Tag Archives: Study Abroad Struggles


I’m not sure why I’m fascinated by workspaces. I’ve taken pictures of my various workspaces over the years starting with boarding school. I’ve taken pictures of my offices and school study spaces. I find it interesting how they’ve changed over the years. I suppose it isn’t that much different than taking pictures of our houses or living rooms considering how much time through the decades we spend with various types of work. Snapped this one last night when my frustration level was high. My technology problems since I’ve been in South Africa have been well documented. I’ve experienced everything from my entire USB drive being wiped out to my iCloud refusing to stay on which makes working on documents impossible in the evenings. Other minor issues in between like slow internet have also hurt productivity. So, this picture from last night expresses many of those feelings. But at least I had a really good bottle of red.



First ride in an illegal taxi

Today was a nice relaxing day. I slept in until 8:30 and got up slowly. Did a few pieces of laundry (at home it would’ve been a couple of loads not because I have that much laundry here but at home I can procrastinate), had coffee (one of my Woolworth’s purchases), and did a little writing. When I finally did get out of the hotel, I went to the gym for a couple of hours. Instead of taking a combi straight back to the hotel I walked down to the flea market. I’m glad I waited to buy souvenir from the flea market instead of buying them when I first got here. When we first got here there were still lots of tourists and so the starting price was much higher then as compared to now. I was specifically looking for a South Africa purse in George Mason’s school colors. And today I finally found it! I wanted a green bag with South Africa written in yellow. Perfect for fall semester!










When I got to the end of the market I decided to take a break and have lunch at Nando’s while I was at that end. Can I just say, that I’m really excited there is a Nando’s Chicken in D.C.! I’ll be able to get peri-peri sauce! It was a nice, light lunch, and delicious as always.

Nando's features South African artists on their menus

Nando’s features South African artists on their menus

I went back to the market for a couple of small items I’d scoped out earlier. Then caught a combi back to the hotel. I am about 95% sure that this was an illegal taxi. I found out on Friday from Shane, one of the drivers I know, that they are assigned their route on their taxi license. So, if a driver is on the route he is assigned he knows that route. If someone needs to go off the main route the drivers will take them and if they are slow for fares on a particular day or time they’ll go off the main roads to see if anyone needs a ride. Our student accommodations are within a working hotel and so it is not only students who take the combis to the hotel but also the hotel workers. All of the drivers who are supposed to be on this route know where to go when you say “Summer Inn.” I used to say “Summerstrand Hotel” but “Summer Inn” is what the workers call it and all of the drivers know this place. However, my driver today did not know “Summer Inn.” His helper also didn’t know what I was talking about and of course they didn’t turn down their music to hear me more clearly *smiles* The helper just said, “You can show us.” The process was made less complicated because the passenger in the front seat knew what I was talking about and was able to give the driver directions in Xhosa.

I just lost a day

Each time someone has asked me, “When are you leaving?” I responded, “June 22nd” But one of my fellow SCSU students corrected me. We actually leave on June 21st and get back to Minneapolis on the 22nd. I almost started crying. One day doesn’t make that big of a difference, in the big scheme of things but really…when you don’t want to leave as it is, its heartbreaking.


Lying in bed, about to fall asleep, I hear the smattering of raindrops….no, wait-it was a clear evening when I went to bed. It can’t be raining. I open my patio door, look outside toward the noise and not rain, a brush fire. I quickly go downstairs to tell the night manager and he just looks at me. I look at the security guard and she quickly gets up and goes outside. I ask him, “Aren’t you going to call the fire department?” He said that he would wait for her to come back in and report what she saw. I told him that I wasn’t making it up, there is a fire outside. Smoke was filtering through all the open windows and you could smell it in the lobby. He just continued to stare at me with a “What more do you want me to do?” Look on his face. He shrugged, told me they were used to them and that the fire department wasn’t that far away. I came back upstairs to my room and noticed there were two police cars sitting on the side of the road, one pulled up next to the other, having a chat. About 2 minutes later a truck came, just in time as the fire burned through several bricks on the hotel’s fence.

