Kiarna worked at Benefex and then Thomsons Online Benefits before she took her first trip travelling. She then joined like minds on a short-term contract before setting off on her travels again. She returned to like minds in October 2016 to hopefully settle down and bring her energies, enthusiasm and considerable experience to the team on a more permanent basis (we hope).
Kiarna has been fortunate enough to head off globe-trotting for most of 2016 and has had some incredible experiences which she was more than happy to discuss. We find out about some of the places she’s visited, her trip highlights and some of the toughest things she experienced whilst out of her comfort zone. We also get to hear about her fear of boats, her travel companion Mr Donkey and the chicken bus...
Hey Kiarna, thanks for joining me to talk about your travels! You’ve travelled before – did I hear you’d lived in Australia too?
Hey! Yeah, I was in Australia for 2 months – what actually happened was I had planned this big travel-trip for ages, that I had been basically saving my whole working
life for, knowing I was going to go travelling at some point. Then my plan was to go from India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, down through south east Asia, through to Australia and New Zealand.
The plan was to work when I got to Australia (because I would have definitely run out of money by then!) so I had a working holiday visa. I was aiming to work there, however long it took, and then my plan was to move on to South America before coming home. I was actually aiming to be away for about 18 months to 2 years. However, when I got to Australia, the kind of work that was available to people with my kind of visa was, I found, quite limited. So I ended up doing some temporary work, which involved some pension comms with a Canadian Wealth Management Firm. The comms industry in Australia is so far behind the UK, and I found it so frustrating. So, I ended up coming back to London for 5 months, working at like minds before continuing the trip.
During that time, I met Roman (my boyfriend) en route from Thailand to Vietnam, so I went back from Australia via Germany (he’s German), through Europe before then taking him with me! This trip started at Dusseldorf (to get Roman), then via Dubai to Vietnam – which is kind of romantic because that’s where we met (when he was travelling as well). It was important for us to go back and my friend had been teaching English there for 6 months and we went to visit her.From Vietnam our trip went to Australia (to see the parts I’d missed) New Zealand, the Cook Islands, then we did a weird loop around South and Central America. Then New York and Amsterdam on the route back home.
So how long were you away for this time?
7 months exactly! Spanning, I think, it was 16 countries (and that was just this time around…!).
What were your hardest challenges whilst you were away? Was language a problem or was it just day-to-day living?
There were certainly a few things – one was due to my GCSE Spanish and the fact that, stupidly, I didn’t practice that much. And, strange as it sounds, I didn’t expect it to be so Spanish (which sounds ridiculous I know!). You take for granted that, as an English speaker, everyone else will have some remote level of understanding English, but that turned out not to be the case. There’s a huge variation of education there and it is very, very different to what I was expecting. Even in areas which were near to very touristy towns – we flew in to Cancun in Mexico and traveled a couple of hours down the coast – there was no English at all!
But it is amazing how quickly you can pick it up when you have to learn Spanish. So whilst it was quite a challenge, it was also a fun one. I ended up speaking the same words and sentences quite often.
The other thing was a lot of countries in South America that we were travelling through, like Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, are in the Andes, so one of the biggest physical challenges was the altitude. I’d read about it before – about the acclimatisation-phase. Cusco is 3400 metres above sea level and La Paz in Bolivia around 3,800 metres, so your oxygen levels in your body drop (as there’s not as much in the air) so your skin gets really dry, your mouth and nose are dry too. You have to drink loads and loads of water to rehydrate to avoid things like really bad headaches and sickness – it can kill you too!! So, pretty bad… I was okay with that but Roman struggled, as he has asthma, so found it a little more difficult when trekking around Peru. We were fine, but there were a couple of 18 year olds who thought they were really fit and healthy, which goes to show it’s nothing to do with the fitness, as they were being very sick. They almost got sent home because they had only flown in the day before, but they just hadn’t had a chance to acclimatise. This all took place on our group trek to Machu Picchu which was great. They did manage to get used to it by the end, but the four days it took to get there they were on the emergency donkey.
