There’s An App For That – My Favorite Apps while Traveling

There are millions of smartphone apps, serving a multitude of purposes, (or none at all) at our disposal. Many of these apps are designed to make life easier. The travel life is no exception. Below (in no particular order) are some of the apps that have made my life easier while on the road.

Google Trips – Free – I didn’t know about this one until a few months ago. Once you sign in and allow the app to read your email, it will pull from any transportation/accommodation/etc messages to compile an outline of your trip. There is an option to map out your trip without the template, as well the option to edit any outlines. The outlines includes attractions, day plans, and food and drink suggestions.

Rome to Rio – Free – When moving about in unfamiliar lands, transportation could present a struggle. How do I get from this place to the next place? How much does it cost? What are my options? This app allows you to enter a beginning and ending location, and gives transport options along with estimated costs and websites with schedules (If available). It has made trip planning much better because of the wealth of information. The app doesn’t feature some of the more local options like khombis aground eSwatini or jeepneys around the Philippines. To incorporate those modes into your travel, it’s best to talk to locals.

Toshl Finance – Free (with premium paid options and features) – This is a budget/expense tracker app. One of the things I love about this is that you can enter expenses in just about any currency and it will convert to whatever you selected as your home currency. When the app is online, it updates exchange rates, so they’re pretty accurate. This is one of my favorites. It keeps me on budget. In the free version of the app, you are limited to how many budgets you can add (maximum of two). These limitations, along with others in the free version, did not affect my ability to keep accurate record of my expenses and budget.

Agoda – Free – Surprise, surprise. When searching for accommodation, different sites may list different prices. While it’s okay to just show up in many places, some places need a bit more planning. When I need to book accommodation in advance, Agoda ifs typically the cheapest. There’s also a very useful option to filter out beds that you can book without credit cards, so you can bypass deposits and spend money on actual accommodation.

Google Translate – Free – While this app is not a substitute for learning a few pleasantries in the local language, it is amazing for more complex things. Some languages are available to download for offline use. If a language is available for download in a place that I’m going, I get it. Communicating needs and wants in Vietnamese, Hindi, etc suddenly aren’t as difficult.

Google Maps – Free – You can download maps of a city (or of a custom area) for offline use. Then you can use that navigate without a data connection. This only works for driving directions, but if you can read a map, you’ll be good. One thing to note is that these maps do expire. So if you’ll be in a place for a longer time (more than a month), it would be worth it to find WiFi to re-download the map.

Whatsapp – Free – SMS can be expensive. This is true of domestic SMS in the land of places without unlimited text messaging. This is true of international SMS just about everywhere. Whatsapp is an internet/data based messaging service. Pictures, videos, and voice notes can be sent using Whatsapp, in addition to voice and video calling features. The app requires that the other user be on Whatsapp as well. for messaging/calling friends and family. While there are many similar services, this one has remained a favorite of the people I talk to most.

Viber – Free – This is an app similar to Whatsapp. Text based messages. Voice and video calls. All over a data connection. The difference here is something called Viber Out, which allows you to make VOIP calls to people who aren’t on Viber. After loading credits onto your account, the service does charge based on where you are calling (lowest rates are for calls to the United States). Viber is not only useful for keeping in touch with those lacking smartphones, but also handling business with a company’s 1-800 number.

Various ride sharing apps – Free – Many countries have some service that you can use to order a taxi/transport. Some of these services even allow you to order food from local eateries. I’ve found it to be not only cheaper, but also much more convenient. It definitely beats extended negotiations with drivers, unless you’re in the mood for that. I’ve found that even if I don’t use a ride service, it’s still helpful to get an idea of how much things should cost. It can also be cost effective to shop around between the services themselves. Of course, you will need some sort of data connection to book the ride. Some of the services available include: Uber (South Africa/India), Taxify (South Africa), Ola (India), Grab (Malaysia/Vietnam/Philippines/Singapore/Indonesia), Passapp (Cambodia), and GoJek (Indonesia).

Maps.Me – Free – For those choosing to eschew Google products, or for those who just want a really well made offline map app, this is it. The app allows you to download detailed maps for where you’re going. The user interface isn’t as attractive as Google Maps (to me), but it works extremely well. I’ve found that the app doesn’t always have everything (businesses, eateries, etc) on the map, but it usually has everything I need. Users can submit updates as well.

Kiwix – Free – If you know anything about me, you know that I’m a huge fan of Kiwix, the offline Wikipedia browser. There’s an Android app, so I keep WikiVoyage downloaded in the app so that I can research where I’m going/where I am when I don’t have internet. This is extremely useful when looking up where I might want to go next. There are a few phrasebooks as well to help you with local language when you’re on the ground.

