Becca Cohen’s Blog

97 and sunny

I’m sitting next to my window in shorts and a tank top trying not to sweat. Today was a high of 97 degrees with no breeze at all. It’s hard to believe that had I been at home I would have had a snow day this week and would be getting ready for spring break. I’m just beginning to get into my routine here— classes and campus have gotten slightly less crowded, and I’m starting to figure out what classes I actually need to go to and which ones I can easily skip. I’m still sorting out the details for my volunteering, so I don’t want to write more about that until it’s finalized.

Although I’ve been here for over a month, I still find myself getting frustrated with Africa time— a complete lack of timeliness or sense of immediacy in getting anything done. People take days or weeks to respond to emails, if they bother to respond at all. It took thirty minutes to get a take-away sandwich, making me too late to get to class (a clear illustration of my priorities). When they say something will take place “just now” it could be anywhere between an hour or a few hours. “Now now” means shortly or in a bit. I’m still not even sure what “now” means.

I’m finally starting to learn my way around Cape Town, and continue to be frustrated by the lack of safe, reliable public transportation. Luckily we have befriended a trustworthy cab driver named Archie who shuttles us around, while jamming out to the Pussycat Dolls. The UCT Jammie shuttles are also a great way to get around, especially for impromptu afternoons in town instead of going to class. Mini-busses, or shared taxis (similar to sheiruts in Israel) always prove to be an adventure, piling in way too many people and a man screaming for passengers to get in while hanging off the side.

Last weekend I went to the Design Indaba, which was a huge expo of crafts, jewellery, architecture, fashion and all things creative. The Indaba promotes the belief that South Africa can be improved through creativity, and seeks to make the world a better place through crafts. I saw a ballet and a futuristic fashion show. Later that day I was invited to a family’s house for Shabbat dinner on their deck overlooking Table Mountain to the right and the ocean to the left. The view was beautiful, the people were welcoming and entertaining and the food was delicious. This was my first South African Shabbat experience, and I’m looking forward to hosting some of my own dinners at my house.

The past few weeks have also included a friend’s 21st birthday, the gay pride parade and festival, a rugby game, too many nights out on Long Street, a visit from Elan Burman (who works at UMD), an all-afternoon braai (barbecue) and DJ at a Mzolis, a housemate taking a trip to the hospital after running into a tree when a game of Survivor got overly competitive, and many nights of star gazing on our lawn. This weekend my program has planned a homestay in Oceanview, a coloured township outside Cape Town. I’m a little nervous to spend the weekend with a family I do not know, but I am sure the experience will prove to be eye opening and worthwhile.

Some housemates at the soccer game a few weeks ago.

Some housemates at the soccer game a few weeks ago.


New York Times article about Cape Town… pretty accurate description (you have to copy and paste the link because I’m not so good at this).

(Not so) fun fact

I just learned that the UCT architect committed suicide shortly after the university opened because its layout was such a disaster.


Hectic is South African slang for “cool” or “awesome.” The word in its traditional American meaning has been representative of my time at UCT so far. Having been at Maryland for two and a half years, I am familiar with large school bureaucracy, huge classes and everything that goes along with that. However, Maryland does not come close to the chaos that I’ve found at UCT.

Registration occurs in person, only after getting the necessary signatures from the various departments. Coming back at 2 because the department head isn’t in. Coming back tomorrow to pick up your pre-registration form. Waiting in line to actually register, and then waiting again to enter the data into a computer. Not waiting in a two-hour line to get an ID card and dealing with it later.

I’m used to a large campus and navigating my way through crowds of people. UCT is built on a mountain with tons of steps everywhere. It’s beautiful, with Table Mountain in the distance and ivy-covered buildings, but something about its layout does not work. Uneven sidewalks. Tiny walkways not nearly large enough to accommodate all the students. Remembering to look right for the cars and then to move left to doge an oncoming person. Needless to say, I’ve tripped many times trying to balance finding my class, taking in the surroundings and my innate clumsiness.

