Travel Meditations From a Stuck-at-Home Vagabond
Rolf Potts didn’t have a passport until he was 25. Now, more than a quarter of a century later, he has traveled to over 60 countries across six continents and has written several books about his adventures. His best-selling book from 2002, “Vagabonding,” heralded the ethos of long-term, unstructured travel, and the pandemic inspired a follow-up, “The Vagabond’s Way,” a series of daily meditations on travel.
“The years 2020 and 2021 were the first time since 1995 that I didn’t use my passport,” said Mr. Potts, 52. “My wife and I got into the habit of reading to each other at the outset of each day.”
They read poems by the nature-inspired poet Mary Oliver, lyric essays by Ross Gay, spiritual meditations by Vietnamese Buddhist monk and author Thich Nhat Hanh. “The ritual helped ground us, and it felt like the readings put us into conversation with the greater world,” he said. “I came to realize that this reading ritual was a form of intellectual travel that paralleled physical journeys. So I decided to create a book [“The Vagabond’s Way: 366 Meditations on Wanderlust, Discovery, and the Art of Travel”] that mimicked the arc of a journey, and aimed to put travel into conversation with the lives we lead at home.”
Mr. Potts and I spoke by phone about how travel has changed, how he plans for trips and how the meaning of home has shifted for him. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
It’s been about 20 years since “Vagabonding” came out. How has travel stayed the same? How has it changed?
The human experience of engaged travel hasn’t changed that much. When we’re away from the routines of everyday life, it can force us into a kind of attention we’re inured to at home. That gratitude we have for experiencing or tasting something new, those very human pieces of travel are the same.
What has changed is the technology and how we experience that travel. When virtual reality first became a buzzword in the late ’90s, we talked about traveling the world without leaving home. Now with smartphones, you can travel the world and bring your home with you. You’re reading the same news. You’re talking with the same friends. Rather than looking for crowds full of locals eating, we’re crowdsourcing where to eat on our phones.
There’s so much that’s useful in the phone. It has GPS, language apps and so many useful tools. It’s hard to tell people to not use it at all, but I do encourage people to leave it at the hotel for a day. Or use it in a way that helps you engage with the people and place. Instead of using your phone to research where to eat, spend the same time figuring out how to ask “Where do you eat?” in the local language. Or ask someone to draw you a map to the restaurant; you’re going to have the experience with a person instead of your phone.
You’ve defined this as “engaged travel.” What is that to you?
We can escape into the tourism bubble of things that insulate us from the actual place we’re visiting. In part, it’s because of this idea that’s been advertised to us, even in Instagram feeds, of travel as an escape from the stresses at home. It can be. But, at its best, travel can be a conversation with our lives at home. We see new places, and that helps us see our lives with fresh eyes. We can see how other families live, how other cultures work or how they eat, and we can take that home. When we’re open to experiences like that, experiences that can change our perspective, that’s engaged travel.
How do you choose where you’re going?
It depends. Every trip is different. I went to Southeast Asia a few years ago because I wanted to experience it in my 40s and see how it compared with my experience in my 20s. I got married during the pandemic, and we went to see my wife’s family in Norway. There’s this vernacular in the travel industry of going to places because it’s hot or fashionable. It’s strange to me. Why not channel our passions and hobbies into our travel? Why not go to New Zealand because you love rugby? Why not go to France for wine or ballet? It doesn’t matter what takes you to a place — it’s what you do when you get there.
How do you plan for a trip?
I’m a big fan of research and knowing my options but not my destiny. Part of the charm of traveling to a place is that you get a mediated familiarity with it. You’re smarter one day, one week, one month into your travels than you were sitting at home planning the trip. I think one of the worst things you can do is micromanage your itinerary. Research is great, but it’s equally important to be willing to throw that out and let the journey surprise you.
A lot of people — including you — talk about the journey as a metaphor for life. What does travel teach us about being human?
I think it reminds us that attention to a moment or a place is important, whether that’s on the other side of the world or at home. We don’t dance to get to the end of the dance; each step is the pleasure. With travel, it’s not about getting to a point on the list. It’s about the aliveness we feel on each step of the journey. We’re paying attention in a way that gives us perspective about who we are and who we can be. We’re paying attention in way that can remind us of what’s important. We’re paying attention in a way that reminds us that we can do this at home.
Where or what is home to you?
That was a tougher question for me when I was younger. I thought I’d live in a place that was fashionable — Portland, Ore., New York, overseas. I was living the idea that you leave home to try to find it again. In 2005, inspired by how other people pool resources, I bought 30 acres of land in Kansas with my parents. I had this delightful surprise of coming full circle. It was also where I had my first Bumble date with my wife during the pandemic. Now, home is where she is.
What keeps people from traveling or vagabonding?
Fear. We have a hard time giving ourselves permission. I hear this a lot in the form of questions like, “How do you save your money to do this?” or “Is this place safe?” But what people are really asking is, “How do I give myself permission to do this?” The pleasure of travel begins with anticipation. Even if you’re planning a trip you’re saving for, it makes the work more pleasurable. The journey really starts when you stop making excuses.
I’m not a huge fan of overplanning, but research can be reassuring. Maybe you’re a mother of four in Virginia. Well, Google “family travel,” and you’ll see that other people are already doing what you want to be doing. People who aren’t luckier or richer than you are out there doing it. There are people who have overcome those fears, and you can, too.
Do you have places you go to again and again? Or that you want to return to?
Absolutely. Paris is a place I’ve been going to each summer. I’m there in July and August, and most of the Parisians are gone, but it’s still wonderful. I love Thailand and the American West. Give me the Rockies. I like going to Mongolia because it’s like Kansas on steroids. Korea is close to my heart because I lived there. I love Egypt because Egyptians are so cool. I want to go back to Norway. Travel deepens as you age. You can go back to the same place but not have the same experiences you did before.
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