30 countries, €20k... a priceless journey

From rough sleeping in the Amazon rainforest to unwittingly entering a cocaine bar in Bolivia, Cork journalist Kelly O'Brien reflects on her year of globetrotting
30 countries, €20k... a priceless journey
Pictured is journalist Kelly O'Brien in Rio de Janeiro. Pic: Kelly O'Brien

“TRAVEL isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts… it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you – it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”

These inspirational words were once uttered by Anthony Bourdain - the recently departed, and hugely admired, travel show host.

The words left a mark on me when first I heard them and came floating back to me when I received news of Bourdain’s untimely passing earlier this year.

I was in Chile at the time, deep in the Atacama Desert to be exact, and had just returned from a somewhat strenuous trek of Valle de la Luna – a harsh landscape of dunes, rugged mountains, and distinctive rock formations.

Sickness had ravaged me the week prior to the trek, and I wasn’t myself. Feeling both mentally and physically drained, I despairingly considered my scuffed boots, dirty leggings, and scratched hands and I wondered what I was doing, wandering on my own from country to country, with nothing but my life savings and a small carry-on backpack.

Descending into a black hole of social media that night, I heard the sad news. But, while Bourdain’s passing saddened me immensely, I was also bolstered by the memory of his words. He was right - travel isn’t always pretty, and it isn’t always comfortable. It’s not meant to be. If it was easy, I wouldn’t appreciate it. I may have struggled when I was climbing up that treacherous slope a few hours earlier, but wasn’t I rewarded at the top with one of the most beautiful sunsets I had ever seen?

Journalist Kelly O'Brien pictured in the Amazon. Pic: Kelly O'Brien
Journalist Kelly O'Brien pictured in the Amazon. Pic: Kelly O'Brien

Resolving to keep Bourdain’s words more often in my mind, I decided to keep going – further down South America through Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil and through whatever adventures those countries might bring.

It was the right decision, and one I would make again, 10 times over if I had to.

In the end, 2018 turned out to be the best year of my life, so far. I had had a strange ending to the previous year when my seven-year-long relationship came to an end. I had been travelling throughout Europe and down through Kenya and Tanzania, during the final few months of 2017, after I left my steady job in the Evening Echo.

I left my job so I could travel, and travel I did. But, come Christmas time, I found myself with not very much at all – back from my travels and living at home with my parents for the first time since I was 17, no job, and fresh wounds from a bad break-up.

But I entered this year with an open heart and the desire for a fresh start and decided to pack my bags once again. I set out to blow my savings once and for all.

First stop? Lithuania. Why? I had never been there before and Ryanair was having a sale.

From there, I travelled over land and sea to Latvia, Estonia, and Finland, braving the cold, talking to practically nobody for about a month, and working on mending a broken heart.

In Denmark, I livened up a little bit, making friends with a war correspondent from the US and going out for a few too many drinks with her and two other US girls.

Then it was onwards to Poland, which is where I really let loose, and had my first ‘big scare’ of the year.

It started as it always does, with a hostel room and a friendly atmosphere. I checked into my dorm room in Warsaw and proceeded to make fast friends with my lovely Swiss roommate. We clicked instantly and decided to go get some alcohol at the local supermarket in preparation for the hostel party that night.

We drank, we laughed, and we tried our hands at making polish dumplings. We drank some more and made fast friends with a lovely Australian couple also staying at the hostel. It was the early hours of the morning before we called it quits, and we all stumbled to our respective beds. I lay down on mine, the room spinning around me, and fell asleep.

It was not my bed that I woke up in, however, an undetermined amount of hours later. I woke, standing, in the dark, enclosed in a small space.

I could see absolutely nothing, not even my hand in front of my face. I felt around the area and figured it was a box of some description. All around me, any direction I reached out my arm, there was a cold wall. My head was groggy, clearly the beginning of a hangover, but I began to suspect something else as well. Had I been drugged? Kidnapped? Spirited away in the night and buried in a box by some nefarious Polish gang? Was I about to be buried alive? To be tortured? Raped and murdered?

