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Friday, June 25, 2010

#32: Lesotho

Day 14 - 28

A few years ago, I decided that I wanted to travel to as many countries as my age after being inspired by an article I read somewhere. By 2009 I had been to 30 countries; I would be caught up until my birthday in October when I would be turning 31. In 2009 however after deciding that I would be “retiring” from the company I decided that I should stay low and limit my travel. That year I just went to Canada for my good friend’s wedding. Early on I had decided that I would be doing a round-the-world ticket and that I would add a few more countries under my belt. I knew I would start off in South Africa and try to plan it around the World Cup.

I must say being in South Africa during the World Cup has been amazing! The excitement in the air and the fact that every day for the first two weeks, three games were broadcasted a day; for the most part I must have watched most games. I was able to watch the Japan vs. Cameroon game and at the last minute, purchased tickets to Nigeria vs. Greece match. The tickets were ‘obstruction’ seats so they were selling for incredibly cheap - SAR140 ($19) so I decided to buy a ticket for me and Clayton. The seats were actually amazing and possibly better than the $160 I paid for my Japan game. The seats were directly behind the soccer teams and next to the tunnel that the players would use to enter and exit the field. The game was exciting with Greek supporters dressed in Greek warrior outfits, or rather barely dressed. The game ended 2-1 in favor of Greece.

After seeing a second soccer game, I decided that I would try to make my way to Lesotho which is located only 1.5 hours away, opposite of Kimberley. Lesotho which was a former British colony became independent in 1966. It is a small county located within South Africa with a little less than 2 million or so inhabitants. It is a mountainous area where the skies are cloudless and endless. One thing that Clayton had tipped me on about the Lesotho people was that many walk around with blankets wrapped around them. It is said that many people also still travel between villages by pony or horse.

I journeyed to Lesotho rather abruptly. I wasn’t really sure how I was getting there but the two American girls, Terry and Regina whom I had met earlier in the week had suggested that I get out to the taxi rank and take a minibus to Lesotho for SAR70 ($9.35); this was the cheapest route that I had found as I had previously been quoted SAR1200 ($160) with a tour company for a day trip with optional tours at an additional cost. I decided that since I was only in my first month, I really need to be conservative with my funds as I still have about 15 more countries to venture to! So I decided to try to sort out the route suggested by the girls.

I wasn’t sure where I was going either but while surfing the internet for an hour before the shop’s closing time, I found a website with a list of places to stay and emailed one of the places on the website. I am not really sure how I chose the one that I chose but it ended up being a very good decision. The lady called me a couple of hours after sending off my email and confirmed that they had availability. She also sent me an email that explained how I would cross the border into Lesotho.

Clayton was helpful in showing me the taxi rank and inquiring about the schedule and how I would go there. He also explained that most likely the minibus would travel up to the border on the South African side and from there I would need to cross the bridge by foot into Lesotho territory. We were told that the bus would leave around 6:00AM or until it gets filled with their minimum of 16 passengers. After getting into Lesotho, I would need to take a taxi to their taxi rank and then find a minibus that would take me to Malealea Lodge (sounds Hawaiian!)

I woke up at 5:20AM the following day to make my way up to the taxi rank. Clayton kindly agreed to wake up with me and drive me to the taxi rank. We got there and were able to book a seat on the minibus; I was #9 so we still needed to wait for 7 people in order to depart. In the end, we didn’t get to depart until shortly before 7AM. I was fortunate enough to have got ‘shotgun’ so that I wouldn’t have to be squished with the other 14 passengers in the back. I also had a girl hop into the front with me. It turned out that she spoke English rather fluently (English is one of the official languages of South Africa but you’ll find that some speak it better than others). Her name was Lucia and she was a couple of years younger than me and decided to take me under her wings.

We made good time and got to the border just around 8:30AM. Just as Clayton had advised, we would need to walk over to the bridge. I can’t remember but I think this may have been the first time that I strolled into a country; it was quite exciting! Got my passport stamped to exit the country then proceeded to the Lesotho side to get my passport stamped to receive permission to enter the country. One thing that was interesting was that when we got to the Lesotho side, there were random guys there at customs that asked if they could fill out our entry card. It was such a simple form that I didn’t want them to do my card because I knew they would demand some form of payment. Lucia instead suggested that we have them do it for us so that we could ask them for directions.

We got sorted quickly and got into a cab to the taxi rank. Lucia was going to visit her mother-in-law so she would be taking a different minibus so she quickly located the minibus that I would be riding. Before we went our separate ways though, we decided to have a quick breakfast which ended up being a chicken sticks meal with French fries at a local fast food chain - Captain DoRego’s.

