Rolf Potts Answers Your Travel Questions
Rolf Potts is one of the most famous travelers and travel writers of our day, and he’s also a good friend of BootsnAll, so we were thrilled that he included us on his virtual book tour for his new book, Marco Polo Didn’t Go There: Stories and Revelations from One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer. His first book, Vagabonding, has become a modern-day classic within the travel community, and it’s helped inspire countless trips among BootsnAll members and everyone else lucky enough to read it.
We asked people to send in the question they’d most like Rolf to answer, and he chose his twelve favorite below. Those whose questions were chosen have won a free copy of his new book, so congratulations and thanks to everyone who participated.
Without further ado, here’s Rolf:
off, let me say I got an amazing batch of questions,
and I wish I had the time to answer them all. Â If for some reason I
answer yours, it could be that I already answered a similar question at
the previous stops on my virtual book tour. Â Be aware that I also
questions (albeit without the promise of a free book) via my "Ask
Rolf" column at World
Hum, so feel free to send your question there if I
didn’tÂ address it here!
Anyhow, here goes with some of the questions that caught my imagination
Question 1: How can I convince my parents to let me travel?
jyfeliz: My question is I am only 17
years old, I have been saving about 4,000 dollars to travel, but I face the
problem that my parents don’t want to let me go, and don’t seem to plan to. I
am also a female. How do you believe I can convince them on this?
Rolf:Â This is a natural reaction on the part of
parents, because parents naturally have all these instinctive concerns that
something will happen to you, or you’ll do something stupid, or both.
The secret is to just be patient with them. Â Convince them you’re serious
about travel, and that travel needn’t be a frivolous activity where you go
overseas and party your time away. Â Tell them how travel is educational,
how you’ll have chances to volunteer and learn about yourself. Â Tell them
travel will help you grow in ways that would never happen if you spent that
time working or going to college. Â Tell them they can meet you
someplace along the way for a week or two of family bonding.
In short, convince them your travels will be a serious, soul-enhancing
undertaking. Â In fact, have them read my first book, Vagabonding, which has calmed many a concerned parental conscience
about long-term travel.
Heck, since we’re in the spirit of giving my books away
today, I’ll send you a copy of Vagabonding
to give to you parents!
Which means I still have ten copies of my new book to give away…
Question 2: How do I summon the courage to go vagabonding?
karl: As a middle-aged man who in
the past ten years has really been infected with travel virus, I’d like to know
how one can summon the courage to leave it all (for a year or more) and go
a-vagabonding? I guess I’m more interested in the psychological/emotional
requirements than the nuts and bolts.
Rolf:Â The early chapters of my first book, Vagabonding, vividly examine that psychic
process of building up courage to make your dream trip happen.
So I’ll just send you a copy of Vagabonding
— it’ll make that travel virus get worse in the best way.
And that means I STILL have ten copies of my new book to give away…
Question 3: Is there anything wrong with staying ON the tourist trail?
Dylan Whitman: I’ve mainly noticed
two types of travelers – those who travel and stick with homogenized preplanned
tours, well known monuments and tourist kitsch, and those who are almost on a
mission to prove they are different and stay away from anything mainstream. Do
you feel there is something to be said for taking in both the cliche
destinations, as well as those sights off the beaten path?
Rolf:Â Absolutely! Â There is plenty to learn
from standard "tourist" activities, just as there is tons to learn by
getting off the beaten path. Â Tourist kitsch has its own charm, and just
because you enjoy it every once in a while on your trip doesn’t mean you have
to seek it out every day. Â You meet some interesting people in tourists
zones as well (just watch your back, since targeted petty crime is usually
worse in tourist areas than off the beaten path).
One advantage of preplanned tours and such is that they are often used by folks
who haven’t traveled much and are seeing things with fresh eyes. Just last
summer my parents flew out to join me in Paris
(where I teach a creative writing class each summer). Â It was their first
time in Europe, and their excitement at the
most basic things — from the Louvre to the way Parisians walk their dogs —
was infective. Â Their naÃ¯ve sense of wonder helped my jaded traveler eyes
see the city in a whole new way!
Question 4: Do you set objectives when you go to a new destination?
Nancy Brown: Do you have any set
objectives when you visit a destination or do you simply let your experiences
guide you at the moment? By that I mean, not everyone has the opportunity to
learn the secrets of Tantric sex in an Indian ashram. How do you find yourself
in these situations?