20140502-002208.jpg this pic was after them working on it for about five minutes. It’s all out now and they’re clearing the embers.

Happy (Birthday to me!) Cape Town

You’re going to miss something

South Africa, I loved you before I knew you…I think most students obsess over a country they’re going to study abroad in for the semester or year.  I’d been interested in South Africa since I was young, even did a middle school report on the country.  Then last year before I came to South Africa, I read everything I could get my hands on, watched all the documentaries and movies based in South Africa on Netflix.  I bought a used copy of Eyewitness South Africa from my favorite used bookstore, that I’ve never been to, Powell’s. Over winter break I read it page by page, fastidiously ma20140324-205034.jpgking a list of places I wanted to visit, things I wanted to see, and restaurants to try.

Then I had my trip last year, 10 days of seeing bits of South Africa very fast.  I didn’t get to tour Johannesburg in 2013, but I did spend 5 days in Port Elizabeth and 2.5 days in Cape Town.  I am still amazed how much I was able to see and do in such a short period of time.  Not least of which was making the decision to come back for a semester. Then I spent my time over the summer and into the fall just getting everything lined up to come back.

When we got here at the end of January and we hit the ground running.  Spent a day in Joburg, then we headed off to orientation and we were kept busy, busy, busy!  We were able to see a lot in the first month, I’m really impressed with how much we squeezed in, honestly.  A natural slow down occurred in March because of school (you know that whole study bit of study abroad!).

Over the weekend, I had a mid-semester panic about missing something. I was asking a student who was here last semester what should I see before I leave. Then she just said, “You are going to miss something.” I had to let that settle for a minute and accept it. While I may have a list of things that I want to see and do here, I would rather have quality over quantity. I would rather spend my time with people I want to see after this semester is over rather than just checking items off of my To-Do List. Honestly, I think that might be the best piece of advice I’ve gotten so far about spending time abroad. Just realize you will not have enough time, but you can still fit a lot into the time that you have. So yes, you are going to miss something but that is OK.

How are you dealing with not checking everything off of your list?

A bit about combis

Combi, minibus, share taxi, or kombi is how most all of us international students get around Port Elizabeth.  If you are interested in different articles about the combi and the experience of riding them I linked to some really good articles in the first sentence, each link is to a different article.  I don’t think you can really say that you’ve visited South Africa unless you’ve taken a combi.  The combis in South Africa generate $3.7billion in revenue annually.  On a daily basis they move 15 million people around the country.  That’s staggering! That means in a country of approximately 52 million people, 28% of the population utilizes this form of transportation.

I finally asked one of the drivers I know a question I’d had since visiting South Africa in 2013, which was “How do you compensate the helper?” Just to give you some background, a lot of drivers will hire a helper to help them get riders and sort out the money during the day. These are the infamous men you hear yelling, “Town! Town! Town!” And they have an eagle eye for spotting potential riders down the side streets. Shane told me a Xhosa name for these guys (I’m embarrassed to say I forgot) but that they get paid a flat rate for their work. Shane told me that he pays his helper R150/day, plus he guys them lunch and snacks. He told me “Whatever I eat, they eat.”

I’ve ridden on some sketchy combis but I’ve always felt safe when riding. I wish I was a less conspicuous passenger because I would love to ride along and just observe. But now you know a bit more about combis!

Its not just about the trip

One piece of advice that floats out there for all new bloggers is to “focus your blog.”  This way people who are interested in a particular topic can find each other, create community, and flourish.  Or if you are blogging for income you can market yourself easier to generate hits, ad revenue, and income.  Either way, it is all about focusing.

