7 weeks

The following blog post speaks only to my personal experience, emotions, and thoughts at the end of my time in Cape Town, my transition back home, and my quarantine.


7 weeks. That’s the amount of time I was privileged enough to spend in Cape Town, South Africa. Less than halfway through my semester, I was told to get back to the United States as quickly as possible. I was forced to pack my bags during what was supposed to be my spring break, leaving behind the city and the people I was just beginning to form meaningful relationships with.

As recently as last Saturday morning, I was enjoying my semester in Cape Town and even went grocery shopping as a way to sort of “prove” to myself that I’d be there at least another week. How wrong I was.

I had a deal with my mom: when my friends Jeremy and Michelle– midshipmen at the Naval Academy that I befriended abroad in Cape Town this semester– were called home, that would be an indicator that it would be time for me to leave. On the afternoon of Saturday, March 14th, they got an email that they were under orders to return home, and I booked a flight home for Friday, March 20th. Just over 24 hours later, my program canceled.

Unfortunately, that first flight I booked had a layover in London, and on Sunday, March 15th, the government imposed travel restrictions that canceled my flight. My eyes flooded with tears as concerns built that I wouldn’t be able to get home to the States. I ended up catching a flight out on the evening of Monday, March 16th, which meant that the “bucket list” of to-dos I had planned for my last week were no longer options.

On what suddenly became my second-to-last day in Cape Town, I went to dinner with my previously mentioned Naval Academy friends and the three good friends we made in South Africa at our favorite all-you-can-eat Sushi place. Our plan was to go watch our last South African sunset following dinner, but a wildfire had broken out on Table Mountain and Lion’s Head and the ash-covered scarlet sky made it impossible.

I spent the rest of that night packing up the life I had made for myself in the 7 weeks I had spent in Cape Town. The following morning, the same group of friends met up for coffee to say our goodbyes. I surprised myself by not crying the entire time. Jeremy had the first flight out following our coffee date, so Michelle and I were left with our final afternoon in Cape Town together.

We decided to walk through Kirstenbosch Gardens, situated at the foot of Table Mountain. With my flight time looming closer and still needing to pack, we eventually and unwillingly left, knowing that what we were leaving in that park was also the future we could have had if we had been able to spend the rest of our semester in Cape Town.

My South African friend Justin was gracious enough to offer me a ride to the airport so that I didn’t have to Uber, so he was my final Capetonian goodbye. I spent the last of my Rand in the airport, and then boarded a completely full flight back to the USA. 16 hours later, I landed in Newark, NJ. From there, I flew home to Charlotte, NC on a flight that had 13 people on it total.

I had expected to have my temperature taken somewhere along the way, but that never happened. Instead, I was asked on three occasions if I had traveled to China or any other countries with a Level 3 travel advisory, to which I answered no– and only once was my passport double-checked for confirmation that I hadn’t.

As a precaution, I am self-quarantined at my dad’s house for 14 days because my mom is immunosuppressed. Even though I wasn’t supposed to see my mom or brother until their plans to come to visit me in May, it somehow makes me miss them more to be down the road but not be able to see them. My mom and brother stopped by yesterday and I waved to them through the window, and FaceTime dates with them and my dogs will be daily until I can go home.

At this point, I think most people have been impacted personally by COVID-19. Like most of you, I am doing my best to view and appreciate this situation as a growth opportunity– a time to be humbled by my own privilege and the amazing experiences it allowed me to have. Even though my heart is so heavy and there are moments when I have overwhelming fears that the world is ending, I know that it is not. I simultaneously recognize that my emotions are valid and it is fully acceptable and right for me to be heart-broken.

As a public health student, I take comfort in knowing that even though taking the steps to cancel events and socially distance ourselves are incredibly difficult and might not seem worth it, the good news is that if we do it right it won’t seem worth it, because if we don’t see many infections it means that it actually worked.

I never imagined that I would go abroad because I didn’t think I would be able to spend that much time away from home (see my previous blog post). Thus, the irony that my semester abroad was cut short is not lost on me. Somehow, it took losing my semester in Cape Town to realize that it was something I was fully capable of doing.

