Rolf Potts’ Original Vagabonding Story
The keynote was delivered by Rolf Potts, author of our favorite book about the benefits of long-term travel, Vagabonding. Rolf tells his original Vagabonding story in the video below, and if you don’t have the time to listen to his 32-minute speech, it has been transcribed as well, with our favorite quotes and words of wisdom highlighted.
Rolf: Thanks, Sherry. I’m basically just going to kind of tell my story because some of the things that I’ve done before dovetail presumably with what you guys want to do. I presume that you’re here because you want to take time off from your life to travel in earnest as more than a vacation. It’s weird, I was just talking to some folks, and it occurred to me that Vagabonding has been out for 12 years now, which makes it feel like sort of an old book, sort of a pre-social media book. And the book is about travel, but it’s also about the core philosophy of this notion that all we really own in life is our time. And actualizing our time wealth is something important. I think that there’s many factors in society that will collude to take our time. And there’s this idea that we need tons and tons of money to buy ourselves time, when actually that’s not really true. We just need to use what money we have to create time to do the things we love.
And in this case, I’m assuming you’re here because travel is something you love or you think that you would love to do. So I’m here to encourage you and to remind you that you’re making a good decision in making the decision to take time off and do some travel. And so I’ll tell you my story. I always… when I tell you my story of travel — remote control — I always start with this picture…
..which is my high school graduation picture. I was 17 years old. And I think that there’s a romanticized idea… travel is becoming less romanticized now that the online world gives us so much information. There’s blogs out there by people from every walk of life showing that they can do it. But when I was 17 years old with my Cosby Show sweater and my preppy mullet, I really didn’t… I thought travel was something that would happen to me when I was old. I’d sort of bought into the idea that in a good American workaholic society, you work hard, and then you earn your freedom at the end of your life to travel the world. And do the things you always dreamt about.
Oddly enough, it was around this time that I… I’m from Kansas, which is another reason I wasn’t really cued in to travel. Kansas, it’s right in the middle of the country. It’s not a very international place. Nobody I knew was traveling. But my grandfather was a farmer, and if anybody had earned his retirement, it was him. But about the time he was retiring, my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. And he didn’t have that time. And so I realized at a very tender age that life didn’t give you time for being virtuous or for working hard, and if you’re going to create the time to do what you’re dreaming about, you just have to make it happen. Life doesn’t always give you a recess schedule, so you have to set your own recess schedule.
So. It’s interesting, after college, I worked as landscaper for about eight months in Seattle. And I traveled the United States for eight months. It was exactly 20 years ago, this is like the 20th anniversary of my first big vagabonding trip. Got in a van, traveled the states, that’s my bed inside. That’s a really low-res picture. And I thought I would scratch my itch and get travel out of my system. But it turns out that travel was a lot easier than I thought it was. It was a lot cheaper than I thought it was. It was a lot safer than what I thought it was. And in many ways, I haven’t fully come home from that first vagabonding trip I did 20 years ago.
And you guys, each one of you has a different life situation, but I want to discourage thinking about world travel as this one blast of one year, or six weeks, or six months, or five years, and then it’s over. Because I think once you figure out long-term travel and its rhythms and the ways that you can save money, the way you can find things by accident, then it becomes a part of your life. And you can alternate travel with work and other parts of your life in a way that’s new. And maybe in a way that you hadn’t really expected before you actually started doing it.
I actually ran out of money after I traveled the U.S. Tried to write a book about it and failed. Got a job living overseas teaching English in South Korea. So this was about 18 years ago. These were my second graders. Sweet kids. Not only did this earn me money to do some more travel, but it also immersed me in a foreign culture. I think you can intellectualize foreign cultures all you want, but until you’re immersed in another country, and experiencing it at a gut level, it’s really hard to know how other cultures work. And so I worked hard.
Korea is actually just as workaholic as the United States. Its winters are just as cold as the United States. It wasn’t always fun, but it was a very important lesson for me. And I’m not saying everybody needs to go out and join the Peace Corps or become an expat at some point, but there’s a lot to be learned not just by going to another country to enjoy yourself, but by working in another country. Because you can learn a lot of visceral lessons.
