Posts Tagged ‘travel’

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!

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

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.


  • 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

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

This past January I was fortunate to take part in another amazing volunteer opportunity – this time back to Africa! I was part of a 15-member team from my church that ventured across the pond to serve those in need in Niger. The weeks leading up to this trip were filled with tons of excitement as I prepared for yet another African adventure, nervousness due to timing of visas and yellow fever shots (which apparently are a rare commodity in this country), and laughter (a lot of laughter actually) at the amount of times I was asked if I would return home with Ebola. While it comes as no surprise to me, some of you might be shocked to learn that I did indeed go to and come home from West Africa without Ebola!

nigerOur team spent two weeks in Niger: one week in Niamey which is the capital of the country and another week in Galmi which is a town about six hours (ten hours in a van) outside of the capital. Our first week was spent serving the needs of a local hospital in Galmi, but before that we took a mini road trip from Niamey to Galmi, and quite frankly I loved every second of it! There is no better way to see a country than a good old-fashioned road trip! This six hour ride quickly escalated into a near ten hour ride, but it was not without excitement. We passed through more than 50 villages, got gas on the side of the road from a man carrying a jerrycan, saw hundreds of wild camels roaming free, witnessed the ever-so-popular means of transportation – a donkey pulling a wagon, almost hit a cow in the middle of the road, and had a real interesting encounter with two elderly African women and a man with a machete when we stopped to use the restroom (not to imply that there was an actual restroom). Not to mention, we were the main attraction in every village that we passed through. I mostly try not to put on my americano costume when I travel abroad, but sometimes the blonde hair and blue eyes make blending in a somewhat difficult task! Did I also mention that we drove on one road for the entire trip?

One of the members of our church, Deb, is a full-time missionary/occupational therapist at the hospital in Galmi (galmi.org) and has single-handedly developed an entire therapy unit and has made strides in advancing the care within the emergency burn unit in the hospital – all in a couple of years’ time might I add! As the hospital is mostly led by a team of international volunteer doctors, our team was there for the week to simply lend a hand with whatever tasks needed completing.

As we arrived on the hospital compound, I was overtaken by the serenity and peacefulness of the sights, the sounds, the gentleness and humility of the local workers, and just the overall ambiance. Simply put, I was overwhelmed at how at home I felt in this tiny little community in the middle of nowhere in Africa. As we were now on Deb’s soil, she made sure we jumped right into the African lifestyle and prepared for us some delicious homemade African cuisine during our stay. Our first night at the hospital compound we discussed the various ways that our team could serve the hospital and also those that keep the hospital running. Our main objectives were a few organizational projects and simple encouragement. Life can be very difficult financially and also emotionally draining at times for missionaries, and organization of records often comes secondary to patient care, especially in a region where sanitation is not always a primary concern. So those were our primary tasks, and with that we concluded our first night at the hospital.

As we headed to our rooms that night I heard, “Hey Kath, hang on a second. We have something for you to do.” Deb called me over and explained that they had a special project for me to help out with. In my head I’m thinking, “I’m probably not anymore organized or organizing ‘capable’ than anyone else on this trip. I wonder what this is about?” To my surprise, the hospital was asking for help with their accounting! I never in a MILLION years imagined this would be an opportunity on this trip, and boy am I ever so grateful that it was! I spent the entire next day helping the finance manager of the hospital reconcile cash, post entries, close out a few months in preparation for year-end close, and also discussing internal controls. I learned about Nigerien payroll, how the Nigerien social security system functions, got hands-on experience with their accounting software, and most importantly was able to fill a vital need for the hospital. My heart was overjoyed by and through this experience, and it was just unexpectedly perfect at the way it all fell in place together. And as a result, this nerdy accountant had the biggest cheesy smile glued to her face for the days following.

There were a lot of mixed emotions at the sight of the hospital. There was happiness as we learned about all of the improvements that they have been making on a continual basis. However, I was heartbroken as we walked through the ICU and learned that there were only so many oxygen masks to go around and if someone needed it more than you, simply put, you could be out of luck. This hospital is one of the best hospitals in the entire country of Niger with incredibly skilled doctors, and the realization that they are limited to the resources around them is a tough pill to swallow, especially knowing that there is a television in probably 95% of the hospital rooms in America. I’ve had a few hospital visits in my day, but this was by far the toughest.

Carl CamelAnother highlight of this trip is the day I got to ride a camel, in the desert, in Africa. I had the pleasure of riding the best camel ever. His name is Carl and he is awesome. This was without fail, one of the coolest things I’ve ever done! Carl is also the most photogenic camel I’ve ever met — #selfiegamestrong.

Stay tuned for part 2!!

By Kathy Sikora, CPA | 609.520.1188 | ksikora@withum.com

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »