Do You Plan Your Wanderings?

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “The Happy Wanderer.”

I’m a planner. I admit it. But whether or not my children believe me, I wasn’t always one. When I traveled to Ensenada, I let my friend plan our weekend. When I traveled to San Felipe, I went with the flow. On my trip to Australia, we were free and spontaneous. We chose where to stay and for how long, money and a flight home our only boundaries. Even my first trip to Paris and Zurich were simple – I stayed with friends, brought guide books, and decided each day where I would be a tourist.

But then I had children. And the world became more crowded. I discovered that summer camps would fill up before spring. With a child with food allergies, spontaneity was difficult and wrought with disappointment and a hungry child. Slowly, I learned to plan. And now, I always plan.

My hesitation and anxiety about traveling to South Africa was lessened by learning more about the country, where we could and would go. Planning has allowed me to avoid long lines and eat gluten free at Disney, visit our sponsored child in Lesotho, camp at Pawtuckaway State Park every summer for years, be led by a tour guide through Gettysburg National Park, and visit the Senate on a trip to Washington.

But I still love spontaneity. And while doing a little research before traveling to a new place helps me to find the special and unique, or avoid those well traveled and touristy, destinations, spontaneity allows us to change course. To listen to recommendations from other travelers or discover new places ourselves.

Without spontaneity, I wouldn’t have attended a hearing for Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, watched the surfers in Half Moon Bay, or listened to the Wave Organ in San Francisco. I wouldn’t have spent the night in a treehouse, picked strawberries in Pescadero, gone hiking with the Hobart Bushwalking Club, or danced Nia in Santa Barbara. Without spontaneity, I wouldn’t have met Terry from England who later invited me to her wedding in Athens. I wouldn’t have stayed with the dairy farmer in Auckland or gone hot air ballooning outside of Alice Springs.

The travel world is so different than it was – the internet provides information and access to so many places, and apps like Yelp can allow a little bit of spontaneity with less risk of disappointment. You can read about where to go and what to see on blogs and share your experiences on social media.

But there’s nothing quite as freeing as just setting out, doing what you feel like doing at the moment, eating when you’re hungry, and being ready to just let things happen.

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An Insight into Lesotho

Visiting a place and getting to know its people makes the world smaller and increases our sense of community, even when that place may be far away. Or at least it does for me. My family visited the tiny country of Lesotho (pronounced li-soo-too) just three years ago.

Highway in Lesotho

So last week, when I heard of Lesotho’s attempted military coup, I could picture the people and the place, a country where over 90 percent of the women are literate, according to UNESCO, but half the population lives below the national poverty line, and 40 percent of the people suffer from malnutrition.

Village People

Lesotho housing

For more photos and travel stories of our trip to Lesotho, check out these blog posts:

Adventures in LesothoSleeping in LesothoEating in LesothoOrphans in LesothoVisiting Our Sponsored Child in Lesotho, and Washing Clothes by the River.

Trip taken August 2011.

When Traveling, Remember the Moscow Rule

While traveling in Paris many years ago, my American friends introduced me to the Moscow Rule. Not to be confused with the Moscow Rules, this rule has to do with shopping and souvenirs and is fairly simple. If you see something, buy it, because you may never see it again.

My friends told me that this rule originates from people standing in line in Moscow. If you lived in Moscow under Communist rule and saw people standing in line, you joined them, because whatever they were waiting for you most likely needed or would need and you may not have the opportunity to buy it another time.

Although I try to remember this rule when I travel, the times I forget are the times I regret. Like the time I didn’t buy the metal toy truck in Cape Town because I knew we’d see several more during our trip (we didn’t).

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Or when I didn’t buy a drum and then had to resort to the airport gift shop. Or when I passed up a pretty necklace at a price I saw quadrupled in future stores.

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Sometimes it’s easy to remember, like buying Lindt chocolates in Zurich, wool scarves with the family clan in Edinburgh, or maple syrup in Vermont. I find it more difficult to remember when I see something different. Is it something I truly want? Is the price a good one? Will I see it again?

