Tag: culture

:: centro historico ::

In the lifestyle of the Foreign Service, sometimes you bypass the tourist phase and go straight to establishing your house, friend networks, and local hangouts.  Two years is a remarkably quick time and so we waste no time in making our house feel like a proper home and finding where to go for the best local produce and a good meal.  Before you know it, days or weeks can go by and you haven’t really explored the city that you now call home.

I won’t begin to ascribe any meaningful introspection to our decision to explore Quito’s Centro Historico during our first weekend here.  It was a long four day weekend, we had very little of our stuff and limited connections yet, so a day out exploring the UNESCO world heritage site made a whole lot of sense.  Even if it did rain on us most of the time.

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We really had no idea what we would encounter on our first foray into the heart of Quito, but the short answer was churches, Ecuadorian tourists, and a vibrant mix of colonial architecture and small cobblestone streets. Quito’s historic centre was one of the first UNESCO heritage sites in 1978 and was given this honour due to its historical significance and well preserved nature.  With over 130 historically maintained buildings and the largest concentration of churches in Latin America, it is quite a place to walk around and soak up the history and culture of Ecuador.

Since that first weekend we have been back numerous times and have enjoyed the plazas, museums, and artisanal shops. We have seen it lit up and from many different angles, but we have gravitated to certain places such as Calle La Ronda, Plaza San Francisco, and La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús or the Basilica.

We frequently start at the Basilica Nacional, which has two great advantages.  First, its imposing view over the spires and ceramic tiled roofs of the old city gives you a great introduction to the whole location before you are in amidst the walls and narrow streets.  Second, you don’t have to climb up the rather steep hill to see the Basilica!

The building is faux gothic – having been constructed in the 1970s and 80s mostly out of concrete. It gargoyles are missing pieces and the two clocks in the tower don’t work, but it is an experience to walk on a wooden catwalk over the arched roof of the nave. And then the vertiginous ladders up to the tower that gives you the finest views of the city – except from the top of Pichincha!

What is always great about the centro historico is the vibrancy of the people. Yes, it is a world heritage site, but the Ecuadorians are going about their business like it is any other normal day or place. It feels like any other city centre in the country, with fabric stalls, small shops lining the narrow roads, and vendors selling all sundries out in the plazas. The regular options of chifles, ice cream, and umbrellas when the rain clouds roll in are all available – as are the shoe shine guys.

Towering above the area is the statue of the Virgin Mary atop the Panecillo – little bread mount. This enormous status is visible throughout much of Quito, but especially so from the old city.  It affords great views from the top, but is really only accessible via car – the stairs up are long, steep, and prone to muggers.

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One of our favourite little corners is Calle La Ronda. This once forgotten part of the old city has been the focus of the city’s efforts to entice small artisans to create workshops and small galleries to display their myriad talents. It is a mostly pedestrianized area that has a few nice little restaurants as well. We particularly enjoy the honey shop Api Real which produces honey from bees that are kept on Ilalo – the extinct volcano directly across the valley from our house, and other locations around Ecuador. Our favorite, the local eucalyptus honey.

One of the key plazas has been unfortunately under construction due to the large Quito Metro project, which is quite the engineering challenge. Building a tunnel under the length of Quito, in a highly seismic zone must keep the engineers up at night! Also, having to pull up all the historic cobblestones, only to replace them exactly in the correct places will undoubtedly prove to be quite the undertaking.

Nestled under the La Iglesia San Francisco is a touristy restaurant and gift shop Tianguez. The food is pretty good, but it is the warren of tunnels and rooms leading off the main gift shop that is the real reason to venture here. Displaying traditional arts and crafts from all over Ecuador, this maze reveals its treasures one hidden turn after the next. Just watch your head!

The centro historico has so much to offer, with the Good Friday Procession, Quito Days celebrations, and a hundred more activities and venues. Even when you aren’t right in the centre it can draw your attention. Sitting on a hill overlooking the old city is a lovely little restaurant Cafe Mosaico that offers fantastic views of the sunset over Pichincha. As you enjoy a cocktail or local dish, the magical dusk settles over a corner of Quito that has seen much change since its founding in 1534, yet it retains an old world charm about it. It is a view that can be quietly enjoyed and contemplated for hours.

