July 19, 2014

Skepticism and salvation in Cyprus


Photo Credit: TeryKats via Compfight cc

Perhaps I never would have met the Iranian had it not been for the influenza
epidemic raging across Europe at the time. Because of the flu,
Larnaca — a holiday beach town on the southern coast of Cyprus — was
nearly empty of tourists. I was walking along the deserted beachfront
promenade when a lone man in coveralls approached me.

“I am from Iran,” he said. “I think you are not from Cyprus.”

I smiled at both the man’s abrupt introduction and his unusual appearance.
He looked like he’d just come in from bow-hunting deer in Idaho: dark-green
coveralls, heavy boots, a bright orange stocking cap. He wore thick
glasses and looked to be about 40 years old.

“Yes, I’m not from Cyprus,” I told him. “I’m from America.”

“America!” the man exclaimed. “I have an American nickname: Harrison.
Like Harrison Ford. I made up this name because I like Harrison Ford, and I
love America. In my mind, I think that America must be like Paradise. Is
it wonderful to live there?”

“Well I wouldn’t call it Paradise, but I like living there.”

“I wish I could go to America, but I cannot get a visa. So last week I came
here to Cyprus instead.”


The Iranian scoffed. “For me, there is no vacation. I come here to fix


“Yes, that is my work. The police in Iran don’t like satellites, so I have
to come to Cyprus. There are many satellites in Larnaca.”

Since I was quite certain Cyprus didn’t have a space program, I decided to
clarify. “What kind of satellites?”

“Satellites!” Harrison exclaimed. He pointed skyward and waved his hands
around. “In Iran, the police say they are bad for women, so I have no

“How are satellites bad for women?”

“With a satellite, women can see too many things. They can see Dallas.”


“Dallas! Julia Roberts! CNN! The police think women will forget their
duty to Islam.”

“Oh, right. You fix satellite dishes.”

“And many other electronics. But Iran is not a good place for me to live or
work. I hope Cyprus is better. Tell me, did you come to Larnaca for

“No, I’m just here for a visit.”

“A tourist! You come for the beach, or to see Lazarus?”

“What’s Lazarus?”

“Lazarus. He was friends with Jesus. His tomb is here. Don’t you read the

“Of course, but I’m pretty sure his tomb should be in Israel. And it should
be empty, since the story is that Jesus raised him from the dead.”

“Yes, but after Jesus gave him life, Lazarus decided to come to Cyprus. If
you wish, I can show you where is his tomb.”

“Sure,” I shrugged. “Let’s see it.”

As I followed the stocking-capped Iranian away from the beachfront, I
couldn’t help chuckling at the thought of Lazarus choosing to come to
Cyprus (of all places) after his resurrection. I kept getting this mental
image of a post-miracle press event at the open tomb in Bethany, with
reporters shoving in to ask questions. “Lazarus,” I imagined them saying,
“Jesus just raised you from the dead after four days in the tomb — what’ll
you do now?” And instead of Disneyland, Lazarus tells them he’s going to

“Why do you smile?” Harrison asked me as we went down the winding back streets of Larnaca in search of the tomb.

“I’m just wondering why Lazarus came to Cyprus,” I said. “I’m wondering
what he did when he got here.”

The Iranian shrugged. “He died again, I think.”

- – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – -
Lazarus or no Lazarus, I had never planned on going to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus in the first place. Originally, my plan had been to find a direct flight from Rome to Cairo. I’d soon discovered, however, that Cyprus Air offered passage to Cairo at less than half the cost of other airlines. The only catch was a 24-hour layover in Larnaca. Always a sucker for cheap airfare, I went for it.

The drawback to this was that I arrived in Cyprus without any idea of what I
could see or do there. The tourist authority at the Larnaca airport gave
me a stack of brochures, but it seemed self-defeating to spend much time
studying them when I had only a day in the country. When I’d skimmed over
the parts about how Larnaca featured the St. Lazarus Church, it never occurred
to me that Lazarus himself might be there. The Iranian who called himself
Harrison set me straight.

“Do you believe in Lazarus?” he asked as we made our way to the tomb.

“Well, I don’t really believe he was raised from the dead after four days,”
I said.

“But his bones are here in Larnaca! Don’t you believe in the Christian

“I believe in God, but I also believe in a healthy dose of skepticism.”

“What is ‘skepticism’?”

“Skepticism is like doubt. A skeptic is someone who doesn’t believe very
easily. That’s me.”

“Do you believe in artificial blood?”

This question threw me a bit. “Artificial blood? Like in the movies?”

“No, in real life. The blood that people use.”

“I don’t think I know about that.”

“It comes from America, and doctors use it. I read this in a magazine, and
it sounded crazy. Still, I am not a skeptic. I think it is real. I want
to see it and know what color it is. I want to know how it is made. Do you
know where I might see some?”

“Actually, this is the first I’ve heard of anything like artificial blood.”

“You are a skeptic.”

I laughed. “Or maybe just ignorant.”

Harrison reached out and took me lightly by the arm. “Do you know how to
get a visa to America?” he said in a quiet voice.

“Not really,” I said. “I’m from America, so of course I don’t need a visa
to go there. Why do you want one — you want to see artificial blood that badly?”

“Iran is a bad place,” he said, ignoring my clumsy joke. “There was some
hope before, but things are getting bad. The elections will make things
worse. I don’t want to go back; I want to leave.”

“What about Cyprus? Aren’t you going to stay here?”

“My visa is only for three months. But while I am here, I want to get an
American visa. Can’t you help me?”

“I’d like to, but I don’t know anything about the visa process. Especially
for Iranians.”

“Can you write down for me your name and address in America? Maybe it would
help if I had an American friend.”

“I don’t think having an address will make a difference. Especially the
address of someone you just met in the street.”

Harrison looked a bit hurt by this comment. “But I think we are already
friends,” he insisted.

- – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – -
St. Lazarus Church is a sturdy stone structure in a clean courtyard not far from the old Larnaca Fort. Harrison waited outside as I entered to discover a narrow maze of wooden pews, vaulted ceilings and curving stone-block columns. Ornate chandeliers hung from the stone arches, and an intricate gilded iconostation dominated the front of the church. Byzantine saints with golden halos peeked out from every wall and corner. A painted wooden altar in the middle of the church contained a silver crucifix and large glass disc fastened down with a ruby-studded rim. Beneath the glass was the yellowed crown of a human skull.

According to church tradition, Lazarus went to Cyprus in about A.D. 33 to
escape persecution at the hands of the Jews in Bethany. He settled in
Larnaca (then called Kition) and was consecrated as the first bishop of
Kition by the Apostles Paul and Barnabas. During his time in Cyprus,
Lazarus never smiled save on one occasion, when he saw someone stealing a
pot and said, “The clay steals the clay.” His melancholy demeanor was said
to be a result of the four days his soul spent in Hades before Jesus raised
him from the dead. He died for the second and final time in A.D. 63, and
the present stone church was built on the site of his tomb in the late ninth

Harrison was waiting for me outside when I’d finished peering around inside
the old church. “Was it a good place?” he said. “Are you glad I showed it
to you?”

“Yes,” I said. “It was very interesting.”

“Do you believe in Lazarus now?”

“No, I’m afraid I’m still a skeptic when it comes to Lazarus.”

“I am not a skeptic. I believe in Lazarus.”

“Are you a Christian?”

“Of course not!” he laughed. “I am a Muslim.”

“Do Muslims believe in the miracle of Lazarus?”

“The Koran does not speak of Lazarus. But the Koran does say that Jesus
could do miracles. I think it is bad to be a skeptic. I think you should

“A skeptic believes in many things, but he also doubts. All I’m saying is
that I doubt the miracle of Lazarus.”

“But how can you doubt miracles if you believe in God?”

“God is God — I just don’t believe he deals much in miracles. I don’t much
believe in believers, either. That’s how skepticism works.”

Harrison nodded solemnly. “There are too many believers in Iran. I think I
am a skeptic sometimes, too.” He paused for a moment, then went on. “Do
you think I am a good man?”

“Sure, I think so.”

“Then can you please give me your address for an American visa?”

“I don’t think my address will make a difference on your visa.”

“But will you give it to me?”

For some reason, I didn’t want to encourage what seemed like a doomed
enterprise. “It will take a lot more than my address to get you to

“But will you give it to me?”

I gave Harrison a hesitant stare, still not comfortable at being the object
of such blind hope. “OK,” I said finally. “Give me some paper.”

Harrison unzipped his coveralls and took out a small, dogeared notebook.
“If anybody asks, you must tell them I am your friend.”

“I think I can do that,” I said. I took the notebook and wrote down my
American address — touched by Harrison’s desperate sense of optimism, but
still skeptical at his odds for a new life.

When I’d finished, Harrison thanked me profusely and made vague plans to meet me that evening. After he’d gone, I stuck around the courtyard to stroll
through the Byzantine museum and examine the marble graves in the adjacent Protestant merchant cemetery.

Before I went back to the waterfront, however, I returned to the St. Lazarus
sanctuary to get one more look at what may or may not have been the bones of a man who may or may not have been raised from the dead.


