Book: Rolf Potts on being a vagabond

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Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel by Rolf Potts 

Published by Villard Books (2003)

“Time is your truest form of wealth.

There is no shortage of available books and blogs dispensing advice on how to break free from daily routine and travel the world on a shoestring.  The difference with Vagabonding is that it is worth reading. And re-reading.      

Rolf Potts is a widely published and highly regarded travel writer.  He started writing a regular column with Salon.com at the end of the ’90s and has since written for most (if not all) major travel publications and has published two books: Vagabonding, is the first, and Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, a collection of essays and the second.  

As Potts playfully recognises, there is no getting away from the fact that Vagabonding is really a form of self help book.  Although it might claim to be aimed at those who are unsure how to find the time freedom and money to travel for long periods there is, however, plenty in Vagabonding for seasoned travellers. 

Vagabonding sets out to dispel several myths about travel, the main one being that you are not too poor to travel.  It does this not by explaining how you can become rich enough to travel the world in luxury.  Instead, it aims to demonstrate how, to realise the dream of travelling for long periods of time, adjusting our lives to utilise our time better is more important than having a trust fund or huge pots of money.  

Potts is clearly passionate and serious about long term travel as a deliberate choice about how to live one’s life.  Thoreau, one of Potts’ literary heroes, would approve:

True and sincere travelling is no pastime but it is as serious as the grave, or any part of the human journey, and it requires a long probation to be broken into it.

Vagabonding can assist with that probationary period.  Vagabonding starts at home in every sense and, with the first section of the book devoted to pre-trip matters, Vagabonding helps point the way showing how the vagabonding mindset begins way before the trip from working to raise the funds, quitting work and simplifying our lives.  Potts usefully points out that pre-trip periods can be spent usefully working out why it is that we want to go, what we are looking for from our trips and what kind of traveller we want to be once we set out.  

Potts takes us through his personal philosophy of travel showing that vagabonding is not simply a consumer option, accessory, trend or something done out of obligation; nor is it a political statement, social gesture or moral high ground.  It is a personal act requiring commitment and realignment of priorities.  

Potts draws on an impressive variety of sources to illustrate his ideas, as well as to inspire and confront myths that might otherwise hold us back.  From ancient Sanskrit poetry, the teachings of the Upanishads, 19th century transcendentalists such as Whitman, Thoreau and Emerson, Islamic authors and a whole range of 20th century authors, poets and travel writers as well as the voices of contemporary travel bloggers, the sheer variety of sources alone makes Vagabonding an interesting reading and worth re-visiting.   The aim of Vagabonding seems to echo that behind Sir Francis Galton’s 1855 work (although the two are very different in content):

by collecting the scattered experiences of many such persons in various circumstances, collating them, examining into their principles, and deducing from them what might fairly be called an “Art of Travel.”  

In the section On the Road, Potts’ travel experiences come into their own.  Vagabonding contains a wealth of practical advice covering issues such as  health while travelling, cross cultural interaction, what to expect when setting out travelling, and advice on socially and environmentally responsible travel.  It also helps to address angst at the difficulty of making choices in about places to visit, travellers’ ennui, forming good travel ‘habits’,  and how to deal with pitfalls and annoyances on (and off) the road.  

Despite the level of detail and the wide range of on and offline resources and tip sheets contained in Vagabonding, no advice manual can be 100% comprehensive; every seasoned traveller could add their own tips and in any event, as Potts notes, “neophyte blunders” are just part of the experience.  Nevertheless there is plenty here for anyone new to travel to get started and more than enough advice to remind more seasoned travellers of their own experiences.  It had me wistfully thinking about my own travels and itching to start another journey.  

One of the charms of Vagabonding is that Potts approaches all of this without being condescending, retaining a modesty and humility when talking about his own experiences and with a dry sense of humour, including taking the time for a side swipe at the “pseudo-counter-culture” of ‘anti-tourists’ which many ‘independent’ travellers seem keen to embrace.  

Vagabonding is something of a contemporary classic and is now in at least its tenth reprint (although Potts modestly acknowledges that the print runs are not large).  At the start of Vagabonding, Potts recalls finding a book by Ed Buryn in a used bookstore in Tel Aviv that helped him consolidate and affirm his own ideas about travel.   Should Vagabonding ever go out of print, I can’t help feeling that one day, somebody else will start a book about long term travel with a similar anecdote about how somewhere, in a second hand bookshop they found a book by this guy called Rolf Potts…    

Watch Rolf’s DO lecture on his vagabonding philosophy: 

You can listen to Rolf in conversation with Christine Maxfield on the Compassmag podcast, When in Roam, here or read Frank Bures’ profile of Rolf for Poets & Writers here

Check out Rolf Potts’ website at www.rolfpotts.com. 

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