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...

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