Saturday, February 28, 2015

Cabo Verde; When Travel Goes Bad!

“The best laid plans”, it has been said, are not immune to change, and nowhere is the more true than on the remarkable islands of CaboVerde. Tourists and travellers to this island nation really fit into one of two groups, those who stay put and those who wander. I am of the latter.

One curiosity of Cabo Verde is the paucity of inter-island transportation; the national airline, TACV, flies between the islands with an imaginative schedule, an almost complete disregard for punctuality and a flair for the dramatic. Competition is non-existent, and those who have tried are driven from the market rather unceremoniously. The islands are, one imagines, rather too widely scattered for an adequate boat service, and the waters in this part of the Atlantic a touch choppy for sensitive stomachs.

There is also the wind. And here one needs to be frank; the winds of Cabo Verde are relentless, sometimes a mere “heavy breeze” that cools the African sun, and sometimes a sandblasting wall that brings dust from the Sahara and liberally scatters it over the islands making flights rather precarious. In fact, on one day of this past two weeks, all flights in the islands were cancelled because of the strong winds, and yesterday, the Harmattan wind from the mainland scoured the islands with desert sands once more interrupting the best laid plans of mice, men and visitors.

So it was a week ago that the decision was made not to travel to the remote island of Brava and its neighbour, Fogo, the volcanic island. The weather was reasonable, but with the Praia/Boston flight operating only weekly, and the possibility of being stranded was not insignificant, the decision was made to remain on the main island of Santiago instead, and explore without the risk of becoming marooned in the shadow of an erupting volcano.

The important thing here is the ability to change plans at the last moment, and travelling to Cabo Verde, an endeavour that I would heartily endorse, really requires some delicate planning, and the assistance of a very understanding and competent local agent.

Firstly, the order of events needs to be established, with the riskiest being placed at the front end of the itinerary; secondly, the ability to change without recourse to an insurance company needs to be assured. If one cannot travel to Fogo because of some climatic or technical surprise, the credit from the unused hotel in Fogo should be transferrable to another property elsewhere. Finally, of course, tourists to Cabo Verde need to believe that there is someone watching over them, ready to alter course when necessary.

Fortunately, in our case, we were able to change plans without difficulty; I feel for the small guesthouse operator in Brava who lost out on three nights’ revenue, but one supposes that over a season as many people get stuck in situ as fail to arrive. As tourism is an important part of the economy of the country as a whole, and the small islands in particular, their long-term success will only be assured if visitors can be secure in the thought that itinerary changes will not be punished.

It is, of course, the same everywhere. As many of you know, I am heavily involved with tourism in Canada’s Arctic, and this too is a region beset with climatic peculiarities that can shatter the plans, laid as best as one can, into tiny pieces. An understanding of this, and attention to this issue by regional government and trade associations is a very important factor in developing higher visitor numbers to peripheral regions.

I digress, however; remaining on the island of Santiago has been fun and interesting. The village of Tarrafal in the north of Santiago has the most beautiful beach setting in the country and a couple of pretty nice, if architecturally eccentric hotels. 

Tarrafal, Santiago

There is an interesting prison camp, a stark reminder of the brutality of the Portuguese dictatorships and the savagery of its colonial wars, there are wonderful roads driving through valleys carved by eons of caustic winds, and seascapes that will take one’s breath away.

Solitary Confinement
A reminder of the recent past

Finally, there is the remarkable community of Cidade Velha, the first European settlement in the tropics founded in 1463, and still offering visitors a mosaic of glimpses into the fascinating 500 year history of these captivating islands.

"Banana Street", the first European housing

I head away tomorrow to São Tomé, another formerly Portuguese island some five hours flight to the southeast; my Lusophilia is far from satisfied, and the two weeks spent in Cabo Verde have simply whetted my appetite to return to this complex and fascinating island nation.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Cape Verde; São Antão, the mountainous island.

In the argot of today, and the overuse of superlatives, it is difficult to describe an island as remarkable as this; São Antão, the most northwesterly island in the Cabo Verde archipelago, is quite simply stunning. It is beautiful, it is remarkable, it is friendly, it is simple and beyond all, it is quite astonishing that it has remained off travel radars for so long.

It is, however, probably a good thing.

São Antão offers visitors some unique opportunities for travel, in particular for hikers, and those seeking destinations with little or no time for the vagaries of mass tourism. There is scenery, some rather picturesque villages, a curious cobbled road system, some dramatic seascapes and one hears, in the summer, beaches. There are small guesthouses, a couple of larger “resorts”, and some friendly local restaurants.
The Ribeira

There are no international chains, there is limited English spoken, although French is widely understood, and although there are some guides, it is an island to explore on one’s own to a great degree.

