South Africa Wrap-Up

I have been back in the United States for a while. The culture shock and jet lag slowly wear off. The shapes of outlets do not look so oddly foreign anymore. Driving on the right side of the road requires less conscious attention. People sound less blatantly American (and my accent returns to "normal"). The general absence of butternut squash and peri-peri sauce is less glaring, and avocado is rarely abbreviated to "avo."

Following the final weeks of cold in Cape Town, the absurd heat of the desert in the summer feels good on my thawing limbs.

I have been trying to close out my ponderings on my time abroad, I wanted to pull together some notes about life in South Africa and the study abroad experience at the University of Cape Town for prospective future students. At the same time, I have been finding it incredibly difficult to just finish this entry. It has been in a slowly growing draft-form for close to two months. Perhaps I do not want to "End" my journal of South African adventures. I need to get this up on the blog, and if more comes up to be of use, I will add new posts then.

The new Photos software on Mac not only makes browsing and uploading photos a pain, it makes it near impossible to get the image right-side up.
This was a very different experience from the MBTE program I attended the preceding semester in Australia. Obviously, South Africa and Australia are two very different countries. Additionally, the program with the University of Queensland was a dedicated program for University of California students. Therefore, all my classes were with fellow UC students. It was a shorter, more intense program with a heavy emphasis on research and field work.

The program with UCT was a more traditional immersion program. I took regular classes with South African students (as well as that institution's immense international student population...I had the opportunity to learn and interact with students from Zimbabwe, Mauritius, Botswana, Canada, Germany, Tanzania, Jamaica, the Netherlands, Norway, Malawi, and Uganda).

UCT is a three-year university (more in line with the British model) with the option of a fourth year Honours. It does not incorporate the American liberal arts model.

Academics were surprisingly rigorous. I was shocked when I arrived to learn from other US students that they felt a semester in South Africa was an easy-going party. Neither my housemates nor I found that to be the case. I can see how it would be easy to slip into partying with the other young internationals, but our courses required a lot of reading, plenty of independent study, and regular assessment. I studied a lot and yet felt like a slacker when comparing myself to some of my friends.

Much of university is grading system in South Africa is different from the US. Tests aim for a higher level of understanding, and the marks are assigned more sparingly. One counselor described the difference to me as, "American universities believe everyone deserves 100% and mark you down; South African universities believe everyone deserves 50% and marks you up from there." That is not entirely accurate, but it helps. 50% is passing. 75% is generally the cut-off for "First class" which roughly translates to our "A." Grades I would hate myself for getting in the States were apparently considered admirable. If 100% is considered perfect, it is reasonable to see that people don't perform perfectly. My friend got an 80% on one of her exams, a grade her professor claimed to have never before awarded.

Professors were much more casual and easily approachable that I expected. I anticipated that US universities would occupy the middle ground between the extreme casualness of UQ and a stodgy, conservative UCT. However, it seems to me that UCT is placed more in a middle ground between UQ and US universities. Every professor I knew was on first-name basis. I think I referred to someone as "Dr. _________" once upon introducing myself only once. In fact, one of my lecturers actually giggled about my formality with him. Professors, tutors (TAs), IAPO, the library, department secretaries, all proved to be willing and interested resources for my academics there.

Upon our arrival (and to a certain extent even before departure), we were bombarded with warnings about Security. South Africa does have a high crime rate. I admit that it became difficult to find the fine line between prudence and paranoia. I have lived in bad neighborhoods and tough towns before and know how to stay conscious of my surroundings. I also enjoy the benefits of being a large man, and thus a more intimidating and less-inviting target. At a certain point in the semester, all of us international students started to slack off on our watch, and two American girls who lived just down the street from us were mugged on their way home (losing some money, housekeys, and cellphones). Fortunately, they were not physically harmed. It was a wake-up to us all about the realities surrounding us.

