Monday, March 8, 2010

Ocean View Homestay

Last weekend, the organization that runs my study abroad program, organized a homestay in a township for everyone. We went to Ocean View, a community of people displaced by apartheid. It has the lowest violence rates of any of the townships and supposedly a great culture with great people. Unfortunately, I didn’t really experience that.

On Friday night, we met our families at a big dinner at the local high school. Luckily I was with my friend Ellie, and we met our host parents, David and Alice. We didn’t talk much during dinner, but we learned she grew up in Ocean View and he had just moved there recently (about 15 years ago). After dinner, we went back to their house. They had a small covered patio, a living room, a dining room covered almost entirely by Alice’s fake plant collection, a kitchen with a few cabinets, one bedroom (where the children sleep), a side room (where I think David and Alice sleep), a garage (though they don’t have a car), and a bathroom with only a sink and a toilet. It was definitely not the accommodation we were used to, but we were glad to experience how they live. When we returned to their house, they asked us a few questions (such as how old we were, and they were shocked to discover I am 20 and Ellie was 21, they thought we were 18), and we tried to ask them about life in Ocean View, but they kept speaking Afrikaans to each other. Shockingly, Ellie and I don’t speak or understand one word of Afrikaans. Despite their conversations in a different language, there were still many awkward silences. Apparently they experienced these more severely than we did, because the second Ellie and I yawned, they ushered us off to bed. We insisted we could stay up longer, but they insisted we go to sleep at 10:30 pm.

On Saturday, we went to the Navy Festival in Simon’s Town. It took about an hour to get there (a guy who we assumed was a family friend drove us) and when we got out of the car, we discovered there were about 20 mph winds and it was 90 degrees outside. We walked around a little, and then decided to wait in line to take a boat ride. After finally boarding the boat, we literally waited for an hour before the steam boat took us on a 5-10 minute ride around the small bay. Next we went to the main arena, a grassy area where they had presentations and shows every 20 minutes. We watched a gun show and a few other presentations before watching our “sister” play “When the Saints Go Marching In” with her youth marching band. After baking in the sun, we left to go home, or so we thought.

Knowing how long the drive was, Ellie and I gladly accepted their invitation to sleep in the car. We woke up when the car stopped, excited to be home, but we realized we were picking up their other daughter at badminton practice (we learned from the newspaper clippings in her room that she on the Western Province under-15 team). Ellie somehow recognized this area as somewhere about 10 minutes from where we live. Feeling as though we couldn’t ask to be dropped of at home, we kept quiet and squished 5 people in the backseat of the car and drove back to Ocean View.

On Saturday night, we went to the birthday party for one of David’s relative. This time, we fit 8 people in the 5 person car. The position I was sitting in was unbearable, and when I asked how much longer the drive was, my question was met with laughter. This was the conversation:
Alice: “Are you comfortable?”
Katie: “I mean, how much longer is the drive?”
Alice: “Ha ha”
Katie: “No seriously, are we close?”
Alice: “Ha ha ha”

Finally we arrived. I always thought of birthdays as secular events, but this celebration was easily one of the most religious occasions I have ever attended. After an hour of songs such as “I Know I Will Be Okay Because He Is Alive” and many prayers (all in Afrikaans), we were served food. Luckily, Ellie and I told them we were vegetarians so we didn’t have to eat most of the food. After the dinner, we went outside to socialize with the rest of the family. “Socializing” apparently means being borderline sexually harassed. The guys there confessed their love for us, proposed, and kept asking us to kiss them. I think David may have witnessed this and we escaped soon after to go home and go to sleep.

