Mary Dias arrives in Cape Town

As the time before exchange decreased from months, to weeks, to days, and then hours, it slowly set in that I would be leaving the U.S. for the first time. I had never been on a plane for more than five hours and I had two long eleven and twelve hour flights with an eight hour layover ahead of me. Surprisingly, I was more terrified of the flights there than I was of actually living in a new country.

Leaving home was extremely difficult. As I walked away from my parents and my brother, I instantly began feeling the soon-to-be 10,226 mile distance between us. Luckily, my first flight was on time without problems and I arrived in London with eight hours to kill. After circling around my terminal for what felt the twentieth time, it was time to board my next flight. I was able to somewhat sleep and read on the second flight, but I was definitely ready to get off the plane.

As I finally gathered my bags and sped through customs, I was greeted by my lovely sister (my host) Lerato and her father Frans. Lerato had already stayed with me while she was on exchange in the U.S. a few months before. We really connected while she was here, so I felt very welcomed and relieved. I arrived at 10:00 am which meant I needed to stay awake for the rest of the day so I would be able to go to school the next day. I had the hardest time staying awake, but Lerato made it better by staying by my side and not letting me sleep. We were able to just relax and catch up, which was very comforting.

Even though I was half asleep, I noticed major differences in my surroundings. One thing I already knew was that they drive on the other side of the road. It feels really weird to be driven around on the left. The roads also have lots of people in them as well. There are not a lot of crosswalks or pedestrian crossings, so it’s common to see people running through the street. Another difference is that every house in the neighborhood where my host family lives has a big electric fence surrounding each house. Every house has a gate that must open and there are bars on every window. My first day was already off to a very different start.

I woke up the next morning at 6:30 to go to school. My first day of school was actually pretty amazing. Lerato’s friends were super excited to meet me and they greeted me with lots of excitement. I also met up with Charlie and Hudson from Athenian. They had arrived two days before me and I met their friends.

My first day of school happened to be Mandela Day, which is an International Day of Celebration honoring Nelson Mandela. The school had an assembly where groups of students were given a colored dots and we needed to stay with those groups. There were three different colors. Only one color could use the door closest to us, sit down in chairs, have the teachers and faculty on their side, and have lots of room to sit. I was one of the colors that had to stand in the middle with limited space. There was a group behind me that comprised the majority of the student body and had the least amount of room. The teacher began to ask very simple questions that we all were able to answer like, “what is six times six?” but only the students in the front of the room with all of the chairs were chosen to answer. This group also received candy when they answered correctly. This left the rest of the students feeling frustrated and confused. It was then explained to us that this was meant to represent Apartheid in South Africa before Nelson Mandela peacefully battled for its end.

After the assembly, we moved into groups by grade, which are very small, and went to go give back to our community. The grade 10s were instructed to go visit a day care center and read to small children. The kids were so adorable and kind, which made it an amazing way to start my exchange. It was truly an awesome experience. I am so grateful for all that I learned and was able do with the school.

The following week was filled with outings and things to see. On Monday, the tenth-grade class attended the Heart of Cape Town Museum, which is where the very first heart transplant took place. It was amazing to see the real equipment they used and to follow the story of the people involved.

On Wednesday, the exchanges were invited to attend the visual art outing where we went visit an art gallery in the beautiful town of Stellenbosch. We were then able to walk around the town. We drove back to Cape Town and visited the South African National Gallery. It was absolutely beautiful, and it was amazing to see the old buildings and garden. After the art outing the exchanges were invited to serve a meal to an impoverished settlement in an industrial area of Cape Town. St. George’s has been serving this area for eight years along with other schools. We served the meal out of a small van and the families living in the settlement instantly came running out. There were elderly people, infants, and just about every age in between and everyone seemed to know the St. George’s kids already. It was amazing to see them interact in such a close way, but it was also extremely heartbreaking to see how these people are forced to live. We will now go on this service trip every Wednesday until we leave. The amount that St. George’s gives back to their community is truly incredible.

Overall, I have had an amazing time in Cape Town so far. My host family is amazing, the other students at the school are so welcoming, the school includes me in everything, and I think I have adapted very well. I am surrounded by beautiful old buildings and a gorgeous waterfront, and I am right at the base of Table Mountain. The view sort of reminds me of home since Athenian is at the base of Mount Diablo. I miss my friends and family so much, but I cannot wait to see what else exchange has in store for me!