Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Sr. Antonio RIP

Sr. Antonio RIP

So Sr. Antonio dies yesterday morning. I think there is a good picture of him here on my blog somewhere…he’s sitting barefoot on some steps in front of a house with his hat in his hand, and he’s got a few days growth of grey beard.

Today is Monday and I’ve just come back from a weekend in Povocon, and hadn’t heard the news. But about an hour ago, I was in the polivalent (the concrete soccer field/community center) awaiting the guys from the newly formed Txangreja Basketball Club, when I heard the wailing. (If I haven’t explained the Cape Verdian tradition of funereal “wailing” yet, someone please tell me and I will. It’s awful and sad and very common.) Anyway, there I was like a jackass shooting hoops when I hear the wailing and peek my head out the door of the polivalent to see half the town of Txangreja marching and wailing down the hill to the cemetery between here and Cruzinha. Djon stepped out from the procession to tell me that Sr. Antonio had passed away.

Sr. Antonio must have been about 80 years old, but he was very spert (clever). It’s my impression that folks in Txangreja will remember him as an ace-up-his-sleeve-toting wily coyote who liked to drink and harass women during his younger days. I’ll remember him as one of the first people I met here in Txangreja, an unrivaled card shark, and the person who taught me to play (and cheat at) Bisca and TxinTxon…which are ancient Cape Verdian card games. There’s another reason I’ll remember him as well. When we met, during my first week here in town, which was September of last year, he was completely unfazed and unimpressed.

Being the first Peace Corps volunteer to come to live in Txangreja, possibly the first American ever to set foot in this village, and certainly the first white person in this town that spoke a word of kriolu…I was something of a rock star during my first few months. People were excited to meet me, wanted to ask questions about where I came from, what I was doing here, how long I was staying, where and why I had learned to speak kriolu, etc. Not Sr. Antonio. I remember the day I met him he was sitting at a table in a chair in the plaza with his signature road cap on and a weathered deck of disintegrating cards in his hand...looking for his next victim. I sat down across from him and, expecting to get a rise out of him and launch into my schpeel about myself and Peace Corps and all the rest, said in a fairly decent kriolu “Do you know how to play poker?” Without missing a beat he replied “No, but we can play Bisca instead.” I told him I didn’t know that game, and he told me not to worry, he’d teach me…and he did.

We sat in the plaza and played cards and chatted for what must have been about 4 hours that day, and I didn’t get a word in edgewise as he instructed me in the subtle art of playing Bisca. He told me he had 4 wives, 12 children and over 50 grandchildren, and had once seen the Parthenon in Greece, having worked on cargo ships during his younger years. I remember he didn’t ask me a single question about me or my kriolu, or just what in the hell a white person was doing sitting in his plaza playing cards…I was just another victim to him.

After that first day he and I had a more or less regular card game in the plaza every afternoon at 4pm. That must have gone on for about 2 months, until I had to quit going so I’d have time to prepare my lesson plans. During our games I didn’t talk much (I was too busy concentrating on learning the game), but he did. At that point in my kriolu acquisition I didn’t understand a lot of what he was saying, but I was learning from him. I believe I can say with some certainty that he never did learn my name (He only ever called me Merkon), although I must have told him a dozen times. Ironically, through our games I managed to conxe (meet) quite a lot of people in town, as the site of a white person sitting in the plaza playing cards with Sr. Antonio every day did arouse some curiosity, and people would often come up to introduce themselves to me in the plaza, and then ask me what in the hell I was doing here. Most importantly, knowing, and I dare say being good at, Bisca and TxinTxon is an invaluable asset when it comes to meeting people and making friends in this country, and I’ve him to thank for that.

So, rest in peace Sr, Antonio. So long, and thanks for everything.



So living over here, I have to take good care of myself. Last weekend I went swimming in Sinogaga. It’s a beach about a 45 minute walk East from Povocon. At Sinagoga there is a nice sandy beach, and around the point, a series of rock “pools” and sea caves, where you can swim. I was there with Benvinda and some friends and after an hour of body surfing the huge waves there, we decided to take a dip in one of the rock pools. Unfortunately, I managed to crash my foot into a uris there (the spiny black sea urchins that are everywhere in Cape Verde) and started bleeding (bit only a little bit) immediately. I got out of the water to have a look and was soon surrounded by a dozen Cape Verdians offering to help. I sat down and a young kid held my foot while a little girl began pulling out the shards. When you get “stung” by a uriz, the tiny fragments from the end of their spines break off in you like tiny shards of broken glass. They got all but three or four of them out. I asked them what I should do about the rest and the girl said not to worry. Then she spit on me.

