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By clairemac93

The title seems broad, but months pondering this subject and I’m yet to come up with a better summarization of my feelings. White people here, are indeed, afraid of everything and everyone…it seems at least.

Stellenbosch is located in the Western Cape. It is 17% white, 49% coloured, and 33% black African. But I’m going to be perfectly honest. Despite my returning to the United States and everyone imagining that I spent my days surrounded by “black Africans”, I spend my days in Stellenbosch almost entirely interacting with whites and maybe, coloured people. Stellenbosch is an Afrikaans university, which is why it attracts that demographic. In fact, despite the Western Cape being 17% white, the most of any region in South Africa, Stellenbosch University is 68.5% white.

So great, we’ve established there isn’t much diversity here. But that’s not really my issue, as whether I’m here or at a small liberal arts college in the United States, I will probably find myself disappointed by the sea of white privilege—myself being a part of that. What I’m disappointed about is the connection it has taught me here between race, income and safety.

Last semester we experienced two girls, on their own during dark hours, individually get kidnapped on campus. It shook the campus. Suddenly students were saying there was a “crime spike”. Every kid who had his wallet stolen or was approached by someone weird contributed to this theory. Emails were sent out explaining the situation to parents, and to avoid another “incident”, evening exams offered bus trips for kids to and from the exam venue. I later received an email from the University president that “crime had been pushed to perimeters of campus”.

And I stood there, and I wondered what that meant. Crime had been “pushed” off campus? There was always crime in Stellenbosch. The kidnappings had just made people more aware of it. And there are reasons for that. Despite the university being, predominantly wealthy and white, the town of Stellenbosch itself is not. In fact, Stellenbosch is actually vastly majority coloured and there is a huge township, Kayamandi, viewable from basically every window at this university. Within a 5 minute walk from campus, you can find yourself in a very different world. Forget the tree lined streets and cute cafes, bring in the discounted expired-goods grocery stores and beggars on the streets.

As such, its not so surprising to me that Stellenbosch University would be a target for crime. Kids here have grown up in literal bubbles of gated communities which within themselves have 8 foot walls and security systems. They went to private all-boys and all-girls schools where they receive a world class education while other students in their country can’t afford books or even a school lunch. They walk around campus with I-Phones in hand and newly bought clothes. This is all not so different from my university at home. But what I’m saying is that the blatant display of class difference here would piss me off as someone not part of that social class, too. Though kidnapping is certainly extreme, for a large amount of robberies or theft to go on here is unsurprising to me, as from the outside it looks like these kids have everything- and could certainly live past losing a laptop or a sandwich.

It is also shocking to me that the university would promote its students to stay indoors during evening hours, to bus to and from exams, and to never walk alone. Perhaps living in DC has given me a thick skin, in which they text us to tell us of crime but don’t necessary guide us of what to do- instead assuming us mature enough to react on our own. I feel like promoting these things only keeps these already naive students in their bubble. Hiding from crime does not make it go away and these same students will one day be entering into the real world where crime still happens, and be equally as uneducated of how to handle it.

But that is one more caveat. I totally understand why the kidnappings shook this campus. That just doesn’t happen here and is incredibly unfortunate. However, aside from that students are convinced that Stellenbosch is incredibly dangerous. As they spread this message, as do professors and university officials, a general fear becomes ingrained in students. For example, I had a study partner tell me that she previously lived on another side of Stellenbosch and moved because she felt “unsafe”. I asked her why and what had happened. She told me that nothing ever happened, she just felt it. I asked her if there were more black people around her previous residence, and she explained yes. I’m not sure she caught my connection between the two. Students come to fear the outside world as if its going to eat them alive. It also creates an unnecessary fear of anyone who’s not a clean-cut kid. I was walking with a friend once who saw a black man carrying a chair down the road ahead of us. She instantly grabbed my arm and told me that we should stay away from him because he “looked dangerous”. I, naturally, laughed and asked how carrying a chair makes someone scary. I then explained that if it was a white person carrying that chair, they would assume it was just a student moving or doing something stupid. Suddenly it’s a black guy and you are in danger of the man-with-chair. It’s actually ridiculous.

