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True Story: Santa Luzia

“Ghost Island”

According to general, if sketchy, historical consensus, the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of West Africa were discovered in or around 1456 by António de Noli and Diogo Gomes. Before this time, there were no known permanent inhabitants of the archipelago. Initially, de Noli, Gomes, and other European explorers understood the islands to be “the ancient Hesperides of Pliny and Ptolemy,” mythical islands written about in vague terms in then already ancient texts that may or may not have actually corresponded to any real geographical location. Despite de Noli’s Genoese origins, both he and Diogo Gomes claimed fealty to the Kingdom of Portugal’s Afonso V. King Afonso’s great-uncle, the Infante Henry (Henrique, known as “the Navigator”), Duke of Viseu, was the initiator and patron of all of the ambitious Portuguese seaborne journeys of the era, including this one. Along with the discovery of the Cape Verdes, other important milestones achieved by the Portuguese under the aegis of Henry the Navigator included: the conquest of Ceuta in Morocco (1415); the discovery of the Atlantic islands of Madeira (1418) and the Azores (1427); the exploration of the West African coast (1434); reaching the Cape of Good Hope, the southernmost tip of Africa (1488); the arrival of Vasco da Gama’s fleet in India (1498); and the arrival of Pedro Álvares Cabral’s fleet in Brazil (1500). These early explorations, the establishment of long-distance sea routes, and their subsequent colonial land claims and commercial networks led to Portugal’s century-long dominance (c. 1480-1580) in the triangular spice and slave trades as well as European colonization worldwide. Henry the Navigator died in 1460.


I’ve always been a bit obsessed with the concept of an island. Being from the prairie state of Illinois, the idea of living on a very finite bit of land amid a great sea was always one of the wildest, most appealing things I could imagine. There was something so nice and tidy about it – all the necessities of human life plunked down on a cozy little plot, in defiance of the vastness of the cruel and lonely ocean. For some reason I’ve always found that aesthetically and metaphysically pleasing.

You can imagine, then, how serendipitous it felt to be invited to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cabo Verde, ten bits of earth in the Atlantic not much larger than the state of Rhode Island if you somehow gathered them up and globbed them all together.

For almost three years, even beyond my Peace Corps service, I had explored this archipelago. At the time, in the early spring of 2012, this had included checking off sleepy, sun-kissed Maio, my ninth visited. And, I thought, my last, for the elusive number ten, Santa Luzia, is not only uninhabited, but also more or less inaccessible but by fishing boat (or yacht, but unfortunately I hadn’t broken into that scene).

Somehow, almost on a dare, it came up among my group of friends in the capital, Praia, to finally take a chance and make a daytrip to the 35-km2 island.

Santa Luzia is not without its share of mystique and lore among the Cabo Verdeans themselves. There have, supposedly, been tiny communities of inhabitants on the island starting from the 18th century, some reportedly as recent as the early 20th. But little is documented and even less remains to prove the specifics of any permanent settlement. Legend has it that a lone goat shepherd roamed the sparse and rugged hills with his flock until he died, some say ten years ago, others more recently. One Praia shopkeeper reported to a friend that Santa Luzia was not to be visited whatsoever: It’s the psychic trash dump of the Kriolu people, he warned, where only bad memories and ancient but not-quite-forgotten miseries dwell. An island of ghosts.

Despite (or maybe also because of) these omens, we quickly became committed to making the trip.

Our plans came together with little to no real planning. Four friends and I made the flight up to Mindelo on São Vicente island on a Friday night in late April. There we met Cathryn, another friend and future business partner whom I knew from my Peace Corps training group back in 2008. Because it was clear that we, the Santiago contingent, hadn’t really done much logistical planning beyond “Let’s go to Santa Luzia,” Cathryn and her now husband, Ten, born and raised in Mindelo, quickly arranged a van to the fishing village of Calhau, on São Vicente’s northeast coast. From there, two small boats would whisk us off for a day trip on the tiny island.

After a relatively early night of pizza and mugs of Strela, the soapy national beer, at Mindelo’s Restaurante Cocktail, we all arose at sunrise in our respective lodgings and then congregated at the Hotel Porto Grande in Mindelo’s small but scenic downtown. There were now 11 of us in total as we had shanghaied a few stray Peace Corps volunteers into joining us while hitting the town the night before. We hurriedly stopped at the local grocery store for fruit, lunch meat, charcoal, water, and other provisions. Then we were off to Calhau in the chartered van.

