Interview with Author, Essayist, and Travel Writer Rolf Potts

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If you’ve heard the term ‘vagabonding,’ there’s a good chance you’ve heard the name Rolf Potts. Though he invented neither the word nor the concept to which it refers, he has arguably done more than any contemporary writer to champion it as a viable travel ethic, describing it in his 2003 book Vagabonding – An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel as a deliberate way of moving through the world, “an extended time-out from your normal life –six weeks, four months, two years – to travel the world on your own terms.” Now in its 15th printing, Vagabonding has been hailed by some as a postmodern classic and has inspired thousands of would-be wanderers to reevaluate their priorities and hit the road.

Before launching his globetrotting career, Rolf lived as an expat in Busan, South Korea, teaching English, honing his writing chops, saving money, and imbibing lessons that would serve him well as the vagabonding columnist for Salon.com in the late 90’s. Since then he has driven a Land Rover across South America, piloted a boat down the Laotian Mekong, and hitched, biked, trained, planed or walked across six continents, once even traveling for 6 weeks and 30,000 miles with no baggage. His work has appeared in magazines like The New Yorker, National Geographic Traveler, The New York Times Magazine, Slate.com and several others, as well as over a dozen travel writing anthologies.

In 2008, Rolf authored a second book, Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, in which he lets readers get under the hood of many of his best stories with extensive endnotes illuminating the construction of each tale. He also teaches non-fiction writing at the Paris American Academy and Yale University. When he’s not on the road he’s home in Salinas County, Kansas in a farmhouse he renovated, enjoying the view of the Kansas prarie from his porch.

I recently heard that Vagabonding was being recorded for audiobook format, so I thought it would be interesting to revisit the book with Rolf and get his thoughts on it ten years – and tens of thousands of miles – down the road. Rolf was kind enough to answer some questions about the book and about travel writing, and offered some reflections on the formative years he spent in Busan.


All of the press I’ve read has said great things about Vagabonding. What kinds of reactions has the book gotten from your readers over the years? What sorts of e-mails do you get from them?

I’ve been humbled by how positive the response has been. I get a good number of emails from folks hitting me up with planning or itinerary questions, but most people just want to say thanks, and share how the book gave them the courage to travel, to not postpone their dreams. At least a couple dozen readers have told me that they moved to Korea (if not specifically Busan) to teach English after reading how I had done the same in advance of my first big international vagabonding stint. I think that’s great.

Ten years down the road, what’s your own opinion of Vagabonding? How does the message hold up? Is it any more or less relevant?

I just reread the whole thing aloud for the audiobook, and listened to it multiple times in postproduction edits, and (while I’m no doubt liable to be biased) it feels as relevant as ever. I took out a few dated references in the audio version, and updated some of the resources online, but the philosophical core of the book still holds true. Before the recording session it had been awhile since I’d read the whole book, so it wound up feeling like a conversation with myself from ten years ago. I was home in Kansas when the first round of edits came in, and as I was listening to the audio I kept thinking to myself, “Man, I’ve got to get back out and travel some more.”

In Chapter 2, Earn Your Freedom, you talk about quitting a job, either permanently or temporarily, in order to make the time for long term travel. Written four years before the Great Recession of 2007-2008, how does this advice strike you now in a time of economic uncertainty and “jobless recovery”? Is there still a strong case to be made for quitting one’s job to go vagabonding?

I think there is always a case to be made for quitting your job to travel, if travel is what you’re inspired to do. And in many ways the recession has underscored how what I call “domestic certainties” are not as certain as you might think. I’ve had several readers email to say that the recession itself is what gave them the final push into long-term travel. For years they had been hanging on to what they thought was job security, only to find that job disappear. It made them realize that there are few guarantees in life, and if you have a dream — travel or otherwise — you should probably be bold and act on it sooner rather than later.

To me, Vagabonding was one of those books that just makes so much sense that you find it hard to imagine anyone having a serious quarrel with it. Yet, our species, being what it is, must have also provided you with a few critics. What have the critics said about the book, and how do you respond to them?

When the book came out I knew it was mathematically probable that some people just wouldn’t like it. At first the naysayers wrote in to say, “but this is common sense; I could have written it!” I replied saying that, yes, it is common sense — common sense that many people need to be reminded of. (While tempted, I restrained myself from saying, “Well if you could have written it, why didn’t you?”) Over time, as more and more people have read the book and made it a part of the collective travel conversation, I’ve heard that complaint less.

One rather perplexing criticism that recurs from time to time is that Vagabonding is “preachy.” At first this observation baffled me, since I urge flexible open-mindedness from the opening Preface chapter (“Add what is specifically your own…The creating individual is more than any style or system”), and the only things I preach against are postponing your travels, micromanaging your itinerary, or traveling too fast to truly experience your cultural surroundings. After a bit of follow-up, I’ve discovered that most of these critics were upset by my “anti-marijuana” stance. The thing is, I never come out and tell people to not smoke it on the road; all I say is to (a) not get caught traveling with it in places where it could land you in jail, and (b) don’t get into the habit of using it all the time, because it will separate you from the more mind-blowing experience of unfiltered reality.

