Africa

On Returning

Students playing in the schoolyard after computer class.

There are three people waiting for me when I get off the plane at the airport in São Tomé e Príncipe: Dany, the driver for Ned (the director of STeP UP, the organization I’m volunteering with); Miguel, the head computer teacher at the São João School; and my now ex-boyfriend, Kilson. Much is the same here in São Tomé– I can feel it as I walk through the airport, the concrete walls with painted advertisements, the musty smell mixed with sweat and heat, the outfits of the airport personnel. But then I turn and there’s a new passport control desk. And I realize that, like the three people waiting outside for me, much is the same, yet enough is different – one new passport control desk, one freshly painted house, one person of three – to stand out rather strikingly against the soothing background. And for some reason it’s the differences that you always notice first.

The dock that I know and love: One of my favorite places on Earth.

It’s interesting to come back to a place that you have grown to know and love. It is now my second visit to São Tomé, the first being only six months ago. Now that I am back, I see the place simultaneously with both eyes and memory. There’s the dock where I would lay out in the sun nearly every afternoon, soaking in its rays. There are the women selling jackfruit outside of the school’s gates. There’s the rusty washed up ship just meters from the capital’s shoreline that I would look at for hours at a time. But now, the road going alongside the shore has an extra speed bump, the dock has a new reinforcement. The little changes ignite the memory again.

Some things remain the same: Fooling around with my friends Michelle, Berkeley and Quintino as the boys play a lively game of chess.

When I dated my ex, I saw the world through his eyes- volleyball games at 5am on Saturday, late nights dancing at Beach Club, beer and conch at the local bar. I learned a country through an experience with another. Yet now, perhaps the biggest change in my mind is the one that has occurred between us. I am now in a committed, loving relationship with a guy I am crazy about, and my ex and I are learning the art of being friends. It’s a unique situation that I am sure other travelers have experienced. A pessimist could say I lost a relationship in my travels to see the world. But the optimist would say that I gained a friend- and a trustworthy and true one at that.

It’s an awkward adjustment to not rely on Kilson, although it’s no less important. A blessing in disguise, some may say, as I get to learn a whole country from two entirely different perspectives.

Last night, Ned throws a mixture of a welcome party for me and a goodbye party for the other volunteer, Polly. Kilson comes for a short amount of time with two friends. Shortly after he leaves, my friend Bianca stops over on a whim. I haven’t seen her since I left São Tomé the first time, and had forgotten to ask her for her email address so we’d been out of touch. When I tell her that I’m on my own in São Tomé this time, she takes my hand and guides me down the street. “We’re going out on Friday night,” she says to me. “You and me.”

At school, the teachers are glad to see me. At home, the boys (I consider them my brothers) are still the same. In many ways I feel I am coming back to something familiar. And in reality, I am. The changes, though substantial, are small. I can live with them. In my absence the world has continued, and I have continued both in parallel with and perpendicularly to the world. Anyone who travels has learned quite well to live with change- for wherever and whenever we go, there it is. The key is to embrace it and the opportunity it offers on the side.

Students playing in the schoolyard after computer class.

Beth Santos
Founder and CEO of Wanderful, creator of the Women in Travel Summit, enthusiastic lover of ice cream, picnics and art.

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