It was approaching Easter in 2009 and I had no idea what my big travel plans would be after my exams in June. I knew I wanted to go to Iceland, do a big road trip in the Balkans with my friends and visit my sister in the US till the end of July. So off I went to STA Travel in Oxford and told the lady I met there that I wanted to see Africa and South America.
24 hours later, I had tickets booked to fly to Nairobi where I would get on an overland truck and camp my way down the African continent till Johannesburg for a whole month. From there I would fly to New York to watch the US Open (as I’m a huge tennis fan) and then on to Peru where I would spend the next 10 weeks in South America before flying back to London to meet up with my dad to travel around the Middle East.
My favourite picture I took of the Williams sisters – I sat at the very front row!
Number of countries: 34
Number of continents: 5
Number of flights: more than 20
Distance traveled: roughly 120’000 km or 3 times the circumference of the earth
Number of things lost: TOO many (TWO mp3 players, a jacket, a scarf, sea sickness tablets, a glove, an ear ring, a flip flop, a shoe, another pair of shoes, lip balm, 1 GB memory card, chocolates)
Number of future husbands met: ONE 😉
One of my first pictures with Peter at the Iguassu Falls a week after we first met
Number of stamps in passport: 92 + 5 from doing the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
(I used up an entire passport with 32 pages. As I had lost the previous passport (it never arrived at the Serbian embassy in London), my passport’s expiry date was after 3 years instead of the usual 5. When I applied for a new one after six months, the immigration officer got a shock when I said I was already applying again as the last one was full.)
4 of the 5 stamps in the passport from doing the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
Number of visas needed: 1 = the US. How amazing is the Malaysian passport? When the Brits had to pay $50 for a Tanzanian visa and the Irish had to pay $100, there I was across the border with a free stamp in my passport. It was also the reason why I was the only person that crossed into Zimbabwe.
Number of beds: More than 40 (Most of Africa was in a tent, counts as 1)
Places slept: cars, hotels, hostels, tents, salt hotel, airports
Weather and seasons experienced: spring, summer, autumn, winter (it was 40 Celsius in Florida and it snowed while hiking in a mountain in Peru)
Longest door-to-door travel: It took me almost 48 hours to get from Johannesburg to Washington DC . I had a 13 hour layover in Abu Dhabi. When I bought my flights to JFK to watch the US Open, I didn’t know my sister would be in Washington DC then. That meant going into NYC and taking a 5 hour bus ride south to the capital.
Number of new Facebook friends: too many
Number of new lifelong friends: 5 who I am in touch with to this very day.
With Matt and Charlotte my two closest friends on the South American leg
They came for our wedding in Basel
And we see them at least once a year in London!
New things experienced:
1) Safari in Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa
2) Bungee Jump, Bridge Swing and Zip Line near Victoria Falls
3) Learning to surf in Lopes Mendes Beach, Brazil
4) Hang gliding in Rio de Janeiro
5) Small plane ride over the Nazca Lines, Peru
6) Hiking the Inca Trail in the Andes to get to Machu Picchu in Peru
7) Sandboarding in Ica, Peru and San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
8) Spending a night in a salt hotel in Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
9) Sleeping in a tent for an entire month in Africa
10) Being above 5000m in Bolivia
What was in your backpack?! How heavy was it?
About 20kg. The dark blue backpack on the right in the picture above was what I had with me in Africa. I bought the light blue one in the US before going to South America along with a sleeping bag which I only used for the Inca Trail (yet carried with me for the next too many months). I also had the smaller red day pack which I carried on the front.
Apart from clothes and food (I brought trail mix for the Inca Trail and lots of instant noodles), I had shoes, flip flops, cameras, phone, chargers, netbook/laptop, TWO pillows (yeap can’t sleep without them), small towel, prayer mat, toiletries, etc.
What a nightmare it was to unpack and pack at each new place!!
How much did it cost?
