Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Maio: Ohio with an "M"?

“So, I got in!” I said the day my transfer came through for Cape Verde. “I can’t believe I am going to ditch you guys for an island paradise.”
The only Guinea Volunteer who had been to Cape Verde glanced at me with palpable gravitas.
“You know, Alex….”
“There is…
“…one ugly island.”
“Yeah. Maio.”
Maio. Maio is Portuguese for May, named as such because it was spotted on May 1st,1460. May day: poles and ribbons and virgins. Julie Andrews singing about “the lusty month,” and all the hot love scenes with Lancelot that that might conjure up. These are not things that bring to mind ugly islands. Clearly this was just another volunteer with preemptive jealousy of my nascent caramel tan. That’s ok. She would have lots of character building experiences in her hut that would teach her to love her pasty complexion.
But perhaps she wasn’t so unspeakably jealous: Maio’s interior, when I visited, looked more like an overgrown parking lot, in places, than an ocean idyll. Possibly an extension of the African mainland, the island’s flat, rocky 268 square kilometer expanse is covered in sparse shrubs, reforested acacia, some coconut palms and pebbles of varying shades of brown and black. One virtually bald mountain, Monte Penoso (437m), shoots unimpressively out of the deforested savannah, flanked by sections of well built stone walls. The walls seem to indicate a not so distant past in which something—animals—was kept from eating something—crops. But today flora and fauna is decidedly puny: the moon may rival Maio for biodiversity.

And yet Maio’s coast is arguably the loveliest Cape Verde has to offer. Pastel blue and green waves roll up on spotless white and black sand beaches. The least developed of the country’s beach islands (over Sal and Boa Vista), virtually no trash or tourists mar the beauty, and sand abounds because it has not been sold off for construction. Plodding around the delightful ocean-side patch of sand dunes fulfills all your Laurence of Arabia fantasies. Learning how the historic salt flats are mined is engaging, and may explain why Maio’s cachupa (the national dish) is tastier here. Throw in the charming, reasonably equipped port town, Vila do Maio, and its friendly residents and you have the makings of a charming beachside getaway.
But the aridness of the interior reflects the daunting water problems that call into question whether Maio can support its own population, much less a tourist one. In the days of greater rainfall and lesser human pressures, underground sources sufficed. Now wells are drying up and yielding salty water. Two desalinization plants distill up to 4000 liters of seawater into potable water every day, supplying Vila do Maio and outlying communities. Another one under construction will supply Figueira, the Island’s only vegetable farm, now that Mount Penoso’s deep sources are drying up too. That’s well and good for the easterly areas, but what about everyone else?
Calheta, 11 kilometers west of Vila do Maio, is everyone else, a quiet town, off the guidebooks. Its wells are virtually dry. It used to rely on water piped in from Mount Penoso, but competition from Figueira for its dwindling supply precludes this as a long-term solution. Its only option currently is the veritable sloppy seconds: now that Vila do Maio is completely served with desalinated water, Calhetans get Vila do Maio’s well water.
“Calheta needs clean water. People get sick to their stomachs when they drink this water,” Ricardinha, a Calheta school teacher says. “You would think that being so close to Praia would give us an advantage in these types of issues,” she adds, referring to the 23 kilometer, two hour boat ride to Praia. “But the government forgets about us.”
Water problems damage the economy, as well. Maio, historically a supplementary grazing land for wealthy Santiago landowners, is famous for its meat, milk, and cheese. No rain means less fodder, hungrier cows and goats, and the deterioration of this important local industry. “What do you do if you don’t have enough plants to feed your animals,” I asked one local. “You kill them,” he said simply.
The animals that do remain mostly eat the stunted corn and bean plants. While Maio was never a breadbasket, these staples used to offset food imports, back when the rains were better. Now these crops, still planted but rarely growing to maturity, go almost exclusively for fodder, while pricey food imports from Praia supply nearly 100% of local demand. Other industries that don’t depend on rainfall---fishing and salt production—are sustainable, but only support a few. Maio’s youth emigrate to Praia, Holland, Portugal, to send back the critical remittances that meet the high cost of living on this island. Keeping them here may require turning this island into the tourist destination that does conjure up may poles and virgins.
* * *
But can Maio really draw tourists, despite its arid interior?
At a British-owned café in Vila do Maio, “stir fry” is scrawled in English on the menu a few lines down from the local “churrasco” (and the mysterious entry “crack” which we just can’t figure out). An Italian resident, mustering impressive Creole, greets the waiter who has just served us the English breakfast. Locals and foreigners walk by at a pace that evokes permanent vacation, while cars speed in from the port. They loop back enough times to demystify the false sense of hurry. A group of Cape Verdean men lean against the beachside wall, watching the cars loop. A few meters up several Italian men do the same.
This could work. This quiet spirit of unending vacation could agree with many foreigners, whose investment would boost the economy and help finance badly needed infrastructure improvements. And perhaps “May” is, after all, the perfect metaphor for this pleasant atmosphere, virgins and may poles or not.


Blogger Grace said...

hey alex! jeff klein gave me the addy of your blog. i can't believe you are in cape verde. i love how cape verdeans speak portuguese and i love their interesting cultural contexts that make each medical visit and hospital stay more complex. hope you are doing well. xoxoxoxo

7:28 PM  

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