At our homestay orientation, we were told that Sundays were a big family day, where people cook all day and that we would spend it talking to our family or doing their planned activity. Ellie and I asked Alice what our plans for the day were and she responded “relaxing.” We weren’t leaving until 3 pm. Despite the concert via speakers blaring outside of the wall next to my bed, we were able to sleep until 10 am. We went to the living room to see if we had any plans, but Alice just repeated that we should just “relax” until David came home from prison (he was preaching) and we could have lunch. Ellie had her iPod and a book (I didn’t bring anything because I was told we would be busy), so we took turns listening to music and reading. Needing to get out of the house, we decided to go for a walk. We told Alice, and she told us not to get sunburned. As we turned the corner, another family who was hosting students asked us what we were doing and informed us we could not be walking around alone. We retreated home to Alice. The conversation that followed:
Ellie: “We tried to go for a walk, but they told us we couldn’t walk alone.”
Alice: “Ha ha.”

We went back to the room to “relax” and watch the clock tick until 3 pm. On Sunday the temperature reached 100 degrees, and air conditioning is rare in even nice houses in South Africa, let alone in townships. At 2:45 David walked us to the high school where we met the bus. He was very nice and invited us back whenever we wanted, but I doubt we’ll be returning, at least to visit their family. Back in our house, everyone was raving about their experiences and their families. I was definitely expecting a different experience, and wished I would have learned something about life in Ocean View, but I ultimately am glad that I saw and lived a completely different lifestyle, even if only for the weekend.

Monday, March 1, 2010

2 Days: Wine Tasting and 2 Hikes. No Big Deal.

While the rest of the U.S. spent the weekend obsessed with a sport that previous held no interest to anyone in America (aka hockey), we had one of our best and definitely most athletic weekends yet.

On Saturday, our program organized a day at a wine festival in Stellenbosch. I imagined Stellenbosch to be the South African equivalent of Napa, but apparently it’s a college town with a lot of wine. I slept through most of bus ride (per usual) but the area around Stellenbosch looked beautiful, and it’s only 45 minutes by train so I’m sure we’ll be back. I had this idea of what wine tasting was and thought we (all 160 of us) would be on a tour learning obscure facts about wine and trying all selections. Obviously impractical. I was wondering how logistically it was going to work out until we arrived and learned this wine tasting was actually a wine festival. We walked around a pretty small area with different stands and different wines. We each had 5 tickets which we could use to sample wines. I tried 5 white wines and I honestly could not tell one from another or from a box of wine. At least I wasn’t alone; we were all asking the vendors what the difference between chardonnay and sauvignon blanc is. I’m sure they were appalled. The theme of the festival seemed to be “find your personality” and upon entering they handed us a sheet with 8 personality descriptions. Apparently you were supposed to find the most applicable one to yourself and sample the corresponding wine. Within a minute I pinpointed 4 of my friends, but neither I nor anyone could find a fitting personality description for me. I’m not sure what this means—and if it’s good or terrible—but at least I know I’m fairly indescribable, at least in terms of wine.

Wine Festival

On Sunday, we woke up at 6:30 and hiked table mountain, the biggest mountain in Cape Town. It always tops this list of “things to do in Cape Town,” and after a week of planning, we were determined to finally do it. The main concern in planning to hike table mountain is the weather. It’s often windy here, and because of the elevation, the wind makes it significantly harder. It also can be very cloudy, with a “tablecloth” covering the mountain and blocking the amazing view at the top. We choose a perfectly clear and calm day—the only problem was that the high was 90 degrees. Before the hike, I assumed the hike would be a dirt path with wood-defined stairs. This wasn’t the case. The “stairs” were 2 foot high rocks that were uneven and steep. The mountain is high, and even with the trail crossing back, the elevation increase was substantial and the hike was much more difficult than I imaged, especially because of the heat. When we (finally) reached the top, the view was amazing and everything was well worth it.

