After hearing that my two best friends had decided to embark upon an epic end-of-year travel program to the United States, it became clear that I could not bear to miss out on this adventure.
Once the travel-bug bites, it is very difficult to ignore the thirst to explore new cultures, social norms and practices that other countries have to offer. Learning a new way of life is indeed what forms the base of the entire concept of a student exchange program as I discovered from my time in the USA. The student-exchange program offered by Chilli Adventures provided the perfect opportunity to experience something completely foreign to my normal South African lifestyle. Another very popular travel agency that a lot of other South Africa’s used is called CCUSA.
We chose the US because it was accessible as an English speaking country, but also diverse and different enough to provide an escape from the normal South African routine. Within the USA, Colorado seemed the obvious choice of working destinations as the snowy environment meant that skiing and snow-boarding would be the order of the day – a novelty for the average snow deprived South African.
The trick, I soon realised for a trip like this was in the application process. In order to get the job you wanted in the location you wanted, you had to apply as soon as the applications opened around the May/June period. I left this process extremely late as I had only had the wave of inspiration around September. As such, not only was I left sweating about my job but also about the location (as I obviously wanted to be with my friends – this was the biggest factor). However, it all worked out in the end and I got a bussing job in Breckenridge, Colorado. My best friends would be house cleaners for the duration of the trip. A word to wise, apply as early as you can.
In order to actually get to the States, a few administrative processes required completion. These included obtaining sponsorship (which we received from a company called Janus), attending some Chilli meetings, attaining student J1 travel Visa’s, booking flights, and just making sure all the packing was done in time. Had I applied early, accommodation would have been included in the package; however since I was late, it was up to me to find my own. Luckily, in the Visa Queue, I had overheard a girl mention the name Breckenridge and as it turned out, she needed people to stay with her. I took my chance and like that I had found a place to stay! I wouldn’t recommend that course of events for anyone who may be an anxious traveller or generally organised person.
It is easy to describe a holiday when asked, but being asked to describing living in a place is far more difficult. The whole experience was awesome, although to be realistic it wasn’t an easy ride the entire time. There were days where I did feel like I got the short end of the stick in terms of salary, job hours and general management treatment. I should reiterate at this point that conditions are highly subjective to the job you choose which is impacted upon by how early you can apply. My job paid $7.78 per hour and was supposed to be a tipping job, but the co-ordination of tips was badly managed at my restaurant. The restaurant itself was in the Hilton Double Tree hotel in Breckenridge. Be careful of larger institutions as more often than not it is easy to become a faceless member of staff where management takes barely any notice of your efforts.
Others it appeared were more fortunate at least in terms of their management; but if you go this route and problems do arise, make sure that Human Resources become your best friend. HR was mostly helpful in making sure that my salary was correct and that the management treated me relatively fairly.
Every job comes with its perks and downfalls. My perks were that I could take food from the kitchen and meet customers from all over the world. The downfalls were that I received minimum wage and the hours were 6 AM to 2PM, forcing me out of bed at the crack of dawn – sometimes 7 days a week. My friends who were housekeepers had to deal with the monotony of changing beds and cleaning rooms, yet they would earn $10-$15 an hour guaranteed (the rate rising when they worked overtime). They could also take home ‘leftovers’ from the rooms which could be anything such as beers to a set of skis.
As a group, we were fortunate enough to spend the key festive season holiday dates in America: Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. However it was extremely difficult to fully participate in the festive cheer for some (not all) as work was particularly demanding on those days. Every one of these days required at least a 12 hour shift from myself. Christmas in particular was a shocking 14 hour shift as my managers changed over and did not communicate to each other as to how long the staff had been on the clock. Such scenarios demanded a whole lot of assertiveness to resolve and making this sort of holiday work unsuitable for the faint-hearted.