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:: cosy cusin ::

A hacienda conjures up grandiose historical context.  The mind wanders to rolling country estates with horse-riding nobility and a grand house with Spanish ceramic tiles.  You can find this type of hacienda in Ecuador, but nestled below the glowering peak of Volcan Imbabura is a different type of hacienda.

At Hacienda Cusin you can wander through towering trees, past llamas languidly chewing on grass, and hole up with a good book in front of a roaring fire.  Sure the horses are there as well, but Cusin is a cosier feeling hacienda.

Reconstructed after decades of disrepair, the owners have recreated a historical feeling amongst the cobblestoned pathways.  First established in 1602 by a powerful Spanish family, Cusin maintained an expansive presence along the valleys on the eastern end of Lago San Pablo near Otavalo.  At its peak, it controlled over 100,000 acres, all but redistributed following land reforms in the mid-20th century.  Now it is home to quaint rooms with fireplaces spread amongst the main house and several out buildings.

The rooms each have a unique character, but it is the gardens and newly built monastery that have the most character. Trees draped with moss and bromeliads provide a canopy for various hummingbird inducing flowers.  The friendly little group of llamas ignore most visitors – except when they get close enough for a kiss from my wife!

And the monastery – which we first thought was refurbished, but later learned was actually completely built from scratch in the 1990s – offers surprises behind a myriad of doors.  Hand carved columns, handmade furniture, a chapel and beautiful altar, and even a secret door, the monastery is a fabulous place to explore!  And if you are lucky to get a sunny day, the view from the top of the tower, accessed through the secret door (if you can find it!) is stunning.

If you haven’t explored enough, then check out their little farm.  They have a few horses, ducks, chickens, cuy and once we discovered a huge bee’s nest.  They can organize horse riding adventures, or else you can just watch the baby chicks wander around and look for their elusive rabbits.

And when you’re tired of that, check out their squash court, fusbol table, ping pong table, and several movie rooms. WiFi is free in the common areas, or disconnect on a garden bench or in front of the fire in your room.

Hacienda Cusin is friendly and welcoming and we all love going there – even Mosa who plays with the property’s dog Terry.  The staff know us, especially Piper, and treat us like familiar friends.  They know of Piper’s propensity for soup in the evenings, her tendency to fall asleep at the table soon thereafter and her desire to find the llamas!

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Any old ramshackle house with Spanish ceramic tiles and some gardens can call itself a hacienda, but it takes a special feel to make such a place feel like home – Hacienda Cusin is just such a place.  Thanks Hacienda Cusin for the great experience for us and our guests, each and every time we go.

:: roses of the equator ::

That Valentine’s Day rose you bought recently may very well have grown in the sun and volcanic soil of Ecuador.  As the world’s second largest exporter of roses, Ecuador is enjoying the sweet smell of success of its rose industry.

Blessed with year round temperate climates, relatively sunny conditions, and volcanic soil rich in nutrients, the roses here grow tall, straight, and wonderfully robust.  Driving through certain areas north of Quito you are surrounded by acres upon acres of greenhouses growing hundreds of varieties of roses.  This industry has become so important that the site of the new Quito Airport was chosen partially because of its proximity to the rose growing centres.  It even has its own refrigerated warehouses to ensure cold chain storage for the roses on their way out of the country.

We have been lucky enough to go to one of the rose farms for a tour of their facilities and the 100 year old house.  Rosadex is considered a medium rose exporter, with approximately 25 million stems exported last year.  The largest rose farms will grow over 100 million stems every year!

These farms are almost like little communities with day care and health care facilities on site for their hundreds of workers.  The benefits the workers receive are far better than outside the industry for similar types of jobs and due to that, retention is quite high.  This is crucial for the farms as the entire process is very exacting.  From the planting and cultivating, through the monitoring and picking, to the final selection and packaging, each step has a kind of art to it.

Familiarity with the hundreds of varieties of roses, and the different market tastes globally, will ensure that your roses are selected by international wholesalers.  In the crowded field of international exports, one cannot overlook the basics of having committed and knowledgable staff.