So it was language and the altitude that were the main issues for you?
Yeah, and also, though it’s not like working at all so this sounds silly, but when you are constantly thinking and you keep planning – even when you are here eating a meal you are having to think about tomorrow and where you’ll be the next day. It’s constant thoughts of ‘how will I get there?’ and ‘how much is it going to be?’.
So finances played a part too?
It’s really restrictive, Roman works in a bank and his mind is really financially focused (which helps ‘cause I’m really not that sort of person!). We did have a budget, and we worked out that the trip was costing us about £1,000 a month, each - so still quite a lot but cheaper than living in London!
Initially I’d budgeted the same as I’d done for South East Asia – and actually it’s more expensive in South America. The main reason for that is that in some countries like Peru, Lima is quite a dangerous city, and they only have one area (Miraflores) which is safe because of the police presence. You can stay in the cheaper places but I really wouldn’t risk it. To stay in the safer places, you are paying a little bit more for the protection. And that’s the same everywhere.
So, yeah, money was a big problem – I was scraping all kinds of barrels, but as it was the one thing I really wanted to do in my life I was prepared push it and probably suffer the financial consequences later!
But safe to say I won’t be going anywhere for a good few years now!
So what were your highlights?
Obviously I did quite a bit of research into places, but when you get somewhere or do something and it can be completely different to how you have it in your mind. Colombia was an absolute highlight, because there was so much to do. We ended up spending 4 weeks there, the people in Colombia were so friendly – they were amazing.
Another highlight was getting to Colombia – which was more of a personal challenge as I’m not very good on boats. But, because there’s no border crossing between Panama and Colombia you either have to fly, or if you want to see San Blas Islands on the Caribbean side of Panama then people do these sailing trips. Usually these are 5 days (but ours was 6 as the captain wanted to go early because of some immigration bank holiday) so we had a mad rush to stock up on beer and boxes of wine! Some of the islands we stopped at for 2 days, but then it was, like, 30 hours at sea – you can’t see any land and we were praying to avoid any storms. Whilst I knew there were horror stories about the trip, I chose to avoid reading them until afterwards. There are a lot of shipwrecks on that route – but to see those islands you have to put the risk in.
I was telling some friends about it a few weeks later and I said I’d never do it again – but now it’s been a bit longer, all of the good memories remain and the tougher times get forgotten a bit.
I loved Machu Picchu – I was there for my birthday – and the Galapagos Islands too. The best way to see that was on a boat trip (because they are so spread out), so after lots of research we found that you really need a guide. It’s 12-15 people max per guide, so if you go and stay on an island – you can’t even do a day trip without a guide – and the day trips are about $100. It actually worked out cheaper to get your meals and accommodation included in a cruise, so we did 5 nights. It was after the other boat trip and it was luxury in comparison! It was so exciting, the boat was so big and had air conditioning which was, at the time, the most luxurious thing in the world! I was so glad we chose it – we nearly didn’t because of money – then I called home and my mum told me to do it – so we did!
What were some of the more unusual things that happened?
We did quite a lot of free walking tours in the cities – the idea is it’s free and you give a tip at the end depending on how good it is. They were amazing in general, but one of the most memorable/crazy ones was in La Paz in Bolivia (and it’s a strange city anyway) they don’t have supermarkets – everyone buys from the markets. It made the culture there – and I’m not sure if it’s the whole of Bolivia or just La Paz – is when they build a new building it’s tradition to sacrifice something for the building. So apparently, with smaller buildings they will use dead baby llamas to put in the building to bring it luck. But, if it’s a larger office or similar, they (apparently) find homeless people, get them drunk, and bury them underneath the building. I don’t know if they still do this, but it’s one of those creepy stories you get told on the tours!
So aside from your GCSE Spanish, did you find you had anything else – such as a skill – that you found enabled you to cope with a situation?