I am yet to feel unsafe at all in Stellenbosch, any more than I am in DC. I feel that if you look like you know where you are going, what you are doing, and look people in the eyes you are doing yourself the largest favor. I’ve walked at all times of day and night, alone, and have rarely been approached. When I have, I have acted calm and nothing has happened to me. I think that by the time you are in college you should not be hand-holded of how to function day-to-day and unfortunately dealing with crime is part of that here. And even if crime, predominantly theft, does happen, can you really blame them?

By clairemac93

This is the second time this has happened to me abroad, or rather, the second time it’s been this intense of a feeling. It is always towards the end of my stay in another country. You have built up your friend group, a community, your favorite places and foods, and at this point, can fully function in another language. As amazing as it is, midway through your stay your eyes blur slightly in that you don’t see the “specialness” of things anymore. You no longer consider even a trip to the grocery store a “cultural experience” and in fact standing this weekend at a baptism for a mutual friend, I found myself thinking it was just an ordinary day baptizing someone in the ocean. You stop remembering how amazing this is and that other people won’t ever get to witness the things you did. You simply stop thinking, which is part of the experience too.

And that’s where this moment comes in. There is a moment where I am suddenly hit with how absolutely extraordinary my experience is. How thankful I should be for not only every minute, but every second that I am granted here. Perhaps it’s that strategic time before I leave- where I can feel the end coming but have just enough time to savor the flavor of this country.

My moment came about while staying the weekend in a neighboring town called Somerset West with my best friend Helen. It’s the fourth time I’ve stayed with her family for the weekend, and every time I feel closer with each family member. Every time the greetings are more personal, it’s easier to have one-on-one conversations, I know my way around the kitchen better, and I feel more at home. Even the dogs seem to remember me by now. I was sitting around the farm-table with home cooked food made by all 11 of us, telling stories of our midadventures, laughing and poking fun as both family and friends late into the night. I found myself realizing how my year had worked up to that moment where there are no invisible walls, no awkwardness, no foreignness. This felt like home and family. And in a large way they are in my life here. It was the moment you take a mental step back to see the wonderful life you built somewhere and you wish that you could remember every detail of this picture in your mind so that you can savor it forever. I want to remember the grooves in this table from how many years its been used and how many generations have sat here. I want to remember the warmth of this kitchen, and the smell of the fire burning. I want to visualize Helen’s mom smiling, as she does so sparingly. But you know that is impossible, so instead you sit back and enjoy and let it sink in the best you can. If my memory serves me correct, moments like those- even if the details are lost- will stick with you for the long run if not just in a general feeling it gives you when you think back on it.

I’m confident that I won’t leave without having more moments like this, though that one will particularly stick out. I think that it’s a nice reminder, that in those moments of the day that from an outsider perspective may seem boring or mundane- to find that light to realize that the company of the ones you love is such a gift. As corny as it is, with my leaving this country within the month, I can’t help but have a feeling of nostalgia of all I’ve experienced here. It’s hard to admit that it’s ending and it’s hard to know I won’t be able to remember all of it.

By rbhargava

I've got about 10 minutes left in Stellenbosch before I head out on a 19 day trip through South Africa and Zimbabwe, ending at Victoria Falls on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia. The past few days have been extremely hectic between saying bye to friends, planning my trip, packing, and trying to fit in last minute hikes/trips/activities that I haven't had the chance to do before. Even though I've been done with all my classes for over a week now, I've probably felt busier the past few days than ever before. In a few minutes I'll be taking an overnight bus to Port Elizabeth, from where I'll be traveling with various groups of friends through the Wild Coast to Durban. From Durban I'll be taking a bus to Joburg and meeting with another group of friends. From Joburg, I'll be taking a stop in Polokwane in the northeastern part of South Africa before quickly traveling through Zimbabwe, crossing over the border into Zambia and then flying back to Cape Town for one final night at Stellenbosch. On the 20th I'll finally be heading back home. Quite the itinerary!! I'm not sure how much internet connect I'll have, and more importantly computer access (I'm not bringing my laptop), but I hope to have at least one blog post along the way. Looking forward to sharing some absolutely amazing stories in my next blog! Until then, although it is extremely bittersweet to be leaving Stellenbosch, I'm excited for the last leg of my memorable time studying abroad!

