Writer Wednesday – Meet Ken Budd
I’d heard rave reviews of The Voluntourist by Ken Budd for a while and finally decided to purchase it when I stumbled upon it in a local bookstore at the end of 2014. But what happened next was in the hands of the travel gods! I arrived home after buying the book and like any good blogger was checking my social media when I noticed a new twitter follower – Ken Budd! Seriously! I couldn’t help but laugh and quickly messaged Ken with the strange turn of fate; first buying his book and then him following me – coincidence I think NOT! He quickly messaged me back and was also amused by our strange fate. And so began the story of how the inspirational Ken Budd became one of the writers for my Writer Wednesday series!
Writer Wednesday would like to introduce you to Ken Budd.
Please tell us a little about yourself.
In 2005, I experienced one of those “what am I doing with my life?” moments that happen to all of us at some point. My father had died suddenly from a massive heart. My wife and I didn’t have kids. I felt that my life didn’t matter. So when I received an unexpected offer to volunteer in New Orleans in 2006 nine months after Hurricane Katrina, I took it. I didn’t know it then, but I’d wind up volunteering around the world: Costa Rica, China, Ecuador, Palestine, and Kenya.
Where are you from and why should people visit?
I live in Northern Virginia and work in Washington, D.C. I think D.C. has everything you want in a city—great museums and restaurants, international influences, abundant green space—but without the hectic craziness of, say, New York. The mistake tourists make is that they visit the monuments but not neighborhoods like Dupont Circle or Capitol Hill.
How many countries have you visited?
I didn’t travel outside of the U.S. until I was 30; since then I’ve visited 22 countries (some of them multiple times).
What is your favourite place and why?
This is cornball, but the Earth is my favorite place. I’ve been lucky enough to hike some of the great U.S. national parks—Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, the Grand Tetons—and to see lions in the grasslands of Kenya, to watch fireball sunsets in the Andes. It’s a lovely little planet we live on. Deep down, though, I think I’m happiest on a beach.
If you could describe your method of travel in one word, what would it be?
“Absorb.” Absorb the sights, the smells, the flavors. Absorb the unusual. I’ve never understood traveling to another country and then eating at Burger King. Talk to strangers, break free of the tourist cocoon, and soak in everything around you. One of my travel rules is this: feeling stupid is good. Every time I feel stupid, I learn something: about myself, about the country, about the local culture.
What is your must have travel accessory?
A notepad. I keep it in my pocket and jot down everything from funny sights to memorable quotes. I usually bring a journal and write in it each evening.
What is your most memorable travel moment?
In China I volunteered for two weeks at a special needs school. Each morning I’d see a happy, smiling little boy, probably five years old. I never met him, and I don’t speak Chinese, so I dubbed him “Buddha Boy” in my mind. Everywhere he went, he was accompanied by his grandfather. The boy couldn’t walk: I’m guessing he had cerebral palsy. The grandfather carried him on his back, often up long flights of steps. They were inseparable. I’ll never forget the grandfather’s quiet devotion.
What is your dream destination?
Outer space. The closest I’ve come is a zero gravity experience. The plane makes parabolic arcs to create weightlessness. Astronauts call it the “vomit comet,” and after 15 arcs I could see why. Here on Earth, my wish list includes Japan, Peru, Egypt, Alaska, and Antarctica.
Do you have any upcoming trips? If so, to where?
My wife and I have traveled more in the U.S. of late, including a recent trip to New Mexico. I’d always wanted to see the landscapes that Georgia O’Keefe painted. I’m hoping to visit Spain this fall—also one of my dream destinations—and I’d like to do more international traveling in 2015 and beyond.
How has travel changed you?
When you travel you realize you’re a citizen of the world—that there’s no such thing as us and them. I spent an evening in the West Bank with a Palestinian family, accompanied by two other volunteers: an American and two Spaniards. We talked about families, politics—whatever came up. Travel changes how we see each other. When you talk with people, they stop being stereotypes.
How long did it take for your first book to come to fruition?
It was a long process. When I started volunteering in 2006, I wasn’t planning to write a book. It was only when I wrote an article about my experiences in Costa Rica in ’07 that I thought… maybe there’s a book here. It took me three months to write a proposal, then more time to find an agent and write a sample chapter. We sold the idea to William Morrow (a division of HarperCollins) in 2008, and I volunteered in four countries from May 2009 to January 2010. I’m guessing it took about nine months to write a first draft (I work full-time, so I’d write on the train to and from D.C. and then at night). The Voluntourist was published in May 2012: I’ve been pleased and humbled that people keep discovering it.
The book is about my journey, but I’ve learned that people see it through the prisms of their own lives. Readers have told me it’s spurred them to think about their purpose in life, about giving, about their relationships with their fathers. I hope a takeaway is that we don’t get much time here—650,000 hours of life—plus something my father said: “Success comes from helping others succeed.”
Do you have any new books on the horizon?
I’ve started working on a novel. I’m staying away from first-person nonfiction for now. Memoirs work best when there’s something at stake, and that was the case with The Voluntourist. I needed to make that journey and write that book. So I’m holding off on another memoir until I need to write one, as opposed to just feeling like, “I want to be published.”
What is your favourite travel book?
I loved the quirky Assassination Vacation, by Sarah Vowell, which focuses on her obsession with presidential assassinations. Driving Mr. Albert, about a weird road trip the writer takes with a pathologist and Einstein’s brain, taught me lessons about balancing multiple story lines. I’m probably the only man in America who read Eat, Pray, Love, and while I’ve read snarky criticism of it—probably because it sold a gazillion copies—I thought the Italy section movingly shared her personal crisis and rebirth through travel and pasta.
What is your favourite travel quote?
I’m fond of the famous Mark Twain quote—
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness”
—but I try to remember the words an English friend told me in Costa Rica:
“You only learn about yourself when you’re outside your comfort zone.”