Gabrielle with other student delegates at the Chicago Council on Global

Gabriele at the Chicago Forum on Global Affairs


Once I found out my application was successful and that I will be going to the US, after a brief victory dance I jumped right in to sorting out all of the necessary paperwork to make this happen. Most importantly I focused on getting the necessary visa. Originally coming from Lithuania, which is part of the European Union, I was lucky enough to be eligible for the Visa Waiver Programme, otherwise known as ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization). This meant I could simply do my application online and would get a visa in a few days’ time. Sounds simple enough. Unfortunately, things went a bit more complicated than that. The visa application includes a set of security questions (which are there even if you apply for the usual travel visa) and one of the questions asked something along the lines: “Do you have a physical or mental disorder?”

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) there are millions of people in the world living with non-communicable diseases and 1 in 4 people live with mental illness – and I am one of those millions. Hence, thinking that it was common knowledge, I chose “yes”. Wrong move, I found out later. After submitting the application, I got rejected for the visa based on this question and was in shock. I started doing a lot of research on the ESTA application process (which, in hindsight, I really should have done prior to applying) and found out that one must only tick “Yes” if the condition has made you cause harm onto yourself or others or damage to property, which would have meant that I should have ticked “No”. I sent numerous e-mails to the customer service e-mail provided and all I would receive was a standard template e-mail that would completely ignore what I have said in my previous message. Thankfully, and I couldn’t believe my luck, the system was updated a few weeks later and I was actually able to re-apply. Now, conveniently the question now had a disclaimer, explaining the abovementioned conditions for ticking “yes”. Even though this is a useful clarification, which should have been included there from the onset, again it made me think – “harm onto yourself”.

Statistics from WHO indicate that 800 000 people every year take their lives and many more attempt suicide. Not going completely off-topic on a mental health tangent and how completely unfair and outdated the thinking that people with a mental disorder are eternally unhinged maniacs even if they are getting appropriate treatment is, my advice is – just click “No”. Unless you do consider yourself an unhinged maniac. Then be my guest. For someone who holds a passport that is not eligible for ESTA I would advise that a visa is the first thing that you start sorting out, since it can take up to a month just to arrange the interview with the consulate. Better yet, if you can afford it, pay an agency to do it for you and focus on finding a pair of nice shorts for the summer weather in Chicago.

Once the visa was finally sorted, I started looking for plane tickets. I have done a fair share of long-distance flights when flying home to Lithuania and I knew how tiring they are. I also knew that the 2.5 days of the Forum were absolutely packed with activities. The introvert that I am, I knew I will need some time to recuperate before and after the Forum. I also knew I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to explore Chicago. Hence, I booked tickets that would allow me to spend a few days in Chicago prior and after the Forum exploring the city.

While accommodation and meals were covered for me throughout the duration of the Forum, I had to sort myself out on my extra days. Prices in Chicago are absolutely crazy in South African terms, hence, I would suggest looking for accommodation as soon as possible. The city is also big, hence make sure to check on Google Maps how far you will be staying. For accommodation I used AirBnB and couldn’t believe the prices. A bed in someone’s living room, if booked close to the date of arrival could cost you the same as an ocean-view apartment in Cape Town. Since, having my own space was very important to me, yet I couldn’t possibly afford getting an apartment to myself, I chose places where I would have my own room. This was perhaps what I spent the most money on, however, I found it worth it and I met some lovely people staying at locals’ homes.

Once all was planned, I just had to wait for the time to come!

Experience in Chicago, USA and the Chicago Forum on Global Affairs:

The flight to Chicago was long, to say the least. It took 10 hours flying from Cape Town to Dubai, a night at the airport and another 12 hours from Dubai to Chicago. The only saving grace was in-flight entertainment and free Wi-Fi on the plane. After landing in the Chicago O’Hare Airport, a few hours of queueing in customs and fetching my bag, I was ready to begin this adventure. Leaving the airport and being hit with a wave of warm air was a nice respite from the windy and cooler weather back home in Cape Town. Thanks to the free airport Wi-Fi I was able to request an Uber to get to my AirBnB without a big hassle. While I landed in Chicago at 3pm local time, it was 10pm back home and 3 hours later my internal clock was telling me “good night”.

Next day, after a very long sleep, I was ready to explore. The first thing to explore became Walmart, since I was very hungry, and in need of a SA-US or EU-US adaptor. With regards to the latter, I never found one and had to rely on the grace of my landlords, hence, I suggest you find one prior to leaving South Africa. With regards to the former, it became my destination of choice, since eating out in Chicago proved to be once again rather expensive in South African standards and when I wasn’t picking out ready meals in Walmart, McDonalds became a choice for on-the-go food.

