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I leave my house for work and get called over by two village women awaiting their chance to do business with the chief. The first smiles...

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

High Places

In the large construction truck, we wound our way up a road filled with curves every 100 yards. I kept my eyes moving around, trying to see every crevice and vista the mountains allowed. At 2820 meters or 9252 feet, Moteng Pass astounded me with its beauty, beckoning me and making me question why it took over a year for me to make my way to the Lesotho highlands.

My friend and host for the weekend, Lisa, insisted we disembark the lumbering beast we rode up in when we reached Afriski. Afriski is one of seven ski resorts in all of Africa, the others being in South Africa, Morocco, and Algeria. It is firmly summer now, although Mokhotlong saw some snow only a week ago, so skiing was out of the question. We did not stop for snow, but something else fantastically cold: Amarula Vanilla Milkshakes.

According to Lisa, Afriski’s Sky Restaurant has the best milkshakes in all of Lesotho. She was, of course, correct. They were two delicious…meaning we both indulged in two of the wonderful treats made with hard serve ice cream. The Sky Restaurant also boasts the highest restaurant in Africa, sitting tall at 3010 meters or 9875 feet.

Because taxis between Butha Buthe and Mokhotlong do not pick up passengers along the route, we returned to the main road and set to work flagging down a ride…or rides as it turned out we needed three different trucks to make it to her village: a 4x4 loaded down with an immense amount of food, a flatbed delivery truck, and finally a two tanked gas truck with the fanciest interior imaginable.
Finally reaching her village at dusk, we hiked down the mountain to her rondeval. It was just dark enough that we had no view and I had little concept of how far down we traveled. The next morning, I was blown away as I stepped out of her home. The mountains were simply gorgeous.

The incredible view from Lisa's village
My first full day in Mokhotlong was spent at Lisa’s going away party with the staff from her school. Lisa is an education volunteer who has spent the last two years teaching math at a secondary school. She will finish her service and leave her site in just two weeks. Her going away party was a testament to the great relationships she has built with her colleagues over the last two years and was tons of fun with an incredible mountain backdrop.

The next morning, we determined another high point destination: Sani Top. Sani Top and Sani Pass are the Mokhotlong border crossing between Lesotho and South Africa. The two immigration offices are separated by a long, unpaved road that begs for four wheel drive. There are even 4x4 tours of the road, because it is so demanding.

On the edge of the Lesotho side is the highest pub in Africa. Although not as high as Sky Restaurant, it is still at an impressive elevation: 2874 meters or 9429 feet. It also boasts significantly better views than the Sky Restaurant since it looks out over the lower elevations in South Africa.

As it was a weekend and it sits next to South Africa, it was also a lot busier than the Sky Restaurant had been. A number of people were there as part of tours or staying for the weekend. While I celebrated finding my first Bloody Maria in Lesotho, Lisa and I worked on a project we are doing for Peace Corps, maximizing the access to electricity and it turns out free WiFi! Our discussion garnered the interest of another American, who it turns out works for USAID in Mozambique and is an RPCV from Cameroon. Our sitting area became a hub of Americans in Africa in no time, as we were joined by a traveler from California. Since I spend very little time in the parts of Lesotho that draw travelers, this marked the first time I have bumped into American travelers outside of the airport!

When we returned to Lisa’s village, we made a point to watch the sun as it set behind the mountains. With the breeze, the New Englander in me was in love with the brisk temperatures.
My last morning, Lisa’s father told me I could not leave Mokhotlong. A huge part of me agreed. I love my village and community in Butha Buthe, however, the combination of vistas, the even stronger sense of community brought on by the isolation the mountains create, and the cooler temperatures entranced me.

Back in training, when we were given the chance to give input on our site assignments, I suspect the only Mokhotlong site was lower on my list, although it has been long enough I cannot remember. Knowing me, I probably was intimidated by the idea of living so remotely and at elevation. I spent years living at sea level and in the foothills. I had never lived at the kinds of elevations that we see in Lesotho. Now, after being here as long as I have and having visited elevation, I know that I am strong enough to handle both the distance and the elevations. Even the arduous climb from Lisa’s home and school up the mountain to the road was more bearable than it appeared when standing at the bottom.

And so, I returned home, thanks to a pickup truck that picked me up faster than a taxi could arrive. As Lisa put it, with so few cars traveling the roads, it is hard to be picky. As we wound our way back through the mountain passes, I continued to be in awe of the views. When we finally blew back down Moteng Pass into the lowlands again, I could feel oppressive heat start to fill the car despite the breeze the open windows created. It was another 90-plus degree day in the lowlands, the temperatures seem more brutal than last summer thanks to our current drought. As I sweat my way back to my home, dressed for the cooler, breezier highlands; I wondered again why I had taken so long to get myself up to the highlands and why I so often doubt my own capabilities.

Much like I often laugh at myself for waiting over a decade to feel confident enough to commit to living alone and abroad for two years, I now laugh at myself for doubting whether I could have lived in the highlands. While I recognize my adventurous spirit, clearly I still need to recognize some of my own strength.

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