When the Pandemic Spread to the Island Nation of Cabo Verde, These Guys Went Off The Grid

14 May 2020 2 Share

Romi de Jesus and not a bad set-up, given the crowd.

Romi de Jesus and not a bad set-up, given the crowd.

This story was originally written for and published by Magic Seaweed

By Matt Rodes

Are you feeling radical at the moment? Does all that angry, anonymous, online commentating and mask-less, non-socially distanced protesting in Huntington Beach have you feeling like a revolutionary? Have you been sneaking out for the occasional session, sticking it to the man who dares to criminalise surfing in the name of safety and health and pandemic mitigation?

Let me tell you about someone who has been engaging in some real, actual badass civil disobedience over the past two months—who went to extreme lengths to continue surfing, and, in doing so, helped stem the spread of the pandemic, rather than adding to it.

A little over six weeks ago, the first case of COVID-19 hit the island country of Cabo Verde. Millions of European tourists visit the islands each year, so it was only a matter of time before the virus made its way there. And with a relatively small local population and limited medical infrastructure, it’s understandable that the local government decided to immediately lock things down.

By that time, there were countries all over the planet that had decided that access to the ocean must be sacrificed to stop the spread of the virus, and a number of islands in Cabo Verde quickly followed suit, sequestering locals in their homes and outlawing surf-related activities—and more importantly, fishing.

As it turns out, there’s a pretty lively kitesurfing scene in Cabo Verde—world tour events, local world champions, etc.—so this news didn’t sit well with the local shredders. But when cops are marching around arresting people for going to the beach, there’s not much you can do. This is an island nation off the west coast of Africa, after all—not the US, where “freedom” apparently means carrying assault rifles into Capitol buildings and refusing to wear masks and maintain six feet of distance while protesting for your right to get a pedicure and surf shit waves infested with red tide.

So the people of Cabo Verde did the only thing they could do—they put their kite gear and surfboards away, and settled in for what would surely be a rough couple of months, with no tourist income and no idea how long the lockdown would last or how many friends and family members would die.

Everyone except for Romi de Jesus (@bubista_kite), that is. Romi lives on a desert island with one small town and a few thousand inhabitants. The rest of the island sort of resembles Mars—an arid, windy, austere moonscape with a handful of offshore reefs breaking far from anyone, whipped into a kitersurfers’s wet dream by raging, incessant NE winds. As far as Romi was concerned, the best place to socially distance himself was as far away from the city as possible—which just so happened to be on a stretch of coast with lots of swell and even more wind. So he packed up his truck, his gear, and his girlfriend Jana Rusnakova (@boavista_island_life)—a European expat who has assimilated comfortably into the local lifestyle over the past few years—and headed off into the desert. 

Home sweet home.

Home sweet home.

For the past 44 days, Romi and Jana have been camping under a tree overlooking an empty beach, about as far away from civilisation as it’s possible to be. They haven’t seen another person in over a month—just been living off of fish they’ve caught and supplies they brought from home, bathing in the dust, and kiting their brains out. 

While the rest of the island’s inhabitants have been sitting around in the main city, infecting each other, running out of food, and dreaming of the day when they can get in the water, Romi and Jana have been hiding in a place the authorities would never think to check, as isolated as anyone on the planet. They have been living a post-apocalyptic surf fantasy, completely removed from humanity—and in doing so guaranteeing that they don’t contribute to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite what thousands of angry, mask-less, non-socially distanced Southern Californians protestors with “Commies Don’t Surf” posters would have you believe, this is what productive, hard-core, responsible civil disobedience looks like.

Yesterday, after more than six weeks of living off the grid, Romi and Jana were finally discovered and captured by the local police, who summarily tore down their camp and returned them to a city full of infected people, where they can sit around and not surf and run out of food with everyone else, greatly increasing their risk of becoming statistics in this global nightmare.

Thanks to the infallible logic of these authorities, Cabo Verde is now a “safer” place—a place where rogue surfers can’t stay as far away from other people as humanly possible, ensure that they don’t contribute to the COVID-19 pandemic, provide for themselves without being a drain on the local economy, and maintain their sanity by zooming around on their dastardly surfboards and kites. 