I was a little bit mortified at first…seeing her spit on my foot and then mixing the saliva with the blood coming from my foot and rubbing it in with her fingers. Vague warnings from high school health class flashing into my brain. I asked her doubtfully if that would really help and she said of course. She told me to let the spit and blood dry for now, and when I got home I should heat up some grogue and then dip a rag into it, and use that to make a hot water compress. She assured me that the shards would come out on their own within a couple days. That night my ankle swelled up a little bit and I felt a sort of light burning sensation and the next day I got serious and dug the little pieces out with a knife and tweezers and applied some antibiotic ointment from my PC medical kit.

So this isn’t a big deal at all…Cape Verdians are “stung” by uris all the time. But I use it to illustrate how, over here, I have to take better care of myself than I did when I was in the States. And it’s not just the stings of sea creatures that I worry about. The air here is dry, there’s always sand and dust in the air, and the sun bakes all of us over here exactly the same way it bakes the land. I’ve had two pretty severe sunburns since I’ve been here. The second time I had been wearing sunscreen, but failed to reapply it properly, and suffered the consequences. Now I never leave the house without it. Your feet get really dry and cracked here too. Not just little ones, but deep, sharp, bleeding cracks on your feet like little slices from a knife. I always thought guys who preened and moisturized and used facial creams and foot files and such were a little narcissistic, but I realize they were on to something, and I do it all the time now.

There’s a weird thing that can happen to your eyes over here too, and I’ve gotten it once or twice. Because of all the sand and dust in the air, it’s common for your eyes to become dry, red and irritated. Occasionally, a larger grain will get imbedded in your eye, but your eye doesn’t have sufficient fluid to wash it out on its own, and after a few days, if you can’t get it out, a small cyst-like thing forms in the corner of your eye. (The use of contact lenses would exacerbate the problem and they are therefore not allowed by Peace Corps in Cape Verde.) The treatment is to just flush your eyes out with saline solution (they don’t have it here), visine (they don’t have it here), or water (which we are told we need to treat with bleach). The other thing you can get here is sea-blindness which is the liquid equivalent of going snow-blind. There are almost never any clouds here, absolutely zero cloud cover, and if you’re out on or in the water for long enough, the reflection of the sun off the water can literally burn the surface of your eyes, causing temporary blindness. My sunglasses are one of my most dear possessions.

Another thing I’ve had a few of over here are these huge fridas (boil-like things). Basically what happens is that somehow you get some a cut or scrape or bite or micro-abrasion, and then a bit of dirt or sand or microbes gets into it and it gets infected, and turn into a sort if huge puss-filled pimple. The 3 or 4 that I’ve had (on my shoulder, under my arm, and on the top of my foot) all got to be about the size of a marble, and they were extremely painful. I couldn’t wear shoes or flip-flops for a week with the one on my foot, and I had to walk with my arm stuck out to the side of me when I had the one under my arm. (This is really nothing though, as I know another volunteer who had one on her eyebrow and it was, literally about the size of a golf ball.) The treatment, according to the PC nurse, is to apply hot compresses 4 times a day for as long as it takes for it to break open and drain the puss, and then wash it and let it dry. If that doesn’t work they’ll put you on a crash course of antibiotics. I never had anything like that until I came here and it’s generally to do with cleanliness. Everything surface over here, be it skin or counter or ground or wall or bed sheet, is dirtier here. Basically no matter how hard you try, taking cold water bucket and sponge baths and scraping your clothes and sheets against rocks, just doesn’t get you and your things as clean as a nice hot shower and a washing machine.

There’s lots of other skin things that can happen to you here as well, and the PC nurse says that, other than diarrhea, they’re the most common problems for PC volunteers. Athlete’s foot, psoriasis, ringworm, hookworm, etc. I’d say about a third of the kids in Cape Verde have the small, circular, white, flaky patches of skin on their heads. Another volunteer I saw a few weeks ago had a small nasty looking red patch of crusty skin on her wrist about the size of a half-dollar…ringworm from a cat or a kid or a water tank no doubt.