Taking the Jammie (shuttle) to upper campus. Having it unexpectedly stop before getting to the top. Getting to class two minutes late to find the lecture hall overly crowded and having to sit on the steps in the back. Not being able to see or hear the lecturer. Reminiscent of the first day of ECON200 at Maryland, only then I could still hear the lecture. Mass chaos at the end of the lecture, as 200 students try to exit through the same door that another 200 are trying to enter. Two hours later my politics lecture was overfull as well— 212 students registered for a class that should have 150. The professor warned us she would gauge our eyes out if we came to her office hours on Fridays. She was really excited about that thought.

In spite of all my struggles, so far my classes are going well (day two). I’m taking Applied Ethics, with the first topic being the ethics of humor. I’m also taking South African Politics, which is especially timely giving the country’s upcoming election. My Conflict in World Politics lecturer is the one who threatened to gauge out our eyes, but her bizarre antics make the class go by quickly and despite the thick course packet I’m looking forward to the class.

Fear is temporary, regret is forever

Today is the first day of class (sort of), but we’ve been told that some of the professors don’t show up and none of the South African students do. I suppose that’s a good thing, considering I have no notebooks or any idea where any of my classes meet (or what time).

I’ve created a top ten list to try to highlight the recent happenings:

10. Elsa and the Awesome Awesomes concert. My housemate Sven has a band and bought drums and a sound system. Our house was lucky enough to attend the band’s first performance, where he used chopsticks as drumsticks. The quirkiness and absurdity that ensued is evidence of our house’s uniqueness.

9. Engen Santos v. Orlando Pirates soccer game. We were warned not to let the excitement of the game distract us from taking in our surroundings, observing the crowd and understanding the bigger purpose of bringing white Americans to a South African soccer game. The game might as well have been any sporting event in the US, except we were the only white people in the crowd. We bought noise-makers and joined in on the ruckus, but the 25 rand ($2.50) tickets along with racial makeup of the crowd illustrate how the game is evidence of a racial and economic divide that remains so prevalent in this country. In a few weeks we’ll have the opportunity to attend and compare a rugby game.

8.Third class train ride home from the beach. Again, we were told the train ride was for the “experience.” A four-rand ticket ($.40) bought us a sardine-packed train ride with a broken door, people pushing and trampling their way to the front and many inquisitive stares from the locals. One woman remarked how “terrified” we all looked, and laughed hysterically at us. When it was time to get off, the locals made a barricade and pushed us out of the car. Somehow most of us made it out.

7. Picnic in Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. We spent the morning preparing food and drinks and the afternoon relaxing in the beautiful gardens listening to live music. Since we didn’t buy tickets into the concert section of the gardens, we hiked down into the concert, hopping the fence, and making it in time for the encore.

6. Sea kayaking in Mossel Bay. Three friends and I drove down the Garden Route, along the southern coast of South Africa this week. Since it was too hot to ride ostriches (no joke) we kayaked in the Indian Ocean.

5. Sharing a dormitory in an old converted train on the beach with a middle-aged Dutch man. At first he was our only roommate, but when we returned later that night from our ocean-side moonlit dinner we found the stuffy train car filled with other American students.

4. Feeding and playing with elephants in the Knysna Elephant Sanctuary. The ellies were covered in mud, making us equally as dirty. The sanctuary demonstrates one of the tragedies of the past century, as the elephants are in too much danger to be left alone in the wild. It made me sad to see them enclosed and trained and knowing that this is a safer option for them.

3. Zipline canopy tour of the Tzitzikama forest.

2. DIY Safari. Wednesday night we stayed in a cabin on a remote farm in Knysna and Jen, the owner recommended a trip to Jubilee Creek. We took a wrong turn and ended up on a long, windy dirt road. We decided the road must lead to somewhere, and were determined to find its end. While we didn’t find any of the six original Knysna elephants that live in the forest, we did stumble upon wild cows, sheep, dogs, monkeys and baboons (all while driving on the left— and contrary to popular belief, I do have my license and did drive!).

