By Sean Jones
The view out of the plane window while descending into Cape Town is like seeing the world in a half hour — ocean waves crash onto imposing cliffs, grassy hills plunge into cloud-filled valleys of farmland, improvised slums stretch across dirt fields, and stately mansions and country clubs pop out of coastal valleys. David, who is part of The Experiment in International Living’s South Africa-based program for participants in The Fellowship Initiative (TFI), marvels at just how much the city has to offer — “It is just a small dot on the map,” he said, “but there’s so much more.” During their brief stay in South Africa’s second largest city, TFI students will begin to internalize the natural marvels, social contradictions, and complex history of the Cape and of South Africa as a whole. They will also learn to lead as they take on challenges with their fellow group members from TFI’s home cities of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
During their first day in Cape Town, students are let loose downtown to take on a city scavenger hunt. Take a selfie with a traffic cop? Check. Find the statue of Cecil John Rhodes in Company’s Garden? Check. Find house 91 at the top of the Cape’s colorful Waal Street? Check. Alone in small groups of five fellow TFI students and armed only with a map, Experimenters must negotiate routes, ask for directions, and learn to work together to negotiate a foreign city. At one point, a group gets lost in the hills of Bo-Kaap, a colorful, peaceful neighborhood home to many in the vibrant Cape Malay Muslim community. The diversion is worth it — the harried group take a breather and watches the daily life of the multicultural community unfold: children are playing tag, mothers walk together with groceries in tow, and neighbors greet each other at street corners, all in the shadow of majestic Table Mountain. “This is my kind of place,” says Winston, comparing the communal vibe of the neighborhood to his home in the Bronx, “I want to put this neighborhood in my pocket and take it home.”
When they return from the scavenger hunt, students reflect — on the surprising modernity of an African city that many expected to have a more “third world” atmosphere, on the sense of being looked at as a foreigner, and on the surprising similarities between Cape Town and their home cities in terms of traffic, buildings, and even panhandlers. They also reflect on being on their own in an unfamiliar city, and needing to have each other’s backs as they explored.
Day two brings a hike up Lion’s Head, a 2,195 foot mountain overlooking the entire city. It is a brilliantly sunny day, with clouds roaming over the peak — an unimaginable destination from the foothills. But they get there, even after the hike’s comfortable dirt trail become a scramble over rocks and an intimidating tiptoe past steep cliff sides. Many students encourage their newfound friends who are nervous to take on each progressively more difficult ascent, and many who never imagined themselves scaling a mountain end up taking in the summit’s awe inspiring panoramic views. From Lion’s Head, students embark on a tour of more of the Cape’s natural riches: they see the brightest lighthouse in the world and several splashing right whales at the Cape of Good Hope, and get up close and personal with African penguins on Boulder’s Beach. Sleep comes easy after a busy day — 100 stories of climbing all told! — of natural wonder.
Before departing Cape Town for Robben Island, where many of Apartheid’s famous political leaders, including Robert Sobukwe and Nelson Mandela, were incarcerated, students have a chance to compare the bargaining skills of their fellow New Yorkers, Chicagoans, and Los Angelinos at the craft market in Cape Town’s Greenmarket Square. With the help of their South African group leader, the TFI students prove savvy negotiators, filling their bags with gifts for family and friends for fractions of typical tourist prices.
On the bus to Robben Island, Winston marvels, “this was so much more than I expected.” Many came to Cape Town with preconceived notions of what an African metropolis could be, but over two days, the city became real, in all of its beauty, history, and cultural diversity.
Sean Jones is director of foundation relations and philanthropic partnerships at World Learning.