I think in general, the lifestyle over here necessarily includes more cuts, more scrapes, more sprains and strains, more bites, more stomach ailments…more of all that stuff really. And we’re dealing with them in a dirtier, less sterile, less hygienic environment with no doctors and only our Peace Corps medical kit and the Where There Are No Doctors book as aids.

Saturday, July 19, 2008



So the other night it was pretty late and I was really missing home. When a bout of homesickness strikes, I usually turn to my guitar, and the music of Robert Earl Keen Jr., as Robert Earl and his music are pretty much as Texan as it gets. (I offer the following lyrics from his song Amarillo Highway as evidence.)

“I don’t wear no Steston
But I’m willing to bet son
That I’m a bigger Texan
Than you are.
There’s a girl in her bare feet
Asleep on the backseat
And that trunk’s fulla
Pearl Beer and Lone Star.”

I was blessed with an older sister who has (or at least had) good taste in music, and who introduced me to authentic Texas Hill Country music from an early age. Anyway, the other night I picked up the guitar and went to sit on the stairs, and commenced to playing the entire compendium of Robert Earl Keen Jr. music. Jennifer Johnson, Corpus Christi Bay, the Front Porch Song, The Road Goes on Forever, Don’t Turn Out the Light, Love’s a Word, Mariano, When I Start Giving In. The entire Robert Earl Songbook really. I was playing and singing for maybe 2 whole hours. Later, my fingers and voice both tired and cracked, I figured I’d finish off the evening with a cold beer from the MiniPrecio right next door. I put the guitar down and stepped out my front door…to find an audience. There were 4 or 5 people sitting on the steps of the MiniPrecio, 2 more with chairs right next to them, Sra. Herminha and her 2 sons were sitting upstairs on their roof, and there were 7 or 8 people just leaning against my house. They all stared. I was mortified, but they greeted me with warm smiles and a smattering of applause. Te and Nitoh insisted on buying me a beer apiece. I got all warm and fuzzy. (From the people, not the beers.) Of course, nobody understood a word of what I was singing, but they liked it anyway, and I spent the better part of the next hour answering questions about what the songs were about and whether I could play a particular one (Love’s a Word) again. It’s a sad one…reminiscent of the mourna music native to the islands of Cape Verde, and it turns out they understood the word “Love” over and over again, and Cape Verdians are suckers for a good love song.

Through the music of Robert Earl, I had a chance to sit and talk, and share some Texas (rather than American) culture for a change. One interesting thing I’ve found here…if you ask anyone to name a state in the US, Texas is ALWAYS the first one (and often the only one) that they know. (Unfortunately the second most common response to that question is: “Hollywood.”) People here, and people everywhere apparently, have heard of Texas, and everyone assumes that the usual archetypes are all true. Upon learning I hale from the Lone Star State, people extend their thumb and forefingers to form little pistols with their hands and say “Ahhhh…cowboys!” Then they ask if I have or have ever had an arma (gun…no), a caval (horse…yes), a chapeu grande (big hat…yes), botas (boots…yes), or a fivela (shiny buckle…no). In Cape Verde, Texas is known as the home of guns, George Bush, the San Antonio Spurs, horses and cowboys (though not the silver helmeted kind). They don’t know about longhorns, the Longhorns, Luckenbock, the Alamo, Shiner Beer, Austin City Limits, high school football, Bluebonnets, James and Larry McMurtry, Big Bend, Chili, Bar-B-Q and Tex-Mex, or toobing...which are my favorite things about Texas. They are also typically surprised to learn that we have UFOs in Marfa, the largest urban population in the United States, pine forests, swamps, lakes, rivers, mountains, desert, a coastline and islands, and a massive frontera (border) with Mexico. I love to tell them about William J. Travis, and that we are the only State ever to have been our own country. They are very surprised to learn that there are more people in my home city of Austin than there are Cape Verdians in the entire world. (The relative size and population of Texas, and the United States in general, is something that Cape Verdians have a hard time grasping.) Anyway, it ended up being a great night and I was happy to have entertained my neighbors for a while, and especially to have furthered the apparently already mythic status of my home state.

