Walk Slower and Smile More (The Return Home)Cape Town, Spring 2012

This will be my final post as the IES Cape Town blogger. However this post, unlike my previous ones, I am doing from home. That’s right, after 5 and a half months and 26 hours of flight and layovers, I am finally back in good old Washingtonville, New York.

I’m not going to lie… it is really strange being home. It almost feels like a dream. While I realize how silly that must sound, it honestly feels like I never left New York sometimes. Cape Town flew by and I’m not sure where all of the time went. It feels like I closed my eyes and all of a sudden it was over.  One minute, I was climbing Table Mountain, enjoying the night view of Cape Town from Club ThirtyOne, and eating my weight in falafel at Old Biscuit Mill. Now, I’m sitting on my couch eating cereal, enjoying unlimited Internet access, and watching reruns of Law and Order SVU.

While they did warn me about the reverse culture shock of coming home, I guess I never took it seriously. That is, until I came home. Adjusting back to being in the US, I found, is a lot harder than adjusting to being in Africa. Life in the US is so… comfortable. That is the best word I can use to describe it. Being abroad for the semester made me realize how much I took for granted in my daily life. It also made me realize how fast-paced and overwhelming the US can be at times. I got very used to the South African laid-back attitude and very loose concept of time.

Not being in Cape Town still makes me feel like there is something missing at times. It amazes me how one can become so connected to a place. Kaapstad just feels like home. Leaving was really hard; getting on that plane actually left me quite upset. Watching the city lights disappear behind the clouds as the plane climbed higher and higher through the air made me realize that it might be a very long time before I can go back to that magical city. However, I know I will be back. At some point…

Anyways, as I said, life in the US became slightly overwhelming upon my return from Cape Town. But there is one thing that really helped me with my adjustment back. Oddly enough, it was a really small event that had seemingly no significance at the time. But it stuck with me all semester; and now it is something that I will never forget. It is actually a simple five words uttered by a man named Pondu on the street. Okay, let me back up a bit…

I was walking down the street for the first time by myself back in January. Being in a new city and trying to keep my wits about me in all situations led me to resort to walking quickly with a New York style “get out of my way” grimace on my face. I was only going to the grocery store, but apparently you would never know it from my extraordinarily sunny demeanor.

As I walked further, I found myself walking next to a boy that was probably only a little bit younger than myself. I had noticed him but in no way acknowledged this stranger when all of a sudden he turned, looked at me square in the eye, and said excitedly, “where are you from in America?!”

My initial reaction was something to the effect of, “what the (insert obscenity of your choosing here)!?” I was creeped out, so at first I did not answer. I increased my speed and kept walking, when the boy persisted. He followed his question up with, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you. It was just really obvious that you were from the US. So, where are you from?”

His tone of voice was more curious than condescending, so I asked him how he could have instantly known where I was from. He said it was because I walked like I was running from someone and looked like I needed to punch someone. One heck of a first impression, eh?

I told him I was from New York and he told me he was a native of Cape Town. This was also when I learned that he was a senior in high school and looking to go to UCT next year to study finance. His name was Pondu. Pondu and I chatted casually while we were both walking in the direction of the grocery store.

We had just as soon parted ways when Pondu yelled after me. I spun around wondering what else he wanted to share with me when he uttered some of the simplest, and yet most important words, I had heard in a while. He said, “Walk slower and smile more.”

I was confused, so I asked him what would make him say a thing like that. His response: “You’ll see!”

And with that, he was around the corner and on with his life. I don’t think he had any idea how those words impacted me all semester. One of the most important things I learned in South Africa was to take a step back, enjoy, and reflect. That is not something I ever really took the time to do back in the States and is one of the major lessons I brought home with me. It has made me realize that not everything needs to be rushed through; even a casual afternoon stroll to the grocery store may be the perfect time to think things through, or maybe just not think at all. I think, sometimes, I get ahead of myself and forget that right now is the youngest I will ever be. This has been my food for thought most recently.

Being abroad was an incredible experience, but it also scared me into thinking that I might never do anything as fulfilling again. I was definitely in a funk when I initially returned home because of this, but being back with the family and friends that I missed so dearly made for an easier transition back into American life.

My advice to anyone coming back from being abroad is to stay busy and to tell people about everything you saw; certainly don’t keep all of those amazing experiences to yourself! You may feel different and like others don’t understand you anymore; but trust me, sharing it with the people who care about you definitely helps. It lets you express how you’re feeling and helps others understand where you are coming from. And other than that, just realize that it will take time to re-assimilate. Understand that there will be a part of you that is sad to leave, but it is all a part of the process. Be patient with yourself, those around you, and American culture altogether. It all makes sense again after a while.

Reunited with my wonderful family!

And with that, I am on to my next adventure. I am moving to Washington, DC in about a week to do a summer internship and I know new, exciting things lie ahead. I am taking everything I learned in Cape Town and now applying it to my life back here. Nothing will ever be the same; but then again, what fun would that be?! I will never forget the most amazing five and a half months of my life. I will forever cherish the experiences I had during the spring of 2012 in Cape Town, South Africa.

Ta ta for now, Kaapstad! Until next time!

From New York, with love,

Rachael :)

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