I remember telling people it must have cost about 12’000 pounds in total back then. So that must have been it.
Although I was traveling on a tight budget, I did splurge on activities I knew were once in a lifetime such as hang gliding in Rio (200 USD), rafting on the Zambezi river (180 USD), Bungee Jump/bridge swing and flying fox at the Victoria Falls (200+ USD), plane ride over the Nazca lines (>100 USD), etc.
My staple diet in the last month in South America (breakfast and dinner) was mostly fruits, yoghurt and cornflakes as I was running out of money
How much preparation was needed for this trip?
I was so ill prepared for this trip. Apart from getting the yellow fever and Hepatitis B vaccinations, I did not do much else.
I was the only person without Malaria tablets in Africa.
As I always had the idea that Africa is HOT (clearly learnt nothing after the cold nights in Marrakech), I packed nothing warm for the trip and was told to buy some warm blankets in Nairobi for the freezing nights at the Ngorongoro Crater.
In Cusco, I bought two thicker tops in Tipitop to keep me warm on the Inca Trail.
Was it tough?
The start in Africa really was. I found myself spending 24 hours a day with a group of people from all walks of life – some I would never have crossed paths or been friends with outside of the trip. It took a while for me to get used to an Irish girl who was an electrician who would swear in her every second sentence. (Maybe I never quite got used to it)
I also felt quite lonely as most of the people were traveling as couples. Perhaps two other girls were traveling solo but teamed up together quite quickly to become tent mates. In other words, I was left to pitch my tent by myself at every new campsite and bring it down on my own too. The tents we were given were huge and heavy and impossible to pitch by the 156 cm me. I always waited till the others were done and got the taller stronger guys to help me finish.
One day whilst in Zanzibar, I broke down and cried as I felt so lonely and couldn’t believe I actually booked myself onto this trip. I had no idea how I would survive the rest of it and continue traveling for 10 weeks in South America. Luckily the people I met and traveled with on the next leg were a lot different – more fun, more “me”. However, I did have an amazing experience with the local people in a village in Zanzibar.
What was the split between joining a tour versus planning it yourself?
As I had to sit for my final exams and submit my dissertation before the start of the trip, there was only so much I could and actually did plan. I knew I wanted to see the Golden Circle and swim in the Blue Lagoon whilst in Iceland. We definitely had a good rough idea of what our 9 days road trip across the Balkans would look like.
The Middle East portion was at times a disaster. Back then I would always go to a Tourist Information Centre whenever I got to a new place. Upon our arrival in Damascus, no one could understand where I was trying to go (why did I not know how to say Tourist Information Centre in Arabic), and those who did, said that there was no Tourist Information Centre in Damascus.
Walking around and getting lost in downtown Damascus
In Beirut, my initial plan of visiting the Jeita Grotto did not happen as every single cab driver wanted to charge us an exorbitant fare. When asking the locals for directions to the famous Pigeons Rock of Beirut, we were told they did not exist. Sigh.
How did you communicate with the locals?
I remember the locals at McDonalds in Santiago, Chile laughing out loud when a friend called out “Señor! Señor!” when trying to catch the attention of a cleaner.
I made it a point to learn Spanish during my time in South America and was able to have 5 minute conversations with a stranger by the time I got to Buenos Aires, Argentina after about 7 weeks. However quite quickly after, we found ourselves in Portuguese-speaking Brazil. Some days later I was in the Arabic speaking world of the Middle East.
It was imperative to:
- speak slowly
- use very simple and basic words
- get to the point quickly
I do wish I had an Arabic phrase book when I was in Damascus. Although, I’ve been told perhaps no one would have understood me as they speak a certain dialect there.
Here was what my travels looked like from June to December 2009:
US (NYC, Washington DC, Florida), UK (submitted my dissertation!)
I hope I will get to go traveling for an extended time once more in the future. It was an amazing experience; the highlight undoubtedly being meeting my husband.