Nearly three hours past the scheduled landing time, my flight from Lisbon to the island of Sal, Cape Verde (Ilha Do Sal), is now taxiing to the gate. The local time is almost 3 in the morning and I’ve just spent the last 18 hours in Lisbon, where it’s 5 in the morning. My internal clock says it’s midnight, the beginning of a Thursday, and by that clock, I haven’t slept since Monday night, which can also be communicated as: it’s been 42 hours since I’ve slept. The friend I’m traveling with has brought three significantly heavy bags with her and needs me to carry one of them. I have my own bag, of course, on top of a backpack and a bad case of tendonitis. The bag I’m carrying for my friend is one that doesn’t have wheels. It just drags along the concrete resilient as a military tank. I feel as though I’m dragging along the concrete untouched too, but my outer shell is fictional, comprised entirely of my nonplussed delirium.
%Gallery-194271%I locate a man standing at the arrivals gate holding a sign for the hotel where we’re staying, Hotel Morabeza. My online research informed me that the hotel holds a decent ranking among travelers and locals alike. It’s rated as one of the island’s best hotels and the fact that a driver is here at this late hour despite my inability to inform the hotel of the flight’s delay is reassuring to me. The man leads us in the direction of the hotel shuttle and one of my arms is dragging this clunking vinyl bag down a rugged outdoor ramp while the other is guiding my rolling suitcase when a boy appears out of what seems like nowhere to assist with the luggage-loading. I’m wondering whether or not he works with the hotel or if maybe he’s the driver’s son. I then realize he’s just a local kid seizing an opportunity to earn some money, but when I open my mouth to speak, to tell him that I don’t even have Cape Verdean escudos yet to give him, I notice that he only has one arm and yet he’s already hoisted this cumbersome bag up and into the van. He looks about 11 or 12 years old. The man who led us to the vehicle says nothing, his lips seem pursed but his face is sympathetic. When the boy asks the question I knew he’d ask, my heart sinks.
“Coins? Can you spare some coins?” he’s wide awake and, if I might conjecture, exuding a bit of pride over the impressive physical feat he just performed, in a matter of seconds to boot.
“I don’t have any,” I say, confident that it’s true, but rummaging through my purse all the same, because, well, maybe I’m wrong.
It’s probably just because I’m tired, but I want to cry. Poverty and distress can be found everywhere, but most of my travel has been to developing countries wherein the pleas for help are especially plentiful. I know to expect it, I know to prepare for it and I know to not let every request that’s met with my sincerely empty pockets eat me up inside. But I feel my insides being eaten. I have tendonitis. He has one arm.
My friend finally uncovers some coins in her wallet, although it’s too dark for her to tell if they are euros, Belize dollars, or US dollars. She hands them to the boy and he exits the scene as instantly as he had entered.
The country of Cape Verde has been held up against other African nations as a beacon of hope; an example of how a young country can best execute democracy. But the islands of this archipelago nation each face their own specific struggles and successes, and Sal’s trajectory seems to have always looked the way it does now: equal parts bleak and promising. Discovered (officially) by the Portuguese in 1460 and originally called “Llana,” the island’s name was changed to “Sal,” which is the word for salt in Portuguese, once the ancient salt of Pedra de Lume was uncovered. The first commercial use of the island was that of a transatlantic slave trade center. The Portuguese brought slaves over to the island from West Africa to the Cape Verdean islands. With exclusive rights to trade slaves from the West African coast, the islands’ slave markets were popular until the exclusivity of West African coast slaves ended in 1560.
Droughts and famines followed on the island of Sal, which is the oldest island of the Cape Verde islands. Hardly any vegetation grows thanks to the low annual rainfall, which nearly categorizes the island as a desert island. The landscape is harsh and unforgiving. The salt from Pedra de Lume was lucratively mined and sold during the 18th century, but the mines are effectively defunct these days. The population of 35,000 is sustained largely on tourism alone now, but the tourism industry can be a double-edged sword on an island like Sal. On one hand, travelers find the white and sandy beaches to be a sunny paradise and perfect for water sports, like surfing, and they bring money to the island when they choose it as their vacation spot. This is arguably very good for the island. On the other hand, these travelers are wealthier than the locals by a large margin and can not only drive up the price of local goods but even worse: stay inside an all-inclusive hotel without circulating any of their money into the local economy.
From the vantage point of Sal’s beaches, the local economy doesn’t necessarily enter conversation. But when traveling inland, the dusty shantytowns are expansive and what might have been the suburbs in some areas are instead a tribe of half-finished skeletons of buildings whose construction was halted mid-way due to a recession. With the influx in tourism to the island, the government is now spending millions developing a sustainable infrastructure for Sal and its economy. Plans for renovations to the airport, fishing port (Palmeira) and local roads have been underway for over a year. With an emphasis on tourism and a collective effort that will support tourism, it seems as though the little island of Sal might continue to persevere against all odds. While Sal has experienced the highest rate of growth among the Cape Verde islands, the unemployment-related poverty is still staggering. The island’s future is in the hands of tourism and the dichotomy of positive and negative effects it brings to the island. Should the tourism decline, should the little boy with one arm have no one to ask for money, should local merchants have no customers, should fewer passengers disembark the planes that land at the island’s international airport – should these circumstances transpire, it’s difficult to envision the inhabitants of the island maintaining their resilience.
[Photo Credit: Elizabeth Seward]