Interview with Rolf Potts

By Nomadic Matt | Published January 18th, 2009

Rolf PottsRolf Potts is one of the most famous modern travelers writers out there. He burst onto the scene with his book, Vagabonding, and since then, the book has become a must travel for first time travelers. Rolf has, in many ways, become the face of modern backpacking. He recently took time out of his busyschedule to sit down and discuss backpacking.

Nomadic Matt: You are sort of considered the godfather of backpacking. Every long-term traveler knows about you. How do you feel about having that distinction?
Rolf Potts: That’s a humbling thought, though obviously I didn’t invent or even revolutionize the backpacking phenomenon; I just recast it into 21st century terms, for people who want to use long-term travel as a way to live life to its fullest. The core philosophy of vagabonding goes back through Walt Whitman and John Muir to Ecclesiastes and the Upanishads, so I’m certainly standing on the shoulders of giants.

Did you think your first book, Vagabonding, would be so successful? It’s considered a must read for new travelers on the road.
When I was writing Vagabonding in a little room in Thailand seven years ago, I didn’t really focus on whether or not it would be successful; I was just trying to communicate an ethic of travel — and of life in general –that would encourage people to make the most of their time on earth. That the book has since struck a nerve with travelers has been really gratifying for me — not just in terms of its success, but in the grassroots nature of that success. The book never had a promotional budget, so I’d like to think its success was earned on the strengths of its ideas, at a word-of-mouth level.

You touch on the tourist vs. traveler debate in the introduction to your new book. While I prefer backpacking because it is more low impact, everyone has their own style and, to me, just getting someone out there is a victory in itself. Why do you think this debate persists so much?
The tourist v. traveler debate is a status ritual, and as such it has more in common with the petty obsessions of home than the realities and possibilities of the road. Ideally, travel should be an act of humble curiosity, and when you start to worry about where you stand in relation to other travelers you kind of lose the point. In a sense, the tourist/traveler debate is an exercise in insecurity — a kind of comfort blanket that people cling to amid the uncertain social atmosphere they enter when they leave home. I think it’s pointless to constantly evaluate your travels in relation to other people; your energy is better spent just quietly making yourself a better, more mindful traveler on your own terms.

Rolf PottsI often find backpackers in Southeast Asia have this holier than thou attitude about travel. Why do you think that there is a perception among backpackers that they are somehow better travelers?
Well again, it’s all a part of this status game. Backpackers tend to be younger — and status is huge part of youth-culture, from fraternity houses to all-ages punk clubs. Ideally travel allows you to remove yourself from the pissing contests of whatever subculture you left behind, but of course travel can at times become its own subculture, with its own prejudices. I find it ironic that backpacker arrogance expresses itself most explicitly in backpacker ghettos — places that have a very tenuous connection to the host culture. If you really are such a super-traveler, odds are you’ll be off on your own, having quietly life-enriching experiences far from the backpacker ghettos, where there’s no need to haughtily compare itineraries over banana pancakes and Bob Marley tunes.

So often travelers have “the beach” outlook. That somewhere out there is a travel utopia where they will be the only non local and everything will be perfect. What perpetuates this myth? Do you think its detrimental to the travel experience? That it creates too high expectations?
I don’t think this attitude is all that new. People have always hit the road with unrealistic picture-postcard expectations that don’t always match reality. The secret, of course, is to be open to reality instead of trying to steer it to your expectations. The story of “The Beach” is about a group of people who try to create their own expectation-driven reality, to an ultimately self-defeating degree. In reality, utopia means “no place,” and there’s so much more to learn and enjoy in a real place — flawed or not — than a “no place.” So again we go back to the importance of being humble on the road, of not letting your ego or your expectations cheat the raw and exhilarating experience of reality. It’s much better to experience a complicated and less-than-perfect reality on its own terms than to constantly flog half-baked fantasies over your travel experiences.

