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Vagabonding Vagabond Blogger – Our Interview with Rolf Potts

Getting your head on in Australia - Rolf PottsIf you’ve done or thought about doing any long term travel in the age of the internet, chances are you’ve heard of Rolf Potts. Rolf was blogging about travel for Salon at the dawn of the 2000’s, but he is best known for the publication of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to Long Term Travel in December of 2002. The book struck a chord with the internet generation and became a runaway hit amongst those who had missed the days of the hippie trail. The book is about taking serious time off from your normal life to discover and experience the world on your own terms. With sections on  financing your travel time,  determining your destination,  adjusting to life on the road and handling travel adversity, the book addresses travel as inner development tool rather than travel as something that you simply do.  In the spirit of Ed Buryn‘s Vagabonding in Europe and North Africa, Potts book captured the imagination of a generation that was finding its way on the internet and wandering what the meaning of life truly was.  Coming right after the dot com bust and on the eve of the financial crisis in the US and Europe, the book fit the bill for filling the gap between living to work and working to live and offered the opportunity to turn your life into your work through travel.

Since then Potts has piloted a fishing boat 900 miles down the Laotian Mekong, hitchhiked across Eastern Europe, traversed Israel on foot, bicycled across Burma, drove a Land Rover across South America, and travelled around the world for six weeks with no luggage or bags of any kind. He has also published a second book Marco Polo Didn’t Go There: Stories and Revelations from One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer and continues to travel around the world between rest stops at his farmhouse in Kansas. Rumor has it that Rolf has something new in the works for 2012 but he is keeping mum about it for now. I caught up with the vagabonding vagabond blogger via email and he kindly agreed to answer a few of my questions for Vagobond readers about life, travel, authenticity and himself.

Vagobond: What were you doing career wise before you started blogging for Salon (before the publication of Vagabonding)?

Rolf Potts: My last job before I transitioned into a full-time writing was teaching English in Korea. It was a key job for me, since in addition to earning me a decent amount of money for travel, it allowed me to live in and get to know an unfamiliar culture for a couple of years. My two years in Busan wasn’t always easy, but it was an essential experience that made me a better traveler down the line.

Before that teaching gig I hadn’t been following a single career path — I worked as a landscaper in Seattle for awhile, and I worked at an
outdoor store, selling backpacks and fly-rods, in Kansas. This was all building up to what I really wanted to do — writing — and eventually that happened for me.

Vagobond: My first book was all about living in a van and enjoying time instead of money. I understand your first travels were in a van too. What were some lessons you picked up from living in a van?

Rolf Potts:I think traveling and living out of a van during my first vagabonding trip taught me some essential lessons about minimalism and keeping things simple. Since I was sleeping in the van most nights, I didn’t have a lot of room for extra “stuff”, so all I brought were some clothes and camping gear in a couple of laundry baskets. And even the gear I had in those laundry baskets wasn’t always necessary — I quickly learned that the American road provided me with most everything I needed experientially; my gear played a fairly minor role in my most interesting experiences. This was a lesson I applied while packing for my later backpacking trips across Asia, and even my no-baggage journey around the world in 2010.

Vagobond: In Vagabonding, you wrote about the philosophy of long-term travel – has that changed in the decade since then? How has technology changed your philosophy?

Rolf Potts:I don’t think my philosophy of vagabonding has changed — and in fact I wrote it in such a way that technological and other changes wouldn’t ever alter its core message, which is about keeping things simple and seeking one’s wealth in time and life-xperiences. Those are values that would apply in the 19th century as easily at the 21st. So regardless of what new tools and gadgets arrive to make travel easier, the core principles of vagabonding won’t change much.

One interesting thing about new technology — like social media and smart phones — is that it is making independent travel a lot easier.
More people are doing it now, I think, because it feels a lot safer and easier and more accessible than it used to. The flipside of this is that the conveniences of travel are more and more making travel and extension of home. In many ways we don’t have to psychically leave home” when we travel — we can keep in such close contact with our friends, family, and social networks — and this can diminish the experience of travel to an extent. So much of what is transformative about travel comes from confronting — and working through — being lonely and bored and lost. The less we’re forced to encounter those little challenges as travelers, the more travel tends to become a consumer experience.