Life will continue on. Neither as I had thought it would nor as I had hoped it would, but it will continue.

As the South Africans would say:

Cheers.

USA vs. SA: Cultural Differences and Similarities

Animal Kingdom

Of course, one of the stark differences between Southern Africa and the Southeastern United States is the wildlife. So far, I’ve seen wild ostriches, baboons, dassies, seals, and African penguins! I’ve also had the opportunity to see elephants, though they were living in captivity after being rescued from poachers. I haven’t seen a wild Zebra yet, but I’ve been told it’s not uncommon. Next week I’ll be going on a safari, and I’m sure I’ll have plenty more animal pictures to share!

Island time???

So, obviously, SA isn’t an island. But that doesn’t stop them from living on island time. Life is slower paced, so if you come to Cape Town, I don’t recommend going to dinner hungry. It’s definitely a difference from the fast-paced life I’m used to in the US, but the relaxed vibe is something I’ve gotten used to and quite enjoy.

Left is Right and Right is Wrong

While I’m on the topic of time, I can’t forget to mention Cape Town traffic. Didn’t know that was a thing? Neither did I. But, at peak rush time, a 10-minute drive can turn into an hour-long drive, and I’m not exaggerating. Just like big American cities, part of being in a 4 million+ populated city is the amount of traffic that goes along with it.

While the city traffic is the same, the driving itself is not. The left side is where cars drive, the driver’s seat is opposite of what it is in the US, and I’ve yet to see anything other than a stick-shift here. As a true South African would say, driving here is “hectic”; all I can say is that I’m glad I don’t have to learn to drive here (thank you Uber).

Weather

You know how people who live in the southeastern United States say that you can experience all the seasons in the same day? Take that, multiply it by 10, and there you have Cape Town weather.

Layering here is key. Rain can come out of seemingly nowhere. The wind can quite literally knock you over. Don’t believe me about the wind? Google “Cape Town wind” and you’ll find your mouth gaping as you watch people holding onto light poles to prevent getting blown away.

Where I am in the Western Cape, summer (October to March) is the dry season. This differs from the rest of the country when the dry season is in winter. During the dry season, fire is an element of the landscape that South Africans have to cope with. The climate crisis is already worsening the fires: temperature increases, longer dry seasons, and increased risk for drought combine to exacerbate the incidence of fire risk.

Electricity & Water

Since I knew someone who studied abroad in SA the year before I did, I had a little knowledge before I arrived here about Load-Shedding. Load-shedding occurs when the South African power grid is stressed. In order to lessen this stress, certain areas of the country or city experience scheduled power outages that last several hours. I’m very fortunate to live in a South Africa that has adapted after 12 years of load shedding– meaning that many public places have generators to at least keep the necessities working. Even in my apartment building, we have a generator that powers the common areas, although our rooms lose power and water.

Water is another hot-topic issue in SA. In 2017-2018, Cape Town experienced its worst drought in a century. Citizens were severely restricted on water usage, and fears about “Day Zero” were rampant. Luckily, the fall in water usage and heavy rains in June 2018 brought Cape Town the end of their water crisis. The effects are still visible, in campaigns and posters encouraging residents to be “Water Wise”.

Food

Upon arrival, one unexpected (but pleasant) surprise was the cuisine. Cape Town is a coastal city, so their seafood is amazing. As a melting pot of different South African cultures and beyond, you can also find just about any other food you’re craving here. To my dismay, globalization has not been effective at getting Chick-Fil-A to the continent, but you’re sure to find KFC and McDonalds in just about every neighborhood.

I’ve had sushi too many times to count (not pictured– phone doesn’t always eat first), and lots of South African food. You can also always find an “American” restaurant, but perhaps the hidden gems of South African cuisine are the food markets! You can find one just about every day of the week, and that’s where the best food can be found in Cape Town.

