Thursday, October 9, 2008


CAPE TOWN- Sept 28-Oct.2, 2008

One, if she has her bags with her.

Peace Corps miraculously and generously allowed me to travel to Cape Town with 37 sisters from the Holy Names. They came from missions from all over Lesotho for a “trip-of-a-lifetime” for many of them. The entire trip, including hotel and transport cost less than $150, but for many this meant using up most of their savings. We spent 3 nights at a large “older” (read between the lines) and once grand hotel and 2 over-nights riding in 2 small vans with luggage trailers.

It was a two track learning adventure. Track 1 was taking-in the experience of S.Africa, a country so apparently different from Lesotho, and the absolutely stunningly gorgeous environs of CT and its super-modernity. Track 2 was life with Basotho nuns. The launching is a good example. Five of us from my mission (to include Linda, the Canadian) left our place at 10am to be in Maseru (the meeting point), for a noon departure time. By 1pm everyone was present but the buses. Rumors began to float that maybe the buses weren’t gong to be there until 3 or 4, but no one knew. At 5:30pm, 2 buses and one small trailer arrived. It was obvious to all that this trailer could not hold the large bulky luggage of the nuns. Most had brought large bed blankets with them. Basotho, above almost anything else, do not like to be cold. So one trailer alone would be filled with the mound of blankets. We waited while they went to get a second trailer. After that was loaded, they realized they didn’t have the ropes to tie it down, so we waited while they fetched the ropes. The next task was loading ourselves, food and blankets into these vans. Nuns are often notoriously large and when they are bundled into their sweaters and coats with purses and blankets on their laps, bags and coolers of food at their feet, we were packed like Pringles chips. (I guess the good news is that if the van had rolled, we would have just bounced off of the blankets and each other like marshmallows.) At 7pm our buses left the parking lot – 7 hours later than expected. (Expectations are the bane of PC volunteers in Lesotho.)

Fast forward 16 hours (I expected 10-12 hours!) to our entry into Cape Town. We were all excited and oh-so-ready to release our bodies from their cramped and rigidified positions. But the directions to the hotel were vague (and no GPS!). It took us another 90 minutes of stopping and turning around to get to the hotel. Linda and I were roommates and part of the lucky few who got rooms with 2 single beds instead of having to share a double as many did. Quoting Linda, “Nuns suffer well”. (I believe this applies to Basotho people in general). Given that I don’t, I noticed this contrast in so many big and small ways. Example: an older nun sat with her purse and blanket on her lap the entire 16 hrs – not until I suggested that she could put it on the aisle floor did she do so. She also sat with the seat in front of her tilted back, practically into her lap, without making a peep about it. If the driver had the music cranked-up too loud, Linda and I were the only ones who would ask him to turn it down. At some stops, the driver would forget (?) to unlock our door so we were stuck inside. I would be the one banging on the window to get us out.

Back to Track 1 and the breathtaking beauty of the Cape Town area. My best description is that is has the appearance of San Diego (modern harbor, glitzy waterfront mall, beaches, tide pools, and surfers), Kauai (green cliffs dropping straight into the ocean, ocean meets mountains as far as the eye can see), Napa Valley (vast expanses of vineyards throughout the countryside) and Colorado (snow-dusted mountain peaks, winding river gorges with waterfalls).It doesn’t get better than this – except for a couple of flaws. Another tour bus outside our hotel came out in the morning to find their tires gone. There are also the Shantytowns. We passed by a couple of them near the freeway. They look like 12’x12’ tin, board and rock structures lined-up by the hundreds with no water or electricity. Cooking is done by little fires next to their shed and pit latrines were laid-out together by the dozens. A horror by any standards, and nothing we would dream of in Lesotho. People can be poor and hungry here, but they usually have shelter and land.

We had a couple of South African guides (teachers by profession) who were helping us get where we wanted to go. The two things that everyone knew they wanted to do were to go to Robben Island (the prison where Mandela spent most of his 27 years) and the top of Table Mountain. Unfortunately, neither of those happened – TM was closed due to wind and Robben Island needed advance reservations. So the most successful day was our visit to the Cape of Good Hope. Wow! - the southern most tip of Africa, the meeting of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, the stories from history classes about the many ships that were lost trying to get around the windy and dangerous cape. The drive from CT to the point was spectacular – we saw dolphins, whales close enough to touch, and (protected) baboons along the road. We hiked-up to the 600 ft. overlook and lighthouse and basked in the wind, sun and beauty.

