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By Terry Mullen, MBA

A single viral photo on Twitter of the Blue Lagoon gave me the epiphany of planning a trip to Iceland.

After a few months of planning and a little effort in convincing friends to accompany me on this journey, the wheels were in motion. I was lucky enough that our Business Development Executive, Jennifer Barrows, knew an acquaintance from Iceland that gave me plenty of helpful tips before setting out on our adventure. Six friends, two cars, and lots of PB&Js lead to one epic road trip. Strangely, the Blue Lagoon wasn’t even the best part.

The Views

Iceland views

TLC was wrong when they told us not to chase waterfalls. Of which, Iceland has plenty. By far the best way to explore Iceland is The Ring Road. Route 1, which is referred to as The Ring Road, goes around the entire island circling to about 828 miles. We saw the beautiful rainbow above as we were in the last leg of our trip through the western side of the island, heading back to the main city of Reykjavik.

Towards the end of spring, the sun is up almost 20 hours each day and even in those four hours of night, it was never truly “dark”.  The island itself is made from volcanic rock that looks like black lava that has hardened over many years. Most of the civilization resides in the southern part of the Ring Road which houses waterfalls off to the side that you can park your car and walk up to. While driving past all of the farmland, you can see herds of wild horses and goats moving up along the eastern side of the island as it becomes more of a dirt road roller coaster. Never knowing what beautiful site we may see next, we kept our cameras handy.

The Dos

Reykjavik Iceland

In addition to the large selection of waterfalls, all unique in their own way, there’s an abundance of things to do and see. Geysers that shoot boiling hot water up unexpectedly, the Harpa Museum, Jökulsárlón and Laugavegur, the main street in Reykjavik, are all hot spots. Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is filled with marble like glaciers that never melt and you may even spot some otters. The street of Laugavegur has everything from shops to bars, and it even includes the famous Hallgrímskirkja Church where you can capture an amazing view of the city from the very top (pictured above).

Find a hot spring. The Blue Lagoon is luxurious, but if you’re not trying to spend all of your money, general entry to sit in this man-made lagoon is about $60+. Don’t get me wrong, it is breathtaking and I would definitely recommend it, but it comes with a cost. On the other hand, there are hot springs that you don’t have to pay for. Reykjadalur, a hot spring river that requires a 2.5 mile hike, is only 40 minutes from the main city. The manner the pathway runs along the river is quite the site to see.

Lastly, make your way to the Svörtuloft Lighthouse. It’s a bumpy ride, yet totally worth it. We were on the hunt to find puffins off the coast and were fortunate to spot a few while out on the ledge. Their multicolored beaks help them stand out among the other penguins. Don’t be alarmed if you see them listed on the menu at some restaurants. however. They are cute, but tasty.

The Foods

Icelanders generally complement their fermented shark with a side of Black Death. Definitely an acquired taste, the fermented shark that is. Black Death is a shot of Brennivín vodka. The consensus with our group was that this Icelandic vodka is smooth to the core and easy to take.

While in the city of Reykjavik, you can’t leave without getting a famous Icelandic hot dog better known as a pylsur. If you can, get it with Cool American Doritos (aka Cool Ranch), Icelandic sauce and cheese. Sounds crazy, but it is phenomenal. Do not get a hot dog from a convenience store, it may ruin your hot dog experience and Iceland certainly has the best I’ve ever had.

Most goods are imported onto the island so it was pricey to eat out, but the seafood is fresh and flavorsome. Langoustines, whale and reindeer are a few additional items available that are far from the American norm.

Closing Remarks

Bring a backpack and an open mind. Always have it packed with an extra pair of clothes and a bathing suit. I was so grateful to have my Withum backpack with me as some of our adventures were completely unexpected. If you don’t already have a good pair of hiking boots, buy some. Pack for the season and be prepared to be amazed.

Iceland

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KsikoraThis week’s blog post about volunteering in Africa is written by Withum’s International Services Group member, Kathy Sikora.

Dear Africa,

It’s been a little over a year since I’ve seen you, and I’ve missed you so much that I’ve decided to come back and stay… for an ENTIRE YEAR! Get ready!

So what’s happening?

