South Africa #1: A bumpy arrival & basic information

Hi there! Finally, a blog post actually from South Africa! Today was the second full day of being here. Although I am safely in my accommodations here in the country now, there were a few bumps along the way when I first arrived.

See, because of my 23-hour layover in France I was arriving a day late to South Africa and was missing the first day of orientation. This had been planned when I bought the tickets, so I told my study abroad program (ISA) that I would be arriving a day late and they agreed to send a representative out to get me when I landed for a cost of $60. A few days before leaving, however, I received a message from my “mission mentor” (a guy that is helping a few of us do service in the country) offering to pick us up from the airport if we needed it. I thought “hey, that’s an easy way to save 60 bucks” and told him that I would take him up on the offer if I could cancel my pickup with ISA. He said that was fine and to let him know how cancelling the ride went. I sent an email to ISA asking if it was possible to do this but didn’t hear back from them while I was in Paris and even up to the time I got on the plane.

When I arrived at the airport in South Africa at 10:30pm, I was able to connect to the free airport Wi-Fi and saw that I had an email reply from ISA. While I had been on the plane, they told me that they would go ahead and cancel my ride pickup, but since I received the email on the plane I had not texted my mentor to confirm that I did want him to come pick me up. Realizing I was now in a sticky situation, I messaged my mentor and told him that I was now in the country and that ISA had cancelled my ride. I didn’t receive a response from him, so I assumed he was asleep.

I was now making my way through the Customs line, frantically searching for a way to get in contact with ISA to let them know I was in the country but still needed a ride. The first thing I tried was to call their emergency number using my phone app, but my service provider just spit out an error message reading “Dialed number not allowed”. I researched reasons the error message could come up and tried potential fixes, but nothing worked. Giving up on that strategy, I asked someone else in line with me if I could use their phone. They said that they had no service in South Africa so I could not. I tried asking some other people in line, but they didn’t speak English. I then tried texting the ISA number but could not get the messages to go through. I tried allowing the Facebook Messenger app to access my SMS contacts and attempted to call ISA through the app, but the call was still blocked by my service provider. I then tried entering the number into WhatsApp, because I knew that they have their own calling network, but when I entered the number it said that the number provided did not already have a WhatsApp account and would only allow me to send them a text invite to join the app.

By this point I had reached the security window. They quickly checked my visa and let me through, and then I rapidly went through customs as well (there weren’t any checks for people not declaring any items). Now at the baggage claim, I asked a security officer if they had a phone I could use. They said that they didn’t. I went to an in-airport shop where I saw a landline phone on the counter and asked if I could use it, they said I couldn’t. I asked another security officer if there were any phones I could use at a security service kiosk anywhere in the airport, and she directed me to a group of public pay phones. I tried finding a way to use the pay phones, but I did not have any rand coins (their currency) and my money still had not transferred to my debit card so I didn’t have any cash that I could take out from an ATM. I proceeded to search around and look for a Help Desk but wasn’t able to find one or any signs directing to one.

Really running out of options, fortune finally smiled upon me when I asked one of the sign-holding chauffeurs if I could use their cellphone. They said no, but another chauffer overheard me and offered me his, so I was finally able to place the call! I dialed ISA’s number and talked with the head of our program in South Africa, telling her my situation. She said that she could send a driver over, but as I was trying to get the details of where to meet the driver at, the people that the man was chauffeuring arrived and he needed his phone back. The ISA woman told me to text her on WhatsApp at the number we were using, but because I had to return the phone I did not get a chance to tell her that I already tried that and the app said there was no account associated with her number. Just then, I received a rapid flurry of texts from my mentor, telling me that he had just seen my messages and that he was on his way to pick me up. “This is just my luck” I thought to myself. Somehow I had went from having zero rides to now having two overlapping rides again.

Back to not being able to contact ISA, I gave their number to my mentor and asked him to call the program leader to figure out where their driver was arriving and what other details there were to know. A few minutes later he texted me back and informed me that my program leader could not get a hold of any of her drivers, so he instead was coming to get me, and ISA was going to pay him the fee. I finally had a ride! About 30 minutes later he arrived, and 30 minutes after that I was in my accommodations and in a bed, where I slept for 6 hours – just an hour short of matching the number of Z’s I had gotten in the past four days combined. Safely home!

The next few days were not quite as hectic. I realize there are probably a lot of basic questions about what things are like here, so here is some of that information broken up by topic:

Student Group situation

I am in a study abroad group with 12 other students from all over the U.S. None of them are from my school. We are all here through a program called “International Studies Abroad” (ISA) that is enrolling us as students in the University of Cape Town.

Living situation

All of the ISA students are living in a student housing building called “The Nest”. It is not on the college campus (it’s about a 20 – 30 minute walk away). Each of the rooms are really tiny with just a bed and some other basic furnishings in them. Pairs of rooms are set together in a square pattern with a narrow kitchen and bathroom connecting them. So I do have a roommate in a room across from me, but he is not an ISA student. He is a student here on an 8-week summer program doing an internship as “service-learning”. He’s been here for most of his time already and will be leaving in a couple of weeks. We get along just fine but he spends most of his time out drinking with friends so I don’t see him a much outside of the afternoons.

