August 2, 2014

Around the world in 80 hours of TV

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PRELUDE

Day 5, Hour 77: 9:53 pm.

Twenty-three hotel floors above the gritty neon splendor of downtown Las Vegas, I am nearing the end of a bewildering travel experiment: For the past five days, I have been watching the Travel Channel for the entirety of my waking hours, without ever changing the station or (save a few key occasions) leaving my hotel room.

My goal has been to create an intensive, vicarious televisual adventure — to glean five days’ worth of travel experiences from the glowing parameters of a single TV set and figure out what the Travel Channel might be saying about how one should see the world.

In the 77 hours since my experiment began, I have witnessed many wonders. I have, for example, seen three grown men shriek like schoolgirls while locked overnight inside a dubiously haunted English inn. I have learned that ants in the Ecuadorian Amazon taste like lemons, that Gulf Coast raccoons taste like turkey, and that Andean guinea pigs taste like roast pork shoulder. I have learned that nachos are not authentic Mexican food, and that the Japanese have invented a toilet that can both wash and blow-dry your ass. I have seen two separate shows that sing the praises of deep-fried Twinkies, and I’ve heard the phrase “like a party in your mouth” used to describe the culinary merits of three separate food products. I have seen a restaurant full of Americans cheer like hockey fans while watching two guys devour a 10-pound pizza in less than an hour.

I have also watched commercials — more than 2000 of them in the course of five days. According to the tally marks in my notebook, I have been invited to visit Jamaica 16 times, been warned 51 times that my existing health insurance might not be adequate for my retirement needs, and thrice been asked to ponder how Cheez-It is able to bake so much cheesy goodness into such small bites.

I have left my hotel three times in the past five days, and been nearly robbed once.

In exactly 7 minutes (once the guy who ate the 10-pound pizza finishes eating a 4.5-pound steak), my TV marathon will culminate with two back-to-back episodes of a show called America’s Worst Driver, which — like many shows on the Travel Channel — doesn’t appear to be about travel.

Brandishing my notebook, I stare at the screen with a fatigued sense of resolve and ponder the events that brought me to this moment.

Read the rest of Rolf’s TV adventures on Gadling

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Category: Rolf Potts, Travel Video

July 19, 2014

Skepticism and salvation in Cyprus

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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.”

“Vacation?”

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

“Satellites?”

“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
work.”

“How are satellites bad for women?”

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

“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
living?”

“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
Bible?”

“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
Larnaca.

“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
God?”

“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
century.

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
believe.”

“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
America.”

“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 5, 2014

The death of the Mile High Club

Take off...

I want to take this opportunity to declare that the Mile-High Club is, for all practical purposes, defunct. Much like the practice of phrenology or the fad for goldfish swallowing, the notion of having sex on commercial airplanes is no longer worthy of serious consideration.

Before I get inundated with angry e-mails accusing me of being a prude, let me be clear about one thing: This is not about sex. For die-hard Mile-High Club practitioners, I’m sure there’s still nothing more arousing than the heady scent of disinfectant and sewage as you wedge yourself against a paper towel dispenser to consummate your passion with the person you love (or as many Mile-High Club tales seem to imply, with the person you met at the boarding gate).

In reality, the death of the Mile-High Club is tied to the decline of the commercial air travel experience in general. Back in the late ‘60s, when the advent of the Boeing 737 began to make jet travel affordable for the masses, I’m sure everything about the experience of flight was somewhat of a thrill. Nearly four decades later, however, a couple generations of travelers have known nothing but air travel for long journeys. We’re still flying in those same 737s (and comparable aircraft), yet the level of comfort and service has actually declined: Security lines are longer, seating schemes are more cramped, in-flight snack services are disappearing, and—in a startling development—some aircraft manufacturers have reportedly considered maximizing passenger capacity by installing standing-room seating, wherein you are strapped, like a mental patient, to a padded backboard during takeoff.

In short, commercial air travel has become hopelessly mundane and unpleasant—and aspiring to have sex on a commercial flight is now as tacky and pointless as aspiring to have sex in a Wal-Mart.  (more…)

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Category: Air Travel, Rolf Potts, Sex and Travel

May 24, 2014

The tourist is always the other guy

Random Travelers' Society
 

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A few years ago, when the tide of war was shifting in Afghanistan, Northern Alliance troops began using a contemptuous moniker for the Pakistani, Uzbek, and Chechen militants who were fighting alongside the Taliban. “The [Afghan] people,” Alliance commander Ustad Mohammed Atta told TIME magazine, “want to kill these tourists.”

