It’s been exactly a week since we boarded the Magellan and during that time we have got to know our evening dinner partners reasonably well. Unlike, the couple who we shared a table with on our last cruise and who also just happen to be on this cruise, they are unfortunate to have been allocated a table of bores and social misfits (their words). We share a table with two very interesting couples. Barry and Ruth are in their youthful 80’s and live in Bicester, not far from where Ken and Chris used to live before moving to Spain. Occasionally, the conversation centres around the village pubs, theatres and other local attractions that they share fond memories of from their youth.
Barry was an engineer, rising to chief engineer with Lucas before setting out on his own little business of building and repairing vintage cars. Jun has obviously travelled extensively. Both are great company and have a very dry sense of humour. Barry is obviously quite ill. He has lost 30% of his lung capacity, carries a nebuliser and is on a daily bucket load of medication, he quickly gets short of breath during any activity. June, on the odd occasion when Barry hasn’t been able to make it to dinner, blames it on his past heavy smoking habit and professes that he only has himself to blame.
Ken and Chris live in a large isolated property in Southern Spain. He owned an advertising and publication business which he sold in order to retire abroad. They love where they are now and unlike our friends who live in foreign climbs, cannot contemplate returning to the UK. They will eventually downsize but will remain in Spain in a more accessible location. Ken took to writing to fill up his time and I believe has made quite a successful second career writing children’s books, though on this cruise he is hoping to complete a novel that he started 10 years ago. Good luck with that.
Both Barry and Ken have a love of vintage cars, their knowledge on the subject is phenomenal. Barry has an Aston Martin and Ken had a frog-eyed Sprite (whatever that is). I have a rather uninteresting Fiesta and Sue has a Suzuki.
I don’t think we could have picked a better group of people to dine with, we are invariably the last table to vacate the dining room, often leaving our cheerful but exasperated waiters well after 11pm.
We slid into the port of Mindelo during breakfast, with the first passengers allowed to disembark after the necessary ship’s permissions had been given at 9am. We had decided to join a tour that would take us to see more of this island than just its capital, so our departure wasn’t until 10.30am.
Sao Vicente is one of ten largish islands in the archipelago with only one of them being uninhabited. All similarly volcanic, we are told that they each have very different natures, from the very arid to the very green. Sao Vicente is one of the former, having received no rain for the last four years, with the wet season being form November to February. There are no watercourses on the island, those having dried up centuries ago. All food stuffs and water are imported and not surprisingly its a very poor island, totally dependent on tourism as it has no viable export products or any future prospects of having any.
The islands were discovered and colonised by the Portuguese in 1462 and flourished as a stopping off port for the slave trade, however, this was curtailed drastically by the British, who in the 19th century discovered coal on the island and exerted their substantial colonial power.Their influence can be seen in the architecture and system of governance. At it’s height Mindelo was servicing 1300 ships a year.
The island is described as having a wild and rugged beauty, harsh, dry and barren. I do not disagree.
We boarded our rather basic transport, a 20 seater coach, lacking air-conditioning and seats not of a size to match the average European posterior. There were 12 coaches in all, embarking on this trip! It was to be a convoy.
After motoring along the sea frontage to briefly witness the fish market, statues and bustling side streets, our first stop was in the centre of Mindelo at the indoor craft and food market to join a crocodile of fellow passengers and hear about its history and customs from our local guide. It was here that we came across Ken and Chris who had sensibly opted to ‘do it themselves’ and wander around the town during our very brief stay in port.
Driving out of the town we caught fleeting glimpses of several historical sights that deserved closer inspection, but as our tour descriptive title intimated, “A glimpse of Sao Vicente”, I guess we were getting what we paid for.
There are few roads outside of the main town, but they are in much better condition than many of those back home. There are few privately owned cars. Passing settlements looked decidedly ramshackle, sparse on the ground and principally connected with fishing, occasionally there was some evidence that tourist money was making an impact with the odd modern Mediterranean style building flashing by.
