Sunday, September 18, 2011

A Gift of Five

This year is the 50th Anniversary of the Peace Corps. In Lesotho, such a momentous occasion calls for cows. In Sesotho, likhomo (dee-KHOH-moh). Now, as it turns out, Peace Corps affects lives in the long as well as the short term. As evidence of this, I offer the experience of Lesotho's Minister of Natural Resources, Monyane Moleleki. Taught by a Peace Corps volunteer in 1969, Minister Moleleki remains a staunch supporter and good friend of the Peace Corps in Lesotho. So, to honor Peace Corps' 50th Anniversary, he offered them the gift of cows - a gift traditionally reserved for the most important occasions. In fact, he gave five cows to Peace Corps Lesotho - one for every decade of the Peace Corps. In Lesotho, this constitutes a small fortune for most Basotho.

Indeed, this gift was significant enough that it was marked by its own formal ceremony. Prior to receiving the cows, Kathy and I, along with other Peace Corps staff, a couple of Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs), and the US Ambassador to Lesotho, Michelle Bond, all met for lunch at the Living Life Cafe in Ladybrand:

After lunch, we met Minister Moleleki at the farm where the cows were living, albeit not for much longer:

We all paused to admire the cows:

And the beautiful farm:

Here, Kathy, Minister Moleleki and Ambassador Bond pause for a photo opp:

Then I get my chance:

As do the PCVs:

And yes, Lesotho Television was there, and the Minister gave a speech:

Then he was interviewed by the reporter, as were the Ambassador and, of course, my beautiful wife:

As it turns out, Minister Moleleki has a deep and abiding love of music, especially classical music. Recently, he opened an orphanage (due to HIV/AIDS there are many orphans in Lesotho) with a special focus on music instruction. So, Kathy thought the occasion of such an important gift from the Minister was just the right moment to present him with a gift, as well. In this case, it was a violin from a PCV who wanted it to go to the Minister's orphanage (a few other instruments were also presented to him).

Here is 'M'e Jimi (who works at Peace Corps Lesotho and is helping me learn to negotiate the public transit system here and who is also just super cool and incredibly nice) with the Minister and the Ambassador:

After the giving of gifts, Minister Moleleki suggested we all go for drinks. Given that we were on a farm in the middle of rural nowhere, this seemed a challenging suggestion, though certainly in keeping with the Minster's personality. To our surprise, a relatively short drive found us at a local private game reserve called Zuikerkop:

Here, we all relaxed on the veranda, while the somewhat stressed out staff, who had not been expecting us, provided us first with drinks, and then ultimately a full meal.

One of the highlights of the meal for me was sitting next to, and chatting with, Sam Matekane, one of the wealthiest people in Lesotho. Now CEO of a large corporate conglomerate involved in farming, mining and other endeavors, and reportedly owner of a private jet and his own helicopter, he is a very down-to-earth gentleman. I quite enjoyed talking with him about Kathy's and my recent experience with the two flat tyres and how impressed I had been by the help we received, and learning in return how he had gotten his start as a youth selling donkeys. Really.

Too Much, Magic Bus

Those of you who know me are fully aware of my longstanding and loyal friendship with public transportation. It is how I get around. You may therefore be surprised to learn that I almost never use it here. This is because it works very, very differently here. And I have thus been somewhat intimidated by the whole process. And, as a consequence, frustrated.

That is beginning to change...

There are two main forms of public transportation here: the four-plus-one and the taxi. The former is what would be called a taxi back in the States. I am not so intimidated by them. They run all over Maseru, are very inexpensive, and relatively easy to use. But Maseru is so small I almost never bother.

I will note, though, an interesting difference between how they operate and how taxis operate in the States. Back in the U.S., if you want a taxi, you get the taxi driver's attention - you flag one down. Here, the dynamic is reversed. The taxi drivers (really four-plus-one drivers) travel about town honking their horns (hooters) at potential customers. They are trying to get their customers' attention - trying to flag you down. Of course, this means that downtown Maseru is a cacophony of car hooters and you soon learn to tune them out. On at least one occasion, an American trying to get my attention while driving by has failed to do so because the sound of their hooter completely failed to register with me...

What is called a taxi here is actually a small van, into which they pile up to 15 people. (Some, called "Sprinters", will actually hold up to 30.) The thing is, they have no set stops or schedules. So imagine trying to figure out how to take the bus from here to there when you do not know where to catch the bus (and these locations change from time to time even if you manage to figure it out), when to catch it (they tend to sit wherever they are until they fill up so even if you find it you can sit in it for an hour or so waiting for more passengers to arrive and join you), and the driver likely speaks a language you know only a little, if at all.

