Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Yes We Did!

Phew! Another month has come and gone out here. It’s been a great one though. No travel this time, but between the excitement in US politics, a hectic work schedule, and the usual weekend plans, I’ve been perfectly happy just enjoying Lesotho for a while.

Some highlights…

First and foremost, this month I couldn’t have been prouder to be American. As I watched election results coming in well into the night, I felt more moved and inspired by my country than I have in a long time. When Obama was officially announced, we popped open a nice bottle of champagne and toasted to real change. I felt goose-bumps as I watched coverage of the huge crowds gathered throughout the U.S. (and the world!) to celebrate Obama, a man I have heard speak in DC and who I really, really believe in. I couldn’t help getting slightly emotional hearing his acceptance speech, as he vowed to represent all of us and bring the country to a better place, one step at a time. It was great to experience that moment in history from somewhere outside the U.S. with a different perspective. Lesotho didn’t break for a national holiday, but people here were definitely excited and supportive—and so am I!

With such good news lifting me up, I gladly faced my next challenge at work: hosting 17 Dutch volunteers for one week to help us build a foster home for orphans. It was my first build, let alone first volunteer group, so I knew I’d have to learn by doing. The group was wonderful though and they had a great attitude about everything. They ranged in age from late 20s to early 60s and all were new-timers to Lesotho (some hadn’t even left Europe before). For a week, I was everything from Lesotho tour guide, to camp counselor, to school nurse. I took them to see sites around Lesotho, I spewed off country facts when asked, and best of all, I got my hands dirty building alongside them. I mixed cement, lifted blocks, and tried to keep everyone hydrated and happy. At the end of the week, I was exhausted but the group was happy with their experience and they also managed to almost complete the house, so now— eight needy children will have a place to call home very soon. Can’t beat that!

Otherwise, it’s the usual summer scene in Maseru. Some movie nights in, a few nights out, a group hike here, a day at the pool there… This week, I’ll spend Thanksgiving at the house of the US Peace Corps nurse who is graciously hosting a group of us. And best of all— after almost nine months out here, I’ll be home for a visit in just two weeks! I can’t wait to see my family, catch up with friends, wander through NYC, have a cup of real coffee, go out for Mexican food, see a new release at the movies...ok, you catch my drift! On the flip-side, I am not so excited about switching from the Rand to the Dollar and swapping summer for my 3rd winter this year! Ouch. Regardless, I'm still excited for the visit and can't wait to get a taste of home again. See you soon!!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Moving on...

What a week it’s been for me. I am happy to report that the environment at work has been better than expected after the “trial” I previously wrote about. I worried that the judgment and negative attitudes from my colleagues would further isolate me from others in the office, making it impossible for me to work. Yet somehow, even the day after everything was laid out on the table, things seemed strangely normal and unaffected. I even had the chance to get to know some coworkers outside the office this week, while on field visits to our completed sites which hopefully started to break down soe of the barriers. Seeing the houses also reminded me of why I love this kind of work and why it’s important for me to come to work every day, despite what happened. If only I could remind my team of the importance of our work, maybe it could bring us together somehow. My hopes are that by the time I leave Lesotho, I will be able to honestly feel that I have formed some kind of friendship or at least some understanding with a few of my coworkers. We’ll see.

Despite the heavy issues from last week, I still want to share my travel experiences from the past month, which included a weekend in Jo’Burg with a few girlfriends and another in Cape Town with my guy.

The Jo’Burg visit was a nice R&R and included great food, some window shopping, and even a visit to the famed Saxon Hotel Spa for my very first facial!! We stayed at a very cute B&B in a cool part of town called Melville and enjoyed a little taste of civilization. Turns out, we unintentionally visited during ‘South Africa Pride Week,’ which meant catching some of the parade, seeing some outrageous costumes, and getting to know some of Africa’s proudest and boldest pretty-young-things. It was a great trip overall and just a quick 4-hour drive away. It’s close enough to go for a weekend but not too close that I’ll go all the time. Kinda like the DC-to-NY thing. Good to know for when I actually start earning these breaks!

A week later, Jeremy and I escaped to Cape Town for his 1st visit and my 4th (but who’s counting?). We had such a fabulous weekend, starting off with a trip to one of the region’s infamous winelands, Franschhoek, a quaint town with gorgeous rolling hills, amazing vineyards, and too many good restaurants to pick from.

We started the visit with a wine tasting (of course) and ended it the same way, with some great seafood, strolling, and cheese- tasting squeezed in between. My favorite wine was the brut sparkling at a vineyard called La Haute Cabriere (did I mention this was a former French settlement?), where the owner served us samples of bubbly after demonstrating the ancient art of sauvrage, in which the bottle’s top, cork intact, is quickly sliced off with a giant saber!

Next we headed into the city and managed to grab lunch at my favorite Indian snack shop (ok, the only one I know outside India!) just before catching the last cable car up Table Mountain for an amazing sunset view of the entire city. Despite Jeremy’s slight fear of heights, we did manage to get one picture of us on top of the mountain… pretty close to the edge!

Afterwards, while driving down the winding road, we accidentally came upon one of the coolest neighborhoods in Cape Town: Camps Bay, a beachside hotspot located right on the steep hills below the mountain and packed with lively bars and great restaurants. We stopped long enough for a few margaritas and some sushi before checking out Long Street, the hub of the city’s nightlife—perfect for a late night bar crawl. On our walk home later on, with a growling stomach and thoughts of 'giant slice' and Manoosh on my mind (GWU readers know what I’m talking about), I kept my eyes peeled for some late-night snack options. Disappointingly, the only option we came upon was a boerworst sausage stand. Not what I had in mind, but when in Rome....

On our last day, we headed to the airport only to realize that ‘Mango Airlines’ had sneakily pre-poned our return flight without telling me, leaving us stranded in the airport most of the day. Regardless, it was still a wonderful trip to one of my favorite places out there. Something tells me there may be a 5th…

Friday, October 17, 2008

Reality Check

Today I had planned to put up a post about my recent weekend getaways—to JoBurg and Cape Town, full of pampering, adventure, and great food. But my day at work yesterday turned out to be truly eye-opening and at the same time one of the most difficult personal experiences I’ve had to deal with out here and I just couldn’t possibly write about something superficial with such a heavy heart right now. So here goes…

In my previous post, I briefly touched on my work environment. To summarize, it’s a small office with just 12 or so staff, mostly Basotho. I am the only non-African here. I was hired for a communications and fundraising position that has me writing proposals, editing donor reports, and developing communications materials targeted to our international (mostly US and European) donor base. I got the job after responding to an ad in our local paper and came in for an interview just like any other candidate. My offer was very much on a local salary scale with no benefits package. Not the most enticing offer I’ve ever received, but the job sounded fun and I thought I could enjoy it will doing something meaningful for the community here.

I wasn’t quite prepared for the uprising that my arrival caused. Granted the staff here had a laundry-list of other grievances unrelated to me but somehow my hiring added fuel to the fire. On the outside, people were friendly to me in the office and I had been enjoying my first month. Although most staff speak in Sesotho, all of out meetings, reporting, and email communications are in English (prior to my arrival), and as I said, my job does not require Sesotho language skills, so language was not a problem.

It all erupted in a memo written sent to the higher-ups before I began the job and signed by all but one staff, just the day after I started. I did not know about the memo or their issues with me until I found myself sitting in a room with everyone (including a board member and two HR reps from our regional office) in an ‘emergency meeting’ held yesterday. In fact, at first I was told it didn’t involve me and my presence was not required. But there I was—sitting among my colleagues, completely oblivious to the extent of their anger, frustration, and judgment. The meeting ran like a trial, led by the pastor-like board chairman who spoke in a booming voice not to be reckoned with. He addressed each point in great detail and with honorable neutrality and seriousness, inserting anecdotes and proverbs, as the Basotho tend to do.

It was all new to me. Among benefits and office policy-related complaints were several points aimed directly at me. As a seemingly unified front, nearly all of my colleagues questioned my hiring, my salary and the type of contract I have (which of course should be confidential and as I said, is not above a local scale anyway). There were complaints about imagined preferences or benefits I receive, and worst of all they openly disapproved my lack of Sesotho skills for a communications role. In other words, they made outright judgments about my qualifications and assumptions about me, all of which were made before they knew me!

