Rolf Potts Q&A: The Art of Long-term World Travel… and Travel Writing 53 Comments
Rolf Potts is one of my favorite writers, and his book — Vagabonding — was one of only four books I recommended as “fundamental” in The 4-Hour Workweek. It was also one of two books, the other being Walden; Or, Life in the Woods, that I took with me during my 15+-month mini-retirement that began in 2004.
Have you ever wondered what it really takes to pull the trigger and embark on long-term world travel?
Have you ever fantasized about getting paid to do it?
Let Rolf give us a look at both…
Is Marco Polo Didn’t Go There a sequel of sorts to Vagabonding?
It is in a sense a sequel — as well as a prequel, of sorts — but it has a different approach than Vagabonding. Vagabonding is at heart a philosophical book about seeing time as wealth and using travel to actualize that wealth. Marco Polo Didn’t Go There is indirectly philosophical; it’s a collection of stories from the road — a showcase of the type of travel experiences that vagabonding has provided for me over the past decade.
So your new book might be considered “vagabonding in practice”?
In a sense, yes. That said, many of the stories are misadventures by conventional definition. In the pages of the new book, I’m always getting into trouble, or falling in with the wrong people, or getting lost somehow. But that’s how travel stories work. People quickly tire of hearing stories about your perfectly blissful days on the road. They want to hear about the times when things went wrong — when you were challenged in unexpected ways. So the new book is skewed toward my more harrowing and/or wacky adventures.
This book is also an examination of my working life as a travel writer. This is communicated in many ways throughout the book, but perhaps most vividly in the endnotes to each story, which comment on the ragged reality that lurks behind a seemingly self-contained travel tale. I like to think of these endnotes as the DVD-style “commentary track” to the book.
[Note from Tim: this "commentary track" is perhaps my favorite feature of all, as it explains the "making of" a first-class world traveler and all the real logistical and cultural challenges that presents. Highly recommended if you have any travel coming up.]
Misadventures aside, how might readers seek out the kinds of travel experiences you describe in the book? That is, how might your average traveler get out of the tourist-circuit rut and find interesting, life-affecting experiences?
The most important thing in seeking richer travel experiences is learning how to slow down. This can be hard to do, since as Americans we tend to micromanage everything to make things more efficient back home.
Travel isn’t about efficiency. It’s about leaving yourself open to new experiences. You can’t do this when you’re racing around on a strict itinerary. If you examine the truly life-affecting experiences I describe in my new book, you’ll find that they most all happened by accident. If you aren’t open to the unexpected — if you aren’t willing to get lost from time to time — you’ll be selling your travels short.
[Suggestion from Tim: reread the previous paragraph substituting "travel" and "travels" with "life".]
As for the tourist-circuit, slowing your travels down will automatically lead you off the tourist trail. When you aren’t racing from “attraction” to “attraction,” you’ll quickly discover that the best experiences come from the diversions along the way.
How has technology changed the way people travel? Any advice or warnings about using this technology on the road?
In 1994 I took an 8-month vagabonding journey around North America, and there were times when I was out of touch with friends and family for weeks. Nobody was on email back then, and making a long-distance call required a fist-full of quarters and a pay phone. Now, with high-speed Internet and the ubiquity of cell phones, you can never be out of touch. I never called my sister when I was traveling America in ’94, but just last month I was traveling Africa with an AT&T BlackJack and I needed to ask her a question, so I gave her a holler from Lokichokio, Kenya. Even for Kenyans, Lokichokio is the middle of nowhere, but calling her was not a problem. I just punched in her number and got her on the second ring.
The downside is that this kind of communication can easily become one big umbilical cord that ties you to home when you should be experiencing your travel surroundings. Was calling my sister from Kenya really all that urgent and necessary? Probably not. And in a sense I was probably less “in the moment” in Lokichokio than I should have been.
Ideally, you should only check email just one or two times a week when you travel, and use the cell phone only for emergencies or hooking up with local friends as you go. What’s the pleasure in going to Tahiti or Rio or Geneva if you spend most of your time attached to your phone or laptop, sending messages home?
By definition, being a travel writer means you’ve been working from a mobile office for ten years. What advice might you give to people looking manage their work from remote locations as they travel?
