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The Postmodern Vagabond: An Interview with Rolf Potts

Rolf Potts in Ethiopia
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Rolf Potts has been traveling the world for over 15 years, documenting his experiences and insights for various magazines and websites, as well as in two books: the classic long term travel manual, Vagabonding, and a more recent collection of travel stories, Marco Polo Didn’t Go There. Vagabondjourney.com caught up with Rolf to inquire about his visions of modern day travel as well as where the traveler stands in the postmodern world in the following interview.

The Postmodern Vagabond: An Interview with Rolf Potts

In the subtitle of Marco Polo Didn’t Go There you describe to yourself as a “postmodern travel writer” and explain the usage of this term in the introduction as “the increasing placelessness that accompanies any information age journey,” but what I’m interested in is how do you feel this current era of travel differs from the ones which preceded it?

This current era of travel offers much more information, much more connectivity to the independent traveler. In 2008 I was in much closer contact with friends and family while staying in the far-flung Kenya/ Sudan/ Uganda border town of Lokichogio than I was while traveling the American West during my first vagabonding journey in 1994. The difference was that I had a smartphone and Internet connections in 2008, whereas in 1994 I just had phone booths and a calling card.

Rolf

The funny thing is, of course, that the old hippie-era travelers I ran into on my 1994 trip kept telling me that calling cards and ATM access were ruining the experience of travel, that it was a much purer and more involved experience in the 1960s and 1970s. I try to keep this in mind before I pass judgments on the travel conditions of the present day. I think you can still have an amazing, immersive travel experience in 2011; it’s just going to be implemented in a different way than it was in 1994 or 1969 or 1923. I’m sure those hippie-era wanderers were lectured by old-timers who traveled before the jet plane or the car or the telegraph, or whatever. In the end, we’re all stuck traveling in the present day. And I think that’s great. It’s a great time to travel, and there are countless options for the independent traveler.

Many of the stories in Marco Polo Didn’t Go There revolve around the struggle of trying to escape the tourism infrastructure, which is something that many travelers strive to do, but so many seem to fall flat and return home disappointed having not captured the essence of travel that they set off to find. What would you say to someone who proclaims that adventure is dead and travel in the postmodern era is but a stale and commercialized shadow of what it once was?

I think part of the problem is not the reality of travel, but the expectations of travel. When you dream of a USA road trip, you don’t imagine the billboards; when you dream of walking along the Seine in Paris, you don’t imagine running into a Segway tour; when you dream of Bali, you don’t dream of Balinese people shod in Nikes, listening to hip-hop. So has the presence of billboards or Segways or Balinese hip-hoppers ruined your experience? I don’t think so. Each of these is a manifestation of not only place, but the era in which we live. It’s not that hard to find roads without billboards, or Paris neighborhoods that don’t have group tours, or Balinese people who live a more traditional life.

The thing is, it’s easier to complain about the beaten path than to make the effort to get off it. Why is this? Well I think that travelers actually like the beaten path because it’s full of comforts, and — even more importantly — other travelers. About ten years ago a couple of anthropologists studied Western backpacker behavior in Central America. It turns out that backpackers tend to wildly exaggerate two things: How much money they spend (they always claim to spend less than they actually do); and how much time they spend off the beaten path, interacting with local people (their “remembered” time off the beaten path never matches up with their actual empirical time off the beaten path). Both factors are less a matter of travel than of status within the traveler subculture.

So while some people are hanging out in Panajachel (or Anjuna, or Lamu, or wherever) with other travelers, worrying about how commercial and overcrowded things are getting, the true indie travelers are off by themselves, quietly getting into actual adventures in more far-flung parts of the country. The world will always offer adventure for those people willing to stop complaining and start pushing their comfort zone.

Through reading the end of chapter footnotes of Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, there seems to be a difference between traveling for recreation and traveling with the intention of writing about the experience. How does writing about your travels and publishing your stories impact the way you travel? Do you feel as if writing provides the impetus for grasping a deeper experience of a place, people, and situations? Conversely, do you ever feel that the mental act of collecting impressions to write about and the physical act of taking notes takes you out of scenes that you would otherwise experience more fully?

