Friday, 16 March 2007

Right man for the Job?

There are literally thousands of travel guides for just about every destination in the world. Just go into Smith’s in UK or Exclusive Books in South Africa and you’ll see shelves groaning with them. There are Fodor’s Guides, Michelin Guides, Rough Guides and they cover all the known haunts and even obscure Pacific islands and towns and cities. There isn’t one though, not one for São Tomé & Principe that I could find.

It is possible, I suppose, that sitting in some dusty bookshop in Lisbon, there is one produced around the time that STP was still a province of Portugal and the country’s only export, cocoa was still dependant on indentured labour but there appears to be nothing in English and nothing widely available. Let’s face it, if it isn’t available at, 95% of those that could afford to go there are not going to know it exists. I would really like to write the first internationally available and widely distributed guide to São Tomé. I would imagine, though, that writing a country guide, especially the first one is a serious business. It would require a high degree of open-mindedness to allow for all tastes and highly responsible reporting to transmit a balanced and objective view. The first guide on a place would be disproportionately influential for it could easily impact such a fragile and tiny economy.

Perhaps I am not the right man for the job for no matter how hard I try, for example, I cannot think of one good thing to say about Nigeria. That’s not quite true. I can think of something. The emigration queue at the departure terminal of Mohammed Murtala moves along quite quickly and the officials were always very polite. I can honestly say though, that I cannot think of any possible reason why anyone in their right mind would come here unless they were being paid to do so. Sure, there must be some interesting places in Nigeria, some Sehenswürdichkeiten and most Nigerians you meet are nice people, but, when you think of all the hassle and expense it would take to get there, never mind the risk, there are millions of other places in the world one should go to first. Iraq for example.

When I first arrived in Nigeria some seven months ago, I was consulting to two clients. The contract with one client has now drawn to its inevitable conclusion and unless I find something else to do, I am faced with the prospect of only working one month out of every three. Now in any other country of the world that I have worked in, this would have left me sleepless with worry. What the hell would I do with myself? How would I meet my commitments without depleting jealously guarded yet still woefully inadequate reserves? Where would I stay now that the house is sold in Cape Town? Yet the prospect of having two months clear before having to return to Nigeria, even with the attendant financial uncertainty has left me strangely quiescent. I imagined myself being able to completely relax. I thought about fishing for Tarpon off São Tomé, of compiling a photo journal of the islands and exploring from dawn till dusk. And in the evenings, drinking Caipirinhas, watching the sun sink beneath the equator and writing that travel guide.

I have now been asked if I would consider working six weeks out of every nine in Nigeria. Coming so soon after dreams of extended relaxation in unspoilt São Tomé, the thought is alarming, even if it does mean a heck of a sight more money. I would much rather see a little guide that I had spent months putting together sitting on the shelves of airport bookshops or being able to submit ‘author’s notes’ to Amazon, even if the return didn’t cover the investment to produce the draft.

Thinking about it, maybe I am exactly the sort of person who should write the guide. Things are not perfect in São Tomé by any means. Apart from it being awkward to get to, there is little electricity outside the capital, few properly surfaced roads and everything has to be imported. Coming straight from Nigeria to São Tomé, though, absolutely everything is bound to be far more enchanting and less chaotic by comparison. The guide would be a eulogy to paradise. I guess there is only one way to find out.

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