Prior to my departure I had done my research on things I could do while in Chicago. That is how I found out that the world-known phenomenon musical “Hamilton” was going to be performed in Chicago during my stay. It has been my dream to see this musical ever since it came out and I was lucky-enough to get a ticket. It was indeed a dream come true. Like most of the audience prior to seeing it, I knew all the songs from the soundtrack. I had memorised them a few years ago. After the show it was time to head back. Chicago’s Uber has a useful option of “Uber Pool”, which allows you to save on the ride by sharing it with other people who are heading in the same direction. It proved to be a great tool since I was trying to maximise my sight-seeing time. For those more adventurous, one could learn the public transport system, which as I heard from my hosts is not too difficult. And you would be saving an extra buck.

Chicago's skyscrapers early morning
Chicago’s skyscrapers

The next day was time to explore the city in more detail, and boy did it not disappoint. Chicago is absolutely beautiful. This was the first city to build a skyscraper and it shows. Under the impression that skyscrapers can only be tall glass aquarium-like buildings I was amazed by the beauty of the architecture I was seeing. Some of these grandiose historical buildings could easily compete with European churches in their magnificently intricate details. Most of my time downtown was spent with my head up trying to see these amazing buildings and simultaneously not bumping into people rushing past. I also visited the SkyDeck, which is located at the top of the Willis Tower and boasts a 360 degree view of the city, which was absolutely breath-taking.

Other than skyscrapers, Chicago is known for its comedy. I made sure to get a taste of it by getting myself a ticket to a show by The Second City sketch comedy troupe, prior to my trip (well done also, since the show was sold out soon after). The list of famous Second City alumni is almost endless and includes such well known comedians as Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, John Belushi and many more. The show was absolutely fantastic, and I would absolutely recommend it.

The next day was allocated for moving from my AirBnB and into the beautiful Hyatt Regency Chicago hotel in the city centre, where all the student delegates for the Chicago Forum on Global Affairs were placed. This accommodation was a far cry from where I had stayed before, with its beautiful views of the city and top notch rooms. This was the day that the programme for the student delegates started and it was kicked off with a dinner and get-to-know activities. The dinner took place in the headquarters of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. As we were digging into the cheesy Chicago-style deep dish pizza and salads we heard about the council’s history and learnt about each of the student delegates, who came from all over the world and an array of disciplines.

gabrielle with other stduent delegates at the Chicago Council on Global
Gabrielle with other student delegates at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs

After a very comfortable sleep in the hotel, the student delegation was transferred to another venue where a full day of workshops was planned for us. We heard speakers from areas such as climate change, sustainability and equitable housing, as well as how city infrastructure can build strong communities. Furthermore, since all of this happened in a small group setting with the only people in attendance being the student delegation and the speakers, it was great having such close access to the speakers and being able to ask them questions. After these thought-provoking sessions the student delegation split into groups and set out on a treasure hunt around the city – it was lovely to see the main sites while getting to know my counterparts. After the treasure hunt and a brief moment freshening up at the hotel, the student delegation set out to attend the opening ceremony for the Forum, which was hosted at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The night was kicked off with speeches and a panel discussion from many prominent actors in the sphere of global city governance. The opening ceremony ended with a beautiful dinner and lots of networking, as well as a roam around the modern art exhibits.

The Forum was in full swing the next two days, jam-packed with presentations, panels and workshops. The issues covered were too many to mention, but included the sustainable growth of cities, urban migration, climate change and energy crisis, smart cities, water security and how cities are shaping the global agenda. The Forum took place in a venue that allowed for free movement between presentations and snack and drink bar, meaning that you not only could take a break but could also easily speak to a presenter that caught your attention while getting a coffee.

After the Forum, I still had a few days left in Chicago and once I left my beautiful hotel room, amazing food and hospitality of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs it was time to go back to a new AirBnB and further exploring. I especially enjoyed the Art Institute of Chicago, which is home to numerous world-known masterpieces from across the centuries. The museum is huge and well-worth a visit. There I could see original artwork by international artists such as Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet, Georges Seurat, and Gustave Caillebotte, as well as the all-American ones such as Andy Warhol, Edward Hopper and Grant Wood.

Andy Warhol - Orange Marilyn, 1964
Andy Warhol – Orange Marilyn, 1964
Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, 1942
Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, 1942

Chicago is also known for its jazz scene, hence, I wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to listen to some local artists. My AirBnB host and some of the student delegation members who stayed on, ended up in Kingston Mines – a jazz club with a local feel and great music.

Making the most out of my time in Chicago I also attended an improv show by the Improvised Shakespeare Company, whose recently famous alumnus is Thomas Middleditch from the show “Silicon Valley”. The troupe improvises a whole 1 hour Shakespearean play based on an audience suggestion (yes, in Shakespearian English and all). Other than being absolutely hilarious the troupe’s talent was astounding.

Going Home:

After this very full week, it was time for me to pack my bags and go home. After another very long flight, I longed for Chicago’s buzzing energy yet friendliness so uncommon in metropolitan cities. I couldn’t help but think about the greatest resource South Africa has – its people – and how powerful we can be when we all come together to make political change. The Forum made me realise how even exerting small changes within a city can make so many people’s lives better. As I reflected on this I felt positive about the power cities have in improving their countries.