What I’ve learned about the US

We’ve spent 5 weeks in different parts of the US and a few more days in Canada. The main reason for coming was to get into the heads of people to see what they knew about Africa, water projects and how they felt about giving to projects there.

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What we learnt is that the majority of people know very little and only 40% of people there hold a passport. When we watched the news it was all slanted so that everything revolved around America. For example, when a hotel in Western Africa was attacked by terrorists, it was stated that it was an American hotel. It was a hotel owned by an American, that doesn’t make it American. Everything on TV is about the US.

I understand that it’s a huge country but when we were talking with students they know zero about the wider world. At one university a student mentioned that her father was Kenyan, she had been there twice – and that Kenya was an island. Hmm….

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We’ve also learned that most of the people we talked abhorred Muslims. I’m sure this is fed by the biased media but we got the feeling that people fear in a huge way every Muslim. People were so shocked that we have many Muslim neighbours and are happy to live amongst them.

Before we went to the US, we ourselves were slightly biased against Americans. Many of the ones we’ve met in East Africa are loud, bossy and act as if they own the world. They drive around with the flashiest cars, have a lavish lifestyle and never get their hands dirty.

Now we’ve been here for a while, we’ve seen another side. People are more than happy to go out of their way to point you in the right direction. They are very hospitable and are even interested in finding out about Africa. Maybe because we were visitors we were treated extra nicely but we’ve been around long enough to know when someone is sucking up to you. Today we met a lady from Nigeria who was putting her story out there real thickly as soon as she knew we were from East Africa. Within the first minute she wanted to become Facebook buddies and then proceeded to tell us that she was missionary and a whole story to go with that.

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The US is quite an expensive place to travel in. Well, when you’re on a super strict budget anyway. It probably cost us $100 a day to be here, and that’s on top of accommodation. It cost as much to eat out as Kenya, taxis are way more expensive but clothing is a much better price. Tipping is a total rip off. In Kenya we only tip if we get good service and maybe one or two dollars. Here it’s between ten and twenty percent. When you see a price for something, it doesn’t include tax, which is very easy to forget about. As much as possible we’ve tried to catch trains and buses, but it still adds up. To get to our friends house tonight cost us $10 one way. That’s pretty good but when you’ll be doing that trip twice a day for a week, you can see why we’ll be eating rice and beans when we return home.

We kept reminding ourselves that this is an investigative trip and not a holiday. Sure, we’ve fitted in a few fun things but this was all about the future for our organization, BeyondWater and trying to break into the US as a new market. Our next step is to build a team of interested people, then form a legal charity and return in a couple of years. One obvious thing is to build a US website, with American spelling and everything linking BeyondWater to have a US identity.

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This trip has given us a small insight into what life is like here, some of the challenges and ways of life here. We hope we from this that we have a broader mindset of the American culture and will continue to build our friendships there.

To all of our old friends who we’ve reconnected with, it’s been a blast. For all of our new friends, what a pleasure it’s been to get to know you. Let’s do it all over again in a couple of years.

with trung and gloria

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Travelling on a Shoestring

We love to travel, any where, any time. When we made the decision to move to Kenya I felt I had to kill the travel bug. You can’t volunteer somewhere, relying on donors to put food on the table, and be jet setting around the globe. It just isn’t right.

I wanted to see the Niagara Falls, the pyramids of Egypt and even visit an Amish farm.

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We’ve just completed 3 years in Kenya and about to start another 3 year stint. However, since we’ve moved there we’ve travelled more than ever before. So I thought I’d put together some tips for travelling on a super tight budget.

tea fieldsPlan well Ahead

You’re not going to get what you want if you leave it till the last minute. I often book a flight 6 months out and then work the itinerary within that time frame. It doesn’t always pan out, but it does give me time to research on what’s available. Only you can weigh on whether it’s better for your schedule if you can catch a bus or fly. On this trip we caught 6 flights, 7 bus trips and plenty of local trains. We could’ve cut down on the flights but riding a bus for 24 hours is pushing the limit for me.

IMG_1900Do your Homework

There is plenty of information on the internet. Use interest groups on Facebook to ask questions. For this latest trip we got told lots of incorrect information (the bus doesn’t stop, this is the best place to see something etc).

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I was so brain dead after travelling 30 hours from Kenya to the US that I got the wrong package for our phone (we only get a local SIM card for one phone). For another $15 I could’ve got a data package instead of just a text and talk package. It meant we had to rely on free wifi to access the internet, which isn’t always when you need it.

Cut down on your Costs

Some of your biggest costs on the ground will be accommodation and food. Why on earth would you spend lots of money on a hotel you are hardly in? I always try and get a place that has free wifi and breakfast provided. Even if there are 3 of us, we always share a room. Preferably we stay close to a train line.

If you can, bunk down at someone’s house. We always bring a small gift from Kenya for those who host us and it goes a long way to be appreciated.

If you’re in a place for a few days, check out whether it’s cheaper to get a weekly transport pass or just daily. A few weeks ago we stayed at someones place but found out it was $15 each way on the train, per person!

Food can be a big investment when travelling. Try to find a side walk diner rather than a restaurant. Shout yourself once a week to a good, solid meal. Buy fruit and bottles of water at the supermarket.

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Travel Lightly

Sometimes airlines charge for domestic flight baggage. We came to the US with 3 bags for a 6 week trip. We managed to store one at a friends house and just repacked everything. After a month, we returned to their house to pick up the other bag. Airlines were charging $25 per checked in bag, so it was better to pay for 2 rather than 3. How many trips have you taken and worn hardly anything you packed? Organise your smaller items like toiletries into zip lock bags in case they spill.

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Ask for Help

People are usually pretty good in helping out if you get lost or don’t know something. While it’s convenient to catch a cab, a train or bus can save you lots of dollars. We were in Buffalo, New York for a few hours and because we went to the info desk at the bus station, it saved us $60 not hiring a car, instead catching a $2 bus to Niagara Falls. Locals have the best information, just ask them.

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Use a Conversion App

Sometimes it gets confusing with trying to convert prices. Use a simple app like Xe to help you when it all gets too much. Some countries like the US don’t include taxes for many items to buy and it differs from state to state. Think about tipping charges as well. Find apps that help you before you go. Understand the difference in exchange rates and what your bank charges for withdrawals at ATM machines. Most banks have a relationship with a certain one in a foreign country which reduces your fees.

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Travel Maps

To a local, it’s very easy to get around. Not so much if you’re a tourist. Before you leave home, download maps, metro timetables and apps for Uber and Yelp. It will save you both time and money.

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