But recently, one of Kathy's Basotho co-workers agreed to help me begin learning how to negotiate this new system. I need to learn how to use the public transportation here, just to maintain my sanity. So she went down to the taxi rank with me, and helped me find the taxi to TY (Teyateyaneng). Now, let me tell you about the taxi rank. It is the most interesting part of town, by far. It is narrow streets lined with random small shops, and it is filled with street vendors and crowds. It is truly vibrant. Honestly, it most reminds me of the parking lot outside a Grateful Dead show. But it is not. It is Africa, an urban maze of small streets, I stand out, and I am still learning the language...

Anyway, this section of town includes several spots where lines of taxis can be found (hence, "taxi rank"). However, as noted, where a taxi to any given destination can be found is not a constant. So it takes some wandering and inquiring to find. But thanks to the kind and patient 'M'e Jimi ("MAY JIH-MEE", Kathy's co-worker), it did not take too long to find the taxi to TY. I boarded, literally wedging myself into the back seat along with three other people - all Basotho - and bid 'M'e Jimi farewell, or Sala hantle ("sah-LAH hahnt-lay", or stay well) in response to here Tsamaea hantle ("tsuh-MYE-uh hahnt-lay", or go well).

Then we sat there for about fifteen minutes. At that point, our taxi was full, but the one in front of us was not (and we could not get around it). It seemed that the one in front of us had a different destination, and no plans to move until it was full. Some "negotiations" took place between the drivers, and eventually we were able to pull free of the taxi rank and hit the road. The trip was only about an hour, all told. I got out at a familiar intersection in TY (thankful that others were getting out there, too, since I have no idea how to say "This is my stop" in Sesotho!). My plan was to wander about a bit, exploring, then have lunch at the Blue Mountain Inn (usually just called "BMI"), and return to Maseru.

Just after I had exited the taxi and begun to walk toward town, a Mosotho ("mus-SOO-too", singular of Basotho) woman who had gotten out of the taxi at the same time asked me if I was going to BMI and offered to show me the way. (A middle-aged white man on his own in TY is apparently likely to have few other destinations.) Though I actually knew the way, I accepted, and we chatted as we walked. She was attending university student in South Africa, but looking forward to finishing and returning to work in Lesotho. She was home visiting her mother when we met. Since many young Basotho leave Lesotho for work in South Africa, it was refreshing to encounter one who wanted to return as soon as she could. She loved her country, she said, and could not imagine living anywhere else.

Shortly, we arrived at BMI and parted ways. I went to the restaurant there and ordered the only item on the menu a vegan can eat: a plate of chips. I enjoyed it tremendously, as if I had come through some grand adventure, not merely taken the bus...

Over lunch, I jotted this down:

Up, Up and Away

Alive I find
The road again and still my friend
Beckoning coyly from the doorway
"Come find new skies
Explore their mountain borne sweetness
Learn to breathe their meaning
Like your own

Fly with the clouds
No longer hiding when they come
Dance in a single rhythm
With the stop and go
Here and now
Make the movements of belonging
Be a visitor no more"

On the road I have only
My own words
And those of kind strangers
Mostly then language is
A reflection
My philosophies
Regain their equilibrium
Back to basics
My conversations become
Simple introductions and easy farewells

I see distances as invitations
And changes in the weather
As new moods
From a new notion of together
I am forging my way forward
I am moving through time
With a stronger foundation
Returning to the journey
Having found my way home


After lunch, I visited a local weavers' shop. My favorite moment came as I was walking from there back to the main road through TY, where I planned to catch the taxi to Maseru. I was looking out over a valley I had seen before from inside a car, but it felt different. This time, I was on my own two feet, and I felt connected to that landscape as I never had before.

Upon returning to the main road, I found a taxi almost instantly. And it was more full than I felt like experiencing again so soon. So I waited. Soon, a "Sprinter" arrived, and it had plenty of room. It seemed a luxury ride. And better yet, this driver was playing famo music, a popular genre of local music I enjoy. The volunteers tend to complain about having to endure loud famo music on the taxis, but it was perfect for me at that moment: Watching the Lesotho landscape flow by, overhearing bits and pieces of Sesotho conversations, stopping here and there to drop off or pick up passengers, and making our way back home to Maseru.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Catholic Book Shop and Tyre Repair

Our return from Pretoria started out as the rest of the trip had gone, with a relaxing visit with a friend. This time, as we were headed out of town, we stopped for coffee with Kathy's counterpart at Peace Corps South Africa, their Country Director, McGrath (a very cool and down to earth woman). This visit was too short, but we were grateful for what time we had.