I absolutely love it. It is awkward to get to since the airstrip was closed due to regular and brutal cross winds, so access is by ferry from the neighbouring island of São Vicente; once here, one can rent a vehicle as I have, or travel by the local “buses” that criss-cross the island. For those seeking peace, quiet and an opportunity to hike in the dramatic hill country, no vehicle is really necessary.

It is an island for whom time appears to have stood still; houses lie half or one third completed, time seems to have a different dimension and folks spend a great deal of their time talking and enjoying the locally produced grogue.  It is a poor island; some agriculture and grogue-manufacture, and oddly the export of local sand apparently perfect for the manufacture of cement are the local industries, and now, of course, tourism. There is talk of resorts, new hotels and other investments, but it is an early stage, and one wonders if the implications for the society who call São Antão home have been considered.


The village of Pombas

Pombas, a local bar

All too often, tourism fails to bring the promised benefits to the local communities, and its profits are dispatched elsewhere leaving only menial work and the promise of souvenir sales to boost the local economy. And besides this, the island’s very core attraction, its peaceful and natural environment, would be indelibly changed with too many more tourists.

We will see.

The Carnival in Pombas

Today, however, and I think for the foreseeable future, the island is a destination that should be considered by any traveller wanting to get off the beaten path, yet who want a veneer of familiarity, The island is African; it lies off the coast of Senegal, its people are indisputably African and yet due to its long association with Portugal retains a slight sense of Europe in the architecture, food and language. It is, however, not European, and the vibrancy of its culture, so evident in its music and in particular during one of its many festivals, is distinctly African.

A coutry road

The fishing fleet in Cruzinha da Garca
And that is its core charm; while we are lured into believing that we understand the country, we don’t. Each turn offers another surprise, each encounter a new idea; it is like hearing a different language spoken, and believing that one hears a string of English words lying within. It is understandable yet mysterious, and its charms will fail to embrace any visitor arriving with an open mind and a desire to seek a new, charming and culturally sophisticated country.

Tiggers like São Antão!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Brazil; Amapa in the far North East

It has to be said that few tourists get to Amapa; fewer still arrive by pirogue, a motorised canoe, from French Guyana, and sadly those who do, do not linger.

Arrival in Oiapoque

It is a pity really; travelling overland from Suriname to NE Brazil was the idea, and from all of the research that had been done, and frankly there was not a great deal to digest, Macapá, the regional capital, was not recommended as a place to linger. Hints of its darker side, and the potential danger that tourists would find, made us book a quick passage out, and across the giant Amazon Delta to Belem, and apparent safety.

Macapá, however, was actually really rather nice.

I digress, however, and need to rewind to Cayenne, the dopey provincial capital of French Guyana, the improbable French department snuggled between Suriname to the west and Brazil to the south and east. Cayenne is rather a lovely place, its dopiness translating into a pleasantly laid back approach to life, and a general air of mañana; not that there really is a word in the argot of French Guyana that carries the implied sense of urgency that mañana does, but there you go; it is a department that relies almost exclusively on the substantial revenue that the Kourou Space Centre generates, and for the rest, well ….

Le Palmistes, an important cafe!


So after unwinding there for a couple of days, we hit the road by “taxi” to St. Georges de l’Ayapoque, the French border community. This was just fine, and the three-hour (€40 each) ride brought us to the town at about 1.00pm; in the middle of the French lunch-break.

Naturally, the customs post was closed for their requisite two-hour meal, and would not reopen until 3.00pm; “or perhaps 4.00”, we were advised. So with this in mind, we booked into a simple hotel and decided to stay for the night.

The St. George's Bar & Restaurant

St. Georges is lovely; it is so slow that it has almost stopped, and it retains the air of a river town out of  a novel by Somerset Maugham or Evelyn Waugh. The road from Cayenne was only completed in 2008, and to that point, all access was by river and thus limited to necessities and the Ways of The Water.

The Oiapoque River

Sitting, enjoying some pleasant rosé wine, we were in France after all, watching the river flow by, and admiring the periodic canoes crossing back and forth to Brazil was very pleasant; when dinner time came, we were advised that all of the meat was “viande du forêt”, or basically, armadillo, peccary and that sort of thing. No problem, and washed down with a touch more rosé we mellowed, and forgot about the twelve-hour 4WD or sixteen-hour bus ride that we had planned for the following day.

The Demon Drink!

Waking with a sluggish head in the morning we vaguely remembered trying the local rum at some point in the evening, and laughing rather a lot about something that now completely escaped us. However, we had prudently had our passports stamped the evening before during a rare moment of activity at the border post, as so we crossed to Oiapoque on the Brazilian side of the river.