Not “terrorists”, mind you, “tourists”. Obviously, the pejorative sense of that word had come a long way since European elites first sneered at the English commoners who took Thomas Cook’s inaugural group tours in the 19th century.

Moreover, it seems we have come to the point where “tourist” — like “asshole”, or “politically correct” — has no meaning but the pejorative, and would never be a term anyone would apply to oneself. As John Flinn noted in his recent San Francisco Chronicle column, “among the status-conscious, the word ‘tourist’ has come to mean ‘anyone who travels in a style I consider inferior to the way I like to think I do it.’”

Or, as Evelyn Waugh put it a couple generations ago, “the tourist is always the other chap.”

Flinn goes on to make a good argument for dropping the tourist-traveler debate altogether — but somehow I doubt the travel milieu will ever lose its snarky obsession with “tourists”. An illustrative case in point would be that of travel writer Daisann McLane, who made a well-stated case for why we’re all “tourists” in a 2002 interview with World Hum. “We think a ‘traveler’ is cool, the ‘tourist’ is not,” she said, “and there’s a lot of snobbery attached to identifying oneself as the former. But I think we should let that go. We are all tourists. If you can afford a round trip ticket to Laos, and you go there for personal stimulation, not for a job, even if you end up staying for six months on the floor of a Hmong hut in a remote village, you’re still a tourist.”

This kind of logic might have been devastatingly conclusive were it not for the fact that McLane’s own column tagline at National Geographic Traveler was, “How to be a Traveler, Not a Tourist”.

As is the case with Anthony Bourdain (who I recently skewered for his similarly insipid Travel Channel promotion), I’d wager that this slogan was never McLane’s idea. Still, it points to the fact that — like a case of genital herpes — the tourist-traveler dichotomy will never go away, no matter how irritating it becomes.

The heart of this dichotomy, of course, lies in our own insecurities about travel. In the movie Fight Club, Edward Norton’s character, who has been crashing support-group meetings to boost his self-esteem, drops the t-word when another crasher, named Marla, starts showing up at the meetings. “Marla, the big tourist,” he mutters. “Her lie reflected my lie.” Similarly, we all travel with the knowledge that, by definition, a person journeying to a foreign place is an outsider, a dilettante, a superficial presence. Other travelers (i.e. “tourists”) only remind us of that fact.

And that’s why we go to such great pains to make distinctions and split hairs. Six years ago, while working on the set of Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Beach, I was amused to discover that 21st Century Fox’s handlers were dividing all the extras into two groups, “tourists” and “travelers”. No actual travel credentials were required; the production assistants simply made their decisions on the basis of fashion. That is, if you had dreads or wore a sarong or sported tattoos or clutched a set of bongos, you were grouped together with the “travelers”. If kept your hair short or wore nice clothes or had a reasonably neat appearance, you spent your on-camera time as a “tourist”. Though my suntan was lacking at the time, I made the cut as a “traveler” on the basis of my hair (which was longish) and clothing (which, while not suitably ethnic, was a bit tattered).

Despite such reductive methodology, however, I’ll admit I felt a small flush of pride as I took my place in the extras’ tent with the other “travelers”. Just like being picked first for a game of kindergarten kickball, I had proof that I had made the cut: I was a member of the elite.

Ultimately, the rhetoric of tourists and travelers is not just trapped in the rituals of human vanity; it has become hopelessly mixed up in the postmodern wash. After all, Paul Fussell and David Brooks have gone so far as to make fun of the people who make fun of tourists (Fussell calls them “anti-tourists“; Brooks calls them “travel snobs“) — and it’s only a matter of time before someone else writes a rant making fun of the people who make fun of the people who make fun of tourists.

When this happens, I know I’ll have my bases covered, since no less an authority than 21st Century Fox has already determined that I am a traveler. That is, not a tourist.

 

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Category: Rolf Potts

May 10, 2014

We don’t (really) know Jack

Jack Kerouac Manuscript Photo in San Francisco Magazine

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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

May 3, 2014

5 Travel lessons you can use at home

Backpackers

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Travel has a way of slowing you down, of waking you up, of pulling you up out of your daily routines and seeing life in a new way. This new way of looking at the world need not end when you resume your life at home.