After our meal we went back to the place where I would catch my minibus. Malealea Lodge is about 85 kilometers away so it would take me another hour or so, depending on the condition of the roads. We had to wait a while because we didn’t have the bus full. So while we were waiting, there were vendors selling things from earrings to jackets to gloves. I ended up investing a whopping SAR 80 on a jacket and two pairs of gloves, one for me and one for Clayton. I must say the jacket was an extremely good deal! For less than $10, I was getting a nice jacket that would keep me warm while in Lesotho and the rest of my journey throughout in their winter months.

I arrived at Malealea Lodge about 2 hours later; there was road construction and they only had one lane traffic and we had to wait about 20 minutes at each road block. There were three so just waiting for those road blocks, took us about an hour. There was a dirt road that stretched for about 10 km leading up to the lodge. Arriving at a lodge, I saw many foreigners. It was a bit strange because up until now I had not really stayed at any backpackers or hostel to see a lot of foreigners in one place. I also ran into a Japanese couple who were watching the Japan vs. Netherlands game. I quickly befriended them and we’re hoping to meet up later as they also plan to travel around southern Africa for some time.

The place was a bit isolated and Lesotho in general is a bit underdeveloped so there weren’t any restaurants nearby and no electricity so even if there were, you would have a hard time getting there because it was so dark. On second thought, there probably weren’t any because of the lack of electricity. The manager asked me if I would be interested in ordering dinner that they prepared for SAR100 ($13). Up until then I hadn’t splurged too much on food (believe it or not), so was a bit hesitant to pay that much but I really had no other options. The dinner was quite good with pea soup, rib-eye, pap, potatoes, fried cabbage, and baked beans. The meal was great and I ended up sitting with an English couple - Jackie** and Davey - that had been living and working in Africa for close to 15 years.

The following morning I decided to venture out on a pony (though it was on horses) trek to the village of Ribanek. The highlight of the 6 hour horseback ride was to see a waterfall. I was a bit disappointed and felt mislead that when we got there, it would cost an additional SAR30 ($3.50) to actually hike out to see the waterfalls. I decided not to go because I was already paying SAR360 ($48) to do the pony trek. Our accommodations were very basic - a circular traditional hut with nothing but a bunch of cushions (the kind that reminded me of my gymnastic days), a table and a plastic chair and cost me an additional SAR70 ($9.35). I also didn’t have a sleeping bag so had to rent one for an additional SAR25 ($3.35). It was a pricey trip but I thought it was a great opportunity to mingle with local villagers. Luckily when I was there, there were three other South African college students who had traveled there the night before. We made a small campfire and played ‘President’ which is their version of our ‘Rich Man, Poor Man’. Thankfully they were there because otherwise it would have been really boring! Meals were not provided so we were supposed to prepare our own dinner. But, if we wanted to bring a stove along and propane, it would cost an additional SAR300 ($40); I decided that it wasn’t worth it so just snacked on bread that I had bought at the local store before departing.

I slept surprisingly well but in hindsight, I don’t think that the trip was worth it. Not only did we not have any interaction with the villagers, it ended up costing me close to $100! When I had cleared out my bill, I was told that the trip was actually SAR380 x 2 = SAR720 because the trip was charged on a per day basis and so I was charged for the day going out and the day coming back. Oh well. My lessons are becoming quite costly!

On my last night there, I ended up having dinner at a local villager’s house. I had heard about this opportunity actually from the other guide who had come with the South Africans. He told me that I could arrange a dinner through the lodge for about SAR20 ($2.70). It actually ended up being SAR30 and although the portions were rather small and the meal basic, it was the cultural experience that I had been looking for. I was picked up at 6:30PM by the ‘chef’ - Theboho - and he took me over to his house which was a small 100 s²f room with only a bed and a few chairs prepared for his guests. On the menu: pap, spinach (similar to the cabbage we had but it was made with spinach instead) and one piece of fried chicken. It was a bit on the salty side but I like my foods salty so it was good! I chatted with his Theboho’s father (84) for a bit and enjoyed our meal. After we were done, Theboho walked me back but let me see his kitchen which is a separate hut located about 50 feet away. In the hut there were about 5 other family members sitting around a stove. We ended up taking pictures and they let me carry the little baby there. It was nice to connect with the local villagers and I have been asked to send them a copy of the pictures which I must do sooner rather than later!

While at the lodge, I started chatting with an older Dutch man who was in his 60s or so. He told me that he has been to every single World Cup (with the exception of missing ’82 and ’02) since 1974! He was also traveling solo so he offered to take me back to the border since he was also going back the next day. He wouldn’t be going through the Maseru border, the way I came, but instead would be going through Van Rooyen Gate border. Since it was somewhere that I hadn’t gone yet, I wasn’t sure if I go with him. I confirmed with the lodge manager though that there were minibuses that departed from there. So we departed the following morning at 8:30AM.