Maple Syrup

To prevent those post traveling blues, remember the Moscow Rule: if you see something unique, something you’re unlikely to find online or anywhere else, snatch it up, because you may never see it again. Most likely, you won’t regret the purchase, and the memories it holds will bring smiles for a lifetime.

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Adventures in Lesotho

Do you know what country has the highest minimum elevation in the world? You’re thinking Nepal, right? Or China. Maybe Afghanistan, Argentina or Chile? But high in the mountains, surrounded and landlocked by the country of South Africa, is the answer. The small country of Lesotho (pronounced “Li-soo-too”) is the only country in the world with a minimum elevation above 1000 meters. With a low point of 4530 feet, most of Lesotho’s land is above 6000 feet.

We spent only 2 days in Lesotho, a country with just under 2 million people, about a quarter of whom have AIDS, and a land of 11,720 square miles, slightly smaller than the U.S. state of Maryland. Skiing, hiking, camping, dramatic views, harrowing car rides and pony treks, round huts, friendly and very poor people, donkeys and mountains: Lesotho offers a variety of excitement for the adventuresome traveler.

There is so much of the country we didn’t see, and there are so many places I wanted to go but didn’t. So for those of you who have more time and interest or whose travel plans allow a variation off the beaten track, here are the places we didn’t go. If you go, please let me know, so I can travel again to this beautiful country and live vicariously through your adventures.

  • Experience traditional Besotho life at Malelea Lodge and Pony Trekking Centre, a backpackers lodge in Western Lesotho.
  • Hike and bathe in river pools in Ts’ehlanyane National Park and stay at Maliba Mountain Lodge.
  • Visit Semonkong Lodge and you can hike to the mighty Maletsunyane Falls, where water plummets 186 meters in one of the highest single dropping waterfalls in Africa.
  • Drive the treacherous, dramatic and beautiful Sani Pass and visit the highest pub in Africa at the Sani Top Chalet.
  • Hike southern Africa’s highest peak, Thabana-Ntlenyana (3482m).
  • Go skiing in Lesotho at AfriSki Resort .
  • Experience a rural stay in the Northern mountains of Lesotho at Mamohase Rural Stay B&B.

Trip taken August 2011.

Sleeping in Lesotho

For convenience and simplicity, we spent our one night in Lesotho in a gated business hotel where we were able to leave our car for the day and sleep easily at night. With a motel-like setup, the Likileng Lodge located near the Caldenspoort border just outside of Butha Buthe, was a little worn but clean and perfect for our stay.

Because the rooms each contained only two double beds, our family was forced to split up, so in each room slept one adult and one child, one male and one female. As we registered, I stepped forward to sign the endless paperwork for the second room but was waved away. The man at the desk wanted the other man in our party besides my husband, our 15-year old son, to sign for the room. We realized later that our American nutrition caused him to look much older than the malnourished children of Lesotho.

I had to swallow my pride and my words, as this man at the front desk obviously didn’t think much of women or perhaps his culture didn’t allow him to be friendly to a married woman, in either case, I was quiet, not wanting to offend in a country where I did not speak their language.

Trip taken August 2011.

Eating in Lesotho

I was apprehensive about our trip to Lesotho, not knowing what the food would be like, not knowing how I would communicate the need to eat gluten free in a language I didn’t speak. Every time I spoke to someone at World Vision by phone or in emails, I emphasized the need for my daughter to eat gluten free. The last thing I wanted to do was offend the family of our sponsored child as they fed us a meal. On the other hand, I didn’t want my daughter to get sick!

Before we left, I researched the food of Lesotho and was relieved to learn that their diet consists mainly of corn, vegetables and meat. As we traveled to the World Vision offices, we reminded Julius, our translator, of my daughter’s dietary restrictions, and as we were served a feast, buffet style, we depended on another World Vision employee who was fluent in English and very articulate to ask the questions we would normally ask: “Does this dish contain any wheat or any flour or any bread crumbs?”