Thank goodness. Now we can get back to our regularly scheduled protests full of NEWSOM IS A NAZI placards and spittle-spewing “patriots.”

(The following interview with Romi de Jesus was conducted two days after he and Jana were captured and returned to their home.)

Thanks for taking the time to chat, Romi. We’re glad to see that you aren’t locked up! What motivated you to go off the grid once the local government locked down your island?

Hello guys. Thank you for talking to me, it’s a pleasure to share my story. 

Having grown up here in Cabo Verde, I know the government has a history of making bad decisions, so I sort of expected more of the same. I also knew that our island was facing one of the worst crises in decades. Around 70% of our population depends on tourism for income, me included, and I had been watching the situation around the world carefully. When the first case hit the country in mid-March, I knew the government would lock down the country, so I quickly mobilised. I packed everything in less than two hours, and we left the next morning. Going off the grid was a natural reaction—the only way to avoid the chaos and confusion in town that was certain to come. Freedom runs through my veins, and I knew I couldn’t stay in the city.

How did you guys manage to survive for 44 days in a barren and relatively inhospitable environment?

I know how to survive in nature, with limited supplies. I grew up in a humble manner, with only basic essentials—food, water, and the love of my family. I learned how to fish before I was five years old, and fishing was the main source of income on our island before tourism began. I actually think that we had a better quality of life in those days, and I wish we could go back to those simpler times—except I’d want to keep my surfboards and kiting gear (laughs). 

The 44 days passed so quickly that it felt like a week. We wanted to stay longer. Our campsite was perfect, under a tree that provided shade, with a fresh water source 50 meters away. We had lots of wood for fires, and were 100 meters from the ocean, where we could harvest food. All we needed were a few essentials, which my father and a couple of friends brought from time to time. It was actually one of the best camping trips of my life, and I can’t wait to go back there.

How did it feel to know you were the only person within hundreds of miles who was able to surf and kite?

It feels amazing when you wake up and don’t hear any cars or people moving around. You can just go down to the beach and there are no footprints anywhere. We were totally alone, we could be naked whenever we wanted, and felt freedom like never before. 

Surfing and kiting wasn't always easy, even though the conditions were epic. Authorities were patrolling the coast in boats, looking for fishermen who had fled the capital and were suspected to have come over to our island. I had to figure out their patrol schedule so that I knew when I could surf and kite and fish, so it was a little stressful. But whenever I could get in the water, it was like a breath of fresh air—like drinking cool water after days of being thirsty.

The boats would pass by a couple of times per week, and once we had to hide for two hours because they spotted me on the beach fishing, and came looking for us.

What happened to you after you finally got caught? Did you get in trouble?

When the cops came, it actually took them two days to get us out of our camp, because we were trying to convince them to let us stay. We started camping the first day of the quarantine, and felt that we were safer out in our campsite. It didn’t make any sense for them to force us go back to the town, where there was a risk of infection. We explained this to the police, and they understood our position, and tried to convince their commander to let us stay. One of the policemen actually apologised to us and said, “Unfortunately, we have to follow orders. If we let you stay, we will face bigger troubles with our superior.” So we had no choice but to leave camp.

So now you are back in town, locked down with everyone else. What is the situation, in terms of the economy and infrastructure? And how long until the beaches are open and you can start surfing again?

Nobody really knows the answer to that. The government has extended the state of emergency three times, and they might do it again because the number of COVID-19 cases is increasing quickly on the capital island. Plus, we already have nearly 50 active cases here on our island.

But it doesn’t make any sense to keep us from going surfing and kiting, and especially fishing. With the tourism industry shut down, most people are out of work, with no income, so to keep us from the ocean is crazy. There are miles and miles of empty coastline, with empty waves and free food available in the water, but surfing and fishing are now a crime and can get you put in jail. Meanwhile, in town everyone is just hanging around by the banks and insurance companies, less than a metre away from each other.

Hopefully the situation changes soon, because we need fish to feed ourselves and our families, and to improve our quality of life, which is quite poor at the moment. Maybe this crisis will help remind people what is truly important in life. I guess we can always hope.

Negotiating a late check-out.

Negotiating a late check-out.

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