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Sunday, 25 February 2007

An Interview with Rolf Potts

Written by Karen Elowitt
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rolfIf 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.

In addition to appearing in National Geographic Traveler,, and on National Public Radio, his writing has also been featured in nearly twenty literary travel anthologies, and thirteen of his essays have appeared in the Best American Travel Writing collection.

But Rolf is probably best know for his book on independent travel, “Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel,” which has been through six printings and translated into several foreign languages since it was published in 2003.

When he’s not traveling, Rolf teaches writing at the Paris American Academy, where he is the summer writer-in-residence during the month of July, or he can be found hanging out at his farmhouse in Kansas.

I recently got to live vicariously through Rolf for an afternoon, when I interviewed him about writing techniques, the philosophy of vagabonding, and why it’s important to spend more than $5 when traveling across a continent, among other things.

When did you first develop wanderlust? How old were you?

I’ve always had wanderlust. I remember being six years old and going to Wyoming and seeing mountains for the first time. I’m from Kansas, which is flat, so that was a big deal. As a kid, every year hinged around vacation, where we went in the summer. We went to Kansas City, Missouri, Colorado, California. Travel was always the most exciting part of the year in the family setting. Where I grew up was fairly provincial, and not a lot of people traveled the world. It never occurred to me that the vagabonding process was available to me. Wanderlust was something I’ve always had, but it was not until the first long trip I made after college when I realized how easy and inexpensive and incredibly wonderful it was, that I incorporated it into a more active part of my lifestyle.

You’ve toured brothels in Cambodia, tried tantric sex in India, gotten semi-kidnapped in Lebanon ... do these types of adventures just find you, or do you seek them out? Surely your travels must not always be as interesting and funny and poetic as your stories.

Having the luxury of time allows you the privilege of story, I guess. Sometimes I am a magnet for unusual people. With people like Mr. Ibrahim in Beirut, well, some people might run away from him, but I take things as they come. But with regard to time, if you swoop into a place with only two days to spend, you will be sort of pre-conception driven, and be forced to deal with the ideas you had when you arrived. But if you have two weeks in a place, to wander and hang out and go on day trips and talk to people, pretty soon a story can develop more organically. If you can give a travel experience time, those stories will happen if you’re open to them. They also tend to happen when you travel alone. Some of my best stories have happened because I was sitting on a train and started talking to a Cambodian guy in Thailand, or I was walking around Beirut and met a guy who liked Americans.

You spent a couple of years in Korea teaching English in the mid-90s. You have said in past interviews that you spent a lot of this time reading and writing. Is this when you really started to develop as a writer?

It was certainly part of my development as a writer. But writing is always an ongoing process. When I was seven I wrote a book about dinosaurs, complete with a pronunciation guide. It was a combination of plagiarism and fantasy. It was always something I was interested in and good at. I wrote for my high school newspaper, and wrote science fiction and horror stories at that age too. It sort of developed from there. In a general sense, they always say write what you know, and eventually my obsession with travel and my obsession with writing dovetailed. My trip around the US and my attempts to write about it are a result of that. Then in Korea I was licking my wounds from the failure of my USA travel book, but I went back to the craft so I guess that’s how I developed my writing in that time. I also did a lot of reading – Moby Dick, and poetry anthologies, and I got back to the language and the craft.

Did you consciously choose a “niche” as a travel writer, which is very competitive, or do you just write what you want and the way you want, and just see if anyone wants to buy it?

I don’t think I consciously chose a niche, although it seems that I have one now. My niche was sort of an accident and coincided with the heyday of’s travel section, which was really narrative and story-based. What I was already writing dovetailed nicely with what they wanted. I was traveling solo and slow and having these goofy adventures. ‘Vagabonding’ was almost an accident too. A Random House editor approached me about it, based on some things I had written on my website. So I think my niche sort of found me. I like to be a generalist, even though independent travel is my bread and butter, but I like to think that I can stay branched out, and write about cultural tourism, or hotel tourism or other special interest travel if need be.

Did anyone inspire you as a writer? Who are your influences?

Walt Whitman is one – there is a lot of him in Vagabonding. Kurt Vonnegut was an important part of my development. When I first got into travel writing I was amazed by Pico Iyer. One tends to draw on these people. Pico has this great precision of language and this great ability to write idea-driven stories, and that’s something I’ve tried to emulate. Also, George Orwell is a great non-fiction essayist. Graham Greene is great with language. Tim Cahill and Bill Bryson remind me to keep it light, and that you can convey a lot of cultural and travel information in a story that’s very entertaining.

Do you travel and write simultaneously? Or do you wait until you leave a country to write about it? What process and flow works best for you, and why?

80% of the time I do the writing after. During my first big writing gig I was doing a column for I traveled around Asia. I would travel, stop write, travel, stop, write. It wasn’t immediate, but I was writing pretty close to the experience. In general though, I tend to write better when I can process it first. Partly because I am a slow writer, but also because it takes me away from the experience a little, and lets me shed the unnecessary details.

How do you choose your destinations? Is it serendipity, or do you get commissioned?

I get commissioned sometimes, but sometimes I decide. My next trip is independent, not tied to a magazine. I get assigned once or twice a year. Sometimes I pitch an idea and then I go to that place. Sometimes magazines approach me, and sometimes I approach them. Other times I’ll travel for an occasion, like this past summer I went to Sweden for a friend’s wedding. It keeps me plenty busy.

Do you generally travel alone vs. with a companion or group? Which do you prefer?

These days I usually travel alone, which need not be exclusive. I usually end up meeting people on the road in different combinations. On my first trip around the US in 1994, I went with a friend from college, and met various other people on the road at certain points. I don’t know that I was really ready psychically to travel solo at that point. It was important to have the moral support of a friend. But I learned that I had it in me to travel solo. I’m a fairly solitary person, so that is my “square one” of travel, but some of my favorite trips have been with other people.

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.

You're say in one piece that “travel anywhere is often a matter of exploring half-understood desires.” Can you expand on this, or give an example?

That can be taken very broadly. Maybe you watched a show about the Inca trail when you were seven, and now you’re 26 and still obsessed with the Inca trail. It’s not an intellectualized thing. It’s an impulse that’s tied to who you were as a child. I think it’s great to take that half-understood desire, go to Cuzco, and in the process of being there, you’ll discover so much more and sharpen that desire. The experience of being in the Andes will be great, but the most memorable part of the trip may end up being something completely different. You might go to Egypt because of the pyramids, but once you arrive, that half-understood desire will find its focus and your travel may go in these amazing new directions.

Travel anywhere is an ongoing exercise in ignorance. Be willing to let your ignorance hang out and just go and see the real thing. By that I mean embrace the kind of humility that allows you to admit your ignorance and discover new things. At home we try to protect our self-image by pretending we know more than we do, but on the road we must be open to new places, and not pretend to know about something until we've experienced it.

What are the pros and cons of being a permanent expat?

It’s a very personal thing. I would recommend it to anyone for a short time, to see if it’s right for you. Sometimes it can be tough, and its rewards don’t always pay off until later. Some people are conflicted about it. Maybe I was a bit myself. I am comfortable overseas, but there are some things I miss at home, including my family and friends and a certain stability.

Where are you off to next?

In a week I’m going to Europe for a week, then the Dominican Republic, then Cuba, where I’ll be till late April. Cuba is a place that I am curious about. I want to go there in the waning days of the Castro era.

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© Karen Elowitt - 2007

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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