Table Mountain from Below

The View from Above

Later that day, being the prime athletes that we are, we hiked Lion’s Head, another mountain next to Table Mountain. The feat of athleticism was only completed because of the amazing stories we heard of hiking to Lion’s Head to watch the sun set and the full moon rise. Of course we choose the day with the full moon to hike Table Mountain. Lion’s Head was a much easier hike, and was much more similar to my imagined Table Mountain than real Table Mountain. The end was more difficult, with ladders and some rock climbing, but the top was beautiful. On one side we watched a beautiful sunset, tainted by only one or two clouds in the sky, and on the other side, the full moon rose over an orange, pink, and blue sky. We hiked down under only the light of the moon (and a flashlight), which was scary at times but the view was definitely worth it.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

UCT-The Beginning

We have finally started classes, volunteering, and clubs. Registration was an experience in itself, with everyone done by hand. We got preapproved for classes in the fall, but of course two of the three I was preapproved for overlapped and one was so late in the day it would exclude me from volunteering or participating in clubs. So I searched for other classes, and finally found a few that fit in my schedule. To register, we had to wait in line after line after line, as they do everything manually. Rows of chairs were set up for us to wind through until we could talk to an advisor who would then sign our registration sheet. Then we had to go to “data capture” where another person entered our classes onto the computer. It’s hard to believe that they have everyone here (over 20,000 students) register like this each semester. When it’s time to sign up for classes at school I think I’m going to be in shock at how quick—and electronic—it is.

Despite all the time it took to register for classes, I ended up having to change my schedule significantly and spent a significant part of the first week in the humanities building with the schedule change form. (I even tried to take Xhosa but when I found out how many clicks there were and how much class participation was involved, I looked for another class). Luckily I figured out my classes and they all seem pretty good. I’m taking a sociology class, Culture in the 21st Century. The professor is new to UCT, like us, but actually may know less about the school than we do. I’m also taking a political science course (the only one I’m getting major credit for), Advanced South African Politics. I don’t have the obvious advantage of being from South Africa or ever having taken a South African Politics class, but the subject matter is so interesting and the professor is great so it should be a good class. My last class is Introduction to Philosophy. One of my friends is convinced I’ll hate it because it’s too abstract, but so far it’s okay. Since it’s an intro level class, it’s mostly freshman, and UCT doesn’t cap classes, so there are literally 450 students. Almost everyone fits into the huge lecture hall, but everyday some stragglers are left to sit on the stairs. The schedule here is more like high school, with 45 minute periods. Because each class is so short, we have each class four times a week, but it goes by pretty quickly.

In addition to classes, we also started volunteering. I am working on two projects—one through SHAWCO, an organization through UCT and one through our study abroad program. For SHAWCO, I’m volunteering with SMART, a program that tutors math and science to high school students in the township Kahyletshia. I'm tutoring math to two 15 year old girls. At first they were shy, but by the end of the first session, they had opened up. The first lesson was on square roots, and asked questions like “what is the square root of 27 between?” and I could tell they were very confused. In the beginning, I struggled with how to explain the process of solving it, but soon I taught them to make a table (like a multiplication table but with only squares, like 1, 4, 9, 16, 25, etc), and then to find where 27 would be. By the end of the time, they were asking me to quiz them on it. I didn’t realize how rewarding it would be to know that they understood and were comfortable with that subject.

Because, apparently, the first week is the week to join organizations, I also went to a tennis club practice. Being very involved in tennis at school, I didn’t want to spend an entire semester here without playing, but I also didn’t want to commit a huge amount of time to an activity that I can when I’m back home. Luckily, I found a compromise in the tennis club. They practice a couple times a week, but there isn’t required traveling that would exclude me from experiencing Cape Town and traveling throughout the country. I’ve also met new hitting partners and found tennis as a great way to meet more African students.

Garden Route Road Trip

After orientation and before classes started, we had a week to explore, travel, and basically do whatever we wanted. A group of 14 of us decided to take a road trip down the coast of South Africa along the Garden Route. I assumed it was like the PCH of South Africa, but instead of seeing just beach, we literally passed through every type of landscape. We rented three cars for the 14 of us, and luckily they were all automatic. Having to drive a standard shift car on the other side of the road would probably be a little too overwhelming. We all drove for a part of the trip, and at first it was weird but after a little we all got the hang out of it. I was in a car with my friend Nicole from Bucknell, Michael and Matt from Princeton, and Matt’s surfboard tied to the roof of the car.