Anyway, I saved up enough money for what I thought could be one year of traveling around Asia. It ended up being two years. And what I thought I would experience is this. This is from Myanmar. Just sort of the pure, traditional Asian cultures that you sort of dream about encountering before you travel. But for every moment I had like this, I had a moment like this. This is in Northeast Thailand. It is a ranch called Pensuk. It looks a lot like cow town in Wichita, Kansas which is where I’m from. And you would think, “Well, why on earth is there a cow town in Thailand when it has these beautiful beaches and mountains and this wonderful Buddhist culture, all of these things to do that you can’t find in the United States?”
Well, it’s not for people from other countries. It’s the Thai people who are bored with the mountains and the beaches and the culture, and they dream of doing something exotic. And to them, this is exotic. And so this is a ranch full of Thai people shooting rifles and bows and arrows and listening to country music concerts. And this is one of the gifts of travel because I think when you dream of what you will find on the far side of the world, you have very specific postcard pictures of what will happen. And those places are as beautiful as the postcard often times, but sometimes the gift of travel is discovering this wacky stuff you had no idea was going to be there.
Can anybody guess where this is? It’s Cuba. I went to Cuba to learn salsa dancing. I thought that after I’d been traveling the world, not full-time, but over the course of 10 years I went to some very exotic places. And I’d been down the Mekong on a little fishing boat, and I’d done all these physical adventures. I figured the biggest challenge left in my travel career was learning how to dance. And so I went to learn salsa in Cuba, and I failed but I met some friends. These 25-year-old Cuban hipster kids who played the bagpipes. And there’s actually Celtic parts of Spain, Galicia and Asturias, that settled Cuba pretty heavily in the 19th century, and so this isn’t actually some manifestation of Scotland or Ireland in Cuba. It’s as Cuban as the other syncretic traditions they have as sonne [SP] and salsa.
And so I had again an unexpected experience. And one advantage that I had from being in Cuba and making friends is that the friends that I made, the hipster bagpipers, eventually got to travel themselves. And I met them at a Celtic music festival in Nova Scotia, and the thing in Nova Scotia that blew their mind the most, having been from Cuba, where there’s no consumer culture, was Wal-Mart. And so this is another gift of travel. I got to see Canada through the eyes of Cubans. And they’d never seen fall leaves before. I don’t know if you guys have been to Nova Scotia, it’s really beautiful in the fall. There’s waterfalls. There’s beautiful coastline. But to them, seeing a wall of shoes — has anybody been to Havana before? I mean, you can spend an entire day looking for one pair of shoes. And to see a wall of shoes was very new to them. So this was part of their joy in coming to a new place. And in America, we sort of look down on Wal-Mart, and see it as this low-culture manifestation, but seeing it through the eyes of Cubans was a really interesting travel experience for me.
Where is this? Machu Picchu. This is one of the places you dream about. And it is one of those places that lives up to its reputation. Just standing in this place feels very singular, and you feel very lucky to have traveled this far to experience it. But one problem about going to the places that you always dream of going to is they’re full of what, 700 tourist dorks, and you’re one of them. Right? I can make fun of the people.
Does anybody know where this is? This is Versailles outside of Paris. And I’m holding my camera up just like they’re holding their camera up. And that’s what happens sometimes. The beautiful touristed parts of the world that we dream about end up being full of people just like us. And it makes them feel a little bit less authentic. And so a good habit to get into once you start traveling, is learn how to just sort of wander your way off the tourist trail if this sort of thing bothers you. I don’t think you need to avoid tourist sites, but if you get bugged by a bunch of people with cameras, just start walking in any direction. You don’t need to do anything that complicated. Start walking in any direction and pretty soon you’ll find a place that’s more unique to France, or Peru, or Thailand, or South Africa, or wherever in the world you are. And so a lot of what I’m talking about in the next few slides here is about the idea of getting past just those basic sight-seeing expectations.
Part of the excitement of travel is the unexpected. And so these next few slides are sort of in tune with the idea of how to embrace the unexpected. One thing for sure is people. People are the best window into a place. I’m a travel writer, and the best way to write about a place is the people who occupy that place. Because they can help you interpret it, and they can help you travel. These are a couple of girls that I met in central Laos. Or Lao, as some people call it. And they live in a very isolated part of the country. And to get into this village, you have to hike through a 800-meter cave into a valley that’s surrounded by mountains. And it’s easy to idealize people like this.
