Latitude: 0° 20.9204’ N
Longitude: 6° 45.7471’ E
On day 12, the G Expedition pulled into the tiny island of Sao Tome.
I’ve spoken previously about the poor conditions and lack of a tourist infrastructure we found in Angola and Congo. On paper, Sao Tome is poorer than either of those two countries (primarily because of a lack of oil) and because of its location in the middle of the Atlantic, it probably get significantly fewer visitors as well.
Nonetheless, Sao Tome turned out to one of the highlights of the trip so far.
For those of you who don’t know about the nation of Sao Tome and Principe, it is a tiny former Portuguese colony in the Gulf of Guinea. The area is approximately 1/3 the size of the state of Rhode Island and the population is about 157,000 people. It is either the smallest or second smallest country in Africa, depending of if you include the Seychelles as African.
Unlike the rest of the stops on this trip, we were unable to dock in Sao Tome because they didn’t have a deep enough port or the facilities to handle the boat. We had to shuttle everyone from the ship to the shore via inflatable zodiacs. I think that sort puts into perspective just how small of a country this is, as the Expedition isn’t that large of a ship.
The first thing I noticed when we arrived were the flotilla of small fishing craft off the shore. What made them unique was that they were all carved from a single tree and all used bags of rice sewn together for a sail. They are small, ingenious, low-cost craft which sustain the fishing industry on the island. (see photo above)
Our first stop of the day was a coffee plantation on the island (Monte Cafe), but on the way we stopped at a waterfall and drove through some smaller villages on the way there. It was hard to put my finger on it, but while the people in Sao Tome are poor, life on the island seemed easier than what we saw in Congo or Angola. In fact, Sao Tome hardly seemed like it was in Africa. It could just as easily been an island in the Caribbean or the Pacific.
Once we arrived at Monte Cafe, we were swarmed by the local children who also go to school there. We were told that the coffee plantation only gets visitors once every 3-4 months, so it was a different experience for them. I can always tell how visited a place is by the reaction in the children. In over touristed spots, the kids have learned to beg and ask for things. In places like Monte Cafe, which gets few visitors, the kids are entertained by the novelty of having different people around.
After the plantation visit, we then headed back to the city of Sao Tome (capital of the country) for lunch. Along the way we stopped to see some local dancers who were performing. Supposedly the dance came over from the Congo from when the Portuguese transported slaves to the island. It was never really explained what the dance meant or its purpose, so I was left scratching my head about what I had just seen.
After lunch at a restaurant on the beach, we did a tour of the city which was hit all the usual spots you see on a city tour: the cathedral, independence square, a colonial fort and the presidential palace that we were told not to take pictures of. The condition of the public monuments seemed to be better in Sao Tome than in Angola or Congo. In many developing contries, monuments are erected to celebrate independnence or some leader and soon fall into a state of disrepair. While there was some of that, they at least cut the grass and trimmed the shrubs.
The summary from my brief visit to Sao Tome is that is a very un-African, African country. Because it is an island it is perhaps shielded from many of the problems on the continent. (For example, the rate of HIV infection in Sao Tome is only 1-2%, where in some African countries it can reach 20% or higher.) Oil exploration is underway which could bring more money to the country, but will probably also bring a whole other set of problems.
I’d love to return to Sao Tome sometime in the future to spend more time. It is a facinating little country which has a lot to offer.
Next Stop: The Island of Principe
Longitude: 7° 46.5771’ E
I should probably spend a bit of time talking about the internet and communications because I know many people have questions about it.
The internet connection aboard the Expedition isn’t great and it isn’t cheap. I can’t complain about it too much however, as I am still amazed at the fact that we are able to have an internet connection at all in the middle of the ocean. When you consider that the ship is usually in the polar regions, it is even more impressive. (the satellite which the ship communicates with is located over the equator, so the farther away from the equator you get, the harder it is to reach. It is a function of angle and signal strength, not distance.)