Our Car, with the Surfboard

The first day, we drove to Jeffrey’s Bay, a small surf town about 800 km away from Cape Town. Our group (the A-team as we called ourselves) made it there in about 7 and a half hours, had dinner, and settled into our hostel. It was right on the beach and full of surfers. We spent the next day hanging out at the beach. The water wasn’t too cold, the beach was beautiful and practically empty and town had cute stores. That night, we went down the beach to “supertubes,” a surf spot for only the best surfers, to watch the sunset.

Michael, Nicole, me, and Matt watching the Sunset at Supertubes

On Wednesday, we left Jeffrey’s Bay on our way to Plettenberg Bay, another small beach town. On our way, we stopped at Tsitsikama National Park and went on a beautiful hike to a waterfall. The hike turned out to be more of climbing over rocks than walking on a designated path, but all the views were amazing and we all went swimming in the waterfall. After the hike, we stopped at Monkeyland, a manmade reserve for hundreds of monkeys. We also visited Birds of Eden, a huge sanctuary with literally every kind of bird. We were impressed by the forest with beautiful, colorful macaws, but then continued through the reserve to find flamingos and cranes.

Our Hiking Group at the Waterfall

About 200 yards (or meters) after the animal reserves, we got a flat tire. We were a little concerned, seeing as we were in the middle of Africa, where Triple A does not exist, and no one in the car knew exactly how to change a tire. Luckily the boys figured it out pretty quickly and we were able to make it into Plettenberg Bay on the spare.

Thursday was the last day of our trip (we had mock lectures on Friday), so we explored Plettenberg in the morning then began the trip back. In the morning, we decided to go sea kayaking. It sounded great, until it started raining. Plettenberg is apparently in the midst of a drought, and there were signs all over our hostel informing us of this and advising us not to use excessive amounts of water. Apparently their drought ended during our sea kayaking. One of my roommates and I were in a kayak together, but just couldn’t get our paddling in sync. As the rain began to come down even harder, we seriously considered swimming back to shore in the shark-infested waters, but luckily, we made it back in one piece, and still in the kayak.

The drive home was a reality check—classes were starting on Monday and we our 3 week vacation in South Africa was coming to an end. However, while these weeks were great, it’s nice to have a consistent schedule and a routine again.

Activities in and around Cape Town

Everything in Cape Town is still amazing. After we finished orientation, we had more time to explore Cape Town for ourselves. Here are some of the highlights:

Opening of the World Cup Stadium: Okay, so this was an organized, group activity, but so cool. We saw a game between Ajax and Santos, two local teams, and even though I wouldn’t call myself an avid soccer fan, I love any live sporting event and it was amazing to see the spirit and passion of all the South Africans. The stadium was built specifically for this, and the pride for the stadium was amazing. The one downfall of the stadium was the fact that they not only allowed but gave away noisemakers called Vuvuzelas (essentially a horn that makes the worst noise in the world). Despite the annoying noise, they embody the spirit and excitement for the World Cup.

The New Cape Town Stadium

Minibus-taxis: Transportation may not seem like an activity, but the taxis here are truly an experience in themselves. In an effort to see local markets (see below), we decided to take these illusive minibus-taxis, which we had only seen and heard about, but never actually experienced. These minibus-taxis are extremely sketchy: they drive down Main Road yelling out their destination (“Cape Town” or “Wynberg” are the two most popular routes near us). If you choose to use this form of transportation, you squeeze in to an already-full van and pay anywhere from 3 to 8 rand to go to a destination, or at least as close as possible if your destination is not on Main Road. Each taxi has a driver who honks no less than 40 times a minute and a man who sit in the back yelling out the destination and collecting money. We completely underestimated the taxi. Within a minute, we were passing cars, grazing pedestrians, rolling over curbs, as well as stopping in a second for anyone who as much as blinks an eye at the driver or his assistant. Luckily we made it out alive, and even continue to take them.

