Sunday, September 18, 2011

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.

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