Travel is What You Make Out of It: Benjamin Kemper

It was February 2020. Got a call from Tourism Committee of Armenia (MINISTRY OF ECONOMY OF THE REPUBLIC OF ARMENIA). I was told that we were going to host one very talented travel writer- Benjamin Kemper. Keep reading, because the most interesting is coming.

Driving from Nagorno Karabakh to Yerevan Benjamin agreed to give an interviw for my readers. We had a great conversation full of travel spirit and Armenia. And I am thrilled that this interview is the first new article on my new born website about Armenia.

He is also the co-author of Lonely Planet Wine Trails (2020), Michelin Green Guide Spain (2020), Fodor’s Essential Spain (2019, 2020), Fodor’s Essential Portugal, and the forthcoming Fodor’s Madrid (fall 2020).

Bylines in:

Condé Nast Traveler, TIME, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg Businessweek, CNN, Food & Wine, Lonely Planet, SAVEUR, National Geographic, Michelin Green Guides, The Daily Beast, Thrillist, AFAR, Travel + Leisure, Fodor’s, Smithsonian Magazine, Atlas Obscura, Extra Crispy, EnRoute, Serious Eats, OUT, Runner’s World, Tasting Table, Departures et al.  

So let’s dive into our travel topics.

About the Impact of Travel

I know you’re traveling a lot and as far as I understand you are mostly traveling in European part and Caucasus as that’s your interest. Let’s start talking about traveling in general. What’s your favorite country so far?

I live in Spain and Spain is definitely my first love in terms of travel. I love the energy of Spain, Mediterranean positivity, food and culture, it is pretty incredible also because of different regions and different cuisines.

Why you are traveling?

Because that’s how I pay my bills. (laughing) I’m traveling because I think meeting new people and being exposed to different cultures, different traditions, different ideas is what life is all about.

Did travel change you a lot?

I’ve always traveled with my parents. With my father, he is also a writer, so he traveled a lot and he would come back with stories about very far places like the Amazon, Africa. When I was very little this places fascinated me. I also grow with a lot of books. I’ve spent lots of afternoons just looking at the different photography books from different parts of the world, reading about different cultures and when I started traveling it definitely fulfilled some of this childhood dreams. And also in books and in movies everything is idealized, everything seems pure and uncorrupted because photographers are always looking for THAT shot. For example in Armenia Lada is parked in front of monastery but we also know that in restaurants there are a lot of Coca Cola signs, and there is lots of poverty. I think the travel taught me to not trust everything that I read and also gave me the faith in the goodness of people in general.

What you’re looking for when you travel? Do you like more of adventure style of traveling or more of a food, etc.? What are your priorities on the roads?

I’m kind of a little bit of city boy, unfortunately, and I’m trying to change that. So adventure travel definitely interests me. I love hiking, horseback riding but I haven’t done any trips yet where I’m camping in the wilderness or anything like that. To me the most I like about travel is the people, the food and the culture. Especially when people all come together and sharing stories.

Can you remember three wisdoms that you learnt from the people who you met during the traveling that made an impact on you?

On this trip to Armenia was that kind lady who I asked why she is so kind to us? Because I just waved to her and the next thing we do we were having tea in her living room. And she replied. “The poor are always the most generous.” That stuck with me.

Let’s see what else…

I wrote a story for Afar magazine in the United States and it was about the lone inhabitant of the highest village in Europe in the village called  Bochorna (2,345 metres/7693ft above sea level) in the Tusheti region which is an historic region, there is a man who is in his 70s and he is the only person who stays in that village all year round,  he has no electricity and he is a doctor. There are around 40 people entire staying in that village. There are no schools, the whole region does not have internet and very little cell phones. He goes from village to village on his homemade skis with backpack and saves people’s lives. I said to him. “I am sure everybody is so thankful to you for what you do.” He replied. “That’s not me, that’s God is acting through my hands…”.

This is something that stuck with me too.

