Ever wanted to skip work and travel the globe for months at a time? "Vagabonding" author Rolf Potts joins host David Lytle to discuss the best ways to set aside everything and see the world.
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- "Vagabonding": Long-term travel, travelling slowly and deliberately. Different from the short, hurried, typical American vacation travel.
- Extroverted Travel: It helps to meet new people to appreciate the new situation you are in.
- Reducing Risk: Be aware of your surroundings. Read up on possible dangers of your potential destinations. Check national embassy websites.
- Language Barriers: Try to learn the local language of your destination. You don't have to become fluent, try to pick up 50 words or phrases while reading on a bus or train.
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Hi. Welcome to the Frommers.com travel podcast. I'm David Lytle, editorial director of Frommers.com. Today we're talking with Rolf Potts, an accomplished travel writer. He's the author of "Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel."
Hi Rolf, how's it going?
Rolf Potts: Going pretty good. Thanks.
David: Good. Before we started you said that you are currently at your home in Kansas, in a farm-house?
Rolf: Yeah. I travel probably eight to ten months a year these days. As far as when I'm back in the states I have a home base now. I've got a little farm-house on 30 acres in Kansas where I've been based for about two years now. I'm real close to my family.
David: Oh, that's nice. So this is the first time in a long time you've actually felt like you've had a home base, because you've written before that home is almost anywhere that you are.
Rolf: Yeah, and that was an issue for a long time, and I probably was functionally homeless for about 10 or 12 years. I had residences in places like Asia and in New Orleans and San Diego, temporary residences. But one lesson I learned from all my travel is the importance of family, and when an opportunity came to live close to my family in Kansas it was great. And it doesn't hurt that land is a lot less expensive here than in some of the other parts of the United States.
David: Right. And I'm sure from the particular way that you travel too when you're back in Kansas now, you probably see that destination in a whole new light.
Rolf: Definitely. Definitely. In a way, Kansas is off the beaten track in a way that I like to seek in other parts of the world. It's not a place that's overrun with tourists. It's not a place that a lot of people know a lot about. And I can have experiences in my Kansas travel, just driving across the county to fetch something. It's been kind of fun discovering new things about my new-found home.
David: Yeah. Yeah, I'm originally from northern Indiana, and in many people's minds when you mention that you can sort of see their eyes glaze over. Mentally they can't even find it on a map sometimes.
Rolf: Yeah, yeah. People like to embrace the obscure off-the-beaten-path places in other parts of the world, but in the United States they can't imagine themselves going there at all.
Rolf: So it's been fun inviting some of my friends over and showing them a new part of the U.S. that they've probably never thought about much before.
David: Define for our listeners, what do you mean by "vagabonding"?
Rolf: Well, vagabonding is long-term travel. And it's not just a vacation. It's taking a deliberate time-out from your workaday, normal life and traveling in earnest. It's traveling slowly and deliberately and mindfully in a way that isn't an escape from your life, but is an enriching part of your life.
David: It's in a sense the antithesis of a typical American leisure vacation, which might be five to ten days in Hawaii at a resort, or in Florida on the beach.
Rolf: Yeah, yeah. It doesn't have an emphasis on leisure or inaction. It also doesn't have an emphasis on speed or micro-management. I know a lot of Americans tend to micro-manage their vacations in the same way that they micro-manage their normal lives at home.
Rolf: And at home that's fine, it makes your life more efficient. But on the road, if you micro-manage everything in advance you're not going to leave yourself open to any interesting experiences. So yeah, it's traveling in a way that's different from resort travel or from very hurried and short travel, because it's about embracing unpredictability and leaving yourself open to new experiences.
Rolf: And changing your mind about where you want to go and what you want to do.
David: Do you find that there's sort of a method to your madness? I mean, do you go to a caf and sit in one place and wait for that serendipitous opportunity to come to you, or are you out exploring all the time, or is there no rhyme or reason?
