Dispatch from South Africa: Across continents, climates and time zones

March 21, 2011

Editor's note: During Spring Break, 16 Penn State students made their way to Cape Town, South Africa, as part of a weeklong journalism expedition led by Tony Barbieri, professor of writing and editing. The immersive project, part of Barbieri's spring 2011 journalism course on "International Reporting," provided an opportunity for students to experience duties similar to those of foreign correspondents working for media outlets. During the first part of the semester, the students researched South Africa and developed story ideas. In South Africa, they conducted interviews with subjects in and around Cape Town, and assembled a final portfolio of projects from each student that will be marketed to newspapers across North America. In addition to the students and Barbieri, two other professors attended, along with two documentary film students who are producing a documentary on the group's expedition, and their adviser, Barbara Bird.

In this first entry, Andy Colwell details the daylong journey from the United States to Cape Town, and the corresponding changes witnessed in culture and community as the group adjusts to their new working environment.

* * *

To get to Cape Town, South Africa from University Park, Pa., it takes one bus trip, three flights, seven time zones, 18 hours and countless doses of perseverance. Our home for the next six days was Cape Town, South Africa, the southernmost major city of the southernmost African country, which has been the subject of our study throughout the previous two months. But if our stay was based off of the amount of equipment we packed, one might surmise that we were to be in-country for a solid month. Not so -- only six days plus travel.

Our class consisted of 16 journalism students: eight from print, five from broadcast, and three from visual. But as modern journalists, even the print reporters carried camera gear for the trip -- we weren't about to check any critical gear under the plane. As one of the visual journalism students, I carried my personal digital SLR cameras and lenses, while news writers and television broadcasters shared the video gear burden. Professors Tony Barbieri, Russ Eshleman and Thor Wasbotten had prepared us well for the transit, and thus everything survived the flights from Dulles to Dakar, Senegal, then to Johannesburg, South Africa, and finally to Cape Town.

Eighteen hours of flying and waiting and flying and waiting normally becomes irritating after the fourth hour or so -- but not as much with this group. Our seats were grouped somewhat, with no more than two seats between each person throughout our portion of the Airbus in which we crossed the Atlantic Ocean and seven time zones. Free to move around at points, we could visit and stretch and laugh and photograph. And sleep. Nothing passes the time like sleep, although I'm one of the unfortunate bunch who was unable to snooze during the flights. The thought of a new, unfamiliar land and people kept me energized.

Our late-night arrival on Friday, March 4, prohibited us from seeing much of this new locale until the next morning, but settling in and getting to feel out the town marked our first night nevertheless. Our hotel, the small but well-kept Saasveld Lodge, happened to be a block from the town's bustling night-life district, through which we toured briefly. Even after just 20 minutes out on our own, we realized that this town, this country was something new and unique. Between street meat vendors, the wayward musicians, the extensive (and efficient) police presence, the inevitable homeless, the carefree college students, we interacted with dozens and walked a good portion of the downtown area. As we walked, we observed the regional custom of making frequent eye contact as a simple acknowledgment -- whether it was a smile, a handshake or a simple nod, every interaction trumped the Western habit of keeping the head down and eyes straight forward.

Of greatest note is the phrase that we picked up early in the day: "This is Africa," or "TIA." To say this in a situation, one acknowledges that we are in Africa, and things work out as they will, without hurry or worry. The phrase greeted us constantly on this first day, as we learned little bits here and there about South Africa and Cape Town. Many cultural norms of which we're familiar as Americans are not the case in Cape Town: "Look both ways before crossing the street" does apply in South Africa for sure, but all vehicles are right-hand driven, and thus come from opposite directions - and they don't stop for jaywalkers as might be the case in State College. It took but a few times crossing streets for us to realize that driving "on the wrong side of the road" required looking both ways twice, especially when motorcycles and smaller taxis choose to zip through oncoming lanes. Other interesting details include the swift ability of locals to pick up on our status as Americans, the elaborate South African way to shake hands, and the possibility of neighborhood baboons sneaking into our windows to steal snacks. We kept reminding ourselves that "This is Africa" -- and that made us stay on our toes, ready to take in everything all week.

Tomorrow: politics, past and present. To follow the weeklong series of Dispatches after they have been posted, visit http://live.psu.edu/tag/Spring_Break_2011_South_Africa online.

  • Most of the students traveling for their international reporting class trip to South Africa stopped to get a group photo in the airport upon arrival in South Africa on March 4. For more photos from the trip, click on the image above.

    IMAGE: Comm 498B class
Last Updated May 20, 2011