Cesaria Evora herself welcomes us to the island of São Vicente: the airport of Mindelo bears the name of the Barefoot Diva; her house faces our hotel, and on the first night, morna (traditional Cape Verde music) provides the accompaniement to our dinner with Tchicau, a friend of our guide.
On our first day in Cape Verde, we explore the streets and markets of Mindelo, the capital of São Vicente. In the afternoon a little hike along the beach of Praia Grande reminds us that we walk on a volcanic island.
The next day, we take the boat to Porto Novo, on the neighbouring island of Santo Antão. An archipelago located off the shores of Senegal, Cape Verde consists of a dozen volcanic islands. Santo Antão is the most mountainous of all. We are here with eleven other French plus one Belgian for a trek over this island, along with our guide, Pipi, and two cooks, Freddy and Edy, who is Tchicau’s son.
The trek begins in Tarrafal, in a fishing boat: before dawn, fishermen take us to Monte Trigo, a bit further down the coast. Starting there we climb 1500m high over a dry and craggy landscape, with the hot early sun bearing down upon us. During the night we sleep outside and the next day, we descend to Ribera das Patas, using one of the paved paths built by the Portuguese during the 19th century and snakes down the mountainside. Our scenery has become greener, but volcanic activity has left amazing marks upon the landscapes.
On the way down to Ribera das Patas, I take pictures of three kids. They follow us for a while; they seem curious, but I feel a gap between me and them. I have nothing to give them and I can’t communicate with them. An awkward moment.
We go on towards the greenest parts of the island. Behind Ribera das Patas is Alta Mira in a valley where terrace cultivation abounds: cassava, corn, tobacco, carrots, breadfruit, mangos, sweet potato, papaya… all of them are watered using levadas: irrigation channels dating from Portuguese colonies.
Our trek is demanding: changes in altitude are high, and paths are also steep and most of the time made of cobblestone. The tropical climate and the hard sun make it even more difficult. Between Meiho d’España and Cha de Igreja, on the fifth day, we meet hell, and it looks like a never-ending steep ascent, with sharp bends and all this under a violent sun. The very same day, though, just before Cha de Igreja, we stumble accross a plunging valley with abundant vegetation and volcanic landscapes. It really looks like a painting.
Two days later, on the way to Lagoa, we stop in a village. Two children are playing and a teenager poses for the camera with a smile. Here I feel the same as with the three children in Ribera das Patas. What am I doing here, taking pictures of dirty kids I will never see again, whom I cannot help, with whom I can barely communicate, and who look at me as if I were an alien? I have this ugly feeling that I’m taking and giving nothing in return. Like a fat and wealthy Westerner sweating over paths that the natives actually use for survival.
On the other hand, if I am not here to see them and bring home evidence that they exist, if no one does what I am doing, who would know of their existence, who would know that they are more than just part of a GDP? Who would know that they need people who have never seen them to know that they exist?
Yet it is also somehow comforting that all children in Cape Verde go to school, and that many of them have the opportunity to study. And that financial support from the EU seems to bear fruit here.
The next day, in the Valley of Paul, we meet other French tourists. They are taken care of by a tour operator, sleep every night in the same hotel and walk very little compared to us.
I then discuss with Cécile my feelings about the children. I realise that we bring with us resources to the island, and that when we return to Europe we will talk about the children. But here, we also bring evidence of our world, of our way of life, and it is important that these children see us even though they do not know who we are. And the other tourists we have just seen also bring resources to this country, and they discover it as well, in their own way.
The last ascent the next day, waking up before 6 o’clock after a bad sleep, due to roosters and especially dogs. During the night, I woke up dreaming I had got up to kill one. I am disappointed when I hear it bark again.
This ascent is very demanding, so I walk carefully. Set the heel on the ground. Roll the foot flat, the opposite pole to counterbalance. Do it again. Drink. Go on.
I stop to talk with Pipi. I ask him how the natives perceive us and tell him about my feeling of wealthy Westerner. He says that the natives like tourists and find them « funny », because tourists come here with their stuff, walking on paths that the natives take everyday.
« you know, people who live here », he says, showing me houses and farmings in the valley, « they’re not miserable. Their needs are not the same as yours or mine. They have three meals per day, they have fun during the week-end, and when it rains they can cultivate the land; they are happy ». As for the children, he explains: « you don’t always have to give something, it’s not good to give too much to the children, and even if you only offer a smile, an advice or your help, it’s also fine ».
Later, I go on alone, thinking of what Pipi just told me. Our nasty Judeo-Christian culture makes us carry the guilt of things where are not responsible for, it lets us think that in order to have a happy life, others must have the same as ours; it transposes our owns values and references on a culture which is not ours. I am happy I have become aware of that.
Photographer Laurence Leblanc had told me: « photography is not gleaning things, it is facing them ». From this point of view, my approach has clearly been the right one…I also think to myself that any journey away from home takes you closer to yourself.
In the afternoon, Edy shows us how to cook banana donuts, and in the evening we joke while climbing to the top of Pico da Cruz to watch sunset. There is a beautiful atmosphere in this group.
The next day, 1500m down to Janela. It is getting harder for the knees, it is time that this trek is coming to an end. In Janela, after a drink, we swim in an irrigation reservoir while listening to music. Moment of bliss.
On news websites I have often seen pictures of children jumping in water during heat waves: today we are the children. We eat lunch and then walk a few hundred meters further to reach a road on the seashore. Two minibuses are parked there. After taking some pictures, we start going back to Porto Novo and bring to an end our trek on the island of Santo Antão.
From the stern of the boat, I look at the island. We have stayed there only eleven days and ten nights. That is a short stay, but we have discovered so many things, we have walked through so many contrasts and seen such beauties. We have been in contact with such an amazing and different people, we have learnt so many things, on this magnificent country, on ourselves. We’ve met such good friends, in such a little period of time.
I also look at the sky. The moon has been following us during this journey, and it also has changed. During the first night, it was just a thin crescent, and now it is almost full.
In the evening we meet Tchicau again: she has prepared scampis for us, and we have them with Cape Verdean music, just like on the first night.
Finally, the next day, we leave Mindelo, for it is time to take the plane. In the boarding room, on a huge picture, Cesaria Evora seems to tell us « see you soon… »