No approach to travel is seamless and perfect, but traveling with a mind to write about your experience can increase your attention to place, and challenge you to embrace experiences you might not have embraced otherwise. As a writer, you start to identify the elements of your experience that might make a story, and you record the details (sights, conversations, anomalies, smells, historical elements) that might bring that story to life. I think it’s great to approach a journey with a narrative sensibility, even if you don’t have specific plans to write about it.

That said, your narrative sensibility can lead you astray at times — and this is another issue that has a lot to do with expectations. You might become obsessed with writing about, say, the Hindu naga sadhus at the Kumbh Mela fest in India, when in fact there’s a more subtle and telling story in the interactions between middle class Indians and the Westerners living in the Rainbow Family camp at the edge of the festival (this happened to me once in Allahabad). So any time you experience something new as a traveler, you run the risk of mistaking what is obvious with what is exotic; if you’re less concerned with “finding a story,” you might be more inclined to just experience things as they are, and analyze their significance later. And yes: Taking notes can be a distraction. But taking notes can also help you remember things and make connections. So while I’m not going to say that traveling as a writer is the best way to go for everyone, it seems to work well for me.

The stories of this book seem to frame the idea of adventure as something the traveler must work for, that it is not something that is simply inherent to the act of moving through the world. What do you think constitutes adventure in the post-modern age of travel? Is it the same classic paradigm that has been worked and reworked over the generations or do you feel that there is a new, more subtle rendition of adventure and unique experience in the postmodern age of travel?

I think adventure is subjective. For some people, especially those at the beginning of their travel careers, adventure can very much be the simple act of moving through the world. For someone else, adventure might mean climbing a mountain, or learning a new language, or taking a bus to a village that isn’t in the guidebook, and improvising from there.

Rolf trying not to drown in Patagonia

The classic paradigm of adventure travel is tied to the Age of Exploration, where intrepid men (and some women) set forth on physical adventures to rugged lands. That’s why “adventure” is still associated with physical journeys and remote places, with sailors and kayakers and mountain climbers. The thing is, many high-profile “adventure” expeditions leave less to chance in terms of variables and outcomes than private travelers improvising their way through unexpected situations. So while I’m not going to dismiss physical adventures entirely, I think the postmodern notion of adventure is a completely different concept.

It is also, as I note in Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, a fixation of folks (mostly Western, but not always) who live in industrialized countries. In one chapter, “Death of an Adventure Traveler,” I tell the story of how my Burmese-Thai barber in southern Thailand had lived a far more physically adventurous life than any of those guys who wander the fringes of the earth with a satellite phone and a North Face sponsorship. And he wasn’t getting into these adventures for a sense of personal accomplishment; he was doing it to make ends meet and feed his family. It’s easy to overlook refugees — or even working class folks — when speaking of adventure. Summiting K2 at the tail end of climbing season is impressive, but it doesn’t compare to working as a peripatetic tin-miner for 20 years, or traveling on foot from Darfur to Chad after your family has been killed.

East has now met West, the first world is running headlong against the third, entire continents are dropping their internal borders and forming huge multi-national immigration/ trade zones, there are more multi-country geo-political leagues than I care to count, and many of the long held dichotomies of world geography are being blended together in a big global stew. But in this age of geo-political and multi-cultural cohesion it almost seems as if we are experiencing a wave of reactionary xenophobia towards long term travelers, as many countries are making moves towards low-density high-income tourism, drastically rising visa fees, and immigration zones like Europe’s Schengen that grant tourists a mere 90 days to visit 25 countries.

In this setting, what do you see as the future of vagabonding? Do you feel that due to the coming together of the world in so many ways that art of long term travel is now, ironically, becoming more difficult?

The opportunity to go vagabonding will always be there, though the contexts in which this happens will always be changing. When I was a kid, during the tail end of the Cold War, international travel was much more restricted and complicated than it is now. I don’t think bureaucratic decisions or centralized tourism-planning initiatives have that much effect on people who see travel as something more than a vacation. The world will always have options for those who are determined to wander the world slowly, quietly, and for the long term.

For more information about Rolf Potts, visit his online haunts at rolfpotts.com and vagablogging.net. Also, be sure to read Vagabondjourney.com’s review Rolf’s most recent book, Marco Polo Didn’t Go There.

*This interview was originally published in Vagabondjourney.com’s Vagabond Explorer Magazine.

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Filed under: Interviews, Other Travelers, Travel Writing

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3053 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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