By clairemac93

It’s one of those things you see on CNN, or in movies, or you read about. The trash- laying on street corners or buried under dirt after long months of no attention. The animals- feral dogs with mange and bad tempers, no collars or owners in sight. The homes- tin roofed, brightly colored, but ultimately threadbare.

I’m speaking of the townships.

South Africa is probably one of three countries I would associate with the word “township”- the other two being Brazil and India. However, countries everywhere from Pakistan (largest township in the world) to Jamaica and Bangladesh consider townships inevitable parts of society. Not surprisingly, the countries containing townships- most of them considered middle income countries, also have very high Gini coefficients [Gini Coefficient=mathematical measurement of inequality in society], with South Africa in fact having the highest measure of inequality in the world.

On the one hand, movies like Slumdog Millionaire and events such as the World Cup have made the general public more aware of the existence of townships/shantytowns/favelas and have put a face to those who live there. On the other hand, flying into Cape Town in January I was still mentally unprepared to see these townships stretch for miles, with planes landing only yards from shacks outside the airport gates. On my initial ride through the city, where major monuments and parts of the city were pointed out to me, it was not lost on me that not a word was spoken about the miles of townships we were passing. Perhaps our tour guide thought they spoke for themselves.

Townships are a lot more nuanced than a quick overlook might make them out to be. Densely populated and located in many different areas of cities or the country, townships hold far from homogenous groups of people. Everything from income level, to language, to religion, to employment status is different from area to area and home to home. Walking down the street you may find a shack that is hardly standing, with a cardboard roof and no running water, next to a house which rivals many comfortable single-story homes in the United States.

I stayed in a home in Gugulethu, a township about 15km outside of Cape Town. The township’s name means “our pride”, a very robust name considering its founding was due to Apartheid’s removal of blacks from Cape Town- thereby moving them to areas like Gugulethu. My host family consisted of my host father, Zukile, the right-hand man to the priest at the local church and his wife, Loretta, who works at the Department of Home Affairs. Because of the fact that both of them are employed, something perhaps not associated with those living in the Townships, their house is nicely furnished, with two bedrooms, and all the amenities of a normal South African home.

Besides the fact we were in a township, my time staying with their family gave me a very different cultural experience than what I would get in a place like Stellenbosch. The family was black and Xhosa-speaking, very spiritual, and focused on their extended and spiritual family. We went to church together on Sunday morning, and I got the chance to try what I would consider real South African home-cooked food. Never in my life have I eaten so much meat. My host family was full of warm hugs and curious questions, and I found myself envisioning what my year would be like if they were my full-time host family here in South Africa. Despite this, it was impossible to ignore some of the realities of living in the area. True to what I’d read, trash collection was not as efficient as other places and many families share latrines outside the home, which many times go uncared for and overflow. Alcoholism is a large issue, true in any disadvantaged community, as is HIV.

Going to church was my favourite part of the weekend. Acting as the social and cultural center of the township, the church itself can fit hundreds of believers and reverberates the sounds of worshipers singing for hours on end. From old ladies to little toddlers who can already pop-and-lock, there is rarely a moment when the room isn’t full of song and dance. The old ladies particularly liked to dance a move I called the “chugga chugga choo choo” which involved swinging their arms in a circular motion next to their hips. Though the service was conducted in isiXhosa and I myself am not believing, I couldn’t help but be spellbound by the joy emanating from those around me, and to see and feel how thankful they were for all that they did have in a world where many people can only think about what they don’t. The church itself has gotten a lot of praise as well as criticism for its acceptance of HIV/AIDS positive members and its promotion of inclusion of HIV positive residents. The HIV/AIDS awareness ribbon hangs proudly on the front podium of the church. After church, most of the youth head to a place called Mzoli’s- a place I would recommend any visitor to Cape Town go, especially on a Sunday. With large platters of meat and no shortage of music, Mzoli’s acts as a nice mix of locals and foreigners gathering in one big outdoor day-party in the middle of the township.

