The Island That Doesn’t Speak English

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.

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Resort Hopping in São Tomé

I learned a lot about myself this week. I learned that I’m over “roughing it.” I learned that sometimes, when I want to relax, a resort will suit me just fine.

This year, we decided to spend spring break in São Tomé. If you’ve never heard of this country, don’t feel too bad. I hadn’t either before moving to Ghana. It’s a small set of islands (São Tomé and Príncipe) located west of Gabon and south of Nigeria.

We went with four other people, and to cut down on costs, decided to share an Airbnb. We thought we’d have a low-key, quiet week at the house. For anyone who’s ever spent any time in Africa (I hate to generalize, but for me this has usually held true), something will inevitably go poorly. Whether it’s power outages in Ethiopia, a city-wide day of rest in Djibouti, or Ghanaian food that can’t be made fish-free (a moment of truth: Nothing went wrong in South Africa).

In São Tomé, it was 24 hours without running water. And as much as I’d like to blame the Airbnb for this, it’s definitely a country-wide problem. Also, for as beautiful as the house was, it had been built by the ocean in 2002 and was, 15 years later, absolutely falling apart. The downstairs hosted every kind of bug imaginable, and our bathroom was even home to a very large roach and a very small crab.

That said, the upstairs was light and airy and had wonderful views. I read three books while on vacation here : )

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Eventually, however, a girl needs some water (and light to read by in the evenings – man that house was as dark as a dungeon at night!).

We ventured to Omali Lodge on our second day in São Tomé. As you can expect, island food isn’t very vegetarian friendly, but we were able to dig into some homemade mac & cheese, rice & veggies, chips, and of course, dessert – a brownie with peanut ice cream. However, the real reason to go to Omali is for their cocktails. Their passion fruit margarita was divine.

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Island hopping in Thailand

An hour waiting in line, two more on a boat, and a final eight on a bus, and I’m finally back in Bangkok. Hard to believe we’re already done with Koh Samui and Koh Tao. Koh Sam (as I keep calling it) was definitely my favourite (hilarious since we initially planned only one night there), but Koh Tao definitely had it’s perks.

We stayed at Coral View Dive Resort, which is on the quieter side of the island. And while the staff was a bit prickly, we couldn’t argue with the beauty of our surroundings. The rooms were 900 baht a night, but worth it for the privacy.

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The bungalow next to us housed two more RPCVs (Yata and Zach), who decided to join us for some fun in the sun : ) We spent the first few days relaxing by the water and enjoying the views – and making a run into town for supplies. We were even more secluded than we had imagined and had very little access to anything! The food at the resort was decent, but pricey, so being the cheapskates we all are, we bought cereal and fresh fruit for our breakfasts. Ah, the joys of having 7-Elevens (and fresh markets) around!

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A day in Doha

Chandler said our first day of vacation was a success – we visited everywhere we wanted to. I had more mixed feelings…

Doha is hot. 109 degrees Fahrenheit hot. And I don’t do well with heat (understatement). We tried to take the city bus (20 QAR for a day of unlimited rides), but during our whole time waiting, only one passed. And it didn’t stop. Which wouldn’t have been such an issue, but we were trying to get to Souq Waqif, which closes at noon (and it was already 10:30) and doesn’t reopen until four. So we gave up and headed for the taxis (costing considerably more at 41.50 QAR one-way). And then, just a few minutes later, we got rear-ended.

The heat was miserable as we wandered around Souq Waqif and Gold Souq, but all our window shopping made it bearable. I’ve promised myself I’m only going to buy something if I can’t fathom life without it, we’ll see how long that lasts – but today, it was a success. A lot of the fabrics were beautiful, but I don’t want to lug those around for the rest of this trip! And we found tons of antique compasses, but again, it’s too soon for souvenirs.

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Wait, you’re going to Djibouti…for vacation?

That was the follow-up question the US Embassy Officer asked us after we told him we were going to Djibouti for a few days. I’m a Peace Corps Ethiopia Volunteer. Volunteers go to Djibouti all the time. In fact, in the last three months I can think of at least six people I know who have gone to Djibouti – all for vacation.

So I guess I forgot that Djibouti is not a normal tourist destination. But on the flight over I couldn’t imagine why not. I had done my research, obviously I already knew that Djibouti was on the ocean (a major reason for going), but I had also looked into a number of delicious sounding restaurants, as well as a number of scuba/snorkeling companies. Djibouti sounded great.

And then we arrived…

There is nothing in Djibouti. I’m not kidding and I’m not exaggerating. There’s nothing there…except military outposts. But at this point of the trip I only vaguely knew that.