Green Market Square and Long Street: Two of my roommates and I decided to visit this famous market and Long Street, a street famous for cute shops during the day and fun clubs at night. Having already experienced the nightlife, we decided to see it in daylight. The market was fun, with tons of vendors selling everything from keychains to bowls to paintings. Everything was so cool and colorful, I could have spent much more time (and money) than I did. But I’m sure we’ll be back.

Green Market Square

Old Biscuit Mill: We just discovered this Saturday food/clothing market and plan on returning every Saturday. Originally a biscuit mill, every Saturday, about 50 food vendors gather for a market. Part of it is an expanded farmer’s market, where they sell every kind of pesto and olive and cheese, and many stands make food in front of you. They have a stand that makes an amazing chicken sandwich and the smoothies were also great. There’s a tent full of little vendors with jewelry and cute, trendy clothes.

Vendors at the Old Biscuit Mill Market

Rugby Game: We went to a rugby game between the Cape Town Stormers and the Australian Waratahs. Our program director sent us an email reminding us to wear black to support the home team. I put on a black tank top and a black cardigan (I felt color on color was appropriate if I was rooting for the home team) only to discover the Stormers’ colors are navy and another color that isn’t black. As if we don’t look foreign enough, a mob of American exchange students is sitting at a rugby game and everyone is wearing black. Before the game, I felt like I was fairly knowledgeable about rugby from having a team at my high school and college, but I learned that was not the case. I knew a try was the word for touchdown, and the circle all the guys get in is a scrum, but the game moved much faster than I was expecting. All of a sudden, the crowd would erupt in cheers, and we would sit there confused, trying to mimic their enthusiasm. The game turned out to be very exciting, the Cape Town team won 27-6.

Raquel, me, and Christina at the Rugby Game

Muizenberg: Because of the great weather, we decided to explore the beaches. One day, thinking we had the afternoon free, 5 of us went to Muizenberg, a beach about 45 minutes away. We took a cab there, only to find it overcast, windy, and cold. First attempt: fail. A week later, we returned, this time by train, and this time, it was beautiful. The water was a little cold, but the sun was shining and we were able to see and appreciate the cute beach town. Second attempt: success.

Colorful Huts at Muizenberg

Peninsula Tour: We took a bus tour organized by the overseas office, where we saw parts of Cape Town we hadn’t seen. The beaches were beautiful and we got to see penguins (even though they were smaller than the emperor penguins)! However, the best part was going to Cape Point and hiking down to the Cape of Good Hope. The hike was along a cliff above the water, and we stopped about every 10 feet to take a picture. When we got to the Cape of Good Hope, we were typical tourists and took pictures with the sign. Some people claim this is where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet, but this is widely disputed. It’s better known as the most southwestern point on the African continent.

Hannah and me at the Cape of Good Hope

V & A Waterfront: The waterfront is an upscale shopping area next to the water that is a hotspot for tourists. Most hotels are there (as well as one the one I stayed at a few years ago when I came here with my family), along with a huge mall, tons of restaurants, and a few craft markets. Always looking to do a craft, my friend and I explored the craft market and picked up some string and bracelets to make bracelets. We also went to the aquarium and saw the different exhibits. They had a penguin exhibit and a huge tank with sharks, turtles, and eels. They also had a tank of clown fish with a cylinder that we could stand in and pretend we were in the tank. It was probably made for people half our age but it was still fun.

The V & A Waterfront, courtesy of Google Images

Kirstenbosch Gardens: On Valentine’s Day, we went to the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens for their weekly Sunday Summer Concert. The band was the winner of “South African Idol,” and mostly sang covers of songs by people like Shania Twain that were once semi-popular in America. The gardens were amazing with so many trees and flowers and a perfect view of table mountain behind the stage.

Our Picnic at Kirstenbosch

p.s. thanks Raquel for (most of) the pictures!

