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Cape Verde: Close to home at the end of the world

Fogo, Portuguese for fire, is an island almost entirely occupied by its volcano.
Fogo, Portuguese for fire, is an island almost entirely occupied by its volcano.

PRAIA, Cape Verde — Bleary-eyed after an early flight from a freezing O’Hare one Friday in December, I spied “Praia” the Portuguese word for “beach,” on the departure boards at Logan. The son of a geography teacher, I triangulated this exotic-sounding destination with New England’s sizable Cape Verdean diaspora. Looking for some sun, and also curious to explore islands that sent so many people looking for a new life in America, I booked a flight the very next day.

Ten minutes after boarding the plane, a young woman nearby pointed out that I was the only tourist. When I mentioned where I was staying during my overnight layover in the capital, she perked up and told me my innkeeper was an old friend and would treat me like one, too. And so went most of my trip in the Cape Verdean islands of Fogo and Brava, where I met no other American tourists and was treated like family by almost everyone I met.

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The island of fire

On my 20-minute connecting flight to Fogo, I sat next to Peter, who was coming from Salt Lake City to surprise his parents with a visit. He is the youngest of seven children all living abroad, so I was curious to know what Utahns ask him about his homeland. He said with a laugh, “They mainly want to know if there are lions and giraffes.”

I can confirm there are no lions or giraffes, but there is an active volcano, the first stop of my week on these two islands. Fogo, Portuguese for fire, is an island almost entirely occupied by its volcano. Fogo’s plains droop toward the sea, with old lava flows dominating the landscape, the volcano being just generous enough to cede some arable land and ash to sustain agriculture.

My first task: beat jet lag by ascending 3,200 feet to the volcano’s summit. My guide, Vander, showed great patience during the breathless ascent. Another guide who passed us bore a hat screaming Boston in bright block letters.

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Negotiating the crater’s rocky rim to the other side, I was able to take in sweeping views of Santiago and Brava’s rocky silhouettes, many miles away, whiffing the sulphur of volcanic steam. The path down the mountain descends through the last eruption’s ash. I dodged boulders in a knee-deep slide down a 2,000-foot slope, staring into the hot red fissures of an old crater below. It felt like riding an escalator to hell while getting a rough pedicure, and it was exhilarating.

Below lies Chã das Caldeiras, a village of 400 people who defiantly occupy the crater of a volcano whose 2014 eruption devastated them.

The crater has an odd energy, made stranger by its founding father, France’s Duke of Montrond, who was fleeing the fall of Napoleon III in 1870. Making a stop in Fogo, he discovered the volcano’s crater had perfect conditions to grow the delicious wine I drank every evening. His descendants make up half of today’s population, and keep Chã alive in the face of adversity.

One such Montrond owns Casa Ramiro, a general store with daily live music. I walked in during a heated round of local card game Bisca. Ramiro, in a Red Sox hat, greeted me with a glass of his homemade dry wine. A young man arrived and addressed me gruffly, “Français?”

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“American,” I replied. Smiling, he lunged to hug me, saying, “I love America! I love Brockton!”

The next day I descended through scenic fields of oranges, coffee, and sugar cane to Fogo’s capital. São Filipe perches over miles of jet-black sand and roaring waves. Its buildings fuse Portuguese style with bright tropical colors, with a Catholic church shining in neon blue across a square of weathered pastel mansions. Nearby is the city’s House of Memory and Municipal Museum, showcasing Fogo’s bygone riches.

There I met Fausto, a professor and former congressman. We spoke briefly then, but in a chance meeting on the street later, he offered me a ride around town. In a half-hour’s drive, we talked colonial history, racial identity, Mahalia Jackson, Bob Dylan. Stopping to greet friends, he introduced me to Fogo’s health minister, national news correspondent, and a woman who spontaneously gave me a bottle of homemade sweet wine. Does everyone get this welcome?

