Peninsula Tour

Another weekend, another IES trip! This time we traveled down the Cape Peninsula towards Cape Point, the most southwestern tip of Africa. We started our day by heading to Hout Bay, a neighborhood south of Table Mountain and along the Atlantic Ocean that is home to the Hout Bay Market. Along the dock at the bay, there were some street stands and a couple cafés that we peaked into before boarding a boat taking us to Seal Island. About 20 minutes out to sea are some large rocks that jet out of the water just enough for seals to have a nice place to rest and lay out in the sun. I don’t think I’d ever seen so many seals at once! There were tons of seals laying out on the rocks, as well as some flopping around in the water putting on a show for us.

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The seals at Seal Island

After being entertained by the seals for a while, we made our way back to shore and on the bus to our next stop. As we drove away from Hout Bay, up on the mountainside, we passed several viewpoint stops along the highway, until we got to the best one. We hopped of the bus to snap a few photos of the beautiful view. It seems like no matter where you go in Cape Town, there’s always a breathtaking view of a mountain!

The view of Hout Bay from the highway
My friend, Noelle, and I at the highway viewpoint

The next stop was Boulder Beach, which is famous for its wild penguins! The African Penguin can only be found on the southwestern coast of South Africa and mainly Boulder Beach. Unfortunately, we couldn’t go onto the beach with the penguins, but we were able to walk along a boardwalk and get pretty close to them! Winter is when a lot of the babies hatch, so we saw quite a few feathery penguins. Their feathers don’t become water proof until they’re about 3 months old, so it was easy to spot which ones were the babies. Definitely a highlight of the day!

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The penguins at Boulder Beach


Even though I could probably sit and watch the penguins waddle around and dive into the water for hours, we left Boulder Beach to grab lunch and head to our final destination: Cape Point. The most southwestern tip of Africa is at the tip of the Cape of Good Hope within the Table Mountain National Park. We spent a few minutes at Cape Point on the beach taking in the views and capturing some quick photos of the edge. But, the better views came once we started an hour hike up to the Old Cape Point Lighthouse which is at the highest peak. Along the hike and at the top by the lighthouse, we looked out over the ocean and at beautiful mountain landscapes. Every direction you turned was a spectacular view and once we got to the top, it almost felt like we were in a cloud.

Cape Point
Views along the hike towards Old Cape Point Lighthouse
Views from the Old Cape Point Lighthouse


This trip was full of incredible sights and fun excursions and made me ready to explore more of South Africa!

UCT Academics

One of the biggest culture shocks I’ve had so far would have to be school at UCT. Even starting out at orientation and registration it was much different. In the US most schools have an online registration process near the end of the previous semester in order to sign up for classes and figure out your schedule. At UCT, however, the registration process involves various steps and needs to be completed in person after waiting in multiple lines. So, coming into the semester I didn’t know what classes I would end up taking. After standing in line to talk to an academic advisor and present what classes I was interested in taking, I was able to register for two courses and had to wait to seek approval from a faculty member for my third course. Then on the first day of class, I had to find the course convener for the psychology course I wanted to add, have her sign the course addition document, go stand in a line for 45 minutes to have an academic advisor approve the course, and finally go stand in another line to have someone manually input the course into my schedule. Although registration at Hope can be stressful, this experience made me very appreciative of registration at Hope and how quick and easy it is.

Now, after the first week of classes, I have a set schedule including three courses at UCT and one through the IES program. At first when deciding to go abroad, I figured I would be able to have a schedule that would allow me to have class fewer days each week and longer weekends, but little did I know that classes at UCT can meet up to 4 days a week and include an additional tutorial session. My Cognitive Neuroscience and Abnormal Psychology course has four 45-minute lectures and one 45-minute tutorial every week. The lectures are taught by the professor and have about 500 students, whereas the tutorials are taught by an assistant professor or post-graduate student and only include about 20 students. Being in a lecture this large will definitely take some getting used to since the largest class I’ve been a part of before at Hope was only 60 students. Having the tutorials is really helpful though because we are able to go over lecture material in a smaller group, making it easier to ask questions and get to know class mates.

