When I heard in the news that Mos Def was arrested for domesticiating in South Africa with his family, my first thought was not one of tongue clicking and head shaking but rather, “you know what? He probably didn’t want to fill out all that damn paperwork.” The consensus across many friends in the program was overwhelmingly that “there were times I didn’t think I would make it here” because their Visas wouldn't arrive on time. I bet Yasiin “Most Def” Bey didn’t want to get an x-ray/skin test for TB, pay $75 for a live FBI scan to state the obvious that no, I was not fleeing a federal charge by emigrating to South Africa. I bet he didn't want to potentially be forced have all documents expressed shipped from DC to the NYC consulate because ISIS attacks incited new embassy rules about delivering visa materials for your application in person. I bet there’s even more paperwork times 4 or 5 you have to do when you bring your whole family here. Do I agree with his decision to subvert the government? No. Do I understand it? Hell yea.
But a few flights (me) and 5,000R bail (Bey)--we're both here walking the South African streets!
I departed from home slightly over three weeks ago, pale, straightened hair (how young and naiive I was then...thinking that might last in this heat), my plane outfit vaguely remniscent of Drake wearing that turtleneck sweater the Hotline Bling video. See at right, the photo my parents made me pose for but I also wanted to take.
I began on the longest flight, I’ve ever been on (that most of the passengers have ever been on), some 14.5-hour long-haul from NYC to OR Tambo in Johannesburg. While South African Airways (SAA) makes you comfortable, the bottom line is it’s still an economy-sized plane seat. Had it not been for the blizzard the day before (a frequent flyer informed me), there would have been much more room in the form of extra, unoccupied seats, but because all flights Friday-Sunday were cancelled, we were all cargoed onto one of SAA’s giant “airbuses." We were served two meals and a snack, the best part of both was the dessert. The chicken wasn’t good but I was starving so I ate it all the same, the breakfast french toast was mushy but satisfying, drinks were plentiful and free, etc. Many people have asked me: how was such a long flight???
The honest answer is really not that bad. I slept a lot of hard thanks to some OTC sleeping pills and the way SAA paternally forces your body onto the South African time table by shutting off the lights and deamanding we go to sleep at what was 2 or 3 pm EST. There was this inexplicable comfort in the plane ride, which felt like being in limbo in time and space, where whilst in the air, I did not have to be concerned about leaving home or moving to Africa mostly alone (save for Mariah).
However, There was a moment on the plane I probably will never forget. I had just woken up and it was probably 3AM SA time and I lifted the window shade slightly and the sky was just burning orange and blue over the horizon and I could see the plane wing hovering about the curvature of a side of the Earth. Curious, I loooked at the flight map and it read “Namibia” and all of sudden I was filled with the panic and realization that I was going so so so far from home and rather than deal with the reality of that fact then, I closed the window and went back to sleep for another hour or four.
When I touched down in Johannesburg I still didn’t get to have that “phew wow! I’m in South Africa!” moment because all I could think about was catching the connecting flight because of the initial delay. My luggage was heavy as hell and I still underpacked (didn’t underpack hair products though :))and it took forever for me to find it on the baggage claim then lug it across the terminal. The claim area was somewhat deserted and as I was sprinting across the terminal I shortly became irrationally terrified. Thoughts included “oh my God everyone is staring at me….I look so dumb and vulnerable...I would rob me right now….how did my suitcase lock fall off?? I knew I should’ve gotten the smaller one...where the f is my passport? Did I drop it????” Out of the kindess of his heart, a worker offered to help show me to my terminal and once the kindness had expired, he later asked me for $20 (!!) which I refused equal parts indignant and annoyed. I’m not sure how long the flight to Cape Town was from Jo-burg, probably around 1.5-2 hours as it was a nice nap after rushing around to catch the flight. When we landed there was another surprise, that our entire flight’s luggage had not made the flight with us. Nothing makes you feel less at home than having the few belongings you managed to cram into a single checked baggage, which brings me to part two…..
Homesickness and Sickness
It took a full 8 hours to finally get my two checked bags, so therefore a full eight hours before I was off edge after the jaunt through the OR Tambo Airport. I’ve never officially “studied abroad” but I think there is this tacit belief that when you study abroad you travel to another country, touch down and start having amazing, Instagrammable-experiences. At face value, this is true. I have posted some nice Instagrams since my arrival: they have contained food, landscapes, beauty, but that’s not to say that my transition was light. We don’t talk about negative experiences enough. Seriously. It’s become almost wrong to have them because we must act and be as happy as we appear online. It sounds dreadful and pessimistic but it’s really true. Allow me to make my case:
Social media is for the most part the equivalent of a life highlight reel. Facebook is the most social, well-liked version of myself, Instagram presents the best I and/or my surroundings look (usually with the help of 2 apps and a filter), and LinkedIn promotes me as the put-together, intelligent, young professional I pretend to be.
Not surprisingly, Facebook doesn’t have a feature which separates my 1,000 friends into “people I haven’t spoken to since middle school” or “mentions my photos in person but never likes them” or simply “phony bastards.” My LinkedIn doesn’t have a category which aggregates “hours of sleep lost finishing essays to maintain mediocre GPA” or “courses which have brought me to literal tears.” Most recently, the captions of my Instagram photos have not spoken to the feelings of discomfort and homesickness I’ve felt since arriving in South Africa.
