Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Corn is for Horses

“I mean, what’s culture? People live their lives,” Kyle, a Peace Corps volunteer on Sal explains to me. “They go to work, they go home. They go drinking...” He shrugs. “Just like anyone anywhere.”
“What about music,” I ask. “Do they listen to Cape Verdean stuff ?”
“There is some mourna and zouk. But, its pretty awesome: a lot of people like rock.” We pass a house that’s blasting Linkin Park. “I mean, that’s pretty awesome.”
We find a table outside on Bom Dia’s patio. The sun beats down on umbrellas adorned with beer ads, icy beads dripping down each oversized bottle. Silver belt buckets, cell phones, and sunglasses glint amid the white and black faces, smart suits, plates of chicken and tuna garnished with lettuce and fries. We could be anywhere.
“What are you doin’ here, Jackass?” Joe says flawlessly. “I come here to have a beer, and get away from these Jackasses.”
Kyle grins. “We didn’t know you would be here.”
Joe is a native Salense who has returned after 40 years in the shipping business in Florida, Massachusettes and Rhode Island. He’s building a house, but his workers got in a fight today and left. ”Where does that leave me?” he says.
The waiter, also a jackass according to Joe, comes over and we order cachupa, the corn stew found on Cape Verdean tables countrywide, morning and night, steamed or fried, garnished or straight up.
“Corn is for horses,” Joe laughs.
* * *
Perhaps on Sal it is. Sal, Cape Verde’s flat, sandy, and most easterly island, was discovered by Italian tourists early on and serves a lot of pasta. The island, which is home to around 10,000, was populated only 150 years ago when salt mining became profitable. Through the 1930’s, as the salt industry declined, Moussilini bought the rights to build an airport, and the tourist industry began. Joe says he was “raised by Italians”.
What drew them is clear: the entire southern half of Sal is bounded by white sand beaches that descend gently into calm bright waters. Colorful salt mines, nesting turtles, a giant crater, a lava pool, scuba diving, wind surfing, and deep sea fishing, are additional draws. The international airport and great restaurants cater to visitors, but the boom is only getting started: en route to Santa Maria, the upscale tourist town, along one of Cape Verde’s few asphalt highways, massive hotels, a golf course, and apartment complexes are being erected in large tracts that evoke mining boom towns. Hilton Hotels is set to begin construction here, the first international hotel chain to set up shop in Cape Verde. In Santa Maria itself, the windows of real estate offices are plastered with pictures of current projects and appeals to invest.
Outside these real estate offices is a conspicuous absence of Cape Verdean culture. Without the woven pano de terra and rhythmic batuk of the southern islands or the quaint farmhouses and sorrowful mournas of the north, Sal gets aptly described as “that island that doesn’t belong to Cape Verde.”
And yet, when employing a liberal definition of culture, Kyle is right: if people are living, they are doing so according to certain commonly held beliefs, practices, ie a culture. If this “culture” happens to evoke suburban Maryland more than subsaharan Africa, who’s to judge?
In fact, perhaps we should celebrate: whatever lack of “authentic” Cape Verdean culture is directly tied to the tourism industry, which is prompting unprecedented prosperity. Sal boasts the lowest unemployment rate of any island. People from Sao Nicolau, Santiago, and Senegal migrate to meet the labor demand in hotels, restaurants, and construction. Pockets of rural and urban poverty don’t seem to exist like they do on other islands. “Tourism has been here forever… Its good,” one older local explains to me in Palmeira, a port town far from Santa Maria. She rubs her thumb and forefinger together. “Its money.”
The growth does have downsides that aren’t purely cultural. Sex tourism is flourishing in Santa Maria and crime is on the rise. The wells and sole desalination plant barely meet the demands of locals and the ballooning tourist population. Kyle says, ”Tourists come and take 30 minute showers, like they do at home. If they use too much water the city shuts it off for the town.”
But the cultural issues are worrisome, too, because of their applicability: it’s easy to imagine Sal’s story becoming a paradigm for the country—a tourism boom spurs grow and quietly obliterates the country’s unique blend of African and Portuguese cultures, which has withstood centuries of migration and foreign influence. All the investment ads that tout Cape Verde as “Europe’s nearest tropical islands” begin to seem prophetic and one can imagine the birth of another Bermuda.
* * *
Next to a Santa Maria real estate office, tourists stroll into an Italian ice cream shop advertising sundaes. A group of white teenagers finger non-descript tee-shirts that read “Cape Verde Zone” in a clothing boutique. A restaurant called “Kretcheu”-- “my love”--and a business called “Cachupa” remind you are in a creole-speaking country, but I haven’t seen more than a handful of Cape Verdeans on this street.
On each corner, West African salesmen lounge in front of makeshift craft stands, occasionally calling out “Hello, my friend, Bonjour mon ami” to passing tourists. Their shelves are lined with ebony statues, tie-dye dresses, and sand paintings of angular black women, pestle in hand, backs laden with babies, or heads burdened with jugs of water. Inconceivably, “Cape Verde” is painted across the bottom.
* * *
Perhaps the prosperity caused by the tourism boom justifies the decline of local culture. If Lincoln Park is on the rise, and corn is for horses, so be it, if the locals are healthy and employed. Beach tourists aren’t likely to mind either: they aren’t known for their patronage of museums and local poetry readings. And yet, where there is tourism, there is money to be made in souvenirs. Sal might be wise to offset its beaches and preserve and market its culture, combating tourism’s culture-killing effect in order, ironically, to further the industry. If Sal doesn’t get on it, some more enterprising, and not necessarily indigenous, vendors will.


Post a Comment

<< Home