Cultured Carrots: Around the World with Ben Russellby Carrot
Carrot Creative is filled with colorful characters. Cultured Carrots is a series that shares the outside passions that inspire the very best work for our clients. This week, Analytics Manager Ben Russell takes us on a journey to some of the most remote corners of the world where he’s had the opportunity to see many cultures in the midst of extraordinary change.
Carrot: What sort of places do you like to visit?
Ben Russell: The biggest draw for me is a unique place to explore and understand how other people are living and thinking, and to learn something from them. Traveling and meeting people with an entirely different outlook on life helps me to appreciate the value of everyone's own individual experiences. There's nothing like being at a market in a foreign country where no one speaks English. You can learn a lot about human behavior by engaging in a confusing game of charades just to buy food from a street vendor in Kyrgyzstan.
I also just like to do cool shit that most people wouldn't do. Like visiting the site of the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown or drinking fermented camel milk in a yurt in Kazakhstan.
C: What interests you about places in flux?
B: Off the grid travel has been a huge part of understanding more about myself and the hyper-modern world that I live in. Stripping all of that away, turning off my phone, and detaching from the world is a way for me to turn back time. You know that all of these places are going to change one day. Last year my friends and I found ourselves in a tiny one road village in Kazakhstan called Zhabagly. Every morning a herdsman would collect animals from individual farms and take them out to pasture, and every night he would bring the animals back home. One evening we actually helped out and herded a few hundred sheep and goats down this one road, ushering the animals back into their owner's gates like we were dropping kids off from school. There's no way we would've had that experience 20 years from now when the highway that they were building is complete, more stores are built, and first world necessities are available like wifi and LTE.
C: Why do you think it is important to visit these places?
B: There's something to be said about surrounding yourself with people and cultures that are completely different than your own. A lot of these cultures have maintained their core values for hundreds, sometimes thousands of years. I want to have some sort of glimpse into how people are living and how their lives are about to change dramatically, sometimes unbeknownst to them. I've always been fascinated with culture and changes over time across generations. So it's first hand experience knowing that entire groups of people, their surroundings, diet, pretty much everything is about to change quickly.
C: Which place that you've been to has had the greatest impact on you?
B: Kolkata, India. I was actually born there and moved to America when I was 6 months old after being adopted. The story is that this orphanage opened their doors one day and I was chillin on the steps. Not a day goes by when I don't think about how different/shitty my life could've been. So I probably carry a lot of that with me when I seek out travel destinations.
I traveled back to India and to the orphanage (which had since been shut down) when I was 18 years old. I think that trip had the most profound impact on my life as it is today. An incredibly humbling, overwhelming, shocking, and fantastic experience - everything I want in an adventure.
C: Have you ever felt in danger while in a particularly volatile place?
B: That's usually rare. People generally love to meet Americans. Here's a close call though. I was traveling around Albania, Montenegro, and Kosovo with some friends when we decided to take an overnight bus to Belgrade, Serbia. Quick history lesson: the U.S. helped to liberate Kosovo from Serbia in the 90s. So Kosovars absolutely love Americans, but Serbia doesn't recognize the liberation.
Here we are, three Americans on a bus full of locals, and we get to the Kosovo-Serbia border. Next thing we know, we're being pulled off the bus and interrogated by a handful of Serbian border police wearing head to toe camouflage and armed with assault rifles. My one friend who is fluent in Serbian is having a very intense and heated conversation with the guards - a lot of yelling and violent hand gestures.
We ended up having to walk through no man's land between the country borders back to Kosovo in the middle of the night. Still haven't been back to Serbia, one day though.
Other than that, the Balkans is still a place with a lot of superstition. They basically believe that gypsies will turn you to stone if they look into your eyes. Most of the people in the countryside thought I was a gypsy, so you can imagine how that went...
C: What are some of your pro tips for traveling to the places you go to?
B: ProTip #1: Keep an open mind to new adventures and be willing to get out of your comfort zone - it's incredible!
ProTip #2: Always carry emergency cash. It comes in handy for paying off Mexican police and Indian border patrol.
C: Is there a particular person that made an impact on you during your travels? What's their story?
B: When I was in Cuba last year, we stayed with a woman who had been running her own network of bed & breakfasts for years. These were the days before Airbnb was allowed in Cuba, so this woman was a capitalist ahead of her time! Every day we'd exchange stories with her. She would ask us about life in New York and we would ask her about what life was like after the collapse of the USSR. It was fascinating to understand how people were living while isolated from American influence. We would have these long talks at breakfast over giant plates of papaya and mangos. She would insist we come back for dinner, where she would force feed us mounds of rice and beans and slow-cooked chicken. She was very candid with us. We talked about her family history, Castro, communism, and how much things were going to change for her and her business with the influx of tourism.
C: Any future travels planned?
B: Next up: Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Bangladesh.