Nerdy accountant exciting things! I will be joining a team of missionaries at a hospital in Niger. I’m sure there will be several hats that I will wear once I arrive; however, my official duties (for now) will be to work with all of the finances and the accounting/finance team at the hospital. I’m grinning from ear to ear at the fact that I will get to combine volunteering, traveling the world and accounting all in one opportunity – this one!

When am I going?

Exact dates still to be determined, but the plan for now is to be in Africa at the end of June 2016!

But, how?!

So there was that time I found myself at the missions table at our church ministry fair one Sunday afternoon, picked up the missions pamphlet, saw Niger on the list and said to myself, “Totally going there!” Two and a half months later, I was on a plane. I was extremely fortunate to be part of the group from our church that went to Niger in December 2014, which is when I discovered this hospital for the first time. There seems to be this rumor going around that most short-term visitors have a tendency to return…and well, the rest is history.

And more importantly, why?

IMG_1878For starters, I’m really looking forward to how awesome of a professional experience this is going to be. I’m excited to be a part of a multi-lingual team and to learn French! I’m excited to teach others, especially those who have not had the same education opportunities as I’ve had. I’m excited to use my accounting skills to help the hospital. Gosh, I’m even excited to have to reconcile payroll, and I tremble at the thought of reconciling payroll (not joking, I seriously dislike anything payroll related). This will no doubt be a HUGE challenge for me and one that I am really looking forward to!

The hospital I will be at is such an important staple of the surrounding community and region for that matter. It serves many. The latest study showed just one doctor for every 50,000 people in Niger (compared to the U.S. that has 123 doctors for every 50,000 people). The survival of this hospital depends on missionaries to come and serve the needs of the hospital and the people. I am told that there is a huge need for accountants and to be able to fill a role that is so vital in the ongoing of operations of this hospital is giving me all the more motivation and excitement to go. I’m really looking forward to joining the team of missionaries there, and words cannot describe how honored I feel to be chosen to fulfill this need for them.

Above everything, expanding the kingdom of God so that others may know the joy of knowing Jesus and the hope of eternal life is what this is really all about. This hospital is a Christian hospital, and when people go there, they can hear the gospel – a story of which still remains unknown to a mass amount of people to this very day. To have the chance to love people and serve others – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. I consider it such a privilege to get the opportunity to do life with the Nigeriens for a year. I have no doubt I will learn many things from them. Life is not about being comfortable, making money, having a successful career, buying a new car, or even traveling the world (too bad I can’t remember this all the time), nor does my ultimate satisfaction lie in any of those things. And as I continue to do life here, I’m left with a hunger that can only be satisfied by one thing and that’s Jesus. SO… This is me following where He wants me to be. This is a big leap into the unknown. I have no idea what my future in this journey will hold, but I know who holds it!

I am incredibly humbled at this opportunity, a little nervous, and a little “is this really happening and am I really doing this?” – but most of all I am excited. That said, I would love nothing more than to continue to share this journey with all of you! More details coming soon! I will be sharing much more about Niger, this hospital, and this experience in the weeks/months to follow!

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Bali is every Australian’s cheap vacation spot. It’s only about a 3.5 hour flight from Perth and was quite an amazing experience.

Bali 1

How to do Bali:

Step 1: As you arrive at the airport, there will be about fifty local Indonesian guys asking if you need a taxi. Do not say yes or they’ll charge you 100,000 IDR (Indonesian Rupiah). This is a rip off here in Bali. A taxi should only cost you 10,000 IDR (approximately USD 73 cents). As you will learn, everything is cheap in Bali.

Step 2: Become a millionaire. Exchange $100 USD for ~$1,371,740 IDR.

Step 3: Stay in a hostel in Seminyak or Kuta and meet a random group of travelers. Hire a motor scooter for a day for 50,000 IDR (~$4) and drive south to Uluwatu to enjoy a day on the secluded beaches and watch the sunset at the Uluwatu temple.

Step 4: Don’t forget to refuel your motor scooter at a local shop. They’ll sell you petrol for 10,000 IDR and pour it out of a 1 litre Absolut Vodka bottle (the vessel of choice here in Bali). Be careful on your motor scooter; your life is at risk with every turn. The locals drive with their whole families (husband, wife, kid, groceries) on one motor scooter like it’s a walk in the park.