Couchsurfing – Free – People all over the world offer up their couches, beds, or free space to travelers in the name of friendship and cultural exchange. Even if I don’t end up using Couchsurfing to stay with someone, I always try to check the app when I get to a new city. Almost always, there are people looking to hang out and explore the city. Couchsurfers also organize events to explore or showcase the city, or various aspects of it. You do need take some time to create a complete profile on Couchsurfing, but it’s extremely worth it.

I should note that I carry an Android device. While it’s likely that these apps are available on iOS, I didn’t bother to look so I don’t know. If you have any favorite, must-have apps while traveling, feel free to shout them out in the comments.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

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Where Did My Money Go?

Budgets are important. Time, money and other resources are finite so the absence of an accountability method can lead to a very quick draining of those resources. In the age of technology, mobile apps have made it easier. For my COS trip, I was looking for an app that could handle budgeting and expense tracking using multiple currencies.

After some internet searches, I came across Toshl. It can track income and expenses while handling budgeting tasks. The app allows you to set a home currency, while entering expenses (or income) in other currencies. It will automatically show conversions to the home currency at the last updated rate. For example, I can set my home currency to the US dollar and enter Kenyan expenses in Kenyan shillings after entering Swazi expenses in Swazi emalangeni. In my expense tracker, the expenses will show in their respective currencies with the day’s exchange rate for US dollars. The app has premium, paid features that I have not explored. One such feature is the ability to connect bank accounts for automatic syncing.

Overall, the app has been just what I needed. It has allowed me to keep track of my spending during trip. It even reminds me, via mobile notifications, to ensure that I input all of my expenses. Recently, I even got a notification that I’m on track to be slightly under budget (for my trip). I would recommend it if you’re planning on traveling abroad or dealing in currencies outside your home currency.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Monday in a Picture – MTN on the Street

Some months back, I wrote about MTN in Swaziland. While MTN offers post-paid, or contract, cell phone plans, many people around the kingdom use MTN’s pay-as-you-go service. This system works by purchasing airtime. 

While airtime can be purchased from MTN stores and authorized retailer shops, it’s also available at most grocery stores and various other shops. One of the most readily available places to get airtime is from a street vendor. Some street vendors have a big yellow umbrella (like the one in the picture above). All vendors have a yellow MTN vest that identifies them as MTN vendors. With an MTN street vendor, you can buy a SIM card, airtime, or data bundles among other things. MTN street vendors also work with MTN’s Mobile Money service. Mobile Money is another world. It’s a wallet connected to your cell phone number. It can be used to send and receive money, pay bills, and buy airtime. It’s similar in many ways to PayPal or Venmo. The MTN street vendor is often a one stop shop for handling many matters. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

Monday in a Picture – Imali 

It’s said that the best things in life are free. For the things that have cost attached, there’s some form of currency. In Swaziland, cash is king. While some people have bank accounts and access to credit cards, this is not super common especially in more rural parts of the country. 

Swaziland’s currency is known as the lilangeni (pronounced lee-lon-gay-knee) for a singular unit, while multiple units are called emalangeni (pronounced eh-mah-lon-gay-knee). Prices in emalangeni would be expressed as E10 for something costing ten emalangeni

Swaziland’s Central Bank has authorized two different currencies to be used in the country. In addition to the emalangeni, the South African rand is also used. While both currency’s notes are used indiscriminately, rand coins are rarely accepted outside of border communities. The emalangeni and rand both come in note denominations of 10, 20, 50, 100, and 200. Both currencies also use different colors for the different denominations. While all South African rand notes feature a picture of former president, Nelson Mandela, Swaziland’s emalangeni notes feature King Mswati III. Prior to Mswati’s ascension to the throne, Swazi notes featured King Sobhuza. 

In the picture above, there are current notes (of 20 unit denomination) from Swaziland, South Africa, and United States. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

P.S. – Imali (pronounced ee-mah-lee) means money. 

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Sweet Dreams – New Money in London

Because I am posted in a country where I might contract malaria, I have been given an antimalarial medication called, “Mefloquine”. One of the side effects of this medication is lucid dreaming. The following is what I dreamt last night (as best I can remember). 

​I had landed in London. I was on vacation there. One of the first things that I noticed if that they had changed the money. It was still the sterling pound but it wasn’t paper. It was a thick matte plastic. And it was tablet size. The notes were different colors but all the same size. The denomination was only on the back of the note. One of the strangest things was that there was a 34 pound note and a 35 pound note. British people told me that this new system was a security measure. 

