Some questions just never get old.
This question came in almost eleven years ago from a reader. Rolf’s answer is as applicable today as it was over a decade ago. Do you wonder if it’s still safe to travel?
I got an interesting question from a woman in Texas. The gist of it was this: With all the news of war and anti-Americanism abroad, is it still OK for Americans to go vagabonding?
This is what I told her:
“The short answer is: Yes, it’s still safe for Americans to go vagabonding. Despite the impression you might get from the news media, the world is still an inviting place for travelers of all stripes — now as much as ever. You’d never guess this from watching the evening news, of course, but travel allows you to see the world a way that traditional news media never will. If you need a little encouragement in this regard, just check out traveler message boards at BootsnAll or Lonely Planet. Listen to dispatches from Americans abroad (including a recent one from France by humorist David Sedaris on public radio). Email your friends traveling overseas and ask how they’re faring. Without exception — from Egypt to China to Peru — the refrain I’ve heard (and seen — I’m in Thailand right now) has been this: people around the world may vehemently dislike George Bush’s bellicosity and/or American foreign policy, but they invariably treat Americans with respect and humanity.
“The only catch here is that you, as a thoughtful American traveler, must return that respect. Even if you collect George Bush memorabilia and derive your self-esteem from American foreign policy, your job as a traveler isn’t to argue and pontificate, but listen to what people overseas are saying (this goes for anti-war liberals as much as pro-war conservatives). Ask questions. Learn. Grow. You might go into a country worried about how you are perceived as an American (as I was a couple years ago in Syria and Palestine), but you will invariably come out with new and encouraging perspectives. That is one of the charms of travel.
“Admittedly, there is no such thing as risk-free travel. Guidebooks warn against crooked cops in Mexico, bad roads in Mozambique, and aggressive monkeys in Myanmar. Various websites, such as the U.S. State Department Travel Warnings (which you should definitely peruse when researching your travels), detail hazards in countries worldwide. But keep in mind that even these are worst-case scenarios. Statistically, you are no more likely to come into harm traveling overseas than you are walking across your hometown. Be careful on the road, but not paranoid. Engage local people and travel in such a way that you benefit local economies. And, as much as anything, exercise your humility as you walk through the world — a strategy sure to win hearts and minds everywhere.”
What are your thoughts? How would you answer the question?
“Tourists, I could now better understand, were not some lesser species. Like all travelers, they had earned their right to travel as they wished, and if that meant organized tours and checklist sightseeing, who was I to tell them they were wrong? Travel did not always have to be hard or deep. It could even be easy and fun, and even I could do it, guiltlessly.”
–Matt Gross, The Turk Who Loved Apples (2013)
Hometown: Philadelphia, PA
Quote: “Don’t wait for the perfect time to see the world. It may not come.”
“Many of the greatest travel books of the late 20th century were about epic journeys, often by young men, conveying the raw intoxication of travel during a moment in life when time is endless, and deadlines and commitments are non-existent; when experience is all you hope to achieve and when the world is laid out before you like a map.”
–William Dalrymple, “Home truths on abroad,” The Guardian, September 18, 2009
“Unlike the oil industry, which is scrutinized at all levels, travel writing has become an extension of the industry. With few exceptions, travel writing and travel sections share the singular goal of helping consumers spend their money pursuing the dream of a perfect trip. They seldom write critical reviews; only articles about what to do and what to buy and how to experience a destination. This “feel-good” approach is rare even in lifestyle journalism, which is where to find the travel sections. Other lifestyle or back-of-the-book journalists thrive on critical reviews, explaining how and why they judge movies as great or miserable; whether the food at a restaurant is mediocre or exquisite; and describing music concerts as electric or boring. Imagine if movie reviewers only discussed their favorite films, if restaurant critics only wrote about their preferred haunts and music critics never wrote a scathing review of a badly performed opera. That is what travel writing has become.”
–Elizabeth Becker, Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism (2013)
“A virtuous life doesn’t reward you with travel.” — Rolf Potts
I had the pleasure of connecting with Rolf in person this week. I’ve written on his blog since 2012 and we’ve passed a few notes back and forth as we’ve shared the occasional orbit in cyber-space but there’s something different about connecting at eye level and feeling someone’s presence and intention. I spent the evening studying the man behind the author bio and really listening as he shared his vagabonding life, his passions for education and writing with a roomful of students. I learned a lot. Woven into stories of bagpipes in Cuba and the ethical dilemma of tribal photography in remote corners of Africa was an underlying message that he summed up in one line that stopped the universe spinning for a moment. I’m not sure anyone else noticed it, but I did, and it reminded me of the urgency of pursuing our dreams:
A virtuous life doesn’t reward you with travel.
Doing all of the “right things,” doesn’t guarantee a damned thing. Pinning all of your hopes on your “golden years” is worse than a crap shoot. Travel is not some gold medal that will be draped around your neck as a prize for a race well run. It’s not something you earn by playing someone else’s organized game. Travel is a building block of a greater life. Travel can be a life in and of itself. If it’s seen as an optional bonus round of life it’s unlikely to happen, or at least not in the way you’re dreaming of now.
A virtuous life doesn’t reward you with travel.
You want to travel? Go. Go now. Create your life to include travel. Build your life around your dream of travel. It’s a very simple mental shift, a change of paradigm and priority structure. You can travel sooner rather than later. If it is in your heart, then you must work to make it a reality and not put it off until some elusive “one day.”
“Impatient people…find that travel is slow and full of nuisance and delay — that there’s no instant gratification. Or that there’s only one bus or train a week and you might get stuck. They haven’t got the patience for it but that’s what travel teaches you. Temperamentally, people are less suited to travel than ever because the Internet is so quick in offering answers. But they’re not always the right answers.”
–Paul Theroux, Gadling interview, May 7th, 2013
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.
Whenever you go on a trip to visit foreign lands or distant places, remember that they are all someone’s home and backyard.
— Vera Nazarian
Our first year traveling full time we spent on bicycles. It was a beautiful way to see the world. The drumbeat of pedal strokes become meditation, if you do it long enough. The predictable pattern to days is comforting in its simplicity: Pack the tent, ride 25 miles, picnic in the sun, ride 25 miles, set up the tent. Wash, rinse, repeat. Cycling forces an interaction with the landscape and the people who inhabit it that travel inside a vehicle does not. I love that.
But then, we turned a corner, our gap year became our life and we realized that we were going to keep going, keep traveling and our approach changed. We slowed down. We took to renting places for a few months at time instead of packing the tents every day. In sitting still we see a place differently than we do if we’re moving through, even if we’re moving in the slowest, most interactive way possible.
What is new and exotic to me is mundane to someone else. My favourite beach and dive vacation spot is on a stretch of ocean that is life and economic stability to someone else. The secret place I love to spend the winter might be heaven to me, but it’s a status quo prison to my friend who cannot escape it.
I don’t think about this enough. Most people don’t, I’d wager. If we did, we would travel differently, perhaps. Can we talk about that? How does the knowledge, and a growing understanding, of the fact that everywhere we go is someone else’s home and backyard change how we walk through this world? How should it?
“Wit, style, a keen and original mind, an eye for the unusual — these are what delight us in the travelogue writer. The compiler of a guidebook, on the other hand, must be a totally different kind of person. His job is to report the location, dimensions, age, and life-history of the monuments, and only incidentally, if at all the emotions or associations they arouse in his breast. Wit and originality have no place in such an assignment; in fact, they might very well get in the way. What he requires above all are the matter-of-fact virtues of thoroughness, diligence, and accuracy.”
–Lionel Casson, Travel in the Ancient World (1974)