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Archive for the ‘“Postcard”’ Category

Nagymező utca, the “Broadway of Budapest”: one of countless spots to soak in atmosphere. (Photo: mjj)

[The following piece appeared Sept. 7, 2012, on The Mantle.]


BUDAPEST, Hungary –
I’d fallen out of love. This summer, I wanted so badly for that passion to reignite. No, I’m not referring to my marriage, but to the grand old city of Budapest.

Eight weeks later, I’m delighted to report: the embers still smolder. The elegant architecture. The vibrant café culture. The festive night life. Feels like 1997 again!

Budapest is in my blood. I’m a Hungarian-American who launched a career here as a freelance foreign correspondent, back in 1994. I enjoyed the best years of my youth in the city, from age 24 to 30. My father was born here. My wife, too. My three kids spend large doses of time here – and speak the tricky language as well as natives.

Yet the politics of the place have often mortified me, during the two decades of transition from cruel Communist dictatorship to rapacious capitalist democracy. As the atmosphere descended into one of the most noxious in all of Europe, with hatred and depression sucking up oxygen, the capital, too, grew uglier: graffiti scarred the urban landscape; so many shops, boarded and abandoned; pee-stained alcoholics crashed out on benches along once-regal, Habsburgian boulevards.

We now live in Lesotho, in the hardscrabble mountains of southern Africa. In the tiny capital, Maseru, the three or four cafes, three or four restaurants, just don’t compare to Central Europe. As a frigid winter approached, I flew my kids – more an evacuation, really – up to the summer steaminess of Hungary. They’ve spent weeks reconnecting with their grandparents along the family-friendly, fried-fish-peddling shores of Lake Balaton.

Meanwhile, I’ve flown solo in Budapest much of the time, with the luxury – during hot days and breezy nights – to mill about the old stomping grounds of my free and footloose years of early adulthood.

My conclusion: both city authorities and denizens show signs of resilience.

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[The following commentary appeared June 7, 2012, in The Global Post. For my earlier election coverage and photos, click here and here.]

A tiny mountain nation’s peaceful election and transfer of power is a lesson for all of southern Africa.

Rosina Moiloa, who had warned, “No change, no peace,” got what she wanted this week. (Photo: mjj)

THABA BOSIU, Lesotho — It was election day in Lesotho, and after almost three hours of standing in line, Rosina Moiloa had nearly reached the doorway of the threadbare school that doubled as the polling station in this village. But Rosina, a first-time voter, wasn’t griping about the wait.

The textile worker earns $140 per month, but spends nearly half that on the 30-minute taxi commute to her T-shirt factory in the capital, Maseru. In a country of 1.8 million, where half live in poverty and three-quarters lack electricity, she craves affordable educational opportunities for her two children.

So in the latest test of democracy in Africa, Rosina, 42, withstood the early-winter chill in the “Mountain Kingdom” of Lesotho, to reject the 14-year reign of Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili.

“We’ve been told that one vote can change a nation,” she proclaimed, with hands stuffed in her coat pockets for warmth, as other queuing villagers nodded. “I want to see if this is true.”

The May 26 balloting was hailed by political observers as one of the most transparent elections southern Africa has ever seen. Moreover Lesotho appears to have achieved a relatively smooth power transfer. The election resulted in the country’s first opposition victory and the formation of a coalition government. There were no accusations of vote-tampering. There was calm in the streets. And it appears that Mosisili will step down peacefully this week.

In a corner of the globe with little tradition of compromise and power-sharing, the election challenges notions about the dire fate of democracy in Africa and reminds me that many of the oft-derided “Western values” are in fact universal values. What society wouldn’t want to hold its leaders accountable for their words and deeds?

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MASERU, Lesotho – I’ve fallen for Lesotho, that part is obvious. But you know what a miserable day looks like around here?

It’s the last Friday of the month: payday in a country of 2 million where an estimated 40 percent live beneath the international poverty line. It’s also raining meerkats and jackals upon a drought-struck land where a survivalist mountain tribe – the Sesotho-speaking Basotho – claim as a national mantra, “Khotso, Pula, Nala.” A simple request for Peace, Rain, Prosperity.

Today, at least they’re getting the rain. But it’s so torrential, I’m sure some misfortunate families are eyewitness to their precious maize crops – the thrice-a-day staple of their diet – slowly washing away. (The World Food Program is already here, helping to feed tens of thousands of families.)

I just rolled into the Pioneer Mall – just about the only place in Maseru where you can seek refuge from the rain with hot coffee or tea. And a modicum of atmosphere. Yet there’s an enormous line of working stiffs, stretched out to the middle atrium, nice and orderly. They’re wet. And unlike their jolly selves.

