Three flights, 25 hours, and no sleep later, I’m in South Africa! Now what?
The guy sitting beside me on my last flight said “You’re from Alabama, right? This is where I should say we’re not in Kansas anymore. But you’re from Alabama and I’m from California, so I won’t.” As I gazed out the tiny window of the airplane, I saw the burnt orange glow that was Cape Town drawing closer and closer. I knew he was absolutely right. This wasn’t Kansas anymore. It wasn’t Alabama anymore either. This was South Africa.
I had just taken the biggest step of my life out of my Alabama-shaped comfort zone. But I had done it. I flew for the first time. (25 hours! My aching body!) I left my safe and comfortable bed in Lawrence County for the unknown of Cape Town, South Africa.
Arrival & Homesickness
I arrived in Cape Town around 10:30 pm on Friday, June 1st. Sleep had managed to escape me on every single flight. My phone was acting up. The lady at passport control was rude. Bottom line, I was cranky, tired, and a little scared. I probably smelt a little too. I would be spending the next four days with my South African college roomie, Angeline. I left tear stains on Angeline’s pillow and snot stains on her hoodie that first night in South Africa.
Within a few hours, homesickness had already chosen me as its next victim. I was already counting down the days until takeoff. I was sure I didn’t have what it takes to be in South Africa all by myself. Jet lag, culture shock, and homesickness hit me hard.
I told my mom I felt like crying a lot those first four days. I think we cried together.
After departing Angeline’s house in Paarl I quickly became a resident of 317 Lower Main. This would be my home for the next eight weeks. I lived with 3 other Americans (Tom (Kansas lol!), Sam (New Jersey), and Adijat (Chicago)). We are all CISabroad interns. CISabroad places us into our internships and helps us with anything we need while here. They are quite amazing. There is also another girl living with us from Kenya, but we seldom see her.
Some initial culture shock
I have encountered a lot of things in South Africa, more specifically Cape Town, that are on a completely different spectrum than what I am used to back in Alabama.
The town we live in is called Observatory. Some say it’s a sketchy place. I can see that. But I also see how it is full of diversity and culture.
The road we live on, Lower Main, is brimming with vintage and thrift shops, restaurants and bars, and even homeless people.
The latter was very shocking to me when I first arrived. Homelessness and poverty was something I had heard about in South Africa and Cape Town before I came of course, but seeing it for yourself is another story. This is especially true for someone who comes from a place where homeless seems to be an “out of sight out of mind” concept. Every place has crime and other issues. Even Alabama. It was quite a shock to walk out of my own house in Observatory and find a homeless man sitting on our doorstep.
Because crime and homelessness is ordinary in Cape Town, just about every shop, restaurant, or house has metal bars covering their windows and doors. Seeing houses barred up like prisons was a very scary thing for me at first. But I have come to realize that a lot of crime in Cape Town is out of need and opportunity, not cruelty. If you take precautions then you’ll be alright. I’ve never felt so frightened but protected in my life.
Getting Used to Life in South Africa
I don’t want you to think that South Africa is so different from America just because of the more negative things I have seen. There are things I think are weird here, but in reality are just normal things that I have never experienced in the U.S.
Paying for Electricity
I think one of the things that makes the top of my mental “Strange things in South Africa” list is the electricity. For the most part electricity in Cape Town is prepaid. This means when you need electricity you must go to a shop and purchase it. If it runs out in the middle of the night then you are out of luck until the next day.
Unfortunately, this happened to me. My housemates wanted to wait until the next day to buy electricity. No one anticipated the power actually running out during the night. Even more unfortunate was the fact that I had to wake up before the sun rose. I showered in the darkness. I attempted to get dressed and do my hair in the darkness. I know I must have looked a hot mess that day. But this situation quickly became a learning experience for me. Never listen to your housemates when it comes to these sort of things.
Cell Phone Service
When you hear prepaid in America what do you think of? Electricity? Probably not. More like cell phone service. Cell phone service here is also a tad strange. Back home I can pay one price (about $60) for unlimited calling, texting, and data. There is no such thing as unlimited anything here in South Africa. Ever heard of Whatsapp? If you have plans of traveling to SA in the near or far future I would highly recommend it. Otherwise the cost of cell phone service will eat you alive.
Wifi is cheap!
I was a bit shocked to find that the cost of wifi is relatively cheap in the house we live in. I paid about $35 for 50 GB. At home we pay $50 for only 5 GB. What a bargain 317 Lower Main has treated me to!
The money also sometimes trips me up. It’s not hard to be confused by rand. Trust me! One dollar is equal to about 13 rand. So when I see something costs R160 it takes my brain a moment to process what I am actually paying.
Sometimes (okay more like all the time) just simply being in Cape Town itself is a strange thing for me. As a rural Alabamian, adjusting to city life is difficult. Especially a city that is rich in diversity and culture like Cape Town. Sometimes the most challenging thing I face in a day is crossing the road without getting plowed down by a car. Pedestrians have no right of way here. It’s a free for all. No joke.
Other days I find my biggest challenge in navigating the public transportation system here. Besides the Jag Trans at school I have never experienced public transportation before. Hopefully I am getting the hang of the bus system here. I’ve never really saw myself as a country gal, but my short time in Cape Town has shown me differently. It has definitely been eye-opening thus far.
Tomorrow marks my 21st day in South Africa. It doesn’t feel as if I’ve been here three weeks. But indeed I have been. I’ve never been so conscious of electricity, water, or my personal belongings in my entire life. Waking up in Africa still feels like a dream sometimes. The type of dream sometimes changes. Some days are good. Some not so much. But every day is truly an adventure. No two days are ever really the same. I’m learning new things about myself, my culture, South African people and culture, my own personal issues and biases, my strengths and weaknesses (and so on and so on) daily.
In a mere three weeks’ time, this beautiful and chaotic city has made me more aware (of literally everything) than I have ever felt before. I am starting to realize the things I take for granted back in the U.S. – like Walmart, Dollar General, or even being able to walk at night without being worried.
Hot chocolate, coffee, and being able to communicate with my family back home has become a comforting coping mechanism for me. There are so many things I want to write about that I have experienced so far in Cape Town. But that would take too long.
Just know Cape Town is changing me. Emotionally, physically, professionally, and any other way that comes to mind. I have six more weeks here. So, who will I be when my time in Cape Town draws to a close? Be patient. Only time will tell!
Learn more about what your internship in South Africa could be like!
This blog post is republished from Autumn’s travel blog which you can find here.