Welcome to wonderful São Tomé & Príncipe!
There is a country you have overlooked. Get here as soon as possible!
I hope you enjoyed last weeks blog. It was a bit different. It could have been about the long wait for the boat to reach São Tomé. Which really wasn't much fun because I couldn't go anywhere far from Libreville on the off chance that the boat would suddenly be ready to leave. And every time it "was ready to leave" it eventually wasn't and it got postponed again...and again...and again... And that isn't exactly uncommon for life in Central Africa. If anyone has achieved anything noteworthy in this part of the world, and there are some who have, then you basically owe them some respect. Because you can be sure that it didn't come easy to them. Not at all.
I have hardly felt any sadness during the past week so I suppose the progress and the change of scenery was really what I needed. And that is good. I do feel like I have a severe lack of control of the situation in most situations these days. And as soon as that is replaced with the ordinary and much more common illusion of control I will be just fine.
So, the boat was finally ready and good to go...for the 5th time that week. But amazingly we actually departed. I wasn't really convinced until there was water between us and land. And that was what we finally had.
Crewmember taking a nap. There were no sleeping quarters for the passengers by the way...
The voyage across to São Tomé, which is the main island of São Tomé & Príncipe, was a somewhat dull affair. Anything in life can become ordinary and I have been on my fair share of boats during this project. It took us about 22 hours to cross the 300 kilometers of calm Atlantic Ocean. It rained most of the time but the sun did come out just in time for a nice sunset.
The most memorable part of the voyage was when hundreds of dolphins crossed our path. That was absolutely wonderful just as such wonders of nature supposedly are intended to be. And having seen so much within the Saga already, I am somewhat thankful that such things remain to bring me great joy.
São Tomé & Príncipe:
São Tomé is the main island and if everything goes as planed then I will not get a chance to see the much smaller island of Príncipe during the Saga. That island will have to wait for another adventure. And as the "Spinola Carneiro" docked in front of the containers at the small industrial port, I already sensed that something had changed. I cannot put my finger on why exactly. But I knew I was somewhere nice.
Fresh fish, rice, salad, fried bananas and beer: $8.00.
I was guided to immigration which kindly and professionally processed me and let me into the country. Country number 99! A large cruise ship was docked outside and passengers as old as the dust of time were being ferried to and from the ship. I left the port and quickly spotted the Red Cross where I met Juliao, whom I asked for directions to a place where I could get a simcard?
Juliao and me on his scooter.
He happily showed me down the street, but was frustrated that "the regular guys" weren't there. So he said I had to go downtown for a simcard. And he refused that it was walking distance so he arranged for a vehicle for us (for the 2 minute drive). With Juliao still by my side I entered a tele-shop, but their computer system was down. So I couldn't get a simcard at that exact moment.
That's when I asked Juliao if there was anywhere nearby where I could take out money with my credit card? Juliao now escorted me to the international bank and brought me inside. Because you cannot use foreign cards in the ATM's within this country. While waiting for our turn Juliao suddenly suggested that I could have 1 of his 2 simcards for as long as I was on the island?
Sometimes São Tomé reminds me of Havana and sometimes of the Caribbean. But mostly it is its own.
Then we proceeded to take my money and head back. He handed me a simcard, arranged for some wifi internet, found me a cheap place for the night and asked me if I would be okay for the weekend? (This was last Friday). He then gave me his telephone number.
And it continues...
Last Monday he then wanted to help me find a boat back to Gabon. So we got on to his scooter and visited all the shipping agents we could find. He then took me to the Gabon Embassy to help me out with my visa and he also took me to a number of travel agencies to get information.
The story goes on. But I think you get the point by now. And that is just one story of many that really represent São Tomé. A stranger is a friend you've never met before.
During the weekend I arrived to São Tomé I received a message within the Saga's Facebook group. It was from Henrik who happened to be on vacation on the island. He wanted to know if he could buy me lunch the following day. Why yes you can! :) as I showed up I met Henrik with his 2 friends Flemming and Erik. All of them well traveled and all of them from Denmark. Henrik and Flemming are actually members of a Danish travelers club and lobbied that I should apply for membership. In fact a few days later they chose to sponsor me 1 years membership. So how nice was that? Apart from having a good time with the boys I also received a selfie-stick as a parting gift. So let's see if I can put that into good use.