I was truly shocked. Disappointed. Saddened. ANGRY! Up until that point I had kept my mouth shut, knowing I had nothing to do with the discussion, the memo, and the complaints, but I couldn’t hold back anymore. With my heart racing, I asked for a chance to speak. I reminded everyone that I applied and competed for the position just like anyone else and was selected by a panel that decided if I was qualified. I reminded them that my job does not require Sesotho language skills and was not a hiring requirement. I told them that this was the first time in my life that I had started a job and had faced the judgment of all my colleagues in this way. My voice was shaky and I was already feeling emotional about it. The chairman interrupted me and said there was no need to defend myself. You are protected, he told me. He scolded the group for their outright discrimination towards me, reminding them how hard Lesotho and South Africa has fought to overcome this kind of thing. He shared a story about his university days in the UK, fighting for what he believed in and accepting others. It took a lot of effort to hold myself together.

Here I was, sacrificing so much to be here and try to learn something new, open myself up without judgment to anyone, and I am so outwardly insulted, judged, and discriminated against. But I have to remember that gratitude and acceptance are unrealistic myths for overseas volunteers and development workers. What we do is thankless and hard work. We do it because we believe in it, not because we will be thanked or recognized. And as I’ve heard from Basotho, many of them see foreigners coming here as a bad thing, us taking away their jobs. Now factor in post-apartheid sentiments and deep-rooted attitudes about race and you can’t even imagine how emotional and angry people can get about these things.

So I am forced to take a deep breath and remind myself that this is not about me. Their complaints and these issues were here long before I arrived (and even before I was born) and as demonstrated yesterday, they most likely aren’t going away any time soon. So the best I can do is move forward with as much grace and composure as I can muster up and do my job the best I can, hopefully helping to neutralize the environment in some way—and if not, then I will just have to take this experience as a life lesson to grow stronger from.

One of my best friends from home gave me this reassuring advice yesterday:

Great people throughout history have had to face down all sorts of animosity in their work/social/school environments. Don't be angry at the individuals. Be annoyed with all the aspects of history that gave rise to the situation.

Take the blows, but maintain your composure and good-spiritedness. Channel Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Obama, and all the amazing people who were/are calm under the most intense scrutiny and pressure.

So I take a deep breath and look at the big picture. People have endured worse and I will get through this.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Chapter 2

There are those changes in life that ease in slowly, one-by-one, until all of a sudden one day you wake up and realize you are living in a whole new chapter. Sometimes (and hopefully not too often) these changes are for the worse, but other times things just keep getting better as time passes and you wake up realizing that you are truly content. And those are the big changes in life that separate time, as you look back and see it as ‘life before XX’ or ‘life after XX.’

Well, that’s how I feel now, living in Lesotho: Part II. With a new house that already feels like home, a wonderful companion to live and grow with, new friendships with people who I know I’ll keep around for a long time, and now (finally!) a new job, things are really looking up and the only thing left to worry about is just enjoying myself.

Backing up a bit… a few weeks ago I started a new long-term job working with an international housing organization that does work in Lesotho. And while it’s not necessarily my ‘dream job’ and I’m getting by on a local salary, I have to say the work itself provides a good balance of structure and creativity and I can see myself enjoying it while I’m out here. I am the only foreigner in our small office, which means not understanding a lot of the office chit-chat and also learning about a whole new way of working and communicating. I sometimes find myself thinking, ‘This would never happen in DC,' or ‘She could have never gotten away with that back home,’ and I have to stop myself— because this isn’t DC and I’m not back home. People have different attitudes towards authority here, workplace expectations are much different, and people don’t always sugar-coat things the way they do in our diplomatic and P.C. workplaces back home.

I get along well with my colleagues, but at the same time, in a country with a nearly 45% unemployment rate, there can be a sense of bitterness or resentment here towards foreigners coming in and "taking jobs" from Basotho. I understand that perspective and certainly didn't move here to take away people's jobs, but bottom line: there is work that needs to be done and limited capacity. I have been lucky enough to receive a great education and great work experience that I hope can help contribute to work being done here. Many of the most highly skilled Basotho receive training overseas and feel no incetntive to return to Lesotho to work. It's a much bigger problem than I can begin to tackle. But the truth is that in some ways I may have been judged before I entered the door. It hasn't been a perfectly seamless adjustment and in some ways I have to work extra hard to win trust or get onto neutral ground, but I like it so far despite the challenges. Sure, I'll be left out of some inside jokes at the office, and some basic systems just aren’t in place that I could not have imagined working without in my previous job. But maybe I’ll learn more by having less to work with than I did in my previous corporate world of manuals, systems, and jargon.

So that's my life right now. I've got my home, my friends, a regular 9-5 (actually 8-5 out here), and a few things in between. I didn't think I'd say it, but there's something to be said for stability and a daily routine-- even in the least likely places. So here I am, starting what I will always look back at and remember as “my 2nd chapter in Lesotho” and I’m really looking forward to seeing how things turn out.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Home Sweet Home

Well, I said I wouldn’t mention the word “housing” til there was good news…so here goes. After one unwarranted eviction and more than 5 months crammed into a shared guest house, I am thrilled to share that we finally have a place of our own, and it’s GREAT. There really is nothing that will make you appreciate something as simple as a door and a closet than the feeling of no privacy and nowhere to unpack! We actually moved into our new home about 2 weeks ago, but I’ve been busy setting things up, making it feel more like home and focusing on the latest movement on the job front. So after another short blog hiatus, I'm back-- and with great news!

So, things are definitely looking up for me. I have a place to call home, which has really made a difference in feeling like I actually live here. It’s also gotten much warmer out (t-shirts and sandals by day)which makes me happy. With braii season officially starting, we bought a small grill, which makes Jeremy happy. I can honestly say that with these things coming together, I would have no hesitation to stay out here for at least another year or so. That being said, the next obstacle to tackle is finding long-term work because as much as the short-term thing is great for creating my own schedule, I know I need a bigger project to focus on in order to enjoy myself out here in the long run. Ironically, my latest prospect would have me working with an organization that helps provide homes for people in need. I couldn’t think of a more appropriate cause to support, given the past 5 months!!

More to come as things unfold, but in the meantime, here are a few pics of the new place. Enjoy!

Friday, August 22, 2008

Good cookin'

Well, life goes on out here in the Mountain Kingdom. Unfortunately, no big updates since my last post and as it turns out, “housing” has become a dirty word around here so mums the word ‘til we have good news to share. Work-wise, I’m onto another short-term gig next week with one of the big European donors in town. More info-gathering and running around town which I don’t mind so much because I’m starting to know Maseru like back of my hand which is practically a small miracle for someone as directionally challenged as yours truly! Nonetheless, I am sending out job applications like it’s my job (ha!) and have gotten pretty darn good at drafting a cover letter in less than 20 minutes, for what it’s worth.

The weather is finally warming up A LITTLE, which means only 2 layers of blankets at night and I can actually wear short sleeves if sitting directly in the sun for a 3-hour window of time. Amazing though how a change in weather really infiltrates people’s state of mind around here. The gym is now packed by 5pm, people are actually swimming in the (indoor) pool, and dare I say it’s Braii (BBQ) season again?? Well, we are kicking off the season (premature as it may be) by hosting a Braii this weekend at our temporary abode. With his Texas visit still fresh on his mind, Jeremy can’t wait to get in front of the grill and I’m looking forward to whipping up some sweet things. I have been a bit of a baking maniac lately—from cupcakes and zucchini bread to quiche and slice (Aussie tea-party cake). And thanks to Jeremy’s recent visit home, we now have 20 packets of taco seasoning and about 100 tortillas in our freezer and I’m stocked up with Ghiradelli chocho-chips, all set to make my ‘famous fudge.’ So, at least we can’t say we aren’t well fed out here. Thank goodness there’s a gym! Bon appetite!

Monday, August 11, 2008

...this little piggy went home

Nearly 6 months into our never-ending quest for housing out here, I can't help but think about whether there are some living options I haven't considered yet. I mean, given that I don't need much and all. Perhaps I can hire a bunch of guys to construct a luxurious tree house, complete with an open-air shower and great views all around, perched precariously above the royal palace? Or maybe I can clear out the back seats of the Rav-4 and fill it with jewel-toned silk pillows, perfect for lounging, Casbah-style! I have even considered embracing a fixer-upper (I've seen plenty!) in one of the "not quite there" 'hoods of Maseru, but something tells me we're not in Kansas anymore...

So what's a girl to do? As you can see, I'm running low on new ideas here, so why don't you all throw some my way? Or better yet, just make me laugh (or cry) by telling me about the craziest place you've ever called home!

'Til next time...

