The Island That Doesn’t Speak English: São Tomé

This sounds like a hyperbole, but I can honestly say the only English I heard spoken in São Tomé was from our Airbnb host, Ito, the dive shop owner at Club Santana, and a smattering of staff at Pestana Hotel. The rest of the time, we got away with mixing English/Spanish/Portuguese…and I only speak the first one.

Luckily, two of the members of our group were fluent Spanish speakers and two others could ask questions in Spanish. None of us really knew Portuguese, the official language of São Tomé.

But let’s back up a moment, to an event that assured me we were going to have an interesting vacation. We hadn’t even left Accra yet, we were still in the airport. We had passed through security twice, once at the entrance and again to get to the gates.  We had walked past the first set of gates and had to round a corner to get to ours…and there stood two dudes with airport security tags.

They asked us to come to a small table so they could (yet again) search through our belongings. Chandler went first and his guy was meticulous, touching absolutely everything. That is, until he got to my swimsuit top. He pulled it out of the bag and turned his concerned face to Chandler to ask, “Sir, is this yours?” Chandler was quick to explain that it was mine and we often split our belongings up between bags. The man instantly released the swimsuit, zipped up the bag and waved us all through. Swimsuit tops save the day.

Then, we got on the plane and a torrential downpour began. We waited on the runway for 45 minutes for it to let up. The pilot announced that even though we had been held up, we’d still make it to São Tomé on time. To no one’s surprise, except maybe the pilot’s, we arrived exactly 45 minutes after our scheduled time.

Add this to the fact that despite the 28 rows of seats on the plane, I was placed directly behind the family of one of my student’s. They have three kids. We should have known this was going to be less of a vacation and more of an adventure.

Due to our delayed flight, the only food shop open when we arrived on the island was the Chinese market. And let’s be honest, we only made it there thanks to our friend’s mad Spang-uese skills. We learned another fun fact about the island…only resorts and taxis accept dollars. Stores require euros or dobra. We had neither. Luckily our travel buddies saved the day…again. We were starting to feel like failures.

We woke up the next morning to this view from our window:


With a view like that, it’s pretty difficult to find the motivation to leave and so we spent our first day in São Tomé at our Airbnb. We snacked through lunch, but by dinner, we needed a real meal. São Tomé’s top-rated Trip Advisor restaurant was located a few hours drive south, so we settled for number two: Papa Figo.

Now, it’s probably not too surprising to hear that it’s difficult to find vegetarian options on an island, but when the menus are in Portuguese, it’s even harder! The only meat-free option we could understand was the vegetarian pizza and my stomach definitely left more rumbly than when we arrived. Not too surprising, given the fact that the restaurant lost power 3-4 times in the hour and a half that we were there.

The next day we had planned to head to the beach and spend the day snorkeling, but it rained until about 3 pm and the water stayed choppy all day. Instead, we spent another day at our Airbnb, where we had the misfortune of realizing that our other main attraction apparently had needed to be planned in advance.

São Tomé is home to the Marco do Equador, a slightly campy monument letting you know you are standing in both the northern and southern hemispheres at the same time. Unfortunately, this landmark isn’t actually located on São Tomé island at all. It is, in fact, on the Island of Das Rolas. And therefore, requires the rental of a boat. That must have been lost in translation.

It was at that point that we changed our São Tomé objectives. Instead of exploring the island, we were going to explore the island’s resorts. Which is why we spent the next three days resorting hopping and seeing what the island’s fancier side of life had to offer.

The most difficult thing we did for the remainder of our time was haggle with taxis for prices. Not by speaking, mind you. But with pantomiming and prices scribbled back and forth on receipts.



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