With no lighting on the roads, the taxi ride to our hotel gave away little if anything about the largely flat, barren, semi-arid environment of Sal. Only the two beams of light from the taxi’s headlights shone out onto the road ahead as we hurtled along at a speed I’d rather not have known. It was at this point I reached for my seat belt, pulled it across me and fumbled around patting the seat trying to buckle it into something that apparently had been ripped out. Welcome to Cape Verde: no
Sal (meaning “salt” in Portuguese) is only 30 km long and 12 km wide and is one of the ten Cape Verde islands located in the Atlantic Ocean, approximately 400 kms off the coast of Senegal. It is the island most heavily geared towards tourism and there were plenty of new construction developments happening while I was there. Between the deserted scrubland were large-scale building sites for new resorts. In a few years time I fear Sal will not be the same.
On our first evening, we soon realised that hotel entertainment was not going to cut it. There was a man walking around playing a sax in one of the bars, people sitting and relaxing on the hotel grounds and a game of Portuguese football playing on the TV at another bar. If it had been Match of the Day, I may have thought twice about staying at the hotel, but aside from rendering myself paranoid and hyperactive with an overdose of never-ending sugar-infused non-alcoholic cocktails or eating my money's worth out of the all inclusive snacks, we were going to explore the nightlife!
So we asked the hotel staff (who largely seemed to be aged 18-30 something) what the nightlife was like outside of the hotel and where we could experience authentic Cape Verdean music, entertainment and culture. I say “we asked”, but I don’t speak a word of Portuguese, apart from “claro” and a handful of completely inappropriate and irrelevant phrases, which didn’t get me very far, so my Portuguese-speaking friend did all the talking. Santa Maria was the answer that came our way and so we jumped into a taxi and headed into the nearby town of Santa Maria a 5 minute drive away, making note to take a photo of the lack of seat belt buckles in the back seat, startling the driver with the camera flash. God only knows what he thought of the two foreigners giggling uncontrollably while taking a photo of the seat of his taxi!
The taxi dropped us off in the middle of the town on the main road and we wandered along the vibrant street, finding a lively little restaurant called Milu di Funana where we sat in the square beside a family where two children were dancing to the live music playing in the restaurant. A small gathering formed under a tree and couples danced while the melodies flowed. Local dogs milled about- you know the kind of dog that probably had an owner, but would certainly be offended by being called somebody's pet! Those type of dogs in non-Western countries with a lawless confidence, rolling deep in packs of 4 or more, were patrolling the square and generally seemed to be chilling out enjoying the Saturday night entertainment as much as the humans!
We moved on along the main road and walked passed some touristy shops largely owned by Senegalese traders, which were still open and what looked like an empty bar/ club called Pub Calema. It was so early (10.30pm), the dance floor was occupied only by an enthusiastic group of Italian over 60s, shimmying and shaking to contemporary kuduro- it was sweet. We ordered drinks and decided to sit outside for a little while to take in whatever was passing by through Santa Maria.
Just as we thought we had stumbled onto the least lively of establishments, younger people started arriving and the over 60s beat a hasty retreat as these loose-hipped youths started to take over the dancing with an altogether more rhythmic and fast-paced kind of movement. The shutters that had allowed the music to spew out into the streets were closed to deter the local law enforcement from issuing warnings about noise pollution and the volume was increased- we headed inside.
Disco strobe lights were in full effect and I now noticed the altogether quirky surroundings: some of the walls were painted bright mustard, some vinyls were embedded in another wall, a wind surfing board was attached to the ceiling above the bar, a small DJ booth on a slightly raised podium, which was occupied by a guy who looked very serious about his work and a poster that read:
“Culture is simultaneously the fruit of a people’s history and a determinant of history.”
It wasn’t until midnight that the place came alive and not only did the cockroaches come out, but with the arrival of European male tourists, my friend and I began to notice a few of the women who had been sitting at the bar earlier in the night approaching these newcomers, making a great deal of effort to fraternise via suggestive pelvic gyrations and over-familiar touching. I nudged my friend and we both agreed these women were prostitutes and wondered whether we had chosen the right place to spend the evening. We watched as they left to get better acquainted with the men and then returned later on for new punters.
The DJ laid down a superb selection of up-tempo kuduro and funana, and later on some kizomba and the sporadic Rihanna song, which seemed to be popular among the locals. Unlike London clubs, there was no entry fee at Calema and seemingly no security on the door, so large groups of men who entered were not turfed out. As you can imagine, with the great music and no restrictions on the door, Calema was eventually heaving with bodies dancing to the music. One man, who reminded me of Fat Man Scoop was jumping up and down on the cushioned seating area lining the club whenever a song he really liked came on, while groups of guys showed off their intricate foot-work or chivalrously asked a lady to dance.
My friend and I marvelled at the uninhibited but coordinated expressions of joy and gusto exuding from all the dancers, which didn’t seem to be fuelled by alcohol. We agreed that since they work hard, they must also rightly find time to play hard too! And we chuckled at the guys wearing woolly hats and bomber jackets with the arms cut out- it was hot in there! But that was the best bit, there was no dress code and no one was going to get thrown out for wearing trainers or a hoodie (which is what most were wearing). Male, female, young, old, tourists, locals, disabled and the able-bodied partied the night away into the early hours of the morning in great spirits. The only criticism I have of the night life was that smoking indoors is not banned and so my hair and my clothes reeked.
TO BE CONTINUED... but meanwhile enjoy one of my favourite songs played at Calema (below).
"DJ solta as galinhas!" translates to "DJ, release the chickens!"