Returning home to Stellenbosch, I found myself much more motivated by my time spent in the township to push myself to find new and unique experiences like what I’d just encountered. However, I was also quickly reminded of the divide when I raved to an Afrikaaner classmate of my homestay over the weekend, and she quickly wrote me off by saying that she grew up here and would never take a step into the township. Another student chimed in in agreement. She, and others here, are missing out on a lot of warmth, culture, and critical discussion. It’s a shame that many of my fellow students here have not so much as taken the train into Cape Town, let alone gone into a township. This being said, I can see myself or my fellow students in the United States saying similar things about certain parts of Philadelphia, DC, or Detroit- where poverty and crime are high and most of us would avoid so much as driving into. I hope to come to terms with the similarities between the racial and economic biases in all the countries I’ve lived in someday, and hopefully be able to explain them more eloquently.

By rbhargava

Last week was my last week of classes, and my last week of the semester. Normally I would be preparing for exams now, but my three courses had their final exams/final classes last week. The first round of exams goes on until November 19th, so I could have hypothetically been taking exams until then. I got lucky! Last Wednesday was my final exam for Transitional Justice as well as my last CIEE class, and last Friday was our “Celebration of Work” for the community engagement course I am in. At the celebration of work we presented a 20 minute documentary on our time as part of the LSCE course. Although I helped with the editing, I think the documentary is a complete exaggeration of the “transformation” that it advertises, and romanticizes the idea of working with “African” kids. Nonetheless, it offers a great taste of what part of my life has been like the past few months. If you have the free time here is the link to watch it:

For the next week I’ll be hanging around Stellenbosch trying to fit in one last trip to my favorite restaurants and places, new trips to places I have yet to go to, and lots and lots of goodbyes to friends from around the world. Next Sunday I’ll begin a 3 week journey through parts of South Africa, Botswana, and Zambia and then head back home. Having finished all my classes last week, I’ve had some time to reflect and many of my activities nowadays are unfortunately labeled as the last time I’ll do XYX.

Last Thursday, CIEE organized a farewell dinner at Bistro13, a top restaurant in the area. Eating our last meal together as a group (the group is the program director Joe, our course convener Ruenda, and then the three students on the program), I realized how much time we had all spent together and the journey we went on. It is very strange to think the program is essentially over at this point and I won’t be seeing Joe and Ruenda regularly now. Over the past few months we have had countless meals and classes together, and at times felt more like a family than a program. We’ve spent time with the Joe and Ruenda’s spouses, traveled around the area with them, and even gone to a Heritage Dinner with them at one of their friends’ homes. Having only three people on the program has allowed for a very unique experience that I am extremely lucky to have been part of. I’ve referenced this many times before in this blog, and I’ll say it again – the experience that CIEE offers at Stellenbosch is like no other – because you quickly forget you are an exchange student and become deeply entrenched into regular day life here.

Speaking of regular day life, almost all of my weekends have been abnormal since I’ve tried to see and do as much as possible. But this past weekend was an exception as I stayed in the Stellenbosch area for both Saturday and Sunday for the first time in a long time. Both days I ended up going to the Jonkershoek Valley and spending time with two of my closest friends here. On Saturday I went with my friend Callee to the Jonkershoek Nature Valley with the intention of swimming in the dam, but that failed and turned into us walking through a stream in the valley and finding nice little pools along the way to relax in. The next morning I returned to the valley by bike with Nadine (a Dutch friend!) and we biked through the valley – stopping at a beautiful bikers cafe to enjoy the valley one last time. In total, I’ve now gone through the valley/hiked in the nature reserve 5 times. It’s returning to your favorite places again and again that make you really appreciate the place you are in, and I am definitely going to miss all the great memories I’ve made biking and hiking in Jonkershoek.

Just this evening a South African friend living in Metanoia – Natali – invited 6 of us internationals living in Metanoia to her house in Durbanville for a braai. It was a fantastic time eating some great food and meeting some of her family and friends. It was a fantastic way to end my last full weekend in Stellenbosch. Only after dinner when Natali was dropping us all off back at Metanoia did we realize we may leave Stellenbosch before she would come back for her exams. It was a sad wake-up call to the ever-nearing end of my time here! I think it might already be time to start planning another trip here.

By rbhargava

As of tomorrow, I'll only have one more month in South Africa. Although that is still quite a long time, everything already seems to be in terms of how little time is left. In fact, this week will be my last in class, as my last day is this Friday...after that I'm free! Of course, I have mixed feelings about that, and would not mind a few more weeks of classes since I've thoroughly enjoyed every week I've been here.

