Friday, June 28, 2013

Daytrip to LESOTHO!

See that curving mud/dirt road? That's what Lesotho's roads look like -
a bit of an adventure to drive on! 
Finally made some time to write about this! On the last day of my May holiday we were persuaded to go on a daytrip to Lesotho – and it was awesome. After driving an hour or so we started into the mountains, where the roads became noticeably worse and the fog very thick. Half an hour in we reached the border post. The 8 of us stood shivering in line and ran back to the bus as soon as our passports were stamped. We were then informed that there was no border post on the Lesotho side. You can stamp out of South Africa, but you don’t get to stamp into Lesotho, at least at this border! Apparently the building on the Lesotho side was washed away at some point… that might have been made up by the tour guide, but it’s totally possible – I think it’s relatively rare for there not to be a customs/immigration post to stamp you into a country!

Anyway, once that was sorted out we we really in the mountains, and as we drove through the twists and turns our guide gave us a little background on the country we were now in. Lesotho is also called the mountain kingdom, and it is in fact the highest elevated country in the world. It is also one of the poorest countries in the world. It’s a landlocked little country completely surrounded by South Africa, and the vast majority of the population are farmers. While we were listening to this man speak I couldn’t help but get distracted by the quickly deteriorating road situation. After about 10 minutes we had reached the end of the tar road, and were now driving on mud. This wasn’t a back road, this was the main road of the country, and it was dirt/rock/mud. I wish I’d been able to take pictures of this, but it was by far the worst road I’ve ever had the experience of driving over, it was really bumpy almost the entire time we were in the car.

People in Lesotho are known for the blankets they drape over themselves
to stay warm in the cold weather! 
We arrived at the local school, which the backpackers we were with supports, and we were told that it was a holiday in the country so the other schools nearby had all gathered together to celebrate. This would probably explain the number of kids who stared at these tourists with a mixture of awe and fear. When we tried to speak to them we got mostly no response. Realizing the celebrations wouldn’t be starting for a while – this is Africa time after all – we left for our lunchtime hike into the mountains. Once at the top of one of the mountains our guide pointed out San paintings in the rock, apparently they can be found all over the area. There are many in Namibia as well! On our way back to the school we noticed several huts, and were informed that it is very rare to find power and running water anywhere in the country. Someone had some level of power though, as we passed a shebeen playing loud music!

Lesotho traditional healer explaining the purpose of what he is wearing
Back at the school we waited and waited and waited some more. Slowly people arranged themselves and the kids started with role plays. Kids LOVE role plays in my experience in Namibia, and Lesotho children found them equally entertaining. However, since we understand exactly 0 Sesotho words, realizing these would be continuing for the forseeable future we moved on. Our next stop was the traditional healer. He was really interesting to listen to. He uses traditional remedies to heal ailments that villagers visit him about – headaches, back pain, stomach pain, really anything he said. He became a healer when he started having visions. The traditional healers in this area communicate the ailments of their patients to the spirits, and then come up with the natural remedies. When he decided to follow the calling of becoming a healer he had to be trained, and initiated by killing a goat and drinking its blood. One thing that I found worth note was his response when one of the people in our group asked him what he does when he gets sick – does he visit the other healer in the village? He said maybe, or he would go to a western doctor. It was really cool to see that he understood the benefits of western medicine and didn’t have any problems with it.

We ended our visit at another house, where we tried traditional food. This food was very similar to traditional Owambo food – porridge [less sandy] and traditional spinach. While the non-PCV half of the group each tasted a bite of the food and had had enough, my group saw a plate still full of food and took the chance to finish it off handily, accustomed to the balling up the porridge with our hands and dipping it into the spinach. Yum! A perfect way to end the day! A lot of elements of this visit were similar to my experiences visiting rural Namibia, and I think the tour guide did an excellent job introducing people to what life looks like for someone in Lesotho.

Onward to spending the night at the airport and coming home to Nam!

Friday, June 14, 2013

Crazy for Crayfish!

DPS learners who participated in opening ceremonies.
They're called drummies. Look at those fancy outfits!!
Two weeks ago was the biggest event Luderitz has each year – the annual Crayfish Festival. Normally held over Easter weekend, so as to attract the most visitors to such a remote location, this year it was pushed back. The reason for this was to accommodate the Luderitz Town Council, which was hosting the town councils from all over Namibia for a series of sporting games throughout the week. At first I thought this was a pretty selfish move of the Town Council – truly few tourists would be able to get to Luderitz without at least a long weekend, so how could they justify moving the only well known event to a random weekend at the end of May?! Turns out, these games they were hosting were actually pretty big. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised – when given an opportunity to miss work for a week to go watch people play soccer/netball/other assorted sports, what person working at a town council would say no? And obviously the opening parade would begin at 10:30 on a Wednesday morning, RIGHT in front of Diaz Primary School in the middle of the location, just as we started up classes after the break. My classroom, right next to the office, is prime viewing for any action on the street. I thought I could handle the chaos, having gotten everyone seated and started on their work, but all bets were off when someone spotted horses. I have never in my life seen people so excited about horses. My learners were all at the windows screaming with joy to see the six horses on display, being ridden by the people at the front of the line. In this country at least, horses aren’t really ever seen, which explains the enthusiasm from the kids. This is a country of cows and goats, and sometimes assorted antelope, but not at all of the most commonplace animal in the US. So funny! My colleague in the office luckily managed to convince the principal to let the kids swarm the front gate to watch the parade go by.