Reading Vagabonding, one comes away with the message that travelling in a deliberate, thoughtful way is virtually synonymous with living deliberately, thoughtfully and openly all the time. Are you good at vagabonding at home? Keeping the traveler mindset alive for a summer in Paris doesn’t seem like it would require too much effort, but how are you able to vagabond in rural Kansas? No offense to Kansas, but is that harder to do?

I think it’s an ongoing challenge. Even on the road in 2013, with so much technology at our fingertips, it can be easy to slip into the ritual of tapping at your smartphone instead of engaging with your surroundings in some amazing place. So even in Paris or Tasmania (a couple of my recent destinations), mindfulness is an ongoing challenge.

Kansas is a challenge in a different way. I’m very contemplative here — I do a ton of reading and writing — but contemplation itself can take you away from your surroundings. I love aimless Kansas road-trips — you tend to meet interesting people and see a lot of pretty landscapes — but I’ll admit I don’t take them as much as I’d like.

As travel has become a major part of your work, how do you keep work from taking away from the travel experience? Is there any tension for you between the notion that travel should in some sense bring you away from your normal life, and the fact that traveling has in some sense become your “normal life”? How do you find the balance between work and travel as someone who travels for a living?

I’ve ended up mixing things up over the years. Periods of full-time travel or overseas sojourn have been offset by more settled experiences. After living in Asia full-time for over seven years I came back to the U.S. and lived for a while in San Diego, then New Orleans. Then I bought and renovated my house in Kansas, which gave me a more tangible sense of home. I did a lot of far-flung travel in-between these U.S. stints — including a Land Rover expedition across the Americas, extended stints in Cuba and Brazil, and an around-the-world journey with no luggage — but my “home life” lent a sense of contrast and stability to my travel life.

Travel has over time become a relative concept to me. One of my most interesting adventures in recent years came in moving to the East Coast last spring to teach a writing course at Yale. After all my years of wandering far-flung corners of the world, being a part of that elite institution felt like an exotic new leg of my life’s journey.

Rolf in Ethiopia

How did your experience as an expat in Busan prepare you for long-term traveling? How did it prepare you for travel writing?

Expat life in Busan was terrific preparation for both long-term travel and travel writing, since it helped me understand cross-cultural difference at an intuitive level. Often use my time in Korea as an illustrative example of how you can intellectualize cultural difference all you want, but you can’t really understand it until you are immersed in that culture, making discoveries and mistakes as you go. Working for a locally administrated institution (like a school) in that culture for months at a time is in effect a crash course on how to operate in a foreign culture. You end up with sharpened instincts for long-term international travel — and this intensified awareness makes its way into your travel writing.

One reporting skill I picked up in the classrooms and on the streets of Korea was learning how to communicate without fully understanding a language. Academics have different terms for the kinds of communication that underpin travel reportage. “Intralingual” communication happens when, say, an American travels to Australia and communicates in English; “interlingual” communication happens when an American travels to Mexico and communicates in Spanish; and “intersemiotic” communication happens when an American travels to, say, Nepal or Zambia and communicates without the benefit of a common language. My experience in Korea attuned me to the idiosyncrasies of intersemiotic communication, and my ability to navigate these kinds of interactions has proven invaluable, both as a traveler and travel writer.

You’ve said in a 2006 Slate piece that you had mixed feelings about your time as an expat in Busan. Could you elaborate on that a little?

I touch on one aspect of that ambivalence a little bit in the second installment of that Slate piece. When I was in Korea, a lot of the teacher-expats didn’t specifically want to be there. They weren’t trained in pedagogy, and they had no interest in teaching; they had come to the country mainly hoping to make some money and pay off debts (often college debts). When I first arrived in the country I fell into the reflexive, boozy negativity that seemed to pervade so much of the expat crowd. Every second person at a given expat bar claimed to be a writer or artist, but you never saw much writing or art. It was all very bitter and petty and self-defeating, and I didn’t begin to write about Korea in a meaningful away until I learned to keep that expat crowd (friends and coworkers included) at arm’s-length and experience the city on quieter, more Korean terms.

But apart from those nihilistic expat vibes, Korea could simply be a tough place to live and work. Koreans can at times be xenophobic, and I suffered my share of culture shock and loneliness. At times I worked crazy hours and didn’t get much sleep. Winters could be brutally cold, summers could be witheringly hot, and I often got tired of the noise and crowds (and the occasional filth) of the big city. I’m actually glad I experienced all these things, but they weren’t always easy.

What’s next on your personal travel itinerary?

I have a little bit of U.S. travel pegged to the release of the Vagabonding audiobook, and once that’s done I hope to hit Indonesia for 4-6 weeks before starting another semester-long teaching gig at Yale.

Though I don’t have specific plans right now, I’d love to get back to Busan one of these days. I lived a couple of the most important years of my life there, and it still feels like a kind of home to me.

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