Rolf Potts is a travel writer, journalist, and non-fiction writer. He is the author numerous magazine and website articles, as well as two books: Vagabonding, an “uncommon guide to long-term world travel” that has earned him a reputation as a guru to ambitious adventurers; and Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, a collection of essays. He is currently a lecturer in English at Yale, where he teaches a section of “Reading and Writing the Modern Essay.” The Herald sat down with him to talk about becoming a writer, travelling, and getting jumped by Moroccan criminals in Turkey.
YH: How did you get into travel writing?
RP: Through an accident of writing a lot and traveling a lot, eventually the two passions came together. I grew up in an isolated part of the U.S., in Kansas, and I didn’t know anybody who travelled that much internationally. So in college I thought, “As soon as I’m done I’m going to travel around the United States and get travel out of my system, I’m going to scratch my itch so that I won’t have to worry about not having travelled.” I was under the common American conception that you’re a virtuous person who works really hard, and when you’re old, then you can travel. When I traveled I realized that it was a lot cheaper, safer and easier than I thought, and I haven’t really stopped traveling since. I actually tried to write a book about that first journey.
YH: What about this idea of ‘vagabonding’? When did that start to materialize?
RP: In retrospect, it was happening since I was 17 and wanting to do something more than just work my whole life, but it didn’t crystalize as a word until I started writing for Salon.com in 1999—it was the name of my column. I got a lot of emails asking how I could afford to do this and I decided to answer by making a list of philosophical reasons for travel. That 11-point list eventually became the 11 chapters of this book. Instead of saying, this is how you pack a backpack, I said, time is what you really own. Basically, if you want to travel you should, and you shouldn’t wait because time is more important than money and things and it doesn’t take that much money to actualize your time.
YH: How did your first book, Vagabonding, come about?
RP: An editor at Random House asked me if the eleven point list could become a book and I thought, I guess so. You can’t really say no to that. It’s funny how the most rewarding writing experiences can be the most unexpected ones. But my heart was, and still is, in the more essayistic kind of travel writing. About four years later, an editor approached me about collecting those essays [in Marco Polo Didn’t Go There]. Taking the inspiration from David Foster Wallace but also DVD commentary tracks, in each chapter I told about how I wrote the story. I gave the story as it appeared originally, and in the endnotes, I talked about the complications that go into the story. It’s almost like a counter-intuitive travel writing textbook that says, “Here’s the story that appeared in the magazine, but here’s what really happened, and this is why I couldn’t tell everything that happened.
YH: Tell me about your Istanbul incident.
RP: It involves me being in Istanbul and having been on the road for nine months at this point. I was in the Sultanahmet area and I was befriended by these Moroccan guys. I had been traveling for a long time, I didn’t really suspect them, and they ended up drugging and robbing me. I ended up writing this story in the manner of a who-done-it mystery because looking back, I realized that these guys were maybe the fifth-sketchiest guys I had met. And that’s a reason why I didn’t go on a tangent about these Christians who later approached me, yet those Christians were there, and it was this funny story where they didn’t give me any help, they didn’t lend me any money, they just randomly tried to save my soul. That’s the kind of thing I put in the endnotes to remind the reader that life is like that.
YH: When you’re planning a trip, how much research do you do before you hit the road?
RP: I would say I do about 30 percent frontload for my travel. I do enough research to look for possibilities. There’s such a thing as too much information. So I read enough to give myself ideas but not so much that I give myself answers necessarily. And these days it’s different from when I started writing because with social media you can not only research the history of a place but you can have ten friends waiting for you in a place. You send out a Tweet or a Facebook post and somebody’s friend will say, “Oh yeah, I have a cousin in Budapest” and pretty soon that is dictating your trip, whereas in the past, serendipity used to dictate it. Sometimes you can find a perfectly good story through planning. I was saying that there are different kinds of travel writing. One of them is more of a consumer travel writing, which is about helping people have better vacations. That lends itself better to a lot of preparation and knowing the story going in. You are having an experience on behalf of the reader, and it’s as much a consumer experience as it is a life experience. If you have an epiphany in India, National Geographic Traveler doesn’t really care unless it can also resonate for the reader. It’s easy to disparage consumer travel writing, but it’s important and I have done it. But I think it’s more interesting to have an epiphany on behalf of yourself in a way that’s specific enough to resonate with the reader.
YH: You actually live in Kansas when you’re not traveling, but what is your take on the idea of home? Can you pinpoint a place as home or do you prefer to leave it ambiguous?
RP: I left it ambiguous for a long time. Since I renovated my home in Kansas, where my family lives, that is my querencia place, that’s the place where my heart is. I wouldn’t have expected that but it’s turned out to be a good arrangement. And I know a lot of travel writers wrestle with this because home is a malleable idea. Regardless of whether you travel to the other side of the world or if you just move next door to your family, home is always redefined someway. One thing that I learned in my travels is how important family is to everybody. It never occurs to some people to live ten thousand miles away from their mother or whatever. I’m still sharpening my idea of home but it really came into focus when, in my mid-30s, I made that decision.
YH: What is your advice to students who go abroad?
RP: One is, don’t come back. Or don’t come back just because you think you’re supposed to. If something snags on your heart about a foreign place, then stay another year there—what happens there is important. Also, go slow and allow yourself to immerse yourself. You won’t even know, going in, what the benefits will be yet. Some of the most professionally satisfied people I know are people who were committed to overseas experiences when they were young because they have so many more tools, and they have lived outside the set of assumptions that they were raised with for long enough that they are more nimble global citizens.
——This interview was condensed by the author