Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Praia from behind the wheel

Ever heard of a Capital City with practically no traffic congestions, no traffic lights and no trouble finding parking space? A city where most roads are made of cobble stones? A city where most cars are well-kept and meticulously clean? No? The city is called Praia, Capital of Cape Verde. However, some of these unique characteristics are about to change.

Praia is a small city – a friend I met visiting from India actually compared Praia with the size of a university compound outside Calcutta where she studied. Limited size can have its drawbacks when it comes to cities – but one of the big advantages is definitely that traffic can be kept under control. Unlike in other Capitals cities in the world, serious traffic jams are extremely rare here, and it is generally no hassle to drive around. No congestions, no car-jackings, no car-thefts.

One of the few annoyances you are likely to experience is hordes of would-be car-cleaners, eager to wipe your vehicle free from dust and “protect” it while parked in return for a modest donation (regardless whether your car is clean or not, and that it is not clear at all why it would need protection in the first place).

Apart from that, the only thing to be really concerned about is probably safety – as in all parts of the world when it comes to car traffic. But even on this aspect, my guess is that Praia is better off than many other cities. While it would be an exaggeration to say that people in general drive well here (the large number of car dents and scratches speak for themselves), at least there is a tendency to drive slowly, thereby minimizing the risk for more serious accidents. This is in stark contrast to for example Kenya, where drivers tend to be completely reckless, leaving it “up to God” who will make it to the end stop and who won’t.

Compared to the miserable state of car fleets I have seen in some other major African cities, such as Dakar, Dar Es Salam or Nairobi, where even new cars and taxis are worn out quickly due to poor maintenance and reckless driving, Praia’s cars are strikingly modern, expensive, well-maintained and clean. Toyota is the most popular car brand here, and when taking a tour in Praia it is likely that the first vehicle you will encounter is a large Prado or Hilux, a beige Corolla taxi, or a Hiace minibus (popularly called “Yass”), cramped with people.

I am actually quite puzzled over the great number of flashy 4WD:s to be seen here, knowing that the average Cape Verdean will probably never be affluent enough to own a car, let alone a new one. Also considering the high importation taxes and transportation costs, making a car about 30-50% more expensive than in Europe. Who can afford to buy such cars? When asking around, people shrug their shoulders, some of them alluding to drug money and money laundering, others to lucrative tourist investments (fortunately, customs corruption is not mentioned).

Whatever the explanation, there is no doubt that the number of cars on the streets of Praia are growing rapidly, and therefore the unique absence of traffic chaos might soon be but a memory. When I arrived here two years ago, I almost never experienced traffic jams, and I rarely had troubles in finding parking lots. Nowadays, there is more often than not a waiting time at most major cross-roads, as cars line up from all directions, and finding a parking space is sometimes more difficult than it used to be, especially on the Plateau which is rather cramped with people during daytime.

As it happens, I was actually fined for careless parking in the Plateau, while doing some grocery shopping at the main market place. At first, I was of course quite unenthusiastic about receiving the ticket. I had not really expected to get a parking fine in Cape Verde, as I thought that the police would have other priorities, and people generally tend to park their cars rather wildly here. But then I chose to apply a more positive approach on the matter. Not to say that I was jubilant about paying the fine (5.000 escudos, a considerable amount by most standards), but I saw it as a positive sign that the traffic police is active, since it might encourage drivers to drive safer and follow the law. For instance, the police will (hopefully) not only issue parking tickets but also abate drunk-driving, which is a big concern here, especially weekends (I personally try to avoid driving Fri/Saturday nights and Sat/Sunday mornings to minimize the risk of being rammed by a drunkard).

But more cars on the streets of Praia is not the only indication that traffic is increasing. Another sign is the growing number of tutoring cars. Nowadays, it is almost impossible drive around in Praia without being stuck for a while behind a slowly moving vehicle with the sign “Instrucao” or “Exame” on the roof. The interest among Cape Verdeans in obtaining a drivers’ license seem to be booming.

Besides from the absence of traffic jams and very old and worn down cars, the relative ease with which you will find a parking lot, and the number of tutoring cars and aggressive car-cleaners, there are also a few other ways in which Praia distinguishes itself from behind the wheel.

One is the complete absence of red lights. I have only seen two sets of traffic-lights in the whole of Praia – and none of them works! I admit that, for the moment, traffic lights are really not needed, but given recent developments this is probably about to change. My guess is that the authorities soon need to reconnect the few lights that are in place, and maybe install a couple more.

Another typical feature in Praia is the cobbled roads. This requires high maintenance, and groups of road-laborers (surprisingly, some of them female) are frequently spotted along the road-side, working hard to level pot-holes and restore loose blocks of stone. The cobble-roads of Praia will soon be but a memory however, as the whole city is about to be paved in a major modernization project. The Plateau has already been done, and Prainha and Achada St Antonio are bound to be next. Personally, I have mixed feelings about this – I actually find cobbled roads kind of charming, but I also realize that they are not optimal for keeping the car in good shape.

Overall, driving around in Praia is a pleasant and laid-back experience. Apart from some aggressive car-cleaners, there is perhaps only one major disadvantage: if you are late for an important meeting, you can’t blame the traffic – for that, you probably have to wait a few more years.


PretaMulatta said...

i'm an american citizen born to a mother of cape verdean descent. i plan on travelling to cape verde for the first time next year. interesting that you say you live in cape verde WEST AFRICA. most cape verdeans will tell u that cape verde is CAPE VERDE, not africa. we love living 'in between' as it were...

i enjoyed reading your blog & will stop by more often. thank you for the work you are doing there. all the best!

Abel Djassi said...

A good description of the state of the roads in the city of Praia. It is always a pleasure to read a description of Praia (and Cape Verde) as seen by a foreigner. Will come again to your blog.
Keep it up!

penchenk said...

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Lawcom said...

Did you visit any of the other islands ?

Praia is for me the least interesting, with far more diverse interest on Boa Vista and St Vincente or Fogo, in fact any of the others :-)

Many if not most Cape Verdeans leave the island, it's part of the history, part of the culture, it's the 'morna' the yearn to come back home..

Subsequently this is translated in to coming back showing you were a success and one of those medals is to come with a decent car.. and many now have, it's the kudos ..

X said...

Good job on the blog, very descriptive and thoughtful comments. Cape verde in fact is unique to the fact that it shouldn't be categorized as Africa or Europe, although cape verde is the result of an european and african fusion, the culture is much different than both..
i don't think the brain drain that goes on is part of the culture, although it appears so, the fact is people leave the islands because of necessities and hardships, even though i add to this unfortunate drain in our population, i'm optimistic that things in the country will get better that emigration won't cut such a big slice of the pie,

i got the feeling that you might like these authors " Max Weber, Carl Schmitt, Aristotle, Plato, Hannah Arendt..

Emilio said...

Good Blog!!


see you.

Ulf Björnholm Ottosson said...

Thanks guys for all the positive feedback! I have now left Cape Verde and therefore I have not posted any new blogs for a while… (I have started another one, in Swedish this time: http://mingronavardag.blogspot.com).

My intention is however to write a final piece in the Cape Verde Blog on what I miss - and what I don't miss - from Cap Verde, in retrospect. Hopefully it will be out soon!

João Marcelo said...

I have been reading your blog and really enjoing it :) I am also an expat in Cape Verde (till next year) and its always nice to read about other expats impressions :)

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P&B said...

Très intéressant votre blog :) Merci.