Author: Vera Goodwin-Brown
Upon my bittersweet return to the States after studying abroad for four months in Cape Town, South Africa, I found myself feeling as though I had nothing and everything to say at the same time. Despite endless time to digest my experiences overseas while gazing out snow-edged windows in Massachusetts, winter break did not adequately prepare me for answering questions about my semester abroad in a meaningful and wholly-encompassing manner. But now that I’m back at Occidental and starting to reflect more on my time in Africa, I’ve come up with a few important lessons I learned and want to pass on. They may seem naïve or cliché, but in my book they are rules to live and travel by.
Stop living in pursuit of Facebook pictures. While I am an avid photographer and certainly guilty as charged when it comes to having Facebook albums filled with painfully touristy Africa pictures, I’ve learned that you should do things out of genuine interest rather than to brag about them later, either verbally or virtually. At the end of the day, thousands of other people have paid to bungee off the same bridge as you, dance at the same nightclubs and probably even pet the same cheetahs. At the same time all across the globe, people you know and people you don’t are having equally story-worthy experiences. When it comes down to it you will never be able to convey any of the beautiful nuances of your experience through a picture, even if it does get 65 ‘likes.’
One of my favorite memories from my time in Cape Town occurred on a dewy morning on a light hike with two of my housemates sans camera. After 20 minutes of walking and one hopped fence, we found ourselves face to face with three full-grown zebras lined up in a majestic row, with the city skyline and the shimmering ocean behind them.
We all just stood there, staring at each other for a moment. I can’t begin to describe how perfect it was. I cursed myself for days after, wishing I had a camera phone so I could have brought back some scrap of evidence from that morning. But for what? To defile it by sharing it as a mobile upload? I can picture that image to this day more clearly than any photo that is safely stored on my hard drive. It is a shame that my best friend from middle school’s cousin can’t see what I saw and therefore has no idea what a stupendous life I lead these days. But something tells me I’ll be all right.
Skip the guidebook. While the travel books on Cape Town had some useful maps and points of interest that I did in fact end up visiting, simply talking to people led me to places I wouldn’t have gone otherwise. What really made the city feel like home wasn’t the buzzed-about gourmet tapas restaurant but the five-minute walk down the road to the local dive bar to meet up with some friends. We stayed there all night until we suddenly realized we were the last people in the place.
Let people surprise you. Until recently, I felt it was only natural to gravitate toward other people who shared my affinities for sarcasm, obscure music and self-deprecation. Before departing for South Africa, I could have never predicted that two of my favorite people I would meet would be a highly religious Christian conservative Republican (myself being the left-wing agnostic type) and a 43-year-old Zimbabwean security guard. Something both of these wonderful people had in common was an earnest kindness about them and a genuine curiosity about everyone they knew. Effectively starting with a clean social plate in this new place forced me to reevaluate what characteristics in a person were important to me. Untainted compassion is one of those things—it is one of the rarest human qualities in the world.
Recognize your privilege. Cape Town, like many major world cities, provides a stark, almost violent contrast between extreme wealth and abject poverty. Many townships along the periphery of the city, stuck in the not-so-distant apartheid past, are so-called ‘dumping grounds’ for non-white South Africans. In these areas, resources such as water, electricity and education are scarce while gangs, violence and dangerous narcotics such as glue and methamphetamine (‘tick’) are rampant. To drive past miles of shacks shrouded in darkness en route to a fancy dinner for ‘traditional’ African food and dance or a wine tasting in Stellenbosch is as uncomfortable as it is humbling. And rightly so.
As ‘Miss America’ as this might sound, I truly do believe that it is essential that everyone do their part to improve the world, especially those of us who have entirely more than we need. For me, this meant working one day a week at an understaffed tuberculosis hospital to feed and entertain a roomful of two to five year-olds. On a good day I felt mildly helpful; on a bad day I mostly felt like I was in the way. But at the end of it all, I realized that I probably gained more from my volunteer experience than any of the children or the nurses. I learned a lot about non-verbal communication. I poked a lot of bellies, and I saw a lot of smiles. But no amount of attention or silliness could possibly change the reality that many of these kids are HIV-positive and will return at the end of their treatment to lives of continuous need.
There simply is and will always be much more to do for the world, but this whole ‘First World’ philanthropist to-the-rescue thing has got to stop. Do what you can and do it because you care. And at the very least, start appreciating every second of this comfortable life you lead, as you sip upon some sort of blended dirty soy chai concoction at the Green Been and read this newspaper. Seriously, the next time you’re lamenting about the spotty service on your iPhone, open your Perspective app real quick and think about how lucky you are.
Finally, I want to remind you that you don’t even have to get on a plane to learn this stuff. With that said, if you can, do your best to go explore this little blue marble of ours. The possibilities are endless.
To my beloved Cape Town, I’ll be back one of these days. Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika.
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