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Sunday, 25 February 2007

An Interview with Rolf Potts - Page 4

Written by Karen Elowitt
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If you’ve never heard of Rolf Potts, then you’re one of the disadvantaged few. A seasoned traveler and writer, he has been to over fifty countries and has written about his adventures for dozens of magazines and newspapers, from the high-profile to the humble. Rolf always tells his tales in a witty and wise way that has earned him worldwide praise.

I have noticed that in the long-term travel community, there seems to be a sort of competition to go to extremes - who can go longer, further, more “native”… how do you respond to that and what do you make of it? What do you think that says about those who perpetrate it?

Well I try to be balanced, and not be mean to travel snobs. To them I say travel is its own reward. If you are reduced to a pissing contest over who can stay in the cheapest hotel and live on the least amount of money per day, then maybe you should take a look at your travels and see if you got much satisfaction from them. One would think that through traveling you would learn humility and to listen and to appreciate what other people can do in contrast to you. Among a lot of hardcore travelers you get this attitude. I try to gently disregard it. There are a lot of insecurities and pretensions that can keep people from traveling, and within travelers’ circles, there are also insecurities and pretensions that can force this strange conformity on people – sort of a “one-downsmanship.”

In fact travel anthropologists have studied this mindset, and discovered that the two biggest things people lie about are the amount of money spent, and the amount of time spent with locals. I was reading David Tomory’s book about the hippie trail called ‘A Season in Heaven,’ and in it a traveler brags about getting from Damascus to Bombay on $5. Come on! If you are from a developed country, support the bus driver and pay the fifty cents. Give the mom-and-pop hotel a break and pay them $5. You can be a leech if you are always trying to spend as little as possible.

Sometimes the message of independent travel seems to be about having an “original” experience. Is this always necessary, or can one still have a great experience and still stay on the beaten path?

You can definitely have a good experience on the beaten path. Of course it’s great to have original experiences, and stray off the beaten path too. It’s much easier to leave the beaten path than you think. You just go to a neighborhood that no one else goes to in a tourist trap town, and you’re off the beaten path. Independent travel snobs tend to obsess on this a little bit. I always try to pooh-pooh the traveler/tourist distinction, and discourage the “pissing contest” between travelers. Instead of just having a good time in your travels, you shouldn’t always be looking over your shoulder and trying to one-up someone else.

If you can have a fantastic time and have good experience on the beaten path, go for it and don’t worry about the travel snobs. On the other hand, don’t get sucked in by the beaten path, because there just as much fun to be had in a place where all the signs aren’t all in English, or where your day isn’t as easy to plan at. I always encourage people to embrace the unexpected.

What about the fact that independent travel has become something of an industry? With all the guidebooks and anthologies and articles is it becoming commoditized?

I can see how it can be perceived that way. I can see how people who would like to see themselves as independent travelers can get caught in a very non-independent way of travel, but if you talk to the people who write these books they’ll tell you that they are supposed to be suggestions, or an aide to travel, not a bible. Don’t be a guidebook fundamentalist.

(Page 4 of 5)
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