Bali 2Step 5: Travel up north to go scuba diving at Tulamben, a quiet village on the northeast coast of Bali. Tulamben is one of the best dive sites in the world, complete with its own shipwreck, the USAT Liberty.

Step 6: Do some bargaining with the locals in Kuta. Buy a pair of Ray Ban sunglasses for $4.

Step 7: Stay in a four star hotel for ~$50. Sit poolside and relax; you’re in paradise.

Bali 3I call Bali a third world paradise because you’ll have opportunities to sit on beautiful beaches, relax poolside, and enjoy the natural beauties of Indonesia, but you’ll also experience a culture shock. The locals live a different life than what some people in the States are used to. The people may seem poor and underprivileged and they will definitely haggle you for a few dollars. This is because they rely so much on tourists spending money so they can feed their families. Even though you may see them as deprived, the local people are some of the happiest people I’ve met in my travels, which is truly amazing. Bali is known for its tourism and over the years, the growing population in Bali has caused an excess of garbage pollution in landfills, the streets and beaches. If you’re keen on a trip here, I would go soon as Bali is slowly dying because of tourism.

By Lonnie Bloom, MBA | 609.520.1188 | lbloom@withum.com

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I’ve never really heard about Perth until getting the opportunity to live here through the HLB secondment program. Here are some things I’ve learned during my stay:

  • No tipping at restaurants – don’t expect to add an extra 20%. Tipping is not expected and there is usually no line on the receipt for it anyway.
  • The average minimum wage in Australia is over A$17 per hour (which explains why there is no tipping).
  • Crossing the street – pedestrians DO NOT have the right of way here in Perth. I’ve learned this after many honks directed towards me. Jaywalking is the only way to survive.
  • Coffee – Dunkin Donuts does not exist and Starbucks has not made its way to Perth yet. Essentially, all you can get is a “Flat White” or a “Long Black.” There’s a coffee/espresso shop on every corner in the city and the menu always looks the same.
  • The sushi is not good – they put chicken and steak in their sushi rolls and call it “gourmet.”
  • Kangaroos – Yes, there are as many kangaroos here as there are deer in New Jersey. The little ones are cute and friendly.

perth

  • The Lingo:
    • Biscuits = cookies
    • Lifts = elevators
    • Macca’s = McDonalds
    • Chips = French fries
    • Rubbish = garbage
    • Australians abbreviate everything
  • Common terms
    • Massive
    • Heaps
    • Reckon
      • (i.e., “I reckon the concert will be massive with heaps of people” – Mindy)
    • No worries
    • No stress
    • Cheers mate
  • No Australian has ever said, “Let’s throw some shrimp on the barbie.” Australians call shrimp “prawn” anyway.
  • Perth is the second most isolated city (with over one million people) in the world. The next closest city to Perth is Adelaide which is 2,138km away (approximately a three-hour flight).
  • Everything in the city of Perth closes early during the week. Most retail stores close at 5:30pm, except Friday when they are open late (9pm). Only about a year ago is when Perth started opening its stores on Sundays from 11am-5pm.

 

By Lonnie Bloom, MBA | 609.520.1188 | lbloom@withum.com

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Cuba In the 1940s and early 1950s, Havana must have been a jewel of a city. Set against the beautiful Caribbean Sea, the Malecón offers the sea to one side and buildings across the boulevard – some restored, some new, but many crumbling after years of neglect. Perhaps that is the best word to describe the city – crumbling. Of course there are beautiful buildings (the National Capital Building and the National Theatre next door), but across the street, buildings are literally falling down. Much to their credit, Cuban authorities are restoring the most significant buildings that comprise their rich architectural patrimony. That said, much is left to be done and we can only hope that growing commercial contact with the outside world will bring more funds to make possible even more ambitious conservation initiatives.

The streets too are generally in need of repair – the potholes give New Yorkers nothing to complain about. It’s quite surprising that the 1950s-era cars (again, some beautifully restored and maintained, and others less so) can drive the streets without further damage. But there are broad beautiful avenues, many with richly planted medians. Again, a city of contrasts and a city in transition.

