Writer Wednesday – Meet Nick Kembel
What can I say about Nick Kembel? That he’s deeper than most and from reading his interview below, you’ll want to learn more and read more of his word. For me, he wrote it best when he described what travel really is…
“You don’t have to leave home or go abroad to travel. It is a state of mind. It means to see and experience the beauty that is around you, no matter where you are, and to never stop exploring and discovering new things.”
Writer Wednesday would like to introduce Nick Kembel.
Please tell us a little about yourself.
I’m from Canada, I’m 34, and I majored in religious studies and cultural anthropology. I’ve spent most of my adult life traveling and living abroad. I’ve been in Taiwan for the last eight years and my wife is Taiwanese. Right now we’ve got a two-year-old son and 10-month-old daughter. I’ve published a book about living and traveling in Taiwan, and I currently do freelance work for various local publishers and travel magazines. I love oolong tea, craft beer, yoga, and veggie food.
Have you ever travelled solo?
Most of my travels have been solo. I prefer traveling by myself because I like the freedom to decide how to go about my trip, and I find that you actually meet more people when you travel alone. Now I have a family, so of course my travel style has changed and our kids are just getting old enough to start taking them on little trips.
How many countries have you visited?
45, mostly in Asia and the Middle East, plus a few in Africa, Central America, and Europe. It’s been ages since I’ve added a new one because I’ve been mostly traveling around Taiwan where I live, and making return trips to nearby countries that I’ve already been to several times before.
What is your favourite place and why?
Taiwan is a great place for living so that’s why I’ve stayed here so long. For backpacking, I might choose India because it had such a big influence on me despite all the difficulties I faced while traveling there, or China simply because it is so vast and diverse, and I am able to speak the local language when I travel there. Both India and China are big enough that even though they receive a lot of tourists, the visitors are so spread out that it’s easy to get off the beaten path and you often feel like you are the only foreigner in town. A few other places that blew me away were Kyoto in Japan and Cinque Terre in Italy.
If you could describe your method of travel in one word, what would it be?
Planned. I’m not a spontaneous traveler. I plan EVERYTHING. I know what I like and I prefer to figure out beforehand which places are best to stay, which restaurants have the best food, and which areas I will probably like and want to spend more time in. In this way, I can get the best out of my trip. Also, I think that planning a trip is half the fun.
What is your must have travel accessory?
I’m kind of old school, so I never visit a country without the relevant Lonely Planet guidebook. I know lots of travelers hate on the big guidebooks, but I also think sometimes those travelers miss out on things because they don’t even know they exist. I don’t usually use the book to find accommodation though because there are better resources online and the places listed in the book always get too many guests and jack up their prices. There are often better options with almost no guests on the same street.
What is your most memorable travel moment?
Can I choose my top 50? This is not an easy question, but here are some memorable moments in chronological order from the last 15 years: skydiving and hitchhiking across New Zealand, scuba diving the Great Barrier Reef, the first moment I stepped foot in Asia, hiking to Everest Base Camp, cliff diving into Lake Atitlan, climbing Mount Sinai in Egypt, meeting (what I thought were) the friendliest people in the world in Iran, traveling to remote areas of Iraq and Pakistan, sleeping in the Golden Temple in India, swimming with whale sharks in the Philippines, getting married in Greece, and going to Japan with my wife when she was pregnant with our first child.
What is your dream destination?
Peru has been at the top of my list for a long time, but I am saving it for after we move back home to Canada. I would also love to do an Antarctic cruise as well visit Iceland and Faroe Islands.
Do you have any upcoming trips?
When my wife and I move back to Canada in about three years, we plan to travel across Europe on the way. Before then, we will probably do some smaller trips to places closer to Taiwan, such as Japan and China. My parents are visiting me in Taiwan for the fourth time this fall and we are going to the Philippines.
How has travel changed you?
My life has revolved around travel since I first went to New Zealand 15 years ago. My first trip to Asia inspired me to study anthropology and write my thesis on Tibetan Buddhism. As the years passed, I developed my writing and photography skills, and now I make a living writing for Taiwanese publishers and travel magazines. Travel hasn’t “changed” me per se, it IS ME, or at least a very big chunk of who I am. It’s like asking somebody, “How has eating food changed you?” Even though I am now a family man and mostly staying in one place, I still see every day as a travel experience. Even when I go back to Canada for visits, I feel like I am a traveler in my own hometown. You don’t have to leave home or go abroad to travel. It is a state of mind. It means to see and experience the beauty that is around you, no matter where you are, and to never stop exploring and discovering new things.
How long did it take for your book to come to fruition?
Shorter than most, I think. I work quickly. When I first had the idea, I contacted some local publishers and one of them was interested right away. But then I had a major setback. My apartment in Taipei was robbed and I lost all of my photos from my first two years in Taiwan. I still signed the contract, and then spent the next 6 months revisiting places all over the country and recapturing all those photos. The writing itself only took me a month or so, and my wife spent about the same amount of time translating it to Mandarin. Finally, we spent another couple months editing and then the publisher spent a few more months designing and printing the book. So from initial conception to actual publication, it was just under a year. But the work didn’t end after publishing. I spent a lot of time in the following year promoting it, doing book events, setting up a website, sending out direct orders, and so on.
What drew you to Taiwan?
At some point in my travels I was teaching English in China with a friend from Canada, and we were kind of forced to leave China in 2008 because we didn’t have proper working visas and the government suddenly started cracking down on that just before the Beijing Olympics. We moved to Taiwan because it was nearby and used the same language. I had also been curious about Taiwan for a long time because it was a corner of Asia I hadn’t yet explored.
What is your top tip for first-time travellers to Taiwan?
Don’t come for only five days! Many cross-Asia travelers only budget a week or less for Taiwan because they think it’s a small country. And yes, it is a dwarf compared to some neighbouring countries, but it offers so much in such a compact space, and with a week or less, you can only scratch the surface and see a couple famous places. The best parts of Taiwan require more time, and that’s why so many English teachers end up staying here for 5 years, 10 years, or even permanently. Taiwan is also a paradise for food lovers and outdoor adventurers, and it’s extremely safe. After 8 years here and LOTS of exploring, I still have a list of places I want to visit before I leave.
What do you hope your readers will take away from your book?
I designed my book to be a fun but informative read. It has lots of color photos, illustrations by my sister, poems, funny stories, and also lots of practical info about Taiwan’s history and culture. My goal was the same that it is for all my blogs and photography; to share the beautiful places I’ve seen and moving experiences I’ve had, and to motivate others to just pick a place and go.
I noticed you donate a portion of your book sales to a non-profit organization that helps street kids in India. Why is this organization so dear to your heart?
Photography, blogging, and even my book are not my main sources of income. So I figured the least I could do is donate a chunk of the profits from them. Also, the theme of my website is spiritual travel, so it would seem hypocritical to only use it as a platform to make money for myself. In choosing an organization to donate to, I wanted to go with one that I had personal experience with. India is a country that moved me more than any other, and one of the hardest things about traveling there was seeing so many kids on the street. The Salaam Baalak Trust runs excellent tours in Delhi in which all the guides are former street kids. The money they raise is used in so many good ways to help impoverished youth in India. Every traveler to India should try to join one of these tours. It only takes half a day.
Do you have any new books on the horizon?
I’m pretty occupied right now because my wife and I both work and tag-team taking care of our two kids. I’m satisfied with just doing the occasional travel mag article and working on my blog here and there when I have a little spare time. Before I leave Taiwan I might do a follow up to my first book, but in Mandarin only. I don’t have much to add to my first book in terms of Taiwan travel stuff for visitors, but many locals here are curious about the lifestyle and ideas of foreigners living in their country, especially ones that have been here for a long time, have married into local families, and have kids. So I think my recent life as an expat dad and married man would be more interesting to locals, not visiting travelers.
Where is your favourite place to write?
I would love to say some beautiful place like at the river’s edge or on a balcony with a view of the sea, but in reality, with a baby and toddler to take care of, I do most of my writing in the office of my tiny Taipei apartment when my kids are asleep. There’s usually a cat in my lap and a cup of tea or a beer beside my laptop.
What is your favourite travel book?
I usually say Seven Years in Tibet because it was the book that first got me interested in Tibetan culture, which led me to travel to (and ultimately live in) Asia and also write my thesis on Tibetan Buddhism. I also love The Motorcycle Diaries because it captures the true spirit of travel, in an era long before traveling became dominated by the need to photograph everything, blog, share on social media, etc.
What is your favourite travel quote?
I don’t have a favourite travel quote. To be honest, spiritual and travel memes kind of annoy me. I think that travel is a luxury that a tiny percentage of the world’s population can enjoy. Travel has its ups and downs, and it’s not for everybody. Travel quotes tend to only focus on the highs of travel, and are geared towards people who CAN travel, or can’t but wish they could. I don’t mean for this to be a negative answer; I just think that there is so much to travel that it doesn’t do it justice to try to summarize it, or even one aspect of it, in one catchy sentence. I like long articles and vivid descriptions of real experiences. If there is a quote about making the best of what you have and where you are RIGHT NOW, then I choose that one.
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