Friday, April 30, 2010

I bet cowboys have amazing abs...

When I was studying in Durban in 2007, I spent my Easter holidays pony-trekking the Drakensberg Mountains in southern Lesotho. It snowed like nobody’s business, my butt bruised and chapped like never before, I ruined my one and only pair of jeans, my horse had a thing for kicking other horses and their riders, I had to listen to the constant whining of a dainty French woman for days on end, and, on more than one occasion, I saw my life flash before my eyes as my horse tempted the fates of gravity on narrow mountain trails. Afterwards, when I had safely made it back to the base camp without losing a finger to frostbite or falling off a cliff, I thanked the horse for not killing me and said NEVER AGAIN!

And then, in March, when Jenn and Jaci said “Hey, let’s go to Lesotho!” I said “Lesotho is so beautiful! Let’s go pony-trekking!”

Me, Jaci, Jenn, and Danielle, started out early on Saturday morning with a kombi (mini-bus) trip from Nhlangano to the Mahamba border post, then on to Piet Retief, then Paulpietersberg, then Vryheit, then Ladysmith, then Qwaqwa to the Maseru border post. My favorite part of the whole trip was the last 2 hours, which we spent experiencing both the incredible beauty of Golden Gate National Park and the repeated sales pitch of a traveling feminine hygiene product salesman. Then, after 10 hours on kombis and 20 minutes spent finding someone to stamp us into Lesotho (apparently most people just walk through), we caught a cab to downtown Maseru, the capital of Lesotho.

And then all of my glorious well-thought-out plans fell to pieces.

Our original plan was to get all the way to Malealea, a little town about 60 kilometers (30 miles) south of Maseru, on Saturday, but darkness beat us to it. We were stuck in Maseru for the night. Without a place to stay, a phone, an inkling of what anyone was saying to us (SeSotho is not closely related to SiSwati). Since we didn’t know where we wanted to go, the cab driver got tired of our indecision and dropped us off at the police station. (If you’ve ever been to Africa before, you know that a police station is not the ideal place to spend your Saturday night, but we were without other options.)

We dragged our bags and tent into the station and parked ourselves next to a handful of homeless men on a bench and decided to make a new game plan. An off-duty police officer (who had clearly just come from happy hour) lent us his phone to call the only person in Lesotho that any of us knew, Sbu, to ask where in Maseru we could stay without getting robbed/assaulted. He suggested his friend Curtis’s apartment, which seemed as good a plan as any. (And free.) So we waited for him to show up. And waited. And made peanut butter sandwiches for ourselves and our new homeless friends. And waited.

Two hours later, two cabs pulled up full of people with names like “Hi-Tec” and “Master.” They said they were friends of Sbu, so we got in and they took us to Curtis’s apartment in Maseru West. Turns out, Curtis is an American from North Carolina who works for an organization called Kick4Life that does health and life skills education through soccer. (It’s a GREAT organization and they work all over the world. Check it out.) Lucky for us, both of Curtis’s roommates were out of town for the week so we got to take showers and watch TV and sleep in beds, which is a whole league above what we could have expected after eating peanut butter sandwiches in the police station.

The next morning we woke early to finish our grand trek to Malealea with two more kombi rides. We pitched our tent in a patch of shade at the campground at Malealea Lodge, a little place in Malealea that serves as base camp for a variety of outdoorsy-type activities like hiking and pony-trekking to nearby mountain villages and cave paintings. The lodge is run in conjunction with an organization called Malealea Development Trust, which does things like health education, setting up pre-schools, and primary schools, income-generating projects for women in the area, support groups, learning circles, and a whole bunch of other really impressive development-related things. My favorite project of theirs is the pre-school furniture project. They use bailing wire to stack and string together old soda and beer cans, then put slabs of plywood on top of them to make tables and chairs. It’s an amazing use of recycled materials, plus it’s colorful and completely useful. And creative. (I’m not explaining it well, but there are pictures below.) The organization is run almost entirely by volunteers and does some REALLY impressive work.

Sunday evening, with our bellies full of Basuto bread (delicious!) and exhausted from two days of travel, we put on all of our warmest clothes , zipped ourselves into our sleeping bags around 7:30 and fell asleep to the sound of the rain falling gently outside. I slept soundly for a couple of hours until 10:30 when I woke up cold and wet. The rain was still falling at a steady pace and, turns out, our borrowed tent was not exactly waterproof. My brand new Basuto blanket (Lesotho is known for its wool blankets), my sleeping bag, my North Face fleece, all of my socks and shoes, and the majority of the contents of my backpack were soaked through. The water was dripping through the seams of the tent and onto my face. I was lying in a puddle. I looked around at everyone else in the tent, sleeping soundly, and forced myself to lie back down in the puddle, my sleeping bag protecting my face from the incessant dripping. No sense in disturbing everyone else, right? Not if I’m the only one suffering…

Two hours later, just after midnight, Jenn woke up in a puddle of her own. As did Jaci. And Danielle. It was 40 degrees outside and we were lying, along with our whole week’s worth of warm clothes, in a kiddie pool.

