Sometimes I wonder if modern travel writing still has anything fresh to say, and I can’t really find a satisfactory answer.
This question became much more pressing after I discovered an American publisher who reprints old travel writing gems from early 20th century’s Asia. I’m talking about DatAsia press, based in Florida.
They have just re-released Harry Hervey’s two early travel accounts of French Indochina (which we use to call Southeast Asia, today), King Cobra and Congai. They are the first ever accounts of an American traveler in the region at the end of the 1920s. Only in his mid 20’s, brave Texan Hervey stormed off to Indochina and captured his first impressions by penning down these two sultry, fictionalized accounts of a place we have now lost in time.
Pico Iyer, one of the greatest living travel writers, introduces King Cobra with great emphasis: “Great travel books give you journeys from which the traveler (perhaps the reader) comes back transformed, a mystery to himself. Suddenly you can no longer trust what you knew so firmly a day ago; suddenly all sense of “home” and “abroad” — of “you” and “I” — dissolves. A real trip turns you around so that you leave behind the person you were and maybe the one you wanted to become. Hervey may have embellished his real experiences, and drawn liberally from the books that fired his imagination before he left home — as Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta and Bruce Cahtwin did.”
I decided to reach out to Kent Davis, owner of DatAsia press, to ask him a few exclusive questions for all those Vagabonding readers who are –or are dreaming of – honing the travel writing craft. Kent has definitely a few opinions that will help your quest to understand more about this difficult craft, and will explain how he decided to look back, instead of publishing anything contemporary.
In 2005, my wife and I founded DatAsia as an independent press. Our mission is to publish rare books about Southeast Asian history and culture, with a special focus on topics relating to women. In addition to sharing previously unpublished research, we are also devoted to reviving obscure histories that have long gone out of print and been forgotten. Another aspect of this is translating selected works into English for the first time. In many ways, we have become “literary archaeologists.” (more…)
An excerpt from Chapter Two: Earn Your Freedom: Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, by Rolf Potts
“Vagabonding is about gaining the courage to loosen your grip on the so called certainties of the world. Vagabonding is about refusing to exile travel to some other, seemingly more appropriate, time of your life. Vagabonding is about taking control of your circumstances instead of passively waiting for them to decide your fate.
Thus, the questions of how and when to start vagabonding is not really a question at all. Vagabonding starts now. Even if the practical reality of travel is still months or years away, vagabonding begins the moment you stop making excuses, start saving money, and begin to look at maps with the narcotic tingle of possibility. From here, the reality of vagabonding comes into sharper focus as you adjust your worldview and begin to embrace the exhilarating uncertainty that true travel promises.
In this way, vagabonding is not merely a ritual of getting immunizations and packing suitcases. Rather, it’s the ongoing practice of looking and learning, of facing fears and altering habits, of cultivating a new fascination with people and places…”
If there was one lesson that I wish could be downloaded to the heart and mind of every newbie traveler, this would be it: That it’s the decision to vagabond that changes everything, not the geographical diversity.
For most people, their actual “trip” is measured in months, or perhaps a couple of years at most. It’s time bought back by periods of dedicated work and frugal living. But the changes that vagabonding works in a person’s outlook and underlying philosophy carry over into “daily life” upon their “return.” I was talking to my Dad about this recently. He turns 70 this year and if you look up “vagabond” in the dictionary, you’ll find his photo next to the definition. “Someone asked me recently about when I was taking my next trip,” he mused, “It took me a minute to answer… I was confused… there’s a ‘next trip?’… it’s all one big trip to me, and I’m still on it!”
That’s the essence of it, really. You take off on your first trip at twenty four and forty-five years later you’re still on the road, in your heart and mind as much as in the physical sense.
I have a friend who is turning forty this year. When we were 15, she was the one reading Jack Kerouac in the lunch room and lamenting that she’d was born into the wrong decade. Travel, vagabonding, were in her soul, and yet, she has never traveled. She called me about a year and a half ago. I was bussing around Southeast Asia a the time. She asked me if I’d be up for walking the Camino de Santiago with her this summer. Of course, you know my answer. It took a lot of ramping up for her to make the decision to go, to ask me to be her companion for the walk, and to commit to doing the thing she’s been dreaming of since we were children. That’s not a small thing. You know what I’ve noticed? From that moment on the phone between continents, she’s a different person. She is a vagabond. She’s earned her freedom in every sense. Her victory will feel sweet when that plane lifts off in a few weeks, but that isn’t the moment that her trip begins. It began a year and a half ago, with her commitment, and it’s just the first step of a journey that will last for the rest of her life.