Oh Lord the Flies

Oh Lord The Flies

So it’s Temp de Mosca (the time if the flies) in Cape Verde, and I’m starting to lose my sanity. You know those old TV commercials where that lady talked to you and showed you a bunch of kids in Africa that you could save for 36 cents a day, and those kids would have all those flies swarming about them? Well, with regard to the flies at least, it’s not an exaggeration. Since the day I arrived, there’ve always been flies around, but the last month they’ve been almost unbearable. I’m not sure why they’re so much worse during the summer months, but they definitely are, and you can’t escape them. I postulate that the reason they are so much worse here in Cape Verde than they are in the States is due to the trash situation here (garbage in Cha di Igreja is hauled 5 minutes away down to the bottom of the ribeira and dumped into a cargo ship container where it sits until full, at which point some poor soul is in charge of setting it all on fire), the fact that there is loose livestock and poultry wandering around through town, and the fact that there are no pesticides in Cape Verde. Whatever the reasons, the flies are definitely a caxtig (punishment).

If you sit outside anywhere, they’ll arrive to pester you instantly. Buzzing around your face, landing on your book, your arms your wrist and you hands. Swatting after them has no effect...they simply disengage and return immediately. I had a cut on my foot for the past few weeks and it was as if I was emitting a mosca homing beacon. I’d look down and see literally a dozen flies arranged around the scab like seniors at a banquet table. Even walking through the village in flip-flops, they’d attach them selves to the wound like little black buttons and come along for the ride. Meal times are especially terrible. No matter how clean you or your kitchen or your dining room are, you are certain to dine amongst a swarm of dozens and dozens of flies. I’ve taken to eating one handed…utensil in my left hand, the right hand assigned the job of constantly fanning my face and my plate, in an attempt to keep the little bastards off my food and out of my mouth. Conversations have become ridiculous. Although they don’t bother Cape Verdians nearly as much as they bother me, I think people assume I’ve become nervos (spastic) because I’m always trying to talk to someone while constantly shaking my head and squintching my eyes and swatting at the air around my face. I’ve never seen a fly swatter in Cape Verde, but even if I had one, I doubt it would do any good against their uncanny evasive maneuvers and numerous hordes.

Even so, it’s not always the swarming flies that make you loco. Oftentimes, it’s the lone-ranger-evil-bastard fly that has you in a murderous rampage. Take the following scenario. You’re lying in bed, uncovered, due to the heat. You’re courting sleep, but there’s a single demonic housefly alighting on your leg. You flex it and it leaves you, but only for an instant, before returning to the exact same spot on your leg. So this time you jerk it and it’s gone. Then you feel it on your little toe, so you flick your toes and then it lands on your big toe. You shake your foot and test your senses and think you’re all good, and then you hear the quiet little buzzing, and now it’s on your belly. Then your forehead, then your shoulder, then your nipple, then your throat. So light they are…light as air…but their nasty filthy little feet are JUST ENOUGH for you to feel…just enough to drive you mad with the twitching. Why do they insist on landing on people…with all of the thousands and thousands of square inches of space to land on…why do they insist on landing on me??? Two nights ago I was living through just this situation for about 15 minutes until I went completely nuts. I got up, turned on the light and grabbed a t-shirt and waited to kill the bastard. There it was, on my pillow and I swung. Bzzz. No luck. There it was again, at the foot of the bed, and I swung. Bzzz. No luck. There it was again on the wall, and I swung. And shattered the bare bulb light bulb that hangs over my bed. So now it’s midnight, it’s hot, I’m tired, and standing barefoot in my pitch dark room in my underpants with shattered glass all over my bed. Bzzz. And it’s all I can do not to scream.

