Arriving in Cape Town: an American abroad

This article originally appeared online on October 21, 2014 for The Big Issue South Africa 

By Jen Jackson

When I got off the plane at Cape Town International Airport, it was colder than I expected.

Americans have a tendency to generalise. When thinking about a place so big and far away it’s easier in our minds to just say “Africa” and call it a day. (South America and Asia get similar treatments.) While most Americans could name at least a few African countries, there is a reason being bad at geography is an American stereotype. Memorising fifty states and all their capitals is hard enough, okay?

The west coast of the United States is about as far from South Africa as it gets. So naturally, my family back in Oregon bombarded me with kind but ill-fitting advice when they heard I would be going to Africa. I assured them that getting lost in the Kalahari, drowning in the Nile, and getting eaten by lions were off the table in Cape Town. Unlike many Americans, I did my research. I knew better.

And yet, as I stepped off that plane I realised it didn’t matter how many times I insisted to my father that Cape Town was not a blistering desert. Despite myself, I was still surprised that when I touched ground in Africa, I was shivering.

A few odd generalisations may have followed me in my travels, but South Africa has been quick to erase them. Cape Town feels uniquely international and it’s been easy to spot both many differences and similarities to the States. The most striking difference for an American navigating South Africa is the traffic; more than once I have looked the wrong way while crossing a road. Add red double-deckers and minibuses bolting along and, as South Africans say, it’s hectic.

And then there are the markets. Back in the States we may have a quaint Saturday market here or there, but nothing like the great swathes of vendors hawking their goods in South Africa. Before you can take in all the sights, smells and sounds, “special prices” are offered from “friends” in every direction. I’m not very good at bargaining, but I sure have made a lot of friends.

Despite the many differences between South Africa and the States, Cape Town and Oregon feel very similar. Capetonians and Oregonians are equally surrounded by the beauty of nature, and we appreciate it. This comes with a sense of play before work. Though our methods may be different, the ideology is much the same. Oregonians are addicted to sport. Biking, kayaking, mountain climbing, hiking, rock climbing, skiing, camping: in Oregon you’re considered a failure if your weekend didn’t include at least one. It’s rare to see an Oregonian without a water bottle in hand, as if we’re acting out a Nike commercial.

Cape Town’s ever-growing love of wine is mirrored in Oregon’s obsession with craft beer. Back home, I have hit the old “ale trail” many times and can’t wait to visit the long, impressive list of Cape Town’s best wineries.

Cape Town feels like a city entirely at home with itself. Though I’ve been in South Africa for only a week, I am already beginning to feel at home with myself as well. I have even started leaving the water bottle behind – because I know that wherever I end up, I will find something much better to drink.

Jen JacksonComment