But I think also you learn that we tend to idealize things like isolation and cultural purity. But at the same time, like these girls’ baby cousin died because she wouldn’t take her mother’s breast milk. And it was impractical for them in the village. They didn’t have the money to travel 50 miles down the river to get health care. So I think through people, you learn about cultural difference, positive and negative, and you learn the limitations that come with some cultural differences.
But the point of bringing this slide up is breaking out of your comfort zone, meeting people who live in a certain place, and not just on social media, I know that that’s an easy way to crowd-source friendly strangers, but just being a little bit more of an extrovert than you usually are. This slide represents a couple of things. This is actually me walking across Israel about 14 years ago. Traveling alone can change the way you travel. I don’t know if any of you who came here have plans to travel with a significant other, with some friends, I actually started traveling with friends.
These days, I do most of my traveling by myself because traveling solo leaves you more open to people. You’re more likely to get lonely and bored, and end up talking to other people, unlike you would if you were just traveling by yourself. And this is something that women travelers are a little bit nervous about this thing, and there are certainly precautions that women travelers should keep in mind, but this is something that is available equally to all people. And just because you travel by yourself doesn’t mean you’re always by yourself. And in fact, in many ways, I’m more social when I’m traveling alone, because I’ll be hanging out with this guy from Germany and his buddies one day, and I meet another group of travelers, and then I’m hanging out with some local people.
So regardless of whether or not you travel with a friend or a significant other or by yourself, try to make yourself vulnerable to the people around you and be an extrovert and meet people. And then also I brought this slide to show the pace at which you travel will affect your experience of travel. Walking across Israel over the course of three weeks gave me an experience of Israel that was much, much different than if I had just taken a bus from tourist site to tourist site. I’ve done a bicycle in Myanmar, I’ve gone on horseback in places, and so feel free to mix it up because the pace at which you experience a country will affect what specifically that country has to offer.
Another thing to keep in mind as you’re breaking out of the sight-seeing bubble, again, nothing wrong with sight-seeing, but these are just some ideas of how to do something a little bit more original, is to follow your own interests. I teach a fair amount. I taught in Asia. I’ve taught some university classes in the United States, I do a summer writing course in Paris. And so when I travel, sometimes I go to the local high school and volunteer to talk to the English class. This is in Pakokku, Burma. And odds are, especially in isolated parts of the world, the teachers and the students will be thrilled to have a native English speaker come and talk to them.
And this isn’t just an English thing. If you’re in IT then keep an eye out for people who are into IT, if you drive trucks, keep an eye out for people who drive trucks, and compare. If you’re an architect, see how they build their houses and talk to people who do that. I was a teacher, and I got to know these kids in a unique way. And I got to know things from them that you wouldn’t find in The Lonely Planet guide book about Pakokku, Burma including a play which is an overnight Buddhist festival, it takes place in a Buddhist temple, and families go there. And there’s puppet shows and comedians, and on this particular day, transvestite cabaret. This is the Thunderbird Troupe. And it was sort of in a family environment. In Myanmar, there’s less hangups about the idea of transvestite cabaret. And this is an experience that was really unique and amazing, and I would not have experienced it had I not just volunteered a day in English classes and gotten to know a few local people.
So again, be an extrovert if you can. Speaking of flamboyant costumes… yes, that’s me on the left. Can anybody guess where this is? This is Carnivale in Rio. This is the Beija-Flor Samba School. And Samba schools come out of the fivelas. And what do we know about fivelas? They’re poor. And so one way that they fund the Samba schools is to sort of have the drunk foreigner section of the parade. And so for $300 or $400, you can buy a costume. You help fund other people’s costumes, and they stick you between a float of really good looking women, and another float of really good looking men, and nobody looks at you and how bad you’re dancing. And it’s just part of the traditions. And so I included this parade to not just be an observer of culture, but if you can, be a participant of culture. And I’m not saying that my Samba steps were that great, but it certainly was more fun to see that Samba parade in the Sambadrome in Rio from the inside than it was watching it from the stands. And it was worth the extra money that I paid. It poured rain on us, and I think that costume dissolved.