Meanwhile, Linda and I explored the city during our free time. We took a self-guided walking tour, taking us by the Old Town Hall where Mandela stood and gave his first speech (1990) after being released from 27 years in prison. We wandered through a gorgeous garden strip(Company Gardens) that extended for blocks, breathing in the gigantic fichus trees, tropical plants, cypress trees and aviary. We found our way to the Moslem section with its brightly colored homes (pink, yellow, blues and greens) and many locals in the streets celebrating and greeting each other. We wandered along the campy Long Street filled with fun shops, cafes and restaurants. We wandered the cultural museum, filled with remarkable cultural anthropology displays. My favorite area was Green Market Square where African crafts were being sold, enclosed by sidewalk cafes. I saw beautiful dyed fabrics, masks from many countries, beaded and bone jewelry, and exquisitely stained wooden bowls. I noticed I was having trouble finding a context for shopping. Below the mind’s surface were my musings- I am in the Peace Corps, I live in poor dusty Lesotho in a 300 sq foot house, I just gave away most of my worldly possessions, What could I use this for? Where would I put it? When would I wear it? You see my conundrum. What I wasn’t confused about though, was book shopping. I dropped some big bucks in the book store, storing up on African novels and travel guides. Overall, it was disorienting to be in a place where everything is accessible and at one’s fingertips. I am already adapted to the emotional state of inaccessibility of goods and information. Back in Lesotho, I know what I want and have never been able to find – it is simpler! Linda and I spent all three evenings at the Waterfront– eating fabulous food, checking out the gorgeous shops, basking in the opulence, even seeing a movie(the first one in over 4 months). This was mostly of no interest to the nuns. It was an extravagant world, beyond their reach and not relevant to their lives. What was relevant to them though, were good shoes. So our final day in CT was spent entirely in 2 shoe stores. From 11am to 4pm we were either in the stores, waiting for others or traveling to the next store. And they weren’t only shopping for themselves but for friends or children at home. We departed CT at 4pm, spent a little time lost in the gorgeous countryside, and arrived in Lesotho 16 hours later.

Some of the questions I kept asking myself throughout the five days were:
Who is in charge? What are we waiting for? When should we regroup? Where are we going? Why are we doing it this way? I will never make a good Basotho nun with all of these ridiculous questions. There was rarely structure like “Be back at the bus in one hour”. So at various stops, people would linger around the bus, then break-off and scatter and no one knew for how long. Or the bus would be loaded but just sit there, sometimes for an hour, with no questions asked. Or there was the time at the mall when the guides told everyone to regroup at 6:30 (Whew! I love a time frame) but after everyone departed, “they” decided that we should leave at 5:30. Meanwhile, nuns are scattered throughout the mall. (I think this was an example of the generation gap – the younger nuns loved looking around, while the older nuns saw nothing of interest in this gigantic world of fashion and consumption.) When I would ask the guides what the plans were, they would always say “We don’t know, it is up to you all”. Finally after one confused waiting-for-Godot experience I said to them through grinding teeth, “YOU have to take charge – no one here can do that. Please!” Linda speaks of the “herd mentality”. There is discomfort if anyone launches out in front or singularly. So no one wants to take charge, make decisions without consensus, or stay behind to do their own thing. Example: a few nuns wanted to stay at the beach (some had never seen the ocean before) while the others went up to Table Mountain. The bus sat for an hour until the beachers agreed to go up the mountain with the whole group. But overtime, I began to notice that things really did work themselves out, and without my fabulous organizational skills! People did return to the bus, eventually, and no one was ever lost.

Things always took many more hours than I could have imagined, and there was usually an abundance of sitting and going nowhere. But, in time, there was movement, cohesion and completion- just not in the time frame that my Western, efficient, Aries-type temperament would have chosen. The nuns are talking about returning with another group next year. I wonder if offering myself as their tour organizer could be a good Peace Corps project?