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The Trouble With the Middle of Nowhere: Studying Abroad in the Digital Age

02/25/2015 11:19 am ET | Updated Apr 27, 2015

Ronnie's Sex Shop is basically in South African Kansas. It sits along the country's rural Route 62, about three hours east of Cape Town, where the cows graze and the baboons get in the way of traffic. The shop's white countryside façade is unassuming and its bawdy name is entirely misleading: It's not a sex shop by any account.

Ronnie had intended to sell fresh produce to passersby when he opened the space as a farm stall. He moved from the city to the countryside in 1989, and within a few weeks his drinking buddies had graffitied "SEX" in bright red paint where he'd already put the name. What happened next was inevitable: more and more travelers craned their necks and stopped at Ronnie's. Now the pit stop is a landmark bar and grill en route to the scenic Klein Karoo and draws visits from celebrities like Morgan Freeman -- "he passed through on the way to one of Mandela's birthday parties," Ronnie told me -- and road-trippers like me.

I found the store's namesake (who wears a Jerry Garcia-meets-Gandolf look) behind the counter of the gift shop. We shot the breeze for a few minutes and talked about his story. When I wondered aloud whether South Africa has changed since he first started the restaurant, Ronnie's tone became almost caustic: "I wouldn't know. I've been in the middle of nowhere this whole time."

He wouldn't know? I've lived tens of thousands of miles from South Africa my entire life, and even I know just how much the society has changed. Everyone does. I've read about it in textbooks and on the Internet and seen the blockbuster films that depict that transformation for audiences around the globe. Not three weeks into my semester here, it's abundantly clear to me just how different my journal entries might have been in a National Party South Africa. But Ronnie managed to carve out his own bucolic enclave and seems to have heard only in disjointed chunks about the evolution and rectification of what he dubbed "city problems."

In the purest sense, Ronnie has been studying abroad for more than 25 years. I haven't quite figured out how to do that yet -- and I'm actually in a new country.

Here's why: In 2015, there's almost no such thing as just traveling abroad. Getting away from home -- in my case, the United States -- takes an effort that far transcends a visa and ticket. In the last three weeks, I've applied for internships in Washington, D.C. and pestered my Emory friends with the same kinds of questions and requests I'd ask at school. I've followed the Brian Williams scandal, the Obama ISIL announcement and the tragic news of David Carr's death with the same neurotic fervor as I would at home and -- with the exception of a momentary encounter with a tour group of Israeli Bubbes in the prehistoric Cango Caves -- spoken and listened in my native English.

My body has been abroad and I suppose I've taken a few brief forays into the psyche and pulse of South Africa, but I've had one foot in the United States and two thumbs on that mega-globalizer and its LED touchscreen. Why aren't I immersed? Because the mountain outside my bedroom window keeps me convinced that I'm very, very far away from everything I know, even if I'm looking at that mountain through the camera function on What'sApp.

Thomas Friedman wrote a book about this idea. It's called The World is Flat. I read it five years ago for a high school Modern World History class, and it's been the paradigmatic soundtrack of my time here. During a talk on his tour for that book, Friedman spoke about his intellectual pilgrimage to the root of 21st century globalization:

"... I called JetBlue to make a reservation. I knew what I was doing. I asked them if they flew from Denver to Atlanta, no. I got a very nice lady on the phone and asked her what her name was. Her name she said was Betty. I said, Betty, can I ask you a question? Where are you right now? She said, honey, I'm in my bedroom in my slippers, and I'm looking out at the most beautiful scene in Salt Lake City. As some of you may know, JetBlue, the most profitable airline in America today, has outsourced its entire reservation system to basically housewives in Salt Lake City, Utah. If you call JetBlue for a reservation, you will get Betty in her bedroom or her equivalent."

In other words, it's too easy to be Betty. If I'm really going to be here, it's not going to be by default. Because if I want to be home, all I have to do is log in. And I didn't come to Cape Town to be home.

Of course, there are moments when I'm unquestionably "abroad." Like when the lights in the grocery store twitch and then go out during scheduled power cuts -- or "loadshedding" -- and all I can do is go home; or when the cleaning woman at a beachside hostel in Jeffery's Bay tells me that she almost finished a university degree in accounting before she ran out of money, and now she's stuck the Eastern Cape 13 years later; or when the well-traveled actor I met at a bar on Longstreet tells me that he has so many passports because his "father was a political prisoner"; or when I'm driving through the wine region and my Afrikaner tour guide recounts watching as the old South African flag came down for the last time from its perch above her schoolyard, and feeling mournful because she was ten years old and "didn't understand change."

Those are the moments when I'm in South Africa. But they're fleeting. I'm not in the middle of nowhere, like Ronnie is. I haven't let myself be. Not yet, at least. They're the variables that punctuate my days, but by no means are they a constant. I shouldn't be arriving in my bedroom every night and checking back into "reality." That's not what this is about. I have to let this place, these people, these moments be my makeshift reality. My goal is to make them the constant.

Earlier this week my friend and mentor Blake Mayes encouraged me to "write about transformation rather than culture shock... to convey novel experiences in a way that draws readers deeper into universal questions," rather than just talk about my day. Consider this post an attempt at fulfilling Blake's challenge. It falls far short of a story of transformation (after all, I've only been here for a short period) but I'll hope to mark it as a meaningful beginning.

I love my home, I love my friends and I love the latkes and Grateful Dead songs and cities that brought me up. I love the people -- both familial and near-familial -- who raised me and are still raising me. And I can't wait to get back to all that in June. But I want to be comfortable simply knowing that the sun that sets over Rondebosch is the same one that rises over Atlanta -- and not feel compelled to check every few minutes to make sure.

At the present moment, my iPhone makes my world ever less focused and my footprint ever more confined. I need to make a conscious and intentional effort to be in South Africa. So if I don't respond to your iMessage immediately, it's not because I'm stuck in the middle of nowhere; It's because I'm trying to get there.