Rolf Potts Q&A: The Art of Long-term World Travel… and Travel Writing

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rolf potts
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.

He interviewed me for Yahoo! Travel almost a year and a half ago, and I’m thrilled to have the chance to interview him about his long-awaited new book and the art of travel writing.

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.

—-

You can see Rolf Potts at one of 20 cities nationwide as he celebrates the release of Marco Polo Didn’t Go There through mid-November.

###

Odds and Ends:

-Check out Weebly.com for simple website creation. I create the following homepage mock-up in 10 minutes: Timothy Ferriss homepage mock-up.

-Good article on digital connection vs. recluse-like behavior (me):
Timothy Ferriss vs. Gary Vaynerchuck

-Haven’t tried Twitter yet? See how I use it — against being called a heretic — here: Timothy Ferriss on Twitter.

Posted on: September 15, 2008.

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53 comments on “Rolf Potts Q&A: The Art of Long-term World Travel… and Travel Writing

  1. You are so right. Traveling is about the experiences and slowing down. We do not need to be the most efficient people when we are traveling. I know we think that sometimes we only have so much time to travel but slowing down can just make our experiences that much better.

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  2. I love this blog post. Traveling is a wonderful thing for me and I know it is for you. You travel all the time and I love to hear about your experiences and everything you get to do. I think I would like this kind of writing considering I love reading your blog and how inspiring it is.

    My problem when I travel is that I do try to become efficient and not just relax and take everything in. The next time I go on a trip I am going to take everything slow and when my time is up I will just go home.

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  3. Tim,

    The timing could not have been better. I just wrapped up his first book when I was in Nicaragua. Awesome book and interesting interview. What I really enjoyed about this interview was the simple and genuine answers Rolf had. I am always amazed at how following your passions seems to yield the best returns.

    Great Post,

    Jose Castro-Frenzel

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  4. Sorry, meant to finish my last post by saying that both the picture in your post and my picture were taken on the DMZ, in the little negotiating rooms they have that flank the boarder between North and South Korea. It’s a really intense scene up there with the guards all standing around like that, guarding a boarder separating two countries after a war that never officially ended.

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  5. I saw your book recommendations and read Vagabonding. Great read, very dreamy. Interesting post, I’ll definitely pick up a copy of Marco Polo Didn’t Go There…

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  6. As far as a travel writing career, I think having to write about traveling could take away the flavor of travels. Traveling could become an adventure with many to do lists instead of being spotaneous fun.
    That’s exactly what happened to me during my couple month gig as a food critic. All the fancy restaurants I was reviewing lost a bit of their flavor…
    I’d say don’t do it unless you’re a reporting aficionado…

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  7. Matt, what year did you visit the Panmunjom DMZ? That photo was of me was taken almost exactly ten years ago. Visiting that little room (half in South Korea, half in North Korea) is an iconic and essential experience for anyone who travels to Korea! Very surreal.

    Jose, Anna, glad to hear you enjoyed Vagabonding! I think you’ll get a kick out of the new book as well.

    Happy travels to all of you!

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  8. Great post on travel – interested in reading his book as well.

    Side note: I have reread 4HWW for the third time, defined a product, tested the marketing, created it, and now am in the prep to launch phase.

    During this last week I discovered something: I am freaking out over the possibility of succeeding with it!

    Seems as if I am so programmed to be an employee that the reality of me not being one is downright terrifying. I discovered this by noticing a lot of bizarre behavior that I was displaying that was stalling the project, and then it hit me. If it works out everything is going to be different and I will no longer have this giant baggage, but like a man on the moon I am afraid to jump – really weird stuff.

    Any tips on navigating the mental part of all of this?

    Thanks a million either way.

    tt

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  9. Rolf Potts encouraged me to buy my first one-way ticket, which was one of my best decisions. I loved Vagabonding!

    btw, I like Walden, but I took The Alchemist with me instead :)

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  10. Great questions and great distinctions.

    Roadtripping’s taught me a bunch about being a minimalist and I agree, it’s the way to go.