It was actually a fairly long ride as we headed some ten kilometres or so upstream to the much larger and more frenetic Brazilian side. There, the border post was no simpler to work with as firstly it was about a kilometre and a half from the dock, and secondly it operated to a similar temporal beat to the French. Fortunately, despite feeling the results of a slight over-refreshment on the previous night, we were out early, and had our passports duly stamped, and thence to Macapá,

As it turned out, getting a ride was simple. The bus would cost 90 Reis ($30); to take a seat in a 4WD would cost 150 reis ($50), and so we decided to splurge and buy the four seats for the two of us for $200, thus ensuring that our luggage would be inside and not getting drenched during the inevitable rain.

We set off expecting the worst, and after about 50kms of paved road we found it. The asphalt turned abruptly to red mud and rock, and the recent rains had done little to improve the surface. We bounced, slid and bullied our way south, our driver clearly having made this trip many times between the various spells in prison that we deduced from his alarming tattoo collection.

The road was not good; it was, or at least should not have been, fast, and after some three hours or so, we swung of the red mud into the Restaurant at the End of the Universe.  Buffets, priced by the weight of your choices, thus pricing rice and stew equally (which says something about the stew), are the order of the Brazilian kitchen. So fortified with some food, we climbed back into our Hilux, and sped back onto the mud.

The road to Macapa

To our considerable surprise, only a further twenty or so kilometres, the mud turned to asphalt, and a newly laid and perfect road lay before us all of the remaining 450kms to Macapá. The road had been completed within the past couple of years, and now the journey was only eight hours, and within what seemed to be the blink of an eye, we were arriving in the Amapá capital in time for dinner.

Macapá, it must be noted, is one of only two Brazilian towns of any size to actually lie on the Amazon, and the other is Santarem; Manaus is on the Rios Negro and Solimões, and Belem lies on the Baia de Marujá, at the end of the Rio Tocantins.

But that evening, such cartographic pedantry was forgotten as we enjoyed a fine dinner at one of Macapás many riverside cafes; watching the local folks out on their roller blades, and whizzing around in rapid storms, enjoying the gentle air we really rather forgot that we were in a dangerous place. I wish that we had stayed for at least one more day.

But I didn’t.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Cabo Verde: Fascinating islands in the Atlantic Ocean

Cabo Verde is a very odd place, which is possibly the best reason to travel to these islands. It is an country that is comprised of ten islands, each of which purports to offer visitors a very different experience, and from an initial and hasty overview, they are correct. Tourists to Cabo Verde, and astonishingly there are many, may be disappointed if they only go to Sal, the primary island; it is from exploring the others that an appreciation for the distinct Cabo Verdean experience will be drawn.

It is not quite Europe, and nor should it even be considered fleetingly to be so, although I am sure that many arrive here thinking that it is a sort of “Southern Canary Islands”, but it isn't; it is not really Africa, although their football team plays in the African Cup, and geographically it most certainly qualifies. It is, above all, another fascinating Atlantic Island.

I am currently in Mindelo on the island of Sao Vicente, the island where the fine singer Cesaria Evora was born, and after whom the international airport was named. She would, I am sure, be delighted.
Driving around the island, an achievement that can be attained in about three hours (thoroughly), was odd; long, inter-community cobbled highways, empty villages looking abandoned by, one thinks, holiday-makers away from their second homes. It was easy to realise how the Martian Rover must feel, slowly driving around in search of life.

Then suddenly there is life. A small village practicing hard for the upcoming carnival; kids young and old, drumming and dancing in the streets, buildings painted in some day-glow pastel colours or simply of plain breeze block, fishing boats along the shoreline and all around the rather ghostly landscape of brooding volcanic rock.

It is a cross, I think, between Iceland and a Caribbean island. There are the mysterious landscapes with high peaks coated in clouds, dark highways and lush valleys that seem to have found life; there are agricultural patters obvious in the country dating back centuries but now abandoned, leaving one to wonder where this knowledge went, and what it was. Communities are scruffy but somehow cheerful, with their buildings, or perhaps a quarter of them, painted in distinctive coral, blue and the ever-popular orange, but all too a vivid degree that lightens one’s senses and brings a smile.

The road along the eastern shoreline

Every so often a café or restaurant; some open, some not, offering the usual fare of fresh fish with vegetables. The fish is delicious, the vegetables can be monotonous (just how much boiled cassava can a chap eat?), but there is hope, and more restaurants to try.

