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Rolf Potts on Vagabonding
By: Claire Smith (justin) 2012.01.29

STUDENTTRAVELER: Describe where you are right now...

ROLF POTTS: Right now I'm in Ranong, Thailand, a little jungle town just across the Pak Chan River from the southern tip of Burma. It has long been a trading and smuggling town (tin mining, too), and the population is a mix of Thai and Burmese. It's the rainiest province in Thailand, and the jungle-mountains just beyond my window feature rainforest biodiversity comparable to that of Borneo. I moved here almost two years ago, to prepare for a Conde Nast story about the sea gypsies of the Andaman Sea. I ended up sticking around to write Vagabonding here, and now I come back whenever I'm working on a big writing project. It's a quiet and inexpensive place to get things done.

ST: When you were 10, what did you want to be when you grew up?

RP: When I was 10, I was in a transitional phase between wanting to be a fireman and wanting to be a dentist. My dad eventually pointed out that I might get bored looking at people's teeth all day, and that I should find a career that I genuinely love doing. By age 14 or so I was considering being a writer.

ST: How did you get started writing?

RP: My first big writing project was a 70-page, hand-illustrated book about dinosaurs that I wrote when I was 7. I tried to follow this up with a book about the solar system at age 8, but I guess that early success took its toll, and I never finished the second book. My interest in writing returned at about age 14, when I started reading Stephen King books and writing horror stories. I eventually gave up horror stories to write features and humor columns for my high school newspaper, and that led to other things.

ST: How did you get started traveling?

RP: Travel has always been an obsession for me. When I was a kid growing up in Kansas, I would always measure the calendar year by when we would leave on family trips to Colorado or Missouri. By the time I was in college I was taking summer road trips on my own and jumping freight trains around the Pacific Northwest. When I finished college I knew I didn't want to go straight into the professional world, so I worked as a landscaper for eight months and saved the money for a trip around North America. A friend and I converted a 1985 Volkswagen Vanagon so we could sleep inside, and we hit 38 states in eight months. We hiked the Grand Canyon, rode with a police patrol in Houston, hit Mardi Gras in New Orleans, spent an entire month in Florida during spring break season, went rock climbing and rafting in North Carolina, slept in monasteries and hostels and public parks - and that was just the first few months. It was my first long-term travel experience, and it was really addictive. I've lived in Asia for almost seven years now, but I still love to go back and travel America.

ST: What was your first break as a travel writer?

RP: My first break came in 1998, when my travel story about Las Vegas appeared in Seeing my name in print was addictive, and by the end of the year I'd written five more stories for Salon. But the real break came in 1999, when I wrote a story called "Storming The Beach" (a gonzo piece about the filming of a Leonardo DiCaprio movie in Thailand), which appeared as a Salon cover story. But of course, none of this success would have been possible without four years of failure leading up to 1998.

ST: What kept you writing and traveling?

RP: Probably the realization that nothing was stopping me. In America, you're brought up with the assumption that travel is a temporary "escape," and any activity that doesn't make you lots of money is irresponsible. But, after years of traveling and writing, I've realized that true wealth is found in time. That is, if you shift and simplify your life in such a way that you can spend your time on your passions (instead of more "things"), then life is so much more satisfying. My passions are traveling and writing, and I lead a very simple life that enables both activities.

ST: When did you realize that you were no ordinary traveler but rather a vagabonder?

RP: Probably during my first long-term trip around the USA in 1994. After a few months I realized how easy and inexpensive it was, and it was liberating to know that I didn't have to quarantine my travels to two-week "vacations" for the rest of my life.

ST: How has traveling changed your view of America?

RP: Travel has de-politicized my view of America. When you read about America in the news, it's always something about policy or pop-culture or patriotism. But that's all rhetoric - a very thin veneer of what America is. After having traveled the United States for eight months (and having road-tripped it countless times beyond that), I have an appreciation for America that goes beyond sound-bite patriotism or political affiliation. That's the great thing about traveling slowly - it allows you to see the organic, soulful side of your destination. Of course, in traveling overseas you see America from a distance - and that's important as well. Seeing America from a distance - through the eyes of another culture - allows you an important critical perspective on your own home and culture.