So who is Franka? Well, I initially booked a room through AirBnB for 5 days. But due to all the delays I wasn't able to reach São Tomé in time for my booking. And as I wrote the AirBnB host I found that even if he cancelled, I would still loose my money due to the booking regulations. But he did offer me 3 nights in his private home as compensation. So when I first arrived to São Tomé, which by the way is also the name of the capital, I tried calling the AirBnB guy. But I couldn't get through to him. I therefore ended up in a really cheap hotel for the first 2 nights. I eventually reached the AirBnB guy and we met up. He introduced himself with a strong handshake and a big smile: "Hi, I'm Franka".
Franka and I on the back of the truck.
We then moved me from the hotel to his home. He came to get me in a pickup truck and I got to sit in the back. Great! :) As soon as he had shown me my room he asked if was interested in seeing some of the island? Sure? So I got back on the back of the pickup and off we went.
It was rather late and the sun was setting. Franka's brother along with one of his friends were with us, which is why I sat in the back. But then Franka's brother took over the steering and Franka came to join me in the back. It was raining slightly but it didn't matter. The road took us towards the center of the island and the jungle got beautifully wild as the pickup made its way forward. We took a turn off the main road and into more wilderness until we arrived at the family farm, where Franka proceeded to feed the cows with some leftovers from the marketplace.
The four of us then stood around for a while until the farms security guard walked out of the forest with a plastic container and a shotgun. The shotgun was for security but hadn't been used for the past 20 years. In fact the last time it shot someone it shot the guard holding the shotgun! A story of the effects of alcohol then followed. The container which the guard brought with him contained palm wine. It's a milky white liquid which "bleeds" out of the palm trees. Magically 5 glasses appeared. We stood in a circle while the I listened to them joking in Portuguese. The sun set and it got dark. So we proceeded to drive back to São Tomé again. It was beautiful. The clouds had somewhat cleared away so the moonlight could strike the wet palm leaves and light them up in a silverish color. The pickup bounced it's way down the dirt road in the dense jungle while the brothers bickered about who was the best driver :) Above us the stars dotted the sky between the few remaining clouds. Magic.
The days went on. First of all I cannot stress enough how wonderful a place São Tomé is. I have seen many countries and I'm mostly treated with kindness and respect wherever I go. But in São Tomé I feel welcome. And that is a different feeling. I had that feeling from the beginning and it persists everywhere I go. São Tomé is a super safe place to be. You can sleep directly on the beach or take a walk in the park in the middle of the night - no problem. The island produces chocolate for crying out loud. What more do you need to know?!?
I wish I was here under different circumstances. If I had only arrived, and upon arrival had known how and when I would leave... But that is not the nature of visiting most islands within the Saga. Ferries have largely been discontinued many places in the world. It's all about airplanes now. So I'm once again struggling to find a boat.
The cargo/ferry which I initially had waited so long for in Gabon and had been told was stuck in São Tomé with engine problems is not here. The new and probably true story is that it is actually in Douala (in Cameroon) waiting for cargo. So that will not be my way back to Gabon. Neither will any of the boats in the port or any of the ships managed by the shipping agencies. They are either staying in the port, going to Europe or going to Príncipe. The "Spinola Carneiro" is not going back to Gabon anytime soon. And there is no clarity regarding what it might do next. But the smart money is on that it will go to Príncipe and eventually continue to Douala before it goes anywhere else. And there is no embassy or consulate for Cameroon in São Tomé so even if I had the boat to go there, I wouldn't have the visa.
I generally spend much more time chasing boats and options than I like.
So how do I cross back over the water to Gabon? Well, my girlfriend doesn't arrive until Monday...so I have plenty of time? If only the boat from Gabon wouldn't have been delayed in the first place. But that isn't reality and never was.