We have a limited amount of electricity and slow Internet that we are allowed to use each month at the Nest, and we are also supposed to keep water usage to a minimum. As such, video calls can’t really happen unless I am at some other place that has free Wi-Fi, and to watch video content of any kind it has to be downloaded in advance before getting to our housing.

The school

For the next five months I will be attending the University of Cape Town (UCT) as an international student. UCT is Africa’s oldest, and most premier university. It’s essentially the top Ivy League school for the entire continent of Africa, so everyone wants to go here but the school is very selective and doesn’t care about helping people attending here unless they’re the best of the best. Some people call it “the Harvard of Africa”. The high academic atmosphere breeds a lot pretentiousness in the students and faculty that I don’t like, but I am super grateful to be getting the opportunity to be going here. The campus is MASSIVE, especially compared to George Fox, and I am really glad to be able to participate in the large school experience for a short time but not have to do it for all four years of my college career. Coming here has made me realize how much I have taken for granted George Fox’s “Be Known” promise that they have, where the professors actually care about you and everyone on campus feels super friendly and approachable.


It is South Africa’s winter right now, so it is pretty cold here. However, I had been warned that the temperatures dip really low and to be prepared for an extra cold environment, but in reality it hasn’t been any worse than Oregon winters (in fact, it’s been slightly warmer than those). What is different than Oregon, though, is that it is very humid here so you feel wet all the time even though it is cold. Everything you touch feels damp, and the dorm rooms get especially cold and wet, even more so than outside. This is compounded by the fact that the rooms also don’t have any heating.

The City

I am living in Cape Town, which is a huge city with around 4 million people and being here makes Portland not even feel like a city. All the cities in the U.S. have such wide streets and everything is arranged in a very grid-like manner, but being here reminds me more of Jerusalem where there isn’t a single straight street in the whole city and everything is shoved so closely together with gaggles people everywhere. In Portland it’s not hard to find a street where you are the only one walking on it, but here that is nigh impossible with so many bodies moving around all the time. I really like this kind of place, actually, but the only downside to it is that I don’t feel particularly safe to walk around on my own without getting assaulted or robbed. South Africa has an unemployment rate of over 28% right now and it has been getting especially dangerous because the country just got out of the administration of an incredibly corrupt President who was finally forced out of office. Once I get more comfortable with the environment I’m sure I will be more okay with taking short trips in the area around our living accommodations, but right now I don’t want to move about on my own at all.

To briefly catch up on events of the last two days, the first day here was spent at orientation with ISA, going over safety and logistics stuff at their offices, which are about a 15-minute walk away from the Nest. The next day was spent at UCT doing their own Welcome Orientation for international students. They gave a whole bunch of really dry talks about how campus works and other basics of here, and it really wasn’t that different from a student orientation that you would find at any other university. However, something you probably wouldn’t find at another university is a break-out drum session with all of the incoming students!

Drumming session at orientation!

I’ve got more that I could talk about but this is probably a plenty for one blog post. As things now get settled in I probably won’t be posting every day, but rather slowly declining to every one or two weeks. The exact frequency will probably depend on when exciting events happen. I’ll mostly post about those sorts of adventures and skip over the more mundane day-to-day stuff. Classes start next Monday and I am really looking forward to them! Thank you to everyone who has been keeping up with my journey so far, I really appreciate the support and the kind messages that have been sent! Here’s to more adventures!

For those who would like to pray for me

If you are the sort that prays, there is much to be thankful for this time around!

  • Praises that God allowed me a way to safely get to my dorm the first night!
  • Praises that I am finally HERE and getting to experience South Africa!
  • Praises that things have gone so well so far in regard to getting acclimated to the culture.
  • Petitions that I find friends here whom I can have close community with. It has been difficult finding anyone so far, but I will remain patient!
  • Petitions that Culture Shock will not ruin my experience of this trip and that I will be able to overcome it quickly if and when it fully hits. I believe I’ve been feeling the early effects of it already but they haven’t lasted for more than a day at a time.

Thank you so, so, much for all your prayers! It has been incredible what they have already accomplished so far!


5 thoughts on “South Africa #1: A bumpy arrival & basic information

  1. You are so adventurous to I can’t even manage what I’d do in this situation…its for the young for sure and more adept at tech. May your studies go well and find some good fellowship with other students. Especially another Christian would be wonderful.


  2. Yay you, Ethan. Lord willing, Judy C and I will be there in October. We want to visit Little Zebra Books. David and Hillary Kerr. Maybe you could contact them for a touch of home. Rosemary


  3. this and your post about your Paris layover gave me so much second-hand anxiety XD It seems like you’ve got a really great setup though, wishing you nothing but smooth travels/experiences from now on!

    Liked by 1 person

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