This past weekend, my program took us on a weekend camping retreat to Silvermine, an area just south of Table Mountain on the Cape Peninsula. Our campsite was situated right in the middle of the cape, with quite a high elevation. Just to the west was Hout Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, and to the east was the Cape Flats and False Bay. The area was beautiful and quite strange in that it was very isolated from the city but yet surrounded by Cape Town and the suburbs at the same time (if you google Silvermine on a map you would understand what I'm saying). We arrived on Friday afternoon and spent much of the afternoon relaxing, trying to climb across a rock wall there, and exploring the area. We had a braai (South African barbecue) for dinner and then enjoyed star gazing for quite a while. The sky was surprisingly clear considering all the light pollution nearby, and I was able to see 3 shooting stars in a short period. Growing up near NYC and now studying in DC, seeing 3 shooting stars was a mind boggling event for me. On Saturday morning, we left for a long hike around the area, hiking to the Elephant's Eye Cave high up on the peninsula from where one could see much of the Cape Flats, False Bay, and far out towards Stellenbosch. From there we hiked even further to one of the highest points on the peninsula - Constantiaberg and ate lunch overlooking the beautiful Hout Bay. We hiked back to our campsite afterwards, with a brief stop at the Silvermine Dam to cool off. Arriving back at our campsite, we rested a bit before the three students on our program (Hunter, Dave, and I) made 15 minute presentations on our themes for the semester - mine being sustainable transport systems. The rest of the evening was quite uneventful, besides some more great stargazing and a few more shooting stars! We left our campsite early the next morning to head back to Stellenbosch. The weekend retreat was an excellent way to escape Stellenbosch one last time and appreciate our time abroad thus far. I calculated that Friday and Saturday night were my 10th and 11th nights sleeping in the great outdoors here in South Africa, and I certainly will miss all my great camping nights here (although almost all of them were great struggles between me and my sleeping bag in an attempt to stay warm).

By rbhargava

Earlier this week I realized all my classes will be complete by October 24th, which is unfortunately in only 12 days. Two more weeks of class and I’ll be done with my studies here at Stellenbosch. I’ll still be in the area traveling around until November 20th, but the close proximity of the end of classes means many goodbyes are soon to come, which deeply saddens me. I’m hoping the next two weeks of class will be the best yet, although they will probably be the busiest too.
Besides coming to terms that my time here is almost over, I had another excellent week highlighted by a Saturday drive around the Cape Peninsula, which included my third time going to Cape Point and my fourth time going through Simonstown. I’ve now visited Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope more than most local students here, but I’ve enjoyed every trip there. This time, I went there with the same friends I went with on my spring break trip (with one person swapped). Thus the day trip reminded me much of our trip in early September, which feels like it was only yesterday. As the navigator for the day, I was pleasantly surprised by how well I have come to know the roads and regions in the area. More than ever before I feel comfortable here in Stellenbosch and have realized I’ve become more knowledgeable of many of the big attractions in the area than many South Africans who take these places for granted…just like any local would. I’ve been so lucky to have had such an opportunity to get to know the Western Cape so well, and am really hoping now to come back some day…possibly for a Masters degree or even a job.
Speaking of feeling at home, I’ve been lucky enough to make some amazing friends here, including an English South African who lives just outside Cape Town in a suburb called Claremont. After going around the peninsula, I went to her house along with another American friend for her 21st birthday party. The party was Under the Sea themed, and her house was beautifully decorated to fit the theme. I went with a pirate hat and an eye-patch, and over the course of the night got to meet many of her friends from both high school and Stellenbosch, as well as many of her relatives. It was a fantastic party, and in the end I really felt like I was a part of the community and everyday life here. From hearing stories and following along with friends who have been and are currently abroad, it seems like many never really go past being long-term tourists and connect with their host country at a deeper level. I’ve been very fortunate to have made such amazing friends who are from South Africa and have connected with South Africa so much so that I often forget that I’m only here for a small period of time. Study abroad by definition is a very temporary experience, but my goal is to come away with new perspectives as well as long-lasting friendships a relationships. As my trip comes to an end, I am starting to anticipate the challenges of going back home and retaining those perspectives and friendships while life moves on.

