PRAIA, Cape Verde — Cape What? Cape Where? Cape Verde. It’s located in the eastern Atlantic Ocean some 570 kilometers (350 miles) west of Senegal. Where’s Senegal? West Africa. Where’s Africa? Mmm.
The Republic of Cabo Verde — as it is officially known — is comprised of 10 volcanic islands, each unique in shape, size, and texture, and inhabited by half a million hospitable souls.
The Portuguese settled these previously uninhabited happy isles in 1462 and Cape Verde — literally, the Green Cape — became a hub for the slave trade. Later, the likes of Charles Darwin and Sir Francis Drake stopped by. The archipelago gained independence in 1975.
Jews mainly arrived as a result of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions (1478 and 1536, respectively), but many converted to Christianity out of fear for their safety. Jews played a role in early trades, including the slave trade. Later, in the mid-1800s, Moroccan Jews freely emigrated to Cape Verde in search of economic opportunities. They came from places such as Tangier, Rabat, and Tetouan with such Sephardic names as Benoliel, Levy, Pinto, Cohen, and Wahon — names that appear in Hebrew and Portuguese on their gravestones in the 4 Jewish cemeteries that can be found here.
But the Jews who settled in Cape Verde were mainly men who, consequently, took non-Jewish wives which resulted in a rather short-lived Jewish community. Today, there are no practicing Jews there, not to mention no Jewish community, though there are potentially thousands of descendants — most of whom are likely unaware of their Jewish roots.
But not all. In fact, the first democratically elected Prime Minister of Cape Verde, Carlos Alberto Wahnon de Carvalho Veiga (1991~2000), was of Jewish descent. My contact in Praia, the nation’s hilly and comely capital on Santiago Island, was Sofia de Oliveira Lima (Wahnon Veiga), a cousin of the former PM. A lawyer by profession with a passion for historical preservation, I was unaware of her familial connections, however, until after our time together.
Long before I met Sofia, however, it was with the aid of Carol Castiel, a presenter on VOA (Voice of America) radio in Washington, D.C. and president of the Cape Verde Jewish Heritage Foundation (CVJHF), that my Cape Verde visit was really put into motion. I stumbled across the CVJHF website in a Google search in October 2013 and immediately reached out to her by email. After a couple of false starts getting to Cape Verde — due to travel logistics and then the Ebola outbreak in West Africa — I finally secured a window of opportunity, and with that, essential information and contacts in Cape Verde via Carol.
Through her hard work and commitment to seeing through the restoration of Cape Verde’s four Jewish cemeteries, she and her colleagues managed to accomplish perhaps the most surprising thing of all — funding for the restorations from…wait for it…King Mohammed VI of Morocco — upwards of US$100,000.
“Andre Azoulay, a senior Jewish adviser to the king and a member of the CVJHF advisory board, [said] that the effort is reflective of the king’s “deep commitment” to preserving Jewish heritage in Morocco and elsewhere.” — (Moroccan King Funding Preservation of Cape Verde Jewish Heritage — But to What End?, JTA (Jewish Telegraphic Agency), May 13, 2013.)
DAY 1: Praia, Santiago Island
I slept in just a bit later than normal because I had arrived in Praia from London via Lisbon just before midnight. I had time for a morning stroll before Sofia came to meet me at my hotel at the appointed time of 11:00 a.m. It’s always a pleasure — an honor, in fact — to be welcomed by someone local. Even out there, on the far-flung specs of Cape Verdean terra firma, I was given the rock star treatment.
Long awaited greetings done, our first stop was the Jewish cemetery smack dab in the middle of the sea of crosses of the Varzea Christian Cemetery. In fact, I’d already seen it — sort of. I had a distant balcony view of the cemetery from my hotel. With only 10 graves and cooperative light and weather conditions, my photo work was done in a mere 20 minutes. Had I been on my own, however, I’d likely have lingered a bit.
From the cemetery, Sofia took me for a spin up and over some rocky, barren terrain down to the coastal village of Cidade Velha. The settlement is home to the Church of Nossa Senhora do Rosario, the world’s oldest colonial church, built in 1495. The jaunt was unexpected (in fact, I was totally unsure what she had in store for me), but it was a most pleasant 30-minute excursion. We didn’t get out of the car until we stopped for a fantastic all-you-can-eat buffet lunch on a sun deck literally hanging over the sea at what appeared to be a newly-built mini-mall. In that short time, I caught a glimpse into the differences between city and rural life.