Ida Cooper's initial outings for us were smart in informing us how much cash we would need to bring for certain events. This laid an initial understanding as to what the South African Rand was worth and how much was appropriate for different outings. It taught us not to carry excessive amounts of cash around. As we established local bank accounts, we could carry our bank cards (as it seems many South Africans just use those, and many places accommodate debit cards).

It was recommended to travel in groups, not stroll around after dark, and never walk with headphones in (besides advertising that you were in possession of some electronic object of worth, it impedes your awareness of your surroundings). Public transportation like trains and combies should probably not be used after dark. Everything comes with receipts. ATMs do not give the option of not receiving a receipt. Do not throw those away on site: someone can pick the slip out of the trash and know how much cash you now have on you. When paying with a card at a restaurant, ask the waiter to bring the credit card swiper to the table (something they are all prepared to do), so you never send your card away and out of your sight.

That said, I did walk to two meetings a week that were about 1-2km from my house. As the seasons changed and the sun set earlier, those walks ended up being after sunset. I never had a problem. That said, the walk is through one of the nicer neighborhoods in the area, and as previously mentioned am perceived as a very different target than, for example, a young woman. Still, each time I took that walk I would carry only my phone, my student id, and about R20-50.

The absolute best way to Get Around is to make friends with someone who has a car. However, that may not be possible for everyone, and you are always at the mercy of someone else's whim and availability. Cape Town is a remarkably walkable city (by day).

UCT provides a shuttle service called the Jammie. It is very safe and reliable, and free to UCT students (have your student ID on you). The UCT orientation provides information about this service. Since I lived so close to campus, I rarely rode the Jammie. However, it was very useful in getting between campus and the downtown campus (with its adjacent museums and attractions) or certain local shopping centres.

There is a train system that runs fairly regularly. It is somewhat dingy, and it can be hard to spot your destination station through the scratched up windows (there is no announcement of stations over an intercom, as you might find with other transit systems). There are two classes of cars. I was told by a helpful gentleman that I should be in the "first class" cars. It took a few rides before I could spot the green "PLUS" on the side of the car that indicated that fare class. There is a tendency on Sundays for the ticket windows to close at the different stations, resulting in a free ride. Don't necessarily count on it, as you don't want to get caught fare-dodging.

While there is supposedly a bus system in Cape Town, I have to admit that I saw the bus maybe six times during my entire semester there.

Then, there are the taxis (a fairly ambiguous term encompassing three different modes). There are official metred taxis. Of the three, this is the safest and at the same time most expensive. I was particularly fond of Excite Taxi. They had the lowest fare per kilometre. They also seemed to be the most reliable in terms of friendly, honest drivers (and the owner of the company, it turns out, lived a couple doors down the street from me). I could go from my house in Rondebosch to Gardens (in the city) for about R80.

Then, there are other taxis not particularly attached to any company (or sometimes even any signage). These rarely had metres, and you either smartly negotiate the fare before getting in or accept whatever they charge you upon arrival. These tend to be hanging about in various locations (I would call ahead and request a cab from Excite for planned trips) and were good for their immediacy. You could also negotiate a really good fare, especially on slow days (although it sometimes feels like taking advantage of people in a tough, demanding industry). A similar trip as the one described above could go for anywhere from R60-140 (depending on the driver and the day).

Lastly, and most cheaply, are the combies. They are minivans that zoom up and down the main streets. Similar vans are often engaged for specific journeys, and I rode them weekly with commissioned drivers out to the TeachOut locations in the townships. The combies usually consist of a driver (whose only match in terms of sheer road warrior madness were the Butler's Pizza delivery guys) and a caller who leans out the open sliding door hooting, whistling, or shouting at people along the streets trying to pick up fares. This is a true adventure worth experiencing. I could get clear across the city for R6-8 (we are talking about $0.50-0.75 for a comparable distance as the other taxis described above), by far the cheapest of the transportation options. Unlike buses, combies will stop just about anywhere along the route you ask, much to the dismay of the rest of traffic. However, be prepared.

I was told never to get into one after dark, and I heard stories of people finding themselves to be the only passenger on a night-time ride to unexpected destinations that end in being mugged and dropped in some remote corner of the city. In general, I only rode them during the day and only got in one that had other passengers.