    >you can travel just as much by saving up money from another, better-paying job, and just taking off to go vagabonding
    Beautiful point and it applies to so many trade-offs in life. When passion and profit collide, great … but there’s more than one way to fund your passion, and more than one way to live your dream. Hail to the pragmatic vagabonder!

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  11. Tim

    Great interview. I read Vagabonding straight after 4HWW. Equally liberating read. So its excellent that you are able to interview him and pass on these insights.

    Now if I could just interview you for my Social Media Success Stories series…

    Cheers

    Craig

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  12. First of all, we differentiate our travels by whether it is a “vacation” or a “trip”. A trip is a travel that likely requires a vacation afterwards to recover from. On a trip you rush from one restful activity to another. On a vacation you just sorta chill. While it can be restful, London isn’t a place for a vacation, whereas Bora Bora isn’t really a place to go on a trip.

    Our second deviation from the norm is our nebulous metric on how we figure out whether the trip or vacation was a success. We use “How many people will recall us after we leave?” (hopefully fondly). If you don’t leave a trail of people with smiles on their faces, you haven’t truly traveled. I’d be willing to bet that Peter, the door man at the Four Seasons Mayfair in London, would remember us by sight inspite of the fact that its been five years. Same with the Macedonian guy that works at the Hotel Nizza in Dusseldorf, when we got locked out of our hotel after midnight in the rain. Slow down and really savor the culture and the locals.

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  13. Tim and Rolf, you are the two people on this planet that made me realize there are other commodities than money. After I had brushed up my money making skills in various ways, it was enlightening (to say the least) to realize that time is wealth. Nothing has been the same since. I can’t describe how liberating it has been to combine income with time and travel. Life is 20 times better now. Thanks a million!!! Jaakko

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  14. Anna and J.D. touch on an interesting point. Despite the glamour associated with travel writing, it typically ends up being more about the writing than the travel. Unless you really love to write (and of course I do), travel writing isn’t necessarily the best way to see the world. And that should be encouraging, actually, since it means that truly experiencing the world is more a matter of attitude and openness than job description.

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  15. Rolf,

    I visited Panmunjom in 2003. I was in the US Army at the time, stationed in Uijongbu. My whole experience there was very rewarding and my favorite thing to do was to get lost while walking around the various networks of alleys and roads around Seoul. And yes, touring the DMZ is a VERY surreal experience.

    Congrats on the book and god speed.

    Matt

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  16. This guy is funny while giving tips for how to have an adventure!

    “Andrew MacDonald’s Italian leather screenplay binder, I’m afraid, was too heavy and will have to stay behind. ” lol !

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  17. Hey Rolf ~ Just read Storming the Beach. Brilliant! Good fun.

    Reminds me of getting smuggled into secure locations in England. I was 18 and had befriended a few of the Queen’s Horse Guards through my local pub. They snuck me into a variety of military establishments that I shouldn’t have had access to. After a couple of weeks, they all got arrested in a pub fight and those particular adventures came to an end.

    For me, it was accidental. I hadn’t set out to gain entry to forbidden places. Though if I do in the future, I suppose I will attempt to deliberately befriend military personnel. Seems like a sensible thing to do when traveling in a foreign country anyway, just to be marginally accounted for in case of an emergency.

    As you and Tim have noted – being open to new experiences is what it’s all about, though I think it requires a tremendous preparedness and trust in oneself. You never know how a new experience might leave an unexpected, irrevocably lasting impression – which is not always a desirable thing. Minimizing uncontrollable variables while still executing plans is key – just like you’ve described!

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  18. Thanks Tim, I am officially canceling Travel Writer from my list of Jobs that will help me see the world. I really enjoyed this article, I will just have to try a few of the other things on my list. I also really appreciate the Laptop advise.

    Cheers,

    -Tabs

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  19. Rolf Potts’ “Storming the Beach” was totally awesome.

    I’ve had my brushes with the Hollywood crowd. Back in the day, I delivered equipment to an Academy Awards show. Backstage I was standing next to Peter Lawford, Frank Sinatra and Robert Holden as they shot the shit leaning on stage backdrops in their tuxedos.

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