Cutting the wine with strong Fogo coffee on my last day, I happened upon Vincent, an imposing Dane who owns Zebra Tours alongside his Cape Verdean wife, Luisa. He estimates Fogo receives only 10,000 tourists per year. When I pressed Vincent on how many were Americans, he chucked: “Zero-point-something percent!”

He is optimistic more Americans will come but he recognizes the barriers, including our limited view of Africa “as one country instead of 54,” and the history of on-again-off-again flight service to Boston.

You can see Brockton from Brava

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In the 1800s, boats from these parts left to Boston more frequently than flights today. They left from Brava, my next stop and Cape Verde’s smallest inhabited island. Only 30 minutes by catamaran from Fogo, it receives even fewer visitors. Even its streets elude Google Maps.

I anchored my time in Fajã d’Água, Brava’s hidden western bay nestled among high mountains that crash into the Atlantic, and starting point of famed journeys to New Bedford and Nantucket. Here, American whaling and cargo ships found manpower while Bravans escaped drought and famine. Today, Fajã is home to just 100 people, including Erik and Marijke, the Dutch owners of my Robinson Crusoe-like guesthouse at the edge of the world.

The next morning, Erik showed me patriotic eagle statues guarding the mansions that “americanos” built with their riches. They contrast with abandoned towns like Levadura, whose eerie ruins hide amid scenic livestock paths rising above Fajã, reflecting Brava’s years-long droughts. Surrounded by angry seas in a place that lacks rain, I visited natural rock pools, where the Atlantic cedes safe space for swimmers. Above them I explored an abandoned airport, dodging sea spray on the empty runway.

I left Fajã later for Nova Sintra, Brava’s capital named after Portugal’s erstwhile royal retreat, where colonial buildings lord over an immaculate square. Anywhere else, a town like this would be overrun by tourists. Instead, I was the only visitor holding court in the square’s simple cafe, with warm “hellos” and “where-are-you-froms” breaking the serenity.

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Walking around town, I met Carla, who runs Luanda, Nova Sintra’s best restaurant. Over simply grilled amberjack, one of the many delicious fish that gave their lives for me here, I noticed a painted sign with a Boston T train car and bus, celebrating the retirement of Carla’s husband, Antonio, from the MBTA.

Walks like these in and around Brava’s gentle valleys, dramatic cliffs, and cute towns attract the few visitors that come. But I gave my legs a rest the next day to join Carlos — who picked me up at the ferry — for his usual shared taxi route through Brava. For five hours, we picked up widows going to wakes, kids returning from school, and vendors going to market.

As the taxi climbed above sugar cane fields, Carlos beeped at Daniel, sporting a Chicago Bulls hat. Seeing a new face in the passenger seat, Daniel chopped me a piece of freshly-harvested cane, set to be distilled into Cova de Touro grogue, his version of Cape Verde’s national beverage.

We stopped in Nossa Senhora do Monte, a town with sweeping views of the Atlantic and a cemetery whose graves resemble Portuguese churches. Carlos — raised in Rhode Island — bought Sweet Baby Ray’s barbecue sauce from Luisa, an elegant woman who picks American merchandise to send in container ships that come direct from Boston to Brava every year.

We finished our route at Lomba, one of the world’s few ski lifts for fish, finished in 2015 to spare village women the task of balancing fish in buckets on their head while climbing the mountain to market. Was it wrong to want more fish?

“Sodade” is a Creole word for the mix of happy and sad nostalgia Cape Verdeans have for the land they leave. Their country, unrelentingly picturesque, filled with generous, joyful people, clashes with tragedies of nature and history.

In Brava and Fogo, two of the archipelago’s least-visited islands, ordinary people let me into their lives in a way that seems more and more elusive as popular destinations cope with mass tourism. Those who make the journey here, now easier than ever from Logan Airport, will experience something too few others have seen.

And for Americans, it almost feels like Cape Verdeans are eager to return the welcome that New England has given them for centuries.


James J. Stranko can be reached at stranko@gmail.com.