A seasoned traveller who has written on over 60 countries around the world, Rolf Potts is the author of the best-seller 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, which won the Society of American Travel Writers’ Thomas Lowell Prize as well as Italy’s Chatwin Prize. His latest book is Souvenir, was published by Bloomsbury in March 2018.
1 – One of the key points in your book Vagabonding is that we don’t actually need large amounts of money to travel – even for long periods of time. Could you give some examples of how this can work?
I think people often think of travel in consumer terms, in the terms the travel and vacation industry has laid out for us — and this means vacationers pay a lot of money for comfort and haste and, in the name of “safety,” separation from the destination itself. But one doesn’t have to travel in the consumer economy when one can travel in the local economy — that is, use the same guesthouses and eateries and modes of transportation as the people who live in that destination. Sometimes this means forgoing a bit of comfort and the perception of “efficiency” while traveling abroad, but it also puts the travelers into closer contact with the culture he or she is visiting. And it’s exponentially cheaper than throwing money at the so-called luxury travel amenities — gated hotels and standardized activities — that only serve to insulate the traveler from surprise and serendipity. Over the long-term it can actually be cheaper, in terms of daily expenses, to travel full-time in Southeast Asia or Central America than it is to live in a major world city like New York or London.
2 – You emphasise the importance of ‘pace’ of travel, that the actual speed at which you move through a country or culture is important. How did this idea develop?
One of the advantages of long-term travel is that you don’t have to hurry your way through a one- or two-week vacation, ticking sights and experiences off of a list. You can slow down, meander your way off of your original itinerary, and linger in places you enjoy. I learned this from travel itself, when I first traveled through Southeast Asia nearly two decades ago. My itinerary had me visiting Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia over the course of six months. Which sounds like a lot of time, though once I was on the ground and traveling I realized that each country had way more to offer than I’d expected– things I never could have discovered while researching the journey beforehand. At first I was stressed at the idea of trying to fit everything in, but in time I just let go of my plans and let things happen. Turns out I spent most all of those six months in just four countries — Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. I still haven’t properly been to Indonesia, but I’m not worried because I know I’ll get there someday. There’s no hurry, and the slow meaningful experience of a single country is far more satisfying to me than the hurried, list-driven experience of ten countries during the same period of time.
3 – You’ve taken assumptions about travelling head on, not least the idea that we need to take luggage with us. What were the most interesting observations from your six-week journey around the world with no bags at all?
My journey around the world with no luggage (not even a plastic sack or a bum-bag) was, admittedly, a “stunt” of sorts — and an attempt to illustrate a point about minimalism by taking travel-minimalism to its obvious extreme. The biggest surprise, for me, was how easy the journey became after just a week or two on the road. It’s not that hard to adapt to new circumstances, and it was easier than I thought to travel with no bags and live on a few items I kept in my vest pockets. I was as clean as I’ve ever been, since I was showering twice a day and washing my backup clothes every evening. All of my activities and entertainment didn’t come from what I carried with me, but what I found at my destinations. I thought it was a great way to travel. And while it hasn’t turned me into a full-time no-baggage traveler, it has given me extra perspective on what a person really does and doesn’t need to bring on a great trip.
4 – For you personally, what have been the greatest lessons from experiencing and crossing so many cultural boundaries?
I’ve always been grateful to have been received as a stranger most everywhere I go. It really doesn’t take much to meet people and learn from them as you travel from place to place — you just need to attune yourself to local customs, be a good listener, learn some pleasantries in the local language, and travel slowly enough to appreciate it all. O
ne thing I’ve always emphasized is that travel isn’t a contest to see who can be away the longest. Ultimately one’s sense for travel is something that develops alongside a sharpened sense for home — and seeing how people live when they are at home in these faraway places can help deepen and fine-tune one’s own sense for home, and what is important in life.
Idries Shah Foundation – https://idriesshahfoundation.org/interview-with-rolf-potts/