What are the Chances? Senegal and Cape Verde

What is the chance of meeting a Catastrophe Analyst at our hotel who can tell us our chance of getting shot while visiting Casamance in southern

What are the odds of the most famous person in
Cape Verde inviting us to her house for a beer?

What is the probability of being puked upon by a complete stranger?

Mark, the Catastrophe Analyst, started us on our musings. His job at home in
Holland is to look at satellite photos of a place over several years and predict the area's chance of floods, windstorms, and general all-round disaster. The company he works for then decides how much to charge for building insurance.

So when a guy like Mark tell us it's OK to visit Casamance, where separatists have been waging a bloody if low-grade 20-year battle to form their own country (a battle that includes spearing off a few tourists in the mid 90s), well - we believe him. Surely he did the math before his own visit, and the odds came up in his favor.

So we ignore the US State Department warning to stay out of Casamance and take a bush taxi to
Senegal's most beautiful, lush region. We pass a Senegalese tank every 20 miles and endure several army checkpoints in which the troops go through our luggage and then ask for a bribe. But they just seem to be going through the motions in the afternoon heat.

Ziguinchor, Casamance's main town, is a sleepy, palm-lined place. Donkeys pull carts along dusty roads. Grazing goats meander the streets and have to be shooed off the runway before the daily plane from
Dakar lands. Shopkeepers sit in front of their corrugated tin stalls and swat flies.

We arrange a boat tour of the area - "boat" being a euphemism for the small wooden vessel that pulls up. When Samba - the skipper - and all 10 of us tourists get in, it lists to the left and dips low in the water. We try not to think about the water streaming in from two little holes on each side, and motor off through the mangrove swamp to the
Island of Birds.

Despite its Hitchcockian name, the island is a lovely place that burns bright with color. Pink flamingos, blue kingfishers, yellow-beaked pelicans, charcoal herons, white ibises, and many more species roost along the salty
Casamance River.

The next place we visit -
Sao Vicente - is hundreds of miles away and part of Cape Verde, a nation of sun-drenched islands off the West African coast. The ambience here is different from the mainland, and more like what you'd find in the Mediterranean. (Indeed, Cape Verde was a Portuguese colony until 1975.) The streets are cobbled, edged by buildings in faded shades like pistachio, coral, sea blue, and sandy yellow. Fishing boats bob in the bay, surrounded by jagged mountains. People sit in cafes and sip espresso or rum drinks made with crushed ice, lemon, and sugar.

Cape Verde's most famous resident is the singer Cesaria Evora, who has made her living crooning about her country and its beauty. Her deep, smooth voice and and romantic songs - called coldeiras - have vaulted her to international stardom, and she tours throughout the world.

So imagine our surprise when we walk down the street in Mindelo (
Sao Vicente's capital) and see Cesaria Evora sitting on her front porch. Imagine our greater surprise when she invites us in and offers us a beer (served by a pierced houseboy in an apron).

We couldn't say much to each other directly, since we don't speak Criolo or French and Cesaria doesn't speak English. Everything had to be translated by Peter, Cesaria's 87-year-old uncle, a dapper gentleman in white linen trousers, as sharp-dressed as they come, except for his unzipped fly.

Cesaria asked why we had come to
Cape Verde, and where else we had visited in the country. As Peter relayed our answers, she listened graciously puffing on Marlboro Reds held between fingers heavy with gold rings.

At the end of our visit, Cesaria let us take photos (after telling Peter to zip up first), and then she invited us back. We are starstruck! We feel love and warmth toward all
Cape Verdeans.

Our feeling evaporates the first time we ride on a ferry between
Cape Verde's islands. First we must stand in line to buy a ticket. Only the line is more like a rugby scrum, with 50 vacuum-packed people pushing and shoving to reach the one ticket agent at the front.

That accomplished with only minor bruising, we enter another scrum to board the ferry. This one is more violent, with heavy clobbering and people screaming at each other about jumping the queue.

But it soon becomes clear why one needs to board at the head of the pack. Whether we sit on the upper deck versus the lower deck, or on the perimeter benches versus the ones in the middle, will become of utmost importance during the next hour, especially once we see our fate coming in the form of yellow plastic bags, which our fellow passengers are now pulling out of their pockets and holding close to their mouths.

Wish we could report it was the sea that was heaving as we chugged out of port, but it remained glassy. The
Cape Verdeans, on the other hand, were heaving in alarming quantities. And alas - they often missed their bags.

The air is punctured by sounds of SPLAT, BURP, and GAG and by acidic smells. Though we have good seats, we receive a windbourne hit.

Later that afternoon, as we rinse our shorts and shirts in the hotel shower, we make plans to call Mark and recommend a new opportunity in the field of Catastrophe Analysis.

Aug 2 - 12, 2003

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