Here are 5 key ways in which the lessons you learn on the road can be used to enrich the life you lead when you return home…

1) Time = Wealth

By far the most important lesson travel teaches you is that your time is all you really own in life. And the more you travel, the more you realize that your most extravagant possessions can’t match the satisfaction you get from finding new experiences, meeting new people, and learning new things about yourself. “Value” is a word we often hear in day-to-day life, but travel has a way of teaching us that value is not pegged to a cash amount, that the best experiences in life can be had for the price of showing up (be it to a festival in Rajasthan, a village in the Italian countryside, or a sunrise ten minutes from your home).

Scientific studies have shown that new experiences (and the memories they produce) are more likely to produce long-term happiness than new things. Since new experiences aren’t exclusive to travel, consider ways to become time-rich at home. Spend less time working on things you don’t enjoy and buying things you don’t need; spend more time embracing the kinds of activities (learning new skills, meeting new people, spending time with friends and family) that make you feel alive and part of the world.

2) Be Where You Are

A great thing about travel is that it forces you into the moment. When you’re celebrating carnival in Rio, riding a horse on the Mongolian steppe, or exploring a souk in Damascus, there’s a giddy thrill in being exactly where you are and allowing things to happen. In an age when electronic communications enable us to be permanently connected to (and distracted by) the virtual world, there’s a narcotic thrill in throwing yourself into a single place, a single moment. Would you want to check your bank-account statement while exploring Machu Picchu in Peru? Are you going to interrupt an experience of the Russian White Nights in St. Petersburg to check your Facebook feed? Of course not — when you travel, you get to embrace the privilege of witnessing life as it happens before your eyes. This attitude need not be confined to travel.

At home, how often do you really need to check your email or your Twitter feed? When you get online, are you there for a reason, or are you simply killing time? For all the pleasures and entertainments of the virtual-electronic world, there is no substitute for real-life conversation and connection, for getting ideas and entertainment from the people and places around you. Even at home, there are sublime rewards to be had for unplugging from online distractions and embracing the world before your eyes.

3) Slow Down

One of the advantages of long-term travel (as opposed to a short vacation) is that it allows you to slow down and let things happen. Freed from tight itineraries, you begin to see the kinds of things (and meet the kinds of people) that most tourists overlook in their haste to tick attractions off a list. A host of multi-million-dollar enterprises have been created to cater to our concept of “leisure,” both at home and on the road — but all too often this definition of leisure is as rushed and rigidly confined as our work life. Which is more emblematic of leisure — a three-hour spa session in an Ubud hotel, or the freedom to wander Bali at will for a month?

All too often, life at home is predicated on an irrational compulsion for speed — we rush to work, we rush through meals, we “multi-task” when we’re hanging out with friends. This might make our lives feel more streamlined in a certain abstracted sense, but it doesn’t make our lives happier or more fulfilling. Unless you learn to pace and savor your daily experiences (even your work-commutes and your noontime meals) you’ll cheating your days out of small moments of leisure, discovery and joy.

4) Keep it Simple

Travel naturally lends itself to simplicity, since it forces you to reduce your day-to-day possessions to a few select items that fit in your suitcase or backpack. Moreover, since it’s difficult to accumulate new things as you travel, you to tend to accumulate new experiences and friendships instead — and these affect your life in ways mere “things” cannot.

At home, abiding by the principles of simplicity can help you live in a more deliberate and time-rich way. How much of what you own really improves the quality of your life? Are you buying new things out of necessity or compulsion? Do the things you own enable you to live more vividly, or do they merely clutter up your life? Again,researchers have determined that new experiences satisfy our higher-order needs in a way that new possessions cannot — that taking a friend to dinner, for example, brings more lasting happiness than spending that money on a new shirt. In this way, investing less in new objects and more in new activities can make your home-life happier. This less materialistic state of mind will also help you save money for your next journey.

5) Don’t Set Limits

Travel has a way revealing that much of what you’ve heard about the world is wrong. Your family or friends will tell you that traveling to Colombia or Lebanon is a death-wish — and then you’ll go to those places and have your mind blown by friendliness, beauty and new ways of looking at human interaction. Even on a day-to-day level, travel enables you to avoid setting limits on what you can and can’t do. On the road, you naturally “play games” with your day: watching, waiting, listening; allowing things to happen. There’s no better opportunity to break old habits, face latent fears, and test out repressed facets of your personality.