My 500 student psychology lecture

The way professors and assistant professors grade in South Africa is something I will have to get used to as well. In the US, we are used to having points taken off for getting an answer wrong or not writing enough detail about something in a paper, for example. Here, however, points are awarded for doing something right or doing what the professor expects. Because of that, it is much harder to get a 100% on something here. Anything between a 75% and 100% here is equivalent to an A, and A’s are hard to come by at UCT. So, I will have to adjust my brain to not freak out if I get a 68% on a quiz or test because that would be a B+, not a D.

The size of UCT has also been an adjustment for me, as it has about 30,000 undergraduate students and much larger campus than I am used to. UCT campus is on the side of Table Mountain, which means it is uphill and has three different levels: lower, middle, and upper campus. To walk from my house on lower campus to upper campus can take about 20 minutes, and it’s not always a leisurely walk. They also have a Jammie shuttle that takes students from lower campus up, but you have to get to the stop pretty early in order to ensure you’ll get a spot on the bus. So, I usually just opt for making the walk up to class.

The view on my walk to school
The view on my walk back home
Part of Middle Campus on my walk back home

Even though there have been a lot of challenges in adjusting to this new learning environment, I am very excited for this semester and the courses I am taking. Three out of the four courses I am taking are focused on African culture or society. Probably the course I am most looking forward to is African Instrument, where I will be learning different African drumming styles and techniques along with other traditional African instruments! I am also taking an African Religious Traditions course which focuses on Indigenous religions, African Islam, and African Christianity. It will be interesting to see the similarities and differences between religion in Africa and in the US throughout this course. The third African focused class I am taking is through the IES program and is called Community Health in Context. This course focuses on the health care system in South Africa and how it has progressed and affected the community. This course also involves a service learning component, where I will complete 40 hours of service at a volunteer site and complete 20 hours of research throughout the semester related to my volunteer site and the health care system in South Africa. I will be volunteering with a UCT organization called SHAWCO Health where I will assist UCT Medical Students at mobile clinics that travel to townships around Cape Town. I am very excited and eager to be a part of this organization and not only experience medical care in South Africa but to meet individuals from various townships as well and be able to learn from them.

Academically, I think this semester will be challenging and something I have to adjust to, but I am looking forward to learning about South Africa in the class room!

The Garden Route

Last weekend was full of crossing things off the South Africa bucket list! IES organized a road trip for us along the Garden Route, a stretch of southern South Africa that is made up of farmland and some incredible sights. We had an early morning Friday to drive to our first destination, Wilderness. Wilderness is home to the Touw River, where we got to canoe and look at the mountains and hills surrounding the water. It was a bit chilly to be canoeing, but still a fun way to experience Wilderness and do some sight-seeing.

The IES group on the beach of the Touw River after canoeing!

On Saturday we made our way to Tsitsikamma National Park and hiked to the suspension bridge that overlooks the Indian Ocean. Despite the pouring rains, this hike was amazing. The views were spectacular and full of beautiful plant life and animals. Once we made it to the suspension bridge we were able to walk across and see down the river between the mountains on one side and out into the ocean on the other. It stopped raining right after we crossed the bridge, so we were able to walk back to the beach rain free which was a nice break, even though we were all already drenched.

Sarah, another Hope student, and me on the suspension bridge at Tsitsikamma National Park.
View of the mountains from the suspension bridge.
View of the suspension bridge and the outlook of the Indian Ocean.

After we dried off a bit we had the choice of going to four different animal encounters: monkeys, birds, big cats, or elephants. The majority of people chose the same as me and went to the elephant reservation where they save elephants from zoos and trafficking to put them in a natural and safe environment. We were able to get up close with the elephants and meet them which was one of the most exciting parts of this trip! We got to walk with the elephants while holding their trunks, pet them, feel their ears and tails, and hug their trunks. I also got to feed them chunks of cantaloupe and they grabbed it right out of my hand with their trunks and tried to take it from my hand even if they weren’t the elephant I was trying to feed. It was a really fun way to encounter elephants and learn more about them!

