Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Getting Settled

Now that my preliminary blog is out of the way, I will do my best to spend a bit more time attempting to describe the city, my life here, and all of the cool experiences I’ve had thus far. Cape Town, on the surface, reminds me of most American cities. There is constant movement, different pockets of the city that have different vibes, and consists people from all walks of life. There are green spaces all around where I people can be found laying in the shade, or school students will be walking in their uniforms. Often times when I walk down the street from my apartment on Orange Street and watch all of the cars drive by (or run across the street to attempt to avoid the cars from hitting me even though the light has turned green), I become part of the noise and traffic. When I finally take a second to look up from the street I see the overpowering and mystical presence of Table Mountain. It not only reminds me that I’m in South Africa, but it reminds me that among the noise you can find peace anywhere. I believe this could be why I feel so connected to Cape Town, you can have the wonderful motion and life of a city with the ever present reminder of nature in the background.

Returning to Cape Town has been an interesting experience. On the one hand the transition has seemed effortless, and on the other, there are a lot of things that are still new to me. Visiting a place for a few weeks, and moving there for a year allows you to see the place from different perspectives. Before, I got to know some areas of the city, a lot of the tourist spots, what locals generally do for fun, and where the awesome shops are. This time, I get to take comfort in knowing those basic things, but also have to learn how various systems work. For example, getting set up with a cell phone, bank account, student ID card, etc have helped me better understand those systems and how they work in South Africa. Attending University has given me a different perspective of the culture, as everything here moves a bit slower and information seems to be given no sooner than when you actually need it. Jessica and I managed to find a nice apartment in town, so we have been using the Jammie Shuttle to get to campus, and have been walking everywhere. This has also given me a new perspective of the city. As I get more comfortable, I hope to continue to go into new areas that I did not get to experience last time I was here.

In order to settle in here, I’ve tried to maintain my normal routines from home, and try out new things that are part of life here. For example, the first few days I tried to go without coffee because getting coffee here that isn’t instant proved to be a bit of a mission. I gave in after 2 weeks. After sipping my real cup of coffee on the balcony in the morning I realized that coffee is one way that I connect myself to a place. I have fond memories of times spent alone or with friends in places drinking coffee that somehow it helps me feel more at home. I also find that I like to explore places before I get settled in them, and once I’m settled I often stick to my normal routines. Therefore, I’ve made it my goal to jump into life here by experiencing new things with new people whenever the offer presents itself. I’ve also signed up for different groups on campus that are service related, and hope to get involved. In addition, i've joined a gym here that will hopefully motivate me to stay in shape.

Within the last few weeks, My roommate and I have managed to partake in quite a few fun adventures. We attended the summer concerts at Kirstenbosch gardens where we had a picnic with friends and listened to a local South African band, Zebra and Giraffe. We went on a hike to a spring at Bain’s Kloof where we spent the day laying on rocks, jumping off of them, and swimming. The drive also provided quite the view of Cape Town. We met up with some of my friends on the beach to watch the sunset. We also had the pleasure of going to a braii (a BBQ with South African meats), which is a big part of life here, and one of the traditions I remember from three years ago. All in all I’ve found my friends (old and new) have been eager to show me the beautiful parts of Cape Town, as well as some of the more touristy parts.

This week has been the start of coursework at UCT (University of Cape Town). I will be getting my master’s in the Environmental and Geographic Sciences department where I take coursework for a year and do a dissertation for 6 months. The courses I’ll be taking this semester are Managing Complex Ecosystems and Climate Predictability and Variability. I will only be taking class twice a week on campus, but it will eventually equate to about 40 hours a week of work. The courses will include lectures, fieldwork, and practical use of skills learned throughout the semester as well as exams, projects, and presentations. Once I get a better feel for the courses I’ll comment on them. In September I will be proposing a research project, and at this point I will be focusing on water conservation and management in the Berg River hopefully focusing on the community level.

Another fascinating part of my experience has been the conversations I’ve been engaged in with people that I meet. In general it seems that people here have a greater understanding of what is going on in the world, including America. At the bank the other day Jessica and I had an hour and half long conversation about what is going on in Egypt, the corruption in the South African government, Obama, September 11th, the end of apartheid and the current wars. In talking about our government, I was able to appreciate the level of democracy we have, and how strong our voting system is compared to most other countries. It felt great to be able to have a conversation about politics and current world events especially from different perspectives. I have found that many people here have a higher level of awareness and are eager to discuss American politics and what is going on in the world with us. It’s been a great way to find common ground with South Africans, and point out what it is I like about South Africa while also appreciating how things are run in America. Without reinforcing stereotypes, or giving an extreme opinion, I’ve been able to connect with a lot of people here just by discussing tactics to improve the world and reflecting on history to learn from. To me, this is a large part of what the Ambassadorial Scholarship is about – opening doors through conversations, paralleling two cultures, and connecting with people over the desire to make the world better.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

From the South to South Africa

It is difficult to describe just what it is that has been calling me back to South Africa. IF you know me at all, you know it has been about 3 years in the making. This time though I get to experience the country through a Post-Graduate education program while being an ambassador for Rotary International. For those of you that do not know, Rotary International is a world wide service organization comprised of local businessmen and women who raise money and work to make change locally and internationally. Their biggest achievement is working to eradicate polio, which only exists in 4 countries now. As a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar my role will be to participate in Rotary Meetings through my local club, speak at Rotary Clubs around Cape Town and South Africa, as well as participate in service projects. In addition, I will be receiving my Master’s degree in Environmental and Geographic Sciences at the University of Cape Town. My focus will be on water conservation and management through community outreach.