Anyway, I checked into my hotel. I paid with the tablet notes. The hotel room was nothing special. I started exploring London. I called a friend of mine who lives in London. She wasn’t there. 

I did some more exploring. Later in the week, it was time for me to go. It was a Friday. As I was walking around, I noticed a neon sign in the daylight. It said something about Friday being rib night and there being live nude girls. I tried to go there for lunch but the place wasn’t open yet. I thought about changing my plans to attend rib night at the strip club, but I went to the airport instead. 

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

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Monday in a Picture – The Kraal

Over the course of several weeks, I have featured my homestead and pit latrine. Another integral part of the Swazi homestead dynamic and structure is the kraal (pronounced crawl). The kraal is where a family’s cattle are kept. The kraal is also a symbol in signifying that family’s wealth.

In rural communities, personal bank accounts are less common. It’s not that the money isn’t there. The money takes on a different form. Cows are money. A family with a lot of cows is considered a wealthy family. Some families also invest in cows. When baby calves are born, wealth is increased.

Cows are very much intertwined into Swazi culture. If I want to build a home for myself and my family in a rural community, I am expected to give a certain number of cows to the umphakatsi (pronounced oom-pa-got-see), or local community leadership. If I want to marry, I must pay lobola (low-bow-la), or bride price, to the bride’s family. The lobola is traditionally negotiated between the families, and paid in cattle. For major events in a family or community, a cow may be slaughtered in honor of the occasion.

The cows are released from the kraal daily and taken to graze by a cattle herder. Amazingly, the cows know exactly where their respective kraal is and the cattle herder knows exactly which cows belong in that kraal.

In addition to wealth and food, the kraal also provides plenty of cow manure for to be used as fertilizer during ploughing and planting season.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

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Sweet Dreams – Vacations, Dinner, and Shopping

Because I am posted in a country where I might contract malaria, I have been given an antimalarial medication called, “Mefloquine”. One of the side effects of this medication is lucid dreaming. The following is what I dreamt last night (as best I can remember). 

I had just gotten back from a vacation. It was a birthday vacation. This was right around Thanksgiving. 

One of my aunts and several of other family members were all having dinner with me at this restaurant in the mall. It was a nice sit down place. I ordered the pork loin roast appetizer to share. It had some citrus to it. It was delicious. I was so full. My aunt tried to make sure that I had the last piece. I said thank you, and just looked at the last piece of pork loin on the plate. I don’t rememberThis was Thanksgiving. 

After eating, we walked around the mall. I was with a very pregnant woman. We were in some kind of store that had clothes and other things. I remember looking at things, thinking “hmmmm, I should get this. But I don’t really want it.” I decided that I should spend this currency that I got while on vacation. But they don’t take currency from the Bahamas here. I take out a five dollar US coin and ask the guy in the downstairs window if they’ll take it. He said that they have to see how much it’s worth. I just wait for him to come back.  

He returns. I can get an opened pack of long stem unscented candles for my five dollar US coin. No change. The price on the candles is $3.25. Some other woman sees the pregnant woman looking at baby clothes in the racks. The woman said, “oh wow, you’re really pregnant.” Pregnant woman responds that yeah, she is. She’s due any second now. But the baby probably won’t come right now because the baby is sleeping right now. The pregnant woman keeps shopping. I look at my newly purchased candles. 

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Sweet dreams – Harriet Tubman 20

Because I am posted in a country where I might contract malaria, I have been given an antimalarial medication called, “Mefloquine”. One of the side effects of this medication is lucid dreaming. The following is what I dreamt last night (as best I can remember). 


I was somewhere in the US. I had agreed to cut some guy’s hair. He was a friend of a friend. I wasn’t working. He said that he would give me ten dollars to cut his hair. He had a big day coming up. He was white. He had hairy feet. 

The next day comes, and I’m cutting his hair outside. I am paying meticulous attention to what I’m doing. I cut his hair and give him a fresh line up. For some reason, I ask him if he wants me to shave his feet. He says ‘no’. I say ‘okay’. I’m not really impressed with the job I’ve done. He likes it though.

He’s getting up to leave. And he says ‘oh, yeah. I need to pay you for this. He said how does forty bucks sound?’ I’m excited because I was only expecting ten. He pulls out a crisp twenty dollar bill. It’s a Harriet Tubman twenty dollar bill. Fresh and new. I am so excited, like ‘bruh where did you get this?’. He just smiles. Realizing that he only gave me twenty, he pulls out another twenty. It is fresh as well. But it has a woman named Dunn on it. She’s Loretta Dunn. She’s famous for something (I still don’t know what). I’m so happy that I don’t even want to spend it. I want to save it and frame it like my first dollar.