Other than the lone ranger nighttime sonsobitches, there is one type of fly that truly inspires rage and fear in the hearts of men. That would be the death-wish-kamikaze-radar-guided-dive-bombing fly. Like a cruise missile from a battleship, it can strike without warning and at any time. My theory is that these flies are approaching the end of their brief lifecycle and, sensing the end is near, decide to go out in a blaze of glory, causing maximum casualties. You can be walking along, momentarily un-accosted by any winged insects, when all of a sudden, out of nowhere, Bzzzzz THWAP!, a fly has rocketed straight up your nostril and embedded itself half way to your brain. Your reaction is, necessarily, a very public yet impromptu herky-jerky snorting blowing spastic fit wherein you shrink and jump and slap your own face, doubled over, trying to hock the fucker out of the back of your throat. Sometimes they strike the eyeball, shattering on impact and momentarily blinding you, leaving you to pick fly shrapnel out of your lashes for an hour. Sometimes they’ll earhole you. Last week I nearly shattered my own eardrum when I gave myself an open-handed slap after taking a direct hit right through the ear canal. It’s times like those when I try to be thankful that at least they don’t have fire ants here.

So, those of you at home in the civilized world...give thanks today for screened doors and windows, insecticides, air conditioning, flyswatters, and regular garbage pick-up. And next time you’re enjoying a nice meal, unencumbered by a dozen buzzing menaces, please, think of me.

Quick Update

So I’ve managed to borrow a laptop. One of the volunteers in Coculi is in Praia for a few days and she was kind enough to let me use her laptop while she’s away. So I’ll try to catch you up.

Let’s see. Since we last spoke we had festa de Sao Pedro here in Cha di Igreja. (If you go way back in the Blog you’ll see where we had festa Nossa Senhora de Graca when I was in Chan di Tanki during my homestay. During that festa, which lasted for a whole week, I didn’t sleep.) The festa in Cha de Igreja was much more subdued, though not on purpose. Remember that during festa season, each village on the island gets a Saint Day, and people come from all over the island to whichever village is having their festa, where they drink and dance and sing and celebrate. This year, for the first time in memory, nobody came to Cha di Igreja.

Although the festa has traditionally been held here, and the actual Sao Pedro church mass was held here on the Sunday of festa weekend…almost all of the partying took place on the other side of the mountain in an evil place called Boca di Ribeira. The sorry bastards in Boca di Ribeira realized that Cha di Igreja is REALLY far from the rest of the island…REALLY isolated…with a REALLY bad road and a REALLY expensive drive to get here and so they basically just usurped our festa by holding one there on the same days as ours. We here in Cha di Igreja knew about the plans in Boca di Ribeira of course, we just didn’t think anyone would go to it. So much for faith in tradition.

In the end, all but the most traditionalist, die hard Sao Pedro revelers just pulled over their vans and cars in Boca di Ribeira and had a festa there instead. Good for the industrious folks of Boca di Ribeira, but bad for Cha di Igreja and all of my neighbors who went about cleaning and decorating their homes and our village, who went about killing their pigs and goats to chop them up and cook and sell, who painted the church and the school and trimmed all the flowers, who bought cases and cases of beer to sell, who organized a Miss Cha di Igreja pageant and soccer tourney, who planned and choreographed dance numbers, who hired DJs from Sao Vicente, who brought in an acting troupe from Mindleo…etc, etc. Basically the once-a-year opportunity for some of the folks in my tiny town to have a great big party to show off Cha di Igreja and, in the process make some money, turned into a total money-losing, heart-breaking disaster. We all just kept waiting and waiting for the cars and vans to show up, but they never did. At about 1AM, when there were still only a dozen people in the make-shift disco and only one car had arrived from the other side of the island, there was a call to gather a group and drive to Boca di Ribeira to set fire to their disco and murder those responsible. They actually got quite a few people in the car to go rampaging, but apparently, on arrival, the party in Boca di Ribeira was so hoppin’ that they just stayed and had a good time.

Sunday nearly, but not nearly enough, made up for the losses, as a procession of about 50 cars and vans did show up for Mass on the steps of our church here. After Mass, most of the people stayed and drank and danced and ate and bought trinkets. The acting toupe went on, the little girls group did their dance routine, and Chan di Igrejans were more or less able to salvage their dignity. In the aftermath though, it is clear that, barring abrand new road and a dramatic drop in the price of gasoline, festa di Sao Pedro will no longer be held in Cha di Igreja, which is a real shame. I count myself as fortunate for being here for what was presumably the last one ever.

