Who are you?
My name is Amy Thom. I’m a freelance writer, nonprofit research consultant and gypsy traveller extraordinaire. I’m originally from Chicago but escaped Midwestern winters and resettled in San Diego, California. During my 10+ years on the west coast, I earned an undergrad degree in International Studies, started a successful business as a personal chef, learned to speak Spanish and became an avid surfer. I have an innate entrepreneurial nature and sense of adventure, both of which have guided many of my major life decisions, and I have a passionate love for travel, global culture and the outdoors. I’ve come to appreciate being able to live in an international city where I can enjoy a balance between natural beauty and urban culture.Where, when and why did you move abroad?
As someone who truly lives to travel, I’ve always wanted to experience another country and culture as an expat – it was only a matter of timing. When the U.S. recession started, my small business suffered and I had to rethink my life agenda a bit. It was an opportune time to make the career transition to nonprofit work that had been at the back of my mind for some time, and simultaneously make a big location change. My long-term plan was to earn a Master’s degree in order to work for an international development agency, and I knew I wanted to study and live abroad during my postgrad research. I searched for a program that met a number of criteria: well-suited to my professional interests; instructed in English; offered within a respected institution; and geographically located somewhere without a snowy winter and with access to good surfing. I applied to the University of Cape Town’s two-year Master’s degree program in Justice and Transformation in early 2010 and was accepted a few months later. In January 2011, I moved to Cape Town to begin my studies.
What challenges did you face during the move?
I had never been to South Africa before I landed in Cape Town. While I generally thrive on my sense of adventure, it was also a bit intimidating to arrive in a completely unfamiliar city, where I literally knew no one. I had to immediately assemble a life from scratch – buying a car (and learning to drive on the opposite side of the car/road!), finding housing, opening a bank account, familiarizing myself with the city, sorting out personal admin. I found many of the admin procedures (e.g. registering my car, transferring foreign funds, sorting out visa issues) to be challenging – requisite paperwork that I wasn’t aware I needed, few tasks able to be accomplished digitally or online. I discovered that my usual level of uber-productivity was often hampered by much shorter operating hours than those in the States, whether I needed to run into the grocery store, call my insurance company, make a bank withdrawal or pick up a bottle of wine. I also experienced big-time internet withdrawal – going from fast, cheap, easily-accessible wi-fi to slow, expensive, service location-dependent modem access was a bit painful for someone who’s online all the time.
Beyond adjusting to differences in day-to-day conveniences, there was also a level of cultural adjustment. Prior to my move, I was warned by many people (foreign and South African alike) about the high level of crime and violence that I would encounter. I was somewhat on edge during the early weeks of my transition, unsure as to how safe I was at any given time, especially as I was trying to make my way around town on unfamiliar roads or on public transport. I quickly discovered, however, that good common sense was generally adequate to keep me as safe in South Africa as I’ve been anywhere else in my travels.
How did you find somewhere to live?
Through online expat forums, I discovered Gumtree, which is more or less South Africa’s version of Craigslist. Before I left the U.S., I used Gumtree to find temporary housing near the university, and I made arrangements in advance with a woman who offered accommodation to students. I rented a room in her home for the first month I lived in Cape Town, until I was more familiar with the city’s neighborhoods and suburbs. Then I used Gumtree again to find a room for rent in a house near the beach, to the south of the city center. I actually moved three more times during my two years in Cape Town, each time relying on Gumtree as a resource. It worked well for me, because I generally enjoy shared living situations and have learned to be pretty adaptable over the years.
Are there many other expats in your area?
In the small community in which I lived for most of my time in Cape Town, there aren’t many expats. It’s very much a coastal “village” on the other side of Table Mountain from the city center, and it’s populated mainly by locals. It’s a surf community, however, so I did encounter a few expat surfers from time to time (a Frenchman, a Canadian and an American, as I recall). My choice to live in a semi-rural suburban community was largely motivated by my desire to surf on a regular basis and live somewhere I’d have immediate access to nature. Cape Town itself is an incredibly international city, full of expats from all over the world, and I was easily able to become part of Cape Town’s amazing expat community by connecting with a few groups I found online.
What is your relationship like with the locals?
