In many ways, Sao Tome is poetry in slow motion and a breath of fresh air. There is nothing cosmetic about the place. The plethora of epithets used to describe Sao Tome are certainly no exaggeration. Unspoilt, laid back, idyllic, untouched, magical, dramatic landscapes, pristine, colonial charm – they all fit the bill.
Landing in Sao Tome was like setting foot into some nature documentary. Driving from the airport into the city, the natural beauty becomes immediately evident. Along the coastal drive, one can see quaint fishing villages, glorious beaches lined with palm trees, canoes and luscious landscapes.
The outskirts of the city are dressed up in green blankets of banana and cocoa plantations. Nature is bountiful here. Cashew trees grow nonchalantly across the city. So too pomegranate, guava, plantain, mango and papaya trees. Where ever I went, I was not able to avoid a peek of the ocean or mountain or a lush cocoa farm.
The second smallest country in Africa, after Seychelles, the twin islands of Sao Tome & Principe straddle the Equator off the coast of Gulf of Guinea. They were uninhabited until the Portuguese discovered them in 1485. They wanted to cultivate sugarcane because of which Sao Tome became an outpost of the slave trade. Jewish children from the Iberian Peninsula and nearby Congo became the source of slave plantation workers.
Sao Tome is a culturally diverse country. Though stratified by ethnic groups and social status, Sao Tomeans are largely united in their way of life. Sao Tome and Principe’s constitution provides for freedom of religion. The population is predominantly Christian (80% Catholics and 15% Protestants).
Sao Tomeans trace their ancestry to Africa and Portugal. Portuguese is the main spoken language, but I was pleasantly surprised to encounter many English-speaking Sao Tomeans. Sao Tome is somewhat un-African. For one thing, the only noise pollution comes from the constant chirping of birds and incessant sound of waves across the city. The refreshing smell of the sea follows you.
Daily life in Sao Tome is really ‘leve leve’, meaning ‘take it easy’. A large bill board at the airport reminds visitors to take it easy. For most of us who are used to the hustle bustle of modern city life and the pressure of today’s work culture, it does take some adjusting.
There is no such thing as a traffic jam in the city. During so called peak hours, the main thorough fare has only a handful of cars and motorbikes. With no traffic lights, one can get by seamlessly and quickly without using the horn.
Though Sao Tome became an independent country in 1975, it still retains much of the 16th century colonial architecture. As you amble into the city centre, one cannot but be charmed by the tropical simplicity of this African city.
What is captivating are the faded, yet alluring colonial splendour of old colonial buildings with carved wooden wraparound balconies, arched windows, balustrades – many of which have been restored in bright vibrant colours.
The city centre is the only place where there is a mild buzz. Teenagers sporting caps and nicely suited white-collar workers mingle together. Healthy looking and chirpy school children with braided hair can be seen buying stuff from street vendors and mothers with babies slung behind their backs walking with unhurried languid ease.
Bright yellow taxis jostle for space with motorbikes and shabby looking jeeps. Moneychangers and telephone card sellers squat on street corners, while shoppers haggle with a variety of street vendors. It is a common sight to see women selling huge tuna fish in cane baskets.