Rolf Potts: More than Just a Vagabond

Ralph Potts in Ethiopia
A globetrotting post-modern travel writer, Rolf Potts has been dubbed the "Jack Kerouac for the Internet Age." His talent for weaving a great story are in part due to a keen eye for cultural nuances and openness to immersing himself in other cultures. Potts does not write adventure stories, he lives them.

Rolf Potts has reported from more than 50 countries for the likes of National Geographic Traveler, the New York Times Magazine, Slate.com, and Conde Nast Traveler. This veteran travel columnist is perhaps best known for promoting the ethic of independent travel. His first book, Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel (Random House, 2003), has been through 11 printings and translated into several foreign languages. His newest book is titled Marco Polo Didn't Go There: Stories and Revelations From One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer (Travelers' Tales, 2008).

Where do you call home?

For years I didn't have a home at all, but now it's Kansas. It's where I'm from and after having travelled and lived overseas for about 10 solid years, I ended up getting a house here in the country living very close to my family. One value I think I've learned from travel is that people hold family in esteem in all cultures and so I think I learned a lot about family by being away from my own. So now I'm closer to my own family; I live very close to my sister and my parents. This is the sort of thing I've seen in Vietnam and Peru where families sort of collectively have their resources and live close together.

What triggered this desire to explore the world? Can you trace it back to a specific event?

I can't; I think that it's more of a visceral thing. I think a lot of people have a visceral curiosity about the rest of the world when they're young, but American society, for example, is not always telling you to take advantage of the opportunities the world has to offer when you're young. It's more "Well, you work hard and then when you retire you can enjoy your time," but there's a duty to do your work and work hard first. When I was a teenager my grandfather was a Kansas farmer who had been farming since he was 15 years old. If anybody had really deserved his retirement it was him. He was getting ready to retire, but my grandmother got Alzheimer's disease and he really couldn't leave home or enjoy his retirement because he was taking care of her. So I realized at a very impressionable age that life doesn't reward you with free time or with the opportunity to travel. You have to create your own.

But it wasn't like I had an epiphany to suddenly be in Bangladesh. I started by travelling in the States and Canada out of a van once I was out of college. I then taught English in Korea for a couple of years and I slowly worked my way into being more comfortable in travelling in all parts of the world.

There seems to be a distinction between traveller and tourist which is largely based on the length of the travel and the style of travel. How important is this distinction?

I write about this in both my books. It is sort of a false dichotomy and I think it's an internal dialogue among people who are guests in another culture. For example, say you have a couple of Canadians in India who are sort of sparring over who is a traveller and who is a tourist–that distinction would be absurd to the average Indian. To the average Indian, those people are just visitors who are here today and gone tomorrow.

Maybe that's a little bit different when you're talking about diplomacy or international development because someone who has three years to invest into a community is going to be operating in a different way than somebody who has three weeks to invest into that community. But it is an internal dialogue and it's good to acknowledge that this is basically a little argument among guests. I guess it can be a healthy discussion as long as it's about being mindful and being the kind of traveller or the kind of expat who is cognizant of where they are and open to the nuances of a place. You have to understand that culture is a gut level thing; you can study a culture but you have to go to a place and live there and make mistakes and realize that certain assumptions you have aren't necessarily shared by the people in your host culture.

So I don't like traveller/tourist distinction. You may as well be in a night club talking about who has the cooler shirt.

How much are you driven by the geography and the history of place versus the actual people and the cultures in that place?

I think it's a complicated mix and I say in Vagabonding that it doesn't really matter what attracts you to a place. What matters is what happens when you get there because it's invariably a lot more complicated and unexpected. So my reasons for going to places are different. I went to Cuba to learn salsa just because that's sort of the most frightening thing to a Mid-Western American. I've climbed mountains and lived in the desert but to learn salsa was a frightening thought!

So I went there and I learned a little bit of salsa but I ended up learning the bagpipes. It sounds absurd but there was actually a Celtic Spanish immigrant wave that came to Cuba in the 19th century and it's actually an authentic expression of Cuba, and so that's an example I often use of what can happen during your travels, if you let it happen.

That seems to be an underlying theme in your writing. You have that openness to actually explore things and to live things that are not necessarily part of your itinerary, part of your plan.

You have expectations any place you go–you have a picture postcard of a place in your head before you go. If you try to make the place match up to the postcard then it's sort of absurd. You have to be willing to accept everything, and that includes manifestations of the culture that may seem inauthentic. For example, you go to Ecuador and you expect people to be playing flutes and wearing colourful clothing and suddenly you're hanging out with a bunch of ethnic Peruvian IT Engineers. You have to be open to the nuances and really be willing to not judge what things are supposed to be like and what things are actually like. It's a globalized world and there aren't little bubbles of authenticity. I mean maybe it depends on how you define authenticity, but you probably shouldn't be judging a guy from Nepal as inauthentic because he has a Starbucks coffee in his hand. Who is to say that he is not a completely empowered Nepalese who just happens to like Starbucks and it's part of his lifestyle?

You mentioned globalization and one dimension of globalization is technology. How has technology and instant communications made do your job easier, or more difficult perhaps?

I said in the beginning of Marco Polo Didn't Go There, you get this instant feedback loop. My career started right at the beginning of Internet journalism and so I was sort of one of the first people to cut his teeth in a purely online journalism forum; not just blogging but actually writing reported pieces. Even now, after having done it for 10 or 12 years, I'm still trying to keep up with it because there's the micro-blogging, Twitter, Facebook, and a lot of video stuff is integrated into this medium.