I shared housing with South Africans in every living situation during my time in Cape Town, and I actually became quite good friends with two of my South African housemates. I surfed regularly with a few local guys living in my area, and I dated a South African guy whom I met through a housemate. I also had professional relationships with many South Africans who I met through my studies and through working at the university. Some of those professional relationships became social and developed into friendships as well.
I found that many South Africans were surprised that I’m American (there aren’t as many American expats as those from other countries, apparently) and were generally only familiar with American pop culture. I often felt I was dispelling certain myths about Americans or clarifying misconceptions, something I was happy to be able to do! In certain friendships – for example, with my Rasta friends who live in a township – I think there was a wider cultural gap to bridge because our life experiences are so different, but I also felt those relationships were the most rewarding for the unique connection they offered to each of us.
What do you like about life where you are?
Cape Town is a spectacularly beautiful city! Table Mountain is a breathtaking sight on a daily basis, and the university itself is situated on the mountain slope with a view over the entire city. It was a pleasure to study and work on campus for the sake of the vista alone. Likewise, the area in which I lived (only about a twenty minute drive south of city center) was semi-rural, quiet and largely undeveloped, as it’s part of Table Mountain National Park. It was a joy to live surrounded by so much nature, especially as someone who loves the outdoors and spends a great deal of time in the ocean.
I also loved the incredible array of cultures and nationalities found in Cape Town and throughout South Africa – European, African, Asian, North and South American. It wasn’t uncommon to hear at least three or four languages spoken on the street on any given day, and I was exposed to many cultures (mainly African) with which I had never before come into contact. Living in South Africa was exactly the rich international experience I was seeking when I imagined living abroad.
What do you dislike about your expat life?
Seeing so much poverty every day was emotionally challenging at times, but the work I do promotes social justice, so I felt I was able to be of service to the community while I was there. The level of awareness necessary to exercise personal safety got old some days, but it just became part of the overall experience. On a more practical note, the operating hours of most businesses and administrative offices are much more limited than in the U.S. or Europe, and it often made it more difficult to fit tasks around a working schedule. Along the same lines, the phenomenon of “African time” absolutely exists and I was presented with many opportunities to exercise patience waiting for paperwork to be processed, for a meeting to start, for someone to respond to an enquiry, etc.
What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?
Don’t believe everything you’re told about how “dangerous” South Africa is purported to be. While it’s important to be cautious and use common sense on the streets to avoid being the victim of a crime, living in a constant state of fear is definitely not necessary. Make a concerted effort to get to know South Africans, and those of all cultures and ethnicities. It can be easy to stick to your comfort zone in terms of befriending the expat community, but my friendships with South Africans enriched my experience of living there tenfold. Be conscious of the poverty around you, rather than pretending it doesn’t exist. If you feel compelled to do something to help alleviate it – and I hope you do – find an organization that supports children’s education or adult job skills training and donate money or volunteer your time. Embrace, or at the very least accept, African time and let go of expectations that everything’s going to work the way it does “back home”. Play outside! South Africa is filled with beautiful landscapes to explore, from the Drakensberg to the Karoo to the spectacular coastlines.
I got so much out of the experience of living as an expat in South Africa: it’s exciting, challenging, personally enriching and perspective-broadening – plus it feels really cool most days and comes with plenty of street cred. It’s made me a wiser person, connected me to people I’d never have met otherwise, presented opportunities to accomplish big dreams and added a few new ones to my life’s to-do list. If you think it’s something you’d like to do, I say go for it!
What are your plans for the future?
I left South Africa about six months ago, at the end of my Master’s program and my two-year study visa. I returned to San Diego, which I’ve been using as a temporary base while searching internationally for a job. While I love South Africa very much and was able to build an incredible life there in a relatively short period of time, I have mixed feelings about living there long-term, given the difficulty of nailing down a work visa and the distance and expense of traveling to maintain relationships with friends and family in the States. At the moment, I’ve tentatively accepted a position with a small community-based non-profit organization in Peru, so it looks like I’ll be making another international move later this year (albeit within the same hemisphere). I’m also doing freelance and consulting work for a few contacts in South Africa and elsewhere in the world, so I never really know where my life may take me… all part of the adventure and just the way I like it!