There are plenty of pirogues, which are rather small canoe-like boats used for fishing. It would be a daring attempt to cross the sea in one of those. But it could be done. It's certainly not risk free though...and should I make it safely across then I would have a hassle with immigration arriving in a "non passenger" boat. Some say I would be arrested or even shot at...possibly both. But I am thinking about it as an option...because all of the previously mentioned is the "worst case scenario". Right?
You are not getting €5,000.00 from me!!
Someone (more or) less helpful offered to ferry me across in his pirogue for the light sum of €5,000.00!! I told him as politely as I could that he was nuts. The price quickly came down to €4,000.00 which is equally unrealistic and impossible...but nonetheless a great save within a few minutes of bargaining.
Fort São Sabastião was built by the Portuguese in 1575 and has today been converted into a museum. It's worth a visit and will tell you much about the mixed history of the islands.
What is "Voice of America"? I didn't know either so once I saw it on the map I headed in that direction. It's a rather large complex with some rather large antennas and plenty of them. It's very neat and tidy and well guarded. Security at the main gate called the managers secretary who decided to let me in. So after a somewhat long walk along green grass and huge antennas I got to have a brief talk with her. Her name is Helena Menezes and she is a very kind Russian woman who has been working at the station for many years. And she told me that I might possibly get invited for a tour if I was interested. Why yes please! Thank you.
The next day I received a confirmation by email because they are restricted not to call certain telephone numbers. What was this place? I showed up and was introduced to Milton Dias, who would be my guide. It turns out that "Voice of America" is a massive broadcasting station which broadcasts specific information across the African continent. The content is provided directly from Washington DC. It is broadcasted in some of the large African languages such as Swahili and Hausa apart from English, French and Portuguese. As far as I gather it's essentially propaganda about democracy and the American way of life. It stands to counterpart some of the propaganda which some people are being fed against the USA and "the free world".
You are not permitted to take photos inside.
There are apparently several of these large sized broadcasting stations placed strategically around the world and it all took its beginning during the midst of 2nd World War. The station in São Tomé is however only a little more than 20 years old.
I did not feel like they were hiding anything at all. It wasn't a top secret facility or anything like that. Milton, who is a great guy, has worked at the station for 15 years and knows his way around. He guided me around the complex and showed me everything in detail while explaining the various technicalities and answering all my questions.
For anyone who might have followed the tv series "Lost" I must say that it did feel a little like being guided around the world of "the others" (season 3). But it was really nice! I also felt like I was stepping out of São Tomé and into the United States of America for a while. Everything seemed so...American. There were many signs stating many obvious things. Everything was very well maintained. The large grass areas had been cut short. There was no shortage of the star spangled banner. It was a slice of the United States within tropical conditions.
I did however get permission to take this selfie with Milton.
By chance I got to meet mr. Kenneth A. Tripp who is the station manager. A very well travelled and very kind man from upstate New York who is looking forward to his retirement within the next few years. He gave permission for Milton to guide me through even more of the complex. The complex which is self sufficient within both fresh water and electricity. Unfortunately they had recently been supplied with diesel for the generators so there was no hope of catching the supply boat back to mainland Africa ;)
It was a great experience to visit the broadcasting station. And I real eye opener. I had no idea that such things existed?
Pico Mocambo is a really cool place to hang out, enjoy a drink, listen to music and connect to the internet.
Franka and I have been hanging out a bit and he has among other people introduced me to Christoph from Germany. Christoph deals in scrap metal and has been living in São Tomé for the past 5 years. He's a very interesting and very well connected guy who I feel lucky to have on my side. I can't know for sure, but he feels that everything will work out and I trust him for some reason. And that's a pretty good feeling.
Franka chilling inside Pico Mocamba.
But I keep my options open and I have also made friends with Sergio who arrived on the same boat I did. Sergio has tried to help me out with locating a fisherman. We have struck out a few times but he continues to keep his eyes and ears open.
And so another story of the life in the Saga comes to an end. I wish you well wherever you are.
Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - within yet another island nation.
Once Upon A Saga