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.


Monday in a Picture – That Time We Took a Field Trip

In January 2018, I was excited. The new school year was on the horizon. I was coming into a stride in my service. I was ready to introduce Wikipedia Offline to our students at the high school. As I was sharing this excitement with other PCVs and our Country Director, I mentioned the idea of a writing contest. I was trying to figure out how to gather prizes for the contest. In my mind, we would teach the students how to research and use Wikipedia Offline before they demonstrated mastery by writing brief research reports. Someone suggested a field trip. “Why not write a small grant to take the winning students to the (U.S.) embassy’s resource center and lunch?”, our director asked. Commence grant writing.

While the timeline was delayed, the essence of the project was able to shine through. In May, we announced the contest. All students were invited to use the Wikipedia Offline to write a one page report concerning the topic, “Strong Women”. Our students submitted reports about strong women that have inspired them and the world including Winnie Mandela, Jane Austen, and Oprah Winfrey.

Last month, we took that field trip to the U.S. Embassy in Ezulwini. The students were excited as it was their first time visiting the embassy. The head librarian prepared a presentation discussing what the resource center offers. He even spoke to the students about the importance of self-directed and self-motivated learning. Some students have expressed interest in getting membership cards and spending portions of the school breaks in the embassy’s resource center. The students being inspired has inspired me. I’ve very excited to see what the future holds for students who understand that they can do and become anything. The above picture was taken by embassy staff as I discussed some of the features of the resource center with my students.

Be kind to yourself.

Monday in a Picture – Spotlight

For the second (or third, depending on how you count) time this year, I have been the main subject of a write-up in the Times of Swaziland. In January, there was an article about Parkrun, in which I was briefly interviewed. In February, the Times of Swaziland featured an article about the excitement I caused (among older women) as a super hairy umbutfo (pronounced oom-boot-foe), or warrior. Last Thursday (5 July 2018), the article pictured above was featured in the Times of Swaziland. In all instances, I received messages (from Peace Corps affiliated folks) alerting me to the write-ups. Unlike the other instances, I didn’t talk anyone from the newspaper so I wasn’t expecting this. The article did come after a post about my work was published on the Peace Corps eSwatini stories page on 3 July 2018.

My hope is that Wikipedia Offline (and Kiwix) get the much deserved attention, and that more schools, NGOs, and other organizations begin to use these products to unlock untapped potential.

Be kind to yourself.

Monday in a Picture – Wikipedia

In late 2017, I was at home browsing Reddit as I had done many evenings prior. I’m not sure what I had searched or what sequence of clicking had landed me on this page. At first glance, I thought it was one of the internet’s jokes. One thread read “…Wikipedia offline…”. My interest piqued, I decided to take a look.

The Wikimedia Foundation decided years ago that they would make the entire Wikipedia database available to the public. In other words, someone could now download the entirety of Wikipedia’s content and have access to it without internet connectivity. Various programmers and organizations developed offline browsers that could be used with the database files. One such organization is Kiwix. The Kiwix platform uses .zim files and features many products from the Wikimedia Foundation including WikiVoyage, Wikitionary, and Wikiversity.

With knowledge of this possibility, I immediately thought about conversations at the school during the past year. Our students were trying to keep up in the information age without reliable access to information. We had a computer lab, but no internet connectivity. I spoke to my head teacher and counterpart about the possibility of equipping the computer lab with offline Wikipedia. They agreed, but wanted to see something in action. I decided that I would put together a proof of concept presentation. I downloaded Kiwix for Windows and the Simple English .zim file. When I showed my colleagues how the program worked, they began to share my excitement. My head teacher requested that we move forward with the larger Wikipedia files. I spent half of November and all of December downloading Wikipedia for Schools, Wikipedia (in English) without pictures or videos, and other wikis.

Now, the 2018 academic year is under way. The computers in our lab are now equipped with the offline Wikipedia resources, and I am teaching students and colleagues how to use the software. Many of my colleagues and students are very excited. The software is being used by teachers to brush up on some subjects. Students are using the software to better understand the topics covered in class and to prepare for their external exams in term three. Throughout this term, students have stayed after school to study and print Wikipedia articles to use at home.

Last week, I was invited to another volunteer’s school to present on the Wikipedia resources to their students and staff. Apparently, their students really enjoyed the presentation. On the day following the presentation, they convinced their teacher to take them to the computer lab. Once there, they debated advantages and disadvantages of social media use. One of the teachers at their school also took her students to the computer lab to better understand iodine and its properties.

I’m beyond excited to see this project taking shape. In my vision for Swaziland, all schools would be using Wikipedia offline if they don’t have internet access. I’m also excited about chipping away at the digital divide. The picture above (taken by one of my students) is of me teaching my Form 4 students about the various wikis.

Be kind to yourself.