Well, it does make you realise what you are good at and what you aren’t good at. I realised that I’m really not good at sticking to a budget, whereas I realised that I am organised and I know what I want to do. I find the way to get there – you have to be very organised and planned, meeting buses in the middle of the night, do your research the day before. Kind of like survival in a way.
I’ve become really good at guarding my stuff, like if we were in certain areas your camera would have been long gone! Over there we are looked at like the gringos, or the rich gringos – even though we’re not, in their eyes, we are.
The other thing that blew my mind was the impact of the cocaine industry in South America. The main production happens in Peru and Bolivia, it’s crazy! There’s areas where you can’t go, buses don’t go through and you are warned away from as there’s gangs and it’s too dangerous. The pressure from the cocaine demand is all from the US and Europe – mainly the US though. Seeing the impact was tough, we learnt a lot about it from talks and stuff. Free tour guides and locals/hostels were brilliant to talk to about this.
Did you find yourself relying on tour guides rather than discovering yourself?
Yeah, a bit, although the internet is a wonderful thing. So you don’t have a problem getting on wikitravel or trip advisor and reading things, but one of the best ways to discover new places is just to talk with people. There’s a big ‘travel’ community and they help a lot. The best tips are from other travellers. We wouldn’t have done the San Blas trip if it wasn’t for those suggestions.
We touched on tough challenges – were there any bad experiences, things that scared you?
I’d never go back to Quito in Ecuador – I felt really unsafe there. Everyone has different opinions but it was scary, you were looked at like a target. Someone grabbed my bag whilst there – I knew not to take anything out with me so I had a really old camera and lip balm in there but a market seller carrying a load of carrots in one arm tried to put his hand on my bag with the other. I looked at him thinking ‘what are you doing?!’ but luckily he let go of it and the moment passed so quickly I didn’t get a chance to say anything.
Aside from feeling uncomfortable and a bit out of place, like at bus stations, the idea is to blend in a bit more and just try and fit in. Be polite, try speaking Spanish, and try not to be a regular ‘tourist’ looking lost with a map.
It depends where you are but the whole world is more ‘Western’ than you think it is, there’s only a few places that you feel uncomfortable in. Most places have shopping malls and cinemas – a lot more modern than here in the UK. Some buses have Wi-Fi and TVs – you don’t often get that on National Express!
What places did you enjoy the most or were there any that surprised you?
Definitely eastern Colombia – Roman wanted to go white water rafting and although I was scared, we did it anyway and I loved it! That took us both out of our comfort zones which was brilliant – you wouldn’t have gone to that part of the world without the white water rafting, but it was the most beautiful place: the mountains, scenery, walks…it was just insane!
Another place that I loved that I didn’t think I would was Buenos Aires. I really loved it and I wished we’d done more than 4 days there. We saw a tango show, which was amazing…and then the food – the beef – my god it was incredible!
So many places – definitely the Galapagos, Colombia was a massive highlight, Machu Picchu. Also, because we’d spent so long in the cold, we did this trip to the Amazon which was in the very south part. It was the most basic place and we got flights and accommodation for £100 or something ridiculously cheap for a few nights. We saw so many animals – a lot of this whole trip was about animals.
Oh I haven’t even mentioned Rio! I almost forgot, I was so focused on Colombia I forgot about Brazil! We went to Rio de Janeiro, instead of staying 4 nights we stayed 11 days and it was so good. We took a tour of the Rocinha Favela, a huge slum area, with several million people living there. We joined a guy called Carlos Antonio de Souza (he’d been on the BBC before) and he grew up there and it was so incredible – the stories he was telling. He told us of the time Barack Obama visited the Favela. To prepare for it they knocked a load of homes down, built a road through and just painted the very area he was going to be guided to see. Even to the extent that only facing walls were painted, one side of a building would be painted but not another, to show the investment that was happening in these areas, but it’s not like that in reality. We actually ended up staying in the favelas in small guest houses for 2 nights which was great too!