That said, there’s no reason why you should confine that sort of freedom to life on the road. The same Fear-Industrial Complex that spooks people out of traveling can discourage you from trying new things or meeting new people in own your hometown. Overcoming your fears and escaping your dull routines can deepen your home-life — and the open-to-anything confidence that accompanies travel can be utilized to test new concepts in a business setting, rejuvenate relationships with friends and family, or simply ask that woman with the nice smile if she wants to go out for coffee. In refusing to set limits for what is possible on a given day, you open yourself up to an entire new world of possibility.

Naturally, this list is just a sampling of how travel can transform your non-travel life. What have I missed? What has travel taught you about how to live life at home?

 

This post is part of a guest post Rolf wrote for Tim Ferris’ blog in February 2010. You can view the whole piece here.

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Category: Lifestyle Design, Rolf Potts

April 19, 2014

Up Cambodia without a phrase book

landmine

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I am 15 minutes into my hike down the muddy little stream when a tree carving captures my attention. Sticky with sap and arcing brown across the bark, it seems to have been made recently.

I drop to my haunches and run my fingers over the design. After three days of living on the Indochinese outback without electricity or running water, I feel like my senses have been sharpened to the details of the landscape. I take a step back for perspective, and my mind suddenly goes blank.

The carving is a crude depiction of a skull and crossbones.

Were I anyplace else in the world, I might be able to write off the skull and crossbones as a morbid adolescent prank. Unfortunately, since I am in northwestern Cambodia, the ghoulish symbol can mean only one thing: land mines. Suddenly convinced that everything in my immediate vicinity is about to erupt into a fury of fire and shrapnel, I freeze.

My brain slowly starts to track again, but I can’t pinpoint a plan of action. If this were a tornado, I’d prone myself in a low-lying area. Were this an earthquake, I’d run to an open space away from trees and buildings. Were this a hurricane, I’d pack up my worldly possessions and drive to South Dakota. But since I am in a manmade disaster zone, all I can think to do is nothing.

My thoughts drift to a random quote from a United Nations official a few years back, who was expressing his frustration in trying to clear the Cambodian countryside of hundreds of thousands of unmarked and unmapped mines. “Cambodia’s mines will be cleared,” he’d quipped fatalistically, “by people walking on them.”

As gingerly as possible, I lower myself to the ground, resolved to sit here until I can formulate a course of action that won’t result in blowing myself up. (more…)

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Category: Adventure Travel, Asia, Destinations, Rolf Potts

April 5, 2014

Rolf Potts on Budget Travel

Backpack on boat 2

Whenever anyone asks me why I still travel on a shoestring at the ripe old age of 38, I usually tell them about the time I learned how to play the bagpipes in Havana.

Granted, I could probably relate a more typical story about the joys of budget travel - some tidy parable of money saved and experiences gained – but when I mention learning the bagpipes in Cuba it sounds like I’m going to tell a joke, and people like jokes.

The thing is, there’s no punch line. My encounter with Cuban bagpipers wasn’t memorable for its mere quirkiness – it was memorable because it illustrates how travelling on the cheap can offer you windows into a culture that go beyond the caricatured stereotype of what a place is supposed to be like.

If it sounds to you like I’m an ageing backpacker who never quite grew out of his shoestring ways, you’d be exactly right. In many ways, my travel sensibilities have grown out of a journey I took 10 years ago, when I quit my job as an English teacher and took a journey across Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. I probably had enough money saved up to invest in a three-month trip. As it turned out, I learned ways to stretch my travel budget into a life-enriching 30-month sojourn – and in all those months of travel, my day-to-day costs were significantly cheaper than day-to-day life would have cost me back in the United States.

The secret to my extraordinary thrift was neither secret nor extraordinary: like many generations of backpackers and shoestring travellers before me, I was able to make my modest savings last by slowing down and forgoing a few comforts as I travelled. Instead of luxury hotels, I slept in clean, basic hotels, hostels and guesthouses. Instead of dining at fancy restaurants, I ate food from street vendors and local cafeterias. Occasionally, I travelled on foot, slept out under the stars, and dined for free at the stubborn insistence of local hosts. In what eventually amounted to over two years of travel, my lodging averaged out to just under $5 a night, my meals cost well under $1 a plate, and my total expenses rarely exceeded $1,000 a month. Instead of investing my travel budget in luxuries and amenities, I invested it in more travel time – and it never failed to pay off in amazing experiences.

