Thursday, December 10, 2015

São Tomé and Principe

Hot and steamy, lush and verdant, São Tomé is either the smallest or second smallest country in Africa, depending on whose data you trust. We go with the CIA Factbook. 

As we pulled into our anchorage we could see storm clouds building up over the low mountains. Navy blue and grey, they made a dramatic backdrop for the aged, ruined buildings around the island, high and dry up on rickety stilts, shutters mostly askew, hanging from hinges with slats missing or broken. There's a sultry, ruined quality about the place... smoldering and reeking of Tennessee Williams. Or operatic tragedy. 

At our first stop, children and elderly women put on a bit of a dance to the accompaniment of tin drums, scratching instruments and just plain banging. It wasn't very a matter of fact, I didn't see a smile. The oldest, old lady had her arm in a kind of bandage and a knit cap on her head. She shuffled around in a circle with the rest of the women and seemed to be doing her best. The kids, women and men all wore faded pink T-shirts emblazoned with the name of the defunct coffee company which once anchored the towns economy. The coffee company was founded and funded by Quadaffi and three years ago when the subsidies quit, the business was abandoned. The processing plant still stands, machinery, bins, chutes, ladders and conveyor belts all a pile of rust. A walk through this ruin was part of our tour and described as a tour of a coffee processor. 

Our drivers were aggressive and maniacal, shouting out the windows at each other, shaking fists. Odd, considering there's really only a couple of roads around the place. A couple of times utmost cooperation was required for them to pass each other in narrow muddy spots of road and they did work together, but it looked like the loudest shouter became the main traffic cop in each tight spot. 

These people look angry even when happy. Our driver would come to an abrupt halt, open his door and jump out, slamming the door behind him. He'd climb up the road bank and pull out a vicious looking knife and chop down a couple of stalks of flowers. With his scowl firmly affixed, he passed them out to the ladies. Then he'd  jump back in, crank up the black rap on the radio and roar off,looking angry as ever. 

We visited a waterfall which involved much finesse getting the cars and vans to and from over a narrow, muddy road. Shortly after this stop our little caravan stopped abruptly and one of the Frenchguys from the trouble making (French and New Caledonian) van got out and shouted at the driver to take us to the botanical garden. One couple, out of some 20 of us traveling together, wanted to have lunch, so in some kind of bizarre reasoning the drivers decided to take all of us to the restaurant where we would sit and wait for the couple to eat instead of visiting the botanical garden as scheduled. 

"Well," one of the drivers said, "the garden is closed anyway. It closes at noon." The French guy, mad as hell, wasn't buying. "You take us there, open or closed," he insisted. And so we back tracked a bit and visited the garden which actually never open or closed...but was abandoned because there's no money to pay the staff. It's like a neglected old car...once beautiful and functioning well, now over-grown and gradually falling apart. We were all frustrated looking at something that could be quite charming, just wasted. 

São Tomé, such a beautiful place - could be a paradise.


  1. sultry, ruined quality, my favorite...

  2. Fascinating...but I don't think I'll make the trip!