Education is another thing that you can do. Learn new things. This is me. I took a Spanish class in the Dominican Republic, and this is Jennifer, she’s from Washington, D.C. and at night, everybody in our Spanish class decided we were having so much fun learning Spanish that we also wanted to learn Merengue and Bachata. So we basically spent 12 hours a day either learning Spanish or learning how to dance. And again, seeing the Dominican Republic through its tourist sites and its beaches is one thing, but dancing, battling it’s night clubs is another way to experience it in a unique way that really brings you into the culture in a way you might not have before.
Of course, food is a great way to bring you into the culture. That’s almost instinctive. And I encourage everybody to be daring with your food consumption habits. If you travel long enough, you will get Traveler’s D., and I think you know what the ‘D’ means. But it’s worth it. So be bold in your food choices. Food is also a window into culture.
What’s wrong with this picture? I’m from Kansas. I saw this in Gothenburg, Sweden. A country where Swedes speak at least as good English as we do, if not better. Yet this is Kansas Fried Chicken. So I’m not sure what the story was. It was closed. I didn’t get to eat there. But there’s little idiosyncrasies that you can see about the world through the lens of food, including this one. What is this? Guinea pig. Yes. Or “quwi” as they say in the Andes. So a food that we see as pets — my nephews have guinea pigs — for dozens of generations in the Andes has been a source of protein. And you can actually go into a guinea pig restaurant in the Andes and pick your guinea pig just like you pick a fish at a sushi restaurant in Japan. And I think it challenges you. Things like food as a window into culture can challenge your assumptions about what is normal within a culture.
When I lived in South Korea, some of my businessman students took me out for Bosintang, which literally means “health enhancement stew.” But it’s actually stew with dog meat in it. And I was taken aback. I said, “Well, why… in the United States, we see this as inhumane. Why would you want to eat dog meat?” And they said, “Well, a few people in Korea eat dog meat sometimes during certain times of year.” It’s actually considered the Korean Viagra. If you get what I mean. Sort of a summer boner food. But they said, “The word ‘inhumane’ seems strange, because we may eat dog sometimes, but Americans will, when their grandma gets old, ship her across town to a nursing home. And they’ll visit her once a month, and they’re just the nicest grandson in the world. Right? Whereas in our culture, when our old people get old, we move them into our house, and we make sacrifices for their comfort. And so we think it’s a little inhumane to outsource your old people.”
And so I came in with a little bit of cultural arrogance, I think. I came in to a food situation with one idea, and I came out of the food situation with a lesson about culture. And so those are the sorts of encounters that can sometimes be awkward, but actually end up giving you a fuller sense of the world.
For every wonderful thing that happens… I’ll say this in a different way. Lots of wonderful things will happen on the road, but sometimes, things will just go wrong. And not just Traveler’s D. One of my most interesting experiences was getting drugged and robbed in Turkey. This is my passport photo the next day. So that’s me coming out of the Rohypnol, I think. This is not to say that you’re going to get drugged and robbed, in fact, The Lonely Planet, page 78, warned me against the exact situation that ended up with me being drugged and robbed in Turkey. And so if safety is an issue, and it should be, just read all the warnings. And I think if I had been two months into my journey, or two weeks into my journey, I never would have been drugged and robbed in Turkey. But I was nine months into my journey. And I thought I had travel figured out. Right? And I had stopped reading those warnings. And I thought I was street smart. And a very obvious tourist scam got to me.
On the flip side, it made for a wonderful story for Salon. That’s actually in my second book. And keep in mind, the bad things, the odds are that anybody in this room is going to get drugged and robbed is pretty small. But bad things will happen. And it’s part of the adventure. And sometimes, what you learn from bad experiences can be as useful and important and as memorable and make as good stories as the wonderful mountaintop magic moments as well. And I talk about this in my book a little bit, it’s just… accept these moments. When a bad thing happens on the road, that’s part of what happens on the road. There’s bad things that happen at home, too. And so just find ways of synthesizing those experiences into your overall travel experience.
A couple of final things I’ll talk about and then hopefully I’ll have a little bit of time for questions, we’ll have about five minutes for questions. One is remember that when you’re traveling, you’re sort of in an ethical zone. And that ethical zone can be very complicated. A few years ago, I went to Southwestern Ethiopia, to the Omo Valley which historically has been so isolated that basically each valley has its own tribal language and tribal customs. And I went to the Mursi tribe, which is famous for reasons you’ll see in a moment. And I hung out with them for a while.