Rolf: I think it varies, and I think it will vary according to different people. I try to encourage people to sort of follow their own path, to challenge themselves, but to sort of travel in their own style.
Yeah, I enjoy hanging out in cafes, I enjoy going out for hikes. I don't know what it is about me, but I end up meeting strange characters if you read some of my travel stories.
David: Yeah, yeah. I'm reading a lot of them this week.
Rolf: Yeah. Yeah, I have this thing for meeting the town eccentric. It's not even like I'm looking for these people, but perhaps because I'm sort of a good listener I end up hanging out with these people that are a little bit strange. It's kind of like an interesting window in whoever I am.
David: Right. I would say from your writing that I've been reading, I mean you're fairly receptive. You're willing to let that person tell their story. That's sort of the trigger for an adventure whether it's good or bad to take place.
Rolf: Yeah. I think when you travel it helps to be an extrovert and to meet people, and to get out of that bubble that you surround yourself with in day-to-day life at home. But part of being an extrovert, or part of being a good extrovert, is being able to listen too.
Rolf: So, being open to people, but also being open to listening to what they have to say because they might be in their own situation where nobody listens to them anymore. So they'll appreciate your openness to them. You can learn a lot from these random people you run into, not all of whom are an eccentric for that matter.
Rolf: I just happen to meet a disproportionate number who are.
David: [laughs] There's a certain amount of risk in the way that you travel. How do you prepare yourself for that? I mean you don't necessarily speak the language where you're going, and you're not taking the typical tourist route. You're just sort of going to a new place to live your life. What are the ups and downs of that sort of risk taking?
Rolf: Well, there's different strategies for reducing risk. One is just to develop a constant attitude of awareness, which shouldn't be confused with paranoia -- that you're just sort of aware of your surroundings, and being receptive of what's going on around you. Sometimes people do try to scam you, or a wrangler will try to pick your pocket.
But one big way to avoid this is simply read up on the destination that you're going to or the destination that you're living in. Because any good guide book will have the common scams, and the common dangers listed. Well, statistically things probably won't happen to you. But if they do happen to you, statistically it will probably be the standard scams of a given region, be that getting your pocket picked or getting scammed in a gem shop, or whatever.
Rolf: So if you're aware of those dangers, it will definitely help reduce the dangers. Then too, it's good to develop an openness to the new places that you're going, but not an nave openness. I mean, even at home there's situations that you're not going to put yourself into. There's parts of cities that you're not going to travel at certain times at night.
Rolf: You don't want your optimism and your idealism to get in the way of common sense. So, I over the years have been very lucky with crime. I had one rather dramatic time where I was drugged and robbed in Istanbul.
Rolf: But again that was a situation, that's a scam that is in the book. Page seven of the [inaudible] says that these people in the tourist area of Istanbul prey on solo male travelers. So if I would have just read up on that, I would have been much more suspicious in that situation then I was.
But in the big picture, after having traveled for 12 or 13 years extensively, I've had very little problem with crime, just cause I have an attitude of awareness.
Rolf: I try to read up on the possible dangers.
David: Right. As you said, a good guide book can do that and there are plenty of websites out there as well, that can just sort of tell you what risk assessment is going to be. You need to look at government websites like Canadian Embassies, UK Embassies, Australian Embassies, American Embassies, will all list some of that information.
David: Where are you...
Rolf: I list some in the book as well. In the resources section I have a dangers section of the book. And those websites will keep current information, so that you can be aware of what the latest scams are.
David: Right. Where are you going to next?
Rolf: Well, apart from a few web things I'm going to in the coming weeks, in canvassing California. My next big journey, my vagabonding journey, if you will, will be down to South America. This winter I'm going to spend time in Brazil and Argentina. And Rio and Buenos Aires, in particular, once I'm interested in just staying in one place, staying in one city, for like a month or more.
David: OK. How do you pick your next destination? I mean, do you hope to see the entire world by the time you're at the end of your life? I mean, is that even possible, actually? To hit every where and to spend time living.