Let’s talk about travel and friendship. We travelers always have that one problem. Being always on the road we can hardly make time for our friends and sometimes we lose some people because of that.

Actually I think it is healthy. It teaches you who is worth your time and who’s not. My job is a great excuse not to hang out with people I don’t want to see. I view this as more of a plus than minus.

Traveling of course takes time away from your friends and families but I’m kind of a free spirit and that’s how I like to live my life anyway so it suits me well.

Very often it’s a problem for travelers to adjust to their everyday life routine after a long journey. Do you have kind of rituals that you use helping you to get back into your routine?

Nagorno Karabakh

My partner always makes me the same dish when I come home. It’s just a very simple pasta, tomato sauce. That makes me to feel really good and home. But generally I leave everything on the floor and I don’t even think about unpacking for few hours sometimes even till the next morning. I like to relax and feel comfortable at home. I also like to go for run because after a long flight I like to get my legs moving.

During the flight time what you do? Do you like that part of traveling? For some people this is the only time to be alone. How do you use your time in the air?

I often have to work on flights and find it quite good place to write because there is usually no internet, no interruption since there is no excuse for not writing. I find it’s really good time. I get some of my best and fastest writings done on plane. But when I have nothing to do about the work there is something about airplanes that makes me very emotional, I don’t know why. I can watch the worst movie ever and find myself crying and I ask myself why? What is your problem? Why are you crying?

Let’s slowly get to travel tricks and tips. What do you take with you when you travel?

I always bring my full skin care regimen like cleanser, lotion, sun cream, shampoo. Everything that I have at home. I never use the stuff at the hotel and I feel like if I bring my own things it will make me much more comfortable and healthier too. I always have with me noise-cancelling headphones which is the best investment I’ve made in the last couple of years, really nice expensive ones. You put them on the plane and you can go to sleep pretty easy. Also I like to have earplugs always, always, always. I use them not only when I want to sleep but also when there is nose around. If you want to relax just put them on.

Travel Writing

When you do your writing do you need inspiration or you can just sit and thoughts are coming?

No, you need discipline, you need time and you need patience because writing is extremely frustrating. Writing is not fun. Somebody famous once said. “It’s not fun writing, but it’s fun having written” and I agree completely with that.

Do you love what you do?

I don’t love actual writing part which is always surprising to people. I love everything that my job entails: meeting new people, having new experiences, shining some lights on some parts of the world that people don’t generally look at. And of course when you are writer you get a lot of free stuff too. But actual writing can be really painful especially when you are really investing in what you are writing. For example the story that I wrote about the doctor in Tusheti, that story took me weeks and it was double length but I needed that much time to tell the story in a correct way.

When people react on your story does it bring you more inspiration?

I think that the most of the people that comment they don’t even read what you write. I think they read the title and they comment. This is the problem with social media, there is little meaningful interaction with media. You have a quick comment, quick thank you there that generally relates to your personal life, your personal opinions but generally people don’t read your entire article. Few people do and sometimes I get e-mails from people they wrote thanks for these great articles or they have a question, either they want to go to the same place that I went to. And I am always happy to help people and connect some dots.

New Country and Travel Habist

Was it difficult for you to move to Spain with different mentality after USA and find new friends there?

I think that you can find people of a similar mentality anywhere you go. You just have to look for them and you have to take a risk of talking to strangers and that’s how you can be a great traveler by talking to strangers.

Mention your three habits that you use for discovering a new country.

Taking to strangers. There are the ways that you can introduce yourself to people without being creepy and weird. You can ask what they are eating if they it some sort of dish, you ask for directions.

I always go to national traditional market, because that’s where you see the real people shopping.

When you enter your hotel room, what’s the first thing you do? For example I love to open the curtain and window.

I take off the decorative blanket immediately because I know they don’t wash them often.

Do you prefer hotel or guest house?