Vagobond: Do you see any problems with the massive growth of independent and long-term travel? What about the huge growth of tourism?

Rolf Potts:There will invariably be problems with the growth of any industry, and travel is no exception. There will also be benefits. Indie travelers spend a lot of money in the “mom and pop” economies of faraway places — which is a good thing — but the presence of so many travelers can also strain the local culture and environment. Islands are particularly vulnerable to large influxes of tourists, since scarce resources like water get diverted to tourist needs instead of local ones. I don’t think this means travel should be curtailed to these places — its an important cultural and economic force — but it does mean that destinations should take care in planning tourist
facilities, and travelers should be cognizant of the impacts they bring. In a way I think indie travelers are better equipped than standard vacation tourists to wander in a mindful way, since a vagabonding-style traveler emphasizes going slow and keeping  informed.

Vagobond: I realize I’m supposed to ask you about the best destination, your favorite country or something like that – but instead, what’s your favorite tourist area?

Machu Piccu in PeruRolf Potts:Tourist areas tend to disappoint some travelers — at least early on in their vagabonding careers — since the presence of so many tourists at these sites can be depressing and feel less authentic. But over time I’ve come to appreciate the dynamic of these places, each of which are unique to their own culture, even as they host a crush of visitors during high season. New Yorkers may complain about Times Square, but I think it has a great energy, even after having visited it dozens of times. The Champ de Mars area around the Eiffel Tower is always swarming with tourists and trinket vendors, but you’d have to be a pretty cynical soul not to enjoy a bottle of wine and a picnic there on a summer day with friends. Similarly, I found Machu Picchu in Peru to be utterly amazing, despite all the tourists there. So as much as I like getting off the beaten path when I travel, I still like to cultivate appreciation for these tourist areas.

Vagobond: What do you miss when you are on the road?

Rolf Potts:Ever since I got my home in Kansas, one thing I miss most frequently is the view of the prairie from my front deck. I know this might sound like a strange thing to miss, but over the years I’ve found that part of my enjoyment of faraway places extends from my affection for a single place that I know better than any others. When you find a way to attach yourself to a small part of the world, it can energize the way you see and appreciate other parts of the world. I have literally spent years away from my home in Kansas, but having that home gives me perspective and helps me appreciate all the other places I discover and experience in more far-flung parts of the world.

Vagobond: Do you think ‘staged authenticity’ is destroying the authentic travel experience? Is the world being Disneyfied?

Rolf Potts and EthiopiansRolf Potts:Interestingly enough, I think there’s something weirdly authentic and satisfying in “staged authenticity,” when local cultures “perform” a more colorful version of their own identity for visiting tourists. Even though it’s this absurd fake charade, it says a lot about how Westerners long for a kind of authenticity they feel they have lost, while at the same time reminding host cultures about certain aspects of their own traditions. Staged authenticity will always exist, to some extent (I’d wager it existed in some form when the ancient Romans visited Egypt), but it transforms in different ways in different places. Some cultures, like the Embera in Panama, have managed to use staged authenticity in the face of tourists not just to empower themselves economically, but to redefine their own sense of identity and pride. It’s a dynamic process, like all aspects of global culture, and no sooner do you mock a thing like “staged authenticity” than you’ll begin to see it in surprising new ways.

Vagobond: Speaking of authentic, how would you recommend that today’s travelers find a more authentic experience in their travels?

Rolf Potts:The world is chock full of authenticity; it is literally everywhere, if one would just slow down and endeavor to experience it. It’s also a phenomenon that has a lot of nuance, and what at first might seem to be inauthentic — an Ethiopian Mursi tribesman wearing Nikes, for example — might end up being a very authentic part of how that culture is living today. So the best advice I can give to travelers is to simply be where you are. Turn off your smart phone, stop chattering with your companions, leave your digital camera in your pack: Stop, look, wait, breathe in; don’t overanalyze. It’s all authentic in its own way.

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Vago Damitio

Mr. Damitio  (@vagodamitio) is the Editor-in-Chief for Vagobond. Life is good. You can also find him on Google+ and at Facebook

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