So, what do you think? What are your reflections on chapter two? How has the concept of vagabonding changed how you experience life at home and on the road? How have you earned your freedom?
I first read Vagabonding in 2006, when we were in the throes of planning what we expected to be a one year trip. I was devouring everything I could find for inspiration, looking for the tools I needed as we grappled with breaking free from a very “normal” American life and plunging into the unknown, with four kids in tow. I’d read books specific to every aspect of packing, cycling long distance, travel with children and life on the road, and I had a binder full of notes.
Then, I cracked the spine of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, the dust settled around me, a calm descended, and I remembered something very important: our journey wasn’t about preparation, it was about perspective, and we weren’t headed out on a lark, we were embarking on a lifestyle. Of course the book handed me tools, it’s chock-full of resources to build on, but more importantly Rolf sung the timeless song of the vagabond for our generation. He articulated the age old messages of light-footed simplicity in a way that our modern minds recognized.
I decided, a few weeks ago, that I need to re-read this book. I’m six years in to a lifestyle of full-time travel and it’s now “routine” for me. Taking over as Managing Editor of this site has required me to dig deep into 11 years worth of content on a subject near to my heart and it’s reminding me of all of the best reasons that I’ve chosen the life I have. As I seek to refocus this blog on the core values of Rolf’s book I’ve found myself, yellow highlighter in hand, turning pages and rediscovering the beauty the philosophy of Vagabonding.
And so, I wanted to invite you to join me. For the next ten weeks I’m going to move, chapter by chapter, through the book and post some of my highlighted bits here. Starting now, with Chapter One. If you don’t have a copy, you have lots of choices: paperback, kindle, audio, among others. It’s even available in several foreign languages if you look!
So here we go…
Chapter 1: Declare Your Independence
“Ultimately, this shotgun wedding of time and money has a way of keeping us in a holding pattern. The more we associate experience with cash value, the more we think that money is what we need to live. And the more we associate money with life, the more we convince ourselves that we’re too poor to buy our freedom. With this kind of mind-set, it’s no wonder so many Americans think extended overseas travel is the exclusive realm of students, counterculture dropouts, and the idle rich… Vagabonding is not a lifestyle, nor is it a trend. It’s just an uncommon way of looking at life–a value adjustment from with action naturally follows. And, as much as anything, vagabonding is about time–our only real commodity– and how we choose to use it.”
This jumped out at me because it draws our attention to time as a commodity and the wrong thinking that has lead us to connect it to money in the economic sphere. One of the things long-term travel has taught me, over and over, is the truth of that last assertion: that time is our only real commodity and how we use it is a choice.
Please share your reflections on Chapter One in the comments!
I have a confession to make: I’m falling in love with Anthony Bourdain.
After twelve years without a television to share my life with I discovered his shows when we were wandering in New Zealand. The food. The locations. His sass. I was smitten. Then, I began to read, you know he’s a writer, don’t you? Swoon. He writes about food. He writes about travel. He will awaken your lust for both:
The journey is part of the experience – an expression of the seriousness of one’s intent. One doesn’t take the A train to Mecca.
— Anthony Bourdain
“I wanted adventures. I wanted to go up the Nung river to the heart of darkness in Cambodia. I wanted to ride out into a desert on camelback, sand and dunes in every direction, eat whole roasted lamb with my fingers. I wanted to kick snow off my boots in a Mafiya nightclub in Russia. I wanted to play with automatic weapons in Phnom Penh, recapture the past in a small oyster village in France, step into a seedy neon-lit pulqueria in rural Mexico. I wanted to run roadblocks in the middle of the night, blowing past angry militia with a handful of hurled Marlboro packs, experience fear, excitement, wonder. I wanted kicks – the kind of melodramatic thrills and chills I’d yearned for since childhood, the kind of adventure I’d found as a little boy in the pages of my Tintin comic books. I wanted to see the world – and I wanted the world to be just like the movies”
― Anthony Bourdain, A Cook’s Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines
“If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. The extent to which you can walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food, it’s a plus for everybody.”
“Open your mind, get up off the couch, move.”
― Anthony Bourdain
“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”
― Anthony Bourdain, No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach
“It’s an irritating reality that many places and events defy description. Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu, for instance, seem to demand silence, like a love affair you can never talk about. For a while after,you fumble for words, trying vainly to assemble a private narrative, an explanation, a comfortable way to frame where you’ve been and whats happened. In the end, you’re just happy you were there- with your eyes open- and lived to see it.”
