Cases ready on the doorstep, tickets in hand, passport in pocket. Everything is there. My mum and I are there, we’re ready. We say goodbye to Marco and Dad at Viareggio station and get on the train to Milano Centrale, from there we take the shuttle bus to Malpensa, a plane to Lisbon and then one more to Sal, an island in the Cape Verdean archipelago. This is where, years ago, my aunt and uncle decided to move: on a salty rock in the middle of the Atlantic; an archipelago formed by a handful of islands that sit between Senegal and Brazil, in the sun, in the waves, caressed by surfers’ boards and watered by tourists’ caipirinha.
The journey begins in the most daring of ways, I, too confident, booked Trenitalia without taking into account the delays that would inevitably slow us down. Twenty minutes stopped in La Spezia: a girl feels sick. Slow down immediately after Genoa: it’s snowing and you can’t see it from here to there. “Din, Don” The train is forty-five minutes late due to an engine failure. Trenitalia apologises for the inconvenience” sentences the officer. We arrive at Milan station just in time to catch the last useful shuttle.
And then: Milanese traffic. A jungle of horns, cars, trams, pedestrians. We have twenty minutes before the Gate closes. Fifteen. Ten. We arrive at Terminal 1, we scan passports, go in, look up at the monitors and… the plane is delayed for an hour and a half.
Having a hysterical laugh, we sit down and do Puzzles Week. Finally we embark and, as expected, we land in Lisbon with a scandalous delay. We were in the queue in that sort of tunnel that connects the plane’s cockpit to the gate, when some stewardesses start running, gesturing animatedly and shouting in various languages the directions for the connections of the Sal and Dakar flights.
We also run with the other travellers through the crowded and intricate Portuguese airport following the directions shouted by the ground attendants “Gate thirty-four. Gate Thirty-four”, they scream. We drag the little trolleys behind us, jackets thrown on, scarves fluttering. We look like marathon runners a few hundred metres from the finish but clumsy like ducks chasing each other in a pond.
“Sbam” the metallic noise of the visa being stamped on the passport. It’s over one o’clock in the morning, we’ve been travelling for thirteen hours already and we’re exhausted.
“Sbam” the metallic noise of the visa being stamped on the passport. It’s over one o’clock in the morning, we’ve been travelling for thirteen hours already and we’re exhausted. At the exit we see a sign with our names written on it and we didn’t even hope for it! Unbelievable, the hotel remembered to send us a taxi! We shake the young taxi driver’s hand, and we head for the car.
He turns on the engine and the car jumps forward, with a manoeuvre worthy of the GTA he gets out of the car park and reaches 100 km/h he speeds along a dark, double lane road, interspersed with large roundabouts. Over there, in the darkness, is the desert and beyond the dunes and the brushwood the ocean; in front of us the lights of the city of Santa Maria.
“Din Don” We ring the hotel bell but nothing. “Din Don” no. The night watchman has left his station to go and do his own thing. We are waiting for patients “we are in Africa, here nothing goes well on the first try” repeat aloud. Fifteen, twenty, twenty-five minutes. The guy waited with us and when he sees us yawn he sticks to the phone trying to track down the receptionist. He nods, looks at us and lifts his thumb up. That’s great. He hangs up the phone and puts it in his pocket. Shortly afterwards a sleepy French receptionist comes to open the door of the hotel and takes us to our room. It is three o’clock in the morning. Holy crap.
The following morning a hearty breakfast with toast, jam and a huge omelette make up for the few hours of sleep. The coffee, unfortunately, is to be forgotten.
We go out expecting the sun to hit us ferociously, instead an icy biting wind hits us, we squeeze into the sweatshirt and walk towards the centre. The small blue and white colonial church stands out in the middle of the souvenir shops, next to a three-storey building, started but never finished.
The days go by fast, we wander around the island as if we were guests of a relative and not tourists. We notice the changes with a critical eye. We don’t like the folds and turns that the island and its inhabitants have taken. It has changed a lot, enormously, since the first time we visited. “Think” says my mother “when my aunt moved there wasn’t even electricity. Now they have a casino and a Hilton”.