By that point, the situation was so ridiculous that we had no option but to evacuate the tent and move our wet selves to the partially-enclosed communal kitchen 20 feet away. We grabbed our valuables and our wet blankets/sleeping bags and made a run for the kitchen in the dark, setting up a make-shift camp for the rest of the night. Jaci and Jenn camped out at the table wrapped in wet sleeping bags, their heads resting on the table. Danielle and I set our wet sleeping bags on the cement floor and tried to ignore the cold and wet long enough to fall back asleep. And, surprisingly, we did.

(Here’s where I put in my sales pitch for the Basuto blanket I’d bought earlier that evening. It’s teal with black corn cobs and red stripes on it, which is a lot prettier than it sounds, and looks just like a normal wool blanket. Except it’s not. It’s super heavy, waterproof, and REALLY warm. Totally worth the exorbitant amount of money I paid for it. After making it through that night, I understand why they are such a crucial part of the traditional Basuto attire. Superblankets. Really.)

The next morning, we woke up surrounded by really confused but sympathetic fellow campers who put on the kettle and lit a campfire for the four of us. After we finished drying out all of our wet clothes and inadvertently melting the soles of our shoes around the campfire, we packed our clothes into our saddle bags and embarked on the great pony-trekking adventure with our guide, Mpho (Gift), and his assistant.

That first day, we rode almost 8 hours through mountains, down into valleys, across rivers, and back up into the mountains. Some of the paths were as wide as a road, some only a foot wide. At a couple of spots, the incline was so steep or the path so slippery that we had to get off our horses and walk them through it. If you’ve never been hiking with a horse, it’s a pretty scary experience. Not only do you have to worry about your own footing on the side of the mountain, you also have to make sure you stay out of the path of 800 pounds of metal-footed momentum. An adventure, that’s for sure.

Our horses were experienced hikers, though. On the website for Malealea Lodge it says something about how the “sure-footed Basuto ponies” know how to climb, which would be a little ridiculous if it wasn’t so true. They can climb. And run. And devour whole stalks of sorghum in a single bite. My horse, Gray Skies, was a big white and gray horse who liked to be in the lead. He also liked to run, so I took to calling him White Lightning.

As if the trip wasn’t challenging enough already, about halfway to our destination it started raining again and White Lightning’s hooves were slipping and sliding beneath me. Luckily, horses have four feet with which to catch themselves when they lose their footing. Unless, of course, both of the horse’s right feet slip out from under him at the same time, which is exactly how I ended up lying in a puddle of mud with a horse on my right leg. Lucky for me, though, I’m very experienced at falling down and was able to do it without hurting myself, but my jeans will never be the same.

Just before dusk, our guide Mpho informed us that we had about 30 minutes of riding left to the village of Ribaneng, where we’d be staying for the night. Then, an hour later, he informed us that we had about an hour left (a prime example of “African time”). By this point, the sun had long set and it was completely dark. We’re talking pitched-black, can’t-see-a-foot-in-front-of-your-face, guided only by the moonlight, rural Africa dark. And we’ve still got 3 villages, 2 river crossings, and an unknown distance between us and the village of Ribaneng. Mpho kept reassuring us that the horses know the way, that they’ve done this trip hundreds of times before, that we should just “trust” them to keep their footing. I asked if they could see in the dark, but he wasn’t sure. “You should just TRUST that they can,” he kept telling me.

An hour later, we finally made it to the village of Ribaneng and, after thanking our horses profusely for getting us there safely, the four of us dismounted and walked bow-legged to our little hut. The house was pretty basic: a rondavel constructed entirely of sticks and cow dung with a polished cow dung floor, four foam mattresses on the floor, one dilapidated table, a candle and candle-stick holder, a two-burner gas stove (we brought our own gas tank and matches), and 3 large rocks (two to hold the burners up off the table and one to prop open the door). We were given about 10 liters of water each day (about 2.5 gallons) for cooking, washing, dishes, and drinking, and we borrowed a big pot and dishes from the village chief. After a nice balanced meal of lentils and rice, we were asleep.