Originally published by Salon.com in February 2000

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Category: Rolf Potts, Travel Writing

July 15, 2014

Vagabonding Book Club: Chapter 10

Offerings, Bali

“Thus, travel compels you to discover your spiritual side by simple elimination: Without all the rituals, routines and possessions that give your life meaning at home, you’re forced to look for meaning within yourself…. Indeed, if travel is a process that helps you “find yourself,” it’s because it leaves you with nothing to hide behind– it yanks you out from the realm of rehearsed responses and dull comforts, and forces you into the present. Here in the fleeting moment, you are left to improvise, to come to terms with your raw, true Self.”

Chapter 10 Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel by Rolf Potts

This chapter falls in an interesting week for me, having just finished walking the Camino de Santiago, 800 km, France into Spain a little over a week ago. It was an interesting thing, to make a pilgrimage as a non-religious person. My experience, over the years of travel, has been the same as Rolf’s, in that the moments of greatest spiritual impact and growth have, invariably, been mundane moments and not visits to great temples or sunrise yoga sessions. For me, the forward motion of travel has become a meditation of its own; a ritual that draws me back to the essentials of my internal life. Lightening my physical pack and lightening the internal loads as well.

I love the image of how travel systematically strips away all of the things that we hide behind: material possessions, relationships, jobs and titles, busy-ness, social constructs and a million other things. We’re left standing in the world, naked, with no one looking except ourselves. It is in that moment that we begin to see who we really are. Sometimes it’s necessary to walk naked for quite some distance before we can begin to pick up a few things and clothe ourselves intentionally in the lessons we’ve learned and the discoveries of self as we relate to the whole, in both the temporal and spiritual sense. To me, the truest of spiritual revelations have their boots fully grounded in the mud on the trail.

How about you? Do you travel for spiritual reasons? Where have you been? What have you learned? What surprised you about the journey?

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Category: Travel Writing

July 13, 2014

Lessons from a tour guide, part I

This week I returned from a month and a half overseas working as a tour guide, helping to lead two different groups on an epic Best-of-Europe grand tour. The experience was a new one for me; after years of exploring the continent’s cobbled backstreets and ancient cities as a solo travel writer, I found myself with the unique opportunity of being a guide for one of America’s most well-respected touring companies.

plane image for blog

A couple of concerns dogged me as I flew over the Arctic Circle, the plane making its slow path from my home base of Seattle to the tour departure point of Amsterdam. Questions like, how would I be able to handle a large group as we steam across the continent day in and day out? And, how will the mechanics of moving groups from one site to the other in an efficient way work? But these concerns paled next to the most significant challenge: Helping the scores of American travelers connect to the history and culture of the places they came so far to experience.

Staring out my window at the endless expanse of the north Atlantic, I began to feel the weight of the responsibility settle into my gut. How do I curate this experience for our flock? I’d always done it for myself just fine; teaching others how to appreciate the richness of Europe was something I’d never needed to do beyond my writing. It was easy enough to crank out articles about the places I’d visited and about the treasures—the food, the history, the people, all the things that make up the culture—those places had to offer. Would I be able to help our travelers connect to them and appreciate them in the same way that I did?

A final goodbye to the group near the Eiffel Tower at dusk.

A final goodbye to the group near the Eiffel Tower at dusk.

The teaching I’d done before—giving free travel talks at public libraries to would-be travelers who were interested in learning how to create their own independent European adventure—was indispensable. The classes I’d taught had given me a sense of what tickled a traveler’s fancy and what common-sense issues they worried about. This gave me the advantage of being able to anticipate questions and concerns, sometime before the group members even knew they had them.

The true challenge was facilitating the tour member’s experience of the culture. It was in trying to cast new food experiences as a part of good travel, as “sightseeing for your palate”. It was in helping them fend off museum overload by urging them to see the art of the Louvre and the Accademia with their hearts rather than their mind. It was in not rushing through another “check the box” locale (don’t rush through St. Mark’s square, I counseled, just take your time and find your own way to relate to the space). And it was in fending off cathedral overload by teaching that architecture was art we walk through—art that took generations of devoted believers and craftsman to create—rather than just another drafty old building.

Helping the group appreciate the elegant, historic decay of Venice is a challenge when the city is crowded and hot.

venice 1

Finally I kept the old teacher’s maxim close to my heart: “The task of the teacher is to honor the integrity of fact while at the same time igniting the student’s imagination.”

Over the course of the following weeks I’d work on striking that balance, always trying to bring long-ago stories and long-dead people to Technicolor life. Success for the tour guide also means the tourists returning home knowing that the struggles, the tragedies and triumphs of those who inhabited the majestic castles and cobbled city streets so long ago set the stage for the world as we know it today.