Anyways, that is how I got here to Cape Town. My first night I arrived to meet the President of the District for RI as well as my host counselor, Terrence Matzdorff. Terrence and his family welcomed me with open arms, sarcastic comments (which if you know my family, is standard protocal), home cooked meals, and help getting set up. Immediately I felt like I was at home with the Matzdorff’s. They gave me tips on the city, showed me how to get back and forth from campus, took me to see apartments, and so on. I am forever grateful for their generosity. The generosity has not stopped at the Matzdorff’s. I’ve found that my American accent has opened more doors than I had assumed. Even though most people do have stereotypes of how American’s act, most people who I’ve interacted with have been eager to help and I’m sure laugh at whatever silly thing I was asking about. It is strange how two countries that speak the same language, still have so many language barriers. In general though, I’ve been working hard to break American stereotypes, and find common ground with the people I’ve interacted with.

Thanks to my hosts, and my roommate, Jessica’s hosts the first 10 days also allowed me to see various beautiful parts of the city. We went to Kirstenbosch, which are the botanical gardens right under Table Mountain. Every Sunday there are concerts at Kirstenbosch, which I’m excited to attend. We went to Llandando Beach, being that January here is the summer - woo woo! We were driven around the city to see various views, and walked around campus to get accustomed to where we would be attending Uni. I also had a chance to speak at a rotary club and explain why I’m here, where I’m from, and what I hope to accomplish.

In terms of logistics, the first ten days involved a lot of running around trying to set up a cell phone, bank account, and get the money transferred to my bank account. luckily, Jessica happens to be a pretty organized person, and so we managed to get it all done (though our funding came a bit late so we had to improvise the first few days). However, it did help us get to know the city better, and how things work here. Internet is quite expensive, and capped so it's been a good experience getting used to things that seem to come so easy in America.

Through Rotary, I had the pleasure of attending Ray’s Reunion. Ray is the President of RI, and happened to be a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar in Cape Town in the 50s. At the reunion, I heard F.W. DeKlerk speak, as well as Frances Moloi. F.W. DeKlerk was involved in ending apartheid government in the 90s in South Africa. He spoke about the issues facing our world, and what the solutions to various conflicts could be. He discussed the opportunities Africa would have in the future to become stronger, and more of a world power. Frances Moloi was an Ambassadorial Scholar to Harvard University and then became the SA Ambassador to India. His speech was focused on how much he learned from being an Ambassadorial Scholar, and how he took the time to talk to students from all over the world about conflict and conflict resolution. The Rotary Ambassadorial experience is what you make it. Moloi reminded me though of the purpose of the program, and inspired me to really make it worthwhile whether it be through service or just through conversations with people from all over the world. It is important to remember how even small interactions can open up doors to new conversation, and lead to change whether it be change in perspective or attitude.

My next step in getting set up here will be to establish my service organization of choice. Word on the street is, there is an Outward Bound in Cape Town, so it’s only a matter of time before I’m knocking down their door. I’ve also been told of an organization that helps families in the townships make garden plots. In addition, I’m working on setting up a sister school with my high school from Atlanta. Finding the right school is a challenge though, because Cape Town is set up much like Atlanta in my opinion (minus the beach). The city is divided into sections, suburbs, and segments often divided by economic means and ethnicity. The main part of the city is much more integrated and reminds me of areas of downtown and Decatur. So I’m in the process of finding a good fit for an exchange program that will give students a different perspective than they are used to without re-enforcing stereotypes of Africa. I’ve been able to make some good contacts due to this, so it is quite exciting. On Monday I was invited to the Newlands Rotary Club meeting where young adults that are involved in Rotary were invited to come and talk about what their local school clubs have been doing. There were students there from a school called LEAP that gives students from low-income areas and troubled backgrounds the opportunity to get an education. It was extremely inspiring to hear about all of the service projects the schools have been doing, and I hope to work on finding a way to partner with them in the future.

So that has been my experience so far. Sometimes it is easy to forget that I’m in South Africa because Cape Town is such a huge city, and very industrialized and modern in many ways. It’s a strange mix between people that are connected, and still removed from the consumerism levels of America. In a way I think South Africa has gotten it right, but then again it’s hard to say if a society would change if they had the same access to all of the technology that comes to cheap in the states.