A Conversation With Rolf Potts, Travel Writer

FritzLiedtke-Potts-001-2_sized.jpg Whether learning to windsurf on the Sea of Galilee or analyzing how Che Guevara is depicted in Cuba (answer: he is "both Jesus Christ and Ronald McDonald"), the travel writer Rolf Potts has made his way around the world with an appetite for both adventure and observation. Or maybe it's more accurate to say he has "vagabonded" his way around the world, since Potts has spent years promoting the idea that being on the road for months or years on end can be both acceptable and desirable, a philosophy he outlines in his popular book Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel.

Last summer, Potts pursued a project that he called the No Baggage Challenge, in which he took a round-the-world trip to 12 countries without bringing any luggage. (He stashed a toothbrush, an iPod, a few items of clothing, and any other essentials in his pockets.) Here, Potts discusses how travel blogging has changed how we tell stories, the rise of "staged authenticity," and why travelers just can't make easy generalizations about the people they meet on the road anymore.

What do you say when asked, "What do you do?"

I'm a travel writer. This is a literal job description when I write about aboriginal Australians or the wildlife of the Falkland Islands—but it also applies in the metaphorical sense. I once wrote an article for The Believer about a man named Emanuel Haldeman-Julius, the "Henry Ford of Literature," who sold tens of millions of "Little Blue Books" from a small town in southeastern Kansas in the 1920s. At first blush that doesn't feel like a travel story, but I never would have known about it had I not applied the curious attitude of travel to my home state. So even when I'm not literally writing about travel, most everything I write is inseparable from the ongoing state of inquiry that drives my travel attitude.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on how people are thinking and writing about travel?

The reality of globalization, coupled with the ubiquity of the Internet and the growing influence of smartphones. For starters, this makes tons of information available to you, often at an interactive level, and this makes travel a whole lot easier than it used to be. From a writing perspective, this also brings in a whole new level of dialogue and accountability. The cover image on my newest book, Marco Polo Didn't Go There, is a photo of a saffron-robed Thai Buddhist taking a digital photo of his fellow monks. I chose this image because it reminds you that there is more than one gaze, more than one perspective to consider when you write about a faraway place. It used to be you could travel to the other side of the world and make easy generalizations about the people who lived in, say, Bolivia. You can't really get away with that anymore—not just because a given Bolivian can go online and read what you've written, but also because you may well have Bolivians living in your own neighborhood.

What's something that most people just don't understand about what it's like to be a travel writer?

Travel writing is not some whimsical permanent vacation, and there's not a lot of money in it. Also, your success hinges more on how well you write than how far you travel. A talented writer can make a stroll to her local strip mall feel like an adventure, while a death-defying Andean ascent can sound downright dull in the hands of an unimaginative writer.

What's an emerging travel-writing trend you've been noticing?

Travel blogging has gained steam in recent years, and you see more and more people using multimedia to enhance their online narratives. Late last summer. when I traveled around the world with no luggage, I blogged the experience in near-real time, collaborating with a videographer to make three or four travel videos a week. It was a lot different from the slower, more essayistic writing I usually do—but I found that video in particular was good for capturing brief, telling moments from what proved to be a fast-paced journey. I'll probably always skew toward old-school narrative writing, but that trip helped me appreciate the immediacy and appeal of real-time blog posts and multimedia.

What's a travel-writing trend that you wish would go away?

I hate the misleading reductiveness of list-driven travel stories that proclaim the "10 best" places to drink a cappuccino in Rome, or see wildlife in South Africa, or shop for trinkets in Brazil. I also cringe at feature stories that portray travel as an ongoing series of beautiful sights and perfect moments. This isn't a new trend (it goes back at least to the 18th century, when the Romantics began to idealize the way we look at nature and exotic lands) but it's invariably annoying. Any travel account that fails to acknowledge a journey's difficulties and insecurities isn't being true to how travel works.

Presented by

Daniel Fromson, a former associate editor at The Atlantic, is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He writes regularly for The Washington Post. His work has also appeared in Harper's Magazine, New York, and Slate.

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