A little countdown on the airline’s website after checking in for my flight tells me I’m leaving for Stellenbosch, South Africa in 23 hours. Actually, I leave for Frankfurt then. I won’t reach Stellenbosch until Friday morning (South African Standard Time) thanks to long flights, longer layovers, and time zone changes that still kind of confuse me. Staring down a (finally) packed suitcase, I’m feeling a combination of ecstatic and anxious right now. International travel is all new territory for me.
With less than a day before I leave, I’m a little bit embarrassed to admit I hardly know anything about South Africa. The decision to study abroad in Stellenbosch, a town about 30 miles away from Cape Town, was a little bit of a curveball after months of looking at programs in places like Switzerland, Germany, and the Czech Republic. I was absolutely convinced I’d go to Europe. Once I laid eyes on the classes and excursions this program had to offer as well as the opportunity to spend a week at the end exploring the southern coast, I was captivated. It also doesn’t hurt that Stellenbosch is known for its wine. Nowhere else seemed as interesting or pulled me in the same way, so I stopped looking around and just applied.
In other words, I’m actually pretty unprepared and ignorant about what I’m getting into. I don’t know the common languages besides English, the only thing I know about the culture is that it is extremely diverse, and I really have no clue what to expect as far as living arrangements and daily life goes. I did briefly look up some of the basic customs mainly just to encourage safety and avoid accidentally offending someone with something like a hand gesture, but I’d consider that the bare minimum of preparation. While this lack of knowledge does add to the anxiety, it also simultaneously calms me down in a weird way. I just get to take it in all at once and not try to apply a bunch of research and hope I get it right from reading internet articles. I recognize this approach is not great for everyone nor every location, but I’m excited to see how it pans out for me. I’m hoping respectfulness, good judgement, and open mindedness will be enough for now.
In all honesty, I think I’m the most excited about the food. From what little research I’ve done, the cuisine in South Africa is dubbed “Rainbow Cuisine” since it’s inspired by so many cultures. I’m not sure exactly what I’ll see in Stellenbosch, but I have my heart set on trying bunny chow (curry in a loaf of bread, no bunnies included). Food seems like a great way to connect with others and begin experiencing a new culture in a less intimidating way. I’m also looking forward to the plants and wildlife. Between the biodiversity class I hope to take and the excursion the last week of my trip, I should have plenty of opportunities to hike around and see organisms very different from what I’m used to seeing in Washington. My life will be complete if I get to see an elephant. Considering the bigger picture, I’m just really excited to experience life in a new place.
Right now, I’m the most nervous about simply getting there. The logistics of travel stresses me out, and I have some long flights to get through. Right now my strategy for getting through the actual transportation part is to make lists and take everything one step a time. The lists help me write down the details while I focus on the big picture, and thinking one step at a time helps me stay focused. I’m a worry-wort, but there’s no sense in worrying about my layover in Johannesburg before I’ve even made it to Seattle. I’ve also never faced a language barrier before. I’ve read that many South Africans do speak English, but I’m also hoping that Afrikaans is as easy to learn as some people have claimed. I’m trying to view my concerns with communication as an opportunity. I’m probably going to sound like an idiot several times during my trip, but at the end of the day if I can learn some phrases and get what I need across I’ll call it a success.
Some overall goals for the trip include learning some basics of Afrikaans, actually keeping up this blog with stories and pictures once or twice a week so that I have something to look back on and share with others who are interested, and really immersing myself in South African culture as much as possible in the short five-ish weeks I’ll be there. This kind of trip is out of my comfort zone, but I don’t want that to stop me from enjoying myself and learning as much as possible.