But I think what distinguishes it from the print world is that you can't go and sort of objectify or "exotify" people on the other side of the world because they can get online and see what you're writing about them. It's truly immediate–the feedback loop has been shortened - which isn't to say that they are always right. I mean somebody can get their own hometown wrong, you know? A visiting writer can get it wrong or then again, a visiting writer might be able to see some things that the people who live there aren't really attuned to. But there is an increased accountability; with the Blogosphere and people who are tweeting about their travels, it's sort of travel in 2.0.

The potential downside of that is when people are abroad, sometimes they're not necessarily living their experience because they're too busy blogging, tweeting, chatting or talking on their cell phones about the moment?

Oh yeah, it's something that I talk about a lot now. There's been slow burn on this for the last 10 or 15 years. Travel is coming to resemble home in more and more ways. I mean you can probably trace this back to the industrial revolution and the building of steamships and railroads which suddenly made travel accessible to middle-class people. But it really has changed a lot recently because of the Internet, because of a more accessible world. There's a noticeable change in the last 10 years where you can be in Angkor Wat and send a tweet. Or you can be in Delhi and you're going to find somebody to hang out with there using social networking in the same way that you might use it back home.

I was in Lokichokio, Kenya, which is a remote town not far from the Sudanese border, and I used my smart phone to call my sister–just because I could. It was such an absurd thing. Ten years ago I would've been forced to just go and hang out with Kenyans in Loki, but instead I had myself in this little bubble. I've written extensively about how you've got to be where you are and you can't let technology get between you and where you are.

During your travels, you have come across remote places and people that haven't had a lot of contact with outsiders. I'm thinking of the chapter in Marco Polo called Toura Icognita. You find yourself in Ban Na, a village in Laos's Na Valley. Do you ever feel conflicted when you write about a place like this, knowing that perhaps that very act may change this place forever?

I touched on that in the article and it's such a complicated situation because often the idea of "spoiling" an untouched place is a realm that exists in the mind of the Western visitor, or the Western sensibility of how the world should be.

Shortly after we left the village of Ban Na, an infant died of dehydration because he would not take his mother's milk. This is not an isolated incident there; the infant mortality rate there is something like 1-in-4 or 1-in-5. And so while we might have an idealized vision of how people in the interior of Laos should live, they would probably enjoy better healthcare and more access to information.

It was also interesting to see how outside influences had reached some of the villages in this region. The villagers weren't wearing palm fronds, they were wearing Chinese things that had come down the Mekong valley . . .

. . . and Iron Maiden t-shirts.

. . . right, you see that a lot in Africa.

And the most influential people in these villages weren't the people who had the best knowledge of local flora and fauna but rather the guys who had left the village and gone to Bangkok, made a lot of money, become sort of more worldly cultured people, and had come back with money, skills and perspective. They became leaders in the community.

So again there's this idea that people are living better lives without contact with the outside world when actually, from their perspective, they wouldn't mind having health options for their children or watching Thai soap operas.

The Centre tries to develop intercultural competencies in people and by that we mean things like humility, tolerance of ambiguous situations, suspending judgement, flexibility, and so on. It might sound like common sense but it's not that easy or obvious, is it?

No it's not. Sometimes it's hard to identify ambiguous things because you're not familiar with them. If you're in Korea and suddenly somebody is mad at you and you can't figure out why, it's hard to intellectualize that. Maybe you've acted in a way that expresses your North American individualism, and Korea is a place that where individualism is sort of a bad word, you know, community relationships are important. Maybe you've insulted somebody without realizing it because of the hierarchy of Korean society. That can be a tough situation but you have to be willing to make mistakes and try to understand them and respond with humour and an openness to learn from situations. Even with the best intentions, nobody is a perfect traveller; you're always going to have misunderstandings.

And humour is a big part of that?

Definitely, you have to start by laughing at yourself and maybe laughing at your expectations. Or just laugh at your awkwardness at being in a situation that is completely unfamiliar to you. You can understand these things going in but experiencing them is a completely different thing. Also, it's like any day; you're going to be exhausted some days and things are going to get to you that wouldn't get to you on another day. Then there's just going to be certain situations where you might be hanging out with a dozen perfectly wonderful Nicaraguans, for example, and suddenly there's a guy who is going to be a jerk. But the same thing could happen in Ottawa or Kansas. And that's not really an expression of Nicaraguans; it's just an expression of the fact that people are diverse and difficult all over the world. So you don't want to make that into algebra: Bad experience + Nicaragua = Nicaragua is Bad.

How difficult is it to come back home?

I'd say early on it was one of the most difficult things of all because I just wasn't used to the transitioning. It feels like so much was happening when I was travelling or living overseas and then you come back and it feels like home is just trapped in time, nothing has changed and nobody was really interested in what I'd done. You can just be back from the Kumbh Mela festival in India and you've seen these mind-blowing things and here you're having a 45-minute conversation about Suzie's new hairdo with your friends, who you love. I think this is where humility has to click back in because if you're not internalizing this and doing it for your own edification, then it's never going to be rewarding. Your friends back home are never going to understand or acknowledge what you've been through and the cool stuff that you've done in the same way as you do. I mean they might look at your pictures and listen to your stories, but they're not going to understand it at the same level.

I always tell people to come back and see your neighbours as exotic tribesmen and your home as an exotic destination; continue this attitude and somehow try to reconcile this itinerant or far flung life with the life back home because otherwise, the transition is just going to be crazy.

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