It’s been almost eight years now since I finished that extended stint of vagabonding, but the experience is still very much a part of me. In financial terms, I have the resources to sleep in five-star hotels and eat in expensive international restaurants, but I’ve found I rarely choose such luxurious options. Given a choice between a $400-a-night hotel and an $18-a-night flophouse in Hong Kong, I tend to opt for the latter. Faced with the prospect of an all-inclusive dinner buffet in a Santo Domingo casino, I invariably find myself wandering outside to sample food from street vendors.

Ultimately, the charm of budget travel has always been less about saving money than making the most of my time on the road. Travelling cheaply has forced me to be engaged and creative, rather than to throw money at my holidays and hope for the best. Freed from a rigid, expense-laden itinerary, I’m more likely to be spontaneous, embrace serendipity and enjoy each moment of my journey.

Excerpted from Around The World On a Shoestring-The Guardian Feb. 6, 2009

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Category: Backpacking, Rolf Potts, Vagabonding Advice

March 22, 2014

Must I get “Off The Beaten Path” when I travel?

Ankor Thom

I’m a big advocate of getting off the beaten path, but I would agree that there’s nothing wrong with the attractions of the “tourist trail.” These standard attractions—from Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat right on down to small-town museums and curiosities—are part of what inspires people to travel in the first place.

So why do salty travelers tend to prefer roads less traveled to the tourist trail? I think there are two main reasons. First, big tourist attractions (naturally) attract lots of tourists, which can make these places feel overcrowded, inauthentic and only tenuously connected to the host culture. Second, major tourist sights tend to be the default activity when you are traveling too quickly or unimaginatively to truly experience a place. Instead of trying to see, say, the Colosseum, St. Mark’s Square and the Uffizi Gallery over the course of four days in Italy, I’ve found it more enjoyable to just stay put in Rome (or Venice, or Florence) for all four of those days and mix in some spontaneous, unconventional experiences with the obvious local attractions.

Even if you do find yourself in the midst of a huge crowd when visiting the Acropolis or Uluru or Iguazu Falls, it’s good to be respectful of the individuals around you, since a given tourist crowd can hold its own dynamic and diversity. One of my favorite books of recent memory was Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” which tells the story of Junior, a poor Spokane Indian kid living in Washington. Junior dreams of visiting the Great Wall of China, and one of the more moving scenes in the book is when his best friend Rowdy realizes that Junior is actually going to do it someday.

This is the kind of story I want keep in mind should I ever go to, say, the popular Badaling section of the Great Wall near Beijing and find myself in a sea of tourists. At one level, dealing with a big crowd of people might feel distracting, but at another level it can be humbling to realize that many of those people may well be in the midst of the most amazing experience of their lives.

Excerpted from Ask Rolf on World Hum

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Category: Rolf Potts

April 9, 2013

Vagablogging Field Reporters

Rachel Denning never owned a passport until she had four children under the age of four. Since then, she and her husband have traveled with them to 12 countries on two continents (and added one more to the pack, making it five kids.) A passion for living life deliberately has resulted in a quest to make long-term family travel a reality because of the new experiences it brings and the educational opportunities it provides. Rachel is heartfelt about helping other families discover how to fund travel and encouraging them to live their dream. She also blogs about their family travel adventures.
Elizabeth Fritzler hails from the sunshine and snow of Denver, Colorado. Though she’s explored a fair bit of the mountains, after 20+ years of landlocked life, the beach beckoned and swept her away to travel. She studied for 4 months in southwestern France before returning home to finish her English degree. She has fed her kimchi addiction since August 2012 as an ESL teacher in Changwon, South Korea. When she’s not taking forever to read Korean or dancing Gangnam Style in a remote Philippine village, she thrives on hikes, coffee, yoga and poetry. Word on her travels as a female solo adventurer can be found at areyoupeaceful.com.
Christy Parry is a photographer from the US who loves traveling and hates flying. After selling her belongings and spending 2012 on a round the world trip, she is sure that seeing the world is one of the best things one can ever do. Likes: flamingos, christmas lights, mountains, and pizza. Dislikes: jet lag, bed bugs, cold weather, and onions. Her website and blog can be found at www.christyparryphotography.com.

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Category: Vagablogging Contributors
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