Saturday, February 12, 2011

Extremely Hard and Incredibly Long: My First Day at UCT

Yesterday started off with a bit of good news—I finally found a sublettor for my apartment in Madison! That was the last detail from this move that’s been hanging over me, and I was elated to get the news via e-mail.

But everything else I attempted all day was cursed.

I’ve been staying and trying to develop sleeping/eating patterns at PJ’s family’s house in Bellville, which is in the northern suburbs of Cape Town. UCT stretches out across the southern suburbs of the city, so we needed to take several modes of public transit to get around.

I won’t name names, but SOMEONE took an hour to pick out an outfit for the day, and it wasn’t me! After a hike to the bus stop, a bus to Bellville Station, a taxi (shared van ride with lots of loud music playing inside) to Cape Town station, and a taxi to Rondebosch, UCT’s college town, we’d been traveling for three hours.

But we were in Rondebosch with a half hour to spare. I had been hoping to run a few errands in town before the school day started—namely, to get a cell phone that actually works in South Africa, and to change some American dollars in South African Rands.

PJ had his own people on campus to talk to, so we were planning to split up during my orientation. I wasn’t relishing the idea of being alone with no phone and no money…

But with so little time to get anything done, we chose the bank for some currency exchange. If I at least had some Rands, I could make payphone calls, right?

I was first in line with the bank teller, and it seemed to be business as usual until my details needed to be faxed and verified outside the bank. I was informed there was a system crash, and the bank was unsure if they could process the exchange. So they had me wait at the counter until they could get through to whoever it is they had to get through to. For a long time.

A VERY PROFESSIONAL manager made comments to her staff about some foreigner holding up the line. Boss of the year right there!

And ultimately, after 25 minutes of waiting, they handed me back my passport and my dollars, unable to exchange them that day.

So I went to orientation, late, with no phone and no South African money.

Here is the thing about the University of Cape Town: It is so beautiful, it could make your eyes hurt. Campus is literally at the foot of Table Mountain. But here’s the other thing: “Upper Campus” means you are climbing steep stairs up a bloody mountain. So, obviously, we needed up be at Upper Campus, and had to walk up a never-ending series of staircases, in the summer sun. I looked and smelled amazing after that, I’m sure.

After some frantic searching, we found the orientation room. Because I walked in late, I dragged PJ with me. No one seemed to mind that I’d missed introductions; this being South Africa, folks wandered in even later than I did.

Second part of orientation was a library tour, a.k.a. my favorite part. The UCT library is definitely the best I’ve seen in South Africa—digital resources, rare books, important historical documents, a fun fiction collection. Gimme my card. Gimme now.

A Note for Mama Epp: ALL university libraries in South Africa are linked through interlibrary loan. And apparently books travel across the country pretty fast.

PJ sent his younger sister, also a UCT student, to take the library tour with me, so he didn’t lose me while he ran his own errands. He also gave us lunch money.

So after a long, vegetarian lunch, I made it to the final part of my day: registration for classes. If my spirits had gotten too high because of books and food, don’t worry, UCT, you crushed them straight away.

Waited in a long, stuffy line in that small, hot room to turn in the paperwork I’d been given no instructions for, and when I’d finally made it to the front… I was told I needed an International Clearance form, which I’d never heard of, from an office I was also never told about.

I’ve been given two pieces of communication from UCT since they accepted me in November: the first, a provisional acceptance letter, which has hilarious instructions like, “Dear (Student), Please show up at (insert venue) on (insert venue) at (insert time).” Useful! And then, three days prior to the actual orientation, I received an invitation to orientation, finally listing a date, time and location.

That is all the university had ever told me.

Orientation was over at 2:30, and PJ and I began the Sisyphean task of filling out the International Clearance form. Of course, some parts had to be completed on Upper Campus, and some on Middle Campus, so we were essentially in mountain-climbing training all day.

At 5 p.m., when campus closed, we were pretty close to getting all the paperwork together. But we just couldn’t finish in time.

Classes start this Monday. I am not registered for classes.

So that was a wash. Went back into town to get me a phone, but because I could not provide proof of residency (new way to fight crime, apparently, is to register all phones to physical addresses), so no phone for me!

NOTHING I attempted yesterday went through. It doesn’t feel good.

But then PJ and I went out of coffee, and just sat on a couch in a cool (and vaguely Brazilian) café, and had room to breathe. Felt more hopeful.

Tried to catch the train to Cape Town, but in 45 minutes we watched four trains pass in the opposite direction. Finally asked a security guard what was up, and he said all Cape Town trains were delayed. OF COURSE THEY WERE.

So a taxi it was. I did get a long look at the new Cape Town train station, which is AMAZING. Thank you, World Cup!

Eventually we made it back to the northern suburbs, about 12 hours after we’d left in the first place. Made a stop into PJ’s favorite pub, The Drunken Duck, for a drink and some greasy food.

A Note for The Mayor of South River: the first song we heard at the bar was by Bruce Springsteen.

Collapsed into bed before 10 p.m. on a Friday night. I’d had enough of that day, and was happy to see it end.

I didn’t bring a camera with me yesterday, because I thought I’d be too busy to snap any shots. Well, I definitely had time for photography, but I’m still glad I didn’t bring a camera. I don’t want to remember the day too vividly. I’ll take pictures on better days.

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