By rbhargava

This past weekend, I had a homestay in Stellenbosch’s informal and illegal settlement – Enkanini. Enkanini, translated as “Taken By Force” is only a few years old, but is already home to about 8,000 people (all black) living in shacks. As an illegal settlement, the entire community is not connected to the electric grid, has very limited shared toilets, and is traditionally ignored by the town municipality. For most of Stellenbosch, Enkanini is an ugly parasite that one can see from almost anywhere in town. Located on a hill overlooking the city, Enkanini has some of the most beautiful views of the area, but ironically is home to some of the poorest too. The town wants to get rid of Enkanini, but has no idea how to. My time in Enkanini was an eye-opening experience on the inequalities that still exist in South Africa, and specifically just in the Stellenbosch commmunity.

From the front door of the shack I was staying in, one could see the entire town of Stellenbosch directly in front of me. I could clearly see the red-tile roofs of the university buildings, and even a faint outline of my dorm a few kilometers away. Shockingly, before leaving for Enkanini, many of my South African friends had never even heard of Enkanini, the first of many signs of the “apartheid” that still exists today. To get to Enkanini, one has to drive across the railroad tracks that split “white” Stellenbosch from Kayamandi (the black township of Stellenbosch), go through the industrial area of Stellenbosch, and drive all the way to the end of a cul-de-sac. On one side of the cul-de-sac is a steep dirt road that leads into Enkanini, and in what is land-allocated for a nature reserve, one will find several hundreds of shacks cramped into very small quarters on a steep hill.

During my time in Enkanini, I was able to walk around the community and meet many of the people who lived there, play with many of the kids growing up in Enkanini, play pool with some of the older guys, watch the biggest soccer game of the year (Kaiser Chiefs vs Orlando Pirates in a Cup final), attend a church service, and eat some amazing homemade food. What I learned from all of these experiences and more are too hard to recount in full, but I hope I can hit some of my most important impressions.

On weekends, Enkanini does not sleep. Both Friday and Saturday night, loud music, church singing, and drunkards could be heard well into the early hours of the morning; so much so that the noises of the previous night smoothly ended as the roosters started their morning wake-up calls. There is also a strong sense of community, and almost everyone is outside their homes talking to friends, walking around the community, tending to errands, etc. Just sitting outside our home we were able to meet countless people, and children flocked to us to teach us new games and hang out with some new faces. Hanging out with the children, it was evident to us that the entire community raises children rather than just the parents. We never saw the parents of the majority of children we were able to interact with, and any and every passerby would pick up the kids and play with them before continuing up the road. In such tight spaces, it is not surprising that such a culture exists within Enkanini.

Because of this tight knit community, safety and security in Enkanini also is an interesting subject to look at. Our host told us how Enkanini, although known for its crime, is actually quite safe compared to neighbouring Kayamandi (a formal settlement) because people know each other in Enkanini. When a mugging occurs, people come out of their homes and immediately make an issue if they recognize the victim. In places like Kayamandi where people are living in formal settlements and with greater space, muggers are left alone as it becomes less and less of the community’s responsibility to prevent crime. With that said, Enkanini finds itself in a difficult conundrum when it comes to crime as it is located just on the other side of a hill  home to some of the richest in Stellenbosch. Thus, robbers and criminals tend to run into Enkanini for refuge, importing crime that the community otherwise would not have. As an illegal settlement, the municipality fails to give the resources the community needs to prevent this, and now Enkanini is known as a crime hotspot.

Living in Enkanini is difficult considering all the homes are shacks, there are very few running water taps, no formal sources of electricity, limited toilets, and steep roads that are prone to flooding. The two nights we slept there were very cold, and gave us a taste of the complete lack of insulation and heating most people live through in the town. With no streetlights and only informal dirt roads, nighttime also means pitch-dark alleyways and great challenges in both safety and navigation through community. The informal settlements leaves little private space, which leads to numerous other issues.