We arrived about 30 minutes later to find a sleepy, seemingly rarely visited village. We stood there like clueless schlubs as our guides – eight wizened sea salts – appeared and began silently loading their two wooden boats with all the tools and equipment necessary for their day’s work. Suddenly, one of the fisherman yelled at us tourists in the (to me) mostly unintelligible northern dialect of Cape Verdean Creole known as Sanpadjudu: Let’s go! That was clear enough from the hand gestures, anyway. Four of us, including myself, scrambled into the first, smaller boat along with an equal number of fishermen. We immediately pulled out of the small port by oar, giving the other seven friends and their respective four fishermen wide berth. As our crew hoisted their mast, seemingly out of nowhere, and set sail, the adrenaline rush of adventure began to truly set in.

These boats, I also soon came to realize – aside from being completely handmade – were powered in as many ways possible: by oar, sail, and, to make it through oncoming waves, outboard motor. But as we were to further discover, each method was completely necessary for making this relatively risky run to Santa Luzia and back.

Spending a bit of time with the fishermen, I also very quickly recognized the practical wisdom and stoicism of such people who make their living from the sea. These were not glamorous people. They were not cutesy, tourist-friendly yokels who would do a dance for our enjoyment. They were mighty and confident in their movements, not needing to mince words when the time came to furiously row against a swell or hoist a sail. They were wholly unlicensed and unregulated to be shuttling us out to the island like they were. They barely even spoke to each other, much less to us. But even after a mere half hour on the open water, I felt that I not only respected but trusted them.

The speed of the other, larger boat became apparent as it too set sail and almost immediately overtook us. From the look of it, the seven whiskey-swilling scalawags aboard our sister ship seemed to be having a much rowdier time than us as they first approached and then, to the tune of AC/DC blasting from a portable sound system, mooned us as they passed. With or without cocktails, I was loving every second of this tranquil trip to sea, the mid-morning sun shining down as the tarp-blue sail caught the wind. It felt like something out of the age of Antony and Cleopatra, like sailing the Mediterranean between Rome and Alexandria…until one of the fishermen took a hearty whiz in the bail bucket and I snapped right out of it. Just as well.

After another half hour or so, both sets of fishermen brought out the outboard motors for their boats, signaling that we were nearing the rough surf of Santa Luzia. We buzzed around the island’s western and then southern shores, passing what looked to be an old settlement of some sort, if anything just an enclosure for goats, perhaps.

We made our way around the southern side of the quasi crescent-shaped island until we came to the fisherman’s landing, a small white-sand beach suitable for boats to drop their passengers or to shore up for the night after a day’s fishing. Our respective crewmen hurriedly shooed us out of the boats and landward as to avoid the violent surf as best possible. As quickly and unceremoniously as we had arrived, the fishermen hove back out to sea to begin the day’s fishing.

We had arrived. Yang, a passenger on the other boat, shouted, “Congratulations! Your tenth island!” and gave me a hug. Though it seemed anticlimactic at the time, aside from writing stories about it this milestone later turned out to be useful: I would regularly use it as a credential to sell package tours in Cabo Verde to American and European tourists.

We all took a few minutes to wander around the vicinity of the landing beach. Just above the surf, beyond a pair of derelict refrigerators left on their sides to store fish, was a cluster of small, low-lying rock shelters. Lined with old, battered sleeping bags and blankets, these warrens were just large enough for a human to crawl in, lie down, and sleep.

Above this spot and a bit to the left was a small but permanent altar adorned with a cross. One in our group, Rachel, opened the altar’s glass door and, using my body as a windshield, managed to light one of the candles inside with a lighter. Near the altar is what appears to be a fisherman’s grave, dated 1997. Further to the left, about 20 paces, is a monument erected in 2008 by the Cabo Verdean government, declaring Santa Luzia a natural reserve, which also confirmed that we were probably if not definitely not supposed to be there without official permission. The monument included a statue that looked like an esoteric hybrid of a soldier and a bird which seemed fitting considering the island’s ground sparrows have almost no fear of humans, aggressively alighting on us from time to time to swipe crumbs of our food.

We lingered around on the beach long enough for the five ladies of our party to set up their lay-out stations under the sun. But the men – minus Ten, who had more practical things to do like catch fish – were restless (and in some cases, respectably liquored up from the ride over). As Ten headed out to sea with a speargun, the other five of us young bucks – by passport three Americans, one dual American/Cabo Verdean, and a Portuguese – marched towards the nearest mountain-like mass with no directive other than to explore and conquer.

I began to follow Jason, the dual citizen, who grew up in upstate New York but has lived in Praia since 2007. One of the drunkest of our quintet, he was at this point clad only in a pair of old boxer shorts and gym shoes. I was cold-sober so I figured I’d stay close by to make sure he didn’t fall off the edge of a cliff. Will, a U.S. Army veteran who had until the month before been my boss, had already taken a big lead, his military training coupled with a bellyful of booze egging him on towards infinity. But after about ten minutes I lost interest in playing Gallant to my friends’ Goofi; it was clear that this was not going to be an easy hike.

Finally, after what must have been over two hours of grunting and sweating our way up the dusty mountain, we reached its highest peak. Coming in last place, I found Jason seated comfortably in an osprey’s giant nest of twigs, old rope, and driftwood. I imagined the momma bird’s reaction if she came back right at that moment. We looked around at the view, São Vicente to one side, the scenic islet of Ilhéu Branco to the other. We had reached the summit. The men were triumphant.

After a spell of highly inappropriate, testosterone-fueled conversation and general macho posturing, we assessed the task at hand: getting the fuck down. We finally decided to descend on the opposite face we had climbed. Easier said than done, we discovered as we started: that particular side was littered with sharp, jagged rocks in its various dried-up streams, leading into deceptive ribeiras below as the terrain gradually sloped into the beach and then back under the ocean.

Previously triumphant, Jason was now ornery and befuddled as we began, traipsing and tripping down boulders and broken fragments of geology. “Damn it! We need a warp tube!” he shouted about a half hour in. The man was taking his fair share of scrapes and tumbles, his boxers now little more than a glorified loincloth. I did my best to encourage my friend while simultaneously attempting to not break either of my own ankles.

After another hour and a half of this precarious, downward hiking, Jason and I finally reached the pristine beach below. We were scraped, bruised, and a bit bloodied from the hard, slow slog. But we were again victorious. Our three other companions were already reveling in the turquoise surf like schoolboys in the first hours of summer vacation. Jason and I ran through a tide pool, quenching our aching feet as he stripped down to his birthday suit, released from the throes of hiking hell.

We swam around in the surprisingly rough waves for a while, basking in the glory of defeating such a big-ass mound of dirt and rocks. The sand was fine and soft and the water was among the most refreshing and beautiful I’ve encountered in the archipelago, including the well-trafficked beaches of Sal, Boa Vista, and Maio. It more than made up for the mighty schlep we had just voluntarily put ourselves through.

After a good half hour of playtime in the sea, the five of us got out and started the walk along the beach back to the fisherman’s landing and what we hoped would be a lunch of Ten’s fresh-speared catch. As we strolled, Jason remained shamelessly butt-naked.

We were only back long enough at our starting point to paw a few handfuls of Ten’s freshly grilled fish into our hungry mouths, take a few more photos, and regale the ladies with our tales of derring-do when our fishermen suddenly returned to the surf with their two boats. Just as they had booted us ashore, they hurriedly barked for us to get back in. Somehow, all 11 of us managed to get our gear together and place ourselves safely in the same boats we had embarked on.

In a word, the sea on the way back was rough. It was necessary to use the outboard motors instead of the sails the whole way, as we were now heading directly into the wind on our way back to Calhau. I was seated starboard aft (that’s the back right side to landlubbers like me before I looked it up) and so caught almost all of the major waves right in the face as they sploshed into our tiny wooden craft. The fishermen, being approximately 5,000 times more practical than any of us day-trippers, had of course come prepared and quickly donned their full-body raincoats. I was more or less willing to take the brunt of the sea’s fury for the rest of my three other woefully underdressed friends. But as we finally pulled into Calhau’s little harbor and I tripped and fell into the surf getting out of the boat, the chill of almost two hours of exposure to wind and water set in. I shivered and my teeth began to audibly chatter. (My ordeal was uncomfortable, for sure, but nothing in comparison to the horrors thousands have encountered to date. I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like for the refugees who have, in recent years, crossed or attempted to cross the Mediterranean and other rough seas in boats not much different than these in search of a better life.) A few minutes after we landed, somebody offered me a fleece vest and a pano cloth and I eventually started to warm up, extremely grateful to be back on dry land.

As we posed to take one last photo as a group and then dragged ourselves into the waiting van back to Mindelo, we were all exhausted and a little loopy. But we knew what we had done was somehow special and definitely worth the effort. Even if it was just to visit a dry, quiet little patch of dirt in the middle of the Atlantic, we had gone to a place where most never consider on account of its remoteness. This felt both dangerous and rare. We had seen with our own eyes a tiny bit of land that most only hear about in passing every once in a long while. We had found, and made, if only for a few hours, a little living world out of a ghost island.