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Lunching in Lesotho
“Quick,” I looked up at Jessica and her brother Tim, two young Americans I’d met on the fifteen hour bus ride from Cape Town, “let’s go. We’re at the border.” I had noticed a sign that said Ladybrand 10 miles in the other direction. So I checked with the driver and of course we passed the destination on our ticket. But it suited our purposes as we were heading to Lesotho, a small country completely surrounded by South Africa. A proverbiality in the face of its great neighbor.
We walked to the customs of South Africa. I handed the officer my Canadian passport. He flipped through it a couple of times and went through all the pages. “You come from South Africa, but you don’t have an entry stamp.”
“Just a minute,” and I handed him my Australian passport. The same swipe, the same scrutiny of the page.
“Sorry, sorry. I forgot I left Argentina with my New Zealand passport.” I blushed to the roots of my red hair. After 103 countries, you’d think he’d at least know the routine. The woman at customs gave me back my passport and admonished me like I was the slowest first grader: “Remember to present your New Zealand passport when you leave.” Behind me, Jessica laughed. “You looked like a spy pulling out one passport after another.”
We cleared customs into Lesotho and walked to Maseru. I suddenly felt like I was back in Africa. Yes, South Africa is also part of the continent, but a two-week chronic diet of high walls topped with live wires and security guards had me out. There was an undercurrent of raw violence and I felt like I was under house arrest. Suddenly I could breathe and walk down a street without fear of being harassed, or worse.
At the taxi stand I asked a local for the price for Maseru. One thing I’ve learned traveling is that as long as you know what it should be, no one argues. Ignorance can end in a nasty argument. The driver took us to the tourist office which was actually a tourist shop and the staff couldn’t offer any help. Tim and Jessica headed to the taxi park that would take them to Semongkong, where they planned to go on a tour.
What to do, what to do? I hadn’t been able to book anything online that wasn’t horribly expensive. So I asked around and heard about the Victoria Hotel. On the way there I saw a travel agency going up some stairs on the way to the reception. I took my carry-on and diaper bag, perfect with all kinds of compartments, and met Violet, a lovely and friendly woman. One of those people you instinctively know you can trust with your cash and passport.
The only thing on my travel schedule was that I had to meet friends who were coming from Canada and Australia in Johannesburg on January 13th. So kind of the plan was to spend a few days in Maseru and then go to Swaziland and Mozambique.
“Are there buses or trains from Maseru to Mbabane?”
Violet shook her head. The only way was to go through Johannesburg. On to plan A. Called a couple of overpriced guesthouses that seemed impossible to find.
So I thanked Violet and wandered around the center of Maseru, both square blocks. I had a momentary deja-vue that I was back in Shendam, Nigeria in 1981. Every passing taxi driver honked at me. But that made sense since she was a white woman with baggage and everyone knows she doesn’t walk. But I didn’t take it personally like he did with everyone else on the street.
On my way to an internet cafe I passed the Alliance Francais, an outdoor restaurant. The cook assured me that he would be there until 3:00 p.m. It looked like a good place for lunch.
There is nothing interesting in the inbox that requires immediate attention. I reviewed places in Bloemfontein, a city in South Africa an hour and a half away, and said it was one of the most boring places on the planet. Hummmm, nothing very interesting. But no matter, I would go with Plan B and see what I could find when I got there, sleep and catch a bus back to Johannesburg.
Since having lunch would be the highlight of my Lesotho trip, I was going to enjoy every bite. And I did it. Chicken, rice and a few vegetables might not be the most exciting meal in the world, but it was the ambience and atmosphere that made up for anything it might lack in taste. And the people watching was fascinating. Drinking a locally brewed beer, which is another of my rituals in every country, although I don’t particularly like foam, on a hot day it quenched my thirst.
After lunch, I went back to the taxi park to go to the border. When I got out of the taxi, a toto asked if I was going to Bloemfontein and I was led to a waiting car. There was a small woman sitting in the front seat. A sales couple met an elderly mother. And I mean big, as only Africa can produce. It took two rounds of bargaining and pleading to convince the petite woman to give up her seat to the one that stretched out snugly on the console in the middle of the car.
Then we went out. It was a new car and the guy drove well. On the way to Bloemfontein I switched to Plan C and said, “Please drop me off at the bus station.”
When I asked the Intercape clerk about buses to Johannesburg, he said the first available seat was three days later. Similar to the next bus company. Then I found Eldo’s office.
“When on the next bus to Johannesburg?”
“Tonight at midnight.”
“Is there a seat available, is it a luxury bus and does it have a toilet?”
Yes to all three. As it turned out I should have clarified the definition of “luxury”. And it should have been “Do you have a working toilet?”
I spent the night at Barril and Basket, drinking sauvignon blanc, chomping on seafood and using their free wi-fi to my heart’s content. It was one of those connected moments where there was nowhere I’d rather be or anything else I’d rather be doing.
Then midnight came and went without an Eldo bus in sight. When I returned to the counter, the woman assured me, “It’s coming.” And he did, only an hour and a half late. When it rolled I seriously considered staying in Bloemfontein for three days to catch the Intercape.
Eldo’s bus looked mechanically questionable. It also reeked of sweaty bodies piled up in closed confines. The bus was full and people were scattered in various contortions of sleep. And it was dirty. The front seat was free, so I slid into it and propped my carry-on next to me. There was no way I wanted to part with that bag.
The bus backed up. Even though I’m an atheist, I made an Insulallah – Arabic for God’s will that we do – just for extra protection and a little ju-ju chant. Once on the open highway, the driver drove like he was behind the wheel of a sports car. When she started talking non-stop on her cell phone and texting, she had had enough. So I told him in no uncertain terms that I would report him for dangerous driving. He yelled at me that he was a good driver and I told him to prove it. He cursed me out loud for being a white bitch, but put the phone down and slowed down.
At 07:00 we rolled into Park Station in Johannesburg intact. It was hard to resist acting like Pope John and kissing the floor, but I managed to hold myself back. Hardly
Thirty-eight hours is a lot of travel just for lunch in Lesotho. But I got a passport stamp, a meal and a story. bonus
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