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Big Weekend

I know I've said Maseru is a small town and all, but that doesn't mean nothing happens here. Last night, I went to my favorite (ok, the only) Indian restaurant in town for a nice dinner and guess who was sitting at the table next to me, just 10 feet away? None other than Price Harry himself, heir to the British throne! There were only two other tables occupied in the restaurant and I knew half of the people (that's how it usually goes here) so you can imagine my surprise when not only were there new faces, but a brush with royalty to top it off! I had to make a real conscious effort to not stare and eavesdrop the entire time!

Unfortunately, the evening took a turn for the worse when we went to retrieve our car from the parking lot a few hours later, only to find the night guard had locked the gate and wouldn't let us leave without paying his personal "toll" of 50 Rand. Being the justice-seekers that we are, we refused to give into corruption and pay his bribe. We tried negotiating, arguing, even a failed attempt to climb over the small gate. Just as we were contemplating a 007-style ambush and key snatch, we managed to flag down some female rural police officers, probably on their way back into the mountain districts for the night. We told them the situation and they approached the guard, unarmed as it often goes here, and managed to get through to him by listening patiently and calmly reasoning with him. Amazing. 15 minutes later, we were driving off, 50 Rand intact. For that reason, I will always send good karma to the lady-cops of Lesotho.

Today was another exciting day, with a day trip to a nearby town called Morija, known for its scenic hills, pine forests and actual dinosaur prints fossilized into the surrounding mountains. Check it out!

So, a bit of royalty, a brush with danger, and a peek into prehistoric times. Next weekend, we're contemplating skiing (really.) Not bad for a just another weekend in Africa's winter wonderland.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Back in the swing 'o' things

I'm happy to report that I'm feeling much better this week, despite having become one of those people with a persistent cough that you probably glare at on the Metro or in the grocery store.

Anyway, things here are alright. I'm dealing with winter in July and learning the tricks of smart clothing layering and how to make coffee without electricity. Can't complain too much though. There have been some fun group outings with friends the past few weeks, from a 4th of July karaoke cookout in nearby South Africa, to movie-and-mulled wine gatherings in Maseru and even a mystery treasure hunt. (Don't ask!)

Workwise, I have been involved in a few new projects since my hospital research wrapped up before our big roadtrip. Last month I did some short-term work in Botswana on HIV prevention and I just signed on to help strengthen a local network of NGOs helping orphans and vulnerable children in Lesotho. I'm looking forward to getting out there and meeting lots of different implementers and learning more about child-focused work. It's been a constant challenge learning to take things as they come and to not feel disappointed if things aren't panning out exactly how I envisioned they might before I came out here. It's also tough adjusting to not having a 9-5 schedule and long-term employer, though I know I should relish in the freedom of this kind of work lifestyle. It's funny how the grass is always greener on the other side. Before, I couldn't wait to break free from monotony and live the life of a consultant. When I'm doing short-term work, I miss the dependability of a long-term job, getting to know coworkers and having my own cubicle. Go figure!

Otherwise, not much else to report on. In a few short weeks I'll be back in Cape Town visiting one of my old college roommates who's in South Africa for a month through her Master's program. It'll be great to see a familiar face somewhere so far from home.

I hope all of you are enjoying summertime, wherever you are.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Small kvetch

I am writing while sitting with a blanket wrapped around me, disheveled hair, and cup of tea in one hand. It ain't pretty.

Yep, I've been hit with yet another bug-- this time something to do with my throat and chest. I spent most of yesterday--my birthday-- in bed fighting off a fever, and here I am today, still feeling like a dump-truck hit me, but at least without a fever. I don't know what's going around (every one seems sick!) but I'm guessing it has to do with the fact that it drops to anywhere between 10-40 degrees F most days and without any central heating indoors, it's just as cold inside as outside (sometimes even colder!). In fact, just this morning, while I was in the kitchen boiling water for my tea, I could actually see my own breath (indoors!). I can't say I didn't know what I was getting myself into coming out here, but I just needed one entry to 'kvetch' a little. :)

So, would ya send me some warmth (and miracle cures) from over there in the "summer?"


Thursday, July 3, 2008

Where to begin?

Wow, it’s been more than a month since I’ve been in Lesotho and in touch. (Sorry! I hope someone’s still reading out there!) Not quite sure where to begin summing up the past month’s adventures. This trip took me to new places, unpaved paths (literally), backpackers, campsites, game parks, and Natural Wonders, in addition to swanky urban hotspots, many a border patrol, and the occasional police officer pulling us over for one reason or another. Not to mention, a few days of 5-star bliss in Durban where I ironically picked up the quintessential stomach bug and an unexpected work assignment sending me right back to Botswana, leading right into the perfect ending: a fabulous girl’s weekend in Cape Town, the icing on the cake. (All with one suitcase. Phew!)

Perhaps I’ll jump right in to the “Best and Worst Of” memories from the road-trip portion, to give you a taste of what we experienced. Here goes:

Best accommodation- Tree-house hut overlooking the Okavango River at Ngepi Camp, in the Caprivi strip of Namibia. We stayed in a beautiful, cozy open-faced hut right on the river (we could jump right in for a swim!). Lazed on the deck in the sunshine while listening to hippos playing right across the water. Sigh.

Worst accommodation-
Perhaps the motel in the middle of nowhere, Botswana our 1st night after 12+ hours on the road. Squished and cold, with dinner out of the cooler bag. And to top it all off, I accidentally left behind my favorite, worn-in Old Navy t-shirt. Darn.

Best driving terrain- Tie between an actual elephant crossing on the road near Chobe Park in Botswana and the lush, green, hilly landscape south of Swaziland, towards the beaches of St. Lucia, on the East Coast of South Africa.

Worst driving terrain- The nearly 200km of potholed roads leaving Chobe towards Francistown, Bostwana. Our car is probably still cursing us for that one!

Most zen-like moment-
The feeling of lounging in a mokoro (dug-out canoe) gliding along the lush, overgrown Okavango Delta, reeds parting as we silently push forward, monkeys swinging from trees and hippos groaning all around us. It was so quiet and we were so close to the water, I could run my fingers through it as we moved along, while minuscule frogs hopped in and out of the canoe. Bliss.

Most breathtaking view- I was really wow-ed the first moment I laid my eyes on Victoria Falls in Zambia, one of the Natural Wonders of the World. (Perhaps a little more charming before the downpour of spray leaves you drenched!)

Most well-deserved beer- Our 1st beer (on the house) at Bovu Island, Zambia just after sunset. We had spent 4+ hours dealing with border chaos—waiting in lines at the border, filling out forms, and paying exorbitant visa fees. Then, having crossed the border, we almost got stranded on a barren road hours later, practically out of gas. Luckily, we bought some bootleg petrol from some Zambian boys. Then, we drove in circles, driving through villages, counting light poles, trying to find this secluded guesthouse which is only accessible by crossing over the Zambezi River in a canoe. We finally made it just after dark!

Best meal- Homemade: Tie between the taste of fresh mac & cheese, right off the camping stove. (I was hungry!) and our gourmet steak BBQ on the deck of “best accommodation” in Namibia. Definitely wins for ambiance.

Restaurant: the amazing dinner buffet at the luxurious Chobe Lodge, complete with salads, stir-fry, BBQ game (impala—straight from the neighboring park??), and a delicious dessert bar.

Worst meal-
Maybe dinner of peanut butter on rice cakes, a slice of cheese-product (a.k.a. plastic!) and some trail mix, night one.

Best new food discovery- Canned ‘chakalaka,’ a camping essential. It’s a mix of chopped tomato, onion, pepper, and spices. (Perfect mixed with instant mashed potatoes.)

Worst new food discovery- That would be 'polony,' the mysterious, bright pink deli meat that wants to be in the bologna family, but can’t even earn that minor ranking. I have to say, it looked/smelled so awful I couldn’t even bring myself to taste it. (It’s for the best, I’m sure!)

Best animal encounter- Spotting a beautiful leopard (which walked right in front of our safari vehicle) just as we were ending our evening game drive in Chobe Park, Botswana.

Scariest animal encounter-
Tie between rowing right up to a group of huge hippos in the delta, (Our guide told us they could just overturn our canoe in a second if they wanted to!) and when I chased down a big baboon that stole bananas from our campsite near Chobe and we had a serious face-off. (He won—I couldn’t remember if monkeys bite and didn’t think a banana was worth finding out.)


Funniest police encounter- When a cop in South Africa pulled us over to make us test our headlights and “hooter” which we couldn’t figure out for the longest time. It was like playing roadside charades. (Turns out, it’s the horn!)