― Anthony Bourdain, The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps, and Bones
Last weekend, on a sunny Saturday morning at a local Seattle-area library, I kicked off the first of several ninety-minute “Travel talks” I plan to give this year. The seminar-style presentations, which I call “Traveling The Best of Europe Independently & On A Budget” will be free, presented at assorted libraries in the Seattle metro area.
I began doing these talks several years ago after answering the umpteenth question about how to travel independently in Europe (since that’s my specialty), how to plan it, and where to go. I realized there was a hunger for this type of straight-up advice from a trusted source. Since then I’ve done several, and I’m always stuck by audiences’ desire for useful tips and, more importantly, a much-needed infusion of “Hey, I can do this!” confidence.
Some have asked why I bother doing these talks when it’s basically free work and free advice. My answer: Sharing my hard-won tips on budgeting, itinerary-crafting, and other how-to essentials is a joy. Moreover, it’s a public service. More than just the mere nuts-and-bolts information, I’ve found that it’s the message of “you can do it too!” that is truly valuable, no matter what destination you’re discussing. Any guidebook will have a chapter on the basics needed to plan a trip and where to go, but it’s a presenter’s confidence and palpable love for the subject that can inspire someone to finally book that plane ticket.
So, if you’re inclined to spread your knowledge and love of whatever destination you choose, please consider offering a ninety-minute “how to travel independently & on a budget to…” presentation at a local library. Impart your wisdom and fill the room with your enthusiasm for the places you’re talking about. You might just motivate a reluctant adventurer to take the trip of a lifetime, and that is time well spent indeed.
Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.
— Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky
Why do we go away? An interesting question to ponder.
And what Terry says is very true as well: we travel so that we can come back.
Homecoming is an integral part of journeying. Almost everyone does it at some point. It’s a surprise when we first discover that home did not wait quietly for us, preserved like an exhibit in the museum of our minds. It is sometimes a shock to find that, although we have returned, we are not, in fact, home in the same sense as when we left it. When we take off to travel, we are, in many senses, the place we leave. Indiana is taken to Borneo, Borneo is seen through Indiana’s eyes. When we return, we bring Borneo with us, and he points out things in Indiana we never noticed before he shared his lenses with us. To me, that is the single most important function of travel: the ability to see home through new eyes, to evaluate the common from an angle we’d never considered. Instead of looking at the world through our cultural telescope, we begin to see the world like a marble at the end of a kaleidoscope. Same place. Entirely different view.
What about you? Why do you travel? What have you noticed upon coming home?
by Don Blanding
West of the sunset stands my house,
There… and east of the dawn;
North to the Arctic runs my yard;
South to the Pole, my lawn;
Seven seas are to sail my ships
To the ends of the earth… beyond;
Drifters’ gold is for me to spend
For I am a vagabond.
Fabulous cities are mine to loot;
Queens of the earth to wed;
Fruits of the world are mine to eat;
The couch of a king, my bed;
All that I see is mine to keep;
Foolish, the fancy seems
But I am rich with the wealth of Sight
The coin of the realm of dreams.
I found the book, Vagabond’s House laying on my friend Powell’s coffee table and couldn’t resist curling into her big white sofa for a read while the relentless rain washed the memories from Kailua Beach’s sands with yesterday’s footprints, leaving a blank canvas for tomorrow.
I read the dedication and smiled:
To the restless ones
To all the gallant frantic fools
Who follow the path of the sun
Across blue waters
To distant mountains
I dedicate my book.
He wrote this book for me. In 1928.
I love that about books, the transcendence of space and time, how the words, the thoughts, the very heart of a man can reach through lifetimes and touch mine. That’s a miracle, if there ever was one.
Don Blanding is well known as The Vagabond Poet; in his day, he traveled to all of the places I’ve come to love best, across Europe and Central America before settling in Hawaii, where he kindly left one of his books for me to find.
His poetry sings to my soul. The simple line drawings he penned to accompany them captivate me. I’ve fallen in love with a man who was gone a decade and a half before I arrived. I love that about books.
Looking for a poet to inspire your vagabonding? This is your guy.
I admit it, I have been lacking a few posts and overall been bogged down with work (yes, work, because even to sustain a life abroad we need some, in a form or the other), and I beg your pardon. To start off the New Year right, I believe you might love reading some quirky, wicked travel narratives from around the world.
