Cape Town, South Africa Report of what it's like to live there - 05/13/14

Personal Experiences from Cape Town, South Africa

Cape Town, South Africa 05/13/14


1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

No, I previously lived in Europe as a student and South Asia for work.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

The Southeastern U.S. Cape Town is very far from the U.S., a fact that is obvious to anyone looking at a map; however, the reality of it becomes clear in the flight times and more importantly the expense of flights. Transit consists of two reasonably long flights - a hop to Europe and then 10 hours down to Cape Town - or a very long flight to Jo'burg- Atlanta to Jo'burg was my route - followed by a connection to Cape Town. All of this costs a lot of money as your friends and relatives will discover when they want to come visit.

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3. How long have you lived here?

In Cape Town for 2 years - June 2012-June 2014.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, military, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

Work - State Department posting.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Almost all the houses for the Consulate are freestanding and way out in the suburbs near the Consulate. Don't come here with the illusion that you'll be living downtown and soaking up the nightlife unless you plan to spend big money on taxis. The suburbs are beautiful and the housing is nice but it is very suburban.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Groceries are cheaper than in the U.S. for most goods. Speciality goods, like taco shells, will cost far above what they should, but meat and produce are cheaper than in the U.S. For instance, lamb of good quality is roughly the same price as beef.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

DayQuil and NyQuil - if there is a local equivalent, I haven't found it.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

The restaurants are amazing and quite affordable. McDonald's and KFC are here but there is no real reason to eat there when you can get better food for roughly the same price.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Nothing worth reporting.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

Packages and letters come through the pouch. No APO.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Readily available. Costs vary depending on your demands. The government imposed a wage structure that should be followed.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

Plenty of very high quality gyms. South Africans are fitness nuts to the point that "gym" is a verb. Costs are roughly on par with the United States but gyms also come with free classes or training options.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

You can use both. Chances are you'll have your credit card number stolen while you are here at least once but restaurants are adapting by bringing the card machine to the table and swiping the card in front of you.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

As far as I am aware, all of them.

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6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

English is all you really need. A little Afrikaans is useful if you want to break out of the suburban bubble. Cape Town's large mixed-race population speaks Afrikaans as its first language.

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7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Yes and no. South Africa's constitution guarantees equal access for the disabled so most museums and government buildings have access built in. Other places are less convenient but South Africans are at least cognizant of the need.

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1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Consulate staff aren't allowed to take trains, buses, or minibus taxis. Meter taxis are safe.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

Gas is expensive and cars cost more in Cape Town than they would in the U.S. Everyone coming here dreams of getting a Land Rover for their "African" experience but SUVs are impractical on Cape Town's well paved urban roads and tiny parking places especially when you factor in gas costs.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Internet is expensive.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

Buy a phone and SIM card and just buy data bundles as you go. You can buy data and airtime at every grocery store.

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1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

Not really.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

Plenty - despite its scenic beauty and concentration of wealth and luxury, townships and impoverished neighborhoods crowd Cape Town's edges where education and health standards drop to 3rd world levels. Many of the NGOs working in these communities are happy to take on volunteers.

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3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Cape Town is a very casual place. Most people work in jeans or their equivalent. The Embassy in Pretoria has imposed a dress code to keep staff on the straight and narrow.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

Crime is a reality in South Africa but much less so in Cape Town. Most violent crime occurs in areas which are generally avoided but street muggings do occur downtown. It's always a concern when going out but not nearly as bad as the statistics make it out to be.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Not really. The hospitals are fine.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

Very good. Probably the best I've experienced in an urban environment.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Summers - hot (high 70s to low 90s F) and very windy. Winter - chilly (40s and 50s and in the high 30s on some night) and very rainy. With the concrete and glass housing that is common here, it will be the same temperature in your house as it is outside. Bring a sweater and you'll be fine.
Spring and Autumn - the best of both of the seasons mentioned above without too much of their worst.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

Can't speak to it personally but I have heard the school is quite good.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Yes - mostly soccer and rugby.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Large with high morale, but low emphasis on the "community" aspect. Most expats filter into local groups of friends so that there isn't an expat "scene" the way there is in other places. Maybe the community connected to the American school is tighter knit. This isn't really a problem unless you choose to make it one.

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2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

During the day, do something outside or go to a rugby game. South Africans love to cook out or "braai" so most social gatherings involve a grill.

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3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

This is a good city for everyone.

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4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

Cape Town has a large LGBT scene and a well renowned Pride parade.

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5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Yes. Race is obviously the most glaring. South Africa's historical issues with oppression are still very present in day-to-day life. There isn't a ton of racial mixing. The younger generation is far more tolerant, and you encounter more racially mixed friend groups; however, with the older crowd you will still hear some slurs or offensive language dropped in casual conversation -- this is often done as sort of a test to gauge your reaction. Women across almost all levels of South Africa society are generally expected to be the dutiful homemakers; though, in urban areas, especially in Cape Town, this is starting to roll back as independent women are making their mark.

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6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

Living in Cape Town is one long highlight. Not enjoying oneself on the weekend is generally a conscious choice. Hiking or playing rugby when it was nice and going to food and wine festivals when it was crummy. The restaurant and food market culture was especially good.

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Difficult to say a "hidden gem" as the guide books have pretty well combed over Cape Town. The Western Cape has an amazing langscape and exploring the mountains and the small towns in the valleys either on foot or in a vehicle is a great way to spend a weekend. There are some cool little neighborhood food markets that operate on various week nights and on weekends. Also, join a club - people from Cape Town love their clubs, and there is an activity club for any interest group. It is a great way to meet people who will show you fun things that aren't on the pages of a guide book.

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Cape Town is not much a of a "craft" kind of place. There are plenty of local artists and furniture makers working within their own vision, but there isn't a local style of beadwork or something that you need to pick up to show you've been here.

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9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

The mountains come right down to the ocean and the vineyards line their slopes. Cape Town has everything you want. Plenty of outdoor stuff- hiking, road cycling, mountain biking, surfing, sea kayaking, etc. is available. You can play cricket, rugby, and soccer with relative ease or watch a professional side play if you prefer. The food is top notch including some of the best restaurants in the world. The wine is cheap and of very high quality. Cape Town also has a unique mix of cultures dating back to the founding of the Cape Colony that makes going out and socializing a constant learning activity. South Africa also has much of the infrastructure that you would find in the U.S. The roads are good, there are malls and supermarkets for shopping.

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10. Can you save money?

You can but probably not too much if you want to take advantage of everything on offer.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

Capetonians can be a little clique-ish. If you want to make friends, join a group that caters to your interest.

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2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

In a heartbeat.

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3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Belief that good wine should be expensive. Complaints about the quality of your life.

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4. But don't forget your:

Money for gas. Sunscreen. Good shoes for hiking.

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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

District 9 if you want to see the city. I haven't seen "4 Corners" yet but it's apparently a pretty good depiction of life in the Cape Flats.

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6. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

Age of Iron,

Life and Times of Michael K: A Novel, and

The Covenenant.

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7. Do you have any other comments?

Anyone who does not enjoy living here has made a conscious decision to be unhappy.

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