Least funny police encounter- When Jeremy actually got a speeding ticket in Botswana.

Most fun roadside check point- The fun, young, rowdy officials who pulled us over to question us in Namibia. They were joking with us, flirting, talking about basketball, movie stars, etc. I almost wanted to invite them to join our trip!

Least fun roadside check point- Having to get out of the car, dig out all our shoes from our backpacks and dip them all in the mysterious anti-Mad Cow Disease concoction.

Best sunset- In mokoros on the Zambezi Rover in Zambia, just after a few hours of river fishing for tiger-fish.

The trip ended with a week long rest-stop in Durban, a coastal, cosmopolitan city in South Africa, known for its large Indian population (and consequently amazing Indian food, confirmed), its bustling beaches, and unfortunately for its high crime rate. (No one told us it’s also known for having A LOT of rain this time of year.) Anyway, it was a good breather for the three of us before saying farewell to the open road. Apparently, my body also thought it was a good time to embrace a nasty stomach virus, of which I’ll happily spare you the details.

Just as I got well, I signed on for a short-term work assignment back in Botswana, which had me back-tracking to where I just came from for about a week. I figured camping boots and cargo pants wouldn’t do the trick, so I visited my favorite discount store, Mr. Price (think Target’s little brother) and stocked up on some work-appropriate clothes before flying to Gaborone, a sprawled out, rather subdued capital city, surrounded by desert, game parks, and traditional villages (oh yeah- and some brand spanking new mega-malls, go figure!). Again, a nice breather for me and a chance to get back into the swing of things, not to mention a bit of alone time after 3 weeks squished in a car and campsite with two boys, lovely as they are.

The timing worked out perfectly. As my work wrapped up and I transitioned out of Road-Trip Phase II: work assignment, I was off again, for Phase III: girl’s weekend in Cape Town, which had been planned months ago with some girlfriends from Lesotho. I met up with the girls at an unbelievable penthouse apartment we rented for the weekend.

(Can you believe it’s actually cheaper than a hotel? Best kept secret!) The weekend included everything a girl’s weekend should entail: shopping, chick flick, cocktails, dancing, Jacuzzi. ClichĂ©? Yes, but very much needed after a month-long debut of my rustic, muddy-boot-wearing, camp food-eating, minimally-bathing side. When in Rome!

So now I’m back in Lesotho, where it is noticeably colder than when I left, where the taxi drivers are still on strike (on-again, off-again), the power’s still going off and where we all pretty much hibernate this time of year. It may be cold here and less exciting than game drives and natural wonders, but in a way I am happy to be back here in familiar territory.

So there you go, my month in a nutshell…leaving me with hundreds of pictures, a heavier backpack, slightly fatter passport, and a renewed appreciation for ‘home,’ whatever that may be. Good to be back.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Rainy days and cold feet

Today it’s finally sunny again. Cold, but at least sunny. It’s been raining hard the past few days—a cold, wet winter in Africa. I’ve been walking around cold all the time. Cold feet. Cold hands. Permanent goose bumps no matter how many layers I’m wearing. But today the sun came back to Maseru to say hello. Today is the kind of day that makes me realize how closely linked our (or rather, my) mental state is to the environment outside. It’s still cold and I’m still wearing 3 layers, but I somehow feel happier. Hmmm… I wonder what kind of long-term affects having two cold winters in one year will have on me! Then again, I never really got to appreciate the beautiful spring sunshine in DC the past few years—stuck in the office from 8am until 6, 7, sometimes 8pm or later. But still… there is something about a warm walk to the office and sunshine coming through the window that puts us all in a better mood, even if we’re stuck indoors.

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m leaving for a big trip in a few days. I’m really hoping not only to get a dose of warm sunshine while out of Lesotho, but also a new perspective and renewed appreciation for where I am and what I’m surrounded by right now. I’ve been finding it a little tough to focus on the positive lately, especially when the tough stuff seems so apparent in my every day—from never-ending housing woes, the ongoing job hunt, and of course all the inconvenient power-related problems.

But enough is enough! I will one day look back at this time in my life and realize how stupid I was for not loving every day and for not realizing at the time how lucky I was to be here. So rather than allowing that regret to creep in years down the road, I’m staging a self-intervention right now and reminding myself to put it all in perspective, to remember that no matter what bumps I’m faced with now, life aint that bad! What I’m doing here isn’t easy (and it’s not supposed to be). I need to remember that (especially in a developing country) things will never, ever work out the way you expect and definitely not the way you plan, if you’re silly enough to try to plan it! It sometimes helps though to remind myself that the reason this is all hard on me is that it’s a challenge and in the end, I will grow from this. It’s hard to find your footing in unfamiliar soil, so part of the challenge is accepting that it’s ok to admit that it’s hard or that things aren’t all coming together so easily. (right??)

The last time I went away for a long time, a group of my closest girlfriends put together a small bag full of hand-written inspiration for me to dig into whenever I needed it. I don’t remember the exact quotes, but I remember how I felt reading them and I remember the gist of what my friends were trying to tell me— that in the adventure, the struggle, and life’s greatest challenges lies real growth and accomplishment. Thanks, girls!

Monday, May 26, 2008

A break, already

I’ve never been good at resisting a travel opportunity. No matter what my inner voice of reason tells me, I can’t stop browsing airfares or plotting unnecessary, undeserved road trips with friends. No matter what, the small pang of guilt I feel after hitting the ‘purchase airfare’ button is drowned out by the excitement of a new place and adventure!

So I guess that explains why after just two months here, I am now getting ready to embark on a three-week journey north, through Botswana, Namibia, maybe Zimbabwe, down to Durban, South Africa and then back ‘home.’ There are a million reasons why I don’t deserve a break just yet, but how can I resist this kind of road trip—driving through the Kalahari Desert, a mokoro-boat ride along Botswana’s famed Okavango Delta, game drives through Chobe Game Reserve and a face-to-face encounter with Victoria Falls! (Oh, and I suppose I should mention I’m planning on a girl’s weekend to Cape Town the weekend after I return!) Alright, so I do feel a teensy bit guilty about that last bit, but how often in my life will I find myself within the close vicinity of so many amazing places??

We’ll leave before the sun rises on Friday, with the trusty (I hope!) Rav4 loaded up with camping gadgets, provisions, and plenty of film. I’m planning to do a good amount of driving this time around which is exciting--and I’m sure a relief for my travel companions. There will be lots of camping and inevitably some bumps along the way, but I’m really looking forward to some new sights and a reminder of why I’m out here. It’s been getting colder and colder in Lesotho these days (can’t say I wasn’t warned), and it will definitely feel nice to step outside in Africa without bundling up first! A little sun on the cheeks and mud on your shoes never did anyone any harm, right?

So, I bid you adieu for now and promise to share stories in a few weeks!

Monday, May 19, 2008


Oh yea, to top it all off, we're without water too! That's right, for the past 3 days we've been livin' in a drought here (at least in my neighborhood)-- which means no running water to be found, not even a drop! This calls for LOTS of takeout and showers at the gym.

Thus ends my kvetch-fest. I'll try to make the next one more uplifting, I promise!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

In the Dark

The past few weeks have been largely shaped by a recurring series of power outs in Lesotho. What started as a sprinkling of outages, each just a few hours at a time, is now the norm. In a country that never, ever had to deal with this problem until just last month (great timing on my part, I know!), it’s devastating—- for families, businesses, productivity, and safety. Lesotho just wasn’t built to deal with this. There are no generators, no planned outages scheduled around workdays, no back-up plan—just panic and inaction. Homes don’t have gas stoves, businesses don’t have generators, and there is little to no solar power in town. Internet connections are linked to electricity, so when the power cuts, you are also cut off. We are all heavily dependent on the electric corporation out here and therefore, we are all suffering together in the consequences of poor planning. And you don’t realize how much you depend on electricity until it’s cut for most of your days. I instinctively turn on the electric water kettle for my morning coffee, I go to flip on the light switch, I load up the electric washing machine...