The trick to achieving that was helping them forge an emotional connection to the events a given site had witnessed; that its history was not just a collection of faceless dates and facts, but human beings with hopes and dreams who lived in similarly dramatic times of war, economic uncertainty and dramatic social change. Those folks tried to make the best of it, and somehow got through it. We can too. But more than just the appreciation of history, it’s the appreciation of the culture that really informs a successful travel experience. My hope is that the tour members came away with a renewed perspective on how Europe’s endlessly varied tapestry of cultures, while wonderfully diverse, are similar to our own in the most fundamentally human ways.

If you ever find yourself in the trying but satisfying role as tour guide, I think you’ll find that those lessons are your tour members’ best souvenirs.

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Category: Europe, Languages and Culture, Notes from the collective travel mind, On The Road, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Case Studies, Vagabonding Life

July 1, 2014

Vagabonding book club: Chapter 9: Be creative


“In retrospect I see that my stress wasn’t the product of indecision; the conflict arose from my impossible desire to be in all those places at once. in knowing that so many destinations were cheaply accessible at that very moment, I suddenly feared that I would never again get the chance to see them. Travel, I was coming to realize, was a metaphor not only for the countless options life offers but also for the fact that choosing one option reduces you to the parameters of that choice. thus in knowing my possibilities, I also knew my limitations.”

I was raised by vagabonds. My parents hitchhiked continents and hopped freighters in between before I was born. When I was 8 they rolled my brother and I into the back of a 1964 Ford Econoline van that my Dad named “vagabunda” and drove us into the deep south for the winter. They did it again when I was 13. Who needs third or eighth grades? We talked a lot in my childhood, and even now, about this very point that Rolf elucidates: That to choose one life, one path, one moment, is to actively NOT choose a myriad of others.

It is a thought that has stuck with me as I’ve built my own life, followed my own passions and traveled with my own family. It’s not that any one path is inherently better than another, it’s just that they lead in very different directions and one must have the presence of mind to think long term enough to see past the first bend in the road. The necessity of commitment to a path, of releasing the ties other paths might have on one’s heart, the ties that lead to indecision, questioning, and regretful “what ifs.” On the flip side of that coin, the necessity of flexibility, the willingness to trust a path to the fates and follow where they leave, and the willingness to change your mind, change your path and create a new one if needs be. Ultimately, there is much to be said for being able to come to grips with the choices you’ve made, the parameters you’ve set for yourself, the limitations of the current set of choices, and live within the moment. Accepting what is. Changing what you can as it suits you. Moving forward with purpose. Exercising creativity to keep passions fresh and alive.

How do you choose a path and then keep it interesting as you go?

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Category: Travel Writing

June 24, 2014

Vagabonding book club: Chapter 8: Keep it real


“In reality, travel is not a social contest, and vagabonding has never represented a caste on the tourist/traveler hierarchy. Depending upon circumstance, a sincere vagabonder could variously be called a traveler or a tourist, a pilgrim or a satyr, a victor or a victim, an individual seeker or a demographic trend. Indeed, the main conceit in trying to distinguish travelers from tourists is that you end up with a flimsy facade of presumed insiders and outsiders. By the vacuous standards of fashion, insiders and outsiders are necessary, but in the realm of travel (where, by definition, you are always a guest in foreign places) such a distinction is ridiculous. Putting on a cocksure and superior air may win you points at a nightclub in your hometown, but such pretense on the road will only cheapen your travel experience.” — Rolf Potts, Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel

This is a particular pet peeve of mine: the tourist vs. travel debate and its associated snobbery. There is nothing more off-putting to me, in meeting another vagabond, than to hear her speaking with disdain about “those people” who got off of the tour bus, kept together in a group, followed their guide with a carnation on the tip of his umbrella held high, and took their tour of the colosseum in Rome.

It’s true, that group travel and organized tours are not my preferred method of exploring the world. The sentiment behind her disdain is one that I share: the value of owning one’s own time, discovering a place without the pre-chewed experience, specially designed to make sure you don’t miss anything and come away knowing the basic facts. I travel to interact with a world I don’t know about, with people I don’t understand yet, and to do that in my own way, and in my own time. Thus, the “tour package” deal isn’t my thing. But that doesn’t mean it’s of no value.

Which is better: to stay home because the world is too scary and you don’t know where to start, or to take a three week packaged tour through China? To take the packaged tour through China, of course! Some exposure is better than none. Some experience is more educational than none. For many, two weeks vacation is all they get, that should be used to the best of their ability to travel, if they have a desire to do so. For lots of people, purchasing a well organized “tourist” experience is the gateway that broadens their horizons and builds confidence while reducing their fears to the point that, perhaps later, they can branch out on their own.

Seasoned travelers tend to wear their adventures like boy scout badges and arrogantly point them out. This is unattractive. Instead, those of us who’ve been around two or three or fifty blocks, should be the first to quietly applaud the first tentative steps that others are taking. We should be there to validate their experiences and encourage them to take the next steps. It’s not a contest, it’s a path we walk together. Travelers are often tourists, or at the very least, they were once. Tourists are also travelers and, given enough adventures, will eventually meet the real world on their own terms.

