Sunday, October 7, 2012

Slip Sliding Again At Principe

Map picture

Today we are at anchor smack dab in the middle of the Gulf of Guinea. Not to put too fine a line on it, but we are frankly in the middle of nowhere. If you really want to look up where we are, we are visiting the Democratic Republic of Sao Tome and Principe, which is one of the smallest nations in the world having a total population of 160,000. We are about half-way down the coast of Western Africa and only one degree north of the Equator. The small island chain is approximately 250 km west of the country of Gabon. Sao Tome is the larger of the two main islands and Principe is the smaller, having a population of only around 5,000 people. This nation might be small, but like every country we have visited in Africa, they have a large bureaucracy and they take themselves very seriously, and being Africa, my story of our arrival will seem somewhat familiar to you.

Our arrival at anchor was scheduled for 5:30am. The ship allowed 90 minutes for clearance formalities, after which our carefully planned activities would begin. You can probably guess that we arrived right on time, but there was no one to meet us. Attempts to reach the authorities by phone were finally successful, and since the delegation would be somewhat delayed, we asked for a routine “pre-clearance” authority in order that we could keep to our timetable, however that was denied. And so, we sat for over two hours before the official delegation arrived. The “delegation” consisted of 21 people, only two of which seemed to have any official capacity, the rest were simply “along for the ride.” These petty officials love to throw their weight around, and when they arrive on the ship they are treated like dignitaries. A full spread of rolls and breakfast foods is put forth along with coffee, tea, and any other drinks they might request, hence the reason that while there were only two real “officials” there was an entire following of friends and family anxious to partake of the largesse of the cruise ship. Now the main purpose of the “clearance formalities” is the payment of entry fees for each passenger and charges levied against the ship. It really only takes a few minutes to hand over the necessary funds and complete the proper paperwork, but the officials drag out the process in order to enjoy their time on board to the maximum. I took a peek in the room where the process was taking place, and all I saw were 21 people grabbing every roll in sight while the officials were washing down serving after serving of croissants and coffee. Finally forms were stamped, money changed hands, and we were cleared onto the island.

The ship was anchored about a mile off shore, so the Zodiac ride was a bit longer than usual. Unfortunately the weather was not good, with heavy rains at times, and drizzle in between the showers. We came ashore at a very small dock that belongs to the Bom Bom Island Resort. Bom Bom Island itself is a very, very small island where the resort has a boat house and dock, and from there we had to walk about a quarter of a mile across a wooden bridge to reach the main island of Principe. Lisa was not feeling well, and so I was taking this journey solo. Many of our passengers had elected to go on long walks through the jungle, but I had waited until later in order to take a ride into the one and only city on the Island, Santo Antonio. I really do not know why I elected to make this trip at all because Lisa and I had visited these same locations several years ago and doubted that much would change. However, in spite of the rain, I had been on the ship for too many days and felt that stretching my legs was a good idea even if I did get soaking wet – which I did.

I recalled from my last visit that the resort had several small buses which it used to take groups into town, but when we reached the vehicles, there was a line of SUV’s and only one bus. It seems that just last week they had lost two busses on the steep muddy road into town, and so at the last minute they had to recruit some local cars. I only learned this story AFTER I had boarded the one and only remaining bus. Let me tell you that our ride into town was one of the scariest I have ever taken, and at times I was positive the bus would slide right off the slick road and down the steep hillside. I don’t believe our young driver had much training at driving a bus. As we left the resort, the road turned to a reddish colored mud with deep ruts in places. He would put the bus in a lower gear and build up speed in order to tackle the steep hills. At those speeds, he quickly lost traction of his front wheels and you could see the steering wheel going from left to right wildly while he accelerated with his foot on the floor. Several times our bus was going sidewise, and each time his answer to this problem was to give it more power. I honestly do not know how we avoided sliding off the road, but when I got off the bus I almost kissed the ground and swore that I would never again get in that machine for the return trip. Oh, by the way, I did look at the tires, and they were indeed mostly bare of any tread!

The city of Santo Antonio was a ghost town when we arrived. It was Sunday, and everything but the main church was closed up tight. Having been founded by the Portuguese, the old buildings had a quaint colonial look about them. Clearly we were once again in a third world country, but the streets were clean, they had electricity and running water. The few people we saw were all very friendly. Right where our bus and cars stopped, the local guide had made arrangements for a small group of Sunday School Girls to perform a little dance for us, and then an older group of young adults arrived all the way from the neighboring island to share with us the sights and sounds of a native festival – it was very colorful and reminded me Mardi Gras. It was an interesting encounter.

On a back street far away from our group, there was a group of young girls all dressed in their Sunday finest who saw me and started to run my way. The first of them to reach me seemed to be asking if I would take her picture, but for money. Since I did not speak Portuguese, meaningful communication was impossible, but my answer is always “no.” In this case I could not have paid if I had wanted to since I ran out this morning without any cash. When the rest of the girls arrived they started to get quite raucous, and I was a little worried about where this would go when from way across the plaza, and old man came running up to me. He started using his hands to show that the girls wanted me to take their pictures, but I replied that they wanted money for that. He must have understood, because he turned on the group and in an obvious tone of displeasure and gave them a lecture. The girls started to look a little guilty, and he followed by having them all stand side by side for a group picture; after which he turned to me, and signaled that I might take my picture now. When I was done, I decided to go up to the girls and tell them my name, and one by one offered to shake their hands as I said “thank you.” The girls gladly took my hand and the old man was beaming from ear to ear as I came to each one and he introduced her by name. He then slapped me on the back and walked back to where he had been. In my mind, he was not happy with the way in which the girls were handling themselves around me, and he put a stop to it immediately. When I then went and thanked each young lady personally, he felt vindicated and the circle was closed.

The rain then started to pour so I found our meeting point and immediately crawled into the front of an SUV to wait for our return trip. There was no way I was getting in that bus again! The rain stopped as we crossed the mountain again, and by the time I got to the resort, it had cleared to the point that I could walk around taking pictures of some of the flowers, and also of one obliging African Gray Parrot. Just as I started across the long bridge back to our landing area, the sky opened up in a tropical downpour. I had taken my rain jacket and tied it to my waist, and on the narrow bridge, there was no way to put it on, so I just started “Singing In The Rain,” and enjoying the moment!

After getting my life vest on, I jumped in the Zodiac and sat down only to realize that I was looking right into the face of the ship’s Captain. This guy is everywhere, and it is why I really admire him – he was also with us in the Arctic. So, I quickly got into a banter with him about whether or not he was checked out in Zodiacs, and before long, we had the entire little boat laughing, in spite of the pouring rain.

Tonight the ship will head back to the mainland of Africa, and we will visit the country of Cameroon. A first for me.

I hope everyone is well.


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