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.

What's a place you became fascinated with while pursuing a story and that ended up taking you off track?

A few summers ago I went on a trip to Africa with the self-proclaimed "world's most traveled man." The New York Times Magazine had assigned me to write a 1500-word story about this guy, but I ended up being far more fascinated by the people we met as we traveled through Ethiopia's Omo Valley. Over the past couple of decades, this isolated tribal region has developed a seasonal economy based on travelers' photographic desires. Here, Mursi women, whose severed bottom lips have been stretched out with ornamental clay plates, can make more money from a day of dollar-a-pop tourist snapshots than from a season of tending goats or harvesting grain. The tourist demand for photographs of extreme-looking tribespeople has led to what anthropologists call "staged authenticity": Local people will dress up in their most flamboyant ceremonial costumes when the tour bus shows up, because they can make more money dressed in goatskins and war-paint than t-shirts and sneakers. They might use that money to save up for things like cell phones—but they have to put away those cell phones when the tour vans show up, because Europeans and Americans are more likely to pay for photographs that depict a primitive and "pure" way of life. This phenomenon can happen in many different parts of the world, but I've never seen it illustrated so vividly as in the Omo Valley.

Who are three people you'd put in a travel-writing Hall of Fame?

Since it's too hard to compare historical travel writers to contemporary ones, I'll stick to the present-day.

I'd definitely nominate Pico Iyer, since he was the first writer to really examine how globalization has transformed the way we travel and experience other cultures. The pop-culture references in his 1988 book Video Night in Kathmandu might sound dated, but he was identifying cross-cultural complexities that have become even more relevant 20 years later.

I'd also nominate the prolific Paul Theroux, who has a new book, The Tao of Travel, coming out later this month. Theroux is famously cranky in his travel writing, but he's consistently wise as well. Every one of his books is full of apt observations and aphoristic turns of phrase.

From my own generation I'd nominate Peter Hessler, who has written three books about China, each of them rich with insight, gentle humor, and human depth. Hessler is no slouch, either: He recently informed me that, after a decade of establishing himself as a China expert, he now plans on moving to Egypt to learn Arabic. I have great respect for travel writers, like Hessler or the excellent Jeffrey Tayler, who spend long stretches in a single region and master the language.

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

Had I not become a travel writer I probably would have become a teacher. It's the family business: My mom taught at an elementary school; my dad taught high school science; my sister teaches college English. Each summer I teach a creative nonfiction workshop at the Paris American Academy, and I love the change of pace that comes from spending a month in one place and working with student writers.

What's one travel website or app that you frequently rely on or find yourself recommending to others?

I send a lot of Vagabonding readers to Bootsnall.com, an online community for independent and long-term travelers. It a great place to get ideas, find deals, and research possibilities for trips that go beyond your average one-week vacation. They have particularly rich resources for round-the-world travel.

What song's been stuck in your head lately?

I saw Arcade Fire in concert two weeks ago, and their terrific live performance gave me new appreciation for "Tunnels," the first song off their first album. It's been in my head ever since. And, while I know it's not a song about geography, its opening image of digging through a neighborhood buried in snow makes me think of Montreal in winter.

Image: Courtesy of Rolf Potts

Read more installments of "Nine and a Half Questions."