Then we headed home, which is when the adventure began. The fastest route home is to circle around west of Lesotho to the Maseru border crossing, as this involves staying on the best roads (pot holes notwithstanding). However, Peace Corps South Africa had recently placed one of its volunteers in Phuthaditjhaba (poo-TUH-dee-jah-buh), a small town just north of the Lesotho border. Living there, she had need of Sesotho language materials, which Peace Corps Lesotho has and which we agreed to deliver to that volunteer on our way home. That close to the northern border of Lesotho, we decided to cross into Lesotho there, in part because I wanted to see as much of the blossoming peach trees as I could while they were still in season. While the following picture does not do the phenomenon justice, it gives at least some sense of how the entire countryside of Lesotho becomes dotted with pink peach blossoms every spring:

However, the border crossing nearest to Phuthaditjhaba is not easily accessible. Here is a small segment of the road that leads up to it:

And I do mean the road that leads UP to it. This particular border crossing is on top of a mountain. The set of small structures seen on the ridge here is, in fact, the border post:

On the Lesotho side, some serious road work was underway:

As you can see, this path involves traversing the mountains well into Lesotho. Unfortunately for us, the construction was focused near the border. We soon returned to the rough gravel road that requires a high clearance vehicle with four wheel drive. We have just such a car. What we did not have that day were sturdy enough tyres. (That is how it is spelled here. And the horn is called a hooter. And the trunk is the boot. But I digress...)

Since this area is so remote, it is not surprising that there are Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) in the area. As we worked our way through the mountains, we began discussing whether or not we could find one in particular, as we knew we would be traveling near his village. Serendipity struck, and we actually saw the PCV we sought strolling along a lane with a local Mosotho (muh-SOO-too, the singular term for someone of Basotho heritage) man. We turned off onto that lane to visit briefly. We got out of the car. And lo and behold, one of our rear tyres was flat.

Now, I have changed tyres before, but I am not certain I could have managed it this time, due largely to the inadequacy of the jack provided by the automobile manufacturer. It was just too short. Thankfully, the man with the PCV (his counterpart and acting principal at the nearby school where the PCV works) and a local youth were up to the task. Through the careful stacking of stones and placement of the jack thereupon, they managed to replace our flat with our spare. And they did so without fanfare. Indeed, as soon as the job was done, the young man ran off, more interested in catching up with his friends for some football fun than in indulging our limited ability to thank him in Sesotho. And the man needed to be coaxed into letting us by him a Coke, as he seemed reticent to acknowledge that he had done anything out of the ordinary - even though he and his young comrade had saved us from being stranded in the middle of the mountains.

While there, we also got to visit the school where he and the PCV work, and where I tore open my scalp on a piece of barbed wire. Everyone else walked under it without even noticing it. But I cleverly did not. Ouch. However, I was soon distracted by our tour of the school, where a previous PCV had installed a small solar array, providing the schools with power. They can now run their copier. How cool is that? And how well does that put into perspective what I, at least, take for granted? Imagine a school in the U.S. functioning without the ability to make copies of handouts and tests and so forth...

Having seen the school, chatted with the PCV and his principal, and bought a beverage for the latter, we finally headed out, as we wanted to get clear of the mountains before the sun set, and it was late afternoon heading into evening. About thirty kilometers later, heading down an incline into a beautiful valley (I wish I had pictures of some of this section of our journey, as it featured some of the most stunning scenery we have yet encountered, but the battery in our camera died just after crossing the border), we heard a sudden loud hissing. Quickly pulling off the road onto clear patch of ground by a small stream, we got out. Sure enough, one of the front tyres was flat. So there we were: we had used our spare; the sun was setting; the temperature was dropping; and there was absolutely no cell phone coverage. We were well and truly stranded.

Needless to say, there is very little traffic in the remote northern mountains of Lesotho. But there is some. Most of it took the form of taxis, which were full. Most did stop to ask us if we were all right, but there was nothing they could really do to help us. We needed a tyre. So as darkness descended, we dug through our suitcase and wrapped ourselves in the dirty clothes we were bringing back with us form Pretoria. We fully expected a long and bitterly cold night, as the temperature was already near freezing that high up and the night had just begun. Let this be a lesson to all. Never travel through the mountains of Lesotho without blankets. Or without a torch (that's a flashlight for those of you in the colonies), which we also lacked and could have used.

Then a miracle occurred.

Insofar as the police are a miracle, anyway...

A truck with five police officers happened by on its way back to the nearest camp town, Botha Bothe (also sometimes spelled Butha Buthe), from the border post we had just crossed. There was little they could do to help us, as the one spare they had for their truck was the wrong size for our little Mitsubishi, but they promised at least one of them would return to help us later. Then they drove off. And we crawled back under our assorted worn clothing and waited. This was at about 7:30 pm. A little after 10:30 pm, we had begun to despair of their return when headlights appeared in the distance. It was two of the police officers in a pickup truck. With two spares of two different sizes.