Moving In

For the first few days, before we moved into our house, we moved into a set of UCT dorms. The next few days were full of organized activities, speakers, and ice breakers. We were able to explore the area around school (called Rondebosch) and learn more about the campus, including the 25 minute hike required to reach it. In groups of about 10 people, we participated in the well-planned “ama-zing race,” a scavenger hunt around campus. Unfortunately, this happened to be the hottest day since we had been here, and we had to trudge around campus looking for buildings we didn’t know existed.

After four days in the dorm, we moved into our houses. We have an awesome location, a few minutes away from Main Road with restaurants and the grocery store, and walking distance to campus. We also have a great house, there are 30 of us divided between a 12 person house and a duplex with 8 downstairs and 10 people upstairs. I’m in the bottom floor with 4 other girls and 3 guys. Our duplex is brand new, and looks like a modern, Ikea loft but with dorm rooms. Everyone has their own room, mine has one bright red, brick wall, and came furnished with a bed, desk, nightstand, and dresser. It’s really fun to live in such a social environment, and it’s been great cooking house meals and just sitting and talking to people in the living room. Once we moved in, it really hit be that we would be spending the next five months here, and I’m happy to call this home.

(almost) Everyone in our House!l

During our first week, we had a few more organized activities. Most were becoming repetitive, as we just wanted to get out and explore by ourselves, but by far the most interesting was the tour of sites where we could volunteer throughout the semester. Until this point, we really only saw the developed side of Cape Town, but the townships acted as a reminder that much of South Africa still has a lot of progress to make. Just a few minutes outside of the city, miles and miles of houses spanned next to the freeway. These “houses” were more like shacks, they had weak wood frames and tin roofs held down by cinderblocks, ropes, and tires. Most of these townships don’t even have running water, and it was a sad reminder of the reality that so many people live like that.


The first week was full of adjustments, from the time change to the landscape. I arrived into the Cape Town airport after literally 34 hours of traveling to find a group of people wearing orange and black shirts yelling in excitement for my arrival. I soon learned these would be our RAs. I met some other people on the program (unlike apparently everyone else on the trip, I didn’t travel with or meet anyone on the plane), and had literally the same conversation with everyone, with “where do you go to school?” immediately following introductions. While USC is actually the best-represented school here with 19 students (out of 160), I didn’t know all of them before coming, and most people on the program are from the east coast. Though USC attracts students from all over, I was surprised at the number of people from Boston, New York, etc, and how many small, liberal arts, east coast colleges I had never heard of. I guess that’s the consequence of not applying east of Arizona.

The first week was definitely a change. 1. South Africa is 10 hours ahead of the west coast, which makes communication extremely difficult. Contributing to this, we had no internet in the dorms, and extremely unreliable internet in our houses. 2. They drive on the left (aka “wrong”) side of the road, which can get very confusing, especially while crossing streets. They also don’t seem to have the same qualms American drivers do about hitting pedestrians. 3. Everything takes a longer here. Despite being in a very developed part of Africa, we are still in Africa, and we are in a third world country. We’ve learned that “we’re leaving now,” doesn’t mean “now,” but rather, “now now,” which can be anywhere from about 15 minutes to an hour or more. 4. The seasons are reversed. And there are more season here in one day than there are in a year in L.A. I (gladly) left 40 degree weather at home to come to 70-80 degree weather (aka perfection) daily.

One of the most drastic changes we have all had to adjust to is reality of living in a city with such high poverty, unemployment, and crime. I felt like I would be prepared coming from downtown Los Angeles but really nothing can fully prepare you. We essentially cannot go anywhere alone, especially at night. We have a gate around out house, with both barbed and electrical fencing. We also have a security guard at night for additional protection. We frequently hear about pick pocketing, but luckily nothing worse has happened (knock on wood). We have to remember to be extra vigilant and aware of our surroundings. We are adjusting, but it’s still hard, especially being a girl, because of the lack of independence.