The terrain is certainly rugged with arid, towers of rock scratching the sky throughout most of its 16km by 4km expanse. Little or no signs of vegetation could be seen, except the occasional scraggy herb clinging onto life.
Our next stop was at Catfish Bay, a pleasing bay of golden sand and wave splashed rocks. We were given a short time to wander and take photographs, it was nice to feel the warmth of the sun and coupled with a cooling breeze it was a much more pleasant experience than bowling along in a cramped coach passing by scenery that a pessimist would probably describe as akin to driving through a building site, piled high with dusty rubble but devoid of buildings.
Most of the year the island suffers from winds that blow from the Sahara Dessert and as such the air is full of fine dust. Not great for photographers, as shots of any distance are blurred by its dry mist. But more worryingly, the conditions may eventually prove lethal for any asthma sufferers.
Photographs taken (hurriedly), we moved on just a short distance to a small group of tidy buildings where we were given drinks and snacks. The snacks were authentic local delicacies and reflected the simple tastes and generosity of many of the cultures that Sue and have had the privilege to experience over the years. Of the many tit-bits we tried, those that had small slabs of goats cheese propped on top, had any flavour (mostly of cheese!). A variety of drinks were offered; water, fruit juices, local beer and Grog. Grog is made from fermented sugar cane, exceeds 60% (variable) in alcohol and I have no idea how it tastes as for once I heeded the advice of our guide and drank the beer. I vaguely remember that pirates drank a lot of Grog and most of them suffered from raspy voices and came to a sticky end.
Two outlandish and green, elaborately dressed ladies posed for us to take photos, they couldn’t possibly have been in local dress and my guess is that as Carnival was popular on the island, these were examples. As we nibbled our snacks we were further entertained by a three piece band supporting two couples in much simpler dress who danced a variety of dignified reels. This turned out to be the highlight of my day. And, I didn’t touch the Grog!
As the slower buses in our cavalcade arrived, we moved on. First stopping at another beach, then again to walk across some sand dunes, before turning off the tarmacked highway onto a cobbled route that wound its way precariously up one of the mountains. The idea was to get a superb view of the island, especially Mindelo and of our cruise ship. As previously mentioned, the Sahara and the prevailing winds play a big part in the climate of this island, so there can’t be many days in the year when tourists who bounce their up this mountain, in grunting, diesel spewing buses got a clear view of anything. We didn’t!
We arrived back at the ship 25 minutes later than scheduled, most of our convoy had still to return so it was no surprise that we left port rather late.
Thoughts on Sao Vicente: Despite being very poor, its inhabitants are very welcoming, cheerful and relaxed. I would think that spending any length of time within their company would be an experience to be treasured. However, the island that they call home, drastically limits their horizons. they are desperate for more of the world to come and visit, more importantly to spend money there and help raise their standard of living. Fuerteventura is a direct comparison, it also has to ship 100% of its water and food onto the island, yet it is situated much closer to prosperous Europe. Financiers, hotel chains etc. are attracted because they know that location and climate are key to making a profit in the travel business. I think that the investment needed to put Sao Vicente on the plus side of a profit margin is just too great. There are plans to build a 5* hotel complex that would be all inclusive on the island, but I ask who would come? Certainly not the asthmatic, certainly not the adventurous, they stay away from ‘all inclusive’. We saw the best that the island has to offer and frankly there isn’t much, other than people living at subsistence level with a basic infrastructure. Yes, this is attractive to some, but they tend not to spend oodles of money. Even the locals recognise this and don’t want the hotel as they know that the money will not go into their economy, it will go abroad. Well, we experienced the island for just 5 hours and it is regrettable to say that, it doesn’t have enough to offer sophisticated European travellers to want to visit more than once and for a limited time. Perhaps the closer African market may be a more viable option or even the Chinese as they seem to have their fingers in the pie too. I wish them luck, but Sue and I won’t be returning.