Today marks my 66th day in Cape Town. As I reflect on the past 65 days, I realize how much I have had to adjust and adapt my own behaviors to the fit into the culture around me, oftentimes without even realizing it. Here the things that stand out the most:
1. I never deliberately make eye contact with strangers here. At home I have no problem doing this occasionally just to challenge the social norms and see how people react—it’s a fun little social experiment.
2. For the most part, I don’t talk to anyone that I don’t know. There are only a few exceptions: I say “thank you” to someone who holds a door open, to the cashier at the grocery store, and occasionally to the bus driver. Students are generally much friendlier and more open to conversation than the rest of the public sector. I have become more judicious in expressing my gratitude not because I am becoming rude, but because “please” and “thank you” simply aren’t used as frequently in Cape Town as they are in the United States.
3. Public transportation isn’t as bad as I expected. I can take a taxi into town for R5 (less than $1 US). Most recently the taxi driver was going 150 km/h. I don’t know exactly how fast that is in miles, but I think it best not to do the conversion. On that note, all of the taxi drivers were on strike yesterday and none of them were driving. So, while it is a very efficient and economical means of travel, this is only true if the taxis are operating. The taxi strikes also provoke violence; there’s been ongoing tension between the taxi drivers and the bus companies that are taking business away from the taxi drivers, especially now that it’s nearing World Cup time.
4. I actually like being on a big university campus. Granted, there are at most 16 people in any of my classes since the classes are geared toward service-learning, but it is a nice change from my small campus at home. The University of Cape Town is literally at the base of Table Mountain, so walking to Upper Campus from where I live, on Lower Campus, requires 30 minutes of climbing stairs and inclines the whole way. Fortunately the University has shuttles (called “Jammies”) that run from Lower to Upper Campus most of the day. I thought that waiting for the shuttle would be an inconvenience, but I am actually becoming quite fond of it, and I’ve done a lot of reading-for-pleasure while waiting for and riding on the shuttles. That is one nice thing about public transportation, though it’s certainly nice to know that I will have my car when I get home.
5. In many public places, you have to purchase toilet paper for R1. Then, the store clerk, bartender, or whomever, will tear off a certain number of squares for you to use. There’s no hiding the fact that you have to use the toilet when you have to purchase your toilet paper in front of everyone. (If you have Runny Tummy, you’re probably better off carrying your own roll with you!) Oh, and it’s probably a good idea to carry hand sanitizer with you everywhere. Not even the University restrooms are stocked with soap. Maybe the soap dispensers are just for decoration?
6. Just say no. When people ask you for money, you just have to say no. Avoiding eye contact makes this a little easier, but being American certainly makes you a prime target for those wanting money. So far I’ve only been suckered into buying somebody one Coke. Then he told me loved me. I assured him that he didn't. I learned my lesson fast!
7. I’m learning what it means to be American: Americans carry water bottles everywhere they go, especially Nalgenes. It must be an American thing (or maybe just an Ursinus thing) to read a book at the gym (e.g. on the treadmill) because everyone I’ve run into has been perplexed as to why I was taking a book to the gym, and how reading while exercising is physically impossible. We also wear those wispy binders (thin head bands) and Adidas shorts when we’re exercising or playing sports. If you are wearing a T-shirt, Adidas shorts, sneakers, a wispy binder, and carrying a Nalgene, there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind – you’re American.
8. Apparently UCT students have a more balanced academic and social life than American students. During the week, the library closes at 10 PM which means that if you want to continue studying, they don’t support it. (If I’m correct, Ursinus’s Myrin Library is open till 1 AM during the week, and 4 AM during finals.) You’re free to keep studying, but you must do so somewhere else.
9. I’ve become much more aware of my surroundings and take much more care for my personal safety than I do at home, for several reasons. First, anyone traveling to another country would be more attentive to their surroundings when they are outside of the comfort of their home environment. Second, it is a well-known fact that Cape Town has a very high crime rate, and it would be foolish not to take precautions. For example, I never leave my room – not even to use the bathroom or shower – without locking my windows. With that said, being safe in Cape Town depends mostly on common sense (knock on wood). I try to fit in by following the social norms, acting as others act, going to public places in daylight, and carrying little money or valuables on my person. If I must go on campus somewhere past 6:00, the security guard knows where I’m going, and when to expect me back. So even though I’m much more aware of taking safety precautions, I do feel safe.
8 years ago