Do you consider yourself a tourist or a traveler? Do you think there’s a difference? What has been your experience?

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Category: Travel Writing

June 21, 2014

Dealing With the Beggar Issue

cuscogirlShould you ever travel to Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, there’s a good chance you’ll meet Francisco in the city’s humid, touristy colonial zone. Barefoot, emaciated, and filthy from sleeping in the street, Francisco looks far older than his 19 years, and his wavering gaze carries a look of hardened desperation.

I met Francisco — or, rather, he made it a point to meet me — when I was sitting on a bench near Independence Park, on my first full day in the city. After chatting me up for a few minutes (asking how I liked Santo Domingo, and inquiring about my favorite baseball teams) Francisco got down to business. “I’m homeless,” he said, “and I haven’t eaten all day. Can you give me 100 pesos for some food?”

I’d sensed this was coming, but something seemed a little suspicious about Francisco. “You speak great English,” I said. “You must be educated.”

“I’m not educated,” he said. “Not really. I lived with my uncle in New Jersey for a couple years, but they made me leave the country after 9/11, and it’s hard to find work here in Santo Domingo. Please, 100 pesos is nothing for you. It’s not even three dollars.”

This was true enough — and it was obvious that Francisco had indeed been sleeping in the street — but I’d never been comfortable handing out money to strangers. “I haven’t had lunch yet,” I said. “Come to the restaurant and eat with me.”

Francisco agreed to come, though he seemed vaguely disappointed by the proposition. When we got to a nearby cafeteria, he suggested I just give him the 100 pesos, claiming he could get bigger portions at a restaurant in a poorer neighborhood. When I suggested we go to this restaurant together, Francisco said it was too far away to walk, and asked again for 100 pesos. I refused, and when our sandwiches arrived, Francisco continued to goad me for money. Eventually I became irritated, and slapped down 50 pesos.

Francisco took the money, finished his sandwich, and was gone in under a minute, leaving me to deal with the sickly mix of emotions I feel whenever I wind up in such situations: anger, pity, resentment, guilt.

Over the course of the next week in Santo Domingo, I slowly discovered just how ill advised my investment in Francisco had been. Contrary to what he’d said, there was no shortage of work in Santo Domingo: Most all of this physical labor was done by Haitian immigrants, who toiled in the heat while the likes of Francisco lolled in the shade and hustled tourists for money. Moreover, I began to notice that the colonial zone was home to other, more needful beggars: amputees; elderly blind men; women with painfully withered limbs. Francisco, who was young and able-bodied, had likely used my 50 pesos to invest in a brief chemical high — glue, most likely, or possibly some cheap form of speed.

I share this incident with Francisco not to preach some tidy lesson about dealing with the needy as you travel, but simply to illustrate my frustration at the moral ambiguity of the whole beggar issue. Indeed, after ten years of traveling in developing nations, I still have no hard and fast system on how to respond to beggars. Usually, whether or not I give depends on some combination of my mood, the appearance and persistence of the beggar, and whether or not I have small change. And, regardless of whether I give money or choose not to, I always end up feeling a little guilty.

This sense of guilt, I believe, is at the heart of the whole traveler-beggar issue. Life is not fair, after all, and traveling to poor countries (or seeing poor people in rich countries) only underscores this fact.

Still, handing out money solves few problems. Who, after all, do you give to? Everyone? Only the worst looking cases? And how much? And how often?

Moreover, this very sense of guilt is part of the “marketing” for hustler-beggars and needful beggars alike — and that’s why children get forced into beggary, drug-addled mothers beg with sickly babies in-hand, and tourist zones invariably attract hordes of disheveled panhandlers. With the rise of urbanization in the past 50 years, some people can make more money begging in the cities than toiling in the countryside. And, in many parts of the world (perhaps most famously in India, Kenya, and among the Gypsies in Europe), begging rings are tied to organized crime, and very little of the money actually goes to the beggar herself.

Thus, while I offer no universal solutions as to how to deal with beggars on the road, my travel experiences have taught me a few principles to help navigate this sadly common and difficult situation:

1) Spend some time in the community before you give to beggars

This was perhaps my primary mistake in dealing with Francisco. Not only will a few days of immersion in the local culture give you a better sense for which beggars are and are not truly needy — it will also give you a sense for the spending power of the local currency.

Moreover, a little cultural familiarity will allow you to see how locals react to beggars: when they give money, and how much they choose to give. Most of the world’s spiritual traditions have time-honored practices for helping the needy, and following these local religious protocols is often the most culturally appropriate way to give money. In less religious societies, such as those in Western Europe, state funds are often available for the homeless and indigent, theoretically eliminating the need for hunger-based beggary.