On the drive from the airport to downtown Havana (about 25 minutes), my colleague, Richard Ingunza, immediately noticed the lack of advertising. The only billboards or signs posted recognized the glory and successes of the revolution. Also noted was the absolute lack of retail. In fact, in two and one-half days, I only saw two “stores.” One was a high-end kitchen appliance store in one of the two modern office building complexes we visited and the other was a “hole-in-the-wall” with racks of eggs and a line out the door (in fact, business was transacted from the door with patrons walking away with dozens of eggs in self-provided plastic shopping bags – talk about putting all of your eggs in one basket – no egg cartons here).

Despite the poor conditions of the roads and buildings, the people tell a different story. No one appears to be malnourished. No one (well, maybe we saw one person) appears to be homeless or destitute. Much to their credit, everyone we encountered was educated. And everyone we met from hotel bellmen to restaurant staff to our guide and driver to our affiliates working for HLB InterAudit seemed content and “happy.” In the evening, it was extraordinary to see the populace step out onto the streets to mingle, share stories and just enjoy the company of their neighbors. Animated conversations could be seen and heard. Children played and parents laughed, exchanged ideas and had heated discussions, much the same way as was occurring out across the Straits of Florida in neighborhoods across Miami and beyond. For us, Havana is a city of contrasts.

By Kimberlee Phelan, CPA, MBA, Practice Leader, WS+B’s International Services Group | 609.520.1188 | kphelan@withum.com

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cubaOn December 17, 2014, the presidents of Cuba and the United States made a joint announcement that had, until then, seemed to be impossible: Cuba and the United States would embark upon a process of normalizing relations between both countries.

Most are aware of the acrimonious and antagonistic relationship that has existed between both nations, and the history that led to the virtual freezing of that relationship for over 50 years. Irrespective of one’s views on the change, the almost eight months since the historic December 17 announcement have brought increased dialogue between both countries, the reopening of the Cuba’s embassy in Washington and the reopening of the U.S. embassy in Havana later this week. How the relationship between Cuba and the United States develops remains to be seen. What is certain is the general hope that whatever form that relationship takes, it will be for the mutual benefit of both Cubans and Americans alike.

At Withum, members of the firm’s International Services Group met what was announced in December, as well as the revised regulations regarding travel to and commerce with Cuba that were issued by the U.S. Treasury and the Department of Commerce in January, with interest. How will the Cuban economy be impacted? What new economic measures will the Cuban government introduce? What will this mean for the emerging private sector in Cuba? What will this mean for Cuban state companies? What commercial opportunities might emerge for our clients? Each of our questions seemed to trigger another.

We realized quickly that the only way to assess the commercial opportunities that might emerge due to the change in relations between Cuba and the U.S. was to travel to Havana and meet with members of the business community. As a member of HLB International, we have an affiliate in Cuba, Interaudit S.A., that is part of the Ministry of Finances and Prices… so, we simply called.

It was my first call to Cuba. On the line was the CEO of Interaudit, Dra. Elvira Armada Trabas. After explaining the purpose of my call, we were surprised to discover that we had reached out to them at an opportune moment. Interaudit’s management had been recently discussing their need to learn more about the system of accounting, audit and tax practiced in the United States. Provided all of the approvals could be gathered, a visit to Havana would be welcomed.

That simple and brief conversation triggered eight weeks of intense work by both firms in order to make Withum’s exploratory trip to Cuba possible.

The first order of business was to secure an official invitation to travel to Cuba for David Springsteen, Partner and Practice Leader of Withum’s National Tax Services Group, Kimberlee Phelan, Partner and Practice Leader of Withum’s International Services Group and myself, Richard Ingunza, an accountant in Withum’s National and International Tax Services Group in New York. To issue the letter, Interaudit’s management had to secure numerous approvals up the chain of command at the Ministry of Finances and Prices and then similarly up the chain of command at the Ministry of Foreign Relations.

While we waited for the formal invitation letter, we began contacting foreign firms in Havana, active across numerous sectors. We reached out to banks, law firms and professional service firms as well as economists and diplomats. Our approach was universally welcomed and, after many calls, we began to fill out our schedule of meetings.