Rolf PottsI was once read that your favorite country was Mongolia and your least favorite was Vietnam. Is that true and, if so, why? If not, what countries fall into those categories?
My perception of these places is very much tied to specific experiences. In 1999 I had a frustrating string of experiences over the course of a couple weeks in Vietnam. (Matt says: Me too!) I’d just spent some amazing time in Cambodia and Thailand and Laos, and I felt my time had been better spent in those places. But I realize that this could have just been a case of bad luck for me when I was in Vietnam. I have plenty of travel friends who absolutely love Vietnam, and I respect that. Perhaps someday I’ll go back and the country will redeem itself. As for Mongolia, I was just amazed by its landscape, and by the people who inhabit it. I come from the Great Plains, so I think I was naturally fascinated by the Mongolian steppe.

There are plenty of other places I love to visit, however. Paris, where I teach a creative writing workshop each summer, is an absolutely gorgeous city. India is a continent to itself. I love visiting New York, and I love road-tripping the American West. Burma is a special place for me, as is Laos. But it’s hard to pick favorites, since there are so many amazing places out there.

What do you think of the flashpacking trend? Backpacking has this mythos around that it’s not real if you have more than two pennies to your name but I think gizmos and gadgets make travel easier today, as long as you don’t get too tied to them.

I think “flashpacking” is sort of an annoying word (kind of like “staycation”), but in practice I think it’s great. And I’m not convinced there’s a solid line between flashpacking and standard backpacking; I think backpack travelers can fit into any number of economic categories. Sure, there are some people who are convinced you aren’t really traveling unless you’re sleeping in ditches and squeaking by on $2 a day, but I think that’s kind of a silly orthodoxy. If you like sleeping in ditches, go for it — but backpackers who stay in hostels or home-stays or decent hotels have just as much potential for amazing travel experiences. And I think it’s unavoidable that gadgets are going to be more intrinsic to how we all travel; the trick is in challenging yourself to know when not to use the gizmos, when to cut that electronic umbilical cord and immerse yourself in your surroundings.

If you could only tell one thing to a new traveler, what would it be?
Slow down and enjoy yourself. Take your time, and don’t set limits. New travelers tend to be both excited and nervous about the journey ahead, and I think that is totally great and normal. Just don’t let that excitement and anticipation trick you into thinking you have a jam all your travel dreams and ambitions into one journey. You’ll be ten times as travel-savvy after your first two weeks on the road, so be flexible and don’t micromanage things. Don’t just take a journey; let it take you.

For more information about Rolf Potts, visit his website Vagablogging. If you are interested in purchases his books, check out his classic, Vagabonding, and his new book, Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, at Amazon.

comments 19 Comments

I also enjoyed vagabonding, although my disabilities make it practically impossible to backpack and stay in hostels. Still, the concept of TRULY, interculturally, experiencing a place is important.

Good interview Matt! Ralph’s book was the first I read and still is the book that has had the greatest impact on me.

Craig

I enjoyed Vagabonding but was underwhelmed after all the hype and overly positive reviews I’d been given. I do like this interview however; well written, Mr. Potts. I may just look out book number two.

I have no problem with the word ‘flashpacking’, but I agree with your thoughts about gizmos and gadgets in the second last question. I think the ‘secret’ is to learn when to focus on what’s happening around you as opposed to directing your attention on your laptop, iPod, camera, camcorder etc. – and when to combine the two (for example showing your newly taken digital shots for curious kids in the village you’re visiting). Develop that habit and you’ll get way more out of your travel experience.

great interview, matt. =)

vagabonding was definitely one of the books that lead me to my first RTW and i have passed it along multiple times for others in the planning phases of theirs. three months into my trip, i saw the paris writing workshop on rolf’s blog and decided that i couldn’t go home when my trip was over. so i started a new one, and spent the month of july at rolf’s workshops.

i must say, i was EXTREMELY impressed with the program, and i’d highly recommend it to anyone else interested in writing. our group was small (only 13!) and included all skill levels – from newbies like me to published novelists! rolf taught creative nonfiction (including travel writing), and we also had amazing instructors in literary fictions (john biguenet) and a paris journal class by irina reyn where we followed in hemingway’s footseps (the companion to the class was “a moveable feast”) the staff and the facilities at the paris american academy is top-notch, right in the middle of the latin quarter. gorgeous!

if you happen to be in paris in july, i’d definitely recommend sign ing up for this year’s workshop. i’d hoped to go back this year but it looks like the budget won’t let me… maybe next year! =)

I{ve been following him for a while – the interview makes him a mere mortal – hope for us all!

His book didn’t do a lot for me but his travel ethic is clearly very positive, which comes through your interview well. I like his idea of not caring about the various labels and just getting on and enjoying travelling at a sensible relaxed speed. Mongolia does sound a very special place – I have only ever heard good things from people who’ve been there.

>>> I find it ironic that backpacker arrogance expresses itself most explicitly in backpacker ghettos — places that have a very tenuous connection to the host culture.

Mr. Potts: I will buy your book based on this statement alone.

Matt: Great interview.

NomadicMatt

@Craig: I think his book is better suited for new travelers. I do want to read his second one and his stories.

@Jessie: Glad you enjoyed it!

@Gillian: I am also a big, big fan of the book. I read it before I first went away.

@Erica: I am a flashpacker. Like you said, the key is to put down the gadgets sometimes.

@Malia: I will be in paris this summer and will look into the course.

@Quick: I am glad that you found this interview worthwhile!

@Mark: Even though you didn’t like the book, glad you liked this interview. He does have a good travel ethic!!!

@Steve: Glad I converted you.

Ian

Great interview, especially the part about The Beach. Thanks for sharing.

“You’ll be ten times as travel-savvy after your first two weeks on the road, so be flexible and don’t micromanage things.”

Truly excellent interview. The statement above is very encouraging to me as I’ll be taking a month-long trip in the summer. I recognize the truth of this statement intuitively.

But what will stick with me for years is the final point:

“Don’t just take a journey; let it take you.”

Wise words from a wise traveller.

First time I heard of this book.

The only travel book I have ever read was Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad.

Great interview. I love Rolf’s perspective on traveling. There’s tons of decent-to-great travel writers out there, but what really separates them, for me, is their approach towards travel. And I love Rolf’s. Thanks!

Carla Moreno

Thank you Rolf! I agree there are some “holier than though” travelers. I just want to encourage my students to get out there. Discover. Be. I’ve been traveling since age, 15. I do try my best to travel as lightly as possible and a small flipcam gets me the footage I need for my short documentaries.

Will read your book!

awesome that you had the chance to interview him Matt – was it in person? good to hear the man himself discuss modern traveling and i like what he says about missing the point when discussing who’s a ‘better’ traveler. He seems a very chilled out dude!

Erron

Rolf nails it down every time. Though I’ve been on the road many times now, whenever I re-read his philosophy on things it always reminds me why I live the strange life I live, and why I need to enjoy and appreciate it.

NomadicMatt

So true!

Never heard of the guy or his book but then I’m a bot old for his demographic now. Started travelling before mobile phones were even common, still tend to look back on that era as the glory days but came to realize that it’s not the place, budget or gadgets but the people and the experiences that matter. And everyone will have a different experience of a place depending on personal circumstances too. It’s all good -don’t let gadgets become a barrier to personal interaction, and what’s the problem?

As you discuss, there are so many different labels and subcultures in the world and this certainly applies to travellers as much as it does to anyone else and is often put to use by those who derive a strong sense of identity from their travels. Regardless of how you approach travel – long term, short term / vacation, backpacker, luxury, etc etc – I think that it is important to encourage those who are interested to get out there and see the world because it is magnificent and humbling and it changes you – and ultimately I would hope that is what people take away from both the book and this interview. I always encourage people to travel in environmentally and culturally aware and sustainable ways – but outside if that ideal, there is no right place or right way to travel. Just go.
As Rolf Stated, “New travellers tend to be both excited and nervous about the journey ahead, and I think that is totally great and normal. Just don’t let that excitement and anticipation trick you into thinking you have a jam all your travel dreams and ambitions into one journey…. Don’t just take a journey; let it take you.”

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