Sunday, January 20, 2013

Cooking and Crooning in Qacha's Nek

As a general rule, I only ever visit Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) when I go with Kathy.  But there are exceptions.  Two of the PCVs currently serving in Lesotho (and who I leave nameless to protect their privacy) are a married couple living in Qacha's Nek (KAH-chuz nehk, though the "Q" is properly pronounced as a click).  She cooks.  He plays guitar.  I took to them instantly.  We had talked every now and then, since we first met, about me going out to visit them for a weekend of food and music.  After a few false starts, we finally made arrangements for a visit on a weekend in November.  As it is Kathy's job to visit PCVs, a weekend spent doing that did not appeal to her as the getaway I felt it to be.  So she did not go.  She did generously drive me to the taxi rank early that Friday morning, though.  And by early, I mean about 4:30 a.m.!

Public transportation here is not much like its counterpart in the U.S.  There are no real schedules, and it consists mostly of taxis, which here are vans.  (What we call taxis in the States are called four-plus-ones here.  I think this means either four passengers plus one driver or four passengers in the back seat plus one in front. Not sure which.)  And the taxis generally do not leave their starting point until they are full.  This means you can sit for a long time before you leave.  The taxis are privately owned and operated, so they do not run until they can maximize their profit.  This makes me appreciate government subsidies for public transit in a whole new way.  Without those subsidies, getting to work (or anywhere else) in the U.S. on time would be darn near impossible for me!

So after Kathy dropped me off at the taxi at about 4:30, we sat there until 5:30.  Not too bad, really.  Sometimes you can sit for hours, or never leave at all.  The ride from Maseru to Qacha's Nek is about six hours in a very crowded van, i.e., at least 15 people.  There was one rest stop on the way, in Mount Moorosi (mohr-ROH-see).  All across Lesotho, there are small taverns, each also called a joaleng (zhwah-LENG).  Many have a sign with the joaleng's name and the word "Tavern" on it.  However, many of these signs are misspelled.  So many, in fact, that a joaleng is often jokingly referred to as a "tarven".  I had seen many of these, but in Mount Moorosi, I discovered the self-proclaimed best "tarven" of them all.

My arrival in Qacha's Nek was something of an adventure all on its own.  A storm was rolling through Qacha's Nek when I got there, so I was not getting a signal on my phone.  There are two networks in Lesotho, though, so I found a public pay phone affiliated with the other network and tried that.  No luck.  Both networks were down.  This left me with no way to contact the PCVs I was visiting.  And it was raining as I toted my bag and my guitar around.  I had made a booking at Letloepe Lodge (leht-LWAY-pay), but had no idea where it was.  I had planned on being shown by the PCVs.  Oops.  So no phone.  No idea where I was staying.  And it was raining.  After six hours in a cramped taxi. 

Somehow, it was fun.  No, really.  It was a true adventure.  New place.  Unexpected circumstances.  Required to rely on my own instincts and make everything up as I went along..  And needing to rely on the kindness of strangers.  I started by asking some police officers, conversing in a mix of Sesotho and English, or what I have come to call "Sesenglish".  They got me headed in the right direction, and I just kept asking folks along the way.  One Ntate, who spoke no English, actually walked me part way through his neighborhood so he could point out the way to me once we cleared the houses and could see the small valley between me and my goal.  I got to Letloepe, which I figured was my best choice for a destination, as it was the one place the PCVs I was visiting knew I would eventually go.  They were expecting me, and also had no phone service; so when they finished working for the day and decided to go looking for me, the lodge seemed the logical place for them to look.

So I checked in at Letloepe and went to my room to get me, and more importantly my guitar, out of the rain.  The room was basic.  And the power kept going out due to the storm.


Of course, having everything plugged into a single outlet did not help.  I could not charge my phone (for when service returned), get heat and watch television all at the same time.  When the electricity was even on.

Finally, though, the storm subsided and cell phone service returned.  I was able to get in touch with my hosts, and met them nearby.  We walked around town a bit, then headed to their place, which was on a church compound with an approach that felt more like the Pacific Northwest in North America than Lesotho.

I had brought some cooking supplies with me, and we had picked some up while exploring the town, so we were able to enjoy a big stir fry with brown rice and some lovely vegetables in a peanut sauce.  Not an easy meal to prepare in a one room home with a small stove and no counters, much less counter space, and while the electricity was out so we were preparing the food by candle light. (Fortunately, the stove ran on gas.) But we did it, and it was very satisfying.

One of the two PCVs teaches self-defense courses and martial arts to local youth as one of his side projects. This includes using a special suit for the courses.  The next day, when he found out one of his students was coming over to visit, he decided a bit of a surprise greeting was in order...

Here he is, in the suit, with his wife and the student who took the surprise remarkably well.

Because they are on a church compound, they occasionally get passers-by who are affiliated with the church, including this group of girls, or bo-aussi (boh ahw-OOH-see), who sang a bit for us.


The next day, we enjoyed a grand morning meal of vegan whole wheat pancakes with rhubarb sauce.  While her husband was working, the other PCV and I had stopped by a local nuns' retirement home to purchase some produce for our cooking, grown by one of the Sisters.  She was a remarkable woman, and we chatted for a while.  She and the PCV knew each other quite well.  Among the best moments of my visit was when, as we were leaving the nuns' compound, the PCV asked, "Who would have thought that my best friend in Lesotho would be a 74-year-old nun?"  Too cool.

We also attended a graduation ceremony at a local primary school where one of the PCVs did some of her work.  It was so much fun to see all the parents sitting out on the lawn, with children laughing and playing everywhere. It was one of those moments when it seems to me that people all over the world really do have a lot in common...


One of the best part of the graduation ceremony was the graduates' performance of some traditional forms of dance.  They began with this co-ed dance.

Then the boys, or bo-abuti (boh ah-BOOH-tee), performed with sticks called molamu (I am uncertain of the spelling, but it is pronounced mooh-LAH-mooh).

The girls then performed this dance, which I had never seen before.

We visited the Snake Park where one of the PCVs has his main project, and where they apparently care deeply about Shrek's girlfriend (the sign ends with the "comprehensive conservation of fiona and flora").

We climbed up to the escarpment behind the Snake Park, where the view was worth lingering over.

My second and final evening there, we prepared some wonderful Indian food and then played guitar, sang and talked about everything until the wee hours. All by candle light.  A fantastic weekend!

My deepest thanks to my hosts, who by no means had to agree to put up with their Country Director's husband for a couple of days but did so in a way that made me feel very welcome.  I would love to do it again.  And to my wife, without whom none of this would be possible, a very special "Thank you".

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