Sao Tome & Principe

An Equatorial Interlude

I managed, rather at the last minute, to get away from PH for a week’s relaxation before returning for the finish-line sprint. I decided that Ghana and Senegal (two common vacation destinations for my colleagues), though indubitably more culturally interesting and classically West-African, simply did not sound anywhere near as haven-like and utterly relaxing as the equatorial island nation of Sao Tome e Principe, two large islands and a few smaller ones clustered in the Gulf of Guinea. After all, if what I want is history of the slave trade and old slave forts – in which Ghana excels – I can get a taste in Calabar; if I want markets full of energy and excitement and people…well, we have those here in Port Harcourt. And so on.

All in all, for a change of pace, Sao Tome sounded like the place for me, and boy was I ever right. After my Calabar entry (scroll down a bit), Mom sent an email praising the beauty of my photos. Indeed, I did enjoy Calabar and it is lovely. However, before reaching Sao Tome I certainly hoped and expected it to be a great deal more lovely and green than Calabar. And, as these photos attest, I was far from disappointed. I spent a full week doing little more than relax, walk, read and do yoga in and around my small resort located on a little island off the southern tip of Sao Tome. I returned to PH brimming with good vibes and energy with which to finish my assignment here – which will come to an in May, after which it looks like I’ll be spending a good deal of time back in the US, helping Mom with some major projects around the house, before moving on to whatever comes next. This is likely my sign-off until I’m out of Nigeria – so enjoy the pics, keep in touch, and thanks for your support and interest during my time here. Do support MSF, and do pay attention to Nigeria: it’s a great country with many problems but fantastically wonderful people, and really rather important for stability and future prosperity in West Africa.

…above, the resort seen from the hill on which is located a marker for the equator (which you’ll see further down); below: said hill, seen from the pool. Someone said it’s the largest pool on the equator, or south of the equator, or something…but I think it’s actually a few steps north of the equator, though it’s quite possible the line goes right through the pool…

…it’s obviously a volcanic island, with a coastline riddled with black volcanic rock; this gives rise to at least three separate blowholes where the surf forces water and mist up through holes in the rock. Quite cool. And very dramatic-sounding as well.

…I’m smiling through the pain: I’m on the boat leaving the island. (Sigh. Sob.)

Above: a few shots of the Sao Tome coastline as seen from Ilheu Rolas.

Exploring Ilheu Rolas

…left to right: Sao Tome e Principe (with two stars for – I assume – the two main islands, Portugal (home base of the resort company), EU, Pestana (the resort company).
Below are four shots of the paths on which I spent many hours wandering and exploring the island. After making my way down from the airport (more about that further below…sorry, Ondrej, I just can’t bring myself to stick to linear time in these entries: it’s about beauty and narrative…) around sunset — which naturally happens around 18:00 all year — on Saturday, I awoke Sunday wondering what was in store for me during my week on the island. Still rather high on the adrenaline and nervous energy of my daily life in PH, I was up and out for a long run around the island: oh, bliss, an hour of green nature and running without one single other person, or vehicle, or smoke-belching generator to be seen or heard. Initially, I thought I’d maybe hop the boat back to explore Sao Tome a bit as well either on foot or by hopping the public buses…or maybe even head up to the capital city and see the sights. But as the days went by, my comfort level with doing absolutely nothing other than a morning walk around the island, an evening outing to another part of the island, and an afternoon of lethargic poolside lounging or air-conditioned movie-watching in my room steadily grew. By the end of the week, I virtually needed help to scoop myself out of my lounge chair and onto the boat to leave the island. Still and alll, I did manage to explore most of Ilheu Rolas during my morning and evening strolls (remember: I was right on the equator, so I’d have been mad to exert energy in the mid-day sun!), even if my energy wasn’t sufficient to take me back to the big island until it was time to leave. Herewith many shots of the pathways, coastline, and sights of Ilheu Rolas.

…the view from the main dining-room/restaurant, on an eastern headland looking out at the ocean form three sides. It was tough work to take my meals there every morning and evening, but someone had to do it.

The resort, Pestana Ecuador, is by far the largest source of income on the island. However there is a small village whose inhabitants collect bananas, coconuts and other forest products, seem to grow a few crops in surrounding fields, and take their fishing boats out from the village pier (behind the straw-thatched shelter, above). The village only has a handful of inhabitants, so it’s really about the resort, which itself doesn’t have the highest occupancy-rates you could imagine: if you need a completely relaxing vacation in a lovely and really rather luxurious setting – though my standards are not those of the average American tourist, Pestana Ecuador really does a fine job in my estimation – go now. Most of us wonder how long the resort can keep going with such low occupancy and really quite reasonable rates! Below: the village church and other views.

For a better view of the lighthouse itself — built in 1928 and renovated-modernized by the Portuguese Navy in 1994, if I’m reading the plaque correctly — scan down a bit. If you look closely at the sunrise view of a hill beyond a bay, below, you’ll see the red-and-white nub of the lighthouse tower rising from the lower saddle of Ilheu Rolas’s hill. Above: the path through the village.

Poonam tells me that every year some 150 people are killed worldwide by falling coconuts. (She and her family – husband Owen and kids Leila & Billy helped keep me from feeling actually too isolated on Rolas by letting me join them for meals and the occasional ping-pong or dominoes game.) We all agreed that after the well-advertised risks of the streets of Lagos & Port Harcourt, falling coconuts were a welcome risk. Here you also see one of the culprit fallen coconuts in the flesh, rapidly taking root and reaching for the sky in hopes of begetting further dangerous falling objects for future visitors…

Remember that my daily life in PHC hardly exposes me to the natural world. So I reveled in these little elements of the natural world encountered on my meanderings around the island.

Above: a highly unflattering self-portrait, but how many chances does one have to photograph oneself literally straddling the equator? So I shall swallow my pride, and post it nonetheless. Below: the equator monument on the hill, with Sao Tome’s coastline in the background, and another view of the village pier.