Donations to local charities and NGOs are another solution for helping the needy in a given community — though you should research aid organizations carefully, since many such agencies are notorious for siphoning money into bloated administrative overhead.

2) Practice skepticism

My second mistake with Francisco is that I failed to practice proper discernment when I chose to give. This in mind, try and donate to those who truly need it (physical deformities are usually a reliable indicator of need), and try to avoid putting money into the hands of hustlers. Any able-bodied beggar who is too aggressive, charming, accusatory, persistent, melodramatic, or (in non-Anglophone countries) good at English is probably working a scam, trying to raise drug money, or avoiding legitimate work.

Children who beg are always a tough call, since it’s natural to feel sympathy for them. I almost never give to child beggars, however, because child beggary is so often tied to organized crime and familial exploitation. Moreover, even if a given kid is begging independently of opportunistic adults, I find it best not to reinforce this behavior at such a young age. Some travelers suggest giving pens or other educational supplies to child beggars, but I find this strategy a tad credulous. Better to give school supplies (or money) to an actual school or aid agency in a developing country than to presume these items will go to good use at random.

3) Don’t be afraid to say no

It’s better to give out of conviction than guilt, so don’t give if you truly don’t want to. Some travelers I know even have a policy of never giving to beggars at all (reasoning that their donation stands to create as many problems as it solves), and this is as legitimate a way as any to deal with the situation. Beggars realize that what they’re doing is a numbers game, and that not everyone who walks past is going to give them money.

4) You’re not saving the day

Giving money to a person on the street may make that person’s day a little better, but rarely will it do much to actually change his or her life. Individual travelers are rarely more than a fleeting presence in the lives of beggars, so keep things in perspective, remain humble, and don’t condemn those travelers who choose not to give.

5) Be courteous

It is perfectly normal protocol to ignore beggars in a given situation (they’re used to it), but don’t lecture them on how they should live their life or spend their money. In other words, remember the essential humanity of the needy as you travel, and don’t presume the presence of beggars is somehow an affront to your vacation. After all, as a traveler you are a mere guest in a faraway place, and they have just as much right as you to hang out at a given landmark, a public square, or tourist attraction.

[This Rolf Potts article originally appeared in Yahoo! News on Aug. 14, 2006. All rights reserved.]

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Category: Ethical Travel, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Advice

June 1, 2014

What to Write About To Get Published

As I was preparing to write this blog post, I thought of a problem that most, if not all writers, struggle with: coming up with something to write about. That’s especially true in travel writing, where finding a good angle, or a “story”, is key to get the attention of an editor and an audience.

With the facility of modern travel, even getting to very far-flung and hardcore destinations is not enough to have a story. Plenty of people are probably already there, camera in hand, without an assignment. Truth is, today’s editors have many more offers than they can consider, and they all come from as many exotic locations as we can find pointing fingers madly on a world map. So, how to stand out and get published?

I found that opening my eyes very wide is the most useful of strategies. In fact, today’s publishing industry is not looking at what is there, but more at what has slipped between “there” and “somewhere else” only people with deep sense of observation see. I don’t believe that one has forcibly to stay in a place long to get such “discerning power”. Of course, extended knowledge of a place can just do your writing good; but in order to catch that glimpse that makes an idea stand out among all the others, you don’t necessarily need it.

You just need good imagination, attention to detail, and a great deal of curiosity.

I give you a simple example: the other day I was walking down Armenian Street in Penang, where plenty of people go visit the famous street art installations realized by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic. I remember that there were so many people lined up to take pictures of the kids on a bicycle, and all of them were waiting to take the same picture. The street corner was so crowded, it was silly to notice how, tucked at a street corner just across the road, a traditional rattan furniture shop was empty.


– Sure, a nice piece of art. But also learn to look BEHIND, ABOVE and BELOW it -

I know that place very well, for I have visited several times before: the owner, an old man in his 70s, has been weaving rattan furniture by hand for the past 50 years. He, of course, besides keeping an old trade of Malaysia alive, is a goldmine of stories. When I visit and he has time, I always leave his shop with more than a handful of ideas buzzing in my head. And that’s how I get material to write my stories: by looking around the corner, and talking to people. Real people, who aren’t just taxi drivers and hotel staff.

The difference between a story you can sell, and one which will be rejected, is all matter of perspective and perception. The important thing is to remember that nobody is willing to pay to get what everybody else can provide, and most often for free on their blogs… so open your eyes and ears, interact with people, and look for the unusual, underrated, or just plain forgotten. It will pay off if you are persistent, and able to cope with inevitable instances of rejection.  

