Author: Alyssa Brewer
Location: Cape Town, Simon’s Town, & Gansbaii Bay, South Africa
Arriving in Cape Town was a challenge. After a two-hour delay, a nine-hour bus ride, and a Home-Alone like dash through the bus stop, we made it. Once we arrived at the guest house, we collapsed on our beds and relaxed. All the while, I had no idea that the week to come would change my life forever.
So after some much needed rest, we toured the city. It was like Starbursts exploded across the town! The pastel-colored houses lined the streets as tourists took pictures on their doorsteps. At first, I thought of how beautiful it all was, but then I paused. Would I want people to take pictures of my house all day long? Answering my own question, I put down my camera. Instead, I opted for a far-away shot.
When you study abroad, you need to travel with a certain level of cultural sensitivity and respect to local residential spaces. Our professor Lamont instructed us that far-away pictures of the streets are acceptable but close-up ones are not.
Once we got a taste for the city and the food, we headed back to our guest house to sleep off our travels. The next day we visited the old fortress that housed the first slaves in Cape Town. It was a difficult topic to address but it was necessary, nonetheless. We also visited Langa, the oldest Township in Cape Town named after the first president of the political party African National Congress (ANC). The ANC played a pivotal role in ending the oppressive Apartheid regime in the 1990s but not everyone agrees that they should remain in power. In fact, we met one of the political members of the Democratic Alliance and he believes his party should be the ruling one. Of course, politics are complicated in every nation but especially in South Africa where democratic elections only started in the 1990s. The country is young and still figuring itself out.
After a few more tours to museums, a pre-school, and a few gorgeous gardens that week, we were granted a free weekend. For the first time in what seemed like years, I slept in. Well, until 7am because my body runs on sunlight now. That day, a few of us decided to visit the infamous Bolder Beach where the South African penguins live. Who would have thought that penguins could be chilling in 90-degree weather? While they were so cute, the beach was quite crowded. Afterwards, we travelled down Simon’s Town to this barren beach that seemed to stretch for miles.
After a long and beautiful day in the sun and ocean, we headed back to the guest house. It was an hour drive but luckily the journey was through stunning mountains. Yet again, I was reminded of the striking inequality as I passed mansion after mansion. Just the other day we learned about the aftermath of locals forced to leave their homes because the wealthy wanted their land. They rushed away from the bulldozers with only a suitcase in hand. And while apartheid is over, they still lost their homes. So even though the views were gorgeous, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the history behind them.
While everyone was preparing for the legendary hike up Table Mountain the next morning, I was finalizing a trip of a lifetime. For those who do not know me, it has been a dream of mine to go shark diving ever since I was young. And on this very day, I was blessed with the opportunity to do just that.
So Brennen, another Valpo student, and myself woke up at 5am, took a two-hour bus ride to Gansbaii Bay, scarfed down breakfast, squeezed into our wetsuits, and took a 15 minute boat ride to the sea. All the while, I was holding my breath for the moment my dream would come true. After setting up, putting on gear, and calming my nerves, I jumped in the cage. Five others, including Brennen, followed my lead. For the next few hours we got to witness sharks up close and personal. I was blown away by not only their beauty, but their strength as well. One even tail whipped the cage (trying to chase the bait, of course)! The entire time, I felt like a little girl traveling to Disney World for the first time. It. Was. Magical. I know most people would shriek away from the thought of being surrounded by sharks, but I enjoyed every minute of it. I was quite happy and extremely blessed to check #1 off my bucket list at 20 years old. This was the experience of a lifetime!
So as I reflected upon the weekend, I realized that I did not want to be anywhere else but present. I felt an overwhelming sense of peace. Even though we were dealing with difficult and emotional topics, it was needed to grow. I would never be exposed to the history and culture of South Africa had I stayed back at Valpo this semester. I would have never met so many influential people who had such a strong impact on their community. I would have never gone shark diving off Gansbaii Bay.
So if you are reading this and you are wondering if you should study abroad or not, as Shia LeBeouf famously put, “just do it.”
And yes, that is a real tattoo.