The next morning we got our first glimpse of the beautiful landscape just outside our door (which was made of wood, not cow dung). Despite Lesotho’s relatively close proximity to Swaziland, I was surprised at how different the little village of Ribaneng was compared to the villages in rural Swaziland. And it wasn’t just the mountains. There were no roads to Ribaneng, so the houses were constructed mostly of natural materials (cow dung, mud, sticks or gathered timber, rocks, thatching grass, reeds, etc.) and fenced with strategically planted aloe plants rather than metal fencing. All man-made materials (factory-built doors, cement, pit latrine seats, etc.) had to be sent down the river. The houses were even arranged differently than in Swaziland. Where I live, the “village” is spread out over many kilometers, with each family occupying a “homestead” that consists of several buildings and a plot of land for farming. In Ribaneng, each family occupied one or two small houses set right next to the neighboring family’s houses much like an American suburb, and the farm land was on the outskirts of the cluster of houses. Each family had its own cooking fire, a small yard for washing and hanging laundry, and maybe a small vegetable garden, but several families used the same pit latrine and kept their horses on the same flat patch of land. And it was BEAUTIFUL.

After a quick breakfast, we set out on a journey to the top of the Ribaneng Waterfall and finally got a glimpse of the kind of treacherous paths we’d navigated in the dark the previous night. We climbed up, up, up, a rocky and crumbling trail to a big plateau of sorts above the waterfall, where we took lots of pictures (including some with a Glamour Magazine for the “Where has your Glamour been?” section of the magazine) and frightened our guides by getting dangerously close to the sheer drop-off. About 200 meters below us was the Ribaneng Waterfall, the river leading to the village, and, even further, our little hut. In the afternoon, we attempted to hike to the source of the waterfall. We failed, maybe because of a poorly marked path, maybe because we weren’t paying attention to where we were walking. But it was fun anyway.

The next morning we set out on the return trek to Malealea. This time, the water level in the river was low enough that the horses could safely cross without being swept away, cutting about 2 hours off our travel time (turns out the overly full river was to blame for the hour of riding in the dark the first day) and giving us a few extra minutes to stop and look at some cave paintings. We made it back to Malealea in the afternoon and, after a quick re-pack, began the 2-day public transport trek back to Swaziland.

Thursday night, after another 10 hours on public transportation, I made it back to Swaziland, exhausted, smelly, and with a completely new outlook on Lesotho: I DEFINITELY want to go back. I’m not sure why exactly I loved this trip so much. Maybe the extremely friendly and helpful people, or the beautiful landscape, or the feeling of being completely removed from “civilization” and modernity. Maybe the stillness of sitting at the top of a waterfall, or the pleasant chime of the bells identifying grazing herds of cattle, or the flocks of fluffy white sheep whose wool is woven into the Basuto superblankets. Maybe it was just the horses, or the rustic-ness of Malealea Lodge, or the amazing work that the Malealea Development Trust does.

Overall, I was extremely impressed with Lesotho. Being so close to Swaziland, I was expecting it to be culturally similar, to look somewhat similar, to sound at least slightly similar. But it didn’t. They (anthropologists) say that the Basuto culture is so markedly different than those around it in Southern Africa because the mountainous landscape kept out foreign influences. Neither the British nor the Afrikaaners really penetrated the inner parts of the country, and most Bantu people chose to settle in the more hospitable terrain of Swaziland and South Africa, leaving the culture of the San people relatively isolated. Granted, now, most of the people in Lesotho are of Bantu origin, but the culture is still markedly different than that of the Bantu people elsewhere in Southern Africa.

More recently, Western influences, NGOs, and development in general have taken on a different, more limited form in the country than in Swaziland. I’m not saying that all development is bad. I’m sure the infant mortality rate in Lesotho would be reduced if people in rural areas had access to a better standard of health care, and I’d be willing to bet that roads to the more remote parts of the country would aid in the delivery of basic services like education, but I think there’s something to the subsistence lifestyle. In Swaziland, people in the rural areas farm only enough to still be eligible for free handouts from World Food Programme, but in the remote parts of Lesotho they haven’t reached that level of dependency. In Swaziland, the roadsides are littered with KFC bags and Coke cans and candy wrappers, but in the village of Ribaneng we were surprised to see a bag of chips. Once. We saw non-organic waste a total of one time in 3 days. When was the last time you went an hour without seeing plastic packaging? Being in Lesotho made me think of how Swaziland would be without so much Western influence, or how my community would have been generations ago before drought and HIV and paved roads and KFC and Coke.