The paradoxes of the island can be seen, can be perceived. The first impression of the historical centre is that of being on a Spanish Ramblas: lively, musical, colourful, slightly exotic, you can perceive that we are not in our western context but it does not seem to be in Africa. We pass in front of an ice-cream shop, I stop to look at the prices and my skin crawls: two scoops of ice-cream for 3 euros: not even in Mazzini square in Viareggio there are these prices.
There’s everything: pizza, crepes, Italian restaurants as if it were raining. On the other hand, that’s what tourists want, isn’t it? To travel, to move, to see, to know, but always with due detachment and precautions. It’s OK to leave the sofa at home and come to Africa, but why give up pasta, ice cream or cappuccino?!
We are on the pier, the tuna fishermen have brought their prey and the women are about to clean them. The acrid smell of blood and entrails enters the nostrils, fluids drip down the knives, run down the wrists and hands and fall back into the water. The yellow fin tuna are lying on their side on the bumpy beams of the pier, they have ceased to live, to beat their fins… Clic. take the moment.Clic.
We trust the wind and decide to take a walk along the shoreline, watch the setting sun and take refuge in a bar to drink a juice and reflect on the lifestyle of this people.
Time ago I read in a novel: “exclude a man from the course of time and he’ll end up suffering”, my mum says. Maybe this is what happened on this island. Time, under this scorching sun, must have lost its impulse, as if it had only remained to scan the change of light, the flashing of shadows in the night, freeing Cape Verdean man from the pain of living.
A long and dilated time to perform every action, a languid time, apparently eternal, a timeless time marked by the tides, waves, wind and smiles of the Cape Verdeans on the island of Sal. It is a peaceful people that knows no hurry, no impulses, no frenetic movements. And this was the case when they first came, in the early 2000s. Then the tourists arrived.
In spite of this invasion, of those distant times, but not yet lost, the Cape Verdeans did not want to lose track of it and two words wrote on the outside walls of their houses “No Stress“.
They have immortalized them so as not to forget them, or to warn the tourist as soon as he disembarked from the plane that he must adapt to their life, always remember not to be in a hurry. No stress has become their motto, and they have imprinted it on restaurant menus, on necklaces that sell for two pennies, on bracelets.
No stressmeans we do things calmly, nobody is chasing us: “what do you have to do? You don’t have to work”.
The waiter replies when, after an hour waiting for the dish of the day, we ask how much is missing. It seems a punishment for us tourists to wait for two hours for a plate of rice with vegetables. In this restaurant with orange tables, my mother and I deceive the wait by playing dice, we know the local phlegm well.
Tourists are basic, they look confused, they talk to the diners at the nearby tables, English, Norwegian, German, Italian, American, all victims of African slowness, they are visibly stressed after two hours of waiting. Even if they are tourists, even if they have nothing to do but go to the beach, after two hours they are on the verge of a hysterical crisis – insecure whether to get up or continue to scourge themselves waiting for a dish that may not even come.
It’s a punishment, nice and good. We have invaded their territory and this is the penalty to pay. We Westerners who count the minutes, we are always in a hurry, we are hyperactive, terrified of wasting time. Precious time.
We looked for the Cape Verde we met years ago, we got lost in the narrow streets, among the small houses painted with bright, low and harmonious colours that seem to have been drawn on a primary school children’s sheet. There are still a few left.
We contemplate them with sadness, as if we were looking at a wounded animal, a last bastion of some endangered species; in a few years there will be none left. We stopped in a corner to smell the air because they are roasting spicy chicken in one of the courtyards. Some passers-by buy a few legs and eat it standing next to the improvised cook. The children throw themselves a balloon, some ladies are sewing sitting in a semicircle on stools, the men are arranging the fishing nets and pots. This part of the city does not seem to have been touched by tourism, nor by time. We move away, glad that some of the authenticity has remained and has not been lost.
Patience, lots of patience. You need a full suitcase. But also a jacket, because here the wind is the master. Swimming costume, sun cream, slippers, a lot of desire to jump into the blue sea, clean but immediately deep, shaken by impetuous currents.
We are in the middle of the Atlantic after all. Although, to tell the truth, it was bad luck that during our stay we had a cold beard, so we didn’t use the beach or the sea at all. Patience, indeed.
A four-handed article with Monica Santucci
Photo Gallery of the city of Espargos: can you guess what kind of shop was the blue one in the first picture?