I am obsessed with this sign.
Anyway, because of these games Town Council was very on top of making Luderitz look nice and getting it in shape for lots of visitors. Hence the creation of a sidewalk from town to the location, new paint on several previously neglected spots in town, and, the biggest cause of talk, a Hollywood-esque sign on the mountains welcoming visitors into town! My friend Sarah and I hiked over the mountain behind my house to take some pictures with it.
The Paella! All things seafood in there, so delicious!

The weekend was filled with so much delicious food – crayfish, braai meat, and most notably, a massive plate of paella for only N10 dollars! Also the Luderitz PCVs got to have drinks with the US Ambassador, who was in town for the Festival as well! It was so interesting to hear about her experience in Namibia in addition to the other countries she has worked in throughout her career with the Foreign Service. All in all, it was definitely a successful weekend!

Road-Tripping Through South Africa

After our All-Volunteer Conference in Windhoek, we were well-rested and well-fed after having stayed in a nice hotel with delicious food, and so ready for our thrilling 23 hour bus ride to Capetown! After a day on the bus we made it, and of course our first stop was McDonalds, conveniently located about 20 feet from our hostel. We later stocked up on snacks from the incredible grocery store, because after a day relaxing in the gardens of Capetown [I had already seen all the sites last year] we were off in our cute little rental car, dubbed the Fruit Loop Flier! Our plan was to drive the Garden Route and the Wild Coast up to Durban, then to Johannesburg for our flight. This trip involved a lot of driving, and we were working on accelerated schedule of only 10 days to travel over 2400 kilometers [South Africa is kind of massive], but we made the best of it!
This was the 'map' we used the whole trip because we were too cheap to buy a real one... there was a lot of guesswork involved when determining if we were going the right way. 
The Garden Route!
Our first day we drove from Capetown to Jeffrey’s Bay, a surfing town close to the big port city of Port Elizabeth. It’s known for it’s Billabong stores and major surfer vibe. The whole day we were driving the Garden Route! The forests of massive weird-looking trees straight out of a Dr. Seuss book, and the assorted plants on the side of the road, not to mention the plains of grass and tree-covered mountains, were so beautiful, and such an departure from the desert of Southern Namibia. Pictures really couldn't do the area justice! Once in Jeffrey’s Bay we didn’t see much of the town, it was more a place to crash for the night, in our not-well-protected from the cold/wind little shack of rickety bunk beds, which seemed worringly close to breaking and crashing to the ground. I made a resolution that night, that after my travels are over in December, I will no longer pay to sleep in bunk beds. The next day we headed off towards our destination, Coffee Bay. This place had been majorly hyped up by Chris, who had done almost this same trip last May, and was obsessed with Coffee Bay. Luckily it did not disappoint. The adventure in getting there was a story in itself. In Jeffrey’s Bay we met a Canadian family of giants [they were all over 6 feet tall], who were coming from Coffee Bay, complaining of the worst roads they’d ever driven on, having bottomed out at parts, and having had to get out of the car with all their luggage so the car could drive through the mud. We scoffed at their story, thinking that they had not seen much of Africa, how bad could it be. Turns out the road from the major highway to Coffee Bay was fairly full of potholes, and also the standard cows and goats on the road. It wasn’t until the very end of the drive though that we saw what they were talking about. Once we got into Coffee Bay, which is more of a village than a town, we were completely off any tar road situation, it was all dirt, and it had clearly rained the night before. Chris admitted that he actually didn’t know what we were going to do with the car, since we had to cross a river to get to the hostel. What?!?! This aspect of Coffee Bay had definitely been left out.

Fez, whom one could call the fun czar of the hostel, took us on a hike to the edge of a cliff to get this view for sundowners. Coffee Bay is the best!
Leaving Gio to guard the car, Chris, Mo, Marsha and I wandered toward this little river. He wasn’t joking, we literally had to cross a river to get to the office/main part of the hostel. Depending on the tides, there was a path of rocks to step over to avoid splashing through the river. Building a little bridge would detract from the remote/off-the-grid feel of this place I guess? After checking in we found out that our house was actually on the side of the river with the car, so we could at least bring it to the hill where the private houses/rooms are. We crossed back to the other side and made a plan, because even driving that 150 feet would be difficult – it was straight mud and puddles followed by a steep grassy hill. We unloaded the car and walked while one person drove it up. After walking to the very top of this steep hill, we arrived at the King's House, reserved just for our little group, and we were met by one of the hostel dogs, that proceeded to stay by our side for the entirety of our time there. We named him Chicken Sam. 
Beach Cows, it's a thing.