1. Jumping off of a 216 meter high bridge. South Africa is home to the world’s highest bungy jump, and even though I had no desire to hang upside down in midair, I would never forgive myself for passing up the opportunity. While I found the freefall terrifying and somewhat suffocating, hanging amidst the coastal mountains proved to be exhilarating and liberating.


Find your soul mate

The only word I can think of to describe my experience so far is beautiful. The people. The sites. The culture. The music. The food. I knew I would not be able to anticipate what I would experience here, and so far my time has proven to be completely unique and different from anything I could imagine. With everything I do, I get more and more excited about the potential this country has, and reaffirm that this was the right choice for me.

Cape Town is a beautiful city— it is surrounded by water and has Table Mountain within it. There are so many different types of architecture, making everything so interesting to look at. The University of Cape Town is gorgeous as well, nestled into the mountain with views of the city below. The weather has been a perfect 77 and sunny with a strong breeze every day.

Table Mountain and the city below it.

Table Mountain and the city below it.

There are a group of local UCT students who have been assigned to work with my program to help us acclimate to the city and learn our way around the school. These SOL mates (student orientation leaders, a clever abbreviation) live with us and have been taking us out at night to experience Cape Town nightlife. Some of them originate from South Africa, but many are from all over the continent— I’m lucky enough to have two of them, Ken from Kenya and Botlhe from Botswana. Last night Botlhe (there’s a tongue click in her name, which I still can’t figure out) told me stories about having to wait for elephants to cross the road in Botswana, and how scary it is to feel the car shake. She promised she would take us home with her to see for ourselves.

The Americans have also been great so far. Most people who come to Cape Town want a different experience, other than the typical study abroad. The faculty keeps stressing the importance of making meaning out of our experience here and taking something away, more than simply having fun, which I think is something we all want.

The first few days here were spent at a hotel for CIEE orientation. The program has taken us to lookout points of the city, to a traditional African dinner with live music and dancing, and out to party on Long Street. We also learned about eight different community service projects we can get involved with, ranging from teaching in townships to playing with children in a TB hospital. I haven’t decided yet which place I want to volunteer, but on Thursday we are having a site tour of the different locations, so I’m sure that will help me decide.

Live music at Marco's African Place.

Live music at Marco's African Place.

On Saturday we moved into our residences, facilities that far surpass those of University of Maryland. My eleven-person house has nine single rooms and one double. My room has a personal, secret deck, only accessible from my room (not so secret anymore…). There are two houses on our property, making 20 of us total. We a deck and lawn in between our houses (there used to be a pool, but after a party got out of control last semester, the landlord filled it up). We plan to use our lawn for family dinners, sporting games and philanthropy concerts (a house-mate has a one-man band). So far it’s been great for sitting out under the stars when we come home at night.

Yesterday we started UCT Study Abroad Orientation. The school took all the study abroad students on a brief city bus tour, followed by a tour of the Cape Peninsula. We drove through the mountain, all the way down to the Cape of Good Hope. We saw incredible views, penguins on the beach and a fire dancer at lunch in Oceanview Township. What struck me the most, is the immense disparity of wealth that exists all in such a small area— lush wine estates down the road from shanty townships. While in America there also are huge divisions between the wealthy and the poor, it is unusual to see it so blatantly in such close proximity.

This week we continue with UCT orientation, and then we have six days off before classes start on Friday, February 13 (real lucky). Some of us are thinking of taking a trip down the Garden Route to see the southern coast of South Africa. I hope everything is doing well back home, and I’ll write more soon. Sorry this was so long, but this first week has been a lot to take in!

Hello world!

I didn’t think of the title to this post on my own, but I kind of wish I did, which is why I kept it. This is my first post on my first blog ever. While ordinarily I don’t see much point in publishing ruminations on daily life, I thought these next few months might be worth sharing (however, there is no guarantee). In a few days I’m leaving for Cape Town, so now I’m just doing last minute things to get ready— packing, getting travellers’ checks, taking a cooking crash course with my mom. Check back here if you’re interested to see where my adventures take me…Map of South Africa