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Thursday, 06 November 2008

South African Culture at Eye Level

Written by Jessica Borges
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While trips to tropical islands or tourist-studded hot spots have their appeal, some travelers opt to go the non-traditional route to quench their travel thirsts. For one Boston resident, a trip to South Africa was a goal she had for years. In hopes of getting a glimpse of the unique culture, meeting the native people, and taking in the surrounding sites, South African Culture at Eye Level, Durban, Cape Town, South Africa, travel Durban, travel Cape Town, travel South Africa, Table Mountain, South African culture, teaching school Durban, Kaitlin Kirwin, Laurel Fulham, Jessica BorgesKaitlin Kirwin packed her bags with friend, Laurel Fulham for a 10-day adventure in Durban and Cape Town, South Africa. A large part of the trip was spent with friends who volunteered to teach in South Africa for a year, giving Kaitlin the kind of exposure to South African culture she had hoped for.


Spending time in the classrooms and churches with the local people enabled her to experience a realistic representation of what it meant to be South African. Rather than jump from one tourist-attraction to another, Kaitlin mingled with local South Africans who recommended beautiful sights to see and highly regarded activities for her and Laurel to do. Unmoved by stereotypical comments from others prior to her trip departure about safety issues and poverty in South Africa, Kaitlin was still determined to experience the environment first hand. Being surrounded by friends and amicable South African locals permitted Kaitlin a taste of cultural immersion and an eye-opening experience to the sites and lifestyles of another part of the world.


inTravel: Where did you stay and what kind of accommodations did you have?

Kaitlin: On our way over our flight was delayed in Senegal and we missed our connecting flight to Durban. We were given nice accommodations in Cape Town for the night and then first thing in the morning we flew to Durban. We stayed there for four days with friends who were teaching at a school nearby (teaching oral English and computer skills). My friend, Laurel went to Villanova with three of the volunteers so that’s how we had the connection and a place to stay. All three lived together in one house with one other volunteer. We went to Cape Town for the remainder of the trip and stayed at a hotel.


inTravel: What was the purpose of your trip?

Kaitlin: Just to vacation; we figured we may as well go when we knew people and had a place to stay. I also knew a few people who had been to Cape Town before and had great experiences and mentioned the great beaches and mountains. The view of the Ortega Mountains was probably the nicest view I’ve ever seen on any trip or destination. Overall, Cape Town was pretty easy to get around and the people were really friendly; it’s just a very diverse city in a diverse country.


inTravel: Describe the difference between the two places you visited:

Kaitlin: Cape Town was much more developed. It’s a go-to place because it has the beaches and the mountains, and it has a thriving city. You can find someone there from every walk of life from everywhere; not just Africa, but all over the world. Durban just didn’t seem like it had the pull of having a thriving night life. Durban is not by any means a tourist destination. We went to school with our friends who were teaching, we went to the beach, and swam in the Indian Ocean, which was beautiful. At Cape Point on the Cape Town peninsula, you can actually see the different colors of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meeting, which is pretty incredible.


inTravel: Can you describe your surroundings?

Kaitlin: The people in South Africa had a sort of mild disposition; they were very accommodating and they were very excited to talk to us about their lifestyles and were happy to explain anything that we found confusing. A lot of people were very interested in talking about the political climate in America. They were especially excited about Obama like the rest of the continent. It was very easy to have informative conversations with the people there. In Durban the volunteers had sort of become part of the community they were living in so they had friends from every background and knew a lot of people through teaching and through their local church.



Durban had a downtown area where there were a lot of restaurants, and Cape Town had more of a bar scene and a more active night life. During the day Cape Town had a really nice upscale waterfront, which was less crowded than the bar scene at night. During our days in Durban, we sat in the classrooms where our friends taught. At night we’d either go to a church with them because that’s where they met a lot of people their own age, or we’d go to the beach and hang out there. It’s very much a community atmosphere there. It wasn’t really a typical vacation experience; we really went there and observed how our friends were living among the native South Africans and we learned a lot about the culture and lifestyles. It was definitely nice to see the school they teach at and the kids that they were around every day. The school had one classroom for toddlers and it went all the way up to classrooms for kids around age 17 and 18. Our friends taught third through sixth grade. It had a modern look and it had more of set up you’d see at a private school with different buildings for each classroom.

In terms of poverty, it’s all relative. That’s just the lifestyle there. People automatically assume our friends were there to rescue people who are less fortunate but they were just doing a tremendous job at a school with kids who were lucky to even attend this school. You can definitely tell that some of these kids were from poor backgrounds and some kids had to walk miles to school each morning and it seemed like a really tough situation. They do what they can with what they have and the volunteers are definitely leaving a significant impact on the school and the people who attend the school. If given the opportunity, I could definitely see myself doing that; I would love to be able to take a year off and put all of my energy into that sort of project.

South African Culture at Eye Level, Durban, Cape Town, South Africa, travel Durban, travel Cape Town, travel South Africa, Table Mountain, South African culture, teaching school Durban, Kaitlin Kirwin, Laurel Fulham, Jessica Borges

inTravel: Did you feel safe?

Kaitlin: Both Durban and Cape Town have a high crime rate it seemed, but it’s just like anywhere else in that it’s not safe to be out on the streets after a certain time, especially in a place that’s not far removed from apartheid and there’s some racial tension. During the day there was never a point where ever I felt unsafe or that anyone was trying to rip us off because we were foreigners. But still, everyone that we asked for advice about traveling in South Africa gave us the same advice you’d give to anyone going anywhere: you don’t want to be by yourself anywhere or be out too late. We definitely didn’t stay out too late in Cape Town. We’d go out to dinner but it really wasn’t worth trying to push it much later since it’s not the situation where we’d want to go out. We were two females by ourselves in an unknown place. Still, everyone was accommodating; the hotel staff was helpful and honest about threats that do exist in country. And there’s definitely racial tension and they’re still trying to deal with that.


inTravel: What were some of the biggest differences between South Africa and the US?