However, when you’re studying abroad it is difficult to focus because your experience is not just about the trip.  The trip itself is, of course a huge portion of your experience.  I am fortunate enough to be able to take weekend excursions while I’m here which broaden my exposure to my host country of South Africa. I get to experience new food, climate, and animals while I’m here.  We have also gone on cultural tours of the city since we’ve been here. These help to provide us with a deeper understanding of the place we are living by giving us a richer context to place current events.

Another aspect to my study abroad is my internship.  I’m working with students and faculty on their academic writing.  My work with students focuses on specific writing assignments that they are currently working on.  While the work done with faculty is focused on administering those writing assignments.   So, everyday I’m learning about a distinct academic culture, which is different from the one I grew up in.  These differences range from the student/teacher dynamic, the types of writing assignments students are given, or the  base knowledge about academic writing that the majority of students lack.  All of these are topics (plus more) are topics that I’m reflecting on and trying to understand from the perspective of someone who has been airdropped into this country.

Equally important to these other areas of discovery is the experience of traveling in and living with a group of students again.  Group travel is just its own special animal that will make you examine all of your quirks.  I was surprised how much the group travel aspect of my trip last year impacted me.  Something became glaringly obvious to me and that was you have so little control over events when you’re traveling, which becomes compounded when its group travel.  I am once again living with people that I didn’t know prior to the beginning of this semester.  We’re learning how to live and travel with each other while overcoming cultural barriers between international students.

Finally, study abroad students face the stress of life continuing back home and needing our attention.  Seniors are trying to find and apply for jobs.  Continuing students are struggling with slow and intermittent internet to file their FASFA and scholarship applications.  We are all dealing with being out of touch with people we could reach at a moments notice back at home.  Time differences and lack of technology can really make you feel the miles.  We have all left behind family, friends, and pets to have the experience of studying abroad; each one of these impacts us when we are home and now we struggle in their absence becoming and changing through the process.

So be patient if you are following this or any other study abroad blog.  I am trying to share the whole spectrum of my experience, not just the trip.

Staying Safe in South Africa

Safety is a key component to having a great study abroad experience. I think my favorite tip is “walk like a badass” that goes back to what my mom used to tell me, “Act like you belong someplace and people will believe that you do.” So often tourists look lost and unsure of their surroundings because they are. However, if you can disguise your lost behavior and duck into someplace to review your map, then you are less likely to be a target. Whether you’re on a semester long program or a short-term experience, it is important to keep safety in mind throughout your time abroad.

An American Abroad

thI suppose it is to be expected that when an American travels abroad you are going to feel the brunt of stereotypes. Because to the people you encounter you are not one of 46 million but you are America personified. The United States as flesh and blood, standing right in front of them. I’ve had my share of stereotypes tossed at me, in the short time I’ve been in South Africa, from other international students. They assume that they know what the United States is like because they have been exposed to our entertainment culture (movies, television shows, and music).

The saturation of entertainment coming out of the US makes people think that they already know everything about the country.  However, when pressed most people do not know specific places other than New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.  What they know is more what they think they know about the US because the media is not an accurate portrait of the entirety of our country.  Some people I have met know Minnesota or North Carolina, which always makes for a fun conversation.

Since being here the only regular question I’ve gotten from locals is, “Why are you studying here?”  It is interesting because it reminds me of my experience moving to Minnesota.  I have had very few people ask me details about where I’m from, but I get “Why’d you move to MN?” all the freaking time! The question is usually asked with a tilt of disdain in their voice and I can never tell if it is for me or the place which they are from.

Usually, when one of the American students does explain something about the US people are surprised.  For example, most people do not seem to grasp the vast diversity represented within our country.  How large the United States is or how I could have a difficult time moving from one part of the country (NC) to another (MN).  I’m guessing it is because most people, including the Europeans, have just never thought about it in any real detail.  I mean I didn’t know how difficult it would be to make the move and I was the one doing it!  lol! I was grateful for this Washington Post article, “Which of the 11 American nations do you live in?” because it helps me explain the differences throughout our country in a more coherent way.

Oh, and one more thing…yes, we are loud!  But so is everyone else 😉

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