It's tough to predict when the power will cut and when it'll come back, but here’s a typical day: I wake up by 7 or 7:30am to check email while I have it and make use of the electric kettle for my morning coffee. The power cuts at right about 8:30am, maybe 9 on a good day. And then, it's no power, no internet, no coffee, nada. It may grace us for a few midday hours, perhaps around lunch time and through the afternoon, only to cut out once again promptly by 6pm when I am often at the gym, mid-workout. It may return around 9pm, depending on where in town you live. Only the Indian restaurant is open during blackouts because they’re the only one with a generator—not surprising, given how common outages are in India. Power sometimes remains off until the middle of the night, when suddenly all the lights you forgot were switched on unexpectedly brighten your deep slumber. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

At first, I found the absurdity of widespread blackouts slightly funny as I found myself around town when the power cut. Sitting down for dinner at Nando’s (a family-style chicken joint) when the darkness hit. They brought over a candle (how romantic!) but then smoke from the kitchen filled the place and we were all coughing, eating our food blindly, tripping out the door to the car, only to drive home on streets without lights. Or at the gym and all of a sudden, everything goes black. I hear gasps, shouts, chattering, among the dark silence of machines halted and music abruptly cut off. I can picture joggers on treadmills, awkwardly stopping short and weightlifters upstairs struggling to safely lower slightly-too-heavy weights, and meanwhile I get on all fours in the squash court to feel around for the tiny ball rolling around in the dark. As you can imagine, the joke wore off real quick and now I’m ready for it to end (or at least be consistent so I can plan around it).

Too bad I’m not six years old anymore. Things like power cuts are pretty exciting up until the age of six, maybe seven. Those were the days when blackouts were exciting. They meant playing in the dark, making tents out of blankets in the living room and bravely exploring the house with a flashlight in hand.

So that’s life out in Lesotho these days. We’re all in the dark and incommunicado 'til further notice. No one said it wouldn’t be an adventure!

Warthogs, Massages and Airplanes (oh my!)

I know, I know…where’ve I been? Apologies all around for my 2-week aloofness. I will take partial blame but the rest goes to the electric corporation for the increasing and consistent power outs we’ve been experiencing out here that cut me off from light, internet, and power for hours (sometimes days) at a time. I’ll get to that later….

For now, I want to share some highlights from the past few weeks, including my trip to Swaziland over the long holiday weekend May 1st. Although the big group outing turned into a road-trip-for-two, we kept our chins high. We packed our bags, gathered our road maps, iTunes mixes, and fun snacks all around, and loaded up the Rav4 to hit the road bright n early. It was a pleasant drive out there though what we thought was a 6-hour drive was more like 8. The scenery beyond Free State was really pretty, with lush, rolling hills, green mountains, and the promise of wildlife ahead.

Swaziland is known for its outdoor adventure activities, wildlife reserves, and cheap craft markets. So, ready for some sunshine and adventure, I had made a reservation for a whitewater rafting trip early the next day.

Unfortunately, I must have brought the cold weather from Lesotho because it was brisk, rainy, and cloudy when we got to Swazi and after picturing myself shivering on the raft for a full day on the cold river, I had to bail last minute, and swap a water adventure for one on land, at Mlilwane Wildlife Preserve. I may not have seen all of ‘the Big 5,’ but I did get a close-up glimpse at some kudu, zebras, and very charming warthogs.

After the animal spottings, it was off to the famed craft markets to check out the goods. There are 150 tin shacks lined up side-by-side selling everything from wooden masks and Zulu-dolls, to beadwork jewelry, paintings, and woven mats. A little overwhelming, but fun to get into my old bargaining ways a little bit and pick out some unique crafts to bring back home.

The icing on the cake came the next day, after sleeping in and eating a delicious brunch al fresco at a nearby art gallery cafĂ©, it was off to the natural spring and spa for some R&R. The place is more like a bath-house, with men and women separated, offering sauna, bath, and massage services—in the buff. I figured nothing at a bath-house could shock me now after two trips to public bath-houses in Japan, complete with intergenerational nudity all around, “electric baths” (no joke!), and a near-death fainting incident a la my sister! So, I walked in, took a deep breath, and signed myself up for a massage, sauna, and soak. Despite my freakish aversion to deep tissue massages, this one was actually pretty nice and my-kinda-wimpy. Afterward, I headed into the sauna to steam with fellow Swazis and South African ladies. The dim light gives you the illusion of privacy, though—always the modest one, I kept my towel close by. It’s a good thing too, because moments later, our zen-like ambiance was rudely interrupted by a large, clothed man (perhaps an employee or owner of the spa?!) busting into the women’s steam room, water-sprayer in hand, walking around spraying all the overheated, nude women! And yet again, what do you know—I was seemingly the only one fazed by it! I covered up and busted out of there, poste haste, but not before getting a cold spray to the face before the door hit me on the way out. I tried to get back to my relaxed state of mind while soaking for a few minutes in the Jacuzzi on my way out, contemplating the major cultural differences between spa experiences in the east and the west. Despite the sauna incident, it was a refreshing experience overall and helped me return to Lesotho feeling well rested and relaxed, just in time for heavy rains and traffic coming home.

Out of my vacation-mindset, I jumped right back into work on Monday—back at the hospitals. Last Tuesday was my lucky day though. A spot was open on a local flight to one of Jeremy’s nearby sites so I was offered the chance to come along for the day, to experience the flight, the view, and a taste of another part of Lesotho. How could I say no?? I’d never been in such a small plane—a 6-seater Cessna.

I sat up front, rubbing shoulders with our friendly pilot, with my own set of controls right there in my lap! About midway through our 40-minute flight, the pilot asked if I wanted to give it a go! He taught me how to move the hand controls to guide the plane to the left and right, and how to pull or push the controls to move upward or to descend. So there I was, in my flying glory for a whole 15 minutes (of fame).Ok, so the pilot obviously kept his hands close to his own controls the whole time, but essentially, I was flying the plane, lifting us up, dipping us down as we approached our descent. It was an amazing feeling and I have to say, I don’t look half-bad behind the wheel, eh?? . Plus, the view was beautiful and I even got a glimpse of snow-caped mountains in Africa, believe it or not.
. I’m thinkin’ I may have found myself a new career out here, or at the very least a new (very expensive) hobby!

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Baby steps

Today I'm feeling pretty darn proud. Out here, it's all about the little things you overcome that keep you going. Today I managed to snag 6-month border passes for both of us so we can cross between Lesotho and South Africa without waiting in a (normally very long) line! It may sound like small potatoes to you, but it was a seemingly impossible task that has taken us weeks of failed attempts and mixed messages. These days, that's all it takes to make my day! After standing for 2 hours in an enormous line at the border post, I put on my best 'don't-mess-with-me, I-won't-take-no-for-an-answer' look and demanded it. (Ok, I definitely smiled and asked very, very politely) but somehow it worked and I had to stop myself from hugging the border patrol officer!

And on top of that, I drove solo to accomplish the task. Again, this may sound like small potatoes, but in a month, I have learned to drive a stick-shift on the left side of the road which I definitely didn't think was possible when I first got here. Having spent about 90% of my driving years in cities with great public transportation, and siblings who were always happy to call dibs on local driving, I never really needed to become completely natural behind the wheel before. But here, it's necessary. This town is small, but just big enough that driving is a must. And it's full of hills and potholes, which (much to my dismay when I first got here), means manual driving is also a must! So, I forced myself to learn and keep trying and I think I've really overcome the bulk of my mental roadblock. And I think others are noticing my improvement too. In fact, just a week ago, whenever I hopped into the driver seat from home, our guards would look at me with shear panic, suggesting that maybe, "mama, you try driving in big spaces first, yes??" But now, I have one of the drivers actually asking me for a lesson or two! I've still got lots of practice ahead of me, but looking back at my first few lessons, feeling panicked just thinking about driving, stalling at every stop, begging to swap seats when I thought I just couldn't do it, I can honestly say I've already come a long way. In fact, I purposely didn't mention anything about my driving practice on here until now because I was worried I'd jinx myself and just never learn to do it.

So, two small steps forward this week and I'm sure many tougher roads ahead... but I'll take it as it comes and will hopefully make it out in one piece at the end. But for now, things are pretty good. It's a long holiday weekend here, so we're off to see Lesotho's little northern brother, Swaziland for a few days!

More to come!

Friday, April 25, 2008

Don't ask!

I just wanted to share the fact that there is now a sheep that wanders freely in the gated guest house yard. I don't know where it came from or why it's here, but it just strolled past my window "bahhh"-ing happily.

Oh yea, and we've also had a new roommate for the past week-- a Basotho man from the mountains who has likely never left his village before and doesn't speak a lick of English. He's here while his daughter is admitted at a hospital in town and I think he's just as perplexed by us as we are about him. He stays in one of the living/storage rooms where we now have 6 huge cases of powdered milk stacked floor-to-ceiling and never turns on the light on (maybe he's not used to electricity). He either sits in that room in the dark or walks around our house in his cowboy hat and trusty Basotho blanket, singing songs.