Ecuador’s major rose markets are the U.S., Europe, Russia, and China.  Each has a slightly different taste for roses – short stems and large heads in the U.S., the opposite in Europe, and long and large in Russia.  The Chinese market meanwhile has opened up a whole new niche job at these rose farms – dying experts.  Roses dyed the most exquisite array of colours are highly sought after in China – including multi-coloured petals!  It is a precise job that entails splitting the stem and putting different parts into different dyed liquid for the flower to draw up into the petals.  It is largely trial by error at first, but once a process is honed, it becomes carefully guarded.

Each rose farm will produce a variety of roses developed by breeders.  They typically use a stock root for each plant, so it’s strong and well rooted to maximize the growing possibilities.  Each rose comes with a unique name, often inspired by the breeder’s girlfriend, favorite holiday or music group – Pink Floyd, Cheryl, Hot Stuff to name a few.  For every stem they sell, the breeder will get a small royalty, a huge endeavour to track, but a great benefit to the breeders who must spend hours perfecting each variety.

Rosadex is a family run business that started a little over 25 years ago and is on land the family has owned for a century.  It is a marvellous location complete with an old Franciscan chapel, still used for family weddings!  The creaky floors and historic artefacts around the main house take you back decades, all a mere stone’s throw from a highly modernised business.  Every room is filled with roses, and the decor has subtle rose hints all over it.  It is the type of place you would hope to find a flower farm.

Next to the house is an old barn, where the Jesuits who owned the property would keep their dairy cows and farming supplies.  Today it is a magnificent showroom, home to no less than several hundred roses at any one time and historic artefacts from the property.

So, the next time you are picking up roses at the supermarket, look closely as they are likely from Ecuador.  We even saw a delivery of Ecuadorian roses to a supermarket in Kauai when we were on holiday!  Oh, and the ones that don’t make the export market are sold here locally – 25 roses for about $4.00!

If you would like to get some locally grown Ecuadorian roses shipped anywhere in the States, check out their website.  You can often get a 2 for 1 deal, and have 25 roses for about $35. That includes FedEx shipping. You can select a delivery date and they will keep fresh for at least two weeks! Roses are shipped directly from Rosedex Farm in Ecuador! http://www.roses2give.com

If you are planning a visit to Ecuador, the Rose Farm and House will soon be open for public tours.  They offer a breakfast, brunch or lunch option.  Each visit includes a tour of the rose farm, the house, the chapel and old barn, and a homemade meal and drinks.  It’s such a relaxing way to spend a few hours, surrounded by huge beautiful roses and enjoying delicious food in a historical setting!  In 2019 they will be celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the house, so surely there will be some special celebrations – with roses of course!

Gracias Martin, family and staff – pups included – for always being fabulous hosts!

:: more adventures on the farm ::

Oh the stories the locals will have of the time the gringos came and dug a ditch!  We returned to the wonderful hospitality of Elisa’s family farm recently and could not sit idly by when there was work to be done.  We thought that we would be doing normal farm tasks like our last visit, but there were larger projects to tackle.

Unbeknownst to us, or Elisa, her family was responsible for helping on a community project the weekend we were there. Called a minga, each family in the community is required to assist in completing a project necessary in the area.  In this case, the minga involved digging a ditch for a new water pipe.  Elisa’s family had 20 meters of ditch to dig and so we went with picks and shovels and lent our not so skilled, or calloused, hands.

It was good to offer a hand to the hard working and remarkably friendly family and though they protested that we should be relaxing on our weekend, I think they were quite pleased to have our help.  We dug our piece of the ditch whilst people complained about where they had to work and how far it really was and how deep as well.  We contended with a rickety pick-axe that repeatedly broke off in the hard soil and a different water pipe running diagonally across our ditch, but we got there in the end!

One thing we were really keen to experience was seeing the whole cuy making process.  Yes, cuy is guinea pig, but it is a special meal for families in this part of Ecuador and we were honoured to have the chance to enjoy it with everyone. Mamachula – the matriarch of the family – did much of the initial preparing while we were out digging our ditch.  But we saw the remnants when we got back – intestines and blood and other bits that they would no doubt use somehow.

Once prepared, the cuy were tied onto long spits and placed on the braai – which was a gift from us all the way from Lesotho. They use the tips of aloe plants for puncturing the skin to ensure they don’t explode from the heat and leeks to brush oil onto the skin.  It is a long process with lots of turning, but we enjoyed sitting and talking with Elisa’s sisters and brothers and her dad, Papachulo – the patriach.  The final product was delicious – served with potatoes, rice and a peanut sauce.

