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.
Last month I traveled nearly 10,000 miles. It took two flights totaling 22 hours, three crying babies, two viewings of “The Hangover,” and six sub-par meals to arrive in Cape Town, South Africa. As my father reminded me before I left, I couldn’t have picked a further location to study abroad, even if I tried (EAP does not offer a program in Antarctica).
In preparing for my time abroad, I received many different responses when I divulged to friends, family, professors, and neighbors where I had chosen to study. These reactions ranged from tones of envy to confusion, as well as concern for my well-being in crime-ridden Cape Town. In fact, more than a few times during these conversations, I detected a look made up of equal parts skepticism and surprise. A look that seemed to say, however silently, “they actually have universities in Africa?”
Indeed they do. The University of Cape Town, where I am attending this semester, is the largest and most highly ranked university on the continent of Africa, with over 23,000 students.
Despite the odyssey-like journey it took to arrive, the similarities between UCSC and UCT are striking. As is custom in the Redwood forest and beaches of Santa Cruz, shoes are entirely optional at UCT. The hairstyles du-jour seem to include dreads as well as the “never have, never will own a hairbrush” look. The weather can change faster than you can say “should I bring a sweater” and copious amounts of hills and stairs mean you’ll arrive to class looking like you just walked from Oakes to Merrill.
Lucky for me though, the panoramic view of the entire city of Cape Town serves as a more than adequate stand-in for Santa Cruz’s beautiful view of the Monterey bay. And, just like at UCSC, laid-back students bypass the question of ‘should I go to class,’ and ask instead, ‘what beach should I go to instead of class?’
Despite these welcome similarities, there are a myriad of differences that I continue to negotiate. Attempting to understand the many different kinds of accents and slang in South Africa — there are 11 official languages here — is no easy feat, and nothing makes you feel more like a ‘fresher’ (first year) than trying to decipher academic lingo. Quick lesson: convener means professor, prac means lab, tut means section, meridian means lunch break, and Jammie can be loosely translated to the 16 Laurel bus route.
Interestingly though, some American students have even expressed disappointment that their experience and impression of Cape Town thus far has not measured up to the ‘authentic’ Africa they were expecting. Well, if I’ve learned anything from past travel experiences and in the short time I’ve been here, it is that expectations will often lead you astray. You can expect not to be mugged living in an all-white, affluent suburb, but you would be wrong. You can expect that a major institution founded in 1829 would have implemented an online enrollment system by now, but three to five hours of ‘qeueing’ for paperwork to register for classes will tell you otherwise. You can also expect to understand apartheid and the racial composition of Cape Town and South Africa by studying it before you arrive, but you will still be floored by the complexity of race relations demonstrated in all parts of life here.
As the University of California’s least diverse campus, UCSC could learn a thing or two from UCT, where diversity isn’t a concept or goal, but rather a way of life, good or bad. This diversity certainly makes UCT and Cape Town as a whole a fascinating place. A place where, each and every day, you’re sure to run into stark contrasts between rich and poor, black and white, incredibly friendly and frequently hostile. My only expectation while I’m here is to learn more about it.
Check out the SlugLife blog on Tuesday for Part 2 of Rosie’s Travel Log from Cape Town, South Africa.