And I met this lovely 14-year-old girl, who within a year of taking this picture, started a process that will end up with her looking like this. Her lower lip… it would be, it has been by now, severed. Because this was in 2008. Stretched out with little bits of bark. And later given a clay plate which is part of the beautification ritual for women the Mursi region of Southwestern Ethiopia. And it creates this weird — actually this is what they look like when they don’t have their plate in, and it changes the way that they eat and drink. There’s a lot of questions going on here. One of which is why does this tribe mutilate their women? And they think maybe it was a… it sort of became a custom hundreds of years ago to dissuade people who’d come in and steal women from tribes. If they had a custom that made them less appealing… if their beautification ritual seemed un-beautiful to outsiders, then they would be less likely to lose women in raids.
The problem now is, and this goes back to the ethical thing. Ethical situations dovetail with almost every aspect of traveling. It’s good to be aware of them. Keeping in mind that we can’t always change everything. But it’s good to be aware of them. Is that for each of these pictures that I took, I paid about a dollar, as did everyone who came with me. And it’s a strange loop where you think about cultural purity… in some ways, the cultural purity of Mursi is actually kind of negative if they mutilate their women as soon as they hit puberty.
One of the problems is that this is an economic boon for them, because they look so extreme, they actually have a photography economy. And when the tourist bus comes in, everybody will take off their Nikes and put down their iPods, put on their goat skins, take out their lip plates, and perform a version of their culture that doesn’t really exist. And this is an extreme example. But just remember that as tourists, we have expectations. Notice that I don’t have any pictures of the Mursi people wearing their Nikes or their blue jeans. So we have this thirst for otherness that can sometimes lead us into ethically strange situations like the fact that this mutilation ritual is actually making money for this tribe which makes it more likely to happen. And there’s no easy solution to that situation. But just keep in mind that you’re traveling in an ethical sphere as much as a physical and emotional sphere as well.
A final thing that I’ll touch on before we can open things up to questions is how travel has changed since my book came out. My book came out in 2003 which is really before social media and smartphones really took hold. And we live in a world now where it’s difficult to leave home. If you have a smartphone with all your social media feeds on all the time, even on the other side of the world, you haven’t fully left home. And I’m not going to knock on social media entirely, because you can actually find a lot of wonderful things through social media and through the various travel blogs and travel websites. But unless you know when to set technology aside and experience the place you are, then you’re not really going to be there.
There’s something to be said for… I mentioned loneliness and boredom before. It’s actually possible to travel the world for six months and rarely be lonely or bored. When in fact, loneliness and boredom are you friends, because those are feelings that cause you to challenge your comfort zone. And even at home, I think your Facebook feed or whatever, is a way to sort of procrastinate. Or get away from whatever boring or unpleasant moment you’re in. When on the road, travel is a gift. It’s an amazing thing. Being on the far side of the world and in another culture is its own gift. And unless you have the discipline to set aside your technology, and sort of cut that electronic umbilical cord, you’ll be selling your travel short.
And in fact, the New York Times came out with an article last week about how these days people are going on vacations without really going on vacation. And actually it’s good for the creative brain to cut that umbilical cord, because you can be in Cambodia but if you’re checking your email and checking your smartphone every day, then your brain is still in work mode. And unless the brain goes into rest mode, its not going to rejuvenate in a creative way. So it’s actually better… and this was not in the context of long-term travel but vacations, but it’s actually better for your creative brain to actually take that vacation with your mind as well as your body as well. And this is a tough challenge.
I talk about this… I’ve been talking about this for years, but I’m still… it still takes extreme discipline for me to set aside the smartphone or not check my email for a few days on the road. A couple of more things, and then I’ll open it up for questions. We have about five minutes left.
Functionally, I’ve been traveling for 20 years. Not full-time, but every year, I’m overseas or I’m on the road for a month or more at a time. It’s not because I have stacks and stacks of money that I get as a travel writer because that doesn’t happen unless maybe you’re Bill Bryson or something. The perpetuation of my travel lifestyle… and I’m not saying everybody has to become a one month a year or three month a year traveler in perpetuity, it’s a very personal thing. But that has been enabled by simplicity instead of by making a lot of money. And I just make lifestyle choices in favor of simplicity and that frees up money that allows me to stay on the road for large periods of time.