Nonetheless, the internet is slow. When you log into the system, it says you have a 96k connection, but in reality, this is only true if no one else is using the bandwidth. In reality, other passengers, the crew and official ship business can slow the connection even further.
I’ve used the internet on the ship enough now to have developed several tricks to maximize my experience.
- I use the mobile version of sites when possible. For example, using m.Facebook.com will make things load much faster than the normal Facebook page.
- I have set the basic HTML version of Gmail as my default. The standard version has too many scripts and takes too long to load. You lose out of features, but at least it works.
- I’ve learned to get online when most people are sleeping. After 11pm I can usually get better speeds than in the middle of the day. Likewise, if I get online first thing in the morning, I can usually get things to work.
The most frustrating thing has been the inability to upload photos. I usually upload images directly from Lightroom to my Smugmug account. That is impossible from the ship. What I’ve been doing is saving low quality jpeg’s, no larger than 600px wide and uploading those. The quality is usually good enough for online and I only need the photos to support the daily updates I’m doing.
The reason it is frustrating is because I have’ already taken some amazing photos on this trip and I really can’t wait to share them with everyone. I expect an orgy of photo uploading when I get back to Cape Town. I think I’ve been averaging over 500 photos per day on shore. I’ve been lucky so far in that at every stop, I’ve had at least one experience that has resulted in some really great images.
Next Stop: The Island of Sao Tome
Latitude: 4° 37.0843’ S
Longitude: 11° 51.5024’ E
The benefit of traveling by ship is that you can explore 70% of the Earth’s surface. The downside is that you are limited to only exploring places on land which are near the sea. I don’t this is effect more pronounced than in the Republic of Congo. There are some amazing places to visit in the Congo. The shoreline and the city of Point Noire isn’t one of them.
Deep inside the Congo are forests, national parks, and sanctuaries for elephants and gorillas. None of those places, however, are near Point Noire. The vast majority of the population in the Republic of Congo lives between Point Noire and the capital of Brazzaville. The really amazing parts of the Congo, however, are in the sparsely inhabited northern regions.
Point Noire is mostly an industrial port with little in the way of attractions. We disembarked in the port of Point Noire and boarded transportation which took us to a museum about the slave trade outside of town. The museum was, 1) all in French and 2) not very well curated. It wasn’t a great museum and I feel bad saying that because I am aware of the circumstances which exist in West Africa.
After the museum we did a brief stop to look at the Diasso Gorge, which is interesting but not really interesting. We had been warned prior to disembarking that we would probably find the gorge underwhelming, and it was.
At this point the photography hadn’t been very good. Museums are never great places to photograph and the time of day wasn’t really optimal for landscape photos.
I should take this time to note that I don’t think the reason to visit West Africa is because of tourist attractions. Our morning in Pointe Noire really hammered this point home. The tourism infrastructure isn’t well developed and many of the countries are so small that they really don’t have many sights to see.
The real reason to visit West Africa is the people. Our last stop of the day was at a grade school we visited. The purpose of the visit was to deliver supplies for the school and while we were there, the kids put on a brief show for us displaying their skills in singing, dancing, and oratory. The kids were grades 6-12 and many of the teachers and parents were in attendance as well (it was actually a school holiday, so they showed up just for us).
Visiting the school was the highlight of the day. The kids were great and they really put a lot of effort into the show they put on. Hopefully, they’ll put the school supplies to good use. The head of the school board gave everyone his business card so we could make donations if we like when we get back home.
Our visit to Pointe Noire reenforced the point that you don’t need tourist attractions to have a good trip. West Africa (and everywhere else in the world) is filled with people living their lives who are just as interested in the rest of the world as we are of them.
People are the biggest tourist attraction of them all.
Next Stop: The Island of Sao Tome
Today’s neat photo comes from frequent commenter Heather, who blogs on the neat website Ferreting Out the Fun.