Getting desperate, I started to scream. I screamed wordlessly, I screamed for help, I screamed for someone to let me out. There was no answer.

I calmed down and kept feeling around the space. I came across an abnormality in the wall and I fiddled with it, and a burst of water hit me in the face. I fiddled again and it went off.

Slowly, I began to realise what had happened. That somehow I had ended up in a shower. Sleepwalking, presumably - something I used to do as a child.

Sure enough, I found a grove in the doors and pulled. It slid open. I stepped out, groped for a light switch and, sure enough, I was in the bathroom. I opened the door and there was my bed, and three other girls all in their bunks sleeping right through my harrowing ordeal.

The next morning, someone mentioned having a dream about someone screaming. Another girl chimed in with “Oh my god, I had the same dream!” They marvelled at their apparently psychic abilities, and I said nothing, chewing on my imitation cornflakes in silence.

Paragliding over Interlaken, Switzerland Pic: Kelly O'Brien
Paragliding over Interlaken, Switzerland Pic: Kelly O'Brien

My next destination was Switzerland, to meet up with the aforementioned Swiss friend, and to partake in a bucket list activity – jumping off a snow-capped mountain and paragliding down to the picturesque town of Interlaken.

The teeny tiny country of Liechtenstein was next, followed by a brief stint at home to collect my mother, and then jetting off to the great US of A.

Suddenly, I was back in a country where I could speak the language. I hadn’t realised just how mentally exhausting it was trying to communicate with people whose language I couldn’t speak until I didn’t have to do it anymore.

I toured around the US for a while after my mother left, leaving our base of New York City and travelling up to Canada to see Niagara Falls, and making my way down to Miami as a birthday treat.

I went all out. I flew to Miami and spent the morning on the beach, the afternoon in the water taking part in a bit of parasailing, spotting sea turtles in the waters below, and the evening at a shooting range.

My birthday was amazing, by all accounts, but a few days later I had my second ‘big scare’. My backpack was stolen.

I left the bag momentarily unguarded and some not-so-very-nice individual snatched it. In it, I had clothes, my ID, a USB stick with important photos, cheap but sentimental jewellery, some cash, my hostel key, my hostel locker key, a debit card, and a credit card.

Thankfully, I had my phone on me, and I proceeded to search for Wifi and cancel the bank cards with my AIB app. I wasn’t quick enough. I logged on to find a number of charges had already been made to my account – a few rounds of drinks and a $500 bottle of champagne. I thought they had signed for the items and forged my signature, though later I found out they had been watching me before the theft in order to get my PIN.

I cancelled the cards and tried to figure out my next move. I was alone, in the US, with no money. I went to the bar where the charges were made, and they were no help at all. They couldn’t care less. I looked around to see if I could see my bag discarded anywhere, but it wasn’t.

My hostel locker, which I later had to break into, held a few items of clothing and, thankfully, my passport, but everything else was gone. So I did what any other sensible Irish girl would do in the same situation – I called my mammy.

It was the middle of the night back in Ireland, but my mother picked up.

I was a little emotional after the incident and sobbed down the phone the first few minutes. She eventually got the gist, and agreed to post me the replacement bank cards when they arrived and to go to the Post Office first thing in the morning to wire me money which I would then collect at a nearby Western Union branch. She also gave me her own card details so I could buy travel tickets online, and use Android Pay on my phone.

Only for her help, I don’t know what I would have done.

All in all, I was without cards for around three weeks, which was a major hassle but not the end of the world. It actually taught me a number of important travel lessons – never keep both your bank cards in the same place, never leave your bag unattended, cover your PIN when you enter it, and never, ever, take your mother for granted.

Journalist Kelly O'Brien at the Grand Canyon. Pic: Kelly O'Brien
Journalist Kelly O'Brien at the Grand Canyon. Pic: Kelly O'Brien

While I spent a lot of time in the US this year, travelling to a total of 25 states and seeing sights such as Yellowstone National Park, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Area 51, and Mount Rushmore, the true highlight of my year was further south, in Central and South America.