Sometimes I feel like I'm part of a circus. (Did I mention there REALLY is a traveling circus in town for the week!!)

It's like my friends in India used to say, "Aise he hay." It is like this only.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Two sides to every coin

I have now been to three hospitals in Lesotho (not for personal visits, I assure you) and while none were of the make-believe Grey’s Anatomy ambiance, with picture-perfect doctors and immaculate modern equipment, I now realize there are two sides to every coin. While my initial impression of the first hospital visit was true to my actual reaction, I will say that it was not indicative of all hospitals in this country. I have now seen two more hospitals and am realizing that the things that shock me are partially due to systems deficiencies but also the result of seeing a completely different hospital culture for the first time—one without a primary emphasis on privacy and politeness, and one that is far more accustomed to the reality of having to say “no” to patients when there just aren’t any resources or options left.

This week, I’ve been busy with my second volunteer gig, working with a health organization linked to a US-university, assisting with a baseline survey of hospital intake and record-keeping systems, particularly in the outpatient department, or OPD. This is where patients line up every day with ailments ranging from broken bones and asthma attacks, to malnutrition, pneumonia, and STIs. My job is to simply observe, to watch doctors (almost none of which are from here), nurses, translators, patients, and everyone else involved in the OPD and take note of the overall process. Essentially, I’m conducting a systems analysis of what happens in the OPD, from when a patient first enters until he or she is discharged. It’s fascinating stuff for me and I’m very aware of how lucky I am to be given access to doctors, patients, and exam rooms, something that would ever happen back home. It’s also a really scary thing, to be plopped into the middle of a bustling foreign hospital and given access to one of the most crowded and gruesome wards.

I walked through the waiting area, where patients sit on wooden benches for hours, sometimes waiting all day without being seen. Elderly men sit coughing and sighing, young women look down at the ground in silence, and mothers wearing traditional Basotho blankets sit with babies clinging to their backs and toddlers playing at their feet. Inside the OPD, there are a series of closet-sized exam rooms, one next to the other. Whether separated by curtains or actual doors, people come and go freely while exams are taking place, regardless of whether the doctor is simply consulting with a patient, inserting an IV, or doing a pelvic exam. No privacy. Nurses and others casually pull back the curtain and look in while patients lie on uncovered beds half-naked. And while I instinctively look away and want to feel embarrassed for the exposed patients, I eventually realize I am the only one embarrassed and this is just part of a different hospital culture.

I observed the difference between doctors, some recruited from within Africa, with an ever-calm presence (I can’t tell if they’re half-bored, disinterested, or simply unmoved—perhaps used to these kinds of cases.). Then there are the newly arrived American medical residents, fresh and idealistic, here for one month and eager to get real experience and save every patient, with their pocket-sized medical handbooks and mini Purell containers at hand. They send patients for multiple tests, x-rays, and lab-work before committing to a diagnosis. They try to mentor their young translators, local high school students, who bask in the attention and praise. At the other hospital, the translators are not really translators. They are hospital assistants, men whose job it is to keep order in the waiting room, call in patients, and handle odd-jobs for doctors or nurses. They happen to translate in their spare time because none of the doctors speak Sesotho, as they have all been recruited from elsewhere. The doctor may not even look the patient in the eye and often communicates only with the translator, who sometimes leans in the doorway or sits slumped in a chair, half-asleep, barking the questions back to the patients in Sesotho. Do you breastfeed the child? What is your HIV status? Any discharge? It’s so bizarre watching these non-clinical employees asking questions like that, but that’s how it has to be. At yesterday’s visit, it seemed to be as strange as taking construction workers off the street and bringing them into a doctor’s office, asking them to discuss child nutrition and menstrual cycles with strangers! Again, maybe much like I’m the only one embarrassed at the lack of privacy, maybe again I’m the only one that thinks this is strange or out of place.

The doctors stare down at each patient’s ‘Bukana’—a passport-like book containing hand-written medical history and diagnoses from previous doctor’s visits that all Basotho own and carry with them to hospitals or clinics. Not a bad idea actually. I can think of the multiple dentists I’ve seen, back in the U.S. and the hassle of trying to transfer my records between them. I wouldn’t have minded being given my own records and x-rays back after each visit. The problem here arises when you start investigating how the hospitals retain information about their patients, diagnoses, status, etc. Truth is… most of the time they don’t. When a patient leaves, Bukana in hand, oftentimes so does the entire record of the visit, as if it never happened. Patients come and go, so anonymously, like numbered slips at the deli counter. This makes it nearly impossible to report back to the government or donors accurate figures of patients seen, disease burden on different hospitals, or drugs and equipment needed. It’s a big job, but that’s why this research is so important—to figure out what’s happening (or not happening) now and to help figure out a way to capture all of that important medical data. If I learn nothing else from this experience, at least I am becoming more sensitized to this culture and am learning to try and see every situation, doctor, and hospital from both sides of the coin.

To Know or Not to Know…

It’s been a busy week! I’m happy to say that I’ve managed to get involved with some really interesting volunteer activities and am finally getting a feel for what work out here is like, within the health and development realm. Last week, I spent about 8 hours running around chasing kids, playing soccer, and helping to run a great HIV event here in Maseru. A friend’s organization put together an HIV awareness and testing event for youth, framed by the much-loved sport of soccer…errrr, football. In between football matches and meet-n-greet with the actual England football coach, groups of ‘coaches’ led HIV awareness games with kids and gave them the option of going over to a series of small ‘testing tents’ where certified counselors awaited, for voluntary HIV testing. The idea was to give the kids information through small group activities so they could make informed decisions about whether or not they wanted to get tested. The event’s goal was to get as many kids tested as possible and to refer positive kids to available resources. This was all in-line with the country’s widespread “Know Your Status” campaign.

In any case, the event was the perfect chance for me to bond with some Basotho kids and be myself, truly in my element! I jumped into some of the small group activities to sing songs and play games with them. I kicked around a soccer ball with kids waiting for their next match, and I just chit-chatted with some girls who were curious to know where I was from and whether I was “friends with Beyonce or Alicia Keys.” After sharing the disappointing news that I was not, in fact, friends with their favorite American pop-stars and could not guarantee an upcoming concert in Lesotho, the girls still stuck around and chatted with me. We talked about life in Lesotho, what they wanted to be when they grew up (a teacher, a singer, a nurse…), and then I thought I’d take the opportunity to broach the subject of HIV, while we were already at an HIV-centered event. I asked them if they knew what it was and how it’s spread (the ever-present tutor in me, always quizzing…). Even in a country with more than 30% prevalence, it’s still tough to grasp having such serious, adult conversations with children (okay, all the kids at the even were 12 and above, which out here is considered ‘adult.’). I thought back to the Sesame Street show my sister worked on a few years ago—tailored for South African audiences, with an HIV+ muppet named “Kami,” meant to break down HIV stigma and teach kids the basics. I remember being shocked at the time, wondering how American parents would react if their pre-schoolers watched TV shows with messages about infectious diseases and death! However, in this part of the world, children know about the disease before they’re old enough to go to school. With parents, uncles, friends, and teachers disappearing around them, kids here get a real-life lesson in HIV and death at a young age. So I quizzed away, figuring my HIV questions were nothing new to these young teens.

I asked if the girls had opted for testing that day and all three admitted that they hadn’t. I thought maybe I could try to talk through it with them and show them the benefits of knowing and at least leave that day having helped get just three, or even one child tested. One girl (a feisty little dramatic one, with a killer smile and a red-carpet attitude) told me she was scared. Of the actual testing?, I asked. Of knowing, she replied. She didn’t want to know because if she was positive, then her family wouldn’t accept her anymore and in her own words, her life would be over. She said she was “too young” and had her whole life to live. I told her that being young is exactly another reason why she should know, to make sure she can live that long, happy life. Her words sounded so adult to me, almost displaced, coming from her petite school-outfitted frame as she reached into a bag of sweet gummies which had been given to her by one of the British reporters present at the event. I watched her and listened to this girl explain to me why she’d rather not know. And who am I to argue? I can absolutely understand how scary the concept of knowing or not knowing could be, especially for young teenagers, and especially in a reality where it was likely that one of those three adorable, charming girls was positive.