Fine, fresh fish

 There is little work beyond the usual government employment in education, maintenance and, of course, “governing”; work in the tourist industry is here, but so many Cabo Verdeans have left to find work abroad, and thus the direct flights to Fortaleza in Brazil and Boston. Portugal, too, is home to a large expatriate population who, like diasporas everywhere, like the money but miss their homes terribly.

And still tourists arrive; the airport in Sal sported four Tui flights as I flew to Sao Vincent; direct charters from London, Amsterdam, Stockholm and Helsinki in two hours one afternoon, and they are not alone. Thousands of Europeans arrive here, and Sal is renowned for being one of the primary kite-surfing destinations in the world, but kite-surfing requires wind, and tourists not here to bounce on and off waves find the wind of the windward islands a touch overpowering.

But only 30 minutes to the west  lies Sao Vicente, with its wind-breaking mountains, and yet farther west, well out in the Atlantic Ocean lies the island of Sao Antao, my next destination.

From my short experience, I like Cabo Verde; we will see how the next ten days, and the exploration of Sao Antao, Fogo and Brava unfurl …

I can’t wait! Tiggers like Sao Vicente.

Friday, February 6, 2015

French Guyana; Papillon - Fact, Fantasy and Fiction

The Kitchen Block
French Guyana is not known for much. Its history is shady, its current politics virtually unknown, but the country does have an icon for tourists, and that is the penal colonies, and in particular the character of Papillon. The story of Papillon, Devil’s Island and the amazing escapes immortalised in the movie with Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen has fascinated us for decades, and is a very strong lure to this very interesting, but rather remote country.
An old cell block - Isles de Royale

Devil's Island, seen over the convicts' swimming pool
Devil's Island

France used these brutal places both to hide the most incorrigible convictsalthough some of the deportees might not really fit that bill, but also as a rather weak attempt to colonise their bit of “The Guyanas”.

The Guyanas, either three, four or five of them, depending on how one counts, are bits of land that were conveniently ignored when in 1493 the pope carved up Latin America between the Portuguese and Spanish. Papal edicts carried no weight with the Protestants in the North East, and they have squabbled and swapped land pretty well continuously for the past five hundred years.

Convicts sentenced to serve their imprisonment in one of the distant colonies (Nouvelle Caledonia was another with a significant penal colony) would sail from Europe to the reception centre at St. Laurent du Maroni, and then spend the balance of their sentences in either a logging camp, the prison in St. Laurent or on one of Les Isles du Salut. The idea of the islands’ powers of salvation comes from the fact that the climate there is so much easier than the mainland, and the possibility of actually living through one’s sentence; and if one actually survived, those sent for eight years or less were obliged to spend an equal time in the colony, the principle of doublage, and those sentenced to more than eight years were obliged to remain in South America for the rest of their lives.

Only the guards were buried

The death cells

No wonder that folks tried to escape, and although rarely successful, some did manage to get away. The most famous in North America and Europe was Henri Charrière, known as Papillon, and whose escapades have left readers and viewers speechless with wonder and perhaps admiration.

But here’s the thing; the book Papillon was almost completely untrue. Charrière, himself, was a small-time pimp who was accused and convicted of an underworld murder. He certainly served time in St. Laurent, but was never on the islands, and seems to have lived a fairly bland life in this hideous environment.

The book, however, was a blockbuster. It is, however, very difficult to separate from the fine work by Rene Belbenoit, Dry Guillotine, which was published in 1938, and for aficionado’s of the whole Papillon story, and the French penal system, it is a magnificent book.

Belbenoit himself, credits a number of escapades to other prisoners, but did, himself, escape from the islands, and with several others washed up on the shores of Trinidad some seventeen days later.
The islands, and French Guyana itself, hold a strange attraction; spending time on les Isles du Salut is a truly moving experience, and one that I recommend to all. Nature is speedily reclaiming the prison, and watching the roots of giant trees slowly enter and crush the hideous cells cannot fail to fascinate.

The dormitory of Le Reclusion; Silence at all times
In addition to the islands, there is a great deal of history in the river community of St. Laurent du Maroni, the site of the penal administration, and the landing port for all convicts arriving from Paris. The town in unmistakably designed as a colonial centre; the architecture of the old camp, the staff buildings, the hospital and the fine mansions for upper management are all visible today, and the community itself has embraced tourism and interpretation of these sites.

I love St. Laurent, and appreciate the slow nature of this river town; wandering through the camps, looking deeply into the eyes of the convict whose statue “Le Bagnard” sits outside the tourist office, listening closely to the sounds of the forest unchanged for two hundred years gives a powerful sense of the despair and isolation that  all who worked or were imprisoned here must have felt.