I started this leg of the journey in El Salvador, with a lovely volcano hike, and slowly made my way down through Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. I marvelled at the famous Panama Canal, visited the equator in Ecuador, marvelled at the ancient beauty of Machu Picchu, and endured all the well-meant warnings from family and friends worried about my visiting Colombia.

Journalist Kelly O'Brien pictured overlooking Bogota, the capital of Colombia. Pic: Kelly O'Brien
Journalist Kelly O'Brien pictured overlooking Bogota, the capital of Colombia. Pic: Kelly O'Brien

If there’s anything my travels taught me, apart from how not to get robbed, it’s that some countries should not be judged on their past. Colombia is one such country and is still struggling to emerge from the Pablo Escobar-shaped shadow which looms over it. From the vastness of Bogota to the manmade lakes of Guatape, the country is one of immense beauty and is full of extremely lovely people – natives and backpackers alike. I never saw anything dodgy in my time there, and never once felt unsafe.

The only place I did feel unsafe was in La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, where I unwittingly ended up in a cocaine bar. And yes, that’s exactly what you think it is.

I had joined a group of people a few weeks previously, and was travelling with them. They were nice and spoke Spanish, and we were going the same direction. Happy days, until we went out one night in La Paz. Apparently, the bar we went to wasn’t lively enough for them, so we left. We called two taxis, and bundled in – presumably, I thought, to go back to the hostel. Spanish was spoken, and away we went.

Twenty minutes later we arrived at what seemed to be a rundown apartment block in a seemingly abandoned neighbourhood. I asked my friend what we were doing there, and they cheerily informed me we were going to Bar 36. A cocaine bar.

I had a split second to make a decision – go with them or stay in the taxi on my own and try to get back to the hostel. Taxi drivers in La Paz are notorious and I didn’t want to run the risk of either getting ripped off or kidnapped, so I followed.

We went up to the door, and sure enough, there was a tough looking dude standing there. He looked over each of us, thoroughly, before making a call. He received an affirmative, apparently, because he beckoned us into the dilapidated building.

We climbed four floors, went through two more bouncers, and offered up our mobile phones before going through a steel gate which was closed and locked behind us. We got to a room which I can only describe as a sitting room of some description. There were 15 or so patrons, all clearly tourists, sitting in armchairs, snorting lines of coke.

In no time at all, all but one of my friends were ordering lines of coke from the menu, and the barman was bringing them out on dinner plates, as if it was the most normal thing in the world. It was absolutely surreal.

Designating myself the sober person, I ordered a soft drink and watched the madness unfurl. Thankfully, after about an hour, we left. It was an odd experience, but I’m glad I went. While the bar could have been raided by cops at any time, and I could easily have found myself banged up abroad, I do have a fascination with the underbelly of life, and it was incredibly interesting to see something like that with my own eyes for once.

Onward travel saw me biking down Death Road, marvelling at the salt flats of Sal de Uyuni, and sandboarding in San Pedro de Atacama. Argentina came and went, Iguazu Falls being a particular highlight, and it was on to Brazil – through Sao Paulo, over to Rio de Janeiro and Christ the Redeemer, and up to Manaus to the Brazilian Amazon.

Words cannot truly describe how it felt to swim in the Amazon River, and to sleep outdoors in the rainforest, fresh from a long day of piranha fishing, in a hammock between two trees, being watched by a nearby crocodile and flicking scorpions off my mosquito net. It was another time Bourdain’s words would come back to me, as I listened to the sounds of the rainforest and tried desperately to tell myself nothing would eat me in my sleep. No, travel is not easy all the time, especially not for a solo female traveller, but that’s the way it should be.

Within the last 12 months, I’ve travelled to a total of 30 countries and spent almost my entire savings – a substantial €20,000. What I got for my money was a lighter pocket and a fuller soul – a state of being I am entirely content with.

What the future will bring for me now, I haven’t quite decided. But if travel has taught me anything, it’s that life really is all about the journey, not the destination – a standpoint, I’m sure, the late, great Anthony Bourdain would surely have agreed with.

Go to www.thesecornersoftheworld.com to read more travel stories from Kelly O’Brien.

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