This is my house in Kansas. Instead of buying a house in whatever, Williamsburg or some cool part of America, I live in rural Saline County, Kansas. And the overhead there is next to nothing. It’s actually a really pretty place. My family is nearby. And that as much as my income stream is what enables me to continue to travel, is that I’m spending my money on experiences instead of things. I’m keeping my things very simple. There’s not… except for some books and clothes, there’s not a lot inside that house. So if you take your big trip, and you feel like this is something you want to replicate down the line, think about ways to simplify your life in such a way that you’re living for your experience instead of just feeding your possessions. Right?
My second book is called Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, which is sort of a collection of stories from my vagabonding life. But hopefully in speaking about travel, in speaking about my travels, you guys have some questions of your own. And we have three and a half minutes. [laughs] I’ll be around too, afterwards and through lunch. But did anybody have a question or a “What’s up with that, Rolf? sort of thing. Yes.
How do you decide? That’s a good question. I think follow your gut, you know? If you were obsessed with rugby growing up, then go to New Zealand or Fiji, where rugby is an obsession. If you’re into Middle-Eastern food, go to the Middle East. If you’ve dreamed… even for a dumb reason. If you liked Lord of the Rings and you want to go see where it was filmed. I think that… I’m a big believer in the idea that whatever takes you to a place is less important than what you find when you get there. And that even if you just have an old aunt who lives in Albania, then that’s your reason for going there. But what you discover when you arrive is what’s rewarding. So don’t over-think that. Just think about places that you’ve dreamed of going. Go there and then the destination will reveal itself in ways that you never could’ve dreamed, I think. Yes sir?
Yes, the question was, “When you’re teaching English in a foreign country and you don’t speak their language it can be difficult to assimilate with them.” Actually, the students you usually end up teaching know more about English grammar than you do. Like I swear. I’m a writer, and my students knew the grammatical principles of English better than me when I was in Korea. And so it’s your job to be a conversation teacher, is that they can read things off the page, but if you look at Hangul, the Korean alphabet, it’s phonetically different. And so they need to have an ear and a tongue for the language. And as a native speaker, presto! You’re exactly what they need.
So you’re basically spending hours in a classroom getting kids or adults or whoever just to talk with you. And when they mispronounce something, or if you can’t understand what they’re saying, then you stop, and you have all these teachable moments. It’s a good way to make money, but it’s also a good way to get an ear for beginner’s English because I don’t speak a second language well. I can read and write in Korean, but I can’t really speak it very fluently. I know a little bit of Arabic and Spanish and French. But through my experience in Korea, I was able to become very intuitive about communication that is imperfect. And I’ve had… I’ve spent days, especially in Asia, with people… in fact, one of my stories in this book, Up Cambodia without a phrase book, is about spending a week with people and no common language.
And really, it sort of turns you into a kid again. There’s no pressure to be intellectual. It’s just basic stuff. You’re not arguing politics. You’re just sort of running around and saying, “Yes, I’m hungry.” So that’s a good thing. That’s a good thing. And I’m living proof that you can travel and be horrible at languages and still have a great time. So be bold. But be bold in trying to learn languages. Also be bold in basic communication. Now I tell you, most parts of the world, a smile is gold currency. You smile and then people know you’re trying. Learn a few words and people will try to help you get what you want or help you experience where they are.
Let’s do… oh, wait a second. What time is it? Oh. Am I over time? One more question. Yes? I didn’t. I didn’t. Is anyone here trained in ESL? Okay. This was during the boom at the tail end of the Korean economic boom or at least their first one. They’re booming again. And I’m sure the same thing is happening in China. And people could make money in Korea in the mid ’90s when I was there just by hiring a big clumsy white guy from America, and putting him in a room. And so they should’ve been training us, right? But they weren’t. My parents are teachers, but I just kind of figured it out. Some people didn’t. It was stressful. If anybody is interested in teaching ESL, I would recommend getting a few… a little bit of training. Just because it’s a lot less stressful. I was in the… “throw the kid in the pool” method, and it worked. So you don’t have to have it. Being someone who’s sort of open to students and proficient in English is good enough. But training, even if it’s just a weekend course in teaching ESL, is going to be very helpful in that regard.
What’s next, Sherry? All right. Thanks for listening, you guys. I’ll be around for couple more hours. And I’ll give this to Sherry.