Elephants. Nelson Mandela. A drinking age of 18. These were the thoughts occupying my mind when I hopped off the plane in Cape Town, South Africa, in July, embarking on my semester at the University of Stellenbosch. I had spent the last few weeks of summer dawdling around home with friends from high school, and I was itching to start my study abroad experience. What I knew about South Africa was an amalgamation of facts learned through history courses and pop culture. From these I was aware that apartheid had ended almost 20 years ago, that Mandela’s health was fading and that Die Antwoord had some freaky music videos. These facts do not paint an accurate or flattering portrait of the country I would soon come to know and love.
The program I chose at the University of Stellenbosch had been vetted and recommended to me by other Georgetown students. About 50 km east of Cape Town, Stellenbosch is the historically Afrikaans university, meaning it was founded and populated by white settlers of Dutch ancestry. The town is situated in the Cape Winelands region, and scads of European tourists frequent the area for its Dutch Colonial architecture and neighborhood cafes. Luckily for me and my minimal language skills, courses have been taught in English at the university since 2003, and I was able to converse with nearly everyone I met.
My residence hall, the only coed dorm on campus, has had reserved rooms for American students since 2007 and everyone was welcoming and friendly to the Amerikaanse. It surprised me how universal the aspects of college dorm life are: quiet hours, awful cafeteria food and drunken plant-stealing antics. Perhaps because orientation had prepared me for the culture shock, I had an easier time with my initial adjustment to life at Stellenbosch than I did during my freshman year at Georgetown. Most students take classes only within their major, and since no classes are graded on a curve, students often study together. As if encouraging students not to work too hard, the library isn’t even open on Sundays, so I enjoyed a pleasant vacation from the disappointment that is Lau on Sunday nights.
Instead of packing their schedule with extracurriculars, Stellenbosch students spend their leisure time hanging out in their dorm room with their friends or watching American TV series. Almost everyone I met was a devoted fan of “New Girl,” and I had to break the news to several people that American college life is, in fact, not like the show “Greek” and that American parties are not all like “Project X.” Since I lacked internet in my dorm room, I spent the first few weeks in pursuit of activities to fill my time. I signed up for my hall’s soccer team, the wine society and a film club, craving responsibilities and commitment. My American friends and I went out frequently, usually meeting only other international students at the local bars. I was eager to meet as many people as possible and wanted to feel like I was getting the most from my time at Stellenbosch. As the semester wore on, I began to understand the schedule of my local friends, one that moved at a slower pace than what I was used to. This does not mean tardiness, but more that time is not viewed simply as a limited resource and should not be constantly managed or occupied. The lengthy pauses between courses at restaurants, the midday closings of shops and cafes and the sporadic nature of train schedules are some of the various incarnations of a more luxurious use of time. “But how long will the braai [or dinner or hike] last?” I remember inquiring of our sagacious program director Joe, who planned various excursions for our group throughout the semester. “Until it is done,” was the common reply. At about halfway through my time in South Africa, I finally acclimated to this new pace of life, going out less, savoring my meals for both the food and the company and having fewer commitments, only to find myself enjoying them more.
T.I.A., meaning This Is Africa, was a common catchphrase heard among international students, usually uttered in encounters with non-Western culture. But for all the excitement and novelty we, the visitors to the country, felt about being in South Africa, I found that the locals associated themselves more with their own family and culture and were reluctant to identify with the country as a whole. Students repeatedly told me I wasn’t in “real Africa,” a place far away from the comfortable lifestyle of Stellenbosch. I believed them at first, because my time at the university was so similar to my life in America. If I couldn’t find South Africa in Stellenbosch, I expected to see and experience it while I travelled, in places that would show me the beauty of its nature, and in the people who lived happily.
Over my semester holiday, we drove along the coast of the Western Cape, where I hiked, sea-kayaked and took a game drive through Addo Elephant Park. While these places are stunningly beautiful, they are frequented by more tourists than citizens. In some of the more remote areas I visited, there was a surprising amount of development and technology. Huge soccer stadiums stand in tiny village towns, remote mountain lodges have internet and gift shops and everyone and their mother has a cellphone (South Africa has more mobile phone subscriptions per capita than the United States). Although some parts are wealthier and more developed, the notion that any part of South Africa is more real or authentic than others is false. The tourists, the Afrikaaners, the descendants of the Khoi-San and even the foreign exchange students all create the vibrant and interesting place that South Africa is today.
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