an homage to guitar wizard Katchas who hailed from 'down the road' comping his Santana-esque solos that provide enough juice to power up this village before the inevitable nightly power outage arrives. Other styles with names like 'finacon' and 'funana' coax most to the dance floor and the few still seated ramp up the conversational volume. When the boys in the band dial it back with a bluesy morna, a quietude falls on the courtyard allowing the breeze along with rustling palm fronds, clinking lights and far off surf washing over invisible sand to partake in the conversation. Times like this make it easy to live in the moment. With the softening individual conflabs crystallizing my personal game of 'name that lingo' commences. Of course it's mostly kriolu and healthy dose of Portuguese with a smattering of French for good measure. It's a long, long way from my Pine Tree State home. Or so I thought. I pick up a language I haven't heard in more than a month. English. And not just English but American English. 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 again "Why not?"----not my normal modus operendi--- and walk over to a couple of 30-something dudes each sipping 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". "No shit", sez this Jersey native, "But where?" After the slightest of shocked head jerks, "Wisconsin", answers Bob, the dark haired one. "New York, Finger Lakes" adds Bob's shaggy blond haired & round bespectacled partner Toby. They invite and I join them.
Given that this town takes some 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, cobble stoned guardrail-less dual mountain-ranged traversing ride from the capital, Praia on the opposite side of this Big Island, I ask the obvious "What brings you here?" "Work" says Toby. Then he adds with more than a hint of pride "We're with the Peace Corps."
"So what's the Peace Corps up to in Tarrafal these days?" I ask. Toby. "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. 'Get it' as in English may open the door of opportunity beyond this town." "Pouco, pouco", I smile. "I'd like to think", Toby continued "that since the Peace Corps arrived here in 1988, with the sum of all those English lessons, there has to be a fair amount of people who have picked up the language and has hopefully it has made a difference in their lives." "Same here' Bob chimes in, "My mission is helping people start up and sustain small businesses. You pretty much have to start from scratch...things like having a sign, and the importance of inventory and accounting. Some make it, most don't but I'm happy for those that do." I recounted that when I first visited Tarrafal 20 years ago, it was a different town. Cobblestoned streets were considered a luxury as most roads were hard, red dirt littered with undercarriage scraping rocks. Not that roads mattered since the only transportation at the time were black bodied and green roofed ancient Mercedes taxis restricted to the confines of Praia. Beyond the capital's city limits were either Toyota pick-up trucks whose beds had a canvas roof shading a couple of wooden benches or fast, careening Toyota Hiace vans holding usually no less than 12 people and their cargo. Locals pronounce 'Hiace' as 'Yass'.
The Yass is legendary in Cape Verdean culture. To this day, it's still an integral if not entirely safe part of their 'mass' transportation system. Back then also, litter ran wild on these eternal Saharan winds called the 'Harmattan'. Mostly in the form of colorful plastic bags swirling in the dusty trades some getting caught on Yass antennae, flapping banner-like while most others wind up in acacia trees giving the appearance of desert island Christmas ornaments. Adding to Tarrafal's isolation back then was a sporadic supply of electricity and water. Being the only one or one of a very few aid agencies on the scene from 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 assist with community development, health/sanitation and water resource education, sustainable agriculture and environmental 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 in this once forgotten island nation is now on the radar screen developed nations such as China, France, Portugal, The Netherlands, Spain and Sweden to name but a few and they have funneled huge amounts of cash into catchment dams, public buildings, roads and solar and wind farms which now produce 25% of Cape Verde's energy needs. There's also mass inoculations 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. Then there's his Millennium Challenge Account whose money is paving the majority of roads in the archipelago and expanding the Ports of Praia and Mindelo which is really transforming this country." 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.
Bob breaks the silence "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 someone told me about this place. Toby swallows and follows "After my time is up, I'll definitely come back 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. The MC steps up to an old microphone stand topped by a tinny sounding mic working intermittently and delivers pronouncements in kriolu as a lone guitarist strums in the background. All are patient and applaud as one by one people go up to receive their diplomas. It seems like we three are the only non-recipients in this courtyard of congratulations. Bob looks at them with great affection, "These people are so sweet. They are all probably related and have a great sense of community. 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 the Peace Corps and we'll always take the Yass!"
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