And that was it photo wise for Santiago Island. No other Jewish remnants to speak of — no old buildings, no monuments, no street names. I knew before landing that the photo ops were going to be limited in Cape Verde. Still, I always hope something unmentioned prior to arrival pops up, just not last minute with no time to fit it in. Not in this case, however.
DAY 2: Sal Rei, Boa Vista Island
My 8:45 a.m. flight on TACV (Transportes Aéreos de Cabo Verde) Airlines wasn’t much more than a puddle jump. Perhaps that is why there was zero security screening at the airport. Having become so accustomed to stringent boarding procedures, I was a little unnerved walking unfettered past the unmanned X-ray machines.
The prop plane landed 35 minutes later on the desert-like isle (hardly a “Green Cape”), and by 10:30, I was settled into my digs for my one-night stay and ready to get out to the cemetery located a 15-minute walk down a road abutted by a stunning stretch of empty beach. At the end of the road, on the doorstep of the 5-star Marine Club Beach Resort, I found the 7 graves that comprise the Jewish cemetery penned in by neatly white washed walls resting peacefully beneath the fluttering shade of palm trees. Believe it or not, I managed to take some 500 images and spend nearly an hour photographing. I’m not likely to make it back to these far-flung corners, so it’s always best to make the most of it.
I also took some photos on the adjacent beach, named Praia de David for Jewish pioneer David Benoliel who is buried there. I took off my Crocs and just enjoyed the silky sand between my toes and the cool waves lapping at my ankles. I then made my way back to my accommodation.
On the way there, I remembered there was one other place of interest to photograph — a chapel I had seen in an article about Jewish Cape Verde. Turned out, I was halfway there when I was at the cemetery. The Chapel of Fatima is located about 15 minutes walk on the opposite side of the Marine Club. So, after a bit of a rest, in the late afternoon I took a taxi as far as the hotel (the end of the road), and then took a very pleasant stroll by the rocky seaside to reach the chapel. Built by David Benoliel in memory of his Christian wife, Fatima, it was both fortunately and unfortunately under renovation (the former because restoration is important, but the latter because the scaffolding and work materials made for a terrible photo opportunity).
DAY 3: Sal Rei, Boa Vista Island to Ponta do Sol, Santo Antao Island
There used to be a tiny airport on Santo Antao, but it has been closed ever since TACV flight 5002 crashed into a hillside on August 7, 1999, killing all 18 people aboard when it encountered blinding weather conditions. Today, the island is reachable only by ferry services from the nearby island of Sao Vicente. From Boa Vista Island, however, I had to take two flights — first, a 15-minute hop to Sal Island, then a 25-minute jump to Sao Vicente, where I arrived just before noon. Upon arrival, I told the taxi driver to take me to the ferry terminal.
“There’s no ferry until 5:30,” he insisted. I had been told there was a ferry at 4:30. “The ticket office is not open,” he also asserted. “It only opens about 2 hours before departure.”
“Please take me there anyway,” I instructed. “I need to check for myself.”
And it was a good thing I did. Just as we go there — 10 minutes later — the ticket office opened. Even better? A ferry was departing at 2:00 p.m. So, I bought a ticket and then sat in the cafe inside the terminal. I reached Porto Novo village on Santo Antao Island just after 3:00 p.m. But my destination was Ponta do Sol, a village on the opposite side of the island. With luck, I was offered a ride by a local man I met in the tourist office in Porto Novo ferry terminal who just happened to be going to Ponta do Sol. For half the usual fare, he drove me in his comfortable mini-van the last hour of a long day’s journey to my hotel.
The coastal road was simply awesome, breathtaking, memorable. The terrain was ever-changing. It was first Mars-like, barren, rocky, tree-less. Here, too, I wondered just why this place was named Cape Verde (the interior of the island actually has a lush, verdant micro-climate). Then it became more hilly until it yielded cliffs that thrust straight out of the sea high into the sky above us. We clung to the edge of it all along a very well-maintained road that twirled its way twixt the peaks and villages and vistas that all felt like a fairy tale. En route, we passed two other locations I would have to backtrack to photograph — the villages of Sinagoga and Ribeira Grande.
It was 5:00 o’clock when we arrived at the hotel. I was relieved to reach the end (literally) of the road. Yet, with the summer sun loitering until as late as 9:00 p.m., I was determined not to squander the last of the day’s soft light in order to photograph the comely Jewish cemetery pleasantly perched upon a hill just a few meters from a cliff. From its glorious vantage point, the village and the world were at my feet. I stood on a platform before the cemetery into which a menorah mosaic was neatly designed. It was all so unexpected because, frankly, I really didn’t know what I would encounter at the end of any of the roads I was journeying on.