You might take this as a shameless example of self-promotion, but the third issue of Wicked World, an alternative digital magazine I edit with British travel writer Tom Coote, is finally available as a great eye candy: just love the gloriously wicked Ethiopian Mursi warrior on the cover!!
As well as a range of alternative travel articles and photo features, for the first time we have also included some travel related fiction. At one end of the story telling scale, is a traditional Moroccan folk tale, The Red Lantern, selected by Richard Hamilton. In a more contemporary vein, where the lines between fact and fiction blur, we are also showcasing The Death Kiss of a King Cobra Show by Jim Algie.
At the reportage end of the travel writing spectrum, in Barbed Wire Scars, Marcello Di Cintio encounters desperate African migrants determined to make their way across the razor wired walls at Ceuta, in the hope of making it to the promised land of Europe. Equally contemporary, E T Laing investigates recent political upheavals in Bangladesh in A Savage Fundamentalism. (more…)
“One strike against travel writing, though, is that many writers who describe familiar places without making shallow or trite observations suddenly run into trouble when they go on the road. They seem to lose their inhibitions when they find themselves in exotic surroundings, and start telling us how red-cheeked and healthy the children look, how much more in touch with nature Third World farmers appear, or how dull-witted the natives look because they stare at foreigners with their mouths hanging open. Part of the fun of being a traveler is making broad generalizations from what little you see and hear, or discovering that there is a grain of truth in many cultural stereotypes, but those sorts of insights don’t necessarily belong in a book.”
–Mark Salzman, in They Went: The Art and Craft of Travel Writing (1991)
One of the great things about Europe is its magnificent Christmases, when the frosty air is infused with a spirit of joy and celebration. From Scotland to Slovakia, a smorgasbord of culture is on display as each country celebrates with its own unique traditions.
This is the second in a series about the Continent’s various subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) yuletide differences that make each culture uniquely fun.
Some of France’s yuletide traditions have spilled over to the US, where we associate the word “Noel” with the holiday. In fact Noel is the French word for Christmas, stemming from the French phrase les bonnes nouvelles, which means “the good news”.
Paris, the City of Light, celebrates in a less red-and green-light gaudy way than big US cities. But don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s a realm of secular Scrooges: its neighborhoods often host popular Christmas markets that are as festive as any scene in New York City. The shoppers bustle under the glow of the light-strewn Eiffel Tower, radiating light like a beacon against the cold night sky.
In the countryside, where the culture of any people really resides and thrives, the traditions are stronger and richer. The warm tones of local choirs singing medieval carols can be heard emanating from candle-lit, thirteenth-century churches. Soaring abbeys host more elaborate performances of ancient music under their arches. The smell of burning wood emanates from the fireplaces and stoves of old farmhouses in the chiller Normandy and Brittany regions, while the southern areas of the country enjoy the more moderate temperatures afforded by their proximity to the Mediterranean. Epic manger scenes crowd around the courtyards in front of the great cathedrals, uncomfortably close to the commerce-heavy outdoor markets where locals score the freshest chestnuts and tastiest red wine while shivering carolers entertain with the old favorites.
In this strongly Catholic country, many families will attend the midnight Mass and return home to enjoy le réveillon, or the “wake-up!” meal.
And that meal is fantastic. Being France, the food is an integral part of the celebration—in fact it’s the culinary high point of the year for many. Delicacies like foie gras, oysters and escargots are popular aperitifs, while the entrée tends to be more straight-forward dishes like goose (popular in Alsace) and turkey (more popular in Burgundy).
Meat (including ham and duck) is paired with a good red wine and served with the ever-popular chestnut stuffing, a French favorite for generations. Chubby truffles are another beloved feature of most dinners. While the use of the actual Yule log has diminished somewhat, the French make a traditional Yule log-shaped cake called the buche de Noel. It’s a sugary delight of chocolate and chestnuts.
After the Mass and le réveillon, the children put their shoes in front of the fireplace hoping that Pere Noel (Father Christmas) will fill them with candy, nuts, fruit and gifts. As the kids drift off to sleep, the adults sit up late, hang goodies from the tree and polish off the Yule log. Before they turn in for the night, a softly burning candle is are left on the table in case the Virgin Mary passes by, a long-standing custom of this Catholic country.
From Bayeux to Arles, France revels in its ancient cultural traditions as it celebrates the Noel with that classically French combination of style and joy. Gift giving is less emphasized than the act of gathering and celebrating simple rituals with family and friends—and sharing a fine meal with good wine, of course.