ST: What are the biggest challenges you face in this lifestyle?

RP: Homesickness, living out of a backpack, not owning much - I've come to terms with those things. It helps that I'm a fairly solitary person, so loneliness rarely gets to me. So I guess the biggest challenge right now is trying to balance travel with writing. I have to stay focused, write when it's time to write, and not be tempted to go gallivanting off before my work is done (especially in a place like Thailand, where so many great destinations are so near and so cheap). Travel writing is a highly competitive field, and there's no room for writing half-assed stories. This means I have to sequester myself until the job is done right. I've also found that nonstop travel can wear you down, physically and emotionally. Stopping in one place for a while allows you to rest, refocus, and get a deeper perspective on a particular culture.

ST: You wrote a bit, in Vagabonding, about how the vagabonding way of life is threatening to some people, in that they feel unable to take this approach in their own lives. Do you come across this often and does it affect your relationships?

RP: Most people, when they get back from a vagabonding stint, are so excited about what they've done and seen that they want to talk about it all the time. I was this way when I first started traveling, and I was disappointed when my non-traveling friends didn't take much interest in my adventures. Sometimes they even thought I was bragging or belittling their own lifestyles (which was certainly not my intention). So I've learned to not dwell on the subject with those who aren't interested. That's why I insist in the book that you should travel for personal - not social - reasons.

ST: Everyone is always asking you about romance on the road... Do you realize how romantic your occupation seems?

RP: Travel writing is a romantic occupation, but it's also kind of a Catch-22. That is, by the time you get to the point where you're successful at it, it doesn't really matter if other people find it romantic or not. At age 22, it seemed like a great way to woo women and impress my friends, but at age 32 it's a self-contained obsession. I travel and write because it's my passion, and the reality of it - small paychecks, few possessions, the vague idea of home - might not seem as romantic as the mere notion of it. Travel writing is not (as some people assume) a permanent vacation, where you gallivant through exotic locales, drink mai-tais on beaches, pound out a few words back in your villa, and collect a big paycheck every month. For every hour you spend having wild adventures, you spend ten hours sifting through notes, researching in libraries, finding markets, querying editors, putting sentences together, and rewriting. It's about as sexy as doing homework. And I love it.

ST: What is the most amazing place that you've been to? The worst?

RP: I don't know that I have a worst. Every place is amazing in its own way, and when you hit unpleasant places you can always move on. And the experience of some places is often dependent upon the random things that happened to you when you were there. As far as amazing places, that's almost too much to answer. The world is amazing.

ST: What has been the most humbling experience of your travels?

RP: I think travel is an ongoing succession of humbling experiences. If you don't make a fool of yourself from time to time, then you aren't really leaving yourself open to the life-changing experience of vagabonding. You'll have a much more interesting and transforming experience if you aren't constantly obsessing over how hip and informed you are. Sometimes the best thing you can do in a place is simply lose your way. I've gotten lost in half the cities, forests and highways I've wandered along, and that's led me into some of my best adventures.

ST: So many people view travel writing as an unattainable dream occupation. What advice would you give to someone who thinks this is impossible?

RP:Travel a lot. Write a lot. Read a lot. Forget about making much money. Get a thick skin, get used to rejection, and learn how to market your writing. Live a few years as an expatriate, working or volunteering someplace. Get a portable job (teaching, nursing, bartending, computer tech) to support yourself financially while you're getting started. Travel and write for passion, period (people who do it because they think it will make them sexier rarely make the cut). And most of all, remember your audience. Countless people travel, but only a handful write about it in such a way that people want to read on.

Check out a review of Rolf Potts' Vagabonding.

Photo by Max Arcangeloni

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