Friday, February 18, 2011

Another Present and Me ~ Travelog Thursdays

It is custom in Lesotho that when a visitor comes to your home that you have something to offer them, most commonly something to eat. It is there way of welcoming the person into their home. Hospitality is something the Basotho people know very well.

I traveled to Lesotho to visit a friend of mine in the Peace Corps. Her name is Meg and she was located very close to the border to South Africa in a town called Butha-Buthe. By looking a map you'd see that Lesotho is a landlocked country and enclave, about the size of Maryland, so you'd think that any town must be near the border of South Africa, it's physically overbearing neighbor to all sides. But what Lesotho has inside of it is deceivingly fascinating. It is the only country in the entire world that every inch is 1000 meters above sea level or higher, not even the “Rooftop of the World” Nepal can claim such a title. So with such high elevation comes stronger winds, colder temperatures, and in general a slightly more difficult lifestyle to cope with. But the Basotho people do it well.

Upon arriving into Lesotho, I had quite a hectic journey just to make it onto the continent of Africa for my four weeks in South Africa and Lesotho. Because of many factors happening in Bangkok at the time, leaving my house to get a taxi to the airport was more challenging than ever before. Protests downtown caused a state of emergency with curfew set at 10 pm, my flight was at 10:45pm. Torrential rain flooded my neighborhood and continued to come down as I stood out in the rain trying to hail ANY car I could see. And lastly, without prior notice my flight was moved to departure 30 minutes earlier. So after pleading, begging, and then giving up, I missed my flight. I had to wait two more days, pay a fine as my work visa expired the original date of departure, and worst of all, miss two precise days in our world's most unique continent.

The trip got worse. My time with my friend Meg was cut short, extremely short. I spent enough time at her home in Butha-Buthe to snap some photos, eat some shakalaka, be given the gracious gift of a traditional Basotho name by her “mme”, give some house warming presents, and then be sent on my way. Now a country that small in size, it should not be too difficult to get from one end to the other. But like most countries I've traveled within, although it looks easy, it probably is not. My trip from Butha-Buthe to Meg's fellow Peace Corps member's village, Mphaki, was only 159km (about 100 miles) away. But by roadway, it was close to 200km (124 miles). I left Butha-Buthe at 9am, and I arrived in Mphaki, after taking eight various vehicles of transportation, by 11:30pm. Now, my calculations are skewed as an aforementioned car accident I was involved in (which will be another Travelog Thursday special) delayed my trip for many hours, but even so, my day was long.

I arrived at this stranger's home as she had stayed up for more than two hours in her dark and cold rondoval (a small round hut with no electricity) waiting for the arrival of a friend of her friend's. But not only did she welcome me to her home, but had to graciously greet me in a terrible state following the car accident. I was nearly hypothermic from being in the cold for hours and with potentially broken ribs.

My new house mother, Gwen, took care of me like a proper Basotho woman would. But she's actually from Pennsylvania. Immediately as I slowly stumbled into her small yet comfortable “hut” she offered up some delicious bread and soup since I had not eaten the entire day. This was one of my first true treats of customary pleasures and it could not have come at a better time. Our introduction rivals for one of the most interesting in my travels as not only did I travel across the country to be hosted by someone I had only heard stories of, but I also needed to be nursed back to health by this new savior in sweatpants. Humorously, we laughed at the fact that my first present given to me in Lesotho was my new Basotho name, which was given to me no less than 30 hours prior. My new name was Tuso meaning “help” is the Sesotho language. When I was given the name, I wondered why my now “mme”(mother) felt I should be named “help” as I did not think I was being of any assistance to the country or family, just a wandering traveler. But as I realized the next day, under the care of Gwen, I was actually the one needing the help. That night I struggled to sleep as my entire body was sore but pure exhaustion got the best of my pain.

I woke up to glaring sunlight and a small present of joy standing in the front of the room. The hut's door was wide open and sunlight was overflowing the inside, bouncing off the round walls and creating a burst of bright light. After my eyes adjusted to the shine, I finally made out what was standing in the room, staring at me. As I gingerly sat up in bed, the object I saw was a young boy with zero expression on his face, his mouth slightly open to see his generously spaced --yet dirty-- teeth, and a bright red hooded sweatshirt on. The whites of his big, bright eyes contrasted strongly against his dark skin, especially with his hood on casting an even darker silhouette. We examined each other carefully as I was still a bit dazed from my heavy sleep. I finally decided to say “hi” and very subtly he smirked at the sound of my voice. Gwen often let the children of the village come to her house and color from her coloring books, so he was surprised to see me.

