Cherry Gammelin is an American expat who first visited South Africa in 2009 for three months. She fell in love with Cape Town and made the move permanent in 2011. While Cherry misses the safety and freedom that comes with living in a small rural town in Maine, she finds having immediate access to the Atlantic Ocean and Table Mountain a real privilege. Cherry shares her unique experiences as an expat living in South Africa on her website Mother City May I.
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: I’m originally from Maine, USA.
Q: Where are you living now?
A: Cape Town, South Africa.
Q: When did you move here?
A: I first visited Cape Town for three months in 2009, and I started living here year-round in 2011.
Q: Did you move here alone or with a spouse/family?
A: I moved here by myself.
Q: Why did you move to Cape Town; what do you do?
A: I graduated from Boston University in 2008, which was right when the market crashed – getting a job was tough! I decided to travel to Cape Town, South Africa and volunteer for a literacy NGO called the Shine Centre.
After three months of working with a dedicated group of incredibly driven women, I was hooked. I spent two years with the NGO, during which time I started my masters at UCT so I could extend my stay for another two years. It was while I was studying that I picked up a full-time job for a small management consulting company in town…and that’s where I am today.
Living in Cape Town
Q: What do you enjoy most about Cape Town? How would you rate the quality of life compared to your home country?
A: It’s hard to pinpoint what I love most about Cape Town. There’s so much exciting and innovative stuff going on in this city. South Africans are positive, mindful, passionate, conscious people. Being able to experience this vibrant energy, while also having immediate access to Table Mountain and the Atlantic Ocean, is such a privilege and makes this city pretty gosh-darn enjoyable.
Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home?
A: I think the one thing I miss most about home is the freedom to feel completely safe on my own. Having grown up in a small, rural town in Maine, I didn’t realize how lucky I was in this regard. I took for granted the fact that I could run in the woods by myself whenever I wanted to. Today, there aren’t many places in the world that a woman can do that and feel safe, and Cape Town is no exception. So, I’ve learned to love running with friends.
Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life in South Africa? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?
A: I would say I experience more culture shock when I return to the US on holidays now – I find the immediate access to everything so overwhelming at first. Of course, living in Cape Town and adjusting to life in a country where apartheid only officially ended 21 years ago, is incredibly challenging. Having said that, I often think, this is going on and I’m witnessing it…imagine if I stayed at home and never did.
Q: What’s the cost of living in Cape Town compared to home? What is cheap or expensive in particular?
A: Compared to the USA, the cost of living is much lower in South Africa. In particular, rent, groceries and dining out is very inexpensive. Anything imported is expensive, especially cars.
Q: How would you rate the public transport in Cape Town? What are the different options? Do you need to own a car?
A: While there are a number of choices for transportation, the safest bet if you don’t have your own car, is Uber. Taking a minibus will always be your cheapest option, (aside from walking) but I’d only recommend it for quick trips around town, during the day. MyCiti is a new, safe bus service offered in Cape Town and more routes are being added all the time. Your need for a car really depends on where you stay. If you’re in the CBD, walking and public transport might be all that you need.
Q: How would you rate the healthcare in South Africa? Have you had any particularly good/bad experiences with regards to doctors and hospitals? Are there any hospitals you would recommend?
A: I’ve had very positive experiences with hospitals and doctors in South Africa. The healthcare options are fairly easy to understand and affordable. For emergencies, the Cape Town Medi-Clinic is great. I also often use Christiaan Barnard hospital.
Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in South Africa? Are there any areas expats should avoid?
A: Like any large city, Cape Town has places that are safer than others. Stay with a group if you’re exploring at night. If you aren’t sure about an area, ask someone you trust. I’m happy to answer any questions in this regard.
Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Cape Town? What different options are available for expats?
A: I think there’s something for everyone in terms of housing in Cape Town. You can rent month-to-month or long-term. There are flats in large apartment complexes, or houses available with gardens. If you aren’t sure where you want to live, try out Airbnb to see what neighborhoods you like best.
Q: Any areas/suburbs if Caoe Town you’d recommend for expats to live in?
A: It really depends what you’re planning to do in Cape Town and where you’ll be working/volunteering. My top neighborhood choices are: anywhere along the Atlantic seaboard that is close to town, (Sea Point, Mouille Point, Bantry Bay, Clifton, Camps Bay) or in the city centre (Tamboerskloof, Gardens, or Oranjezucht)
Meeting people and making friends in Cape Town
Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there any obvious discrimination against particular religions or women etc.?
A: This is a country that continues to feel the aftereffects of its racist history. And while you’ll hear on the news and possibly witness xenophobia, the truth is that as a middle to upperclass expat, you won’t experience it firsthand. Honestly, Capetonians love expats.
Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends in Cape Town? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: It’s not difficult to meet new people in Cape Town, but it does take a bit of effort to find the circle of friends you're looking for. I think the best way to meet new people is to say “yes” to things — when you’re invited to a party, say “yes!”; a road trip, say “yes”; a concert, say “yes!” Cape Town offers great ways to meet new people with its night markets, outdoor festivals, park runs, coffee hangouts, art exhibitions and concerts - there’s always something on in this city.
Q: Have you made friends with locals or do you mix mainly with other expats? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends in Cape Town? Any social/expat groups you can recommend?
A: After living here for six years, I can honestly say that the majority of my friends are South Africans, and the majority of my friendships are deep, forever friendships. I don’t have much experience with expat groups, only because I find that if I surround myself with other Americans, we tend to dwell on all the things we miss about the USA — I don’t like to spend my energy that way.
About working in Cape Town
Q: Did you have a problem getting a visa or work permit? Did you tackle the visa process yourself or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
A: Let’s not sugarcoat it, visas and permits in South Africa are difficult to get. I was lucky to become a permanent resident in 2013, just before home affairs made things even trickier. I would highly suggest hiring an immigration consultant if possible. It will save you an immense amount of time and tears. I list a couple great companies I’d recommend on my website.
Q: What’s the economic climate like in Cape Town? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job? Which resources did you find most useful?
A: I was quite lucky to find my job when I did — it sort of fell into my lap. I think it all depends on what kind of work you're looking for. Logistically, the best jobs for expats would be with international companies that have a footprint in Cape Town, as it makes getting a work permit easier. That being said, there are tons of online resources for local job listings, including Gumtree, Career Junction, Job Vine, and Careers24.
Q: Is there any other advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals to Cape Town?
A: Get ready to be blown away.
~Interviewed September 2015