Anyway, one of the biggest impressions I had of Coffee Bay was how calm it was. Also pretty hippy. No fewer than three times were we approached by slightly sketchy people, who discreetly asked us if we wanted any nice weed or mushrooms. My neighbor had told me how open this business was on the Wild Coast, but I was still very surprised! Our hostel, The Coffee Shack, was the best hostel I have ever stayed in! It was more like a lodge for backpackers. When we arrived they gave us a welcome drink of our choice, and then told us that we had arrived on the perfect day, because on Sundays they have a free poitjie* dinner for guests. Oh, and also every night at 6:30 they bring out a plate of oysters for people to enjoy before dinner! We had our own kitchen so we could have cooked, but on the following nights when they had delicious three-course dinners offered for 55 rand, who could pass those up?! During the day they had planned activities, every night at around 9 they got all the guests who were interested together for a round of ‘killer pool,’ and our last night everyone who wore a homemade mask to the pool game got free punch! I can very very easily see how people would show up here and just never leave. If we hadn’t been on a schedule, we would’ve stayed at this place for a long time. This isn’t even mentioning the fact that we had the beach entirely to ourselves, well, except for the cows that we shared it with. Three days was not enough in this little slice of heaven! 

After Coffee Bay we headed to Durban, where we were supposed to stay for two days and three nights. After another full day of driving, we reached this massive city! It was overwhelming the amount of city lights, sprawling suburbs and highways we found when trying to locate our hostel. Once there we realized that the only reason we were in Durban was at the request of someone who was supposed to be on our trip but couldn’t come last minute! We decided to stay only one day, during which we spent the majority of our time at the mall, eating KFC, Indian food, and seeing 3-D movies – Iron Man III and The Great Gatsby! It was wonderful.
The mist starting to roll over the Drakensberg Mountains
We decided to spend our extra day in the Northern Drakensberg Mountains, which were on the way to Jburg. It was really cold there, obviously as it’s the mountains and it was the start of winter, but not something that we had prepared for clothes-wise. Gio doesn’t even own a jacket, since it's never cold in Rundu where he lives! When we checked in at yet another lodge-esque quality hostel, Amphitheater Backpackers, the lady told us that her feelings were hurt that we were only staying one night. We apologized that we had to be back to work in three days, so we had a flight to catch the next night! She proceeded to convince us that we had time to at least go on their day trip the following day, offering us a Volunteer discount, showing us a lot of beautiful pictures, and arguing that it was kind of on the way to Johannesburg, so we couldn’t say no! That story to come separately, because it was possibly the coolest day on the trip!

*a poitjie is a heavy black pot that looks like a cauldron! People make stews of meat and vegetables in it, slow cooking the food, which is then referred to as poitjie kos.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Hanging Out with the Cheetahs at CCF

As I said before, at the end of Norah’s visit we went to the Cheetah Conservation Foundation. It was a really cool experience! It is located about 30 kilometers outside Otjiwarango on a gravel road. We were lucky to find a taxi driver who would brave his battered car over these not-so-nice roads, and we arrived just as it opened. Another surprise was getting the Peace Corps discount, meaning we actually didn’t pay for our visit at all aside from the initial taxi ride! The man working there took us to the information center, where we were overwhelmed with everything you need to know about cheetahs and more for about an hour. I had no idea how little I really knew about them! Honestly I didn’t even know how to tell a cheetah and a leopard apart [in case you don’t either, it’s the markings on the face that are the easiest indicators of a cheetah!] Namibia has the largest concentration of cheetahs in the world, but they continue to be threatened by farmers who believe they are eating their livestock, and often kill them to stop the perceived threat. CCF is working with these farmers closely, educating them and making themselves available to pick up problem cheetahs on the farms to relocate them elsewhere in the bush. It’s a really interesting issue, and I’ve actually become really good friends with a girl who is doing her PhD on large carnivore-farmer conflict in the south closer to Luderitz, where there is no organization doing work like CCF, so the animals just end up getting killed to protect the livestock.

After getting our share of interesting facts we were led on a tour of the enclosures. CCF aims to rehabilitate cheetahs and release them back into the wild, so a lot of the land they own and have for the cheetahs is inaccessible to the public. Having people around all the time would be detrimental to cheetahs getting back out into the bush. However, a fair amount of the cheetahs at CCF it seems were brought to them when still cubs, before they had been with their mothers long enough to survive on their own in the wild. Because these cheetahs were never trained how to hunt by their mothers they can never be released into the wild, they wouldn’t make it. So these cheetahs are the ‘ambassadors’ to the Foundation, and have grown up with human interaction. Their names are really funny - one group that came in had a cub with a scar on its face, so the three of them are named Harry, Ron, and Hermione! We got to see these adorable cats up close [as close as you can get from behind a gate], and they gave us some great poses. We were also lucky that we were still there for the cheetah feeding, when a couple of the volunteers at CCF gave us even more information about their eating habits and we watched them dig into some fresh meat and organs! Overall a great visit, and well worth the effort to get off the B1 highway!

If you're interested in learning more about cheetahs and the work being done at CCF, check out their website Cheetah Conservation Fund