Guest houses, because you feel more like at home. There is something to me that still even though I write about luxury hotels that it is very grotesque about having the person that who is generally older than you who is poorer than you cleaning up after you. There is something that I really don’t like about that in my spirit. I understand that this is the way the world is but something about guest house at least you have this human contact. And you know where the money is going. You stay at big hotel and that money is going to a few very deep pockets, but If you’re staying at guest house your money is going right to the people who own the guest house.

Luxury Travel Trends and Armenia

Let’s talk a bit about luxury travel as you’re also writing about luxury travel. What makes the travel experience luxury?

No one size fits for all luxury. Benjamin Kemper

It almost cliché to say it now but I think that luxury is no longer about having the biggest room, the most expensive champing. It is exclusivity of private experiences and it also local things- maybe it’s very specific desert waiting for you when you’re arriving your room. Like something from the local place that is handmade or homemade. I think the tendency of luxury travel it’s been changing for a long time. Really rich people don’t want to flaunt their wealth anymore like they used to because it’s a different time there is such big inequality right now. Rich people mostly in USA don’t want to draw attention to the fact that they are rich because the society start to question about that. So luxury has become more private, become more quiet and also become some ways greenwashed. When you make things environmentally sustainable so you can then justify your action which usually irresponsible.

This all started even 15 years ago with “We’re not going to wash your towel if it is not put on the floor” as if they are saving water but then they are giving you plastic water bottle and then throwing away. They don’t recycle and they don’t pay their cleaning staff living wage.

If you’re luxury traveler, you have a lot of money and you’re traveling I think there are certain things that everyone wants when they travel. If you are already wealthy and used to luxury travel you don’t really need people to give you the most expensive thing you want to try something different. Money doesn’t make people happy and showing money doesn’t make people happy either. What does, at least if you are curious, is the local culture. Service is extremely important. Service is not just subservient but also very attentive and anticipates your needs. For example looking up people before they arrive. In 21st century it always really surprises me, especially me as a writer when I arrive at the hotel and people don’t know who I am. Just look me up on google and you will find my name. Often time even if my stay is arranged through PR agency or Tourism board there is just no communication there. Gayane from your Tourism Board was very good at answering to all my questions. She did a great job. You can be staying at very expensive hotel but when the people have no idea who you are and then the next step of course is when they know who you are they may offer you very specific experiences to your interests. Everybody nowadays have Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and if it is open just look what person likes. May be you will see their photo on the horse and you can recommend horseback riding experience.

No one size fits for all luxury.

That’s the good point. Now let’s move slowly to this part of the world.

How comes you choose this region for your articles?

The Caucasus exists in the interactions of many of my interests, my hobbies. So one is language. I love foreign language and this part of the world is like puzzle of many different languages. That to me is really fascinating. Also the food in this area in a similar way as language,  you go from one village to the next and they are making one dish in different way. You have this flavor combinations that are very at least to my taste and my palette very distinctive, different from what I’m used to. I think the cuisine here doesn’t really reach a lot of the world and so when I came here I was blown away by all the fresh herbs, sauces made with walnuts. The dumplings` Gerogian khinkali taste like Chinese ones but has lamb, instead of pork, etc.

And there is the wine culture as well. The Caucasus is probably the cradle of wine. You have ancient wine making culture and it’s almost like going to Meqqa if you are a wine lover. You go back to the roots.

Future of Armenian Tourism and Cultural Shock

When was your first visit to Armenia?

I came in 2015 I think.

Have you heard about Armenia before you came?

I think that in USA many people especially if you live on East or the West coast you know somebody who is Armenian. I am from the East coast and my mom she is jeweler and Armenians at least in the USA have been very involved in gem stone trade. So my mom new some Armenians. I didn’t know much about Armenia. I knew little about politics and about Armenian Genocide but I didn’t know what to expect.

And then you did arrive. What was your cultural shock here?

