It has been a year and a half since I hopped on a plane and began my incredible journey that would become one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. I came to Cape Town as a VACorps intern to complete a journalism internship in June 2016. As I look back now, I’m able to think about what I might have done differently in preparation for the trip and give practical advice to those who are in the same position as I was in.

I understand how difficult it is to try to imagine what to expect when travelling to an entirely new country. When I was accepted into the program I still had a few months before I would depart, and my mind went wild. I tried to imagine what my house would be like, what my roommates would be like, what kind of vibe the city had, what the local people were like, and so much more. All things that could not truly be understood until I came here, but still, I wondered. And once I got here, all my expectations and anticipations were forgotten and I began to understand how incredible and nuanced Cape Town is.

That being said, wondering about being here is not nearly as useful as reading, watching videos, asking questions, etc. It seems common sense, but it’s easy to get tangled in your expectations and it’s much more rewarding to research and prepare prior to your trip to quell your mind. To help save you from any distress prior to departing, here are some of my tips for preparing your trip to South Africa.

Read local news and media. It is always important to be up-to-date with places that you’ll be travelling to. Reading local news and media can help you understand more about the history and culture of the country and keep you updated on important issues that you should be aware of prior to travelling here. Reading the news will assist your safety and understanding of the country, allow you to engage in conversation about things that you might not be expected to know, and allow you to learn much more about the political and economic issues of the country while you’re here to more deeply understand what you’re seeing and experiencing. Here are some important local news sources you can read.

o   News 24

o   Download the Briefly News App to your smartphone

o   Cape Town Magazine

o   Daily Maverick – a more opinion based news source

Familiarize yourself with things.  Learn about where you’re going. Culture shock is very real and no matter how easy-going you are, you will experience it. However, if you familiarize yourself with your company and the culture of Cape Town, it will help you prepare for any shock you may feel. It’s important to research South Africa in all different sectors for a more diverse understanding to cure some curiosity that may be festering. Understanding the workplace culture in South Africa is important because it will undoubtedly be much different than where you’re coming from. You should also familiarize yourself with the city and the people living in it to help understand how you’ll be received as a foreigner. Simple nuances in your presentation and actions can drastically change the way you’re perceived and how you perceive others. Asking questions is the best way to go about finding out these intangible effects.

The more you read, the better. Before I left for Cape Town I took a trip to my local bookstore and went to the section on South Africa and read as much as I could. What I couldn’t read, I took home and read even more. Reading a little bit is helpful, but if you read a lot, and from different sources, things will start to feel familiar and you’ll start to read things that you understand or have read before, and that’s when you know you’re on the right track. Reading something once doesn’t always stick, and reading it from only one source inhibits your ability to see South Africa from different perspectives. Read city guides, history books, news, social media posts, novels, and anything you can get your hands on. It will help give you comprehensive, relevant, and applicable knowledge upon your arrival in Cape Town.

Determine career goals. This will be part of your preparation with VACorps, but it is essential. You’re coming to Cape Town with an internship planned, and there is a lot that can get in the way. This city is full of opportunities to play and have fun, and there are endless activities and experiences to be part of. You’ll probably do many of them! However, they can easily start to interfere with your internship. Setting realistic goals and deadlines for yourself can be helpful to ensure that your excitement for adventure and experiences doesn’t impede on your ability to successfully complete your internship. After all, your internship is the reason you’re in Cape Town, and putting effort into your work will be incredibly rewarding in the end. It’s not every day that young people get the opportunity to work in a completely different professional environment than they’re used to, and understanding cultural differences in the work-place is a unique and imperative lesson to having perceptive professional success.

Budget well. It’s important to know how much there is to do and experience in Cape Town. I didn’t budget accordingly, but luckily I moved things around and found the funds to do some amazing activities, like shark cage diving, the garden route trip, bungee jumping, and other exciting activities. It’s doable and affordable if you learn to budget your money well. Find out what you’re most interested in, be it seeing live music, travelling outside of Cape Town, participating in adrenaline-rich activities, experiencing the city through food, or anything you could possibly think of, and budget for what you want to do before you arrive to be sure you don’t spend it on something you’d rather have not. Again, do research about what you can spend your money and time on in Cape Town, because there are countless opportunities here.

Contact past interns. Before arriving, VACorps will set you up with an alumnus contact. Take advantage of them! Ask questions and listen to them. Their trip is most likely fresh on their mind and after leaving Cape Town they will surely have advice and memories to share with you that will be unparalleled to anything you’ll find in your research. Along with that, you can search through the testimonials from past interns on the VACorps website to read what they say about their internship and to help get you even more excited about yours.

Plan to go on the Mozambique/Kruger Trip. Each year VACorps hosts a handful of trips to the country of Mozambique and to Kruger National Park. I didn’t attend this epic 10 day adventure when I was interning here, and it’s a big regret of mine. VACorps has integrated this trip into their program and have planned an experience that takes interns into one of the world’s best kept secrets; Mozambique, and one of South Africa’s treasures; Kruger National Park. This remarkable trip is a great way to travel to other countries in Africa and experience a world outside of Cape Town. There’s a document with all of the trip information on it (see my email below for a copy of this document) and we have a video showing some amazing highlights of the trip. This year VACorps is hosting 3 more trips, so find the date that fits in with your internship schedule and get excited for the trip of a lifetime!

If you have any questions regarding any of this info, other preparation tips or general questions about VACorps and Cape Town, please send me an email and I’ll be happy to answer them: margaret@vacorps.com