In the end, my persuasion attempts proved futile and I realized no matter what I said, these girls had made up their minds about not knowing. So I just let it go for now and hung out with them, learned some Sesotho songs, raced a few of them to the end of the soccer field (they beat me every time!), and just enjoyed giving them some much-deserved and maybe all-too-rare attention. Before I knew it, I was fully surrounded by a sea of young girls, all wanting to talk, to ask me questions, and to stand next to me. I loved it and wished I could give each of them the world. It brought me back for just a moment, to my days volunteering at a rural high school in India, years ago. I thought of my students, especially the young girls who would gather around me during our tutoring sessions. Many of them shared one-room houses with families of four, five, six… Many would likely be married off soon after completing high school. I remember watching them with pride at inter-school sports competitions, as if they were my own sisters or children. I believe that the best insight into a country and culture is through its children, with the capacity to love everyone, with an understanding of the real world beyond their years, and who won’t hide the truth, ugly or not.

So I looked at these girls, seemingly happy with the simple things and I gladly stood by them, watching traditional drummers and dancers perform in the field and watching as the final match came to a dramatic end. The DJ blasted some dance music and I entertained the girls with my attempts to mimic their smooth moves. Hugs and handshakes were exchanged and we said our goodbyes. I left the event, slightly sunburned and exhausted, and though I hadn’t directly contributed to getting any kids tested, I left knowing I had gotten so much out of my day and out of the time spent with these kids. I also couldn’t help but think about the sad reality of the to-know-or-not-to-know dilemma these kids are faced with and similar realities of other kids I’ve known in other places. I wished for a minute that I could somehow lift that off of them and give them back the simple childhoods of soccer, homework, sleepovers, and pop-stars that they all deserved.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Reality Check

One thing I’ve been grappling with the past 2 ½ weeks is how to connect with the local community or at least get a sense of the reality of this place (beyond the grocery store and fancy hotels) without having a link to a specific organization just yet. Luckily, I had the chance in the past week to get a small peek into another side of Lesotho. I explored some more of downtown Maseru with a couple of visiting hospital residents from Boston, in town for just a few days after spending a few weeks at mountain clinics.

During that time, I also had the chance to accompany one of the residents to the public hospital in Maseru, which I had been curious to see firsthand after hearing some horrific stories and descriptions of the crumbling, understaffed place. The stories didn’t even match the harsh reality of the place. It’s a crumbling complex of over-crowded wards in different buildings, which you walk to through a series of neglected courtyards of dirt patches with trash strewn everywhere and a cemetery of old, used hospital beds and equipment. There is no main entrance, no reception or waiting rooms—just open corridors, and walls stained with mildew, dirt, and questionable substances. The smell hit me right away—nothing in particular, just the smell of sickness and death, with a strong undertone of urine.

We wandered right into the women’s ward, looking for some patients the resident had admitted recently. Dozens of patients sat on a crowded bench as a handful of overworked and seemingly desensitized nurses came and went. Patients lie on beds lined right next to each other without curtains to separate them and with barely any standing room between them. I saw a woman holding a small bundle with a man by her side—an intimate moment shared with a room full of disinterested onlookers. Young women my age sat on the benches, wearing only typical Basotho blankets to cover themselves, the blankets casually falling past their shoulders, an uncovered breast exposed. I turned away and suddenly felt overly aware of my presence and other-ness. Why should these young women have to receive treatment at a place like this, when I myself—I could be in their shoes—would never accept that for myself?? How is it that this has come to be their reality and not mine? When we finally caught a nurse, she didn’t know where our patients had gone. No one really even knew their names. They were gone, either discharged or just another lost face in this hospital.

Next was the men’s ward. We just strolled in without being checked or stopped. We walked up to check up on one of the resident's patients. The man had been stabbed multiple times and had a crude tube inserted into his chest to help bleed out the remaining air from his punctured lung. I started to feel a little nauseous and had to look away. The patient didn’t seem affected either way by a small bit of attention from the resident.

We repeated the same scavenger hunt in the children’s ward and couldn’t find any of the kids we were looking for. In particular, we asked about a young child that had been sent over from the mountains with a growth from his spine sticking out of his body. He needed surgery which couldn’t be provided in the mountains but we learned he had been discharged without it because they simply didn’t have the means or resources to provide it. Imagine—just sent off like that, sent back to his remote home, possibly sent off for a death sentence. The doctors said no. No more options for this boy. And to think, he was one of the lucky ones to be sent to this hospital in the first place!

As you can imagine, the visit was eye-opening for me. The harsh reality is undeniable. There are no decent hospitals, almost no doctors (I've heard that there are often no more than 3 in there at any given time!) and certainly not much optimism or hope—neither in the physical building itself nor within those inside it. There is no medical school in Lesotho so doctors must be trained outside, oftentimes in South Africa. After becoming doctors, there is little incentive to return. Consequently, many doctors come here from countries that are worse off, and are sometimes offered only modest food and housing stipends an no salaries in exchange for their much-needed service. And it's not as if the donor community turns a blind eye. I've already met fellow expats out here working at this place, trying to make a difference. And there have been donations to this hospital as well, but they don’t last long. New x-ray machines were supposedly stolen soon after arrival, and resold to private clinics in the area.

So, what options do these people have? How can anyone break this cycle? Perhaps to my fresh, non-clinical eyes the situation seems more shocking and bleak than it really is. After all, the visiting doctor didn’t seem as horrified. (Maybe he’s seen worse?) All I know is that the visit helped start to paint a picture of the health crisis out here, even from one person’s non-medical standpoint and that no matter how you look at it, it seems things can only go up from here. Or at least I can only hope, right??

Crossing Over

Given that Lesotho is tiny and completely land-locked by South Africa on all sides, it was only a matter of time before curiosity got the best of me and I crossed over. So last week, I finally crossed the border… twice in fact. The actual crossing over was about as exciting as driving over the Key Bridge from Arlington into DC, so for those DC-folks, you can imagine it’s a bit anti-climactic to say the least. However, as many Americans can attest to, without the luxury of having close proximity to many other countries, we're allowed to get excited about crossing borders, right?? I just love knowing how close I am to a whole other country, with a whole new language, and new places to see-- just a few minutes away! The actual border-post is just down the road and the nearest town in South Africa, Ladybrand, is about a 15-minute drive. Ok-- so the language and culture right next door may not be so different, and I wouldn’t exactly call it ‘civilization’ either but there are a few more restaurants and another (apparently nicer) grocery store called ‘Spar’ which I haven’t seen yet. Rumor has it they sell more varieties of bread and cheese—which, if you know anything about me, are just up my alley so I’ll be checking it out next chance I get!

My first trip across the border was last Thursday evening with a group of about 5 friends out to dinner. We had to stop on both the Lesotho and South African sides of the border to be stamped in and out. The guards gave us a hard time about having a full car and even tested Jeremy’s vocabulary knowledge of the word “overloaded” just to be cheeky, but ultimately got bored and waved us through. We went to a BBQ & ribs place and I tried the “tortilla and beef” meal which was about as close to fajitas as I’ll get here. The tortilla was pretty much dead-on, surprisingly and it came with pseudo-guacamole and plain yogurt for sour cream! Not bad, though maybe next time I’ll stick to what they do best!

The next trip over was just with Jeremy on Saturday for a day-hike at a nearby conservation area, recommended by a friend. We drove past Ladybrand and into the next small town, at which point nobody could point us in the direction of this park. After a few wrong turns, we finally found an unpaved road which led through beautiful red-orange mountains to a place called Korannaberg, a privately owned farm and conservancy where there’s a quaint lodge and a variety of marked hiking trails. We chose a quick route and wandered up through tall-grass fields, lush, damp forest, rocky boulders, small waterfalls, and even steep mountain passes. (See pics at the right!) It was a brisk hike, with a beautiful backdrop and we made it back to the lodge in a couple of hours, in time to beat the rain. (Did I mention the next rain cloud out here is always a few minutes away, at least this time of year).

I’m really hoping to take advantage of being so close to so many great hiking spots and naturally beautiful places. I used to say the same thing in DC, being so close to tons of VA and MD parks, but I rarely crossed over, making excuses like I don't feel like renting a Flexcar, or I don't know where to go, or I’d rather hang out by the market…but really, I should have crossed over much more often. Heck, I didn’t even need a passport to do it! Now, even though I may need a passport, we’ve got our trusty Rav4, a stock of guidebooks, and definitely some free time, so no excuses! My personal goal is to go on a hike or visit a new place in the area at least once every 2 weeks. Next up is Semonkong Lodge, here in Lesotho for a weekend getaway coming up. I’m a big advocate of checking out your local surroundings first when abroad, before venturing out too far, too often. (My Semester at Sea friends can vouch for that method!) So I’ll finally get to see a new side of my new ‘home,’ to get a peek at some great Lesotho-mountain views, to go pony trekking (at last!), and to get a break from Maseru and thoughts of job and house-hunting. So, here’s to close borders, a plethora of border stamps and no excuses! Off we go!