At that moment, I wondered why it had taken them so long. Later, I was to realize that they had hurried. During the time they had been gone, they had traversed over 30 km of rough mountain road (twice), located and borrowed the truck, and found two spare tyres to bring back to us. And most of that they had done after their work shift had ended. Now, due to difficulties with the size of the jack provided with our car, the rough terrain, and the mismatched sizes of the spares, it took about two hours to get us squared away. That is two hours of those two bo-ntate (boh nh-DAH-tay) ba Basotho, lying on the freezing cold earth (I was out there with them and shivered the entire time), in the light of the headlights of their borrowed truck (remember the forgotten torch?), struggling with changing a series of tyres. At one point, one of the spares they brought got stuck on the car in such a way that it would not turn but also would not come off. Removing it, in order to try the other, which eventually worked after they traded it out with one of the remaining back tyres on our car as the spare would not fit over the brake pads, took almost an hour.

Given that they were off the clock and helping out strangers in the middle of a freezing cold night, I was immensely impressed with their dedication to the task. At one point, one of them said to me, "It is hard work, but it must be done. It is tough, but we must go." This embodied to me the spirit of the endeavor. It did not occur to them to leave us there. As they saw it, we could not spend the night. So we would not, no matter the effort required of them. I am immensely grateful for spirits such as theirs.

After they finished fitting us out with four functional tyres, we followed them from our streamside locale into the nearest camptown, Butha Buthe, where we were able to secure a minimal room at a lodging called the Crocodile Inn. Not exactly a luxury accommodation, it had a clean bed and heat that worked. We slept well. But we slept all too little. We had arrived around 1:30 am and were up and off to meet one of the police officers at 7 am in order to return the tyre he had loaned to us and to find someone to repair our flat tyres, that we might then head home at last.

True to his word, he was there at the police station first thing that morning, despite having been up half the night helping us. He told us where we could find a tyre repair shop, which we then proceeded to fail to find. He tracked us down later, as we sat parked on the side of the road in front of a tyre shop (the wrong one) that had not opened. He directed us around the back of the block where, in the same building as, and next to the sign labeling, the Catholic Book Shop, we found a group of men operating a tyre repair shop out of one small room. In little time, one of our tyres had been repaired, we were able to return the spare loaned to us by the police, and we were on our way back home to Maseru. The police officer did ask us to call him when we got home, though, as he wanted to make certain we arrived safely. (Ntate Jacob Chabalala, for that was his name, was just that kind of police officer.)

Kathy has since informed me that this was my first real African adventure, since one has not truly lived in Africa until spending at least part of a night sleeping in their car in the middle of nowhere...

Friends in Pretoria

Amongst the best friends we have made since moving to Maseru are Solomon and Arlene. Arlene is a Nurse Practitioner and had been working for Peace Corps Lesotho for quite some time, though she had left there a while before I first met her. Nonetheless, she and Kathy knew each other from their days working in Guinea and, as it turns out, got along famously. It did not take me long to understand why, or to come to enjoy morning coffees downtown at the Ooh La La Cafe (run on the grounds of the Alliance Francaise - no pun intended) with Arlene and her husband, Solomon.

Sadly, within our first year here, they moved to Tanzania, where Arlene had found work with Peace Corps there. We had planned on visiting them in Tanzania at some point, but they moved again: to Pretoria. Given that they are now much closer to Maseru, we took advantage of a recent long weekend to go see them.

We did some site-seeing while we were in Pretoria, and I must confess I quite liked it. I am not certain what I was expecting, but it seemed a vibrant city that managed to blend an old world feel with modern energy. For instance, we visited , Church Square in downtown Pretoria:

This park features a set of statues of Paul Kruger, renowned for his role in the Boer resistance against the British.

We also visited the Union Buildings, official seat of the government of the Republic of South Africa. Here I am with Solomon and Arlene in front of them:

Facing the other way provides a wonderful view of downtown Pretoria, as these impressive structures are located at the top of a hill:

Covering much of the hillside are some spectacular gardens, where tourists and locals alike are wont to linger:

Truth be told, though, the majority of our time was spent eating out, as Maseru lacks a wide variety of dining out options, and relaxing with Arlene and Solomon in their wonderful back yard:

To be able to spend a relaxing weekend in such a place, with three of my favorite people - and favorite people to talk with about life, the universe and everything - was a true pleasure. That we did so in such a setting, with springtime announcing itself as we did, made the moments just that much more sublime: