Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite National Park

This image of horseback riders moving through the Tuolumne Meadows, in Yosemite National Park, was chosen to accompany Brian Handwerk's article on National Geographic (online) entitled California Road Trip: San Diego to Yosemite.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

A Fairy tale from Príncipe: How little piggy lost his bollocks

Praia Seca; a small and isolated fishing community in the remote South of the island of Príncipe. I have already been here for three days, waiting for a lift back to civilization by a boat that might never arrive: a hell of boredom in a tropical beach “paradise”. Bearing the wait with us are five fishermen, a dozen dogs, a hundred pigs and uncountable chickens. Today, however, the now familiar morning tedium is broken by the despairing squeals of a pig which has been carefully chosen among its peers by Peté, the farmer, and tied to a tree. My first guess is that the captive will not yell for much longer, or ever again, but I soon learn that he will be fine and it is “only” ( I am sure the poor animal would disagree on the choice of the term) time for him to be castrated. Satiro, my trustworthy guide, will perform the surgical operation, yet another of the many unrelated skills, which I didn’t know he possessed. I am informed that the timing is crucial, as the testicles should be removed only when the moon is full and the tide is low to ensure the minimum bleeding… While we wait for the ebb, Satiro prepares the surgical instruments (a blunt knife) and the antiseptic dressing (half a glass of palm oil and a lime). The pig, oblivious to its fate, dozes off.

The right moment soon arrives (too soon, the porker would claim). The swine wakes up, his legs are tied with a rope and while Peté sits on him to keep him still, Satiro swiftly proceeds with the operation. He grips the knife, makes two small incisions, squeezes out the testicles, twists them, severs them and the job is done. The area is then generously rubbed with oil and lime. In less than five minutes the pig is amicably sent off with a couple of smacks to his rear, its virility already a distant memory. In all of this I have a role too: I am proudly defending the freshly harvested gonads from the bold appetite of the dogs.
Later, when calm (and boredom) have been restored to the beach, and the dogs have eventually been fed with what I had fiercely defended, I take the liberty of questioning Satiro about his newly discovered talent.
-          Have you done this (i.e. castrating pigs) many times before?
-          Oh yes. People know that I can do it and they call me when they need me.
-          But you don’t have pigs yourself, do you?
-          No
-          Did you have them in the past?
-          No
-          Someone taught you?
-          No
-          So how and where did you learn?
-          I saw it done once.
Astounded by the last answer I stop questioning and he wanders off. I can’t stop thinking of how I would feel if, minutes before undergoing surgery, having asked the surgeon if he had done many of these operations before, maybe just to relieve the tension, I was to receive the following answer:
“ No, but I once saw it done on YouTube”…
Blessed was the pig in its obliviousness.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Cats in Príncipe: Eat, Pray, Love

The inhabitants of the island of Príncipe have a rather multifaceted relationship with their cats, which can be pretty much summarized in three words:

EAT: Feline meat is considered a delicacy by quite a few, but how much this practice is common or socially accepted is hard to tell. When questioned, locals would provide unconvincing and evasive answers, despite the practice being well-known.

PRAY: Cats have long been associated with mystical and supernatural powers and this is also true in São Tomé and Príncipe. Cats are kept at home or in the shop as a sentinel against evil spirits, but the animal alone is not believed to be up to the task if it is not empowered by the tying of a red ribbon around its neck.

LOVE: After all, people in Príncipe enjoy raising cats for their company and for their more practical use as a vermin deterrent. Sometimes their love might manifest in mysterious ways, like keeping the cat tied by its red ribbon for days on end as in the worst of canine nightmares. On the other hand they are brought up on the finest fish leftovers and chubby rats, of which there is no scarcity. 

Monday, 1 September 2014

African Chiaroscuro

San Joaquim: some fifty souls braced together against poverty in a few dilapidated concrete houses - leftover from, and a reminder of a “glorious” past. A time when there may have been more wealth, but it was still not allowed entry into the homes of the labourers. 
Pigs, dogs, ducks, goats and chicken share with their fellow human residents a rather small central courtyard filled with screams, swine shit, smoke and little else . Being far from the capital, somehow forgotten by the developers and politicians, nobody has ever bothered to bring electricity to San Joaquim. Thus every evening the village dozes off soon after darkness has fallen, in the await of a new day, which won’t be much different from the previous one 
But tonight is different.  Some money has been found, some petrol has been bought, to quench the thirst of the old, battered generator (the only handout from a distant government) and …“let there be light!”.

The inhabitants of San Joaquim, despite being among the poorest on the island of Príncipe, 
are also the warmest and friendliest people I met here

It is not exactly Las Vegas, but the usually bleak village is, for once, somewhat illuminated and that is enough for the unpredictable to happen. From those same smoke-stained houses from which you would expect nothing but scarcity and frugality to surface, the  inhabitants  suddenly  drag out two massive speakers, a TV and a DVD player…and let the music play! . Only a few venture out of their homes looking for an unusually late night (the generator will be turned off at 9 pm). Some of them, made bolder by some extra glasses of palm wine, dare to show their moves, while others do their best to sing along. At 21:00hrs sharp, with a precision worthy of Cinderella’s spell, the village drops once more into the dark and into silence. 

The following evening I try my luck again and walk the few hundred metres that stand between my camp and the village but all is quiet. The money has finished, the generator has drunk the last drop of petrol and any light has vanished with the sun. Darkness cloaks the village, but as I turn a corner I can make out a dim glow and some life. A small gathering of people, puppies and ducks are consuming their evening meal around a dying fire in an evocative scene, reminiscent of the play of light and shade in Caravaggio’s paintings. And for once I am glad, albeit selfishly, that power (electrical and political) has forgotten San Joaquim.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

The slope of the sea

After a long morning of work, as my trustworthy guide and I were returning to base camp, we passed through the smallest of villages, Oque Daniel. There I was ever so kindly, and albeit somewhat forcefully, offered a drink. Out of politeness and weakness I accepted a beer, as the strong-smelling crystal-clear liquid they were drinking didn't exactly look like something you doctor would advise you to have on an empty stomach as a mean of rehydration. Seconds after the first sip my fellow drinkers were deep into a number of lively discussions on a variety of topics ranging from whales to drinking, from dogs to fishing. Partially numbed by a combination of alcohol, intense heat, fatigue and boredom I let my attention come and go as the topics unfolded. Moreover the speed and excitement with which they were debating were putting a strain on my weak knowledge of Portuguese. But at a certain point the excitement obviously escalated of an order of magnitude. Shaken out of my apathy, I summoned all my Lusophone skills to understand what the new discussion was about. It took a while for the penny to drop, and retrospectively I can’t blame only my linguistic deficiencies, as it took me some extra time to believe what I was hearing. They were discussing the slope of the sea. 

Is the sea between Príncipe and São Tomé uphill or down hill? If you
ask the local  fishermen they all seem to have a different answer...

The subject of the dispute was not the depth of the waves on a stormy day as opposed to a calm one, but if the stretch of sea between the islands of Príncipe and São Tomé is, as a matter of fact, uphill or downhill! My astonishment grew as participants came forward presenting their unequivocal evidence supporting one or other theory (flatness didn't seem to be worth considering). One observant speaker reminded everyone how navigating away from Príncipe you would gradually see the island disappear in the distance starting from its base till the highest peak was the last thing you would glimpse. Clearly a sign you were ascending a slope. Others, instead, were accurately accounting for the difference in petrol needed to go either way.  As abruptly as it had started, and far from being settled, the pre-Columbian debate was brought to a halt and abandoned. It was time for them to play a game of cards, and for us to move on. As we resumed our walk to base camp I thought that if only they could go and ask the port authority, their doubts would certainly be put to rest at once …after all everyone knows that the stretch of sea to São Tomé is uphill.

Oque Daniel, Príncipe, 20th August 2014

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Africa N° 1

When I first landed on the island of Príncipe the supply of goods was guaranteed by three ships that regularly sailed to and from São Tomé. On my second visit I was told that, regrettably, one of the ships caught fire just before departing from São Tomé, but the other two were still running fine. 

Now, in my third visit, I found that one of the two remaining vessels, which goes by the wrongly promising name of African N° 1, no longer commutes between the two islands, and, due to a badly executed manoeuvre has now become a permanent landmark of Santo Antonio bay.

Santo Antonio, Príncipe, 18th August 2014

Sunday, 17 August 2014

"African" music in Príncipe

In the wake of the “Auto de Floripes” festivities, legacy of the Portuguese colonialism, I witnessed the most spontaneous and “African” expression of music I've heard so far here in Príncipe
Photo © S. Valle

Improvised musicians sing, dance and sweat to the maniacal drumming of drums, logs and metal sheets in a trance induced by fire and alcohol and rhythm.

Photo © S. Valle

Santo Antonio, Príncipe, 16th August 2014