Life in the Convent

Life in The Convent of the Holy Name, Leribe, Lesotho feels surprisingly familiar to me. From the moment I walked in the door I was overcome by an odd feeling of nostalgia. Perhaps it’s because the guest house where I stay smells like my Grandma Royer’s house in Indiana – a place I associate with warm summer nights, star gazing, corn fields, God, and unconditional love (not too different from here). Traditional Basotho music plays from the houses within the convent and I find myself set at ease by the accordions featured in many of the songs. It wasn’t until I put on Paul Simon’s Graceland album (staple music of my childhood, that and Dire Strait’s Brother’s in Arms) that I realized the accordion music from Graceland was very similar to Basotho music. So, somehow, I feel at home so far from home. And, it’s nice.

I have a bed in my room – a double bed! which immediately puts my life into the Luxury category as back home in Boston I sleep on a twin size Japanese futon I keep folded up in my closet during the day. I do my own laundry. Wash it in the tub. The other day I was trying to scrub out a stain in my scrubs (imagine that!) and noticed a rock by the tub. Ah ha! Rock in hand I had much improved stain scrubbing. I felt like a monkey who just discovered I could put a stick down an ant hole and get something tasty to eat. Of course, rock on fabric = not great on the fabric fibers, but hole-y clothes are appropriate in the convent (ok, that pun was too much, I KNOW). Sometimes I wonder why I packed the clothes I did, and then, I remember, I didn’t really pack my clothes. It was a mad dash the day I left for Lesotho – and I remember throwing random pairs of underwear and socks at Caitlin who tossed it into my suitcase. I guess that’s why I’m wearing Santa Claus socks right now and have to put my leopard print underwear out on the line to flap in the breeze for all of the convent to see (p.s. Thanks for the underwear, Mother!).

Coffee in Lesotho is instant and often mixed with chicory. Our stove is gas and when I light the oven there is always an explosive type sound and that makes me wonder if I will lose my hand. We boil most of our water for drinking, but I’ve given up on using boiled water for my toothbrush and seem to be doing alright for now. We’re actually very lucky on the convent because have a better water supply than many of the houses in the area. Lesotho is known for having a huge dam in the mountains in the middle of the country – Katse Dam. They sell their power to South Africa and sometimes there is just not enough power for Lesotho. We’ve being having power outages on Sundays. But this is not too terribly big of a deal because I don’t use much that is electric.

We have a guard (who requested I take his photo) and sometimes the sisters come to visit. We also have many guests that also come to stay in the guest house so we’ve made some new Basotho friends and some friends from a Canadian NGO (see next post for more on THAT). One of my favorite things about being here is star gazing in the southern hemisphere. Now, I really can’t tell most constellations apart but I like to make them up and Jen seems to have a pretty good clue. I know we see the Southern Cross and I know that there seem to be many many more stars than I could see in Boston.

Life is good in the Convent of the Holy Name.

Just when you think you're having a bad day, Lesotho gives you a double rainbow

Running in Lesotho: Take My Breath Away!

Alright, let’s get down to the meat and potatoes of what this blog is all about: RUNNING! Caitlin has graciously offered to let me guest blog and so I don’t want to disappoint by being completely off topic.

My last 4 years of marathon training I’ve been one lucky lady to be training on the Boston Marathon course with a fantastic TEAM – where water stops are abundantly stocked and high fives are currency. Now that I’ve left the embrace of TNT’s mercury-esque wings and have set out on my own, I am reminded of the marathon training I did for my first marathon in 2004. Back in those days I ran alone in Waterville, ME. I wore cotton everything, had no actual running tights, and was fueled by jolly ranchers I duct taped to my thighs and water bottles I strategically placed every 10 miles.

Although brought back to my running youth, running in Lesotho IS and that’s one of the biggest successes so far. As I packed two pairs of running shoes, a stick, and some granola bars into my suitcases back in America, I was a bit nervous knowing there was a possibility that I would not be able to run in Lesotho. Scheduling, safety, and the high altitude were all possible threats to my training.

To put all fears to rest, the second morning here Jen, the other medical student, and I decided to establish a routine of running each morning before work. We are very strongly discouraged from leaving the convent after dark and so running as soon as the sun has begun rising over the mountains seems like the best way to ensure that I will get a run in everyday. There is no telling if work will go late and I don’t want to have to risk missing a run because of darkness. Jen is a great running partner. She is interested in a career in infectious disease which means she is very knowledgeable about a lot of stuff I am not. As we run together, she explains the latest HIV therapies, the value of CD4 counts, infections commonly seen in AIDS patients and the antibiotics we use to treat them. The scenery is absolutely breath taking as the sun rises over the mountains and I cannot help but say to Jen “Really, Lesotho? Really?”. This is not as intelligent conversation as Jen offers, but it’s how I contribute. The terrain is nothing but hills so I am either running up hill or down hill – there is no flat. It’s kind of peculiar that way. We live on the top of a hill so runs end with a kick.