As always though, people find a way to be happy, and we were constantly greeted with happy faces, friendly jokes, playful children, and a very accepting community. The overall beautify of Enkanini’s location make it almost easy to forget all the underlying problems of its existence. How could 8,000 people be living in an illegal settlement only a few minutes walk from some of the richest in Stellenbosch? Why is every single one of those people black? Looking out from our homestay porch, it is hard to imagine a more segregated and unequal city in the world. As evening approached one night, we saw as the rest of the city lit up, while most of Enkanini stayed dark. While many of my friends were going out for a fun night in downtown Stellenbosch, a forgotten community just a few minutes away continued living a life completely separate, and for the most part, completely forgotten.

By rbhargava

Just a few minutes ago I arrived back from my week-long spring break vacation. Along with 5 Germans, another American, and a Chinese student I went on an epic road trip through much of the Western Cape and parts of the Eastern Cape. We drove two sedans over 3,300km and having just gotten back, I am quite speechless about the experience. I hope to capture some of the thrills, adventures, and joys of this trip in this blog post.

The trip started last Friday afternoon when we all left for the Cederberg Mountains, a few hours north of Stellenbosch. We camped in the mountains that night, and wow does it get cold at night. On Saturday we hiked the Wolfberg Cracks, an amazing hike in the mountains that takes you through very narrow cracks in the mountain, many of which you have to squeeze through by going sideways through cracks, climbing over rocks, or even sliding below small openings in the rock formations. Following the hike we drove several more hours to our campsite right on the beach in the Namaqua National Park. Our campsite was right below a beautiful lighthouse, and we arrived late at night so that the eerie beachside campsite was covered in fog, with the only light coming from the lighthouse right above us and a bright moon approaching its full moon stage. We spent a day in a half in Namaqua, going to completely empty beaches, seeing flamingos in a tidal pool, and visiting the famous Namaqua wild flowers which are only in season for a few weeks (but our trip was timed perfectly during peak season). What a sight it was to see fields and fields of blooming wild flowers!

After two nights of camping right on the beach and baring the cold nights far away from civilization (the campsite only had a "enviro" running water, to indoor facilities, nothing...), we took another long drive to the Augrabies Falls National Park.  The falls are known to be the 6th largest in the world, and we were lucky enough to camp in another beautiful sight just a few hundred meters away from the fall, so that even in our tents we could hear the roaring of the waterfall. At Augrabies we were able to drive our cars through a game reserve, relax in a swimming pool, hike around the waterfall, and even go on a night game drive run by the national park. Coincidentally, we ran into other friends from Stellenbosch at Augrabies, a pleseant reminder that South Africa is coming more and more like home to me, where no place is too unfamiliar that I won't recognize a face or two. We ended up running into even more friends much later on the trip, but that story is for another day.

After two nights camping in Augrabie, sleeping in the cold (again) and waking up to baboons raiding the campsite and dassies (rock hyraxes), we left for Witsand Nature Reserve. Witsand is part of the Kalahari group, and famous for sand dunes that "roar" in the wind. With only half a day to enjoy Witsand before our next destination, we walked across the great sand dunes and went sandboarding down one of the largest dunes we could find. The experience was like no other, although my few trips down on the boards always ended with a wipeout, one of which was a face first crash into the sand. A few of us ended up finding much more pleasure in rolling down the sand dunes and picking up a ridiculous amount of speed before crashing at the bottom. Once again, we camped at Witsand, and the Kalahari night was, no surprise, quite cold.

Our next stop on the trip was Camdeboo National Park in the middle of the Karoo, a 7-8 hour drive from Witsand. We spent the entire day driving, and arrived at our campsite within the national park as the sun was setting. The next day we drove up to the Valley of Desolation and saw some amazing rock formations on top of the mountains. We then left for the final leg of our trip, the popular "Garden Route" along the south-western part of the South Africa coast. With only a day and a half free before needing to head back to Stellenbosch, we squeezed in a canoeing trip upriver to a waterfall, some hiking, and brief whale watching on a cliff, although unfortunately none of us spotted any whales.

Coming back to Stellies, I'm now much more appreciative of a mattress and sleeping indoors, having spent several nights in a row sleeping in 40-45 degrees on sand, gravel, rocks, and any other uncomfortable surface one could imagine. I've also come to really appreciate and love South Africa as the country is so vast, and almost every landscape you drive through is breathtaking. We covered over 3000+ kilometers in one massive circular drive, but have yet to cover the surface of what there is to see in this country. The trip also made me feel more and more drawn to Stellenbosch, and all those cold nights camping made me think about my bed at my "home" in Stellenbosch rather than my home back in the states. It's great to be back in Stellies, but I can't wait to get back on the road when the semester ends and continue venturing around the country.