Southern Hospitality

Perhaps the most glaring similarity between South Carolina and South Africa is that they both have southern hospitality. Being here is just like being in the Southern US, where everyone is smiling, welcoming, and polite. Apparently, it doesn’t matter which continent you’re on, Southern Hospitality is everywhere.

“I’m Not Going Abroad”

This is what I said every time abroad came up for the last 2 1/2 years at Wofford. I even went on an interim trip last year as a “test run” (Italy with Dr. Alvis) and though I loved it, it was further confirmation that I WOULD NOT be able to study abroad for a semester.

So, how did I find myself in Cape Town, South Africa for 19 weeks? I think that it was a genuine mix of boredom and fleeting moments of bravery that inspired my decision. I was at the beginning of the fall of my junior year at Wofford, feeling burnt out working two jobs, being an officer of my sorority, and on Campus Union. I was simultaneously ready for a break and an adventure.

I also had recently had a change of heart in my chosen career path (previously I wanted to do neuropsychology, but last summer I decided I’d be better suited for the field of Public Health) so studying abroad would give me an opportunity to study Public Health on an international scale, as well as take some courses that Wofford doesn’t offer.

I did know that if I studied abroad, I wouldn’t be able to go to Europe. Their cold and dark weather did not entice me, and my (although limited) experiences in the fast-paced city life of Europe were enough to tell me I wouldn’t be happy there. So this essentially left me with choosing a non-traditional location. South Africa happened to be one of the places with a Public Health program, and as an added bonus I would arrive during their summer.

Start Spreadin’ the News

Perhaps the most important part of preparing to study abroad is obtaining your visa. Pretty much if you want to go anywhere in the world for longer than 3 months, you’ll need one. This meant I got to go to New York City to visit the South African Consulate there to obtain my visa. Yes, the Embassy is in DC. No, I wasn’t allowed to go there (despite being geographically closer). But– was I happy about it? Completely. I went to DC on a field trip in 8th grade and don’t feel too much of a desire to go back. But New York? I’d never been to the city, so this meant I planned a trip right after finals to visit for the first time.

My mom and one of my best friends joined me, and on our 4-day trip, only one hour was dedicated to getting my visa. This was somewhat surprising, after having spent the better part of October and November getting all the materials together for my visa application, including an x-ray confirming I didn’t have TB. Thankfully, that gave us time to do the “touristy” stuff in NYC!

Me and my mom in Central Park while we were in NYC getting my visa!

All in all, a stressful process leading up to getting my visa ended with a pretty simple resolution. Despite being told I might have to wait 6-8 weeks for my visa, it arrived about a week and a half after I returned home from New York.

Saying Goodbyes

This was the main reason I did not intend to study abroad. The thought of leaving behind my family made me sick to my stomach. Leaving Wofford wasn’t so hard– as I said, I was ready for a break. But my family is a different story. Between leaving my mom, my aging dogs, my brother, and my grandmother, I struggled with knowing I’d probably miss some big life events.

My mom knew this, and in her infinite motherly wisdom, she slipped a few envelopes in my suitcase to open on important dates or when I’m missing my family. I’ve already opened one on my birthday (which was 3 days after I arrived in South Africa!) and on Valentine’s day. So now, I have pictures of my favorite people (and dogs) on my wall directly in my eye-line as I’m typing this post.

On a slightly different note, not only did I have to say goodbye to my family, but I also had to say goodbye to my therapist. I regularly go to counseling in the Wellness Center, which has been invaluable during my time at Wofford. Though I’m taking advantage of the counseling available through my study abroad program, anyone who goes to therapy knows that once you find the right person, it’s hard to switch things up. That’s something I’ll definitely be adjusting to here in Cape Town.

Traveling

This might come as a surprise given that I spent over 24 hours traveling to South Africa, but I am not really a fan of flying. Ideally, I like to avoid long flights. It’s partially because no matter what I do, I CANNOT fall asleep on a plane. The remaining distaste comes from very little about air travel being in my control beyond picking my flight.