After two weeks, record time as letters of invitation usually take two months, if not longer, our letter arrived in my email in box. With our schedule in place and our working sessions with Interaudit on Cuban and U.S accounting and tax scheduled too, we turned our attention to the challenge of securing our visas to enter Cuba.

Four weeks before our planned departure, we forwarded our paper work to the Cuban Interest Section in Washington. In order to work through our travel arrangements, we hired a travel consultant to help us with air travel, accommodations, local travel and the documentation for the general license to travel from the U.S. to Cuba to perform professional research and hold professional meetings.

We were told it couldn’t be done. Eight weeks was a minimum to secure a visa, possibly as little as six under extraordinary circumstances. However, we felt that this was an extraordinary time; things were changing and we had to go and see for ourselves. Undeterred, we pressed on and waited for a response.

We were told that if things worked out, they would fall into place at the last minute. Three weeks transpired and we heard nothing from the Cuban Interest Section. Two weeks before our planned departure and we had still not heard back. One week out, we still had no news.

cubaFollow-up calls became more frequent and some of the firms we had on our schedule began to make calls on our behalf to both Cuban officials in Havana and in Washington. Our travel consultants worked the phones reaching out to their contacts and we called and called too.

In the end, it went down to the wire. Three and a half days before our departure, we finally received the news: we were being granted permission to enter Cuba. Three days later, in the late afternoon, we boarded our flight in Miami and headed out across the Straits of Florida towards Havana for what would turn out to be an incredible four day visit.

By Richard Ingunza | 212.829.3219 | ringunza@withum.com

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In a quest to visit Cuba, my colleagues and I found that just getting approval to travel there is a battle. While the U.S. is expected to lift restrictions which will enable U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba for tourism purposes, right now travel is only allowed so long as the visit falls under one of the following 12 approved categories:

  1. Family visits
  2. Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments and certain intergovernmental organizations
  3. Journalistic activity
  4. Professional research and professional meetings
  5. Educational activities
  6. Religious activities
  7. Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
  8. Support for the Cuban people
  9. Humanitarian projects
  10. Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
  11. Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials
  12. Certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines

Havana, CubaOur travel purposes fell under professional meetings and research. Prior to even applying to the Cuban Interest Section (Cuba’s outpost in the U.S. since neither state had an embassy in each other’s country at the time we were planning our trip), the meetings needed to be networked and arranged. Our HLB affiliate in Havana, HLB InterAudit, was of superb assistance in both agreeing to host us for a day as well as helping us navigate the process of setting up meetings with banks, economists and real estate developers who ensured our visit met the criteria necessary to provoke the interest section to issue the visas required to confirm our travel plans, purchase our airline tickets and travel on to Havana.

Richard Ingunza (Staff, NYC office) worked tirelessly, phoning and e-mailing all necessary parties. Perhaps the hardest part was waiting. . . Our visas were issued less than four days prior to our departure, but less than two months after initially planning the trip. The earlier in advance you plan and apply, the better, but be prepared to wait until the very last moments to have your visa approved and your tickets to Havana confirmed.

We departed early on a Sunday morning from Newark to Miami. After a long layover in Miami, we were finally on a short charter (American Airlines) flight from Miami to Cuba. American Airlines fly with a U.S. marshal and mechanics on board. U.S. airplanes are not allowed to stay overnight in Havana, so if repairs are required, the mechanic must be readily available. The flight was only about 40 minutes long and upon arrival, the passport control and customs process (while quite “low tech”) was simple – unless you happen to be a carrying a massive amount of paper (presentation handouts for our meetings with HLB InterAudit and others). Despite letters confirming meetings and having the presentations in Spanish, multiple levels of cCuba Carustoms officials required consultation prior to allowing the materials to enter the island nation.

Upon exiting the airport, we met our guide and driver who would accompany us nearly everywhere for the next two and one-half days. But first, we did the obvious gawking at the 1950s-era automobiles, which are certainly unique to Cuba (and are a very common sight in Havana).

By Kimberlee Phelan, CPA, MBA, Practice Leader, WS+B’s International Services Group | 609.520.1188 | kphelan@withum.com

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