Why was it always this part of the world? Was it always something that was a target to visit or part of ‘I want to see the world’?
I had a list of priorities, first was Asia as it was one of the things I most wanted to do, then see my family in Australia, and then I genuinely wanted to see as much of the world as possible. So I saw South America, as it’s such a huge continent that you couldn’t really do it as a holiday. You need a considerable amount of time to do it. I was worried that it was going to be detrimental to my career and panicking that my friends would all move on, but luckily that’s not been my case.
I think South America because it’s a great back-packing place to go.
It’s a lot easier to get around the world than you think – everywhere is connected, even in the poorer countries there’s often good infrastructure. Don’t get me wrong, some of the night buses are questionable, but you learn what companies to go with and find the safer options.
So you travelled light – was that quite difficult?
So difficult! I said to myself I would take far less stuff time and yet I think I ended up taking more – because of the weather as well – trying to pack for hot and cold climates. We decided to buy cheap jumpers along the way so I ended up looking like some kind of hippie!
I really missed a hair dryer – I spent most of my time wandering around with wet hair waiting for it to dry and looking like a weirdo. I had to wear a lot less make up which is a bit trickier for girls (maybe just me!) in general. When I left I had 13kgs and only brought back a few souvenirs as I shipped back the odd gift during the trip…my mum was receiving strange packages from South America!
Were there things you missed that you didn’t have with you?
It’s really weird, you quickly get used to not having much, and since getting back, both Roman and I have realised we don’t really need all the stuff in the house. The decorative stuff is fine, but the clothes and the extra stuff I had clear out of before leaving London. Roman didn’t do this though, so he’s found himself going through things since returning and wondering if he really needs those party sunglasses from 2005! You are used to living on less and get used to it really fast.
As well, you don’t need to take much, not only is the world so well connected but you can buy anything anywhere - plasters at a pharmacy, iPhone cables for pennies in the market.
One of the best things about being away was getting my laundry done – I actually miss being away as I have to do my own laundry now, rather than give it to the laundrette man or woman at the hostel. Oh, and now I have to cook as well, rather than just getting market food!
We missed friends and family, but whilst in Colombia we had some friends that came and visited us there. 2 of my friends were travelling already and then another friend had come out from Germany on a 2-week holiday to travel with us. It was weird seeing people from home. We made sure to have a date night – even though we were together all the time, we made a point to just enjoy time together and not worry about planning.
What’s the most important kit in your bag?
The things that were most important to me personally, the things I’d be most worried about if my backpack got stolen, wasn’t my phone or anything like that. It’d be my journal, as it’s taken hours and hours to fill it all in. I keep lots really random things in here [the journal], so I don’t forget!
Also, my sister gave me a little teddy, called Mr Donkey, who’s actually a giraffe. Mr Donkey was given to my sister when she went on her first foreign trip when she was about 5, and she gave it to me to take with me to keep me safe. So I was always panicking about Mr Donkey, and luckily he made it through! He’s showing signs of the trip, as he’s more dirty brown than his giraffe-y yellow colour now.
In terms of more practical items we’d got iPad minis, for reading and a means of research. Otherwise I’d tried to trim it down a lot! Roman had a lot of gadgets being German and super-organised, so he had gadgets for everything on the trip!
Did you write a blog during your trip?
Yeah, we did a Tumblr site which was really just photographs – ‘Denglish on Tour’. It was somewhere we could put images together that wasn’t just Facebook. It means that all our pictures are together.
I did start a blog and my original plan was to have one – it sounds stupid but you just run out of time to do things.
Whilst you were away, was there anyone who stood out in your mind as a character who you’d never forget?
There was a few of those actually. There was actually a person we’d met on a plane (we’re now friends on Facebook!) called Mao, and he was really interesting. He was chatting to us – we were using google translate (best app in the world!) and he was the biggest football plan ever! He was obsessed with his team (Atletico Nacional – Colombia), he’d flown from Ecuador to see them play in Guayaquil on the coast. Afterwards, he was very complimentary saying it was genuinely nice to meet us and chat.