These are the Basotho proletariat, waiting their turn to withdraw from the ATM. But this line seems much longer than normal. As I motor past, on my way to the loo, I ask the security guard what’s up. He produces one of those irresistible Basotho smiles, and without a trace of sympathy, declares, “The machine just ran out of money!”

So these poor shlubs sense no other alternative than to just stand there – for who knows how long. Now that is a lousy day.

(As I sit here, relaxed, sipping my hot espresso…)

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A view that warrants the two-hour trek. (Photo: mjj)

SEMONKONG, Lesotho — It took three hours of driving through the majestic, almost monotonously majestic, mountains of Lesotho, including the last 90 minutes bumping along unpaved roads. Oh, was it worth it.

Semonkong — Sesotho for “The Place of Smoke” — is best known for the Maletsunyane Falls, which at 192 meters is one of the tallest waterfalls in Africa. But more striking is the unspoilt landscape — and authenticity of Basotho village life. I was tempted to toss a Coke can to the ground, just to remind me of home.

This is no ethnographic-museum gimmick. The Basotho are a mountain folk, yesterday and today. From a nation of 2 million – perched as The Kingdom in the Sky – just one-tenth live in the capital, Maseru, as my neighbors. So it’s no exaggeration to say most Basotho live like those you’ll glimpse below. A simple life, but one filled with hardship: HIV, poverty and malnutrition.

Hope you enjoy viewing my photos as much as I enjoyed taking them.

Basotho cowboys, home on the range -- adorned in the ubiquitous "Basotho Blanket." (Photo: mjj)

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[The following post was published Feb. 24, 2012, on The Mantle. Octavia Spencer of The Help went on to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.]

MASERU, Lesotho – Living overseas, I sometimes fall out of touch with the latest “buzz” within American culture. Like which Hollywood sleepers are garnering acclaim from the critics.

The indispensable Mé Anna, after I made her giggle. (Photo: mjj)

So it was that I was flying Frankfurt-to-New York in late December, on my way to spend the holidays with my family, when I found myself with hours to kill and a seemingly lame slate of movies.

I’d only settled in Africa one month earlier, and my mind was swirling with the new sensations of life in the remote backwater of Lesotho. Beyond the culture shock of living in Africa itself, in one of its poorest countries, surrounded by razor-wire-lined walls, was the startling realization we now had “a staff” inherited from my wife’s predecessor at her international-development organization.

The staff was drawn from the local Basotho tribe: a full-time housekeeper, a part-time cook, a part-time gardener-slash-Mr.-Fix-It and round-the-clock crew of security guards. As a humble freelance journalist and journalism teacher, I guiltily embraced this neo-colonialist existence. That is, until I learned how grateful our employees were just to have a job – and a decent-paying one at that.

On the flight, I wanted to unwind, watching mindless action or comedy. A flick called “The Help,” about some women in 1960s, Civil Rights-era Mississippi didn’t fit the bill. Yet for some reason, I tried it.

The parallels of blacks-serving-whites were immediate and unmistakable. With the film set to add several Oscars on Sunday to its haul of awards and accolades, U.S. audiences may view it as merely a work of historical fiction.

For us, though, this racial dynamic is the reality in 2012 for hundreds of expatriate families in Lesotho. Not to mention the countless white families in surrounding South Africa, where the specter of Apartheid surely hovers over that power relationship, just two decades later.

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Frisky gemsbok, in the mood for love. (Photo: mjj)

BLOEMFONTEIN, South Africa — At the Bloemfontein Zoo, in the provincial capital of the Free State, we were disappointed to no longer have a chance to see Charlie, the nicotine-addicted chimp. But with a little patience, my 10-year-old and I waited and waited in the hot sun until we saw something even better: gemsbok, unique to southern Africa, in the heat of mating season.

A gibbon: just hangin' around. (Photo: mjj)

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Nice, white rhino. Heel, white rhino! (Photo: mjj)

WILLEM PRETORIUS GAME RESERVE, South Africa — Among the perks of living in Lesotho are the day-trips — across hellaciously pot-holed highways — to see Big Game in neighboring South Africa. And I’m not talking the occasional impala, ostrich or mongoose.

In Willem Pretorius, after nearly two hours of motoring in our 4-wheel-drive along dusty, rocky trails — with the only highlight a pair of giraffes seen from a kilometer away — we suddenly spied this rare white rhinoceros to our right.

Then he (she?) spied us … hard. Too hard. For a moment, we wondered if our Land Rover could outrun him. We’ll never know, as the rhino soon turned and sauntered into the bush.

Just another ordinary Sunday afternoon in southern Africa.

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