On my recent trip to Africa, I brought along quite a bit of camera gear (as usual), and this time I also threw my trusty 70’s-era medium format Mamiya 645 1000s SLR into my bag. The following shots were all taken in manual mode on Fuji Provia 100F slide film. You’ll notice that some of these shots are similar to the those in previous posts about the island, except that all of these were shot on film.
Since I’ve already given a pretty thorough accounting of my time on São Tomé in previous blogs, I’ll use this post to discuss my journey to the island, and how my trip nearly took a radically different turn. Enjoy the photos and the tangentially related, but nonetheless entertaining, story.
To get to São Tomé, I had to depart out of Libreville on a small turboprop operated by Ceiba Airlines. I later learned that this particular airline is one of several African carriers banned from flying into the EU due to dubious maintenance and questionable pilot certification standards. Awesome.
Blissfully ignorant of the airline’s safety record, I climbed up the stairway from the sticky tarmac of Leon M’ba airport into the tiny fuselage and double-checked my boarding pass for my seat assignment. Not finding the typical alphanumeric code that indicates which seat to deposit myself into, I asked the stewardess in broken French where I should sit. Her reply was a palms-up sweeping hand gesture that seemed to indicate this was to be a first-come-first-serve type of deal. Still unsure, I grabbed a window seat on one of the wings and waited for someone to boot me out. Boarding concluded, and with the flight only two-thirds full, I still had the seat I had self selected and an open aisle seat next to me. Oh to be so lucky on my transcontinental flights.
The flight itself was an uneventful affair, and I enjoyed watching the mainland coast slowly disappear behind us as we headed out in search of a tiny emerald speck amid the great blue expanse below. The nearly two-hour flight surprisingly featured a small meal service, which I declined to partake in since I was still ailing from a croque-madame that I had ill-advisedly ordered from a street vendor in downtown Libreville the night before. Before long, the phantasmic silhouette of São Tomé appeared on the horizon and we began our decent. Looking back, this is the point in the flight where it would have been rather helpful to understand Portuguese.
After a breathtaking landing only meters above the half-moon-shaped bays that lead into the island’s sole airfield, the pilot made an announcement as we taxied up to the terminal. All communication on the plane thus far had been in French and Portuguese, but this time we just got the Portuguese version, which I thought made sense since we were now in a Lusophone country. I assumed that the cockpit speech was the boilerplate “thanks for flying, and please stay in your seat until we come to a complete stop” spiel that I’ve heard a million times before. I was incorrect.
After pulling into our parking space on the flightline, one gentleman at the front of the plane immediately jumped up, grabbed his bag and exited the aircraft while the propellers were still winding down. Everyone else stayed in their seats, politely waiting (I thought) until they were instructed to get off. A few minutes later, they pilots exited the cockpit, walked through the cabin and exited the plane through the rear hatch. Ten minutes passed and everybody was still seated. I started to wonder if this was an immigration procedure, or if we had to wait for baggage to be unloaded, when suddenly the pilots hurried back on the plane and into the cockpit.
The engines began revving up, and the stewardess started closing the door. Now panicked, I jumped up and ask her in French when passengers bound for São Tomé were supposed to disembark. Clearly nonplussed by my sudden desire to get off the plane, the stewardess held the door open and pointed outside. I understood that to mean I should immediately disembark.
I hadn’t taken three steps outside the “safety zone” (a red line that surrounds the aircraft so that passengers don’t stray into the props) when the pilot gunned the engine and taxied away. Now completely alone on the tarmac, I made my way over to a group of soldiers who were standing in the shade of the terminal and engaging in what appeared to be a tremendously entertaining conversation. (Let me reiterate that I do not speak Portuguese) I held out my passport and attempted to ask where I should go. The lanky soldier who had taken the passport from my outstretched hand looked at me bemusedly, and then indicated with a jerk of his head that I should follow him. He led me around the building to a set of sliding glass doors, handed back my passport and said “wait” before moseying back around the corner. Five minutes later a confused-looking immigration officer opened the door for me, and as I was the only remaining arrival, walked me directly through customs.
My guide was waiting for me outside the airport, and when I told him what had happened, he started laughing. He explained that the flight was actually a milk run from Libreville to Malabo, the capital city of Equatorial Guinea. The flight only stopped in São Tomé to drop off one or two passengers each trip. He said I was fortunate to disembark when I did, because otherwise I would have been sitting in Malabo’s airport without a visa for two days until the plane made the return flight. We departed the airport, and the rest is history, but my trip could have been very different had I not decided to get off that plane. Moral of the story: Learn Portuguese.
Check out all the high-resolution photos from my trip to São Tomé in my set on Flickr.