You do also need to be able to let your guard down and just go with it, otherwise you’ll miss out on these amazing people. It’s those people that make your trip, not necessarily the places. It sounds really cliché, but it’s true!
Even the people we met on our journey would have their own reasons for travelling – you remember people’s stories and it can often inspire you – if they had that idea maybe it’s something we can try? We’ve got lots more friends now, dotted all over the world. Although you do see a pattern of a lot of British, French and Germans travelling. It’s nice when you meet someone random, not from Europe. We did meet someone in Belize at a bus stop whilst waiting for a chicken bus…
A chicken bus? What’s that?
The chicken bus is the old buses that would carry everything – including chickens! They are the old American bluebird school buses (like The Simpsons style). The Americans sold loads to Belize, anyway…
We were trying to find our bus and this shop owner was trying to help us, and we ended up chatting to him for about an hour, bonding over a Bollywood film I’d seen in India that he’d also loved. His family were in Bristol, and he was on the phone to them and it was so surreal.
What has travelling taught you?
It certainly makes me appreciate where I’m from. I have loved seeing the world, but I really appreciate where I’m from and London and the UK. How lucky we are, there’s a lot of people that moan about a lot of things including politics – but there’s a lot of countries that have things a lot worse than us. You appreciate the freedom you have here and how safe it is, and just the opportunity both men and women have.
It annoys me when people say I really want to go travelling but I can’t, because if you want it hard enough you can do it. We met people on maternity leave traveling with their 6 month old baby!
I always thought I’d never quit my job and go, leave my friends and family but this has taught me that anything is possible. I also think people can adapt to things and situations quicker than they expect they will, you could be in an uncomfortable situation where you feel you can’t cope, but then you take a moment and realise you can do it and you power through.
Any tips for others whilst travelling?
Don’t be afraid to do it. It’s so easy to get stuck in a job or situation and then feel you can’t do it – even if you just take a month or a couple of weeks and see all you can, organise a trip or anything. Also, don’t be afraid to spend a little bit more than you may have planned to – because you only get one life so you should make the most of it. You can’t take your money to your grave! At least that’s what I believe, but my father would then say that’s pretty irresponsible!
So where’s next – what are your future travel plans?
Actually right now I have no plans! For the first time in my life I feel really content, and also incredibly lucky to have had this opportunity to do this. I will take this with me forever now. I’ll be forever grateful that things have worked out for me – you just have to take those risks!
There’s still a lot of places on my list to visit, the Philippines and then Africa to do a safari – those are my top two things. I’ve never been to Canada so I’d like to go there and I’d also like to see more of Europe. So maybe next year I will try and visit more of Europe, taking some cheap flights, as that’s all I can afford right now!!
What are the 3 most important things in your personal life?
Very normal, but my health, having the support and fun of my friends and family, plus my boyfriend. He should probably get a mention!
Are there any mantras that you live by?
Do whatever makes you happy, live your dreams and be kind.
Which person do you respect most in your life?
I don’t respect just one person, but anyone who can find it in themselves to do what makes them happy and live their life to the fullest. We only get one chance!
I have so many favourites but my (guilty) pleasure since I was 6 is Take That! Gary! Actually, following our trip we’ve compiled a playlist that reminds of of our travels and times away, which you can find on spotify -Click Here!
Must watch film/tv show?
The Sound of Music
The Enchanted Tree by Enid Blyton
Sometimes you will never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory.
Websites you regularly visit?
Buzzfeed! Plus a whole list of travel bloggers...
You have 24 hours to live - how do you spend your time?
I’d probably get all my friends and family, go down to Studland beach in Dorset (where I grew up), buy some inflatable crocodiles and lots of champagne and have a party!
I’m sure that won’t be the end of Kiarna’s travels, its been fantastic to hear about her time away. If you wanted to see a map of her journey its below!