“Never pass up the unusual if it is offered to one.”
Agatha Christie’s quote was a good one to remember as I stood in the customs line at Cape Verde’s Nelson Mandela Airport. What did Mandela have to do with Cape Verde?* I wondered groggily. After all, the African islands were settled by the Portuguese and about as far away from South Africa as could be. But it was 4:30 AM, and I wasn’t going to devote too much brain power to these ruminations.
As I presented my passport to the woman behind the counter, she stated something in broken English that woke me instantly. “Do you have visa?”
“No,” I responded warily. “Do I need one?”
“Yes.” Unsmiling, she beckoned to the neighboring line. “There.”
Plot twist, but not a problem… right?
Well, I soon found out I had to fork over $40 for the visa I didn’t know I’d need. And thanks to my unexpected adventures with Abdullah in Casablanca, I didn’t have enough cash on me. In fact, I was exactly $17.50 short.
The customs agent and I ran through the options. Credit card? No machine. Currency exchange desk? Closed. ATM? Broken.
Bottom line: I could stay in the airport for three hours until the desk opened, or I could leave my passport behind and return to pick it up in the morning. Neither was desirable, but in the interest of sleep, I chose the latter.
At this point, you are wondering: What was I doing in Africa? A most excellent question. I didn’t even know the full answer myself.
You see, just three days before, I’d been scrolling through my Facebook feed when a post — nearly too good to be true – jumped to my attention.
“We have 2 Full Scholarships left for my company’s study abroad program in Cape Verde next week Jan 21-28,” it read. At that moment, everything else left my mind.
As far as it depends on me, I thought, I’m doing this.
That was January 18. My boss, a veritable saint, granted permission, and three hectic days later, I jetted off. (And yes, as an entertainment and culture reporter, I missed a light news week… Trump’s first days in office, the Women’s March, the March for Life and the Sundance Festival, to name a few minor events.)
Fast forward to 4:30 am on January 22. There I was, in the airport with no internet connection and no data plan. I didn’t know how to reach Joshua, the study abroad coordinator, but after wandering aimlessly in the airport for a while, I found him. Glory be! We secured my passport, paid for that long-toiled-for visa and taxied off to the Airbnb. Then the fun really began.
When we arrived at the apartment, I was joyously greeted by my friend Rebecca, who I’d met two summers ago and hadn’t seen since. Like the kindred spirits we are, we stayed up chatting until the crack of dawn, catching up on a year and a half’s worth of life events.
After one hour of sleep, I met the other program participants – two delightful ladies from Northern Virginia! (It never ceases to amaze me that we can travel thousands of miles to meet our neighbors.)
Slowly, I came to a full understanding of the goals of the trip. Rebecca, Rocky, Anna and I were piloting a new immersion program in Cape Verde (Aprende Portuguese – check it out here). In exchange for a scholarship, we would take pictures, write social media posts and record testimonials as marketing content. It was a win-win situation.
Over the course of the week, the four amigas toured the island with our instructor Eloisa, a sweet, 33 year old Cape Verdean native. She did not speak much English, but thankfully the other girls knew Portuguese or Spanish. So rather than confining ourselves to the classroom, we immersed ourselves in culture and conversation.
Touring the streets of downtown Praia, rich with Portuguese influence, we learned about brave Amilcar Cabral who spearheaded Cape Verde’s independence.
We soaked up the sun while dining al fresco on cachupa (a traditional breakfast dish) and coffee.
With two loyal pups as our guides, we walked the streets of an abandoned village to an old Cathedral.
And in the bustling marketplace, we grinned at vendors and navigated pails of produce, marveling at the women who carried vast loads upon their brightly wrapped heads.
Each afternoon, we sunbathed on golden sands and drank in the African sun. Then we refreshed our bodies in the brisk ocean waves and our minds with deep conversation.
We even joined in on the free zumba classes that took place at dusk every evening by the seaside. Jumping and kicking to the music, our hilarity attracted indulgent smiles from the native islanders. I don’t think our behavior was quite usual for tourists.
On Thursday afternoon, the girls and I traversed the island by car to a soundtrack of lively Caribbean tunes. Starting in Praia, we passed villages, banana groves, and azure waters, dancing in our seats to the island beats.
By early afternoon, we reached Tarrafal, a breathtaking beach in the northwest corner of the island. There, we enjoyed the sun and waves, drank from coconuts and watched the sun set over the bay flanked by sailboats and a gorgeous mountain peak.
As if the trip couldn’t get any better, Joshua informed us that we had a meeting with the U.S. Ambassador the next morning! So Thursday night, we spent the night in style at a hotel in town. (This was rather necessary, as there was no hot water in our flat. Showering had been minimal, and we wished to look somewhat presentable for Ambassador Heflin.)
Mr. Heflin and his affable assistant Becky were delightful. They spent a solid hour with us, discussing Foreign Service careers, the connection between Cape Verde and the American Northeast (linked through the shipbuilding industry) and more fascinating subjects.
After that interview, we met with a young secretary in the Ministry of Defense, a sweet and humble man who told us everything we could want to know about his country. And on top of that, he presented us with a traditional cake that his mother had baked specially for us.
The friendliness of these people was truly breathtaking, making the world seem suddenly smaller and more intimate.
As a fitting close to our island experience, Becky and her coworker met us for dinner at an oceanfront restaurant where we dined on tuna steaks and sangria.
And exactly as I would have expected from the kind inhabitants of the little African country, Becky invited us to stay with her if we ever returned to Cape Verde.
And you can bet if I do, I will.
*Ambassador Heflin cleared this up for us. South Africa sought a place for its planes to refuel, but in the height of Apartheid, very few African countries wanted to partner with it. So the government made a deal with Cape Verde. If the little island country would agree to allowing South African planes to land there, the South African government would build them a world class airport. Cape Verde’s government couldn’t pass up that deal. In 2005, the airport was named after Mandela in his memory.