Thursday, December 22, 2005

Into the Mountain Kingdom

I'm writing this from an office in Catholic Relief Services' Lesotho branch in the capital city of Maseru. Maseru is a bustling town, wedged in between smallish mountains (they get bigger quickly -- Lesotho's nickname is "The Mountain Kingdom" for good reason;) that feels absolutely nothing like a capital city. With the holiday approaching (most Lesothoans, indeed, most South Africans, regard the period from December 15 to January 15 or so as a de facto holiday time) there is a lot of activity on the streets. Africans wander to and fro, some with a great deal of purpose, others somewhat aimlessly loitering about the shops, cars clog the thoroughfares, drivers honking their horns constantly for reasons sometimes impossible to divine.

The summer weather is fantastic -- it is pretty warm, but for most of the summer, the climate will be mild, at least relative to that in, say, the surrounding South African veld. Winters here get damned cold (I was here for a little while in July 1999, the heart of winter, and conditions were bitter -- all the more so with each 500 meter rise in elevation).

My brother, Marcus, works in development. His heart, and the vast bulk of his experience, lies in Latin America, but he has an endless capacity to adapt, a desire to learn, and as generous a heart as one can imagine in a rational human being (in other words, he is well aware of and can articulate and in some cases agrees with some of the criticisms of international development while at the same time he can articulate the many strengths of the world he inhabits -- he's a guy who has a village in Nicaragua named after him, so he knows of what he speaks). Catholic Relief Services offered him a chance to come to Lesotho and be second in charge of a food development program. He has taken to it with grace and aplomb and while at first he was not especially happy, he is adjusting well and is thriving. However long he is here, they will be lucky to have him. And I'll have a place to stay in Maseru, as he lives in a gorgeous hillside house looking into South Africa.

The bus ride from Pretoria to Bloemfontein, a 7-or-so-hour journey by Intercape bus lines, was relatively uneventful. The air conditioning was not in great shape, so it was a bit toasty, and in Murphy's law fashion, just when I moved to an empty seat a crash of new arivals desscended upon the bus and I had a new seatmate. She weighed 120 kilos (264 lbs., give or take) if she weighed one. Maybe it was glandular. But the fact that the first thing that she did upon sitting down was open up a bag of marshmallows indicates to me that the salivary glands were the ones working overtime.

There is a wonderful way to get across the Free State, but the quickest and most common one, and the route that we took, is not that way. The Free State, formerly "Orange Free State," was one of the two Boer/Afrikaner republics and it still stands as the heart of rural Afrikanerdom. The Free State is South Africa's Deep South, both for good and for ill. Even now, every so often there will be a story on the news about a white farmer beating one of his black workers, or calls for an Afrikaner homeland deep in die Vrye Staat. It is rugged land, and reminded me of west Texas. The drive from Johannesburg to Bloemfontein more than passingly resembles that from Dallas to El Paso. The Free State offers vast, flat expanses with lots of scrub brush, although there is more hospitable farming land in the Free State than much of west Texas offers. In the distance one could see rock outcroppings that, with a squint and a little imagination, looked a lot like mesas.

It was great to see Marcus at the station and soon we were off, heading toward the border after a stop at one of South Africa's fast food hamburger joints, Wimpy's, for a quick bite. The border crossing an hour and a half later was painless -- at one point yesterday Marcus said there were long lines (that has been a problem at all border crossings this whole holiday season, especially up at the Beit Bridge crossing between South Africa and Zimbabwe) but by the time we got there, I got through easily, and before too long was at Marcus's house, then after that I had a glass of South African red wine in my hands at one of his friends' homes where there was a little party underway (mmmmmmm, braii . . .).

We'll be going on a pony trek tomorrow, a common way to see parts of Lesotho, and then we will spend the holiday in and about Maseru. Next week we are going off on a still-unplanned holiday that will take us into eastern South Africa and to either or both Swaziland and Mozambique.

Again, as communication will be unlikely, have a wonderful holiday. I'll check in as I can.


Donnie Baseball said...

Have a wonderful time, but I suggest staying away from pickup Rugby matches at your advanced age while you are over there.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you, DCat.

dcat said...

Thanks, D! You guys have a wonderful holiday as well! See you soon, I hope.