Rolf Potts: Career Vagabond
Rolf Potts is one of the world’s most beloved and accomplished travel writers. His work is incisive, funny and always marked by the author’s genuine affection for the characters he meets. Rolf’s books “Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel” and “Marco Polo Didn’t Go There: Stories and Revelations from One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer” are available online and at book stores.
Information and links to more of his writing can be found at rolfpotts.com and vagablogging.net. He teaches classes in the summers at the Paris Writing Workshop, and his book, Vagabonding, tops our list of Top 101 Books for Independent Travel.
This week we asked Rolf to share his travel philosophy with us for the debut of the “How I Travel” series.
My first exotic travel experience was going to Colorado from Kansas at age six.
I’d never seen mountains before. I’ve been addicted to new landscapes ever since.
I didn’t see the ocean until I was 15 years old.
I didn’t have a passport until I was 25. I always tell people it doesn’t matter when you start traveling, or what your background is like. The world is out there for everyone to enjoy: You just need to stop making excuses and start planning your journey. I’ve gotten emails from 73-year-olds who are vagabonding for the first time and have never felt happier.
For raw travel inspiration, it’s hard to beat Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road.”
I can think of no piece of writing that better evokes travel’s visceral power to make you feel alive.
The most amazing traveler I ever met was Mr. Benny, a 61-year-old Burmese refugee who cut my hair when I was living in Thailand.
I think of him (and refugees like him) whenever I get too cocky thinking about the places I’ve been. It’s one thing to go out and live adventures for fun and self-enrichment; it’s another to thing to go out and live adventures to feed your family. Mr. Benny merited two chapters in my new book, Marco Polo Didn’t Go There. He was a more remarkable man than any of those North Face-wearing big shots who paddle oceans or scale Everest.
I’m not an extrovert at home, but I tend to meet people constantly when I travel.
The secret is to take a genuine interest in everyone you meet, and be a good listener. It’s easy to forget how listening is the most important strategy when you’re getting to know people.
As much as I’ve traveled over the years, I can’t help but feel like a hopeless newbie whenever I fly into a new place at the beginning of a trip.
This is actually a kind of cool feeling — like I’m continually re-experiencing the raw disorientation of a beginning vagabonder. I’d never want to feel too complacent on the road.
As you become more experienced in travel, you learn to rely less on guidebooks.
You also learn to better appreciate the meticulous effort that goes into researching them.
If you’re going to read any section of a guidebook, read the pages about cultural and religious norms.
It’s remarkable how just a bit of culturally specific information can help you avoid misunderstandings.
Never underestimate the joy of a good long walk when you arrive at a place.
Walking provides a great pace at which to get a feel for the city, to explore random neighborhoods, to meet people by accident, to get lost for a while until you can find your way back to your starting point. Walking enables you to be your own best guide when discovering a new place.
Learn to slow down on the road.
It’s hard to stress this enough, especially to first-time vagabonders.
When people ask me where my next big journey will be, I say “Africa.”
I know that’s incredibly vague, but I prefer it that way. I’ll figure out the specifics once I get there.
One of these days, some random Vagabonding reader is going to recognize me while I’m making a fool of myself in some exotic corner of the world.
You don’t become a travel expert by being flawless in your travels, but by trying new things and being willing risk mistakes.
I once paid the equivalent of 40 cents to stay in a guesthouse in Yangthang, India.
It was up in the Himalayas, in Himachal Pradesh, just a few miles as the crow flies from Tibet. I shared a four-bed room with three Indian truck drivers, and if you needed to take a crap you had to go outside and squat behind rocks in the icy mountain air. My bed was warm, though, and I got a good night’s sleep.
Always wash your hands before you eat.
Such a simple ritual, but so easy to forget. Get into this habit, and it will exponentially improve your health on the road.
I’m a little bewildered by hostel-lobbies that have free wi-fi.
I take advantage of the service as readily as anyone, but I feel like it can redirect the collective energy of a hostel environment into screens and keyboards instead of the immediate moment. No doubt electronic technology will continue to transform travel — but I hope hostels will always be a place where you can make lifelong friends through the simple act of sitting and talking face-to-face in the common room.
The smaller your pack, the less tempted you are to bring unnecessary gear on the road.
It’s amazing how little you need to travel well — and the longer you’re on the road, the less you need.
Don’t let the unfamiliarity of foreign tongues keep you from traveling abroad.
I’m horrible at picking up languages. But even lousy linguists can use language skills on the road. Everywhere I go, I try to memorize a few dozen phrases to get by — and even a small effort to speak a local language can open doors.
I love to travel solo, because it forces me to seek new experiences.
In this way, I am rarely alone.
I’m not much of a beach guy.
Beaches can be gorgeous and fun most anyplace in the world, but I find I can never linger too long in once place with my toes in the sand. I prefer to wander inland and meet people.
No matter where I’ve traveled in the world,
I’ll always be a sucker for a North American road trip.
Travel is a great way of being alive in the world.
It forces you to appreciate each new day, each new moment. It challenges you to look beyond yourself, to encounter new cultures and new contexts, even if they’re two blocks from your home.
“How I Travel” is a new BootsnAll series publishing every Tuesday in an effort to look at the unique and diverse travel habits of some of the world’s most well known and proficient road warriors. Got ideas for who we should talk to? Drop us a note.
You’ll find links to all the “How I Travel” articles on the How I Travel archive page, you can become a fan of “How I Travel” on Facebook, and you can follow the @howitravel profile on Twitter to get updates as soon as new features in this series are published.
all photographs provided by Rolf Potts and may not be used without permission