An Interview with Sam Claassen, CIEE South Africa – Spring ’14
Where and when did you study abroad?
I studied abroad in Cape Town, South Africa during the spring semester of 2014 with CIEE South Africa: Cape Town Arts & Sciences. I was taking classes at the University of Cape Town (UCT).
So were you taking classes mostly with locals?
It was mostly local students but there are a lot of international students going there too, so there is a good mix of South African students, American, and other international students as well.
Why did you decide to go abroad, and how did you decide on South Africa specifically?
Well, I always knew I wanted to study abroad because I love to travel, and not studying abroad in college would just be missing out on a travel opportunity. I decided to go to Cape Town because I’m an avid rock climber, and the Cape Town area is world famous for bouldering, so I knew I could go to school and still continue doing what I love in an awesome location.
So there’s a pretty big rock climbing scene over there?
Yeah, it’s actually impressively large, there are a ton of world-renown climbers there. It was perfect because I don’t think I could have gone a semester without it!
Did you get to keep up with other hobbies that you had?
It was mostly climbing, we did a lot of travel around the country to go to different climbing spots. I also had a mountain bike while I was down there, and that was a great way to meet locals on Table Mountain. I could actually mountain bike to the coast, rent a surf board and go surfing, and then mountain bike back to the climbing area and do all three in one day.
How were you most caught off guard by culture shock?
There were two things that caught me off guard the most. One was the drastic economic and social inequality there. You always hear people in America talk about the income gap, and it just made me realize how small that gap really is in the US compared to countries like South Africa. And the thing that pleasantly surprised me the most was the social structure around community. We are really used to things like private property and personal space, and in South Africa that very much doesn’t exist as much, everything is much more a community and more in lines with sharing and being a group as a whole instead of being an individual.
What did a typical day look like for you?
On days that I had class I was fortunate enough to have them all in the morning. So I would usually go to class and get my schoolwork done in the morning, and if the weather was good later I would take the train with my friends to go climb somewhere locally. On the weekends where I had full days to myself, my friends and I would either drive to an area called Rocklands to climb, or do road trips along the Garden Route. So most weekends I actually wasn’t in Cape Town much.
Did you feel pretty safe when you were there?
So, my favorite go-to activity after class was to take my school work and hike up to Table Mountain and hitch up my hammock in the middle of the forest and do my homework there. People told me I shouldn’t do that because apparently there are bandits on Table Mountain. But I never ran into them, and I never felt like I was in danger. And people always told me that South Africa was such a scary, unsafe place; I never felt that way. I felt like as long as you used your head, as you should in any other major global city, you’ll be fine. The people are always warm and welcome. Cape Town is like any other major city in the US, there are parts of the city where you don’t want to be in when you’re alone at night.
What is the social scene and nightlife like in Cape Town?
It’s really nice, because it’s kind of whatever you want it to be. I had friends who would like to go out into the city for the bars and clubs pretty much every night of the week, which wasn’t totally my scene but still cool. I had some other friends who liked to have braais (which are like a barbeque), and we’d pretty much just grill a bunch of meat, eat food, drink wine and just hang out. That was my preferred evening out.
Did you pick up any Afrikaans?
Not a whole lot, but definitely some of the more key phrases from my friends there. There’s braai obviously, there’s lekker which basically means cool, so the guys walk around saying “lekker brah!” all the time. And then my favorite one was this really guttural “yoh!”, which can really mean almost anything in any type of situation. It can be like an exclamation of surprise, or people say it when they’re confused, they kind of just use it as a general term for whatever.
Was it pretty easy to meet locals on your program?
A lot of the Americans I was with on the program kind of had a hard time with that, but luckily I was so obsessed with doing outdoor sports there that I really edged my way into that community there, so I met a lot of local climbers and bikers that were super nice and loved to take me out everywhere because I was constantly amazed by the terrain.
What’s your favorite story or memory to tell people about?
I was taking the train to meet up with a friend, and I never really figured out the whole system of the first-class train carriages and the regular economy ones, so I never really knew which one I was in. So one time I happened to be in a first-class carriage without knowing it, and it was a rare day where the ticket guy was coming around to check tickets and I didn’t have a first-class ticket. So they made me get off the train and took me into this holding cell until I paid the ransom fare, which was 30 rand, the equivalent of about 3 US dollars, however I did not have 30 rand on me. I had to sit in this really gloomy holding cell in this train station outside of Cape Town while I had my friend drive out on his moped to bring 30 rand to bail me out. And the entire time everyone was super nice, but they were just like ‘yeah we can’t let you leave until we get our 3 dollars’. So I tell people that I’ve done time in a South African prison.
What do you miss the most about South Africa?
Well there are the obvious ones, I really miss the people I met there, just because I ran into so many cool people that I liked to spend a lot of time with, and feel like I didn’t get to spend enough time with them. One of the more obscure things I miss actually is ostrich meat, because you can’t find it here. And I became really accustomed to eating ostrich almost every day.
What’s ostrich meat like?
Oh, it’s the ultimate protein. Flavor of beef with sort of a softer texture, and the nutritional value of chicken. And you can find ostrich eggs really easily down there, like the really huge ones, I think they’re like the equivalent of maybe a dozen regular eggs. So you puncture a hole in them and you can make a giant omelet with one egg and feed the entire floor of a residence hall.
Where else did you get to travel?
I traveled mostly within South Africa, but I did get to go to Namibia where they have ‘Deep Water Soloing’ on a river there where you climb up to the cliffs and then drop into the water. That was right on the border of Namibia and South Africa. Other than that, there’s a driving route called the Garden Route that we would drive to check out the different towns and cities, which hit more of the tourist places that we wanted to see. Actually, climbing took me to some of the more rural areas that tourists don’t usually go to.