Charles’ Reflection

            “How was Cape Town?”

            “You look tan!”

            “Heard you got mugged!”

            Even though I have been back for more than a week, I still hear these comments on a daily basis. When people want to know how my trip was, I usually respond with the single phrase, “Awesome!”

            However, in an effort to do justice to the land I learned to treat as home these past two months, I feel obligated to elaborate on this simple statement. Unfortunately, most people I have talked to only want to hear about the shark cage diving, seal snorkeling, hiking, or safari. While these are definitely some of the big highlights from my trip, there is so much more that remains unspoken. There was my project – the environment I worked in, the people I worked with, and the friendships I gained – there was the project center – my project group, the entire group of students, and our advisors Scott and Lorraine – and there was Cape Town itself.

            My project was the reason I travelled to Cape Town. Where I initially thought I would work in a settlement called 7de Laan, plans quickly changed, and within three weeks I found myself entering a new settlement, where I would spend upwards of four or five days a week in. I had read many things about informal settlements, looked at pictures of them, and read about the specific settlements I would be working in. However, I was never prepared for what I would see. I remember driving up in a van our first day working in 7de Laan, looking out the window, and seeing a barren landscape. A village of thirty or so wooden sided structures, each barely the size of my porch, housing more than a hundred people total. Beyond the sand dune splitting the settlement was a land littered by sand and trash. Chemical toilets (port-a-potties) marked the entrance to the settlement, as did two women hanging laundry outside to dry. Stepping outside for the first time, I can still taste the air that permeated the settlement. Despite the poor standard of living, everyone we talked to in the settlement was optimistic and hopeful for what they had and for what their futures might entail.

            The individuals we worked closely with in the second settlement, Flamingo Crescent, truly cared about themselves and their people. One might even describe them as altruistic. Thinking back, one woman sticks in my mind, a pregnant mother, Elizabeth. She was one of the first people I met in the settlement and immediately showed interest in her own settlement and ourselves. Judging by her appearance and role in the community, one would never expect she suffered more financial difficulties than many other people in her settlement. She respected herself and others, served as the community treasurer, as a community leader, and put in many hours every day into the hopes that her home, Flamingo Crescent, might be upgraded. She spent time working with us every day, though she could have easily spent that same time babysitting or working at a nearby job for money. Even though all parties were aware of this, never did she hint about expecting a reward for her services or time. Seeing her settlement – the futures of her children, opening up for them, was all the motivation she needed.

            While I was prepared to work with officials and community members, I did not expect to develop the kinds of friendships I did. Our government field officers, acting on behalf of our liaisons, would go on to become the trusting parents of our group of ten students. When one of us made a mistake, somehow they knew about it and were ready to scold or console us. We learned a great deal from them, which I can only hope we were able to reciprocate. Our last day with them, we hosted a braai (barbecue). During it they presented two posters, collages of our experiences with them, a video of our trip through their eyes, and a moving speech about how we taught them what Americans were truly like – kind, thoughtful, hardworking people, not like they expected from watching movies. Even an ocean and a hemisphere away, I plan on keeping in touch with them, as they plan to with us.

            Working with a group of five students for seven weeks created a close knit team, which we all understood our roles in. When it came to working on site, two groups quickly shifted to a single group of ten people. At first people tried to keep their roles from the two smaller groups – that is multiple leaders, researchers, writers, and editors. However, this quickly proved counterproductive as too many ideas were being investigated at once without a concrete plan of action being formed. While it was a struggle to adjust to this style, it was a great learning experience for how to work effectively in a large group.

            Living with twenty five people from your school, and only them for two months was an experience in itself. It felt almost like a small town. Everyone knows everyone else’s business and everything about them. It went to the point of a family atmosphere. People would eat together, talk to each other about what their plans were, discuss what bothered them or stressed them, how things were back home, and anything and everything that came to mind. Yet the atmosphere was not judgmental, rather respectful and understanding. Since being back, it is quite difficult not talking to friends from Cape Town on a continuous basis – with all the shared experiences, inside jokes, and overall mutual understanding.

            Within this twenty six person group were our two advisors, Scott and Lorraine. They not only guided our projects, Scott with his Cape Town experience, and Lorraine with her inner city experience, they acted as friends and equals. We could go out to eat with them and there would be no barriers. We could trust them, and they us. Not only did I share things about my own background in Massachusetts, they spoke about themselves. We could truly and honestly talk to them about issues we had, without fear of repercussions. We were even able to have a braai with Scott for a ‘Guy’s Night’ while Lorraine and the girls had a ‘Girl’s Night’ out. However, they were more than equals and friends, as mentors, they came to our aid whenever needed. When I lost my wallet and backpack, they walked all the way from our lodge to the intersection I was at to meet me. At another point a student fell sick, being put in the hospital. Even though projects were still ongoing, Lorraine brought her work with her to the hospital to keep her company. Whatever the idea, Scott and Lorraine were willing to listen to it, and form the most part act upon it.

            However, while the project was the true purpose of travelling to Cape Town, and the people there only made the experience better, the City itself was the best part of my experience. I will never forget the impromptu sunrise hikes, the midnight trip to get burgers, karaoke with friends, snorkeling with seals, relaxing on the Kirstenbosch Gardens lawn, experiencing Nelson Mandela’s legacy, and so much more…

            Driving back to WPI for the first time since arriving back in the states, a familiar song plays on the radio. I’ve heard it a million times, but now there is special meaning to it. Our last Tuesday in Cape Town, during karaoke, we sang the song, “It’s My Life” by Bon Jovi. Even three weeks later, I cannot listen to this song without thinking about Cape Town, nor do I think I will ever be able to do so. The lyrics now hold extra meaning. “It’s my life, it’s now or never, I ain’t gonna live forever, I just wanna live while I’m alive.” This was the philosophy I learned to live in Cape Town, and the single greatest thing I took from it. To act, rather than wait or watch. It truly is now or never, and I just wanna live while I’m alive.