With the help of our World Vision friends, we learned which dishes contained gluten and which dishes our daughter should avoid. We put our trust in their understanding and in the translation, and she never got sick. This is what we ate:

  • Roasted chicken wings, thighs and drumsticks
  • Nyekoe – sorghum, pumpkin and beans
  • Carrots with beans and curry spices
  • Beans with onion and carrots
  • Pumpkin (served like boiled squash)
  • Samp (aka pap) – finely ground maize boiled until stiff, similar to polenta
  • Lentils
  • Lipabi – ground roasted corn served for a snack
  • Motoho – a traditional porridge made from sorghum, similar to apple sauce in texture and in sweetness
  • Dried peaches
  • Bread (contained wheat)

Later that evening, we experienced our second Lesotho culinary experience while eating at our hotel’s restaurant in Butha Buthe. Accompanied by simple green salad and rice, we had a choice of chicken, T-bone steak, or rump roast. The meat was prepared simply, the chicken stir fried with peri peri spices and served with peach chutney. Delicious and gluten free. For breakfast at the hotel the next morning, we ate a traditional English style breakfast with cereal, yogurt, fruit and bread to start followed by eggs cooked to order, bacon and stewed tomatoes. Lunch the next day included chicken, beet salad, coleslaw, mashed potatoes and pineapple Fanta.

Avoiding gluten in Lesotho was easy, especially since wheat is not a traditional staple, but trusting in people and their understanding of our dietary restrictions was important for our peace of mind as well as the health and comfort of our daughter.

Trip taken August 2011.

Orphans in Lesotho

Orphans are common in Lesotho, largely due to the high incidence of AIDS. We volunteered to spend a day of service with World Vision, and our day was spent helping a family of orphans.

Living alone in a small village about a 10-minute drive from our sponsored child and not too far from Ts’ehlanyane National Park, were four children: a 15-year old girl, 12-year old twin boys, and an 8-year old girl. (Their brother, 18 years old, was off on an initiation program for 6 to 8 months.) According to Julius, our translator, there is much child abuse in Lesotho and advantages taken of children, even by family members. The neighbors watch out for these children but have little food themselves.

With World Vision employees and other community volunteers, we spent the day cleaning the children’s space, their hut, their clothes and the land around them. Because of the cold, we didn’t meet until 11 a.m. when the land was warmed by the sun. When we arrived, the hut the children share was surrounded by trash. Inside, the brick rondavel with straw roof and dung floor contained a shelf, a trunk for clothes and a twin bed with a rusty frame and broken springs.

My husband cut and gathered fire wood. My children and I picked up trash, my husband and son washed dishes and cleaned the hut’s soot-covered ceiling while my daughter and I washed the children’s clothes (see related post “Washing Clothes by the River in Lesotho“).

Just off the road, the hut is vulnerable to litter from cars driving by. We found bits of old shoes, wrappers, bottles, broken glass and plastic, a film canister, old workbooks, fabric, a metal spoon. I gave the plastic alphabet stencil to a grandmother who sang the ABCs to the child (in English) on her lap and pointed to the letters. The clothes, the ceiling, and the dishes were filthy and required much scrubbing. Between jobs, we played Frisbee and laughed with the three youngest orphans.

When our job was done, we gathered together inside the hut where World Vision supplied the children with new school uniforms, two new mattresses, four comforters, eggs, beans, sacks of maize and a lock for the door. As the 30 or so community workers gathered in the hut, they sang a song and although we didn’t know its meaning, it evoked powerful emotions in all of us. One of the World Vision workers wiped away a tear as she lectured to the group. She said that we (the Americans) were not just rich but that we love the children and are asking the community to watch them. She said that it is the responsibility of everyone in the community to look after and take care of the children and reminded them that they would want the community to take care of their children if they died.

After my husband said a few words and gave each of the children a small toy, lunch was served to all the workers. We ate before returning to our hotel, saying good-bye to Julius and Lesotho and crossing the border back into South Africa.

Photos on this post by Tommy Taft.

Trip taken August 2011.

Visiting Our Sponsored Child in Lesotho

Visiting Nthabeleng was a major impetus for our family’s trip to the African continent, and we crossed the border from South Africa into Lesotho with anticipation. After months of coordinating with World Vision, gaining security clearance and permission from her family, we were about to meet Nthabeleng, a 13-year old girl we’ve been sponsoring through World Vision since she was 6.