While the crazed drivers could get great distances in short periods of time, you might find yourself sitting in the van at some street corner for a period of time while the caller walks up and down the street trying to entice fares to hop on. They also tend to pack the van to beyond maximum capacity. I have experienced them laying a board between the seats to provide a bench for additional seating and encouraging old ladies to just stand in the small aisle. One time, they kicked a guy off to make room for two smaller women. There is often some bizarre music blaring, but other times the driver and caller (and maybe one or two passengers) engage in animated conversations (in English, Afrikaans, or isiXhosa).

One enjoyable thing about Cape Town for me (an admitted language lover, but several of my friends also enjoyed it) is the sheer variety of spoken languages going on all around. South Africa has 11 official languages (12 counting sign language). I never had a problem communicating in Cape Town. Most people speak English (in some form or another, but let's not get into accents), even though it is only the first/home language of less than 10% of the population of the country. Cape Town is a bit more "English" than other places (across the valley in Paarl and Stellenbosch, everyone defaults to speaking to you in Afrikaans). Still, it was delightful to have background conversations occurring in Afrikaans (both "proper" and KaapsAfrikaans - the form spoken by Cape Malay peoples), isiXhosa, Zulu, Tswana, Sotho, etc. Additionally, Cape Town is a pretty international city, so I could eavesdrop (though not understand) conversations in many other languages as well.

There is some fun South African English worth having handy. I found myself picking up many of these, helping me to feel a part of (and sometimes even mistaken for) South Africans. As a general expression of surprise (disgust, amazement, enjoyment, dismay, etc.), there are two expressions. "Agh" (with the guttural "G") and "Eish." Many of the kids use "hectic" to mean anything crazy (usually in the negative sense), and things that are cool are referred to as "chilled." "Izzit" is a conversational filler used in the same way that we use "is that so?' or "uh-huh." The fun is that the form does not change, regardless of the statement it is reacting to ("We are going out tonight" "Izzit?"). While "Cheers" is used as a drinking toast in England and the US and as a thank you in Australia, South Africans use it to say "goodbye" or "see you later." Traffic lights are frequently called "robots," so do not expect to see androids on street corners when someone giving directions tells you "Go down to the robot and turn left."

I also discovered that when you want to get around someone (something you will need to do on the crowded campus), it is customary to say "Sorry." In the States, we commonly say "Excuse me" but that is used when you wish to get someone's attention to talk to them. I found it quite frustrating for a while when every time I wanted to get around a group of people, I would say "Excuse me" and then have them turn to fully face me. They assumed I was trying to address them rather than merely get past.

There are two important Afrikaans words that are in common usage in English. Lekker means cool, beautiful, lovely, etc. It is used to describe a day, how one is doing, or just about anything else where we might employ the word "cool" (lekker does not quite apply to such hyperbolic things for which we might say "awesome"). The other is braai (pronounced almost with a long "I" sound). It is an important part of South African social custom and is essentially a barbecue (if collective outdoor cooking of meat and consuming of beverages is more than just a social event, it is a cultural identity).

When going to Eat Out, there are a couple of nuances worth knowing. I never saw them split a bill. However, people seemed to have no problem working together to pass the bill around the table and chip in what is their share. Figure out what you owe and add it to the pool. Tipping is generally about 10%. Since America's convention is 18%, and I tip heavy here in the States, I was quite popular with my waitrons (the gender neutral term they commonly employ). Paying with credit cards is common (as people are sometimes paranoid about cash), and wait staff have no problem charging portions of meals to different cards to accommodate groups. The rule is to have them bring the credit card machine to your table. They can then run the card at the table. Most countries now have credit cards with chips that are inserted into the machine and use a PIN rather than a signature for security (unlike Australia, however, South Africa seemed still aware that some countries do have cards that need to be swiped). One thing to remember, food and drink are comparatively cheap in South Africa. The only thing I do not like about that is the sticker shock I received upon returning to the States.