Although a city girl at heart, some of my favorite travel moments have taken place in small towns and rural villages far from the bustle of urban tourist centers. One such moment occurred in Fuli Ancient Town, a centuries-old hamlet along the banks of the peaceful Li River deep in central China. We arrived by boat and, after clamoring ashore, crossed a wide field and entered the town through an archway with classically-peaked eaves. Climbing the last few stairs, we were suddenly greeted by a farmer and his water buffalo – a rather unconventional welcoming party. No other townspeople were in sight. The buffalo clomped slowly but steadily down the stairs as though he had made that same trek hundreds of times before while the farmer, laden with baskets of grass, followed dutifully behind. Noting the sign on the wall, I’ll always wonder: was the buffalo about to enjoy his own dinner or become someone else’s?
Visit the blog for the rest of this post.
The sale of British Midland International (BMI) to British Airways in 2012 excited the latter mostly due to the former’s routes in and out of London. Most of these routes were absorbed by BA, with some significant and lamentable exceptions. For fans of the Caucasus and Central Asia, the abandonment of routes to Bishkek, Tbilisi and Yerevan were particularly upsetting.
BMI’s other two divisions—the low-cost bmi baby and the short-haul bmi regional—did not come along for BA’s new ride. Low-cost bmi baby was simply abandoned, while bmi regional was purchased by a consortium of investors called Sector Aviation Holdings. The history here is worth revisiting. Sector Aviation Holdings actually sold bmi regional’s predecessor Business Air to BMI in 1996, so the 2012 sale returned bmi regional to its previous owners.
A rebirth with service to 21 European cities
Since 2012, bmi regional has performed very well. It currently serves 21 destinations across Europe. Multiple hubs in the UK anchor the airline but do not define it. Its recently expanded intra-Scandinavian routes, which hinge on Stavanger, are probably the most interesting component of the airline. From Stavanger the airline flies to Kristiansund, Narvik and Tromsø in Norway and Gothenburg in Sweden. With this flight volume, Stavanger is a proper hub for the airline. Only Aberdeen (with six routes) and Bristol (with five) see a greater number of bmi regional routes.
I recently sampled bmi regional from Aberdeen to Norwich. The in-flight experience, it must be said, wasn’t particularly noteworthy. I flew on an Embraer plane that was no spring chicken. The very subject of chicken is, however, relevant to my report. I have to call attention to my chicken salad sandwich, more delicious and vastly more filling than the tiny salmon bite I ate on British Airways on my way up to Aberdeen.
For European aviation industry observers, bmi regional is quite simply a fascinating company to track. There’s the fact that the airline bypasses London completely. It links Bristol, the UK’s eighth most populous city, with Frankfurt, Milan, Hamburg and Munich. It links Brussels with East Midlands and Newcastle, and it links Aberdeen with Norway, Sweden, Denmark and a number of destinations in England.
Taking the Norwegian market by storm
But the airline is really set apart by what appears to its sincere play for the Norwegian market. This move is brave at the very least in light of how well SAS, low-cost Norwegian and SAS Group regional airline Widerøe already serve Norway. And head-to-head competition doesn’t appear to deter bmi regional, either. Of its four intra-Nordic routes out of Stavanger, bmi regional faces competition on two.
There are other signs that bmi regional takes the Norwegian market seriously. The lead article in its in-flight magazine included a short digest version translated into Norwegian, and the following page includes an advertisement for the Norwegian version of the site. There is also a Norwegian domain extension for the site, flybmi.no, which redirects to a Norwegian-language version of the main website.
Finding sales & deals on all routes
Fare sales and weekend flights allow Cheapos to book flights without blowing budgets. The airline holds sales, which are publicized in its newsletter. Weekend flights on routes geared to weekday business travelers (Aberdeen-Oslo, Aberdeen-Manchester, Bristol-Frankfurt, Bristol-Hamburg, Bristol-Munich, and Brussels-Newcastle) are also often good value. The airline publishes and updates its lowest fares on the website.
The post BMI Regional: The special appeal of a small airline with frequent low fares appeared first on EuroCheapo's Budget Travel Blog.