Walking with an elephant!
Learning about the elephants from our guide, Charlie.
Giving the elephant a hug!

Sunday, our last day of the Garden Route trip, we headed to Congo. In Congo we went to the famous caves that were discovered by a Dutch farmer who was looking for a lost sheep. We did the adventure tour, which meant that we had to crawl through tight spaces to get to some of the caverns. The rocks and formations inside the caves were really cool and took hundreds of thousands of years to form. Even though some of the crevices we had to fit through were tight and a little nerve-racking, it was definitely worth it to see what the caves had to offer.

Our final stop on the trip was to an African ostrich farm. Ostriches in South Africa are farmed for their meat and leather and are also used to herd and protect sheep. There was a handful of ostriches that they let us interact with. The first ostrich we saw was a dwarf ostrich who had a mutation causing him to be significantly shorter than the typical ostrich. We were able to feed him pellets out of our hands, and he had a surprisingly powerful bite and sharp beak. We then met Betsy, a full grown ostrich that the farm rescued. The tour guide said that Betsy is an unusually friendly ostrich, whereas typical ostriches are very aggressive and protective. Since Betsy is friendly and enjoys being around people, everyone got a chance to pet her and get an ostrich hug! The tour guide then asked us if we wanted to get an ostrich neck massage. We figured this meant standing with your back to a bunch of ostriches while holding a bucket of food. The ostriches reached over my head and around my neck in order to eat from the bucket. They were going at the food pretty hard and I definitely got hit in the face by an ostrich head a couple times, but it was worth it.

The dwarf ostrich – significantly shorter than the average ostrich.
Getting a hug from Betsy!
Getting a neck massage from the other ostriches by feeding them!

It was a really fun trip and a neat way to see more of South Africa other than Cape Town, but I am definitely excited to be back in Cape Town and become more familiar with the city I will be living in for the next four months!

The Mother City

I arrived safely in Cape Town a week ago for my fall semester at University of Cape Town and began what I hope will be the adventure of a lifetime! When I landed, I met my study abroad program director at the airport to drive to where I’ll be staying for the semester: a small 7-person house in a little enclosed garden. The house seems like it will make for good community throughout the semester, but I just have to get used to using a space heater to warm up my room since its winter here and uncommon to have central heating. The winters in Cape Town get cool, around 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit and are very rainy, but the rain is much needed here because of the drought Cape Town is going through. The water reserves were recently reaching 14% of their capacity, but since the winter rains it is now above 50%, which will last the area until 2019 at least. Even though the water levels have risen, Cape Town is still considered to be in a drought. We are under water restrictions and have to try our best to limit our water usage. That means short showers, recycling shower water to flush toilets, not leaving the faucets running while washing dishes or brushing teeth, etc. It will definitely take some getting used to!

Upper Campus at University of Cape Town, where I will be studying!

My first week here consisted of full days of IES orientation, where IES staff members went over Cape Town culture, history, safety, and academics. The orientation was mostly made up of lectures, but we were able to do some fun things afterwards. On Wednesday a few people from a nearby township called Langa came to take us on a tour in order for us to experience Cape Town as a whole instead of just becoming familiar with the city. Townships are similar to neighborhoods surrounding the city and each one is unique, so the members of the communities have a lot of pride in their township. Langa is a Xhosa township, which is one of cultural groups and one of the 11 national languages of South Africa. Langa is made up of black lower and middle class South Africans. During orientation we learned that in South Africa 54% of the population is under the poverty line and only 13 percent of the total population make enough money to be eligible tax payers. These were significant and surprising statistics to learn. We were able to see some poverty  first hand in Langa since the majority of the people are also under the poverty line.

