A fabulous book for anyone interested in breaking away from normal life and heading out to explore the world is Vagabonding by Rolf Potts. “Vagabonding” is about taking time off from your normal life — from six weeks, to four months, to two years — to discover and experience the world on your own terms. I asked Rolf a few questions for my Grand Adventures series…
1) What were you doing before you started travelling in this way?
I was a student, and after that a landscaper. I guess I started vagabonding pretty young. At the time I didn’t feel all that young, but I was in my early-mid twenties. I got the landscaping job out of university — I called it my “anti-sabbatical” — specifically to fund an 8-month vagabonding trip around North America. Later I taught in South Korea for a couple of years to fund what became a two-year trip around Asia. After that I got into travel writing and my career mixed in with travel.
2) Can you give a brief overview of your ‘vagabonding years’? What were a couple of highlights?
Though I still do a lot of traveling now, I consider my main “vagabonding years” to be the 8-month trip around North America and the two-year trip around Asia, back in my mid-twenties and early thirties. These are the journeys that taught me how to travel, and taught me how easy and cheap and safe travel could be. This is the time when I came to be thankful to just be doing this — to be traveling in in an open-ended way. Because before then I had assumed that travel was something you saved for much later in life, something you did in much smaller doses. After those first couple of trips, as well as living and working overseas, travel is now an instinctive part of my life, and a normal part of my yearly cycle.
3) I love the story of the monks in Vagabonding who “mock their temptations” and never actually get around to leaving the monastery. Is that fear and procrastination one of the main things that stops people travelling?
I’d say that procrastinating the journey is tied into the core fears that keep us from traveling. We keep thinking that there will be a better time, a time when we have more money or fewer obligations, or when the world feels safer and more open. In truth it doesn’t take as much money as most people think, obligations are something we can managed, and the world is far safer than you might think from just watching news headlines. There are a thousand excuses you can make for not beginning the journey, and that’s why I’m a believer in setting goals. Even if the practical reality of hitting the road is, say, three years away, having that departure date as a goal is an important part of the here and now.
4) What is your answer when people say “I wish I could be like you?” – earning money from travel, getting published, living in exotic lands..?
I usually tell them that what I do is not a very efficient way to make money and travel. It’s enjoyable, but that’s because I enjoy writing, and writing isn’t for everyone. But you could make more money and travel in a more open-ended way by just working a normal job and saving what you earn, so that you can travel any way you want. I mean, it can be interesting to report from the road and get published, but your travels tend to be freer and have more options if you’re not bound by assignments and frequent stops to write. So I think the job of the travel writer is romanticized by people who could travel just as dynamically with the means at their disposal. I’ve always encouraged people to not set limits in their travels, and that includes assuming that people who get paid from their travels are somehow traveling in a better way. Traveling well is a matter of openness and creativity — not job description.
5) You emphasise simplicity a lot. Simplicity before you travel, simplicity once you are on the road. Why?
Simplicity is your ticket to travel. At home, it allows you to focus on what’s important and save money for the journey to come. On the road simplicity allows you to travel lighter and focus your attention on the world before you instead of the things you drag behind you. In short, it makes both travel and life at home more affordable and enjoyable. I think modern life is cluttered with far more objects and distractions than we really need. Simplicity allows you to find identity in experiences rather than in things.
6) A lot of the adventures on my blog revolve around physical endeavour (cycling, climbing, rowing a long way etc.) But Vagabonding seems to put a different definition on to adventure. How would you describe adventure?
I’m a fan of physical endeavors and adventures that put you in the world in a challenging way. I have nothing against things like mountaineering and kayaking and cycling, but it feels like these kinds of adventures are fairly easy to find. To me, a more compelling adventure is anything that puts you out of your comfort zone. It could mean trying some new food in a street market in Myanmar, or visiting a provincial town in Bolivia that’s not listed in the guidebook, or chatting up a random stranger on some street-corner in New Zealand. It’s about overcoming fears — not just physical ones, but psychic ones. It’s about seeking daily challenges that you might never try at home. Travel, in putting you so far away from home, allows you to find adventure in almost every aspect of the unfamiliar.
7) I like your emphasis on the need for adding creativity to your journeys. For me these days, writing, photography, film-making are an integral part of any journey I take. What would you say to someone who wanted to travel but claimed “not to be creative” (the sort of person who wouldn’t write a journal, for example)?
I think creativity need not be seen as an exclusively artistic thing. For some people it might be a social thing or a spiritual thing. Often, it’s using the framework of what you’re already good at — be it computer programming or cooking or driving a truck — and seeing how those same skills are put into play in other cultures. A carpenter can expand his creativity by simply interacting with carpenters in some unfamiliar place. Same goes for a teacher or a farmer or a scientist or a skateboarder. There are a million ways to spark your creativity, and often they lie in some variation of what already interests you.
8) What would you say to someone who worried that travelling would leave a blank gap on their work resume / CV?
In the twenty-first century there’s no need to see long-term travel as something that results in a blank on your resume. Take the skills you employed on the road — everything from negotiation to volunteering to logistics — and put them on your resume. In many ways travel is a truer education than anything you experience in school, so find a way to make it a dynamic extension of both the professional and educational part of your CV.
If you are dreaming of travelling the world, I strongly recommend reading Vagabonding by Rolf Potts.
Watch Rolf’s talk at the Do Lectures here:
My new book, Grand Adventures, is out now.
It’s designed to help you dream big, plan quick, then go explore.
The book contains interviews and expertise from around 100 adventurers, plus masses of great photos to get you excited.
I would be extremely grateful if you bought a copy here today!
Thank you so much!