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Category: Notes from the collective travel mind, Travel Writing

May 27, 2014

Vagabonding book club: Chapter 7: Get into adventures


“The secret of adventure, then, is not to carefully seek it out but to travel in such a way that it finds you. To do this, you first need to overcome the protective habits of home and open yourself up to the unpredictability. As you begin to practice this openness, you’ll quickly discover adventure in the simple reality of a world that defies your expectations. More often than not, you’ll discover that “adventure” is a decision after the fact–a way of deciphering an event or an experience that you can’t quite explain. In this way, adventure becomes a part of your daily life on the vagabonding road. — Rolf Potts, Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel

The entire point of taking off traveling, in the vagabonding style, is to have adventures. If it were not for the pursuit of adventures, something new, and different and more challenging than what we are experiencing at home, what would be the point of vagabonding at all. And yet, too many people take off on their journey but then assiduously avoid any sort of adventure that might find them.

How does one avoid having adventures: by seeking to replicate the comforts and habits of home.

How does one find adventure?

Rolf puts it perfectly: overcome the protective habits of home and open yourself up to unpredictability.

When you travel:

Do not think to yourself, “I am seeking adventure today.” Instead think to yourself, “Adventure is seeking me today.” This small mental shift will push you towards serendipity and allow you to see each unexpected moment as pregnant with possibility instead of as something to be “gotten through” so that you can get to your adventure.

I loved this chapter because it gets to the heart of daily life while vagabonding and challenges us to break old patterns and see the world in new ways, which, for me, is the whole purpose of traveling to begin with.

Later in the chapter Rolf shares a fellow traveler’s list of top five adventures. I was inspired by the simplicity of his answers and made my own list, just for fun:

1. Truck hitching to the base of Cerro de Oro and climbing it with a friend, sharing a smoke at the top and screaming loud out over the lake to hear the echos call back.

2. Learning to weave on a backstrap loom over a period of months in Guatemala, getting a glimpse into the inside world of Mayan women from my friend and teacher, Imelda, and her daughters.

3. Moving down the Mekong, through Laos, towards Cambodia, by river boat, bus and bicycle. Spending a long afternoon learning to transplant rice seedlings, ankle deep in a muddy paddy, with a group of women with betel stained teeth who laughed and laughed at my fumbling attempts.

4. Getting lost along the Thai-Burmese border.

5. Camping on the Sahara, listening to drums in the darkness and participating in an ancient Bedouin camel festival in the south of Tunisia.


So what about you? What are your top 5 adventures?

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Category: Travel Writing

May 20, 2014

Vagabonding book club: Chapter 6: Meet your neighbors & pack your sense of humor!


“Thus, the secret to interacting with people in foreign lands is not to fine-tune your sense of political correctness (which itself is a Western construct) but to fine tune your sense of humor…. And while humor might seem like a fairly contemporary way to deal with unfamiliar environments, it’s actually a time-honored travel strategy… On the road, a big prerequisite for keeping your sense of humor is to first cultivate a sense of humility. After all, it can be hard to laugh at yourself if you swagger through the world like you own it.”  –Rolf Potts, Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel

It is, perhaps, the most important thing you can pack for your journey, and is certainly the most helpful tool you have in connecting with locals across culture and language barriers. Your sense of humor, about yourself, and the funny ways you don’t fit in, are a bridge you build between worlds, a hand of friendship you offer across cultures, and sometimes a safety net that catches you in a potentially dangerous or uncomfortable social situation.

Humility plays a part in humor. Unless we’re willing to be the fumbling bottom rung of the social ladder, and we’re okay with being the guy in the room who does not get the joke, it’s going to be hard to react with genuine humor and instead we’ll end up with a bruised ego. The essence of humility is to admit that we do not know, or may have more to learn. It is to engage from a position of more questions than answers and to be genuinely teachable in our spirits. Humility is a childlike approach to the world, in which we are willing to attempt things and do them badly at first, to give up our “rights” to another, and to adjust our expectations to accommodate others. Often, the results are humorous, if not to us, then to others around us. Being able to genuinely laugh along with them is what Rolf is getting at in this chapter.

When you make an effort to get off of the backpacker strip and connect with the local community, funny things are going to happen. You’re going to make social gaffs. Kids are going to double over in giggles at your fumbling attempts to do the things that they’ve been doing since they were babies. Your pronunciation is going to be a source of amusement as you venture into a new tongue. Your reactions to new foods will be gauged and giggled at. You’ll be treated like a mascot and a guinea pig for the amusement of a local group, and your best bet is to smile, laugh, and submit to it like a good fellow. It’s in this way that you’ll find, and make life-long friends and have some of the best travel experiences of your life.

Don’t be afraid to reach out. Don’t be afraid to laugh (at yourself!)