There are only 7 graves in the cemetery, but as in Boa Vista, I spent over an hour shooting some 500 images. By the time I was done, I was simply exhausted. I returned to my hotel, showered and tidied up, unloaded and backed up my images, then, around 9:00 p.m., dined al fresco down the street. I pondered the great day it had been. That night, I slept like the rock I was on.
DAY 4: Ponta do Sol, Santo Antao Island
I had a 9:15 a.m. appointment at the Camara Municipal (Town Hall) with Jorge Pires Lima, a local official whom I’d been connected to by Carol. His office was all of but a 2-minute hike from my hotel. When I arrived, he seemed surprised to see me, and, in turn, I was surprised he was surprised because I thought we had confirmed things. Seems he thought I was coming the following day.
No matter. I waited for a bit while he sorted things out. I then spent a couple of hours with his underling, Ivanilda, an amiable and earnest young woman who seemed to know just enough about the Jewish sights I wanted to photograph in the villages of Ribeira Grande and Sinagoga.
First, however, we took a stroll straight out the front doors of the Camara Municipal down Rua Direita, once (and still) the main lane and focal point of trade. It was home to at least a few Jews including Benjamin Cohen, a tradesman. I had a correct hunch the night before that the derelict stone building across from my dinner table was once his residence and shop.
We then hopped into a van with a driver who took us about 20 minutes to Sinagoga, a picturesque village set in the nooks and crannies of the mountain sides on the edge of the coast. All I had expected to find here were a few houses and a sign for the town. What I did not expect was to actually find a synagogue. In a sense, I did, but I didn’t.
The sad, trash-filled, derelict ruins of what was once clearly a substantial stone building is utterly unrecognizable as a synagogue (or much of anything). Apparently, one corner of it was once the actual synagogue and the other areas functioned as a community center of sorts, perhaps classrooms or temporary accommodations. I had mixed emotions photographing the site. I was, of course, delighted to encounter this totally unexpected synagogue — despite the village’s name. And its setting upon a rocky promontory pounded on two sides by the Atlantic Ocean could not have been more appealing. But it was all just such a disaster zone. I couldn’t understand why there was so much trash, or why a garbage truck was parked in the middle of the place. Turned out, there was some sort of party held there the night before.
“That’s awful,” I lamented to Ivanilda. “This is a religious site. It should be respected. In fact, it should be preserved if for no other reason than to develop points of interest for tourists.” She agreed.
We then strolled through the village and I took photos along the way, including several selfies next to the “Sinagoga” sign on the side of the road.
From there, we headed back to Ribeira Grande (literally, big river) to photograph the Penha de Franca Jewish Cemetery. Like the other cemeteries I had previously visited, this one, too, was beautifully maintained, and tiny — only 7 souls are interred there. There is a menorah inlaid in the stonework here as there is in Ponta do Sol. With both a driver and a guide waiting for me, I only spent about 20 minutes photographing, but I managed to get all the shots and angles I needed, and the light was just nice.
My Jewish photo work done not only in Santo Antao but all of Cape Verde, we headed back to Ponta do Sol. I then spent the afternoon editing and sorting photographs before again dining al fresco at the same table as the night before. This time, however, I knew quite a bit more about the place and those stones across the street.
DAY 5: Ponta do Sol, Santo Antao Island to Praia, Santiago Island
I had a long day ahead of me. I was tired just thinking about it. My destination wasn’t really Praia, but Lisbon, no, Madeira. In order to get there, I had to drive an hour back back to the port for an 8:30 a.m. ferry, then a 12:30 p.m. flight to Praia. This time, we flew on a 737 Boeing Jet, again with no security clearance. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to commandeer a twin prop ATR-42 plane as with my other flights, but a jet? Mmm. It felt kind of like it was all for the taking. Weird. An hour delay meant we landed at 2:30 p.m. I headed back to the same hotel I had stayed in my first two nights for several hours rest and a shower before heading back to the airport for a midnight flight to Lisbon, then a connection to Madeira early the next morning. In fact, Madeira is really not a whole lot further from Cape Verde than a puddle jump. Too bad there are no direct flights.
When I looked upon Madeira on the approach, I could have sworn I had at last reached a verde cape.
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