First Week, First Impressions

One of my new Basotho friends, grilling meat roadside in Lesotho. (Photo: mjj)

MASERU, Lesotho – Surreal. It’s a shopworn term – defined as unbelievable, fantastic or incongruous – that is thrown around way too casually in the Anglophone world. By me, included.

But how else to describe my sensations this past week, as I stumbled into the next stage of my life: here in remote Lesotho, the “Kingdom in the Sky” of the Basotho people?

Just two months ago, I wrapped up 17 years as a Central Europe-based foreign correspondent. The place may be rife with cobblestones and castles, age-old hatreds and poppy-seed strudel, but the post-Communist world is also perched on the doorstep of wealthy, industrialized Europe – and hitched to the fate of the European Union.

Then I spent two months in China, mostly in the hyper-developed, hyper-kinetic and hyper-counterfeiting mega-cities of Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai. The Chinese seem hell-bent on proving to the planet – and to themselves – that they’re worthy of the mantle “the next global superpower.”

A mere 36 hours later, via plane, train and automobile, I arrived in Maseru, the capital of Lesotho. Courtesy of my wife’s job in international development, I find myself with our three kids, for three years, in one of the world’s poorest, least-developed, and worst-HIV-ridden countries.

Yet after so much flatness of Central Europe and squashed-like-sardines density of Hong Kong, the dominant view is an open, unspoiled landscape of red-sandstone mesas and breathtaking volcanic-rock formations.

Blur your vision, and it’s not difficult to imagine the dawn of life and civilization. A stone’s throw from Maseru, the capital, are 200-million-year-old dinosaur footprints. Elsewhere is evidence of Homo sapiens traced back 100,000 years, and Bushman “rock art” thousands of years old.

Vistas like this pump the adrenaline. (Photo: mjj)

Take any road out of town, you’ll still find cow-dung-packed huts, known as rondavels. (Though, corrugated-metal shacks and cinderblock homes are more common.) In predominantly rural Lesotho, we’ll also have to beware of roaming cattle, sheep and goats, occasionally meandering across country roads.

Across the border in South Africa, at least, the many Afrikaner farmers are careful to fence off their vast properties. (They may have greater fears than loss of livestock, however.)

Lesotho, like Swaziland, is completely surrounded by South Africa, so we get the two-for-one bonus of tasting two countries at once – including one of the continent’s heavyweights. With the South African border five minutes away, I’ve already crossed it three times.

Surreal, indeed. I’ve been dropped into a real-life National Geographic video. And though tiny Maseru boasts just two bloody cafés — neither of which offers Internet, a serious crimp in my lifestyle — there’s plenty to inspire my chronicling of this African adventure.

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