Rolf: Well, I suppose it's possible to visit every place in the world. But if you go with the mindset that you are going to try that, then you might end up overextending yourself because the world is a big place.
Rolf: There are parts in the world that I really haven't been and I'd love to go to. If I was on that mindset then I would probably be traveling in a different way. I've been to Brazil and Argentina before. I just sort of have this instinct to go back there. There's more that I'd like to learn about those places.
Even though there's parts of Southern Africa, there's parts in the South Pacific, Central Asia, that I would love to see that I haven't seen, my gut is sort of taking me to South America this time. And I think if you leave yourself open to the possibility, you can live your life in such a way that it's possible to visit these places that you haven't been to yet.
I know that some people have this attitude that they're going to take a big trip, a one year trip around the world, and get travel out of their system. Well, that's great, you know, a years trip around the world is fantastic. But it need not be seen as this end all, be all thing. Given preparedness, these long term journeys, are something you can go back to at different points of your life.
David: What's drawing you back to South America? You said there are more things you wanted to learn, that you wanted to discover. Was there some sort of unfinished business that's drawing you back?
Rolf: Well, a couple of things. One, I visited both cities in 2004 and I was only there for like five days or a week. I felt like I was just barely tasting the tip of the iceberg there.
And then another project I've had in recent months and years is studying Latin Dance, which as sort of a ranging mid-westerner, is something that comes to me the least in life. I just don't have an instinct for dance, but it's been actually really interesting and culturally rewarding to try and learn these Latin Dances. I've done the Meringue in the Dominican Republic and Salsa in Cuba with various degrees of success. So I'm really interested in [inaudible] in Brazil this winter.
David: That's really fascinating. I mean, that's the way to slice through destinations, is by looking at one element of a culture, across different cultures. Study the dances from place to place.
Rolf: Yeah, you can intellectualize dance but you can't leave dance and then intellectualize fear. I mean, you have to do it. It's a visceral thing.
David: Right, it's experiential, it's not...
Rolf: Exactly, exactly. You can't read books and then understand the dance of a culture. You have to go out there and do it. You have to sweat and you have to trip over their feet and a lot of people giggle at you.
David: Right. Exactly, and make mistakes.
Rolf: Sure, sure, and mistakes are part of any decent travel experience. I guess it's a challenge that I put myself up to. I think you can sometimes, if you travel a lot, get into certain patterns and certain ruts. And dance was sort of the least logical thing for me to do.
So that's what I did. And I'm learning a lot and making a fool of myself from time to time, but I'm really looking forward to wrapping my head and my feet around samba in Brazil this winter.
David: I think that sounds incredible. Maybe someday you'll end up on "Dancing with the Stars."
Rolf: [laughs] It's doubtful. Even at the end of this I don't know if I'll be ready for dancing in front of an audience. But I think if I can just sort of dance with proficiency in a nice, dark nightclub, then that'll be enough for me.
David: Yeah. Well, it's got to be a really fantastic way just to meet somebody who lives in another destination.
David: If they're your dance partner and your instructor, you're going to be spending a lot of time with them fairly close and talking at times.
Rolf: Yeah, and you learn a lot from the instructor and then once you get the steps down, you can meet people and language isn't an issue. You can sit down with someone in Rio and if you don't speak Portuguese, then you're going to have a fairly limited conversation.
Rolf: But, you know, samba, you can dance for hours and have an interaction in a way that is not possible through cerebral language-based interaction.
Rolf: So it's been fun. It's been a huge challenge but it's been fun, and I look forward to some more of it.
David: Yeah. Good luck with that. It sounds great. Speaking of languages, how many languages are you fluent in?
Rolf: In terms of fluency I'd say one, and that's English.
Rolf: While my talents in the world, languages aren't my strong suit. I lived in Korea for a couple of years and I can still read and write Korean, but my vocabulary and conversational skills have slipped a lot. I've studied Spanish quite a bit recently and my Spanish is getting better. Through my various travels in Asia and the Middle East there was a time when I was decent in market Arabic and market Thai and market Lao.
