Kach Umandap just arrived in Praia, Cape Verde, West Africa a few hours before we meet for this interview. The blogger just finished a ten-day trip to Morocco with a group of travelers who are part of an exclusive club she has created called Travel with Kach.
Travel with Kach is not a travel agency, Umandap offers. What she hopes to do with this young project is organize and help like-minded individuals, especially Filipinos, who would like to explore destinations that are off-the-beaten path. So far, she’s organized a Balkans tour—six countries in two weeks: Montenegro, Albania, North Macedonia, Kosovo, Serbia and Bosnia—and three trips to Morocco.
But Umandap is taking a short break from her group trips to concentrate on solo travel. This is so she could fulfill her lifelong dream, which is to be the first Filipina to travel the world using only a Philippine passport. “I’m at 177 countries and territories now, so I only have 43 countries to go to make a record,” she tells us, adding that this count is based on the Travelers’ Century Club's official list of countries and territories. Based on the United Nation's list, she is now at 157 countries. She has yet to check Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, among others, on her long bucket list.
And to think she almost quit her dream. “I got married, I got separated, got heartbroken,” the globetrotter tells ANCX. “Alam mo yung mga ganung drama sa buhay. I felt so low.” All of these happened in the last six years.
But a trip to the United States, where she met kababayans who were featured in the book “Galà: Adventures of the Most Well-Traveled Filipinos,” inspired her to pick up where she left off. Among those she encountered was 77-year-old Odette Aquitania Ricasa, who has visited 301 out of some 330 Travelers Century Club Countries and Territories.
The reason Umandap is driven to accomplish her goal is so she can inspire Filipinos who dream of traveling to give in to their wanderlust. So that Pinoys too can have a voice and representation in the traveler community. “Tayong mga Filipino, we are known for going abroad in order to work,” she says. “There are many countries I’ve visited that don't even know Filipinos. They don't know that our citizenship exists.”
Which is why even when she had an opportunity to acquire another citizenship, having been married to a Brit, she continues to use only her Philippine passport whenever she travels. “I wanted to prove na kaya natin on our own,” she says. She also wants to debunk the notion that only rich people can travel. “It's not true. You need money, yes. It's difficult, yes. But it is doable,” she says.
Bumps on the road
Umandap was only seven when her parents separated. She grew up under the care of her grandparents in San Pablo, Laguna, with her mother single-handedly supporting her and her siblings’ financial needs. Because they didn’t have much, the young lady felt she always had to excel in school. She dreamt big, too. She wanted to take up Law so she could become a diplomat and explore different countries.
But she would hear words of discouragement. “Hindi ka naman basta makaka-travel abroad with the Philippine passport. Siguro kung magtatrabaho ka bilang OFW,” she remembers her lolo telling her. Umandap was determined to prove the old man wrong.
Thru a scholarship, she took up Economics at the University of the Philippines as her pre-Law course. She interned at the Philippine Overseas Labor Employment in Kuwait where she was eventually offered a job. She worked for an oil company, and was based in the Middle East from 2009 to 2013. This was when the trajectory of her life started to change.
“Iba ang mindset ng mga Filipinos sa Middle East,” she says. “They would just be in their own circles, talking about their problems. But when I started to travel and socialize with other nationalities, I realized na hindi naman tayo aping-api. That motivated me to blog about my experiences, both the good and the bad. I want us to have a voice.”
Traveling around the world was not exactly in her plans. All she wanted to do was explore different places to gain new experiences. Until she realized she’s already covered an impressive 120 countries and territories. “So I was like, why not travel the rest of the world?”
Among her most memorable and life-changing trips happened in Antarctica, North Korea, Venezuela, and Montenegro. Antarctica made her realize there are no impossible dreams. “It’s so expensive to go to Antarctica,” she says. “It’s also very dangerous to cross the Drake Passage, so when I finally spotted a penguin, talagang kinagat ko ang ice.”
Traveling to countries like North Korea and Venezuela allowed her to appreciate freedom and life’s simple joys. While Montenegro has a soft spot in her heart and she considers it her homebase. She first visited the Southern European country in 2017, then returned with her sister in 2018. When she had a car accident in Pakistan that left her unable to walk for three months, Montenegro opened its doors for her so she could receive physical therapy. The government even allowed her to live there for a while. “I found peace there,” Umandap says. “Pareho lang natin silang mahirap na bansa but the place and the people are beautiful.”
Life’s an adventure
Umandap is an adventure-seeker. She has experienced sleeping in an Iron Ore train in Mauritania for 17 hours. She’s lived on a sailboat in the Caribbean for two years. She’s traveled solo on the Silk Road. She’s also crossed the border from Djibouti to Somalia—a dangerous feat if you ask those who’s done it.
Embarking on solo trips especially to off-the-beaten-path countries is a challenge, but so is funding her trips. From 2009 to 2013, she was employed in the Middle East, and that allowed her to save. And then she had a quarter-life crisis. “I didn’t want to get tied down to a 9-to-5 job,” she says, recalling her sentiment then. So with her savings, she decided to leave her office job and become a budget packer.
Volunteer work in hostels and farms allowed her to get free food and lodging. She taught English in Hanoi for eight months. Eventually, she thought developing her skills would help her along the way, so when she went to India she studied yoga and Ayurveda therapy. She was able to use what she learned when she stayed in South America. “I rented a two-bedroom apartment, then I turned one bedroom into a massage room. When people say I’m a massage therapist, I tell them, ‘No, I’m an Ayurveda therapist,’” she recalls.
In 2014, she and her ex-husband started the popular Two Monkeys travel blog, which allowed them to get sponsorships for their trips. “My trip to Antarctica was fully sponsored. Until now, the Turkish Airlines gives me free flights. I work with many tourism boards around the world,” she says.
Umandap and her husband may have separated in 2021, but some of their readers continue to follow her on her social media accounts, asking for tips on securing visas or traveling to different countries. To answer this need, she decided to put up filipinopassport.com, which offers visa and travel coaching, flight reservation, visa application services, among others.
“Ang daming agencies sa Pilipinas, at laging nai-scam ang mga tao. Thru this website, we hope to provide Filipinos with information and services, para hindi sila naloloko,” says Umandap.
She also has a show now on Kumu. Every Friday at 9PM, her Travel with Kach answers all sorts of travel-related inquiries. She also goes live on the Two Monkeys Travel Facebook and YouTube accounts. The episodes can be viewed on iwanttfc.com.
Umandap’s advice to Pinoys hit by the travel bug? “Don’t listen to naysayers when they tell you that you have this very ambitious, impossible dream.” Second: Quitting your regular job to travel the world is doable. “The best thing about us, Filipinos, is that we are resilient. We learn and adapt along the way,” she says, speaking from experience. “Last year, when I got separated, I lost almost everything. But since I have the skills, I used that to my advantage.” Acquiring new knowledge and skills is important, especially those “that would allow you to travel the world freely and work at the same time,” she continues. “Read more about being a digital nomad, it's the in thing now. Why work from home if you can work anywhere?”
Photos courtesy of Kach Umandap