We got to the border in good time, 1.5 hours, since the roads were pretty good with the exception of the 10km of dirt road leading out of the lodge. When we arrived at the Lesotho border, I noticed a Volkswagen Rabbit pass us with two white guys who looked familiar…they were guys that were also staying at the lodge! I stopped them and asked where they were going. They said that they were going to Bloemfontein! Which is where I needed to go! Luckily I ran into them because as it turned out, the border was slow so I didn’t notice any minibuses! They could have been there but I didn’t notice them!

The guys turned out to be French…probably the worst country to be that day because they would be playing South Africa for a chance to make it to the next round in the World Cup. It was a heavily watched game with most of the people cheering on South Africa. As it turned out they didn’t have a place to stay for the night so I called Clayton to see if he would be able to house them too. He agreed and so we paid SAR100 each; I’m making Clayton some mad cash here! It was a great game and South Africa played well knocking out France 2-1 in favor of the host country. It was an exciting game and all of South African should be proud of how their team played; they beat the ‘98 World Cup champion. Unfortunately, South Africa needed 5 goals to ensure a place in the Round of 16 which they weren’t able to do.

After the game, we met up with the French men and Clayton’s parents who were able to get tickets just minutes before the game started. So the 7 of us had dinner together at a Chinese restaurant. The food was terrible! It was actually a Japanese/Chinese restaurant. When we walked in, there was an Asian lady at the front and I checked to see if she was Japanese. Turned out she wasn’t and instead was Chinese. So I had to scope out the place and asked her if they were all from China/Taiwan. She said most of them were Chinese so I knew we shouldn’t have Japanese food. I chose the mabo tofu and it was probably the worst I have ever had with peas and corns in it and a dark color something you would never see.

Later that night, we went to watch the two other matches of the night (Greece vs. Argentina and South Korea vs. Nigeria) at the casino next door. I had the gambling itch so I risked SAR100 (13.35) on the slots; I really should have played black jack but minimum was SAR25 ($3.35) and the table looked unapproachable so I stuck with the slots; it was a quick chance at luck. Later Clayton took us out to the bars again and Christian, one of the French guys went home since they were driving out early the next morning. Jean Paul was being a trooper though and joined us for a long night. I drank a lot and danced as I used to in my early-mid 20s; the traveling has brought the youth out of me again! I was even complimented by the Africans that I was a good dancer! Ha! It’s been a while (close to 15 years) since I’ve been told that I could dance well! Probably the last time was when I was an exchange student in Japan and won Best Dancer award at a club party. Oh no, I take that back, I was also voted best dancer when I worked in Japan! (Mind you both times were in Japan in a land where they really can’t dance!) Anyway, I’d take it.

The night winded down around 3:00AM. Poor Jean Paul he had to wake up at 8:00AM to make his way to Johannesburg. I was planning to leave the following night to Port Elizabeth but since I didn’t have a place to stay yet (almost everywhere is booked because of the Round of 16 game being played there on Friday); so I would be here in Bloemfontein for one more night. I must admit, I will be really sad when I have to leave Clayton. He has afforded me the opportunity to stay with a local and really allow me to feel like I’m living here which is always something you want to do when you’re in a foreign place; live like a local. He’s also made me laugh more than I have in the last five years! It’s been a good time hanging out with him.

Just today, I sorted out a place to stay - at a boarding school – for SAR150 ($20) through the intro of the tourism office in Port Elizabeth so I tried to buy my bus ticket. When I got there, was told that they were already fully booked! So I had to reserve a seat for the following night. I feel bad because I’ve already been with Clayton for close to a week! I never thought I would stay in this cold place as long as I have. Well, I’ll be on my way to another venue tomorrow and will hopefully make it to Cape Town by the beginning of next week to see my friend Peter who I haven’t seen in close to 8 years! I’m supposedly to be leaving South Africa on July 7 to go to London but don’t think that I will be able to make it by then…I am still planning to go to Namibia, Zimbabwe (to see Victoria Falls), Botswana and northern South Africa - Kruger National Park and Johannesburg. I may be here in Africa until the end of July! We’ll see…I’m watching my funds deplete so I’m getting worried. Do I have any sponsors out there?

**Jackie was kind enough to leave her book ‘Committed’ the sequel to “Eat, Love, Pray by Elizabeth Gilbert when she left. I have yet to read the latter but find some parallels with stories that I have heard about the book and possibly more as I continue on my world travels.


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