Piper was once more the star of the weekend with everyone amazed at how much she had grown in ten months.  She was speaking up a storm and stole ‘mamachula’s’ heart once more!  She also decided to name the new farm cat ‘pescado’ – so they now have a cat named fish!

Beyond our unexpected community service we helped plant maize, choclo, and beans in the family field.  We picked capuli – cherry like fruits that make a wonderful drink – from a towering tree.  And we cleared out several large aloe plants for a new ‘driveway’ to Elisa’s brother’s house.  It was refreshing to be back in the campo under the commanding view of Cotopaxi and have the opportunity to give a little back to Elisa and her family for everything she does for us.  Piper had a blast romping in the fields with Mosa and Kevin – one of Elisa’s nephews.

We also had the chance to briefly go to the flower farm that we had helped last time by weeding seedlings.  They have expanded from one greenhouse to five and the flowers are absolutely stunning!  Competition is fierce though so the family has to consider changing crop to make it worthwhile.

It is not an easy life in the campo, but the quiet hospitality and earnest nature of all made us once again feel at home.  We will miss the opportunity to go back, but know that any future visit to Ecuador will see us welcomed back with open arms!  Thank you Familia Maigua for always opening your home and your hearts to us.  We will truly miss you.

:: at the edge of the jungle ::

We arrived at the small car park of our resort and were greeted by very helpful staff, and a very large tarantula.  The mammoth spider was a small reminder that we were no longer in the safe confines of the mountains when it came to wildlife.  Instead, we had descended to the very western edge of the hot, humid jungle that stretches 3,000 km to the east across an enormous swath of South America.

Cotococha Lodge sits right on the banks of the Rio Napo, part of the same riverine system that leads to the Amazon River.  The water rushing past our cabana would eventually find its way into the Atlantic Ocean after flowing through some of the densest jungle and most biodiverse areas on earth.  Sitting under the mosquito net with the lights out, there was nothing but bugs chirping, leaves rustling and the sound of rushing water.  It was pristinely relaxing to walk amongst the stone paths and sit under the thatched roofs with a cold beer.

Of course one of the true reasons for venturing into the jungle to is to see wildlife – mostly on the smaller scale.  We went for a walk the first evening with our local guide Samay and he showed us more different types of ants than you could possibly imagine could live in such a small space.

There were ants you can eat that taste a bit like citrus fruit, ants that you can use to stitch a wound, ants that you can rub on your skin to serve as insect repellant, leaf-cutter ants that ride atop the leaves like old sailors in sailing ships and of course bullet ants, the insect with the fiercest bite/sting in the animal kingdom.  Then there were butterflies, stick bugs, the aforementioned tarantulas, scorpions and numerous others that we didn’t see.  The variety and ability of these animals, and the people who live amongst them, to adapt and survive was truly stunning.

Of course it isn’t just the bugs that are amazingly diverse.  Trees and plants grow in startling numbers and can be used for just about any purpose – hiding from enemies or prey, covering yourself from the rain, serving as a weapon or just adorning oneself for ceremonial purposes.  Towering trees, prickly bushes and low-level ground cover all jostle for space and light, forming a layered environment that is all things to the local communities that rely on them for food, medicine and protection.

One of the true highlights of our trip was the community visit where we experienced many of the daily routines and traditions of the lowland Kichwa.  We were greeted at the river’s edge by an elderly woman who showed us how they pan for gold.  Once used more for traditional adornments, the communities now mostly take these small collections to Tena to sell to be made into jewellery in the larger markets of Quito.  It was amazing to watch the skill and ease of effort this lady went through to unearth the gold flecks, but also how minimal the outcome was for such a task.

We were lucky to be able to witness a small ceremony in the community.  Earlier that morning Cora’s mom received a rather vicious bite from an unseen insect.  By the time we arrived at the community, she was still suffering and the ladies there sensed her bad energy.  The bite had left parts of her hand and arm feeling numb and had brought about extensive pain to boot.  The ladies took a handful of leaves and swept them through the smoke and over and around her head.  The pain was still there, but she felt much better and more positive overall, and was thrilled to have experienced a truly local method.

