Sleepwalking in Sao Tome

  • Share
  • Read Later
Tiago Petinga / AFP / Getty

Aa street scene in Sao Tome.

Those who have ever wondered what it's like to live on a remote island paradise could do worse than spend a few days on Sao Tome and Principe, population 193,000. The first hint that these two rocks just above the Equator off the west coast of Africa were going to be a laid-back sort of place came when, following some bad advice from a travel agent, I arrived at immigration without a visa. Elsewhere that might have meant detention, prison, or at least a large bribe. In this former Portuguese colony, a smiling middle-aged immigration officer in singlet and braided hair told me in a motherly sort of way that, you know, I really was supposed to have a visa, but forget it, she really couldn't be bothered — then organized me a ride into town with her brother.

Danielo, father of six and owner of a battered, windowless yellow taxi, was as easygoing as his sister. He had the hooded eyes and easy smile of a man whose greatest pleasure in life was sleep, something which, I would find out, he could do anywhere, anytime. He drove at walking pace, the better to be able to chat to friends and relatives we passed on the road. And when I queried the health of the ancient Nissan as it groaned on a slight incline, Danielo explained he didn't worry about things like shocks, door handles or windows — or any kind of mechanical work, ever — because the car still seemed to work and, you know, he really couldn't be bothered.

I wasn't sure Danielo was the perfect choice for a guide, but he was the only person I knew in Sao Tome, and I needed help. On the way into town — a perfectly preserved red-roofed Portuguese fishing village with a huge church and a wide open square — I confessed I was not only an illegal alien, but also a sneaky journalist with a desperate, half-baked idea of interviewing the president, who had no idea I was coming, and who could hardly be expected to see me at such short notice — with the weekend looming — but that was all the time I had, and did he have any suggestions? Danielo shrugged, made a slow U-turn and juddered to a halt at the side of a large pink building. "Presidential Palace," he yawned, hopping out, loping up to the low fence and hailing a man strolling on the other side. That turned out to be the head of the Sao Tome and Principe army. He smiled broadly when I explained my situation, gently chided me that there were, you know, procedures for this sort of thing, but not to worry, he'd see what he could do.

While we waited, Danielo and I settled into a nearby café to watch Sao Tome life go by. There was an endless stream of happy schoolchildren, looking overjoyed to be young and in school. There were smiling couples on motorcycles, apparently delighted to be young, in love and on a motorbike. There was the occasional mildly serious-looking man on a motorbike — later, when I watched the local news (lead national news item: a new footbridge) I realized we'd been buzzed by the Foreign Minister, the Minister of Regional Zones and the director of the Sao Tome-Portugal Business Association. (That was to be the only bulletin I caught. When I dropped by the local network hoping to meet some local journalists on a Saturday, I found it closed except for a man who explained apologetically that there was "no news at the weekend.")

My three days on Sao Tome were punctuated by a series of happy, soporific encounters. The man sitting next to me at the only Internet café in town turned out to be the son of a famous dissident. At an excellent Portuguese seafood restaurant, I met Alecio Costa, a former mercenary who'd staged a coup in 2003 and held power for a week before, you know, realizing he really couldn't be bothered to exercise it, and giving it back. I roused the head of the National Petroleum Agency from his siesta and interviewed him as he sat bare-chested on his verandah with his unfastened belt hanging between his legs. I drank excellent coffee, ate some great dark, heavy chocolate, and when I ran out of people to meet, Danielo took me to see the Boca del Inferno (Mouth of Hell), which turned out to be a rocky channel in the surf with a bit of a current.

I never did get to interview the President, and the readers of TIME will be always the poorer for that. But by the time I left Sao Tome and Principe, I, you know, really couldn't be bothered.