Waiting for us on the other side of the border was Julius. He waved to us, and even without his white pickup truck painted with the World Vision logo, we would have recognized him. Friendly and warm, Julius was our contact, translator and tour guide for the next 2 days as we traveled to a rural village in the small, poor and beautiful country of Lesotho.

Julius took us to the local World Vision offices where men and women, fluent in English and highly educated, gave us a summary of the local community issues (including AIDS, child abuse and farming).

We toured the area, finally arriving at Nthabeleng’s school. No desks, only benches, furnished the private middle school where at least 50 children watched and waited while we picked Nthabeleng out from the crowd. In the back row, I recognized her. She was tall and one of the older children in the school, dressed in a Navy blue sweatshirt and dark red pants. Nthabeleng shook each of our hands but hugged my daughter, the girl who wrote her the most and was the same age.

At the blackboard, my husband held up a world map and showed the children and their teachers where we lived, where they lived and the distance we had traveled. We gave the teachers National Geographic maps to share with their students then left the school with Nthabeleng, waving to children playing on tires buried in the sand.

Off the paved road, Julius drove us up the hill to Nthabeleng’s village of red dirt, round thatched roof huts and square brick buildings. As we opened the car doors, we were welcomed by an unusual sound. Shrill trills, high pitched tongue rolling singing, celebrated our arrival. The people of her village escorted us to a table set with their finest, where we sat and ate with entertainment in front of us and the mountains a dramatic backdrop behind us. Women dressed in blue and white danced, shoulders rolling and shrugging, while others sang to the beat of a drum.

We met Nthabeleng’s family, her mother and sister and brother (her father was off working in the mines); we ate a variety of local dishes and exchanged gifts while at least 70 villagers of all ages looked on.

They waved as we left, smiling and singing and shrilling, and we waved back, happy and sad, knowing we’d never see them again, but richer for the experience and wondering what our next day in Lesotho would bring.

Washing Clothes by the River in Lesotho

I followed the women in front of me, a tub full of dirty clothes on my head, my hands there to steady the tub. As I walked, one shirt fell onto the path in front of me and then another one. Embarrassed, I stopped to pick them up. No one else was dropping clothes; not even my daughter who walked with a tub on her head just in front of me.

Working with World Vision and community volunteers, we were carrying the filthy clothes of four young orphans living on their own in a hut in a small village near Butha Buthe. We were Americans in the small country of Lesotho with different customs, different talents and different skills. I learned quickly that carrying heavy objects on my head is definitely not one of mine.

I followed the women down the path to the river and watched as they emptied the clothes on the rocks, filled their tubs with water and added powdered soap before scouring the children’s clothes. We scrubbed and scrubbed, squatting and kneeling on the rocks, the sun warm but the air cool, our hands immersed in the cold river water.

As we washed, the women around us talked and laughed in a language we didn’t understand. My daughter watched closely and mimicked them, learning quickly how they scrubbed without splashing. I cleaned the only way I knew how, hands holding the cloth together, rubbing in an even rhythm.

When a woman filled my tub with fresh water, I remembered the one Sethotho word I had learned. “Galiboha,” I said. “Thank you.”

With eyes big and intent, she responded, “GaliboHA,” accenting the last syllable. I tried again, “GalliboHA!” I said, loud and clear. She laughed and laughed, and the other women laughed with her. She pointed to my daughter. “Better than you!” she said and laughed again, showing me how they scrubbed the red dirt from their clothes, two short scrubs ending with one long stroke. I smiled and tried to copy their ways, moving my hands together as if I was making music with sandpaper blocks.

The women continued to talk in the language of Lesotho, but now we all laughed easily. The brown shirts turned pink and blue and yellow, the once clear water in the tubs now the color of dirt. Clean clothes lay on the rocks drying in the sun.

Back home, I scrutinized the photographs. No wonder clothes kept falling from my tub onto the path in front and behind me. My tub was piled higher than anyone else’s as we walked down to the river.

Photos on this post by Tommy Taft.

Trip taken August 2011.