Kaitlin: In Durban we were only there for short period of time, but just in talking to the people, the kids, and the volunteers there, there’s definitely a sense of community. People are very aware of other people’s situations and there’s a great sense of ‘what’s good for the group is good for the individual’ and vice versa. We went to the church one night with them and I was amazed to see how people have such a strong sense of responsibility for the wellbeing of everyone around them. After mass, people would make dinner together and someone at the end of mass may talk about plight of the church financially and people would chip in where they could. We got the sense that people genuinely cared about the wellbeing of their community. In Cape Town we didn’t really get to experience the daily life of Cape Town inhabitants. This part of the trip was more of our vacation time, where we stayed in a hotel secluded from the townships and without the personal connection to the townspeople.


inTravel: How was it dealing with the language barrier?

Kaitlin: South Africa was an English colony to begin with; they have a lot of Zulus which is another group of African people who speak Zulu, but everyone does speak English. I wouldn’t even say there was a language barrier; I was amazed at just how quickly the kids could switch from Zulu to English. Same with white South Africans switching from having conversations in Afrikaans to English. English was the spoken language and I don’t know if that was just them taking into consideration that they were talking to Americans or if that’s what they typically do. The kids are also encouraged to speak English and practice as much as possible. Language really wasn’t an issue with taxi drivers or hotel staff either. We learned some phrases while we were there and the kids in the classroom helped us with terms like ‘thank you,’ ‘how are you?’ and those types of things. Pronunciation-wise there are a lot of clicks in the language and you almost have to retrain your mouth on how to form words.


inTravel: Would you recommend this trip to others? Would you go back?

Kaitlin: I would definitely recommend going to Cape Town. Durban is somewhere where you’d have to know someone there to visit. Next year they are hosting the World Cup and holding games in every major city in South Africa. With the World Cup coming up I’d highly recommend it to anyone trying to go there. It’s also very inexpensive once you get there. You could get a three-course meal with drinks and tip for the equivalent of $10 here in the states. The food there is good too; we didn’t try too much local food but there were certain restaurants where you could try wild game (like zebra or those types of animals). They had some very exotic and native-to-Africa kinds of foods, but we didn’t try any of that. For the most part we ate a lot of curry, rice and beans.

South African Culture at Eye Level, Durban, Cape Town, South Africa, travel Durban, travel Cape Town, travel South Africa, Table Mountain, South African culture, teaching school Durban, Kaitlin Kirwin, Laurel Fulham, Jessica BorgesI definitely want to go back, but I’d like to go back for a few months. Cape Town seemed like place where you could spend a significant part of your life there and still not do it all. I’d also like to go back when it’s warmer so I could really enjoy their beaches. We went in September and Durban was mild. In Cape Town we were able to wear shorts but at night it got chilly. We never went in the water in Cape Town but we did go swimming in Durban. The Indian Ocean is beautiful! During the day temperatures in Cape Town hovered around the 50’s and 60’s and at night it was around 40 to 50 degrees. For most part the air was still fairly warm.


inTravel: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced?

Kaitlin: I really missed iced coffee! I didn’t really have any in South Africa because it wasn’t very good. But in general, I really enjoyed being out of Boston and out of America and it was refreshing to just be surrounded by different people in a different atmosphere.


inTravel: What did you like best?

South African Culture at Eye Level, Durban, Cape Town, South Africa, travel Durban, travel Cape Town, travel South Africa, Table Mountain, South African culture, teaching school Durban, Kaitlin Kirwin, Laurel Fulham, Jessica BorgesKaitlin: Climbing Table Mountain in Cape Town with Laurel. It took close to two hours and was an extremely strenuous climb. I’d recommend being in shape before doing it because it’s like being on a stair master on the side of a mountain for two hours. There was a cable car you could take to the top but it’s not as gratifying as doing the hike. It’s one of most amazing views. After you make it to the top, it’s so gratifying and there is an unbelievable view of the whole city. Everyone recommended it to us as a popular thing to do there.


inTravel: What kind of artifacts/souvenirs did you bring back?

Kaitlin: I brought back a lot of handmade jewelry native to South Africa. We went to an AIDS center where volunteers worked at a few hours a week helping those with the disease and their families. They had a craft center there as a way for the center to become self-sustaining. A lot of women and men who use the facility make different crafts, which is where I bought a lot of my souvenirs. They have some great designs and unique craft styles very distinct to South Africa with a lot of beadwork and bright colors. There were also a lot of street vendors, but I didn’t really buy from those. I thought it was nice to buy things from the craft center especially because the volunteers we knew were directly connected to it so it made me feel good to buy from the center.


inTravel: Did you meet any native Africans and do you stay in touch with anyone from there?

Kaitlin: We got the name and business card of a small travel company owner because he was buying World Cup 2010 tickets in Cape Town and offered to help get us some too if we decided to buy tickets. We also stay in touch with our friends that volunteer through email and they blog a lot and post new pictures about their daily activities in South Africa.


inTravel: What kind of advice would you give to others going there?

Kaitlin: I’d recommend using debit cards wherever possible and taking out a generous amount of money from the ATM whenever you use it because the fees really add up. Or use traveler’s checks. I usually had a $5 fee for every ATM withdrawal. I’d also recommend going to Cape Town in their summer[Dec-Feb]; we went in September. There’s way more to see and do there in the summer. You’d have the chance to go sailing, deep sea fishing, shark diving, and take a helicopter ride. While it’s all available in the winter too, it’s too chilly to do them comfortably. I’d be more apt to do those kinds of activities in the summer.

© Jessica Borges

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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