Student Voices — "Visiting Cape Town: Don’t Sugarcoat the City" by Larisa Manescu

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Late last week, we received a tweet from Larisa Manescu—a Summer 2015 student who studied in Cape Town through The University of Texas at Austin's Community & Social Development Program, which was developed through IES Abroad Customized Programs.

In her tweet, Larisa asked if we’d consider publishing a reflective post she wrote on her experience in Cape Town this summer. Three tweets, one email, and a team meeting later…we more than considered it. To be honest, we couldn’t wait to publish it!

Without further ado, here is Visiting Cape Town: Don’t Sugarcoat the City by Larisa Manescu.

It’s no secret that Cape Town is a beautiful city.

Ranked among Travel + Leisure’s top 10 world cities this year, recommendations for tourists visiting the popular destination typically include exploring glamorous shopping and dining areas like V&A Waterfront, reaching one of several mountain peaks with the most striking of cityscape views, and taking a day trip out to nearby Stellenbosch for some wine tasting. Extreme excursions that offer shark diving, bungee jumping, and safaris are only a couple hours’ drive away.

It’s also cheap, the one dollar: 12.5 rand exchange rate working heavily in favor of Americans.

But in a country 21 years ripe out of apartheid, you’re robbing yourself of education and experience if you come solely to restaurant hop, hike, and visit countryside vineyards.

Having just returned from a month long social entrepreneurship program through the University of Texas at Austin and IES Abroad, what I appreciate most about my experience visiting Cape Town for the first time is simple: I was offered the understanding that there’s a lot going on in the city.

I met brilliant young people who have grown through numerous hardships and surfaced as humble businessmen and women with empowering missions to give back to their communities.

I was amazed at the amount of talk about South African reconciliation and forgiveness for injustices committed in the past.

Perhaps most importantly, I made genuine friends. And I’m forever grateful to Facebook and Whatsapp for allowing me to keep in touch with them.

I can’t say I was thoroughly versed in social entrepreneurship, South Africa, or Africa in general before I touched base in Cape Town. There’s only so much one semester of classroom work can do. And now, I’m not someone who briefly visited South Africa and thinks of herself as enlightened. I don’t know everything there is to know about Africa, and that’s okay. What the trip encouraged in me is the desire to learn more.

Africa as a continent is so often misjudged and generalized, treated more as a single country than a continent made up of 52 individual nations. It conjures up images of poverty, HIV/AIDs, war, and exotic wildlife. Those aspects of Africa do exist. But just as Texas–one state–is not all cowboys and horses, the entire continent of Africa shouldn’t be pigeonholed. The media rarely puts forth images about its art, its cuisine, its people who are making a real difference on a local level.

Some of the questions I received upon returning to the States caught me off guard.

“But… was it clean? Was it developed?”

“Wait, did you go on a safari in Cape Town… Or Tanzania?”

And the cringe-worthy worst: “Did you feel safe? You know… with all the black people?”

But should we label ignorance as bigotry or see it as an inevitable consequence of global misrepresentation?

If you’re going to travel to Cape Town, do yourself a favor and experience it in full–both the beautiful and the ugly.

Go to Langa, one of Cape Town’s largest townships. Visit Mzansi Restaurant, a family-owned business where owners Mrs. Nomonde and Mr. Ace Siyaka will have you dancing, singing, and chatting like family.

Don’t hesitate to talk to locals. Instead of relying on Yelp, ask them what they think you should see in Cape Town. Gauge how they feel about President Jacob Zuma (hint: not good). Ask them what it’s like to live with the reality of scheduled power outages, known as “load shedding.”

Americans traveling to South Africa can draw parallels and contrasts between the history of the two nations, and current race relations in the U.S. beg for a deeper discussion of race, privilege and the acknowledgement that we don’t yet live in a post racial society. People aren’t afraid to talk openly about race, a discussion that seems to get lost in a maze of political correctness and white guilt in the United States. 

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with being a tourist in Cape Town. During my time there, I hiked Table Mountain and Lion’s Head, went out on Long Street and had a fancy evening dinner on the V&A Waterfront.

Just don’t forget the bigger picture.

It’s your decision: A perfectly packaged vacation, or a real experience where you leave your comfort zone behind to connect with people that will teach you things you didn’t even know you didn’t know?

You decide.

IES Abroad Customized Programs allows faculty and institutions to collaborate in partnership with IES Abroad Centers to create one-of-a-kind programs for their students.  For more information on how IES Abroad Customized Programs can work for you, give us a call at 1.800.995.2300.

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