A kite down memory lane
Updated: Feb 28, 2021
Back in 2000 the world was a very different place. Tony Blair’s ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ government was enjoying a honeymoon first term. Playing Snake on a Nokia 3310 was a national pastime - Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston a global obsession. Iphones, Facebook, Amazon, Google were unheard of. Steve Redgrave won his fifth Olympic gold, Denise Lewis her first. Big Brother’s Nasty Nick hit our screens for the first time. England failed to make it through the group stages of Euro 2000. And a young, much slenderer 20-year-old from north London became the first manager of Club Mistral Sal, Cabo Verde.
Having scraped through Durham with a more than generous pass degree in Biological Sciences (largely because the University could not bear damage to its standings in national tables) I had spent the summer working on the stunning Dingle Peninsula in Ireland – calling a lifeguard hut on Inch Strand home. Returning to London a fully qualified beach bum I took a lofty job in media sales working for an educational publisher. It was soul destroying, but I proved rather good at the gobby sales bit. I recall vividly receiving an email on a dreary November afternoon asking me to call Rene, the Ops Director of Club Mistral – the world’s leading windsurf holiday company based in Weilheim, Germany.
“We’ve been looking at your CV Ed. We’d like to offer you a position with Club Mistral”.
“Ausgezeichnet” I replied enthusiastically attempting to qualify my CV statement of fluent German (D at AS-level).
“With 2,000 hours as an RYA windsurfing instructor, 2 summers teaching in the West of Ireland and as a qualified Beach Lifeguard with powerboat license – we thought Kap Verden would be the perfect place for you”.
“Naturlich” – one-word responses were safest at this point I thought.
“Great – so let’s arrange for you to pop over to Munich for a few days meet the office team, get a briefing, and collect some gear?”.
“OK” – trying to act cool and forgetting my German expletives.
“So, send us your passport details, we’ll sort the flights and see you next week.”
Returning to my desk I jumped on to ‘Ask Jeeves’ (yes that was the search engine) and queried ‘Kap Verden’. The English translation of Cape Verde left me none the wiser. Staring at a map online I finally pin-pointed the small island of Sal nestled amongst the Cabo Verdean archipelago 1500km south of the Canaries, 600km off the coast of Senegal. Enlarging the map (no zoom function pre-Google maps), I located the tiny fishing village of Santa Maria – my new home for the next year.
I promptly handed in my notice and ventured home to educate my parents on a country I had only just discovered that afternoon.
I had always recounted to Katherine fond memories of Cabo Verde - the warmth of its people, simple pleasures, and utter vibrancy – sharing candidly that the year I spent there had unequivocally been the happiest of my life. Katherine was 5 months pregnant when we first ventured to Boa Vista in 2015 (my refusing to go to Sal for fear of eradicating memories and replacing them with images of over-indulging sunburnt tourists). We returned in 2016 with Zeb so that Katherine could finally gorge on tuna carpaccio and caipirinhas. Oz made his first foray in 2019. Having settled the family on Boa Vista for two months, Katherine finally convinced me a trip back down memory lane would be no bad thing, particularly given the lack of tourists. Thus, one Thursday afternoon at the end of term in December we found ourselves waiting for the weekly boat to Sal.
Two vessels connect Boa Vista with the other islands in the archipelago – the slow boat, a 1970s roll-on roll-off ferry taking 24 hours to travel from Sao Vicente in the western Barlavento (northern islands) via San Nicolau, Sal and Boa Vista. And the fast boat (fondly referred to as the ‘sickie’) – a high-speed catamaran which links Sal in the North, to Santiago in the Sotavento (southern group), via Boa Vista. We opted for the catamaran cutting the crossing from four hours to one and a half.
The normally sleepy port of Sal Rei (one breakwater shielding a few wooden fishing boats bobbing on homemade buoys in the azure waters, and the occasional visiting yacht) becomes a hubbub of activity whenever a ferry arrives. Impatient passengers jostle with hopeful taxi drivers seeking their next fare. Bored Police set up makeshift borders and customs controls whilst cattle bray on the back of flatbeds. Cool boxes of fish, goats’ cheese and other treats are thrust into the hands of anyone willing to courier them between families on different islands.
As CV Interhilas drew alongside an ambulance whizzed by promptly depositing one of the island’s nurses on the dockside. As she donned PPE, we formed an orderly queue ready to pass the 8 pieces of paper declaring we were indeed Covid-free before having our temperatures taken on a digital thermometer. Bags disinfected by a garden sprayer, we stepped aboard to be greeted by an ominous smell – a potent combination of body odour and vomit. Our worst fears were confirmed when a steward handed out plastic bags to each passenger with a knowing smile. As the boat rounded the breakwater into the open Atlantic the engines revved to maximum power catapulting us over, and sometimes through, the four-meter swells. The motion placed Oz and Zeb into a regressive womb-like coma, whilst Katherine became familiar with the boat’s nickname. As she reached for a second bag, I settled in to watch Contagion playing in Portuguese on the ship’s screen – the boys’ heads resting deliriously on each leg.
Arriving in to Palmeira port on Sal, we jumped into a taxi and headed south on a smooth tarmac road. Where previously there had just been deserted beach, an entire new town, Villa Verde, comprising hundreds of condominiums and fancy new beach front resorts had sprung up. Entering Santa Maria we passed Pirata – my old night club haunt – but that was the only familiar landmark. The quaint fishing town of colonial houses was now unrecognizable to me. New multi-story apartments crowded the village centre, the once dusty main street was now an immaculate pedestrianized zone which could have been dropped from any European resort. The three hotels which had been scattered along Santa Maria’s 4 km main beach were too numerous to count and included a casino. It was all somewhat discombobulating.
Katherine had been right though, we couldn’t have timed the trip better. It was if we had emailed Cabo Verde’s Minister of Tourism ‘Ed’s coming, close the island, make it his’. All the resorts were closed, beach bars shuttered, and we were the only customers in the few restaurants in town which had remained open. Two days before Christmas when there would typically be 100,000+ tourists enjoying all that Sal has to offer - we had our pick of infinity pools and miles of deserted beach. We ventured to the botanical gardens – another addition since my time – run by an Italian and Argentinian who have been cultivating trees and plants for the proposed golf course development on the island since 2005. Getting impatient waiting for planning permission (which has finally been granted) – they opened their plantation to the public in 2018. Today we had the Kew Garden oasis to ourselves.
Kitesurfing was in its infancy when I was last on Sal in 2001. Now on the East Coast at the aptly named Kite Beach, I found my friends Mitu and Djo – both World Champion kitesurfers and now household names – running their station. Mitu recently achieved the crazy feet of kiting solo between all the islands of Cabo Verde. As Djo and I reminisced about days of yore, Titik one of my team at Club Mistral (and Cape Verdean national champion) bounded across the beach kite in hand, giving me a massive fist pump before commenting on the size of my belly since we last met. It was one of those rare moments in life where you feel time has stood still – even if waistbands haven’t.
Sitting on the doorstep of ‘Squeeze’ a street bar which served as my nocturnal home for 12 months I reminisced with Katherine as the boys held an impromptu micro-scooter challenge. Sipping my Kriola beer (one of the few things that hasn’t changed in 2 decades), I wondered how we might bottle the elixir that makes Cabo Verdeans who they are.