Wednesday, March 23, 2011

March 19th – São Tomé

São Tomé is a tiny island nation off the coast of West Africa – it's also just about the hottest and most humid place I've ever been to. Just by the time we'd got onto the rocky tender, we were dripping with sweat, and even when it started to rain briefly, it scarcely cooled down at all.

São Tomé is a place that's hardly seen any development since the Portuguese ended their 500-year rule here in 1975, but thankfully it isn't a place where crime and disorder have taken a hold. So, we felt quite safe as we wandered the crumbling streets, shouting "olas" to the cheerful groups of barefoot children, and soaking up the generally relaxed tropical atmosphere.

We first went to the old 15th century Portuguese fort overlooking the bay, and did a "guided" tour of the national museum inside. Our "guide", in his tattered shirt, seemed to feel that his job was mainly to keep the group together and shout at anyone who veered off his allotted path, and to repeat continually his "no fotos" mantra – being a non-conformist, Tracy delighted in disobeying both of his rules.

We then went into town, and sought out the market. As we walked the empty streets, we kept remarking on how few people there were, but once we got to the incredibly busy market, it was obvious where they all were, crammed into the narrow paths between the stalls. The market was a complete assault on your senses – people shouting, music blaring, fish stinking, and shoppers shoving. We must have looked pretty bewildered by it all and were constantly getting in someone's way – there was so much going on that you didn't know where to look.

Different stallholders were talking to us incomprehensibly, children were demanding that we take their photos and show them the results, and a mentally deranged man with ulcerous legs attached himself to me, mumbling manically. Fortunately, a couple of the ladies shouted at him in Portuguese the equivalent of "bugger off", and he finally left us alone. Just as we were getting into the swing of things, and as Tracy was taking photos of the mayhem, one lady on a fish stall took complete exception to her photography, and started screaming at us, her eyes utterly bulging with rage. Seeing as she was holding a big chopping knife, we didn't hang around to apologise for any unintended insult, and we made a hasty retreat to the ever-so-slightly cooler air outside.

For a break from the chaos, we walked around São Tomé's wide bay, surveying all the rusting shipwrecks in the water, and looking at the decaying houses on the waterfront – this would have been prime real estate back in colonial times, and it probably still is now, even though it's hard to appreciate.

Our next task was to find somewhere for lunch – somewhere that we'd be happy to eat in. This wasn't our most successful search, because all the places we were heading for had either shut down, looked dodgy, or were unfindable. We did thankfully find one shop with air-conditioning, so we hung around in there for a while to reduce our core body temperatures down to just below boiling point. It was interesting to see that this must have been the most upmarket food shop in town – you knew that because it had a security guard virtually asleep outside, and everything was kept behind counters, so every single thing you wanted, you had to ask someone to get for you. Anyway, once we'd chilled down a bit, we settled on a deserted café that sold cold beer and a doughnut – an odd combination but strangely satisfying in the circumstances.

Suitably fortified, we spent the next couple of hours just wandering the baking streets, leaving a trail of perspiration behind us, ticking off the main historic sights (not too many in a small town of 50,000 people). So we went to the Cathedral and walked over to the Presidential Palace, where we watched the most laid-back changing of guard ever, as a troupe of loose-hipped soldiers sauntered up vaguely marching in jaunty step. As we admired the Palace, a big soldier with an even bigger gun came up to us. "What's your problem?" he demanded unsmilingly. The best I could come up with was to stammer out, "I like your Palace". Then it became obvious why he was talking to us, "If you want photos, you must pay me". He obviously didn't realise that we'd surreptitiously been taking photos from across the road, so we said thanks but no thanks, and pretty much ran away before he could shoot us.

Being a Saturday afternoon, the whole town seemed to have shut down completely, and the only people we encountered were either over-heated cruise passengers, or the really desperate street hawkers trying to sell us poorly-made necklaces. That most of them were talking to us in French, seemed to point to the fact that they'd come over from West Africa, and they were certainly a lot more aggressive and less friendly than the other people we'd met (leaving aside the ulcerated lunatic, the knife-wielding fish saleswoman, and the gun-toting soldier).

So, an enjoyable day in a fascinating country, that's not scored too high on Tracy's "I could live there Index", but would be great to explore in more depth.