As this little one slowly crept closer to me to grab his Crayons and paper which sat beside me on the shelf, his smile became increasingly wider until he was ear-to-ear smiling once he reached the shelf. He giggled and immediately sprinted out of the rondoval. His antics made me laugh but unfortunately that gave me a shockingly quick reminder of how painful my ribs were with every chuckle.

Over the next few days, I got to know this regular visitor as he came to the hut around the same time. Each day he came in, received some bread or snack which Gwen had made, and stuck around with us. He did not speak English, was only about four years old, wore the same red-hooded sweatshirt, and found the uttermost enjoyment out of me and my camera. Finally, I learned his name on day three. Ke Keletso. A strong name for such a little man. Every time I saw him, he brought a bit of light into the house. His presence was quiet, never speaking unless spoken to, and even then it was a faint, one or two words. But he made up for it with his big smile. He wandered around the house looking at things, taking photos with my camera, and sitting at the dinner table just enjoying himself. He had a great demeanor that was peaceful, youthful yet mature and wise. He never raised his voice and he was very even keeled.

He hung around sometimes with his friend who was a bit younger than him. I don't recall his name but his face I will never forget. He had a very round, bald head that looked too heavy for his body, big puffy lips and a befuddled look on his sore-covered face. Gwen told me she believed that he was born with HIV/AIDS and that was the cause of his sores. With nearly 1 and every 3 people having HIV/AIDS in the countryside of Lesotho, this was a common occurrence, as well as topic of discussion between the town's people. Life and death was something the entire country has grown very accustomed to and unfortunately a lot of it is centered around the disease that distinguishes their continent so terribly. Lesotho and South Africa are two countries with a very strong prevalence of HIV/AIDS; Lesotho has the highest infection rate per capita in the world, while South Africa has the highest number of people infected in total within one country.

Ke Keletso's personality contrasted drastically with his friend's, but it seemed like they enjoyed each other's company as they played outside. Each day went on and I continued to get closer to Ke Keletso and the rest of the village of Mphaki. People started to understand who I was, although the misconception of being Gwen's husband-- since we slept under the same roof -- became quite annoying as I continued to have to correct them that this new friend of mine was not my wife.

On the day before leaving Mphaki, I went to walk down to the main road to take some photos and get some delicious “Russians”, which closely resembled kielbasa. As I was walking back to the house, which sat atop a hill, I looked passed Gwen's hut to where Ke Keletso lived. The sun was going down so it was glaring into my eyes just over the horizon. I got to the bottom of the hill to start walking up and I saw a small figure faintly form in the sunlight as it moved quickly toward me. I was frightened at first because I could not make out what was coming toward me, but the figure looked as if it were floating down the side of the hill, with no footsteps or warning cries. Once the figure reached below the hills' shadows and into view, I saw Ke Keletso sprinting toward me with the biggest smile on his face. I laughed and took a quick photo of how precious he was, and then put my camera down as he jumped into my arms. Just like the first day I met him, his presence made me happy. Although sided with pain in my ribs, having my new friend give me a big hug out of no where once again made all my pains go away.

His sudden urgency to run and give me a hug was confusing. It was very out of his shy nature. But after thinking about it further, perhaps he thought I was leaving since I was at the main road where most people stand to hitch the next car going through town. Perhaps he felt that it was the last time he would see me, and sadly actually, it was. I woke up the next day to snow falling on the sandstone colored earth. It was terribly cold outside and Gwen's “mme” came to say goodbye to me and friends Erica, Victor, and Albert who stayed with us for a few nights to keep company. Before we left, Gwen asked her mme a question for me: what does Ke Keletso's name actually mean in Basotho?” Gwen's mme replied, “another present. He is the third and youngest child of the family, so he is the family's gift.” Again. It was only fitting that learning my Basotho name was my first gift within the country, and that a young boy with zero verbal interaction with me but just simply a bond could be another present for me to receive while in Lesotho.

~~~~~ Check out the Ke Keletso's gallery and also take a look at my new gallery of Lesotho~~~~~~

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