Photo by Rowan Byers.
Photo by Rowan Byers.

Despite opposite seasons, (two) different oceans, and a different way of life, Cape Town — known as the ‘Mother City’ of Africa — still bears a resemblance to my home in Santa Cruz.  This series chronicles one banana slug’s attempt to make sense of life at the University of Cape Town.

The previous entry in this series is available here.


Euphoria.  Irritation.  Understanding.  Acceptance.   These are the four stages of culture shock.  As many an EAP participant could probably tell you, myself included, these four words seem pretty silly and irrelevant when you’re sitting in your pre-departure orientation two months before you leave.  At this point, all you want to do is get on the plane, start your whirlwind life-changing semester, meet an incredibly exotic foreign boy (or girl) with a sexy accent, indulge in all your Travel Channel street-food fantasies, and finally receive the ‘real’ education you aren’t receiving from your over-priced UC.

And yes, I fully admit to scoffing at the idea of being in over my head, particularly as I’ve traveled quite extensively in my 20 years on this planet.  But today, six weeks since I arrived in the beautiful, dynamic city of Cape Town, I type in frustration.  I have reached stage two.  However, I write not with the frustration of being a traveler in a foreign land, but more specifically, being a college student in one.

The University of Cape Town, where I am currently enrolled, is an interesting institution.  As a columnist in the campus’ student-run newspaper, Varsity, so aptly put it, “UCT’s situation as a university offering ostensibly first-world education in a third-world country is delicate.”

Let me tell you, an institution with beautiful neo-classical buildings designed to look like the ‘Oxford of Africa’ and a ranking in the top 200 universities worldwide definitely does not mean that the wireless network is going to work when you need it to.  And don’t expect to be able to check your online-only assignments when you get home either, because internet access in South Africa is kind of like a house party in Santa Cruz — hard to find and always getting broken up.

Then there’s the Jammie.  Essentially the campus shuttle, these cute little powder blue buses are loved and loathed by students for being overcrowded and never on schedule.  Trouble is though, that unlike when you miss the Metro bus in Santa Cruz, hitching a ride in Cape Town is not such an intelligent way to get home.

In all seriousness, safety concerns are a major part of campus life at UCT, and probably the biggest challenge to international students like myself. Recently, UCT students gathered on campus to mourn the death of a student who was stabbed after a robbery attempt in the early morning hours of the weekend, after attending a party with friends.  In what was the biggest campus protest in 10 years, students and UCT representatives were demanding a stop to the violence that plagues the community.

It sounds sinister, and at times it is.  Crime in Cape Town is rampant and exacerbated by the stark and highly visible contrast between rich and poor in post-apartheid South Africa.  In response to gross inequality, many people use opportunistic crime and theft as the go-to method to get out of poverty.  As an American student used to the relative freedom and safety I have at home, it comes down to accepting a loss of independence; of considering the necessity of carrying things around daily that make me vulnerable (i.e. laptop, blackberry, ipod); and of never, ever letting my street smarts falter.

The words I write are not meant to be complaints.  I didn’t travel thousands of miles to have everything be exactly the same as it is at home.  The challenges, fears, and obstacles of living in and adjusting to life in South Africa are why I will undoubtedly view the world differently when I return home.  So, for now, I’m ready to move onto to stage three and hopefully (fingers crossed) find a decent internet connection.