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Category: Travel Writing, Vagabonding Advice

May 10, 2014

We don’t (really) know Jack

Jack Kerouac Manuscript Photo in San Francisco Magazine

Image credit

Of all the throwaway lines I’ve fed into my travel-writing biography over the years, one creates the most fascination with readers. I am, according to a major American newspaper, “Jack Kerouac for the Internet Age.” This little quip, which appeared in USA Today when my book “Vagabonding” was first published in 2003 (and has since been referenced in a number of other venues), has long been a source of both flattery and bewilderment for me.

I’m flattered, of course, because Kerouac was an innovative literary superstar, and “On the Road” was an iconic 20th century road book; I’m bewildered because Kerouac lived a conflicted, unhappy life—and because, 50 years after its publication, “On the Road” stands out as a startlingly bad blueprint for travel.

I first read “On the Road” when I was 21 years old and preparing for my first vagabonding journey—an eight-month sojourn across North America. Like many young people dreaming of travel, I shared the giddy impulse at the heart of Kerouac’s book—the intoxicating compulsion to leave, to move, to go. At a practical level, however, I discovered that the novel’s Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty characters weren’t the best role models for mindful, life-enlarging travel.

Sure, spontaneity is good and holy, but there is something unhinged and aimless about Sal and Dean’s Benzedrine-addled wanderings. Dean is a compulsive hustler with serious attention-deficit issues; Sal is a boozy brooder who rarely exudes any lasting satisfaction with his experiences. Granted, Sal’s solo adventures early on in the book vividly portray the joys and challenges of hitchhiking—and one can feel the ecstatic energy of his house party with Ray Rawlins and Tim Gray in the mountains above Denver—but once Dean fully enters the story, the pair’s travels turn sloppy.

Indeed, Sal and Dean cover a lot of miles between San Francisco and New York, but their adventures along the way are rarely more remarkable than what one might encounter in the freshman-pledge wing of a fraternity house: booze is swilled and dope is smoked; money is borrowed and hoarded, then frittered away on dumb indulgences; women are longed for, seduced and abandoned. In the third section of the book, which starts off with Dean leaving his pregnant wife in California, Sal and Dean repeatedly fantasize about running off to Italy, strangely oblivious to the American surroundings racing past outside the car window. When the pair later travels down to Mexico, their sojourn ends up less a quest for beauty and discovery than dope and hookers. Along the way, the Sal and Dean experience occasional moments of jubilation, but, asWhy Kerouac Matters author John Leland and others have pointed out, “On the Road” is at heart a morose book, laced with refrains of disappointment and sadness.

Why, then, does “On the Road” remain such a potent romantic metaphor for the joys of travel? I’d reckon this has less to do with its actual content than with the myth that surrounds it.

Read Kerouac’s daily journals from the time he was experiencing what would later become “On the Road,” and its clear that this myth was no accident. As scholar Douglas Brinkley points out in the introduction toWindblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac, 1947-1954, Kerouac intentionally embraced “the autobiographical impulse to create fiction out of one’s own myth.” Enamored with cowboy movies, hobo tales and the notion of the American West, he cast the madcap Dean (based on the real-life Neal Cassady) as a folk hero to balance Sal, his own, more subdued alter ego. This mythic “On the Road” pairing proved so effective that Kerouac spent the rest of his life trying to convince young fans that he wasn’t the charismatic figure of freedom and rebelliousness they’d idealized in his book.

Just as potent as the myth of his characters is the legend of how Kerouac typed “On the Road” on a long scroll of butcher paper in one frenzied, three-week burst in April of 1951. Though this tale is only partially true (the typing session followed years of fragmentary, journal-based drafts and later went through meticulous rewrites), it underscores the ethos of spontaneity that surrounds “On the Road.” Add to this Kerouac’s photogenic good looks—as well as the 1960s counterculture revival that his Beat cohorts inspired—and “On the Road” becomes more than the content in its pages: It becomes a symbol for impulse, for restlessness, for youth.

I suppose it was because of my own relative youth, then, that I merited a Kerouac comparison when my own travel-themed book came out four years ago. And while I certainly pay tribute to Kerouac in the pages of “Vagabonding,” “On the Road” has proven less of a template for my own U.S. travels than the work of frumpier, middle-aged fellows like Walt Whitman or John Steinbeck—writers who knew how to slow down, to linger, to listen.

In the end, of course, it doesn’t really matter that “Leaves of Grass” or “Travels With Charley” hold more useful day-to-day travel cues than “On the Road.” Through their very compulsion to ditch home—to go anywhere, to do anything—Kerouac’s Sal and Dean do us one important service: They remind us that the most important step in the life of any traveler is that initial desire to be someplace else.

This article was originally published September, 2007 by World Hum.

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Category: Rolf Potts, Travel Writing













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