The Convict - St. Laurent du Maroni
The history of the penal system in French Guyana is fascinating, the landscape surreal, and the islands, while today they lie peacefully in the tropical breeze, offer sudden and jarring glimpses into their dreadful past. Images and sounds flood one’s imagination, and only by stepping back a pace or two, and glancing at the blue sea can you realise how simple it is to step from one century to another, and perhaps from one life into a completely and utterly different existence.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Suriname: Resorts of the Suriname River

The Suriname River is fascinating, and for tourists travelling to Suriname, the communities along its bank offer a spectacular experience. Surinamese jungle lodges are great, and really offer visitors a wide range of standards, accessibility and activity.

Some time ago I wrote about Kabalebo, a lodge deep in the rain forest, and accessible only by air; it is a rather odd place, and worth considering on any trip to the country. The Surinamese government built some decades ago, several air strips in the jungle to assist the development of minerals, hydro power and other economic opportunities. Some worked out, and others failed; one such failure was Kabalebo, but the idea of a runway in the pristine rain forest was too much for some developers to ignore, and they took advantage of the strip to build the lodge.

The Lodges
The Suriname River, though, is quite different. There are twenty-two lodges, each associated to some degree or another with a local village, and developed as a part of an economic development project. One may think that 22 might be a touch over the top, but there they are, and they are waiting.

They range in standards from moderate, offering fairly basic but clean, en-suite accommodation, to “back to basic” huts, offering a roof to keep the rain away and a hammock. One can mix and match, and indeed one of the most interesting packages that exists is a five-night program that offers three nights in one of the better resorts, Dan Paati, and one each in a primitive resort and a Back-to-Basic camp.

Dan Paati Resort

Waiting for the canoes in Atjuna
Travelling upstream is fun; once one leaves the bus, agility is required to get into the canoe for the three-hour journey, but once is the route is sound and the boatmen steady.  It is truly eye-opening to see the amount of traffic on the river; freight canoes carrying anything and everything to the villages, passenger “buses”, school buses, family outings, some tourist traffic, but little compared to the constant stream of canoes that were making their way up and down the river. Ponchos are provided in case the rain comes down, and away one goes, past quintessentially African communities until we reach Dan Paati.

Originally built by a Dutch insurance company as a part of an aid project, a year or so ago they donated the resort to a tour company who work closely with the village of Dan. It has a significant economic impact on the community, as over thirty villagers are employed by Dan Paati in the operation of the resort. It was great; a place to relax (no wi-fi), to swim in either their pool or in the river, and a great place to meet fellow travellers in the evening in the open lounge area.

I then headed further upstream and downmarket to the village of Pingpe, and their jungle lodge. This was a treat on many fronts, and although the accommodation was basic, it was absolutely fine, and the couple who ran the resort, Chapeau and his sister, were both from the local village, and fantastic hosts. Descended from escaped slaves in the 1760s, their family had lived in Pingpe for hundreds of years.

They explained the basic history of the river, and noted that periodic visitors from Africa, particularly those from Benin, recognise the village life, their customs and beliefs, and indeed one river-community is called Diumi, a variant on ”Dahomey”, the capital of Benin. Diumi is a special village, and the only one that white visitors are prohibited from entering, as it houses the tribe’s sacred place for the spirit that protects the community from any further slavery.

Chapeau Siesa

And slavery is an open subject; minimised somewhat by Chapeau saying “It was all about money; it is what they did in those days”, and seemingly a part of history that has been successfully shrugged away as the Maroons developed their social structures and lives in the forest, reflecting the African lives that they had left behind.

It was a fascinating stay; Chapeau was an excellent companion, and as we walked through the forest explained so many elements of life away from “civilisation” that I was left bewildered and quite astonished by their prowess. “We were river people”, he said, “The Amerindians were the people of the forest”; it is a distinction that I would like to find out for myself, and I am already planning a trip to the very south of the country in 2016.

A Tarantula Spider's nest

Within the past ten years, archaeologists have discovered hundreds of petroglyphs in caves near the Brazilian border, and beautifully carved obelisks; these finds, added to linguists bewilderment as to why the local Amerindian tribes have a language with the grammatical and structural complexity of modern-day languages all hint to the existence of a massive and powerful nation dating back millennia. The petroglyphs have already been dated to before 3,000BC, predating the Aztec and Inca societies by many years.

To travel south, stay in the Amerindian villages and have the opportunity to visit these extraordinary places will have to wait for a year!

And so, the river behind me, the resorts of Pingpe and Dan Paati sliding away, I headed west to one of the more peculiar places that it has ever been my privilege to visit.