Since it’s impossible for me to sleep on a plane, that means sitting in the window seat to have a place to rest my head is of no use to me. So, I’m an aisle seat gal (so that I can get up as frequently as I like). Luckily, I ended up with an empty middle seat on my row, which was enough to warrant some relief about the longest leg of my trip, a 14-hour flight.

The one downside of the aisle seat (in my controversial opinion) is that you don’t get a decent view out of the window. So, here is my very poor quality picture of the glow of the sunrise from 3 seats over.

There were actually 19 students from IES on my flight from Newark, NJ to Cape Town, and it was pretty easy to pick those students out. In fact, one girl was sitting in the window seat on my aisle! It definitely made for a better plane ride, being able to talk about what we had to look forward to. In the end, I arrived in South Africa with absolutely nothing to complain about.

Arriving

I’ve been in Cape Town for exactly 3 weeks now. Some parts of being here feel sort of like I’m at summer camp, if you know what I mean? That’s the only way I can describe it. Since 19 of us were on my flight, we were picked up by IES in two vans and taken to our respective housing.

One of my first South African views: the sunset over Devil’s Peak with a partial view of Table Mountain.

I live in a single person apartment (it’s basically a dorm room with a kitchenette), and I’ve finally settled in– I bought an extra pillow, I have the pictures up that my mom sent, and a fan to help sleep at night because there’s no air conditioning. I’ve found my favorite grocery store, and despite not having Cheese-Itz, I think I’ll survive on the food here.

I’ll save going more in-depth about academics in a different post, but my first 2 weeks of classes went well. I’m directly enrolled in classes at IES, so I don’t have the added complication of figuring out a new college campus. My program itself only has 9 students in it, so it’s very similar to the atmosphere I’m used to at Wofford.

One of my concerns about going abroad was that I’d regret it after I arrived. Luckily, I haven’t experienced that yet. I know living here for the next 16 weeks will have its challenges, but I know I’m resilient and will be able to handle whatever challenges come my way– and I’m proud of that!

Being Comfortable with the Uncomfortable

I have been on South African soil for over 2 weeks now, and I have already had many experiences inside and outside of Cape Town, but one, in particular, has been on my mind ever since.

Langa Township

As I think many students can agree, studying abroad is about more than relishing in luxury as if you’re on a 5-month vacation (which don’t get me wrong, is fun… but not sustainable), but rather, to have authentic experiences in your host country. In South Africa, that may include visiting a township.

In Apartheid South Africa, black people were evicted from areas that were designated “white-only” and forced to move into segregated townships. Apartheid was, in part, “successful” because of this spatial engineering that removed Black Africans, people of mixed race, and Indians from the center of cities and forcing them out to the periphery. Despite being 25 years removed from Apartheid, the effects are very much still visible, especially in the still existing townships. The third day of our IES orientation took us to spend a day with the residents of Langa township.

Langa Township (photo from Google)

As we were introduced to Langa, we learned that the Apartheid government designed townships in a way to prevent their development or growth. And yet, Langa has defied that expectation and persisted in their growth, their economy, and their culture. On the walls of the art center, I saw this quote which described their resilient nature perfectly:

We must become something we have never been and for which our education and experience and environment have ill-prepared us. We must become bigger than we have been: more courageous, greater in spirit, larger in outlook. We must become members of a new race, overcoming petty prejudice, owing our ultimate allegiance not to nations but to our fellow men within the human community.”

– Emperor Haile Selassie’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly in 1963

At the beginning of the day, we visited their vibrant arts center and their historic court of law which has been turned into a museum. We walked around their neighborhood, which was vibrating with children playing, people cooking, laughing, and singing. Many of the children came up and played with us as we listened to our tour guide (a local resident) tell us about Langa daily life and culture. And finally, we ate dinner cooked by the famous local restaurant, Mzansi along with music and dancing.

Student art on the surrounding walls of Langa, where each year there is a competition to inspire youth to explore their creativity through art (photo from Google)

Though I view my time in Langa as a valuable part of the South African experience, it does not and should not come without personal criticism. In other words, touring a township can be a positive experience for both the tourists and the residents, but those positives cannot exist without negatives. It’s hardly surprising that what has come to be known as “poverty tourism” has spurred debate. Critics and some residents of these areas that are being toured argue that tours of townships are deeply exploitative, degrading, and inhumane. Not even a week into my stay in South Africa, I was already forced to confront these questions.