Rolf: Â I usually travel with some vague objectives
when I go to a new place, but I’ve found that the key to really experiencing
the place is the willingness to dump those pre-planned objectives at a moment’s
notice if you discover something more compelling along the way. Â I think
travel planning is a great way to get a taste for what’s to come, but you’ll
learn more about that destination during your initial hours there than you did
in all your days of travel planning. Â So be sure to trust in the world’s
capacity for providing you with the kind of wonders and experiences you never
would have imagined in your research!
My Tantric ashram escapade in Rishikesh,
India is an
example of something I stumbled into by accident. Â Before I went to India I knew
almost nothing of Rishikesh, but a friend of mine insisted that I travel there
because it’s this iconic center for yoga practitioners. Â I wasn’t really
into yoga, but I thought if I was going to try it in the yoga mecca itself? Â When I arrived in Rishikesh, however, I
found an advertisement for the Tantra class, which of course became the thing I
remember best and ended up writing about. Â You’ll have to check out the
story in my new book — it’s a very funny and telling misadventure.
Question 5: What kind of camera should I bring traveling?
greg ebersole: I
like to travel in places like Colombia,
Uganda, Cambodia, and Brazil among others. I like to walk
around the towns I’m in looking for photos. I never know whether to take a
small point and shoot camera or stick a 35mm camera with a couple of lens in a
day pack. I don’t like to draw attention to myself. What do you find works best
Rolf:Â I’d go with a small point-and-shoot, for
several reasons. Â First off, a small camera without the bulky lens is a
lot easier to slip into your pocket and use when a moment strikes you, whereas
there are times when you’re not going to want to carry around a bigger and more
expensive camera (which, I might add, is more likely to advertise you to petty
thieves as a tourist with a lot of money). Â Second, they make some great
digital point-and-shoot cameras these days — ones that can take some really
amazing photos that compare favorably to those of bulkier cameras. And finally,
the components that go into taking a good picture often have less to do with
fancy equipment than a willingness to choose subjects well, frame your shots
effectively, and use the light that’s available.
Question 6: How do you record your travels?
Liz: How do you
keep track of all the things that happen while you are on your travels? Do you
take a laptop with you or do you write in notebooks and transcribe when you get
These days I quite frequently carry my laptop with me, since I often
have stories or essays stacked on top of each other and I’ll need to write one
while I’m researching another. Â But that’s just the cross I bear for
making my living as a travel writer.
When I have a choice, I’ll just keep notes on a small notebook I stow in my
pocket, and write my stories when I get home. Â Often, when I feel these
notes are particularly sensitive and important, I will transcribe them into an
email draft or Google document online, so that they don’t get lost if, say, I
fall into a river or lose my daypack.
Because I write for a living, I don’t typically keep a formal travel journal —
just notes — as I’ve found the day-to-day narrative sensibility that goes into
a journal can throw off the narrative sensibility of my stories (which are
rarely structured along a day to day arc). Â That said, I do encourage
people to keep travel journals; I just don’t do this myself.
By the way, I have a whole tub of little pocket notebooks from various trips
stored at home, and sometimes it’s fun to go back and read them. Â In fact
I frequently used them to research and write the "commentary track"
endnotes to my new book.
Question 7: Do you feel a place like Kansas can be as exotic as Bhutan?
Rolf: Â I definitely feel
that Kansas can be as exotic in some ways as Laos orÂ Bhutan. Â Too many
times, independent travelers make a cultural fetish ofÂ what "off the
beaten path" means. Â The reason "off the beaten path"Â destinations are
more interesting than the ones of the tourist trail isÂ because these
places have a way of providing you with uncommon experiencesÂ and
teaching you unexpected things. Â This can happen anywhere.
I get irritated when I hear some backpacker brag about the timeÂ he’s
spent on some rice farm near Vang Vieng, and then in the next
breathÂ bag on the sensibilities of people who live in "Red States" he’s
never visited. Â How can you consider hanging out with a
Laotian farmer aÂ virtue when the idea of a Kansas farmer brings a sneer
to your face?Â Don’t answer "because they vote Republican," because
that’s a dumb
generalization that you’d have no way of knowing if
you’ve never met aÂ Kansas farmer. Â I live in the Kansas countryside,
and I know of at leastÂ one horse-owning, boot-wearing Marxist within
two miles of my house.
Stereotypes can be pretty thin, and the
great thing about travel is thatÂ it opens your mind in ways you hadn’t
expected — and this holds as trueÂ for those who visit the prairie as
those who visit the Himalayas or theÂ Libyan Desert.
Question 8: Has travel helped you see familiar places with "new eyes"?