Be a minimalist. Reduce clutter. Obviously travel by its very nature is going to do this, since you can’t pack everything you’d keep in your home office. But this should apply to your travel office as well. For example, get a cheap laptop, and use it only for your work. Save your important information into Google documents (or something similar) in case the laptop gets lost or stolen or your pack falls in a river. Don’t use the laptop to surf news online; go to the local newsstand instead. Don’t use the laptop to watch DVDs or listen to music; go to a local cinema or nightclub instead.
This is not just a matter of travel aesthetics or cultural appreciation — it’s a matter of breaking bad habits. Back home we use our work technology to fart around and pass the day. Nobody should travel around the world just to sit in front of a laptop and fart around.
Travel writing as a profession would seem to be a glamorous undertaking. Is it as cool of a job as it sounds?
Absolutely — but not in the way you might think. There are better ways to travel than wandering around and taking notes and spending long stretches of time in your hotel doing typing prose. There are better ways to make money. There are better ways to get into adventures. Just read the endnotes to my new book and you’ll see the limitations and contradictions involved when you go to a place and try to write about it.
So the best part about my job isn’t that it enables me to travel; it comes in the work itself. It comes when I experience an amazing place or a memorable encounter and I’m later able to write something true about that experience — something that communicates the richness and complexity and possibility of being alive.
How did you start your travel writing career?
My writing aspirations can be traced back to about age 13, when I started writing horror stories in the style of Stephen King. This horror-writing phase didn’t last long, but it helped winnow the creative urge, and familiarize me with the basics of putting a prose narrative together. Later I became involved with my high school newspaper, and I wrote a humor column for my campus newspaper in college. After college, I traveled the United States for eight months, living out of a VW van. Fancying myself a kind of new Jack Kerouac, I tried to write a book about this travel experience, but that ultimately failed when I couldn’t interest any agents or editors. Out of money and not sure what to do next, I went to Korea to teach English for a couple years.
In Korea, I learned how to live within another culture, and I became a more seasoned, instinctive traveler. I also learned from the shortcomings of my failed USA travel book, and sharpened my writing, keeping in mind the narrative needs of my readers. During my second year in Korea, I rewrote one of my USA book chapters (about Las Vegas) and sold it to Salon.com’s travel section. Encouraged by this small success, I strengthened my relationship with my Salon editor by writing some travel stories about Korea. He published about five of them.
At this point, I’d saved a lot of money from teaching, and I’d planned on traveling through Asia and Europe for over a year. Since I had an editorial contact at Salon, I decided to pitch him with a travel column idea. He wasn’t sure about this idea at first, so I hit the road on my trip and continued to write stories. It just so happened that Leonardo DiCaprio was shooting the travel-oriented movie “The Beach” in Thailand, so I decided to try and sneak onto the set of the movie as an experiment about the motivations and idiosyncrasies of travel. My attempt to sneak onto the movie set failed, but the resulting story, “Storming ‘The Beach’”, made the cover of Salon and landed in the 2000 edition of The Best American Travel Writing [From Tim: Read this for a flavor of Rolf. You'll thank me.].
I got the travel column at Salon, and that turned out to be a big turning point in my career, as it raised my exposure one-hundred-fold. Editors of glossy magazines like Condé Nast Traveler invited me to write for them, and I’ve been freelancing for various travel venues — National Geographic Traveler, Outside, Slate, Islands, the San Francisco Chronicle, etc. — ever since. My book, Vagabonding, came out in 2003. I’ve also maintained an author website since 1998, and a blog since 2002, and both have been good for promoting and showcasing my work.
These days, travel is still the core of my work, though I occasionally write literary criticism, interviews, and other types of writing. I’d say travel writing is 80% of what I do.
Any warnings for aspiring travel writers?
Only get into travel journalism if you really love to travel and write. If you think it’s a good pretext for getting to travel, think again: you can travel just as much by saving up money from another, better-paying job, and just taking off to go vagabonding. So only pursue travel writing because you love to write as well. If that admonition hasn’t scared you off, I’ll advise you to write as much as possible, work on your narrative voice (because a vivid or funny voice can make all the difference), do some publication internships, get out there and work on your travel expertise, and — most of all — have fun!
Even if your travels don’t lead to a full-time career, they are a reward in and of themselves.
Odds and Ends:
-Haven’t tried Twitter yet? See how I use it — against being called a heretic — here: Timothy Ferriss on Twitter.
Posted on September 15th, 2008