Interview 23 August

The World According to Rolf Potts

Vagabonding guru and author Rolf Potts gives us the skinny on his world of travel. Without the baggage.

Mountain/desert/jungle/ocean which are you?

All four, preferably – but if I had to make a choice I'd go mountain. I grew up on the prairies and my first real travel experience, at age six, was a road trip to Colorado where I saw the Rockies for the first time. I've been fascinated by mountains ever since.

Favourite journey?

It's tough to choose just one, but I'd probably go with my very first vagabonding adventure – eight months around North America when I was 23 years old. I lived in a van, travelled with the seasons and visited around 40 states and provinces. I've been to many more exotic and far-flung places since, but emotionally it's hard to compare anything to your first big journey when you're young. Everything felt new to me, and I was just so excited and thankful to be out on the road.

Top 5 places worldwide?

I don't believe in ranking places, but some of my favourites include Patagonia, Mongolia, Laos, the American West and Paris.

Special place to stay?

I'm a fan of mom-and-pop guesthouses in the developing world. They're inexpensive, they're a part of the local economy, and they're a great place to meet people.

3 items you always pack?

I pack as little as possible, and I once went around the world for six weeks with no luggage. Beyond clothes, toiletries and a map or guidebook, you don't really need much (and in many situations you might not even need the guidebook).

Passport stamp you're proudest of?

Ushuaia, Argentina, at the southern tip of South America. It's an unofficial stamp – you just go into the tourist office and they stamp it for you – but it felt like a nice culmination of my journey, since I'd spent the previous three months driving a Land Rover across the Americas from San Francisco.

Passport stamp most like to have?

Do they give passport stamps in Antarctica? I'd love to get down there. The closest I've come so far is the Falkland Islands.

Guilty travel pleasure?

I'm actually a fan of tourist zones, within reason. I like getting off the beaten path, of course, but I think you can learn a lot about a country (and the people who visit it) by spending some time in its most overcrowded tourist attractions. Every tourist zone is subtly emblematic of the country itself.

Window or aisle?

Aisle. I have long legs and it's good to stretch them out sometimes.

Who is your ideal travelling companion?

Nobody – at least, not for long journeys. I like travelling alone, since it increases my options and allows me to be spontaneous and improvise.

Best meal on the road? Worst?

Once time in Laos I ate a meal and wound up with cholera. I can't even remember off the top of my head what kind of food it was, but any meal that gives you cholera has to be the worst. Best meal is too hard to narrow down. I like simple pleasures, like the one-dollar curries I ate everyday while I was living in Thailand and writing Vagabonding, my first book – or the delicious Argentine steak, wine and salad that cost me just five dollars in Buenos Aires.

Most surprising place? Most disappointing?

I didn't visit Paris until relatively late in my travel career, after I'd been to cities like Bangkok and Beijing and Athens and Jerusalem and Damascus and Bombay. After seeing exotic places like those, I thought Paris would be dull by comparison. I was wrong: It's the most beautiful city in the world.

Where do You NOT want to go?

I'm not a fan of war zones. A lot of journalists wind up travelling there for the thrills and  easy by-lines, but I'm more interested in regions that aren't necessarily in the headlines.

Who/what inspired you to travel? Any travel heroes?

I always turn to Walt Whitman for inspiration. His 'Song of the Open Road' captures the spirit of travel.

What do you listen to on the road? Any song take you back to a particular time or place?

I don't usually bring a lot of music to my travel experiences since I like to be open to the sounds and songs of the place I'm visiting. The one exception is long road-trips in the United States, where a little rock'n'roll feels like part of the landscape.

What do you read?

Anything I can get my hands on. Not just travel books, but novels and poetry and big history tomes.

Is there a person you met while travelling who reaffirmed your faith in humanity? Anyone who made you lose it?

The travel milieu is full of great people. I always say that out of every ten fellow travellers you meet on the road, four will be good, solid people, two will be forgettable and three will become your friends for life. You just don't meet that many great people in such a short time when you're at home. You'll notice that only adds up to nine people, though – and one out of every ten travellers you meet on the road is an utter lunatic. Traveller communities tend to be more tolerant than home-communities; thus they tend to attract the occasional sociopath – and every long-term traveller has stories about these kinds of people.

What's the most impressive / useful phrase you know in a foreign language?

"Thank you" is key, and pleasantries in general are useful, since people will go out of your way to help you if you're courteous.

What is your worst habit as a traveller?

Sometimes my restlessness gets the best of me and I can never stay too long in one place before I strike out for new horizons. At times I find I have to trick myself into staying in one place by working on an article, or trying to learn a new skill.

Snowbound in a tent in Antarctica, how would you entertain your companions?

Like all salty travellers, I would tell stories of my travels – and I'm sure my companions would as well. Once you get a bunch of travellers started comparing notes, stories and recommendations, you can keep yourself entertained for days.

When and where in your travels have you been happiest?

Whenever and wherever I'm not bound by a strict itinerary. I'm happiest when I have the option of going – or staying – wherever I want, whenever I want.

What smell most says 'travel' to you?

I hate to say it, but rotting garbage is an inspiring smell since it means I'm someplace warm, in the developing world, with all kinds of possibility for a traveller.

Given a choice, which era would you travel in?

The present day. It's easy to claim that travel was simpler, more meaningful, more challenging in some other era, but the present is all you have to work with. And with electronic technology transforming the way we travel (and the way local people live), I'm fascinated to see how things continually change. As Heraclitus said, "You can't step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on."

If you could combine three cities to make your perfect metropolis, what would they be?

Paris for its beauty, and New York for its energy; I wouldn't need a third city – though I'd want some wilderness nearby, since I can only stand cities for so long.


VagabondingRolf Potts is America's leading advocate for independent travel. His book Vagabonding promoted the art of long-term world travel. And he recently travelled around the world for six weeks without luggage, just to show it can be done. He runs travel-writing courses in Paris every summer. And his books, including his latest, Marco Polo Didn't Go There, are available on Amazon now.

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