We stepped out of the airport just after 11 am, arriving a little late, thanks to a sick passenger who made us taxi back to the gate before we could finally take off. We hopped into a taxi, thrilled that all of the prices were predetermined and posted on a sign (in Ethiopia, taxi drivers are constantly trying to rip you off, there’s no set price or meter). We told the driver Kempinski Palace, not because we could afford to stay at the nicest resort in Djibouti, but because the company we were using for our whale shark adventure had their office there.

The smallest bill we had gotten from the ATM was 5,000 Djiboutian Francs, so I handed it to the driver expecting 3,000 in change – because the sign had clearly read 2,000 to Kempinski. Instead he handed me 2,000. Chandler was already out of the taxi, but I sat there and refused to move, demanding my change. 1,000 DJF may only amount to $5.56, but I wasn’t about to be ripped off. First, the driver claimed that the sign had really said 3,000. Then he claimed that he had to pay a 1,000 fee to park at the airport (it’s really 200 and clearly, it’s already been calculated in). I simply stared him down and eventually he threw another 1,000 DJF bill in the backseat. Classy.

Chandler and I laughed about how some things (like being ripped off by taxi drivers) must simply be universal. We wandered around and found the diving office only to be told that while they had booked us for a night on Moucha Island for that night, they couldn’t take us to see whale sharks on Friday. They had rented out all of their boats and had lost our reservation. Neat. But they promised to contact another diving agency and get us signed up. So we paid up and waited at Kempinski for about an hour before the boat arrived to take us to the island.

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We made the trip over with two others, both going to the island to scuba dive – there are plenty of beautiful reefs and fish by the island, but no whale sharks, so we didn’t join them. We soon discovered we were the only people on the island. At around 5 pm, the divers left and Chandler and I were alone with the manager, dive instructor, and chef. Awesome.

We spent the evening on the private beach just down the way from our cabin and then came up for dinner at 7 pm. We had told the cook we were vegetarians, but in this part of the world that means you eat fish. He made a delicious soup (I couldn’t even begin to tell you what was in it) for our starter, and then we had fresh fish, green beans, and french fries for our main course. Dessert consisted of pineapple in pear sauce and all of it was devoured in the soft light of the bar just meters away from the ocean.

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This wasn’t a trip, it was a vacation

My South African vacation came at just the right time…which sounds ridiculous, I understand, given the fact that I was in Italy just over a month ago. But Italy was a trip – lots of traveling, sightseeing, moving around. South Africa was a vacation.

We got to the resort, and after a much needed use of WASHING MACHINES (I won’t even tell you how many we used), we proceeded to do nothing but sit on the beach, sleep in, and buy more groceries than you would have previously thought possible.

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So here we are, looking pretty clean and quite relaxed. Also, this was my first trip to an ocean, so I was quite content to just sit around and stare at it. Something I was able to do from either one of our two balconies facing the ocean – magical.

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Just down the beach from our resort were the Umhlanga Rocks – apparently famous in Durban – and a darling little lighthouse. Many a walk was had on that beach, both during the day and at night.

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I was a tourist

I just spent the last two weeks in Italy with my mom and sister. Despite the fact that I once called that country home, this time, I went as a tourist. It was the first time my mom or Brittany had ever left North America, so it seemed imperative that we spend at least part of our time as tourists. Not to mention that I have spent the last year in a foreign country, trying my hardest to appear as far from a tourist as possible. So it was nice to relax and not care so much for once.

Our first stop in Italy was Rome. It had been three years since I had been in Rome, but it still smelled the same…the subtle scent of water coming from fountains around every corner, the pizzerias just as numerous as the fountains, the salty sweat from tourists unprepared for the heat, the good, the bad. My first thought – God, I missed this place.

Our first day was fairly lazy. We wandered around the city until we could check into our hotel. Our first stop? Piazza Navona – my favourite spot in the city. Granted, I prefer it before 8 am when the tourists are still in their beds, but I love that piazza any time of the day.

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Day two we had a mini trip out of the city. We headed to Tivoli so I could show them my favourite villa – Villa d’Este. The house is beautiful, though similar to many other villas you could find in Italy, but it’s the gardens that set this place apart. The gatto del bagno that I met the last time I was there had disappeared, but I did find my favourite statue.

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Day three was our super tourist day. We did it all – and I mean it all. Campo di Fioria/Piazza Navona/the spot where Julius Caesar was killed aka the Cat Sanctuary/the Pantheon/the Trevi Fountain/Piazza Venezia/the Roman Forum/the Colosseum/Bocca del Varita (if you don’t know what this is, watch Roman Holiday). Sheesh. Quite the day. Quite a bit of walking.

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Day four was shopping, the Spanish Steps, and a picnic in the park. Followed by an adventure to find my favourite restaurant – Gusto. We were successful, and had a great view of Castel Saint Angelo in the process.

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