Travel Travel Tips

Life lessons from a year in the USA

13 months ago, I moved to the United States of America – since then I’ve been to 20 of the 50 states. With my favorite being California – of cause!

Before the USA

After applying for an social media assistant job on LinkedIn, I was on a one way flight to Istanbul five days after my last college exam. With many dreams, a world map and R10 000. That’s how My Life from a Bag started.

After ten months in Turkey and dealing with all the political instability, I returned home with no plan and a bit of money in my savings. Two months later, I got another work opportunity in the US and I’ve always wanted to see the Empire State Building and delve into the political, cultural, and economic issues facing the United States of America. So once again, I was on a one-way flight to another continent.

Throughout my time in the US, I visited a different city almost every weekend and I took away lessons that changed how I moved through the world. Lessons that prepared me well for life:

I learned to live minimally

While I was living in Istanbul there were a total of six bombings. With all the political instability, anything could happen anytime and I was always prepared to rush to the nearest airport and leave.

In America everything was so accessible, within two weeks in the country, I had a social security number, no credit record yet financial institutions were offering me credit cards and loans. I had to constantly remind myself that my stay isn’t permanent and that I left home with one bag.

Living from a suitcase taught me to only keep things I need to survive as there is much freedom to a life with less possessions. My passport, phone, charger and debit card are my most valued possessions.

I learned that best memories are made from taking risks

Every small action, like joining traveler Facebook groups and attending meetup’s in different cities, starting a conversation with a stranger on the subway or speaking to your Uber driver was worth it. These risks added up to so much growth, and a lot more fun, than I could have achieved by keeping quiet, or staying home. I promised myself I would accept every invitation and engage in every new experience that came my way.

Expectations vs. Reality

Some people think that living in a foreign country is exciting and all roses. Honestly, not every thing is Instagram-worthy. Most times I felt like an outsider, I came from a country where black people are a majority to being a minority in Turkey where people would stare, point, whisper and some would even ask for pictures. When I went to the US, I thought things would be better and believe me, they were – at least most people spoke English but I was still part of the minority and even worse America has a lot of racial issues. Not saying South Africa doesn’t have racial issues but you’re not constantly scared of being harassed or shot at because of the color of your skin.


I learned about embracing other cultures


Culture shock is real. I remember being totally weirded out when I drank cold yogurt mixed with salt (Ayran), and now I crave it. Not seeing any decor and the 25th of December being a normal day in Turkey then going to America where everyone goes over board and if your house doesn’t have bright lights it seems like something is wrong with you, I remember thinking. Owning a gun is also common and so are news articles of a lone gun man shooting someone in a public place.


I also celebrated my first Halloween and Thanksgiving (Thanks to Jamie and her family for hosting me, truly an unforgettable experience).


I learned what other people really think of my country

South Africa has been in the spotlight over the past years, with Apartheid, Nelson Mandela and 2010 FIFA World Cup headlining the media (to name a couple events), I have heard a gamut of opinions from people all around the world. “Do you have seasons?” asked the receptionist at my doctor. “I love your soccer team.” said my Armenian Uber driver. Most popular American questions: “What’s life like in Africa? What do you eat there?”. What made me really sad was a man from Nigerian who sat next to me on a flight, said “I saw a video on Facebook, your people are burning other Africans alive.”

Looking from the outside in has given me a different perspective on South Africa. I learned that most people don’t know much about “us”.

I learned how it’s ok not to have a lot of food options

At home there are only a few brands of milk, and bread. Oreo’s generally have one flavor and size (*side eyes Double Stuffed and Super Thin, Peppermint etc*), the cheese isn’t fluorescent orange, and mash potatoes does not come in a box, where you just add water and it’s ready. In America, options for a single product type barely fit into one aisle.

Respecting the law

When my South African friend in New York had to get her drivers license and she said “I miss home where you can just buy one.” It made me realise how I fear criminals more than law enforcement at home. Despite all the police brutality issues in the USA, I noticed how different the people are when it comes to obeying rules.

I’ve learned about state laws, gun laws and , and have heard different ideas about healing a society with deeply entrenched injustices.

You can still be happy when EVERYTHING is falling apart

For many people (myself included) when things go wrong it always affects my mood. I’ve learned that everything happens for a reason and it’s either I let it affect me or I use every situation as a learning experience.

I stayed on someone’s couch for a month while looking for an apartment, I saw a rat in my AirBNB, I witnessed a murder in the streets of LA, I slept in an airport TWICE and I couchsurfed and I almost died in a car crash while driving from Seattle to Las Vegas in snow.

Every time something went wrong I didn’t even tell my family because I didn’t want them to worry. I was also fortunate to find a lot of freelance work opportunities.

Sometimes you have to do what it takes to survive

One thing that made me realise I’ve had it easy all my life was when I met a girl from Liberia, she had four jobs and was barely making ends meet, lives in a two bedroom apartment with five roommates and had to pay for nursing school and also provide for her family back home.

I met people from different walks of life. I had to learn how to adapt to change at the blink of an eye and think on my feet. I learned to compromise and rely on people.

I learned new skills

With so many places to explore, cultures to learn about, and people to meet. I didn’t think it was possible, but it’s safe to say my wanderlust has been kindled even more by the experience of living in a different country.

1 Comment

  • Kathy Basson
    10/07/2017 at 9:20 PM

    Wow. So amazing. I think this is a once in a lifetime experience everyone needs to do in order to find yourself

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