Beauty & Barbed Wire

Gwen Marquis
June 11, 2018
Mural at Manenberg Primary School

“When you’re traveling with someone else, you share each discovery, but when you are alone, you have to carry each experience with you like a secret, something you have to write on your heart, because there’s no other way to preserve it.” –Shauna Niequist

It’s hard to believe that my journey to Cape Town started over a year ago now. This semester was the culmination of so much research, comparison, applications, and academic planning, and it’s been my focus and dream since then. On freezing winter days in Vermont, I would look up beaches around Cape Town. When I worked long hours at my summer job, I planned how I’d spend my money on travel expenses or camera gear. I even went so far as to Google Earth random areas around Cape Town, trying to get a grasp of something so far away that most days it felt immaterial. After all of this, finally arriving in Cape Town felt like stepping into technicolor. To best reflect the variety of my time here, this post is going to be a bit of a collage of everything going through my head as my semester abroad concludes.

“I did not want to be depressed by the gap existing between my weakness and my ambition.” –Ella Maillart

  • Living in South Africa has been one of the most beautiful and challenging experiences of my life. I’ve felt incredible power through my decision-making, and simultaneously powerless because I know that ultimately, the world is unpredictable and it will do what it wants with my plans. I’m now left trying to pack five months of my life into well-worn luggage, which will almost certainly be over the weight limit.
    No more apparent to me is this juxtaposition of beauty and frustration than on my morning walk to the campus bus stop. Lush pink and white flowering trees dot the main road, as do barbed wire, electric fencing, and the metal gates of homes and shopfronts. The most stunning natural landscape I’ve ever seen exists alongside the most crippling socioeconomic divide and lack/inefficiency of social services that I've ever seen. Luxe beachside mansions are not even kilometers away from cardboard and metal shacks, and sprawling malls can lull one into a comfortable complacency that overlooks the incredible poverty and hardship that also exists within city borders. If you come to Cape Town, consciously push yourself to have experiences other than the ones that have been painstakingly cultivated for you. There is such a sliding scale of what you can see and do here, and to restrict yourself to the neighborhood where you live or the student bubble on campus would be a disservice to yourself. The IES Abroad Cape Town team did a great job thoughtfully introducing students to this from the start, but it’s not all up to them. The beauty in study abroad, I believe, isn’t dependent on where you go or why- it’s the agency you gain from owning your experience and taking responsibility for all aspects of it.

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” –Anaïs Nin

  • Every day here, I have been made to examine my racial identity and gender in a way that was infrequently called into question in the U.S. Acknowledging my privilege in a so recently segregated system has constantly been on my mind, as well as the different ways that people react to my gender in spaces here. I’m used to being very independent and spontaneous with plan making; however, traveling in groups (or at least with one other person) is safer here if you’re a woman. During my time in Cape Town, I’ve been fortunate to not encounter any situations in which I’ve had to worry for my safety, and personally I attribute this to general common sense and awareness in public spaces. That being said, sometimes situations can be out of your control, but hypothetical discomfort shouldn’t keep you from boarding that plane in the first place. If anything, knowing that it didn’t come easy makes the conclusion sweeter.

  • From the days I got sick to the mornings I slept in, real life creeps into the picture perfect ideal of study abroad. Forgive yourself for being a real person if you get dehydrated, sunburned, or just want to be a homebody for a day. Study abroad is not a vacation: go for the upset, the change to your routine. Go because you have the opportunity and that in itself is fortunate. This semester, my goals with writing these blogs were to 1) remain genuine and 2) write what I would’ve wanted to see or know about a year ago. I know that regularly writing these posts helped me document and reflect on my time in Cape Town, and I would recommend the writing & photo Correspondent role to any future student who’s looking to add another dimension to their time studying abroad.

So, how did I do with my initial wish list for my time abroad? Let’s revisit:

  • Hike! Get outside, explore the natural beauty of the mountains & the coastline. @ Table Mountain & Lion’s Head
    Lol- took the cable cars up Table Mountain and discovered a fear of heights and a love for dassies (look them up!).

  • See penguins?! @ Boulders Beach
    Yes!!! ♥

  • Understand the conversion rate between the rand and the U.S. dollar (this one’s a little less exciting, I know, sorry)
    Mid-semester, I retired my currency conversion app and I’m now confident with the Rand/U.S.D. conversion.

  • Attend a rugby match
    I had fun at a sports game?? Maybe the biggest surprise of all.

  • Visit the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
    Been here a couple times- the walk/hike in through Newlands Forest is not too strenuous, beautiful, and you see so many varying ecosystems along the way. Definitely go to one of the open air movie nights or concerts Kirstenbosch puts on during the warmer months if you get a chance.

  • Try new foods
    A non-exhaustive list of new food & drinks I’ve tried this semester:
    -Pap (made from Southern African staple, mielie-meal), umqombothi (traditional beer made from corn) & biltong
    -Rusks and rooibos tea, a.k.a. the perfect snack
    -Sheep’s tongue, ostrich, mopane worm, warthog, eland & crocodile

  • Be able to get around UCT
    Coming from a medium-sized school in a rural state, going to a school of 26k in a major city was definitely an intimidating prospect for me. However, between the Jammie shuttle and the aerial map of UCT, navigation turned out just fine.

  • Make friends!
    And that I did! Thank you to the lovely people who’ve accompanied me (seemingly thousands of times) on Main Road walking to get groceries, on runs to the snack store, and out of SA to Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and (~technically~) Namibia. A special thank you to those who’ve asked me how the blogs were coming along or chatted to me about the latest post they had read; you guys rock.

“The more I travelled the more I realized that fear makes strangers of people who should be friends.” –Shirley MacLaine

In South Africa, I've learned from so many instances of the incredible strength, warmth, and artistry that abounds here. I will miss hearing all the different languages being spoken on campus, and I will miss meeting people from different countries nearly every day (side note: talk to your Uber drivers!!!) and chatting with them about how they came to live in Cape Town. And while I may not yet entirely know how to walk away from South Africa, I do know that I am walking away grateful.

The next time I post, it'll be from the U.S. Till then...

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Gwen Marquis

<p class="MsoBodyText" style="margin-top:2.35pt; margin-right:10.3pt; margin-bottom:.0001pt; margin-left:5.0pt">Hi all! My name is Gwen, and I’m a junior majoring in Political Science and Anthropology with a concentration in Global Health at the University of Vermont. I love taking photos, being outside, and pretty much every dog I’ve ever met. I’ve never been to the Southern Hemisphere before and am looking forward to studying abroad in Cape Town and escaping New England mid-winter. This semester abroad, I look forward to traveling as much as possible and (hopefully) learning to cook for myself. Wish me luck!</p>

2018 Spring
Home University:
University of Vermont
Walpole, MA
Political Science
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