What else? Well, to continue in the depressing vein, I can tell you that over on the other side of the mountain in Coculi and Povocon two weeks ago, there was a massive, 4 hour rain storm the likes of which Cape Verde has rarely seen in its history, that dumped inches and inches of precious rain all over the parched and baking slopes of Ribeira Grande. We here in Ribeira di Mocha however (where Cha di Igreja and Cruzinha are located) didn’t receive a single real drop. It misted for an hour in the morning, and there was some moisture in the air that was trying desperately to become a sprinkling, but nothing ever materialized and the day that they were soaking in Coculi, we were enjoying our typical 90 degree day without a cloud in the sky. I’ve been at site here in Cha di Igreja for 10 and a half months now, and we’ve had exactly zero days of rainfall. Folks here are still hopeful, still optimistic about our chances for rain this year, but I’m sad and scared for them, and fear that waiting for the rains will be like waiting for the cars that never came to festa Sao Pedro. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for us though…and you should too.

What else? A while back I went to Ponto do Sol to talk to the President of the kamera about getting some help forming a basketball team here in Cha di Igreja. (I’ve got a regular grou pf guys that I play with every day at 5pm here, and the towns of Povocon, Ponto do Sol and Porto Novo all have teams so I thought I’d see what I could do to get one started here.) I asked for 30,000$00CVE (about $400USD) to buy a new rim, two nets, two balls, and enough wood to make a backboard. He told me to come back next month. I will, and he’ll probably tell me to come back the month after that. Anyway, after my meeting with him I went swimming in the baia (bay) there and managed to catch 6 crabs and 2 small octopi…with MY BARE HANDS! Afterwards, standing over my twitching pile of sea-life, I definitely had that Tarzan feeling again…the seldom-realized, big-balled swaggering satisfaction that you get when you catch and kill your own dinner. Unfortunately I don’t really know how to cook that stuff though, so I gave them all away to some kids in town.

Lastly, I went to place called Tarrafal de Montrigo last week. I may have mentioned something about how gawd-awful the road was. Whatever I said, however I described it…it was way worse than that. So bad that I took a free ride on a fishing boat to another island and then another boat back to Santo Antao…choosing six hours in 2 boats over one more minute in a car on that road. The place was worth the trip though. Absolutely the most tranquil place on earth. It’s impossible to imagine a more laid back setting…and I’m from Austin, so that’s saying something.

So that’s about it for an update. I’ll try to make the most of the time I’ve got with the borrowed laptop, but pictures are going to be difficult if not impossible for a while I think, unless I can figure out something else. Assuming my insurance company comes through and gets me a new laptop, I think I should be back in business by the end of the month.

I hope everyone is well. Talk to you soon!

Friday, July 11, 2008

Dont Worry!!

So don't worry. Im alive and well...its my computer that is no longer. Its a long story, but basically I don't have a computer anymore, and the computer in my associacao is also dead, so basically that means no new blogs or photos until I'm able to arrange a new machine *I'm trying* or unless I happen to be in Ponto do Sol twhere I can use the computer in the kamera for free. Anyway, just wanted you to know that I'm ok and still hard at work and play.

I am, at this moment, in Sao Vicente on my way back to Santo Antao after a wild adventure to the town of Tarrafal in Santo Antao wihich is, definitively, the absolute end of the world, and a paradise on earth. IF you couldn't finish you're as yet unwritten novel there, you wont ever finish it. Only oproblem with that town being that to get there it takes a 2.5 hour ride in the back of a pickup truck over what is, definitively, the worst road in the long history of roads. I'm even using the term road loosely here. Actually it was more of a ditch, and even then not much of one. Anyway. once in your uin Tarrafal, you never want to leave. PArtly because its so pretty , but mostly becuase you never want to get in to the back of that truck again.

So, my buns still sore frmo the ride in to town and desparate to avoid the road, I managed to get a free ride on a fishing boat...all the way to Mindelo on the nearby island of Sao Vicente. A little over 2.5 hours on rough seas on the back of a small fishing boat is a little nauseating, but still way better than that truck and that goddam road. Tomorrow I'll get on an other *much bigger* boat and turn around and go back to Santo Antao. I DO have pictures of Tarrafal and the boat and the raod courtesy of a friend]s camera, and at some point when I'm done dealing with my insurance company, I'll get a computer and get the pictures and blogs up.

Hopefully I"ll be back in the net business soon.