The Social Scene
The whole idea of the work exchange programme was to meet new people. My particular experience presented me with people from Peru, Chile, Mexico, Argentina, Paraguay, Senegal, Guatemala and El Salvador (as well as an incredible amount of Americans – obviously). This I would have to say was my biggest saving grace as I am a social butterfly. Nothing excites me more than discovering other ways of life so this was the best thing I could have hoped for. Breckenridge offered up quite a diverse partying scene for such a small place. As I didn’t participate as much in the skiing side of things, I had to compensate in some way and I did this by going out.
On the whole, there was no entrance charge to the bars and clubs but on student nights and during the peak season there was a strict fee requirement. The bouncers we found were particularly uptight, demanding ID from people who could easily have passes as over the age of 40. There was no let-up as far as that was concerned so under 21’s had to bite the bullet and find some other way of entertaining themselves. The outgoing nature of South Africans as well as our ‘charming’ accents proved to be particularly endearing to the Americans, making it easy to socialise and quickly gain a reputation as the ‘in crowd’.
As far as prices were concerned, American expenses were a fair bit pricier than those in SA but not excessively so. Your average beer would cost $3.5 and general shopping would prove to be about 50% more expensive than in SA – not nearly as bad as Europe. For decent enough skiing and snowboarding equipment, the whole package could come to $200 – although shopping at thrift stores is recommended. The Happy Hour specials are crucial for any student looking to survive in the American climate. Our favourite special took place at a Mexican restaurant called Mi Casa, which served $1 tacos and $2 beers, which we found perfectly reasonably. Americans though would still gawk at the SA prices when we discussed them, specifically concerning our alcohol. Clothing and accommodation seemed more in line with South African prices but these prices also turned out to be State dependant. The one extremely cheap commodities as it turned out were petrol (gas as the Americans call it) and technology.
Travel and Holiday
Throughout our experience, our intention was to save enough money to travel as much of America as possible. Upon arriving in the States, we treated ourselves to two nights in Manhattan. We were able to experience the magnitude of Central Park, cross the Brooklyn Bridge, visit Ground Zero, get caught up in the frenzy of Time Square, discover the atmosphere of Wall Street, and enjoy the typical Starbucks and bar scene of New York.
During my work I was able to travel to Nashville, Tennessee to visit family. My experience there was possibly the best part of the whole trip. The pressures of work were in the past and I was able to truly discover the culture of Country and all that the American South has to offer – albeit in four days. I watched my first Ice-Hockey game as well as my first College basketball match; which literally draws crowds of up to 10 000 people (madness).
After our whole work programme had come to an end, myself and four other close South African friends decided to travel from Breckenridge to the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. I myself had to leave the trip before the final stop as I had a football match scheduled in England; however I still experienced all the wonders you could possibly get in 2 weeks of outrageous adventure on the West Coast of the US. The Grand Canyon was awesome in every sense of the word. Vegas was Vegas (although I would recommend going there with either more cash or during Spring Break). San Diego was brilliant and warm. Our intention was to go down to Mexico too as it is only a 40 minute drive away; however our Visa’s would not let us return to the States if we had tried. Instead we hired bikes in San Diego and spent the whole day riding through the city and along the boardwalks adjacent to the sea. The whole drive up to LA was peppered with smaller districts, all with the same Californian flavour of laid back, surfing vibes. Laguna Beach offered the perfect sunset after which we hit LA. The big city was just that, with traffic galore and plenty to see and do. Hollywood we found to be a bit scummy but Beverly Hills was truly majestic. The whole experience I found to be just what the doctor had ordered after a truly intense and demanding working period.
I would definitely recommend the travel programme, working overseas and jumping into the unknown. Nothing will develop you more as a person, enable you to overcome personal obstacles in the future and prepare you for the challenges of life quite like learning to stand on your own two feet overseas does. The friends that you make become friends for life and you learn a lot about your own preferences and how to be confident in your own decisions as well. While there are plenty tough times which present themselves to you, the good certainly outweighs the bad, even if it takes a while to see that this is the case.