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March 16, 2009

The 2008 Rolf Potts Student Traveler interview

Last fall while promoting the release of Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, I did upwards of 20 interviews for various media outlets. Most of these Q&As ran last fall, and I’ve collected some of the best at my Interviews page. Other interviews, however, ended up in the dusty corners of cyberspace and didn’t find much of an audience. An example would be my September 2008 interview with Student Traveler — it was a fun Q&A that covered some interesting ground, but it ultimately ended up appearing with goofy text-formatting on an underused blog portion of their website.

Thus, in an effort to give that interview a proper audience, I’m reprinting it in full here:

What is the best advice you could give to someone about to step out of the comfort of their own city, state or country for the first time?

My main advice would be to go slow, be patient, and learn as you go. Hitting the road for your first long-term journey is an exciting prospect, but it can also be fraught with uncertainty. Don’t get too caught up in your travel fears, and keep in mind that you get better at travel with each new day on the road. Often, we’re condition to travel with a “vacation” mindset, where every detail is micromanaged in advance, and you hope that nothing goes wrong. Well, mistakes and misadventures are part of the joy of travel — so don’t worry too much about a “perfect” journey, and just get out there and see what the world has to offer. With the right amount of patience and mindfulness, you’ll have amazing adventures anywhere in the world.

What would you advise to “leave at home” in order to really experience another place or culture?

My basic advice is to leave as much at home as possible. The world is this amazing place with so much to offer, and the things you bring only serve to get in the way of your experience. So bring some essentials — basic clothing and gear, a guidebook, toiletries — but leave all the “extras” at home. One good way to discipline yourself into doing this is to just buy a very small pack — preferably one that you can carry onto an airplane and fit in the overhead bin (which extra charges for check-in luggage these days, you’ll find this is a great way to go). If for some reason you end up needing something you didn’t pack — an extra tube of toothpaste, dressy shoes for a nightclub, etc — you can just buy this stuff as you go.

If there was one thing I would specifically advise you to leave at home, it would be electronic gadgets. A digital camera is a must, of course, and most folks enjoy traveling with an iPod, but I would consider leaving things like cell phones and laptop computers at home. These kinds of devices connect you to home — which is great at a certain level, but keep in mind that half the point of travel is to get away from home an immerse yourself in a new place. This can be hard to do if you’re always texting friends or tapping away at your laptop. Phone cards and pay phones are a good, cheap alternative to taking your cell phone everywhere, and Internet cafes are common enough that there’s no need to drag your laptop around. These items can get lost or damaged (or stolen) on the road anyhow, so it’s often best to just leave the electronics for your home life.

Today it seems as though with a worsening economy, jobs for recent graduates are scarce, more cutthroat and always competitive. Many recent grads find the thought of the “gap” in their resume from long-term travel daunting or downright unimaginable. Do you think employers will see past the “gap” and reward those for “taking the road less traveled,” or should young vagabonders seek out employment oversees as a way to fill in the “gap?”

I think overseas employment is a great option for recent graduates and young vagabonders. In addition to the Peace Corps and other volunteer opportunities, there are international employment options in most any professional discipline, from teaching to health care to law to political science. Even bartenders and ski instructors can readily take their careers on the road. So definitely explore options for working abroad (and Vagabonding has resource information for finding overseas work).

That said, students and recent grads are at an advantage work-wise, since leaving a “gap” in your resume is of almost no consequence so early in your career. It’s really common for young people to have a varied resume in the years right after graduation, and a year or two of travel at that point in your career shouldn’t compromise your employment prospects. Whether or not your vagabonding journey involves overseas work or volunteering, there are few better times in life to take time off and travel the world.

You mentioned you just returned from a three-month trip abroad. Where did you go and what were a few unexpected adventures along the way?

I’ve spent the past three months [June-August 2008] all over the place — Montreal, New York, Paris, Uganda, Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia. Part of my journey was vagabonding, but much of it was professional travel as well, since I’ve been working on a number of magazine stories this summer and teaching my annual creative writing class at the Paris American Academy.

Perhaps the most interesting journey this summer was my jaunt through East Africa — particularly the southern part of Sudan and the Omo Valley of Ethiopia. The Omo Valley is a place that has only become accessible to the outside world in the past ten years or so, and the African peoples that live there are unlike any cultures I’ve seen. It was a strange and exhilarating experience to sit in the little town of Jinka in southern Ethiopia and drink barley wine with the Mursi people, whose men still live by the codes of warrior culture, and whose women stretch out their lower lips with clay plates. At the time, the Mursi were as much travelers as I was, since Jinka is the “big city” for them — a place where they go to trade their honey and butter for modern supplies.

In recent weeks, I also traveled across the USA shooting a Travel Channel documentary that will air on Thanksgiving Day. It’s my first big TV hosting gig, and believe it or not it has nothing to do with vagabonding or international indie travel. It’s a history-themed show about the travel conditions of the Mayflower Pilgrims. Shooting for TV can be hard work, but it was also a lot of fun, and I look forward to seeing how it turns out.

Marco Polo Didn’t Go There is a collection of stories from your first 10 years as a travel writer. Did Vagabonding inspire you to share your own experiences in more detail with readers? If not, what did inspire the new book and how does it compare to your previous published work?

Vagabonding has certainly inspired me to share more of my own travel stories with my readers, but it wasn’t the original inspiration for my new book. In fact, some of the stories in the new book were lived and written before the publication of Vagabonding — so in a way some of these adventures are what informed and inspired the advice I give in my first book. Of course, a lot of the stories in Marco Polo Didn’t Go There were lived after the release of Vagabonding, so it’s a mix of adventures from the past ten years of my life. Unlike Vagabonding, there isn’t much advice in the new book — just an entertaining collection of tales that outline the possibilities that travel can bring.

Are you spontaneous, or a planner?

I am a planner by nature, but travel brings out my spontaneous side. That’s one thing I love about travel — it challenges you to be spontaneous, and to follow the moment in ways you wouldn’t back home. Thus, my travels tend to be a mix of planning and spontaneity — I usually have a broad plan about what I want to do and where I want to go, but I don’t hesitate to change those plans once I’m on the road. After all, the road itself has so much more to teach you than anything you learn in the planning phase of your travels, and if you don’t spontaneously go into those new directions, you’ll be selling your journey short.

How do you balance working on the road and family and friends?

Somehow it all works out, and in this day and age it’s easier than ever to keep in touch with people back home. When I’m not traveling I live near my family in Kansas (my parents, sister, brother-in-law, and nephews all live within two miles of my house), so I get lots of family time when I’m not traveling. And these days my friends are spread out all over the world, so travel itself allows me to see my friends! For the next couple months I’ll be going all over the USA touring for my new book, Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, and half the fun of the tour is the chance to catch up with old friends all over the country.

For first-time travelers, this issue tends to resolve itself naturally. With email and Skype and other technologies you’re never really that far from family and friends (though, as I said earlier, the secret is to not spend too much time calling or texting home during your travels). And many first-time travelers choose to embark on their vagabonding journey with a friend or friends in tow.

Not to mention the fact that your travels usually end up winning you a whole new slate of (international) friends by the time you come back home!

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