But in terms of fluency, it's just English right now. Hopefully my Spanish will get up to speed in the coming months and years.
David: OK, and by "market" you mean sort of the basics of bartering in language and asking for this and being able to say "how much is this," those sort of common phrases?
Rolf: Yeah, basic numbers, sort of interactive sayings, "Hello," "Thank you," "How much is this," "Where is this," I encourage in my book travelers to embrace when they travel. It's not that hard to learn about 50 words of a new language. When you're on that boring bus ride you can learn quite a bit.
And people in these overseas destinations really appreciate it when you try, you know. Even if you throw out a broken "thank you" or a broken "hello." Then they'll appreciate that you're trying and they'll reach out to you that much more.
David: Oh, I completely agree. To me it's probably one of the most exciting things about any time that I travel is when I can actually...even if it's holding down the simplest of conversations with somebody in their language. Just to have the basics down sort of makes your day, if you get a smile out of them and then you smile back.
Rolf: Yes, it's fun. And I guess there's not always 100 percent understanding but it can be fun. When I was in Cuba this spring I spoke with a woman and we just sort of talked about baseball and Hurricane Katrina and a few other things. It was actually really enjoyable to have her be patient enough with my bad Spanish to be able to have this semi-political, semi-sports-related conversation in Spanish, so it is a fun part of travel.
Rolf: It's a direction in which you can grow if you travel.
David: Right, exactly. Well, I think it sort of falls into Arthur Frommer's philosophy of immersing yourself in a culture to begin with and making that effort to connect on their level to gain a larger understanding of the place that you're in.
Rolf: Yeah, he's talked a lot about how sight-seeing, which is sort of an instinctual thing that we think we should do, is sort of antithetical to a tourist experience. Sightseeing is nice but it's when you're not looking at these grand monuments and when you're actually open to mistakes and new experiences and new people that the travel experience really begins.
David: Literature really seems to sort of inspire you when you travel, too. You make a lot of references. You made a reference to Fleur Eyre when you were anticipating and sort of dreading seeing the pyramids in Cairo. Can you speak a little bit to that about how literature influences what you see in the world?
Rolf: When I first traveled, I...actually, no, I think from the beginning literature has influenced my travels because I was about to say that when I first traveled to the United States in 1994 for eight months, that I was just sort of curious about the United States, literature notwithstanding. But, when I think about it, I remember reading Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass." I remember reading Kerouac's "On the Road" and William Least Heat-Moon's "Blue Highways."
I think from the beginning a lot of my yearnings for the road had been channeled through reading and, as I traveled, I found that reading about the travelers who've gone before me, for example, Robert in Egypt, really helps me understand how people have experienced these cultures before and how I might experience these cultures and while it's good not to completely bind yourself to a book be it a guidebook or a travel guidebook. It's always good to leave your experience open to completely new things. I think you can really get a deep sense of possibility by reading about the travelers who've gone to these places before you.
David: I agree with you. I think that, by reading something other than a guidebook before you go especially or even while you're in the place, a little nighttime reading before you fall asleep, it comments on your own experiences.
Rolf: Yeah, and that can happen even with fiction books, even with novels that are set in these places where you're traveling. You can sort of keep your mind on the greater significance of where you're going and the broader experience. I think sometimes it's easy to get caught up in the details of a place, you know, like where you have to wash you socks and you're tired and you're watching the Simpsons in Portuguese on the TV and it's easy to sort of lose your sense of place a little bit, whereas, when you tie into these, when you read these books, when you read literature about place, be it fiction or nonfiction, you can really underscore the resonance of where you are.
David: Before we wrap up here, you also, you teach each year in Paris?
Rolf: Yeah, I teach a creative nonfiction class at the Paris American Academy each July. I've done it for fulltime for three summers in a row now and it's really a cool little experience to have each summer and it sort of puts me in touch with people who are sort of at the beginning of their writing careers and I really appreciate that energy and curiosity about writing and, of course it's wonderful to live in Paris in July.
