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

P.S.

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!