The local drink of yuca cooked down into a frothy bowl of liquid sustains the population for much of the morning.  It was a little sickly sweet for our liking, but Samay told us that two litres of it will see you through even the most punishing physical labour.  I struggled to imagine how I would fit two litres of the drink into my stomach and then do anything other than take a nap.  Nevertheless, it was fascinating to see how they went through the steps of making it.

Being in the jungle, you are forced to think differently about how you obtain food.  Here, they use a long pipe and blow a dart out the other end towards their target bird or other animal.  Though seemingly simple, in reality it is extremely difficult to stabilise and aim the pipe, and then blow with sufficient power to actually puncture the target.  Piper really liked the blow gun.  Just 14 months old and ready to take out prey from fifty paces!  I suspect that if we allowed her one, she would gladly play in the garden with the pipe, though Mosa would almost surely not be too happy with being a constant target!

Being close to the river means that the community has a ready supply of mud to make some stunning ceramics.  You can see the finished example above of a bowl that we used for the local drink.  The process to form and dry the bowl is fairly similar to any other type of ceramic, however they use an extremely hot fire and bits of water to make the final touches or flair to the bowls.  The bowls are then painted using brushes of their own hair and the colours come from seed pods of local plants – especially reds and blacks. The finished products are rather clean, crisp designs that make for perfect little serving bowls.

Of course Piper couldn’t resist stealing peoples’ hearts and before too long Samay and his family had been painted her face with the same seed pods that they use on the dishes!  She was very happy with the outcome!

The river is key to life in this area having long served as a means to move people and products through the thick jungle. We used the river a couple of times, once to the community and once to a wonderful waterfall hike.  The heat of the jungle made the cool pool under the waterfall all the more refreshing.  And the return trip allowed us the chance to float down the river at a gentle pace.  It was amazingly tranquil to float down the middle of a jungle with the sun shining and the cool water lapping at our hands and feet.

All in all our few days at the edge of the jungle showed us the true diversity of this amazing ecosystem and whetted our appetite for the future prospect of a longer, more in depth exploration.

:: horse racing across the mountains ::

“Bo-Ntate, you need to move your cars, that is the finish line.”  Standing in a brown field surrounded by mountains, Basotho and horses, we didn’t realise that the two piles of white painted rocks were the finish line.

Horse racing in Lesotho is not like in the US or UK. There are no grandstands, betting windows or tracks for that matter. In fact, there aren’t even any agreed upon races beforehand. Owners show up and haggle over the cost of entering, race length and winner’s purse. Then there is an informal parading of the horses followed by a slow walk out across the fields to the start line. A flag is dropped and off they charge back towards the assembled spectators. No finish line technology, just a guy sitting on one of the ‘finish line’ piles of white rocks in order to provide an “eyeball finish” if needs be.

These informal, but very competitive gatherings happen around the country, but some of the biggest, and oldest, occur near Semonkong, a market town about two hours from the capital. This is the epitome of horse country, with very few roads and no major cities for more than 100 kilometres in any direction. Here in the Maloti Mountains horses are a source of transportation, agricultural labour and pride. People with few other material belongings revere their horses and back them to the hilt in these races.

The horse races generally occur once a month between March and October, though if there is someone staking an extra large amount of money then an extra race day can occur quite suddenly. The money isn’t huge, but there is a lot of it flying around the crowds! Betting is chaotic and anyone can bet anyone else. If you agree terms, you have a third party hold the money, then winner takes all. You add this chaotic betting system to the official negotiations for the terms of the races and rag-tag jockeys riding unfamiliar horses and it is best to watch from a bit of a distance!

We went for the Independence Day races, one of the bigger events of the year and we were not disappointed. What started slow and low-key became louder and more energetic with each passing race. Horses are paired based on age and size, with the races progressing to older, stronger horses. By the end, it became a straight match race – one on one. We have no idea what was really happening, but the excitement after the winning horse came across the line was intense and great fun to be around.

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There is something special to behold from the joy that the Basotho get from their horses.  Seeing it in the natural setting of the fields around Semonkong and Maletsunyane Falls was all the better. These horses don’t belong on the manicured race tracks of Saratoga or Aintree, but rather on rock-strewn dirt tracks streaking across the mountains of Lesotho.