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Belated first impressions

I still can’t wrap my fingers around this place. I don’t know what it is. I usually have a definite first impression right away (for better or worse)—the sights, the smells, the people. But here, in this small little capital city, with one main avenue and just a handful of shops and restaurants, I just don’t know if I have an impression yet. I just can’t seem to get this place enough to describe it concisely…at least not yet. I’ve been here in Maseru for about 10 days now and I’ve met people, gone to the grocery store, strolled through the small outdoor market, walked down the main avenue a few times, wandered in and out of shops—all the things I usually do in a new place to get a feel for it. But this just isn’t the kind of place that smacks you in the face the second you get off the plane. Maybe it just grows on you in such a natural way that all of a sudden, you wake up and here you are. Or maybe this is it. A small, almost generic-feeling capital with a KFC and a handful of no-name shops in nondescript buildings, surrounded by dozens of small, inaccessible, poverty and HIV-afflicted villages, bursting with character, humanity, survival, and the real essence of this place. I’m not sure. Or like I said, maybe this really is it.

It’s hard not to compare this arrival to other arrivals before—particularly India, a land of extremes. Sensory overload. Crowds everywhere. The sense of going back in time, to another era, another world altogether. Brand new smells (spice, sewage!) and new sights (auto-rickshaws dodging cows and barefoot babies) and sounds (honking, singing, praying). No, no, this is something else. This is a small-town in the middle of the mountains. Just after a few days here, I walked along the main street and bumped into 2 or 3 people I knew. That would be unheard of in India. I could walk the city for hours and only pass by strangers. Or maybe this is just what living in a small town is like, wherever you go: not much to do or see, just the basics and lots of familiar faces. I wouldn't know-- this may just be my very first small town experience, having grown up in a suburb of NYC and lived most my other years in DC. Who knew?

While I don’t have so much to report on just yet, I will say this: the people here are very warm and welcoming. Everyone greets me on the street with a smile and ‘hello,’ or “du mela, meh!” And despite my natural inclination to think, what are they trying to get out of me? or what’s the catch?, they really are just being friendly, which I can definitely appreciate. Another thing I realized right away is that I’m not going to be roughing it half as much as I initially envisioned. The supermarket sells everything from Kellogg’s cereal and fresh-baked bread to Pantene shampoo, luggage, and clothing! And while there aren’t many restaurants, I can still choose from Indian, Chinese, fast-food, Mediterranean pizza (sort of), Italian, or standard continental buffet. Plus, I just discovered there is a bakery that sells croissants and scones (again, sort of). And did I mention the gym?? All I will say is that it’s a massive complex with weights, treadmills, squash courts, and a swimming pool. Even the king himself is a member! Hold on, though... Before you roll your eyes and lose all sympathy for me and my big move into the 'wild,' let me remind you that life aint all roses n peaches out here. There’s bureaucracy, corruption, bribery, and hassles. After all, more than half of the statements in my last entry were actually true! (still not telling...) Not to mention, the health crisis, threatening to diminish the entire country if not controlled soon.

But here I am, for better or worse. I’ll take the good with the bad, with hopes that soon enough I can do my part to contribute to all the great work being done here. And in the meantime, you won’t hear me complaining while eating my morning scone!

Monday, April 7, 2008

When life hands you lemons

Here's a fun game...

Try and guess which of the following statements are true and which are completely made up!

1. A traveling circus is coming to Maseru.

2. This weekend, the Lesotho Housing Authority evicted us for no legit reason.

3. I was hired to be His Majesty, the King of Lesotho's personal fashion consultant.

4. I came down with a mysterious 6-hour fever Saturday night.

5. I watched an international jazz band perform on Saturday night.

6. Not only can I now drive a stick-shift on the left side of the road, but I also got a flying lesson this weekend.

7. Jeremy was offered a chance to see the inside of a Lesotho jail this weekend.

8. Jeremy ran on a treadmill next to his Majesty this weekend.

I'm not telling....

Have fun! :)

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

You're Going Where?

I just moved from my cozy apartment in one of the most charming neighborhoods of one of the most lively U.S. cities to a small country in southern Africa that up until recently, I had trouble pronouncing. Lesotho. (Luh-soo-too). Yep, that’s right. I wasn’t sure where it was or how to say it the first time I heard it too, but here I am, living here. It’s a tiny, mountainous land-locked country inside South Africa, about the size of Maryland with a population of about 2 million. It also has the 2nd highest HIV prevalence, with about 25% percent of the adult population testing positive and a life expectancy that recently dropped from 50 to 35 years old as a result. Needless to say, there is work to be done here.

Before I get to why I’m here (which is another entry altogether!) let me share how I got here.

After deciding to make the big move, there have been a few major slap-in-the-face moments that brought me closer to the reality of it. The first was buying my plane ticket, which at least gave me an exact date to look forward to. Next was quitting my job—probably the hardest thing, given that I actually enjoyed my job and really liked my coworkers. I was so pleasantly surprised with the support I got from colleagues when I broke the news. Maybe this kind of thing is less of a shock when you already work in the development sector, but people really reached out to support and encourage me (and to throw me kickin’ farewell Happy Hours!) Last but not least, was the whole process of purging—getting rid of all the stuff I’d accumulated in DC—getting back to the basics again and preparing to pack it all up. There’s something equally terrifying and liberating about getting rid of just about everything you own. It’s the combination of feeling terrified to let go of the life you’re comfortable with, but at the same time realizing that by tossing it all, you are becoming totally mobile and free to do anything in the world or go anywhere without being held down by furniture and ‘stuff.’

Just a few weeks ago, I had a yard sale and practically gave away all of the belongings from my small 1-bedroom apartment in the quaint Eastern Market neighborhood of Washington, DC. I watched as friends and strangers carried out armfuls of books, boxes of kitchen supplies, and bags full of clothes, picture frames, pillows, and knickknacks, as my apartment slowly grew more and more naked. Everyday I brought things into work to pawn off to my friends and coworkers. I threw a “steal Kim’s stuff” party and finally gave away the last of it. Until finally— there I was on my final night in DC, everything I own filling just 2 suitcases and a backpack, with just my sleeping bag to sleep in. Though it’s pretty liberating to be able to look at all your belongings in such a small space, I couldn’t help but prematurely think forward to the time I’ll return to DC (I always do) knowing I’ll have to start from square one again. The house-hunt, stocking up on the basics all over again… Then again, there’s no sense worrying so much about it now. My mother used to tease me, saying that whenever I’m telling her about one plan, she knows that I’ve already started thinking about the next one in my head—and it’s true! I sometimes wish I could go back to a place while I’m already on vacation there! I can’t help it! I need to learn to be in the present, to enjoy, and let things unfold naturally without trying to plan all the details. I guess that’s why this is such a hard thing to do. If it were easy, everyone would be quitting their jobs left and right, forking over health insurance, tossing their valuables, and moving to small, unknown countries in southern Africa. Right?? (Hmmmm…or maybe not.)

It’s all about taking one last deep breath and just letting go. *sigh*

I have to admit though, this isn’t the first time I’ve done this (much to my family’s dismay). After spending the summer after college graduation waitressing in DC, I finally decided to pack up and move to India, indefinitely, to volunteer with local organizations—my own kind of made-to-order Peace Corps experience. I scraped up my savings, did some fundraising, contacted a willing NGO, and then that last step before leaving: the purge. I didn’t own much at that time, but I gave away some, donated some, and then packed the rest into a couple of bags and off I went!

Honestly, the purging part has never been too hard for me. I’m what you'd call a natural-born ‘purger,’ the polar opposite of a pack-rat. If it were up to me, I’d toss everything (well, I guess I just did!). Ask anyone who knows me well and they’ll probably roll their eyes and agree that I’m sometimes relentless, even cruel, when it comes to tossing things and purging. I have a nasty habit of cleaning up messes before they're finished being made and filling garbage bags jam-packed with household goods, family keepsakes, and belongings during my regular “spring cleaning” modes at home. Maybe it’s a detachment to “things” or maybe it’s as simple as disliking clutter. I’m not sure. All I know is I’m down to the basics yet again and I kind of like it. So, to all of you out there who ‘inherited’ some of my goods in DC, I hope you’re enjoying them. As for me, I’m ready to live a simpler life out here in the Mountain Kingdom… at least for now.