Cultural Immersion or Poverty Tourism?

This is a question that I am not able to answer. However, some clear rules that I took away from this experience to keep in mind were:

  1. Tour with a local group led by someone who is from the community, so that there is a component of benefit to the local community rather than a big corporate tourism company.
  2. Ask what sort of consent or rights the people being visited have i.e. if you are taken inside of a home have the owners given permission?
  3. How authentic will the visit be? Responsible tourism requires more effort than sitting on an air-conditioned bus and gawking at the people. Take a walking tour so that you are given the opportunity to interact.
  4. Picture-taking policies are quite important (this is why both of the images in this post are from Google, I purposefully did not take any of my own photos while I was in Langa). Remember you’re in a neighborhood, so act like you’d want someone to act in your neighborhood. Many people might love having their picture taken, but this does not mean that you have free reign to take pictures of anyone. Asking for permission (or parental permission, in the case of children) is basic respect

While I did my best to follow all the “rules” of being a responsible tourist, I still wrestle with the morality of touring Langa ever since we went, but I have finally found some peace in realizing that I should not rationalize the experience to make myself feel better about it– that would be a disservice to all those involved.

For my part, I do want to catch glimpses of life as it really is for many people throughout the world. Yet I want to be sensitive to the fact that what I’m seeing when I travel is real life– not a show put on for my own amusement. Township tourism can be othering, and it could be easy to have an attitude of “I went in there and had a look, but at least I can leave and go to a whiter/wealthier area now,” without really reflecting on the impact of the actions. There can be a moral downside to anything we can imagine trying, but I think that if we live in a world in which we are completely unaware of how other people are living there is also a huge downside to that.

Global Citizenship: What Does it Really Mean?

Hello! My name is Margaret Roach, and this semester I will be blogging about my study abroad experience in South Africa, where I will be studying Health, Culture, and Development with IES Cape Town for 5 months.

With just about a week before I leave to spend the semester in Cape Town, South Africa, it’s starting to feel a bit more “real” than it has for the past 4 months since I decided to go.

During my program, I will be living in Cape Town, SA. While I’m there, I will also visit Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Mozambique.

As I’ve been preparing for my adventure, I’ve been doing what I do best: reading. In the past few weeks, I’ve read books written by South African authors, including my personal favorite—Born A Crime by Trevor Noah. I’ve read the ultimate travel memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat Pray Love. And currently, I’m reading White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, which has helped me to process some thoughts about studying abroad and establish some intentions for the next 19 weeks!

Reading White Fragility at sunset while visiting my grandparents in Florida before I go abroad.

Wofford makes a point of branding it’s students Global Citizens. But how do I honestly and truly embody what it means to be a Global Citizen? Studying abroad allows me the opportunity to think about my identity in a new cultural context. Before departing for my program, part of my personal preparation has been considering my racial identity against the backdrop of the dominant social identities of my host country.

While I am a white, female American student at a primarily white institution, South Africa is nearly 80% black, with 11 (ELEVEN!!!) official languages. That begs the question: how do I respectfully conduct myself in a country that was colonized by white people? Learning to acknowledge my white privilege came long before I chose to study abroad, and it will continue long after, because, for the most part, privilege is invisible to those who have it.

During my time in South Africa, I intend to be cognizant of how my identity influences my experience, interactions, and daily life. I recognize that my privilege may make my experience different from my peers or locals. My intentions, then, for my time abroad will be to:

  • Be an ally by educating myself, working, and taking action
  • Take responsibility and apologize for when I am insensitive to others’ experiences
  • Challenge ignorance and intolerance of others insensitivity
  • Build my own understanding of world events
  • Think about my values and what’s important to me
  • Take learning into the real world

In 6 days, I’ll be flying out of the states, and then 24 hours later I’ll land on the African continent for the first time!