“Leve, Leve”: this is the motto and expression that defines an entire territory, a way of life and cultural identity of an island. It’s a vague and strange saying, especially if you’re arriving from western Europe, a fast-paced and internet-oriented society. São Tomé holds in this expression an entire definition of itself. Two words that materialize into everything around us, from the point we leave the airport, past Ana Chaves Bay until we take a plunge into the crystalline waters of the most secluded beach.
To explain it it’s necessary that we close our eyes and take a deep breath. At the moment that we hold in the air, ready to exhale and only heeding to the silence, this is when São Tomé grabs us in a moment of lightness and suspension. For ten days it was this state of “pause” that drove me along the island, in a state of apparent timelessness that made me absorb the day-to-day of the archipelago, making me realize that in here time stretches indefinitely until it reaches a full stop.
This state of pause is visible in the old Portuguese colonial houses, with fainted colours, kissed by the wind and the salt and caressed by the tropical rainfall and the passing of the years in the cracks of its façades. The old “roças” are the frame that embellishes this painting about the passage of time. Although the most iconic ones such as Monte Café and Agostinho Neto have been converted into museums or places of familiarization with the colonial past of the island, many others were abandoned, withering away with the years, and bestowing upon São Tomé a unique measure of character.
This a common scenery throughout the island. Wherever we look, nature slowly takes hold of human work. We can see it along the road, sparsely deteriorated by the rain, surrounded by banana trees and others that tile the sky with leaves as large as the person sitting right next to us.
There is a clear domination of mother nature in São Tomé. It’s hard to walk five kilometres without breathing in the green of the island. Be it for of the magnificence of Cão Grande Peak or the vastness of Obô Natural Park, the island literally transpires the sensation of being untouched, that few people really know it. To the south, remote beaches like Piscina or Jalé leave us in contemplation before the yellow sand, the turquoise blue of the ocean and the vegetation that garnishes it. Sete Ondas beach surprises us for its wild state, while in Ilhéu das Rolas, the trail to the Equador mark presents itself as an authentic stroll in the hot and humid forest, where the reward culminates with the arrival to the islands most famous geodesic point.
It’s also nature that presents itself as São Tomé’s great provider. All of the islands thrive with delicious fishery, freshly caught cuttlefish, breadfruit picked that very moment and bananas from the closest banana tree.
My fondest gastronomical experience in São Tomé took place in a little café on way to Micoló. “Lachonete Falcão” might go overlooked if you’re not paying attention, but the smoke coming out of the roadside grill entices us to stop and take a peek at the treats prepared for famished travellers and locals. It’s an unpretentious and humble place, where everything is prepared on the spot, with freshness and taste immediately compensating for the wait.
While waiting for the cuttlefish and breadfruit prepared by a young São-Tomé girl with a shy, earnest smile, we finally get a glimpse of what is “leve, leve”. We find it the children playing carelessly near the restaurant, racing with tires and a wooden stick, or even in a seashell vendor showcasing his assets in the hope that someone passes by with the intent of doing business, or even the pan salesman that walks by us, barefoot on the asphalt.
Everything exhales tranquillity. That is “leve, leve”. It’s what makes us feel at peace with ourselves, conveying the desire to stop and contemplate what surrounds us. It can also translate into a culture where slowing down is dominant, turning it into a sort of panacea for a happier life.
It’s curious to find such a positive and conscious feeling in a country where almost everything is lacking. And yet, that doesn’t lessen the smile and friendliness of the people we meet. The materialization of this fact might reside within the children that run in our direction screaming “doce, doce!”. Out of nowhere, a small horde of rascals surrounds us, grabbing our arms and asking for anything we can let go of, be it a pen, a keychain, a deck of cards…a “doce, doce!”. “Leve, leve” is also this: it’s knowing how these people convey an apparent easiness and just live step by step, breath by breath and second by second with only what they have.
Even though their limitations are noticeable in terms of infrastructure, the people of São Tomé e Príncipe can still transmit a sense of joy and unshakeable positivity, the fruit of resilience and adjustment. Exclusive condition of those who can appreciate the simple things in life in a place where you play football in the streets barefoot and where women still wash their clothes on the creeks that run down from the Obô.
São Tomé immediately sweetens our tongue. It’s purely genuine just like Africa should be. Its people are of a sincere and warm friendliness. And if we think that in São Tomé there isn’t a lot because of the torn t-shirts, the broken-down cars and crumbling houses, there’s a lot in the generosity of a people that with their motto, offer much more than what we could ever ask for. I’m not sure why I confess. But everywhere on the island, we are constantly feeling that we entered a place where time has no sense, no direction or meaning. That is the great souvenir that São Tomé leaves us with: questioning our own definition of time and embracing a new one, one that’s peaceful, calm, light, “leve…leve”.
Follow Miguel Neves’ adventures @thedeserts.