Kesi Irvin is a vibrant woman, radiating warmth, energy and bags of self-confidence. Her Insta profile is packed with pictures of golden beaches, eclectic wall murals, colourful people from a wide range of countries and cultures and more than just a hint of a life far from ordinary. She describes herself as a ‘twenty something ivy-grad, solo-female backpacker who quit her finance job in NYC to embark on a world-wide adventure.’
Having reached over 40 countries on 6 continents, we are inspired by Kesi’s attitude and adventures and met up with her to find out how she has created such an incredible lifestyle and the way that it has changed her as a person.
So Kesi, what was it that first inspired you to become a full time explorer?
I don't think I am your typical backpacker, since I went to undergraduate business school at Wharton, University of Pennsylvania and interned at Morgan Stanley for 5 summers. After I graduated UPenn, I worked in NYC for 3 years in corporate finance. I was on a path to make lots of money and have a successful career, yet I had a strong wanderlust calling my name. I decided to save up my money and planned to travel around the world for 1 year. Well 1 year has now become 3, and I don't have an end in sight. At my 5-year college reunion I felt distinguished for choosing an atypical path in life and fully embracing a nomadic lifestyle.
As a self-professed nomadic traveller what has been the most remote place you’ve managed to find so far?
One interesting story was finding the Rainbow Mountain in Peru before anyone knew about them. In November 2015 I saw a picture of the Vinicunca (Rainbow) Mountain and I was determined to go. I tried to look for information on Google and ask tour guides in Cusco, but no one had any information. I looked up the #vinicunca on Instagram and messaged all 20 people who had a picture of the mountain. I compiled their tips and made a map for myself to find it. I took some local buses and taxis and eventually ended up in the small village called Chillca, 3 hours from Cusco. The place looked deserted! Luckily, I was able to find a potato farmer and he knew the way to the mountain. It was too late to embark on the journey that day, so he invited us to stay in his little hut overnight and he would pick us up early the next morning to go on the hike. We hiked for 3 hours on a beautiful journey and eventually made it to the mountain. The farmer never asked for anything in return for his help, but we decided to give him some money as a thank you. Tours to Rainbow Mountain started running in 2016 and now it is a super popular place. It was a fantastic experience to find somewhere that was undiscovered at the time and to do so using my broken Spanish was an extra bonus!
Travelling solo is something that could potentially deter some women who dream of packing up their possessions and heading out on a worldly adventure. What advice would you offer them from your own experiences?
One of the main reasons I love to travel solo is because it forces me to meet people along the way. It amazes me how back packer connections work. For example I decided to go to Oktoberfest in Germany because a guy I met in a hostel in Portugal 2 years prior offered me a free tent to stay in. I actually ended up crashing on the couch of a German guy I met in Berlin 3 years ago on a free walking tour. I can meet someone for a couple hours, yet since we share a passion for travel we stay connected and end up being friends. Also, it is more enjoyable to visit people in their hometowns, since they share a pride over their city and want to show me the best experiences.
I also strongly believe that despite what the world media tells us, the world is full of good people and I have met many of them on my travels. I might be naïve, but I have seen so much good in this world and have not had any negative things happen to me while traveling.
Can you tell us about one of your most memorable adventures and what made it so?
Hiking the Inca Trail with my 66-year-old mother will be an experience I never forget. I remember before I started my travels, I asked my mom if she wanted to do the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu together. She immediately said yes, even though she had no idea what the trek entailed and wasn’t too sure what Machu Picchu was! My mom thought we would be staying in hotels, but instead we spent 4 days and 3 nights hiking and camping 3000m above sea level. The Inca Trail was definitely hard, but also rewarding. There is so much history on the paths we walked, and every morning, waking up in the clouds, I felt accomplished. We also managed to gain some sort of ‘celebrity status’ during the walk. Everyone knew me and my mom because we stuck together for the entire trek, and I guess we are memorable since I have an afro and my mom was the oldest one out there. When we finally got to Machu Picchu, people from other tour groups would clap for us and we had countless people come up to us to congratulate us for finishing.
It is often said that the most important skills we learn in life are those that we really want to learn – what skills have you picked up in your three years of travelling?
One of my goals as a traveller is to learn Spanish. I decided to start my Central/South America adventures by taking Spanish classes at The Antiguena Spanish Academy. Antigua is the perfect place for anyone interested in learning Spanish because the classes are cheap, they have great teachers (I did not know any Spanish when I started classes but after two weeks, I now feel comfortable having a 30-minute discussion), and they have customised learning, which means each class is tailored specifically for the level of their students.
I also worked in Croatia for one month for the Yacht Week. I can’t properly explain the experience of working on the Yacht Week, since it does not feel like the real world. I had amazing crews that I loved looking after, and found out that I’m actually a pretty good chef!
And finally Kesi, after all of your adventures and experiences, how would you say travelling has changed you as a person?
I decided to leave NYC because 2 weeks vacation was not enough. I knew I loved traveling and wanted to see the world and the only way I could do this was if I had an extended career break. Also, I knew I would regret it if I did not go around the world. Traveling has changed me because firstly I can’t see myself going back to corporate America. I’ve had so much freedom these last 3 years that it would be very hard to go back to a 9-5 job sitting at my desk all day. I know that whatever career I get into, I want to have the option to be nomadic. I also realise that I don't need that much money to be happy. I've been living on a budget for the past 3 years and enjoy life. Obviously I miss having some stability, but I no longer desire to make the most amount of money as possible. Instead I am happy with making enough money to be comfortable.
I have also discovered my patient side! Living in New York, the environment is very fast paced and time is money. When I am backpacking I have all the time in the world and it's really nice not to be stressed about getting everything done quickly. I can be at a local restaurant on an island in Mozambique, wait for my lunch for 3 hours and not mind because I am able to hang out with the family who live there and play with the kids, instead of being mad that my food is not coming in a timely manner. I really don't stress about small things anymore, because I appreciate how privileged I am to be living life on my terms. Why get annoyed or mad over trivial things? I'd rather just focus on living life and enjoying every minute.
Finally, as I mentioned before, I now believe that mankind is good. I am often overwhelmed with happiness because the world has been so good to me. Even in war torn countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, there are still people that live there and those people are amazing, helpful, and want to share their culture and make sure I have a good experience in their country. I truly have faith in mankind and think everyone is innately good; it’s the environment and greed that makes people bad.