One of the biggest differences I saw between Basuto culture and Swazi culture was the treatment of animals. Maybe it comes from having been dependent on horses for both transportation and hauling things for hundreds of years, but the Basuto people seem to have a much greater appreciation of animals than do Swazis. Most families in the village had a horse or two, which they fed and groomed and covered with blankets at night. All of the dogs that we saw were well-fed and traveling alone or in pairs, unlike the skin-and-bones packs of dogs on every homestead in Swaziland. Pigs, cows, and sheep kept in the villages were all fenced in rather than roaming free and eating everyone’s crops like they do in Swaziland, and each herd of cattle or sheep on the mountain was being escorted by a herdsman or shepherd. And herds of animals were kept for a purpose—cattle and pigs for meat, cows for milk, chickens for eggs or meat, sheep for wool—rather than simply being kept as a status symbol like in Swaziland.

The language, Sesotho, was also completely different than what I’m used to in Swaziland. It’s full of R’s and lots of very un-Swazi vowel sounds, and very few people in the country understood enough Zulu for us to communicate with them. It was strange, after 2 years of living in Swaziland, to once again be surrounded by people I didn’t understand. At least in Swaziland when I don’t understand what someone is saying, I can figure out their tone and decipher a few of the words they’re using to infer the general idea. In Lesotho, I was completely lost, and it was kind of unnerving. I guess before I go back again I’ll have to study up on Sesotho. (I’m plotting a return for the first two weeks of September to work with the Malealea Development Trust and ride to Semonkong Waterfall, but I’ll have to wait and see how financially feasible that actually is…)

For now, though, I’m back in the land of the Swazis, surrounded by packs of feral dogs but understanding about 50% of what people say to me. And, all things considered, I’m happy to call Swaziland home. Lesotho may have horses and pristine wilderness, waterfalls and houses made of cow dung, but Swaziland has my host family and my dog and all my friends in my community. And I stay dry when it rains at night. That wins.

Love from the Swaz!

Jenn, Danielle, Mpho, Jaci and me relaxing after making it back to Malealea in one piece. We look exactly like you'd expect one to look after 3 days without bathing. (For the record, that's nomal for me in Swaziland.)

My horse Gray Skies/White Lightning/El Presidente (he was really bossy). I also took to calling him "Hash" (pronounced like "Hosh"), which kind of means "horse" in SiSwati (lihhashi). He was fantastic.

A herd of approaching sheep. This guy in front of me is the assistant guide, whose name I could never pronounce, and the pack horse, who quite kindly carried all our swag to Ribaneng for us.

Danielle, Jaci, Jenn and me sitting down for the first time afte being on a horse for 8 hours. It was painful.

Me, Jenn and Jaci on top of the plateau overlooking Ribaneng Waterfall.

Cows versus horses. This is what a traffic jam looks like in Lesotho. (Also please note the cow bells attached to each of the cows. Turns out cow bells aren't just for calling your servants/parents when you're sick.)

Sheep! I took so many pictures of sheep that our guide, Mpho, thought I was crazy.

These four kids were just BEGGING for us to take a picture of them. Or so we thought. Shortly after this photo, they started screaming and crying and ran away. The yellow blanket on the right is just like the one I bought (except mine is teal). They use them as coats, mattresses, blankets, dresses, etc. all the time.

Cool rock formations on the top of the plateau overlooking Ribaneng Waterfall. I think it's formed by standing pools of water? Or maybe dinosaurs. (I vote for dinosaurs. There ARE actually dinosaur footprints in Lesotho, but without renting a car we couldn't get to them.)

The view from the front door of our little hut. That river down there is the one we crossed twice in the dark (maybe 3 times?).

Lanscape of Lesotho. Isn't it beautiful?

This is one of the many villages we passed on our trip. The line of aloe plants there is the makeshift fence, which I personally think is brilliant.

Our horses crossing the river. White Lightning was smart enough to use the footbridge, but the other girls' horses had vertigo issues.

Me and Jaci hanging out in a shepherd's cave. Everyone else was looking at the cave paintings, I was just enjoying the shade. (This is why I don't have pictures of the cave paintings.)

Preschool tables and stools made out of cans, bailing wire, and plywood. I'm saving my cans to do the same thing at my local prescool. I'll keep you updated.


Dad said...

I love those helmets!! Glad you had a goodtime, even with the puddle thing. Nice blog, and the "traffic jam" photo had us laughing out loud!

Lilas Conuts said...

Hello from Nouméa, thanks for sharing

Erin said...

I remember Africa time. Who knew there was a difference between "now" and "now now".

Those helments are pretty cool, can you bring one home for Dad? You know he would wear it!

Miss you!!!!!