I of course focus more on food and wine, drinking and eating.  So the way people drink here is very different.  I found there is lot more vodka, a lot more shots and not as much wine on the table. In terms of cultural shock I would say there certain level of consumerism, celebrity culture, I think Kardashians have probably a lot to do with this. Armenia is a bit of showier as a county. People want to flaunt their clothes, their cars.  But again I don’t like to speak in general terms because stereotypes are harmful but I can only speak about the limited time that I spent here and limited places I’ve been and limited number of people I’ve met.

What has been changed since 2015 in Armenia?

I was only here for about three of four days when I came. I didn’t see much of a country. But in Yerevan I see more Syrian-Armenian restaurants and the roads are better as well.

In terms of tourism what do you think how we can sell Armenia? The things we may not notice that are valuable and interesting for travelers.

In this age the ultimate luxury is the time and may be the second thing is silence. Armenia doesn’t realize what it has. It can offer both of these things. Luxury today is quieter literally and figuratively. People just want silence. They want the time to think, to be with nature. I think that Armenia can offer this type of tranquility, peaceful and back-to-the-land kind of travel. If they want Armenia to develop in this way they should invest more in independent guest houses, families, food ways. For example where we just ate (it was in Artsakh). Those woman love to cook and they love their culture, I am sure if the Armenian government invest in them and may be to develop special food project. May be exploring sour dough that we were talking about. Start this, build this and why don’t you start learning English and so they can speak directly to some guests. That how you build the luxury market not by building more luxury hotels and the things like that. That’s my opinion.

That’s the future of luxury market, I agree with you.

And also if you are going to invest in luxury hotels just make sure they are very unique to the place. What really bothers me a lot is when I see really expensive hotels and they say nothing about the place, spirit, its culture. You can be in Dubai, in New York it’s the same kind of bad, the same kind of curtains, the same kind of paintings. Invest in local artists, bring their art, have some local wine, things that gonna make the people remember the place. Because we ultimately are talking about memory. And how memorable are experiences. And better Armenia invests in independent entrepreneurs who have vision and deep sense of culture as oppose to bringing another Sheraton, Double Tree or Ritz-Carlton or something like that.

What are the food types that you enjoy having here?

I love all those wild greens and wild herbs. For me that’s the most fascinating part of Armenian cuisine that people find in the woods. I love when people say this comes from the forest, from the mountains. That to me is very romantic and so traditional. Anything like this herb dish, herb soup. Like this aveluk soup (sorrel) I really like and also the bread of course. I love this tonir hats (bread) the one we just tried today. And I really enjoy lahmajon. I love also trying different diaspora food.

Do you think we have good wine here? Or you think we are still more famous with our brandy?

Armenia has great cognac. I tried some really phenomenal brandies at Ararat. (You can find his article about Ararat brandy here ). But I think in my very humble opinion Armenia paid too much attention to international wine consultancy in the 90’s and 2000’s who drove winemakers to embrace an international kind of uniform style of wine making which involves lots of oak and very high alcohol. And also pushed Armenians even further away from traditional wine making method of using karas. It’s really refreshing to see especially on this trip and this is something that has definitely changed during last several years to see wineries like Trinity making wine with this traditional methods. It really tastes like the place that they are from and they don’t rely on chemicals, don’t rely on mass production.

What are the good things in society here?

Good thing is the welcoming nature of people. Meeting that old lady who just invited us to her home for the simple reason that we smiled to her. That doesn’t happen in every country. That is something really unique.  I hope when more tourism comes that won’t be lost. Because tourism is often the enemy of this sort of hospitality. That’s why responsible tourism must be managed from the government. Responsible, ecological, thoughtful tourism must be very well managed so that all the things that make Armenia so unique, all these local experiences don’t turn into another Disney theme park. I think you are right now very far from that. You should think of yourself like natural paradise with lots of local people and make it higher end destination by exclusivity.

Benjamin, Travel is….?

What you make out of it 🙂

That’s a great one! Love that!! Thank you so much!

Thank you too, Sira!

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