By rbhargava

As usual, Week 7 in South Africa was another fun-filled week of fun activities and adventures. Some of the highlights were a braii (barbecue) with classmates from the LSCE course I am in on Friday, a trip to Simonstown on Saturday with some residents of Metanoia, and paragliding in Cape Town on Sunday. This week I'll talk more about life in Stellenbosch and focus on some of the everyday aspects of being a student here.

I may have mentioned it earlier, but in the center of campus is a student mall called the Neelsie - complete with dining options, a small grocery store, pharmacy, barbershop, bookstore, and more. On the top floor is a computer lab and space for student society offices. During the day, the mall is completely packed with students, and is a great place to grab lunch and appreciate how many students are at Stellenbosch, and how diverse the student population is. Although Afrikaans is the language of choice for most students, you'll hear English, Xhosa, German (so many German exchange students), and many other languages while sitting in the dining area of the Neelsie. By far my favorite part of the Neelsie though is the movie theater inside - run by the Pulp Film Society. The movie theater has 2 theaters, each showing 4 movies everyday of the week. Each theater has a selection of 4 movies that it shows everyday, and those movies rotate throughout the week. Members can come in and watch any of the movies playing for free at any time, and can grab popcorn or some snacks from the snack bar. The society also has a large range of dvds that members can rent for 10 rand (about $1). The selection of movies playing both in the theaters and available for rent are superb, and thus I have gone several times to watch movies in my free time. Most recently, this past week was German cinema week in one of the theaters, so I was able to watch two fantastic German films - The Lives of Others and The Edukators. As one can assume, the Pulp Society is quite a dangerous one, as any free time can easily be devoted to going to see a movie for free. Pulp is one of the reasons Stellenbosch is such a great place to study, and I can only hope that GW can follow suit and create a similar society with proper facilities in DC to enrich student life in Foggy Bottom.

Having been in Stellenbosch (or Stellie as many students like to call it) for over a month and a half, there are also many funny details about life here. Although Stellenbosch is a relatively small town and one can walk almost anywhere in the town within 30 minutes, many international students end up renting/buying bikes. The university rents bikes out to international students called MatieBikes and quickly ran out within the second day of international student orientation. The bikes are relatively cheap bikes that a Dutch student astutely pointed out were actually part of a bikeshare program in the Netherlands that the university must have bought are painted over with "MatieBike" written on it.  Many more international students who wanted bikes did not get a MatieBike in time, and therefore were forced to buy the cheapest bike - a "Spider" from a local bike store. By far the cheapest bike in town, the Spider has taken over all the bike racks in town along with the MatieBikes, and local students enjoy laughing at these ridiculously ugly and poor functioning bikes all over town. The fact that the majority of bike riders in the town are international students anyways makes the town an interesting home to the most uniform (and horrible) bike selection in the world - MatieBikes and Spiders.

Although there is much to do in Stellie, many international students (including myself) have all found many different things to do in their free time. For many, this means wine tasting as there are over 200 different wineries in the region. So if you want to become a wine connoisseurs in your free time as a student, this is the place to be. Stellenbosch also happens to be surrounded by beautiful mountains, so many others like to hike the mountains. There are a few nature reserves nearby, and the hikes are absolutely beautiful. From my previous posts, you probably noticed I fall under this category and have hiked several times since getting to Stellie. The last big thing to do around here is of course surfing. Stellenbosch is about 20-25 minutes from some of the best beaches in the world for surfing, and some exchange students here have come primarily or partly because they wanted to surf here. The surfing society here takes students out to the beaches twice a week, where they can escape the stress of university life on the waves. With all that said, between wine tastings, hiking, surfing, and all the other great outdoor options in the area, it is easy for everyone to find something to do around here. Where else can you wake up on a free day and have a million different choices of what to do and where to go. In any given day, students can hike a mountain, surf a wave, go on a safari, whale watch, visit Cape Town...No doubt, it would be hard to find a better place to be a student and appreciate life than here in Stellenbosch!