Rolf: Â Following
the previous question, I once visited the little town ofÂ Minneapolis,
Kansas (not to be confused with the major city in Minnesota)Â right
after I’d gotten back from this amazing journey to Burma. Â I was still
on my Burma buzz and I wasn’t expecting much from a nondescriptÂ little
prairie town, but what I discovered in the town museum that dayÂ made me
appreciate the place — and museums in general — in a whole newÂ way.
Chapter 19 of my new book tells the full story of what happened in thatÂ small-town Kansas museum.
Question 9: Does writing about travel limit the way you see places?
That’s a really good question. Â I’d reckon the best way to avoid
trappingÂ one’s travels into the lens of a potential story is to save
the story forÂ later. Â That is, throw yourself into a given travel
experience, and writeÂ the story (if there’s a story to be told) in
That’s one disadvantage, actually, of formal
magazine assignments.Â Because the story is pitched and approved in
advance, you are kind ofÂ trapped into the parameters of that story.
You can always manage someÂ experiential wiggle room, of course, but
not in the same way you could ifÂ you didn’t have the assignment.
That’s what I always tell my fellowÂ travelers when they say they envy
my job: Â In short, your average travelerÂ has all the advantages and few
of the limitations as a travel writer. Â TheÂ trade-off, I guess, is that
story assignments tend to be funded by theÂ magazine. Â The experience is
less prone to serendipity — but hey, it’sÂ free!
On a final
note, I’ll point out that even people who travel with a mind toÂ writing
a certain story often stumble into an even better story they
neverÂ expected. Â In the endnotes to chapter 16 of my new book I recall
aÂ situation where I was having this great little time goofing off with
kidsÂ in a village in northwestern Cambodia, yet I kept absently
wondering howÂ this might tie into a serious story I’d dreamed up about
the legacy ofÂ genocide in that country. Â As if turned out, my
happy-go-lucky littleÂ sojourn in the village ended up being the story
itself — and it wasÂ probably a truer story than if I’d tried to
shoehorn it into some templateÂ about the tragedies of Cambodia.
Question 10: How do I keep from becoming an annoying travel blogger?
Rolf: Â Well the easy answer is to
just go old-school. Â I mean, it wasn’t thatÂ long ago when we had
neither email nor blogs nor Facebook to bug ourÂ friends with.
Travelers just threw themselves into the excitement of theÂ road and
sent home the occasional cryptic postcard.
That’s still a great
way to go, if you’re up for it — and personally IÂ think there’s more
to experience on the road if you aren’t always racingÂ to your in-box or
Facebook page to alert people about that amazing bhangÂ lassi you just
drank. Â Why not just chill with your bhang lassi and enjoyÂ a day in
India and call it good?
If you absolutely have document your
travels in some kind of publicÂ capacity, I’d go with a blog. Â That way
your friends and acquaintances canÂ drop in to confirm you’re still
alive without wading through unsolicitedÂ in-box messages or enduring
those chirpy little Facebook updates about howÂ you just ate some tasty
hummus in Wadi Musa.
Question 11: Do you pay attention to travel warnings or follow your gut?
Both. Â Plus I inquire at online message boards before I travel, and I
seekÂ local information when I’m on the road — which is typically more
usefulÂ than official warnings or gut instincts.
government travel warnings are worth checking — but theyÂ also tend to
be very general and/or quickly dated. Â So the StateÂ Department posts a
warning because there’s political unrest in Lima, Peru.Â OK, how long
ago did it happen? Â Did it affect other parts of theÂ country? Â Usually
these kinds of problems are of a short duration andÂ confined to a
specific location. Â Since if you’re like most people you’dÂ rather skip
Lima and go to Cusco or Iquitos or Arequipa anyway, it’s goodÂ to check
boards or the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree and see whatÂ travelers
to those places are saying. Â Then, when you get to those places,Â you
can just ask around about security issues as you go. Â Chances are
theÂ guy who owns the restaurant or the backpackers at your guesthouse
will beÂ happy to tell you what things are like just up the road.
Question 12: Do you ever meet people who regret having gone vagabonding?
Rolf: Â In a word, no.
I’ve met people for whom travel was more difficult thanÂ they’d
expected (at least at first), and people who had a bit of
struggleÂ getting re-started when they returned from their journey, but
nobody whoÂ has literally regretted the time they spent traveling the
In fact, all of the people I know who entered into their
first vagabondingÂ journey full of anxiety ultimately returned home to
become happy,Â productive, well-rounded members of the society they left
(and most ofÂ them are already planning their next journey).
Cheers everyone, and happy vagabonding. Â I hope you enjoy my new book!
You can follow the rest of Rolf Potts’ virtual
book tour online, or see him in
person at one of 20 cities nationwide as he celebrates the release of Marco
Polo Didn’t Go There (Travelers’