Here are a few videos of the event to give you a real feel for it – first the parade, followed by a win. Please excuse the poor quality and line across the middle…

:: basotho blankets ::

If clothes make the man, then blankets make the Basotho. Men and women, rural and urban, summer and winter, blankets are a constant sight in Lesotho. Vividly colourful with intricate meanings and hierarchies, these blankets are a common cultural thread in Lesotho and beyond. Yet, their beginnings come from the cultural collisions of European missionaries and traders with Basotho, the people of Lesotho.

In the 1830’s French missionaries coming north from the Cape Colony came across King Moshoeshoe I and his newly formed Basotho people; an amalgamation of many different tribes and clans uprooted by conflict with the Zulus and brought together under the benign rule of Moshoeshoe. The King welcomed the missionaries and became an early Christian convert, thus providing access for missionaries and traders to move freely around what was then known as independent Basutoland.

In 1860 a British trader presented King Moshoeshoe I with a blanket, or kobo, and he immediately took to wearing it around his shoulders. Within a short period of time, Basotho started wearing animal skins, colourful cloths and blankets over their shoulders. Noting this new trend, an English trader called Donald Fraser introduced a specially made blanket for the Basotho which became an instant status symbol. The wool and mohair blankets were perfect for regulating body temperatures and staying dry and warm in the variable climate of the Mountain Kingdom.

It was the launch of the Victoria line from the trading store Frasers in the late 1890s that really kicked off the insatiable demand from the Basotho. This first specially made blanket resembled leopard skin and was made for royalty, but its popularity quickly led to an expanded line of designs and common Basotho bought the blankets in droves. Each year for the next century they produced 100,000 blankets and demand always exceeded supply. The Victoria label had become a symbol and everyone wanted one.

Today the blankets are no longer made by Frasers, but by blanket manufacturers Aranda in Johannesburg. Several traditional styles are still available while they work to introduce new designs each year to accommodate the changing tastes of Basotho.  Vivid colours, iconic symbols of Lesotho and two or three pin stripes running through the design are the key identifiers of the traditional Basotho blanket.

These beautiful Basotho blankets often have special meanings, and many designs are designated for specific occasions like funerals, weddings and initiation ceremonies.  There are also special blankets for royalty and the different traditional clans.  Most recently, Aranda has honoured Semonkong, where they shoot their blanket advertising campaigns, with a new design made to celebrate Maletsunyane Falls.

It isn’t just the iconic blankets that are ubiquitous here in Lesotho. Drive out into the countryside and you will see blankets hanging out to dry in every village. Simple ones, tatty ones, new ones and yes, traditional Basotho blankets made by Aranda. Fastened with a special blanket pin, there are many different ways to wear the blanket, but you’ll always see them worn prominently.

Women wear blankets as an extra ‘skirt’ layer in winter, around their middle to keep babies close on their backs as they work the fields or town, or draped over their shoulders for warmth and protection.

Herd boys make, and fix, their own blankets out in the mountainside pastures, or use those given to them by their family or initiation ceremony.

Older boys can be seen cloaked in traditional blankets as part of their initiation ceremony in which they become men.  Throughout the country, men and women of all ages wrap themselves in a warm blanket to fight against the frigid winter morning cold, strong wind, harsh sun or driving rain.

In recent years, Basotho blankets are even becoming high fashion couture. The Wall Street Journal recently published an article about Thabo Makhetha, a Basotho designer in South Africa, who is turning these quintessential cultural icons into jackets, dresses and shawls. Other designers are creating men’s jackets, while other sources in Europe and America are adapting or stocking these blankets, including Anthropologie.  Some claim that even Burberry took their inspiration from the Basotho blankets when they sent some of their models down the catwalk cloaked in wool blankets earlier in the year.

Perhaps imitation is the ultimate form of flattery but it is unlikely that these new converts to modern forms of the Basotho blanket will truly understand the influence they wear on their shoulders. After all, how can a trendy New Yorker or Parisian fully comprehend “bochaba ba mosotho ke kobo” – “the nationality of the Mosotho is the blanket”? Maybe they don’t have to, but we hope they at least become aware of this fantastic little mountain kingdom and the beautiful local cultural importance of the designs they choose to wear.