I thought I was a combination of ungrateful and insane, having been granted the opportunity to study here and in the first 72 hours I couldn’t get excited about nearly anything at all. I had listened to so many talks about safety and crime I nearly jumped out of my skin every time I left the house. I worried if people could see straight into the bay window which stretched across my room’s fourth wall. I worried about the surgery I just had before leaving flaring up and having to return to the states for prompt and dramatic medical attention. I worried about my hair and my skin. Am I eating enough? What do I even like here? What’s my address?? The food was so good, that I wanted to eat a lot but could not simply because I was not used to eating food which was so rich, flavorful, and quite frankly, fresh. I
There was pressure to not appear “lame” if you chose not to go out and drink nightly, which briefly weighed on me. Perhaps I had to prove I was, in fact, “fun” by doing these things. For the most part, I love parties and dancing fueled by both good music and alcohol, but with each passing day, I was neither comfortable nor confident enough to do either of these things. Each day, I wrestled with this and it wasn’t until nearly a week later that I stopped thinking about all these extraneous things, focused on myself and suddenly, my perspective began to change. I took one short walk by myself and upon completion it felt like a corporal exhale, that I had taken all those precautionary talks slightly too seriously. I went to a doctor for a minor issue who prescribed me a medication which immediately made feel better. There was always room for caution, but the overall climate (meteorologically and socially, I guess you could say) was similar to Nicaragua, where I had, for the most part, comfortably thrived for two months nearly two years ago. The strangest worst part of moving to a new city in a new country is being stripped of all familiarity and, in many of our cases, social literacy. It’s strange to live in a place with people you just met and are interested in your overall well-being in a significantly limited sense. No one is looking out for you because they “love” you (not yet, at least), like a parent or best friend, but rather, because it’s wrong to stand-by and let bad things happen to another human, like sadness or harassment.
However, I've read somewhere that it takes 3 weeks to form a habit. That if you do a thing consistently everyday for three weeks, the behavior (or desire to complete the action) becomes habitual. I think the same could be said about getting authentically comfortable in a foriegn place. Over the first few weeks you test the waters (literally), begin to cultivate seeds of friendship of which some grow and others naturally die. You relax into comfort and familiarity. One-by-one experience and travel unravels worry and fear. You recognize landmarks, places and consistency of routine. You buy the bread that doesn't get moldy in two days. You run into the person who briefly introduced her/himself to you on campus at the grocery store and they lightly wave...you no longer feel a nameless form in a new city…
...because hey, I think I’m finally starting to get this. The low and quick inquiries at the cashier are not about your credit card but the store’s discount club card. Good barbecues or “braais” are marked by friends and lots of beef/sausage, minimal chicken. If you were impatient in the States, SA forces you to grow in patience. I’ve spent so much time waiting on “queues”, or lines, for things such as cash, groceries, class registration, student IDs that you must actively choose to not be affected by it or perpetually annoyed. Most queues are headed by a person in no rush, moving at their decided comfortable pace notwithstanding the line’s length. I quickly realized in the first few days that meals moved slowly and unless rushed, sometimes they would wane on for up to 3 hours between chatting, ordering and figuring out the check. It became increasingly nice to not shove my cheap food on the go running from place to place. Because of the ample agribusiness which still foregrounds much of the economic activity here, produce is fresh, good and inexpensive, so eating healthy is much easier and more desirable than in the states.
My favorite surprise (thus far) was a phrase used by South Africans which was “now”, like “I’ll be with you now.” When they say this, “now” means “shortly”, “in a little while”, but not technically immediately. They have even extended that to “now now” which from what I’ve gathered basically means “eventually.” It was then I knew that this was where I was supposed to be :)
Heaven on Earth
I wanted to finish off with this: Cape Town is the most beautiful place on Earth. Literally. I want to bring every person I’ve ever loved here. Hell, I’d bring my enemies here. People ask me “how is Cape Town?” and I say “cool” but by that I mean “Carved by the hand of God.” The weather is nearly perfect daily. University of Cape Town’s campus is the love child of Stanford University and Romeo and Juliet’s Verona . The dollar’s strength against the rand allows you to eat like a king on a budget (@SouthAfricanEconomy I’m still rooting for you in spite of this and I know you will recover). The food and wine are both cheap and good. They rarely check your ticket on the train (my personal heaven) which costs less than 1USD anyway. You can drive and hour or so to switch coasts for Atlantic/Indian Ocean depending on what type of beach experiences you want. Mountains and oceans frame most locations on either side. The M3 highway on the way to Hout Bay fluctuates between appearing like Southern California, the South of France and the Amalfi coast, with crystal clear waters, insular strings of colorful houses which appear around a cliff-side hook of winding highway. Since this is technically from week 2, I’ll post another soon with some specifics from Week 3-3.5, particularly with start of classes.
Promises for Next Time
Since we’ve last spoke I’ve been to Kirstenbosch Gardens, Table Mountain, Lion's Head, Camps Bay, Robben Island, Groote Constantia Vineyards, Oudenkraal near Noordhoek, and Kalk Bay. I’ll give you the rundown on each when I delve into the details of my Staycation for our pre-classes “free week.” I just wanted to conclude by letting anyone who's starting something new and awesome and not feeling new and awesome, things will get better, and before ya know it, you’ll be having the time of your life.
Take care of yourselves,
braai- barbeque, pronouced like the “bri” part of “Brian”
now- soon, shortly
now now- eventually
sway- said at the end of a sentence, I’ve read that its similar to “bro” or “dude”, but I’d liken it’s usage closer to “fam”
Trevor Noah’s Wildn’ Out--First, watch the openers! They’re hilarious and they provide a great social context for South African humor. Look up the jokes you don’t understand, so you’ll look super informed when you land.
TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF FIRST TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF FIRST TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF FIRST- whatever this means to you, do it. If bare walls makes you feel particularly homesick take the time out to hang up photos. Unpack, settle, breathe. Unbelievably, the clubs will still be there and willing to take your money in a week or two.
Face some fears- Don't be stupid, but it'll be worth it.