Credit: Muna Lobé
Little is known about this island off the Ghanaian shoreline, in the Gulf of Guinea… Breathtaking natural scenery coupled with spice-fueled gastronomy and nonchalantly assumed post-colonial relevance, Sao Tome e Principe is an African hidden treasure with a Caribbean feel, a modern reminder of the cultural bridge connecting the continent to its diaspora.
While some would revel in its architectural heritage and therefore begin by scouring the city, I went straight for the hills and headed to Bombaim. High up, and although I was violently reminded of my pulmonary limitations, I began discerning what felt so close to home. Of Caribbean ancestry and having lived in Jamaica, I can appreciate the joys of climbing atop a mountain shivering in the late afternoon breeze or rising early in the morning, enraptured by the music of the hummingbirds. In the hills, where the land is meticulously wild yet stubbornly tamed by coffee, cocoa and banana farmers, days are short and nights endless.
Up early, you can tour the neighboring roças and remote villages around. What may seem like a never ending forest hike is actually a journey into the inner (is)land. Talking to the farmers and their families, tasting the rawness of cacao nibs and coffee beans, attempting to catch droplets from the waterfalls, pausing and re-imagining life on a modern-day plantation as much as exploring the possibilities for more than just entertaining lone explorers in search of insular authenticity fills your days and dreams.
As I descended back to town on a crowded agritruck with a kind family who works in Bombaim a few days in the week but lives in Sao Tome, I was somewhat excited about the change of pace that living in the city usually offers. A city dweller at heart, I was on a mission to organically align my urban rhythm with that of the capital.
The city center is more densely populated particularly on market days. Although you can easily walk from the Cocoa Residence to the heart of town, it is also fun to hop on a mototaxi like in Lomé or Cotonou and head down to the light house in the old quarter where you can learn about Amador, self-proclaimed King of the Angolares who led one of the most notorious revolts against colonial powers, or to the unabashedly vibrant CACAU (Casas das Artes, Criaçao, Ambiente e Utopias- House of the Arts, Creativity, Atmosphere & Utopias) – an atypical exhibition space, art gallery, restaurant, cafe, concert hall, crafts shop and movie theatre all at once. Be it to dine to the sounds of Sao Tomean fado or attend the latest arts exhibition, CACAU is the cultural heartbeat of the city and – it would not be a stretch to say- of the island. The owners of CACAU are a local power couple – renowned chef Joao Carlos Silva and his wife who also own Roca San Joao, an expansive and delicately renovated plantation nested in the southwestern hills. The roça and her chef are known island wide for mouth-watering, highly staged culinary experiences that leave only the impatient (and grumpy) disappointed.
In both places, the arts are celebrated in their richness and diversity and it is also there that the Sao Tomean spirit timidly yet fervently reveals itself.
Foodies are also in for simpler-yet tasty-treats in and around the Sabor de Ilha restaurant (grilled fish, harbor-delivered sea food, thirst quenching local beers) located in an open air food court across the public library.
Last, the coastline cannot be ignored when on an island such as Sao Tome yet in an effort to remain at peace with the island gatekeepers, I found best to opt for an environmentally respectful destination: the eco lodge at Praia Inhame. White sandy beaches, turquoise lagoons and fully-equipped, solar powered wooden bungalows are on the menu. And soon again, the vernacular rightfully takes over and you can unwind as your new mantra “Leve, Leve” is on mental repeat and the sounds of the city are magically muted… at least for a long weekend.
AYA CONSULTING was founded by Muna D. Lobé, a trained social anthropologist and educator with extensive international research and work experience in Europe, Africa, North America, and the Caribbean. Follow @ayaconsulting on Instagram.
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