Your move, Heartbreak

Jen and I run together for bit, Jen educates me, and then I “drop” Jen off at the convent and go for a bit on my own to get some extra miles. The roads are usually lined with people. Many children on their way to school. It’s quite amazing. When I run at home in Maine I may see one or two people on foot – MAYBE. But here I see over 100 people easily in 30 minutes. I had to change my running attire recently. I was informed that wearing shorts is too scandalous as they show some of these thunder thighs, so I have switched to capri length running tights with shorts over them. It’s not the worst compromise by any means, but it’s still summer in Africa and I would prefer to wear shorts. That whining being done, overall the temperature is cool when we start running and I am content during the 5:30 am runs.

Saturday was my first long run. Back home, the TEAM ran 16 miles. I’ve decided to gage my runs by time as I am not sure how far I am actually running and I can definitely feel the high altitude when I get going. There was talk about going for a 3 hr hike on Saturday (perhaps another blog entry!) so I decided to transition into my long run by running

Mango mania!

for 2 hrs with follow up 3 hr hike. Originally, I was going to run for 1 hr north then turn around and run 1 hr back. Friday night, after chowing down on some butternut squash soup and mangoes (both of which tend to move and groove through the system while running…),  I started to think twice about  running straight into the unknown countryside far far away from a bathroom. I settled upon doing a loop near the convent three times – and added a run up a mountain/hillside to spice things up during the last portion of the run. The plan is to eventually run up the rocky part of the mountain (not quite sure how) but that was overkill for the first long run.

Saturday, I could feel the burn within the first hour and I was ready to stop. BUT, as long as my legs will keep going so will I. I finished the run completely winded as I ran up the hill to the convent. It was different running alone but it was fantastic as well: the weather was perfect and the scenery was too. I wish I could transport my team to Lesotho so they could experience the run (and bring me some GU, which I stupidly forgot in America) but for now I will have to settle for the wonderfully detailed e-mails Caitlin sends me about team practice and the pictures I am taking to show you and the team in return.

(Ed note: TEAM misses you too, lady):

Photo via Boston Globe

Greeting from Lesotho, the Kingdom in the Sky!

Yup, that’s right, the alternative name for Lesotho really is “the kingdom in the sky” and that’s no misnomer, ladies and gents. This country all rests more than 4,500 feet above sealevel. It is a beautiful beautiful country. I’m a sucker for mountains – having grown up in the white mountains of western Maine/ New Hampshire, and Lesotho does not disappoint.

My trip to Lesotho – all 36 something hours of it was fairly non-eventful. Even my overnight stay (earmuffs, mother) at the Johannesberg aiport went smoothly. (Disclaimer for any guest posts on this blog – smoothly is a relative term. For example, some may have hesitated to call sleeping in the Johannesburg airport with passport and $500 cash down their pants going smoothly, but I would call this a great success!) From Johannesburg I had a quick flight to Maseru, Lesotho where I was picked up, proposed to (uh huh, in the span of 20 minutes the driver from my program had confessed passionately his love for me, the inevitability of our life together, and begged for a kiss), and was on my to Leribe where I am currently.

Leribe kids!
View of Leribe from the road behind my convent

I guess this post is the Let’s Get Oriented post. I’ll try to keep it short because I know I have a short attention span and I can’t really expect anyone to be interested in hearing what I have to say for TOO long. BUT, I think I’ll have to lay the background info for future blogs. Sound like a plan? Great! Thanks!

Okay. The facts. I am living in Leribe which is a city in northern Lesotho – a country completely surrounded by South Africa. People are called Basotho and the language is called Sesotho. I live in a convent with another American medical student from BU named Jen.(Contrary to popular belief, I did not light on fire after stepping through the convent gates. Yes, I know, Mother, why in the world would that be popular belief?) We live in a guest house and the sisters live in a house next door. I am volunteering/ studying/ working at one of the larger hospitals in Lesotho, Motebang General Hospital where I am filling a similar role here as I do back home when I am on the wards in Boston. Again, this is a loose definition. And, the truth is, I am still trying to figure out exactly what that role is. I am here through a program called LeBoHA (Lesotho-Boston Health Alliance). I work under two American family medicine doctors: Dr. Phil and Dr. Laura. I will also be working under some Basotho physicians. Alright. Phew. That’s the basics.

To be continued!

You Say Goodbye…

My dearest running buddy Anna Royer just left for a 7-week medical rotation at a clinic in Lesotho. She has promised to write (and even guest-blog!) as often as she can make it to an internet connection, but after three straight months of spending every weekend together I’m feeling somewhat bereft. Now, there are precious few things I love more than a montage, but Anna is most definitely one of them. So, in tribute to a fantastic friend, runner and future doctor, please enjoy the following MONTAGE OF MEMORIES: ANNA EDITION: