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Interview: Ken Budd, author of The Voluntourist

by Trazee Travel

Dec 5, 2014

© Ken Budd | The Voluntourist

© Ken Budd | The Voluntourist

© Ken Budd | The Voluntourist

Ken Budd is a writer whose credits include The New York Times, Smithsonian, Huffington Post, Smithsonian and NBC’s Today. He is also the author of The Voluntourist—A Six-Country Tale of Love, Loss, Fatherhood, Fate, and Singing Bon Jovi in Bethlehem, which documents his journey working in China, Ecuador, Palestine and Kenya for nine months.


Name: Ken Budd


Profession: Writer


Age: 48


Packing Tip?

Always pack a journal. I usually carry a small, light notepad in my pocket so I can record my impressions, emotions, memorable things people say — all the small-but-rich details we’re likely to forget.


Favorite travel memory?

For two weeks I volunteered at a special-needs school in Xi’an, China. I’d sometimes see a happy little boy, maybe five or six years old, accompanied by his grandfather. The boy couldn’t walk — I suspect he had cerebral palsy — so the grandfather carried him on his back, constantly, often up long flights of steps. I’ll never forget their bond and the grandfather’s quiet devotion.


Bucket List Destination?

Mars. Or anywhere in space. Here on Earth, I’d love to visit Japan, Peru, Egypt, Antarctica — pretty much any place I’ve never been.


Favorite off-the-beaten-path spot?

The Santa Lucia Lodge in Ecuador, south of Quito. Getting there requires a lung-busting two-hour hike: Santa Lucia is an Andes cloudforest — the elevation is around 10,000 feet — with no roads. The pay off? Heavenly, fiery sunsets as light fights through the clouds, plus nearly 400 species of birds and four-legged creatures ranging from pumas to rare spectacled bears.


What kind of traveler are you?

I believe in leaving your comfort zone. That means trying new things and new foods (you should never fly to San Francisco and eat at Applebee’s). I want experiences that pull you from the tour bus cocoon and onto the streets. The relationships you form, even if they’re fleeting, are the most rewarding part of any trip.


Funniest travel story?

I stayed with a local woman and her children when I was volunteering in Kenya. She lived about 20 minutes outside of Mombasa and one day we went to the city for lunch. I noticed that the matatus were much sleeker in the city. A matatu is a shared taxi — it’s the main way you get around in Kenya.

“The matitis are much nicer here,” I said.

“It’s matatus,” she said, correcting me.

“Oh — what did I say?”


“What does that mean?”

And she said it means … boobs. So basically I’d been sitting in a restaurant saying, “You know, the boobs are much nicer here in the city. They seem so clean and freshly waxed.”


Best meal you’ve had on your travels?

I became obsessed with the falafel in the West Bank. So tasty.


Craziest thing you’ve done while traveling?

I volunteered for two weeks near Bethlehem, based in the Beit Jebrin refugee camp. Avoiding the region’s politics is impossible, and our hosts asked the roughly 40-plus volunteers to attend a weekly protest against the security wall. I decided to go as an observer. In some ways, the protest is routine: A group of Palestinians (often joined by internationals and sometimes a few Israeli citizens) march up to a row of heavily armed Israeli soldiers standing behind razor wire. The protestors make speeches. It’s nonviolent. But you could feel the tension in the air. Then some kids rolled a tire into the razor wire. And one of the soldiers pushed one of the kids. We were lucky that day: it didn’t turn violent. But two weeks later, the soldiers attacked the crowd.


Favorite item collected from your travels?

My wife and I taught English for two weeks at a rural elementary school in Costa Rica. At the end of our stay, the principal gave us a thank you gift: a keychain with photos of us and the students and school. He apologized — he wished it was a bigger gift. I told him it was one of the most touching things I have ever received.


Where next?

I want to visit Spain, which has long been on my dream list. It would be good incentive to improve my feeble Spanish. And Mars seems a bit unrealistic for now.



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