Traveling is a popular hobby. It appears under “interests” in almost every online dating profile, it’s the subject of small talk at dinner parties, and it’s what almost every last one of us does during our two weeks of vacation. But unlike other hobbies like rock climbing or black powder hunting, we rarely think of travel as something that requires studying and practice. Just buy a ticket and off you go.
But what do you do once you get there? If you’ve got a long weekend in Halifax or 10 days in Berlin, where do you start? How will you get around? A little advice can help improve the experience, so we posed a few questions about traveling to new places to Rolf Potts, author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel. Potts has traveled the world for six weeks with no luggage, piloted a fishing boat 900 miles down the Laotian Mekong, cycled across Burma, has been drugged and robbed in Turkey, and pondered the question of Genghis Khan’s missing testicles in Mongolia. He’s written for The New Yorker and National Geographic Traveler, taught at Yale and collected a stack of Lowell Thomas Awards from the Society of American Travel Writers. Potts is, in other words, a sensei in the dojo of better traveling. We asked him a few questions about traveling to a new place: how to plan, what to do and when to unplug.
Q. How much planning do you do before a trip, and what are the concrete steps you take to plan?
The key to planning is striking a balance between knowing what’s out there and leaving yourself open to the unexpected. Planning a journey
can be a lot of vicarious fun, but you need to resist the compulsion to plan every detail of your trip before you even get to the airport. These days it’s easy to micromanage each aspect of a trip, to the point that it becomes less a journey than a consumer experience, with very little to be discovered beyond ticking items off a list. So my strategy in planning a trip is to familiarize myself with what’s out there, but resist making a strict itinerary. The longer I spend in a place the more savvy I become about it, so the willingness to be flexible and spontaneous from the outset makes for a more dynamic travel experience.
Q. When you hit the ground in a new city or place, what does your first day look like? How do you decide what to do in the following days?
My philosophy for day one in a new place is “walk
until the day becomes interesting.” There’s no better way to familiarize yourself with all the little quirks and details of a new place or culture. This can be done in a standard tourist area, but you need not confine yourself to the standard sights. A normal neighborhood, perhaps the one near your hotel
or guesthouse, can reveal a lot about a city (and in a village, a walk into the countryside can be revealing in its own way). A corollary to this is to take public transportation — buses, subways, trams — and just ride around with no particular destination. Mixing in with the commuter routines of the people who live in a given place is a great window into that place. After that first day of just wandering by foot or public bus I then continue on to what might be considered tourist attractions or activities, but the initial wandering has given me an intensified context for the standard sights.
READ THESE, TRAVEL BETTER
Inspired by his long-running column for Salon.com, Vagabonding is both philosophical treatise and practical guide for those who want to take extended time off to travel the world.
The Tao of Travel
Paul Theroux reflects on his own career as a travel writer in this book, which quotes, mentions and takes anecdotes from a wide range of other travel writers, from Twain to Hemingway.
The Art of Travel
Swiss writer and philosopher Alain de Botton, better known for his musings on how architecture and work affect our happiness, writes here about topics like the anticipation of traveling and our motives for getting away. A bit ponderous, but worth reading if you’re an introspective type.
Q. Sometimes when people spend money to go on a trip they feel pressure to accomplish something or somehow make it worthwhile, whether that means getting a good tan or having some sort of cultural epiphany. What do you think about that? What feels like a successful trip to you?
I’m a fan of wandering around and discovering things by accident — but I agree that a sense of “mission” can also be a good way to approach a place. If a decent tan is the extent of your mission, great — but there are countless ways to challenge yourself in a new place. Maybe you’ll endeavor to sample as many sweet desserts as possible in Pushkar, or learn twenty words of Mandarin to be more of an extrovert in Taipei, or see as much live music as possible in Buenos Aires. Usually, in the process of trying to achieve these “missions” you’ll have a lot of interesting experiences by accident — experiences that have nothing to do with the mission. The point of course is to break out of the standard sightseeing circuit and discover different things.
Q. You’ve spoken of the “electronic umbilical cord” and needing to unplug. Can you articulate the line before which technology is helpful for travel and after which its returns diminish?
Technology is great for travel planning, and for solving specific problems on the road, but all too often it becomes a compulsion that can distract you from your travels. Which is to say when travelers use their smartphones
as compulsively on the road as they do back home, they haven’t fully left home. A journey to a place should be an embrace of and dialogue with that place — and this can be hard to achieve when you’re constantly chattering with people or showcasing your experiences in the virtual world of social media. One of the biggest gifts of travel is that it pulls you out of your comfort zone, and leaves you in these raw moments where you might be lost or lonely or bored. Technology has a way of keeping you in your comfort zone, of compelling you to get your information and entertainment and solace virtually instead of locally. So I’d recommend using technology to plan and research your trip, but unplug the electronic umbilical cord once you’re on the road. Leave the smartphone back in the hotel and find your way around a place by talking to the people who live there. This might mean you’re left to uncertainty at various points during the day, but that’s part of the point of travel. Again, technology has a way of turning you into a consumer of the travel experience, when in fact it’s more rewarding to be a seeker, someone willing to embrace uncertainty.
One of the biggest gifts of travel is that it pulls you out of your comfort zone, and leaves you in these raw moments where you might be lost or lonely or bored.
Q. You’ve traveled extensively with next to nothing, but do you have a few travel essentials you like to take with you?
One needs few things on the road, since the whole point of travel is to embrace experience, and dragging around a heavy bag will only get in the way of experience. I bring some changes of clothes, some toiletries
, some books or a laptop. But really, the less I have to carry (or worry about) on the road, the easier it is to throw myself into the experience of a place.
Q. How do you feel about souvenirs? Any favorites you’ve taken home?
I’m a fan of souvenirs — though I aim for quality more than quantity when it comes to collecting them. Souvenirs are in essence triggers for memory, so when I speak of quality I speak of quality of memory. Sometimes this can mean a standard, chintzy knick-knack from a souvenir shop — nothing necessarily wrong with those — but usually the best souvenir is something emblematic of a personal experience. I drove a Lao fishing boat 900 miles down the Mekong River 15 years ago, and one of my most prized souvenirs is a broken boat propeller that I saved from a particularly challenging day. When my parents visited me when I lived in Korea
, their favorite souvenir was a cheap vase they bought at a little mom-and-pop convenience store down the block from my home in Busan. It was their first travel experience overseas, and the vase reminds them of interacting with the Korean couple who ran the store. Sometimes a souvenir can be as simple as a rock or an empty bottle of Inca Cola. Basically whatever captured your imagination on the road, and can revive that sense of wonder when you see it sitting on your shelf.
Learn more about Rolf Potts and his read his travel writing at rolfpotts.com.