Mike, our tour guide, was born and raised in Langa and still lives there today. Because it is a such a strong community in this township, he said that few people tend to leave even if they have enough money to move to a wealthier township. It was also evident that there was strong community based on the amount of people that were outside together and the number of children playing in the streets with each other. Our first stop on the tour was the arts building, where there are a few different art programs. One of the programs is called Our City – Cape Town. This program is made up of various local artists who sell their work and put the profits towards funding for local youth to come after school and learn how to make artwork. It is a way for the young people in the township to learn a new skill and have something to do after classes. It seemed like a really good opportunity for the children because from what we saw in the township, they  didn’t have toys to play with or access to the types of crafts or activities I grew up with. They were smiling and laughing and having fun but were playing with car tires and old storage crates. It was reassuring seeing how their community was providing them with opportunities like this art program since they are unable to have their own toys and other things many of us take for granted.

Some of the artwork created by local Langa artists being sold for the Our City – Cape Town program.
A mosaic wall outside of the Langa art building.

The next stop was with street vendors cooking and selling sheep heads. In Langa sheep are a common and popular food, but they eat every part of the sheep, including the organs and the head. So, we were able to see how Langa women cook the sheep head and even got to try a bite! The idea of eating the face of a sheep was a lot worse than the taste. It wasn’t bad but that could’ve been because I put a lot of salt on it. It is also tradition for boys to go through a rite of passage to transition to manhood, in which a sheep is sacrificed. So sheep are a big part of the cuisine and religious tradition.

A street vendor cooking a sheep head over the fire.
The sheep head I got to taste a bite of!

In Langa there is also a variety of living situations based on socioeconomic status. The middle class members live in full houses collected in one section of the township. The lower class community members live in hostels. Mike brought us to see a couple different hostels on our tour. There are older hostels where up to 6 people live in a room about 12’ x 10’ and they share a common space and bathrooms with 5 other rooms. This means that at times there can be 36 people sharing the same kitchen and bathroom. These living conditions were hard to see and experience because they wouldn’t be ideal for anyone. The room we went into was where a 16-year-old girl lived with her family; it was hard to imagine what it would be like to have to do all of my homework and apply for college in a tiny room filled with my family. It put into perspective what living conditions I grew up with and am used to compared to and how I complain about my dorm room being small when I only share it with one person, not five others. The government knows that these living conditions need to be improved, so they have started renovating the hostels. The newer ones are much nicer. They still have one bedroom with up to 6 people, but there is only one room sharing a common area, which is much more homey and comfortable. It was nice seeing that improvements are being made, but it is not happening at the rate that it needs to be.

Rows of older hostels in Langa.

After seeing the township and experiencing a little bit of their daily life, we went to a restaurant in the township, Mzamzi, and got to taste traditional Xhosa food and listen to an African band during dinner. The woman who runs the restaurant and cooked our meal came out to Welcome us to Langa and told us the story about how the restaurant came to be. She told us that she wanted people to be able to experience a different part of Cape Town and see that townships are not all dangerous but have a rich culture in themselves. Her restaurant is ranked number one in Cape Town on Trip Advisor which is an incredible accomplishment for her and her community. The food was delicious and included traditional foods such as samp and beans, beef stew, umngqusho (dried maize and bean mélange) and my favorite part, malva pudding for dessert. After eating, her husband came out and got us dancing to the African band and we even got to play the instruments for the last song. It was a very fun way to end the night, seeing how excited the people of this community were to share their culture with us!

The African band playing at Mzamzi while we were eating. We got a chance to play some of the instruments pictured!

Experiencing Langa was eye-opening, allowing me to gain a better understanding of what life is like for many South Africans. Some of my peers at UCT will have come from townships such as this, and I hope I will be able to learn more about life in townships through talking with peers and experiencing more of them throughout my time here. There is so much culture here in Cape Town and so much depth to each aspect of it, I can’t wait to discover more!