Reflections on living and working abroad by American intern Julie Connors
Doing an internship abroad can not only enhance your CV and help your career, but it is also an opportunity to explore a new place, open your mind to different cultures, and gain fresh perspectives. Julie Connors joined us from the United States as an intern abroad in Cape Town with Penda Photo Tours and Penda Trust and now reflects on her experience.
It’s five in the morning and I wake up to chanting from a local mosque. I hear it almost every day, sometimes it sounds like words in a song, sometimes just noise. It is hard to tell in a half-sleep. I drift off again, like it was just a dream, and wake up for good in another hour or so. The windows in my little loft bedroom let all the morning light in, and it comes earlier and earlier every day. The weather may not agree yet, but summer is coming in Cape Town. Soon the sun will wake me with the chants. I get dressed, with many layers, as the weather is still unpredictable. A quick breakfast and coffee, then I stuff my backpack full of books, journals, my laptop, and more books, and I am out the door.
The Heart of the City
I wrestle with the many keys and locks to get out of my house, safety first, after all. From my stoop on the hill in Bo-Kaap, I see the whole of Table Mountain looming over the city bowl. The sight never gets any less remarkable. There is a certain hardness to the city that suits me. I feel distinctly alone but in the most freeing way. If I can make it here, I’ll make it anywhere… just kidding, that’s New York. Though I truly cannot speak to city life in America, I know this place must be different. There is a raw quality, a sense of wildness, intrinsic to Africa, I suppose. I feel it even in the heart of the city.
Against a stark backdrop, you will find an open, loving population. Opposed to a rather closed, sometimes cynical society that is my normal, South Africa has a unique charm. As a nation growing and rebuilding, there is a visionary and optimistic spirit, regardless of economic conditions. This supported by a sense of comradery (especially within the non-profit community). People are kind and helpful, not with an agenda, but simple benevolence.
A non-profit internship in Cape Town is different from what I view as traditional internship experience. The combination of creative freedom and professional guidance provides a boundless opportunity for growth. The office setting is a collaborative, co-working space. Weekly lunches are arranged every Friday to encourage a cohesive office community. I typically start my day quickly checking emails and start on my independent tasks for the day. I am often doing research to write a blog promoting a photo tour destination or writing a post reflecting on the last NGO photography project. A check with my supervisor and fellow intern(s), often consist of marketing strategy discussions and brainstorming on fundraising possibilities.
City living is new to me, but so far, I revel in it. From day to night, the city offers so much to see and do. Cape Town is sprawling, from Tamboerskloof, at the base of Table Mountain, to Muizenberg on the peninsula shore. There is something for every occasion and personality. The downtown urban vibe is my personal preference.
The city life provides so much to enjoy, but the lifestyle is not the most convenient. This may be inconsequential to someone who has lived in a city all their life; for me, it was an adjustment. You may have everything you need at your fingertips, but getting around is not always easy, especially on a budget. I try to take advantage of the remaining daylight after work to run errands. I like to walk wherever I can, but not after dark. Uber is reliable and safe to use to get where you need to go.
Like any cliched writer, I take advantage of the many coffee shops. Unique, cozy shops and cafes are everywhere with great coffee. As a simple eater, I am not the best spokesperson for the culinary aspects of the city, but whatever your diet or budget, the city offers quality.
Personally, I appreciate the wine culture the most. For tastings and tours, the wine lands outside of the city, offer the most selection. Franschhoek and Stellenbosch are two of South Africa’s most popular wine destinations. However, there are excellent wineries in Cape Town’s suburbs if you are not looking to travel far. Regardless, the quality of the price cannot be beaten!
After work, the possibilities are endless. Some nights, it is a yoga class or various goings-on around town. The art scene is eclectic, museums, galleries, and ateliers galore. From time to time, various events offer free access to the galleries. Additionally, live music can be found all across the city. Especially during the summer months; the music festivals abound! Don’t forget the endless outdoor activities, if that is your vibe: hiking, surfing or rock climbing.
There is always interesting shopping to be found, as well, in a variety of markets throughout the city. There are weekly weekend markets and my personal favorite, pop-up vintage clothing markets. Thursdays boast a weekly food market near the office, a perfect venue for lunch. My first stop is always to the book guy, coming from a shop in Tokai with duplicate copies to sell at the food market every Thursday. There is a wide variety and for just ZAR 50, I always add another book to my bag on Thursdays. I wander through the tables of food vendors and predictably grab a mini quiche. Despite all the options, I am a creature of habit.
Working on an internship in Africa means settling in to “Africa time”. It is a running joke on the pace with which life operates in Africa, different from the western world. It can take some getting used to, coming from a fast-paced society like the United States, where everyone is always competing and striving. No rest for the weary. Once you lean into it, however, the Africa mentality is a delightful departure from the overly ambitious society I have become accustomed to.
Unfortunately, it is worth mentioning the real social challenges still being faced in the city and the country at large. This is not a cause for alarm, but rather a food for thought. I make the short walk to the office, leaving an apple for one of the many sleeping homeless I pass every morning. Leaving food from time to time eases some of my guilt from constantly denying money. It is a harsh reality, there’s no sugar coating it. Even in the nicest parts of town, there is no shortage of people in need. It is a constant reminder to keep things in perspective. Unfortunately, many of those more fortunate, foreigners especially, feel put upon by requests for money or choose instead to turn a blind eye. It is an unequal world and reconciling these differences is a challenge, to say the least. There is a grey area around the appropriate way to conduct oneself amongst these discrepancies. Safety must come first and foremost, but do not forget to keep your eyes and heart open to the plight around you. Overall, life is good as an intern in Cape Town. The city is vibrant, cosmopolitan and diverse. There is truly something for everyone. Do not miss out on the chance to live and work in the Mother City.