Going On Long Walks: An Interview with Travel Writer Rolf Potts

My copy of Rolf Potts’s first book, Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, is full of coffee stains and ripping at the seams. The cover is tattered, faded by the sun and may have the dirt of several continents ground into its pages. It’s well loved and well read, and has been passed around to many friends who make travel a part of their lives.

Vagabonding is the book you read for inspiration and practical tips. It highlights the beauty and art of travel and inspires you to leave your comfort zone, holding your hand just long enough to kick you out the door insisting that you embark on your own adventures. For those of us who first hit the road around the time the book came out, it served as a cult classic read, one that was referenced with as much enthusiasm as you might have for Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy or Dark Star Safari.

Potts, who began his travel writing career online with Salon.com, suggests that we venture out into the world with open arms and open minds, and that we stay out there for as long as we can manage. We should get lost, share meals and thoughts with locals, avoid the hard packed gringo trails and savor the subtle moments. We should be engaged. He also says that this travel mindset can continue on at home, which is exactly what Pacsafe wanted to pick his brain about. Read below for answers to the question: How do we retain the attitude of exploration and wonder once we’ve returned home and everything is back to normal?

Pacsafe: People often have this feeling that when they get back from an extended trip, life just tastes a little less salty, you know? With familiarity comes ease and therefore a sort of dampened spirit. People get bored and just wish they were back doing whatever it was they were doing. Why do you think that is? And are there ways to avoid that pitfall?

Rolf Potts: This is a very normal thing — life at home is rarely as exciting as life on the road because it’s more given to habit and familiarity. You’re experiencing so many new things each day when you’re traveling, and it can be a shock to return home to certain routines. Part of the problem is that your friends and family back home have a hard time relating to what you’ve just been through, and while you might feel the urge to talk about your experiences, they might not always have the desire to listen (at least not for very long). So this transition can be kind of jarring. It helps a bit to simply know that this transition and disconnect is inevitable. But it’s also possible to apply the attitude of travel to your own home. It’s mainly a matter of being keeping your eyes open, being curious, looking at familiar things in new ways. And going on long walks.

Pacsafe: As I see it, the obvious difference between life in times of travel and what people call real life, is that when you’re not traveling, life is so easy. You don’t have to figure out where you’ll sleep, where you’ll eat, which neighborhoods are safe and which are not, how to get from point A to point B, etc. etc. In that sense, because the basic life necessities are so easily managed at home, it’s easy to get bored. It’s like being an animal in a zoo that’s fed frozen prey or dog food as opposed to being out in the wild to hunt. So, is it really possible to retain the travel mindset at home?

Rolf Potts: Well even on the road the basics of travel — finding food, lodging, transport, etc — can become somewhat habitual, even to the point of being easy at times. So I think we get bored at home less because life at home is easy (in fact, domestic life can come with duties and responsibilities that are very challenging), but because we have a way of getting jaded to our own surroundings, our own communities, in the midst of routine. There’s a reason why this happens — schedules and routines make home-life more efficient, for one — but sometimes this comes at the expense of enjoying the moment, and finding new surprises in the place where you live.

Pacsafe: People who write about this idea always say things like, “go to the museum, the zoo, try a new restaurant, go to an amusement park,” maybe I’m a pessimist, but somehow it just doesn’t seem as exciting at home. It lacks that magic of unfamiliarity.

Rolf Potts: I’ll grant that home can lack the magic of unfamiliarity, but that just means you have to try a little harder to experience that place in an unfamiliar way. I won’t knock visiting museums, restaurants, performances, etc — but employing the attitude of travel at home is less about activities and itineraries than attitude. It’s about talking to people you wouldn’t normally talk with, visiting neighborhoods you’ve never been, looking for facts and culture and context, as if your hometown were a faraway place.

Pacsafe: Isn’t at least part of the excitement of travel is engaging in foreign experiences? So at home, I can see things like going skydiving actually being on an equal plane as what you might do abroad. But my sense is that to get the same satisfaction, it has to be something really extreme. Do you think that’s a common feeling?

Rolf Potts: Excitement and adventure is part of the allure of travel, but I think the small pleasures, the subtle experiences, are more satisfying. Some times it’s as easy as going for an aimless walk. The French have a same for the person who does this: the flâneur. A flâneur is someone who has decided to break out of the usual pathways of ruts of their habit-driven lives by taking random adventures through his own city. They aren’t walking with any goal save experience — and they don’t have a specific experience in mind. It’s a great strategy for travel, actually, but flâneuring is meant to be carried out at home.

Pacsafe: You’ve advocated for long-term, wandering travel, not just quick breaks. Why? Do you think there’s value in short travels?

Rolf Potts: I have nothing against short journeys — it’s just that some people assume that short trips are the only kinds of journeys they can take. People assume that long journeys are far more complicated, far more expensive, far less attainable than short travel — when in fact this isn’t necessarily the case. Short journeys are great, but long journeys have the potential to carry much more meaning and enjoyment. And once you’ve done a long-term vagabonding journey, you get better at — more attuned to — the occasional short-term vacation.

Pacsafe: What’s your take on volunteer vacations and getting involved in say, NGOs and non-profits while you’re out traveling? As travelers, should we attempt to give back to the places we’re visiting?

Rolf Potts: I think it’s great to volunteer, both at home and abroad — so long as you go into it with a humble attitude and a realistic sense of what kind of good you can do. It’s easy to tell the difference between a person who’s been volunteering for one week and someone who’s been volunteering for one year: The one-week volunteer will happily claim that he’s making a huge difference in his host community, whereas the one-year volunteer will admit that true change comes slowly, that he’s learning and gaining from his community as much as he’s teaching and giving. Humility notwithstanding, one great benefit of volunteering is that it slows you down — on the road or at home — and gives you a new perspective on (and new relationships in) a corner of the world you might otherwise have overlooked.

To read more of Rolf’s work, check out his new book, Marco Polo Didn’t Go There: Stories and Revelations from One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer, or visit him at his website for updates on new articles, interviews and more.

By Bryan Schatz