Saturday, June 20, 2015

Winter

Winter or Mariha (maria) has arrived in Lesotho.

One week it was still glorious autumn, the colorful and lush green areas already varying shades of brown. The days warm enough for short sleeves, the nights cool enough to bundle up in sweaters, socks, and even hats.

Then, overnight it seemed although it was actually while I was in Swaziland at Bushfire, winter arrived. Days that had previous bordered seventy degrees now only creep into the fifties and nights drop to freezing most of the time. The temperature inside my hut plummeted into the low fifties, making me finally pull out my long johns for the first time after over one year in country.

Winter here is Lesotho is mild compared to the frigid and biting winters of New England. Last year, I spent the winter, my first three months in country, thinking, “Is this it??” But, I had just survived an unusually cold winter in Northern New Hampshire and barely enjoyed spring before flying to the Southern Hemisphere for Winter 2014 the sequel.

This year, having enjoyed and adapted to summer, I found myself mentally unprepared for winter's sudden onset.

It certainly did not help that it made its appearance during a week I was out of site and finally had challenged myself to pack minimally for both the trip to Bushfire and a week working for Peace Corps in another district. It also did not help that winter literally stormed in, with two days of rain and temperatures in the thirties to forties. Winter is the dry season. When it is cold and dry, Chacos and socks can be justified as just enough and easily adaptable to warming daytime weather. When it pours, however, it becomes a moronic choice of footwear and one may have to suffer through two days without fully feeling ones toes. One may also realize that not packing a raincoat was a poor choice.

A historically overpacker might suddenly feel ill prepared after being proud for overcoming their overpacking compulsion and have a terrible regression.

But I'm not whining. Just noting how startling the arrival of winter was.

And with winter in Lesotho comes a few other things worth noting:


Beauty: Beautiful sights including vistas such as snow covered mountains in the distance or foggy valleys and frozen water crystals on weeds in the bright morning sun.

Sun: The increased need for sunscreen. Over the summer, if I left my house with keys, I also had my umbrella. It traveled with me more than my wallet or phone. Sometimes it sheltered me from the thunderstorms that mark the rainy season, but far more often it protected me from the sun. I literally used it all the time. Now that winter is here, the sun has become my best friend. Like a cold blooded animal, I soak up its warmth whenever possible. As a result, I am getting my healthy sailor's glow back, which someday will frustrate the dermatologist I have not yet met.

Greetings: Additions to all greetings. After learning how someone is, it is customary to follow up with either “Serame se joang?” (Sar-rah-may say jwang) or “Hoa Bata!” (Ho-ah bah-tah). The former means “How is the cold?” and the latter “It is cold!” From there, it is expected that a conversation will ensue related to it being cold.

Wardrobe Commentaries: In my case, this conversation also includes a commentary in Sesotho about how I am not wearing enough to handle the cold or an appreciation that I have started to wear a Charlie-the blanket that married women and cold girls wear pinned around their waist.

The other day I was wearing the New England Cold Weather Special of an LL Bean Flannel topped by an LL Bean vest combined with a toasty knit hat and thick jeans. As I walked, villagers stopped me, incredibly concerned by my lack of Charlie and a jacket. It was in the thirties and they could not fathom that I was not frozen.

As I thought about this, I understood. In America, we have the luxury of buying really nicely made clothes for the weather we will face. My New Englander Special is most likely warmer than most Basotho's warmest jacket. My fancy winter fabrics are not readily available to people in Lesotho and so the idea that I am comfortable in lightweight but toasty layers is literally incomprehensible and probably giving me a reputation as a little bit crazy!


Winter Comparisons: Questions about winter in America. Over the summer, people did not ask me much about what our weather was like back home, but now that cold weather has made a reappearance, people are desperate to know how it compares.

In my experience, the Basotho believe Lesotho winters are the hardest things in the world. Considering that most people's interactions are primarily limited to Africa and Africans, this makes sense. Lesotho's winters are the coldest and toughest in Africa.

People here are stunned to learn that winters in New England are even colder than here and that we get lots of snow. But, to be honest, winters in New England are a bit easier than this one is showing itself to be. Because in New England, I always had a warm place to go. Even in the century old house I grew up in, where we heated only the downstairs and my bedroom was akin to a refrigerator, there was always a wood-stove to curl up next to when the cold became too much.

Since I am trying to tough it out and save money by not using my little gas heater, the only warmth I am currently curling up around is a warm mug! And the reality is, for most people in my village that is true for them as well. The lucky families can afford gas to cook inside their house. The luckier families have a wood burning stove they will occasionally use when it is too cold outside. But most people still do their cooking outside on an open fire. Their warmth comes from wearing their blankets and basking in the sunlight when it is there. And that makes their winter experience seem a lot tougher than those aggressive New England winters I grew up with.

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You should choose as your life's work whatever feels the most like play.
-Harvey Oxenhorn