David: Right. Yeah, you don't really want to turn that down. At least it's not August. Are these all American students who are coming to you or are they just international students from all over?
Rolf: They're students from all over. It's usually about 80 percent Americans, but we've, in recent years have had students from Australia, and England and Romania, and Finland, and Norway and other places around Europe and different parts of the world. So, it's called the Paris American Academy but it's open to anyone who wants to study writing and English.
David: Right. I mean, it's not necessarily travel writing. It's nonfiction writing, essays, and...
Rolf: Right. A lot of my students do write about travel - one - because that's my specialty and - two - because they're in Paris and it's an experience for them. As part of the course, we have two novelists who teach a literary fiction course who and a journal course, so it's a really well-rounded writing experience where a student can come in and maybe write a memoir or a travel essay, and then also write short stories or parts of a screenplay, and then keep a really in-depth Paris journal. So it's sort of this intensified one month or writing in Paris, which is a pretty amazing experience, even from a teaching standpoint.
David: Have many of your students gone on to be published?
Rolf: They have. They've had a strange run of luck in the "Travelers' Tales" women's humor series. I think four of our students from 2005 have been in these various books. The "Sand in My Bra" series, by Jen Leo, we started that. And the latest book, "More Sand in My Bra," has a couple of graduates of that course. And the current issue of "The Boston Review" has a story by Patty Engal, who was a 2003 student.
And so it depends, from student to student, but we have had a nice degree of success from people who studied in Paris. They've not only focused their writing artistically, but they've also gotten a sense of how to submit and how to deal with that submission process, which can be frustrating. So, it's been fun to see writing successes come out of that class.
David: Yeah, that's great. I mean, I'm a former teacher, but I taught kindergarten. But it's always nice. There's a certain amount of pride you get from seeing your students' success.
Rolf: Definitely. Some people just want to have a good time, to experience this experience of being in Paris and writing for a month, and they're not that ambitious about getting published. But for the students who do, I've been really gratified to see some successes coming out of that course.
David: That sounds great. And information about that, readers and listeners can find that on your website.
Rolf: Yeah, rolfpotts.com. That's correct. They saw the Paris link. You can also go to it directly: it's pariswritingworkshop.com.
Rolf: Rolfpotts.com is sort of the hub of my websites. And from there, you can go to my blog, which is updated daily. You can go to vagabonding.net, which is a companion site for my book, "Vagabonding."
Rolf: And to the Paris Writing Workshop website.
David: Right. And they can also find links to a lot of your columns that were on Yahoo and Salon.com.
Rolf: That's right. I think now I have almost 100 stories for various venues, including Salon and Yahoo, "National Geographic Traveler," "Conde Nast Traveler," "Outside," Slate, "The Believer." So it's a good repository, not just of travel advice, but also of these literary travel stories and essays that I've written over the years.
David: Right. So, as you said, you read literature before you go to a destination. I strongly encourage our readers and listeners to read your stuff before they go to their destination. I think you're a really wonderful writer. You really capture a place well.
Rolf: Oh, thanks.
David: And you're willing to sort of lay it all out on the line and talk about your own foibles and your experiences, honestly, at dealing in a new destination.
Rolf: Well, thanks. I think, to an extent, it's a product of traveling slowly and being open to mistakes, because the seamless and efficient trip doesn't leave itself open to much narrative possibility.
David: Right. That's true. Yeah, in Kindergarten, we call that "the teachable moment."
Rolf: [laughs] Right. I've actually used that phrase before, "the teachable moment." It's a good thing to keep in mind. It's good to just take a step back, stop being embarrassed, and say, "OK, this is the teachable moment. It's not that bad."
David: Exactly. I just want to say thank you. We're at our end mark here. Been great talking with you today, Rolf. And good luck in South America.
Rolf: All right. Thanks a lot, David. And good luck in your travels.
David: Oh, thank you. Have a good day.
Rolf: You, too.
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