Q&A: The joy of journeys
Tom Chiari, a journalism student at the University of Connecticut, recently contacted me with some questions about vagabonding, the attitude one takes into a journey, and my own experiences as a world traveler over the past decade. Here is the transcript of our email exchange:
You write that vagabonding is an attitude. Growing up in Middle America, what cultivated that attitude in you? What made you become a vagabond?
Curiosity, I think. Curiosity about the rest of the world, and the feeling that it could be possible to go away and see these places. As I eventually gained the courage to travel more and more, I came to realize that it wasn’t a specific strategy that made travel easy and inexpensive and wonderful, but an attitude of openness and flexibility.
Vagabonding and vacationing are two very different things. How do they differ and why is vagabonding better in your eyes?
Vacationing is a way of using travel to escape from life for a short time; vagabonding is a way of using travel to embrace life for an extended period. Vagabonding isn’t necessarily better than vacationing — everyone needs a vacation from time to time. But for those who want to truly embrace life through travel, vagabonding is a good, personal way to do this.
In your book you talk about the invaluable experience one can gain from immersing oneself into a different culture. Though I doubt any single day is “routine,” can you walk me through a “typical” day as a vagabond in a foreign society?
It really differs from day to day. You might wake up at a guesthouse in Thailand, and wander into the courtyard, where you practice some very basic Thai with the owner’s 3-year-old daughter. Then the owner tells you, in broken English, about a great noodle shop where you can get an inexpensive breakfast. You go off to find it, but you get lost and end up in a neighborhood where most travelers don’t go. A trio of cyclo drivers are drinking tea and watching soccer on the TV, and they wave you over and start speaking to you in Thai, occasionally peppering their speech with English sports or hip-hop terms. You aren’t sure what they’re saying, but you end up staying for paad thai and a game of cards. Then they drag you to a dirt court and thrash you at volleyball, even though you’re a head taller than them. Bidding them farewell, you go off looking for your guesthouse, and wander around until you finally find it. You meet a Dutch guy and a Japanese girl who are also traveling, and share lunch with them at the guesthouse cafe. The Japanese girl thinks she knows a place where you can do your laundry for cheap, and you think it sounds close to where you hung out with the cyclo drivers, so you get your laundry and go with her. You get lost again, and you can’t find the laundry or the cyclo drivers, but you find some women washing their clothes in the river at the edge of town. They wave you over, then laugh riotously when you try to wash your own clothes in the same manner. The women take your clothes and wash them for you while you run around playing tag with the women’s children. As the laundry is hung to dry the sun starts to go down and the women’s husbands come back and drag you to the neighborhood bar. One of them was a sailor and knows some English, and he mediates a conversation that lasts two hours, as you all get drunker and drunker. Food is served. Addresses are exchanged. More drinks are poured, but you insist you have to leave. You gather your half-damp clothes and wander back to your guesthouse in the warm night air.
Not a typical day on the road, necessarily, but not an atypical day either.
How has language affected your experiences or interactions?
I’m lousy at foreign languages, so this is always an added twist. I’ve learned to be bold, use what few words I know, and make up for it all with lots of improvised sign language and face-pulling.
What are some of your favorite places that you’ve visited? Any especially memorable stories or highlights?
This is tough, since I love so many places, including much of the American West, even if it’s not exotic per se. I like Laos, even though I’ve caught cholera and dysentery there. My best adventure there was buying a local fishing boat and driving it 900 miles down the Mekong. I also love Mongolia, Patagonia, Paris, and — most recently — Cuba. There are great aspects of any place you visit.
How often are you on the road? People often equate home with a feeling of comfort or peace of mind. How does frequent travel affect your idea of home?
I’m on the road about 8-10 months a year. Home used to be a hazy concept, something I carried inside of me. But I recently got a house in Kansas, and I’m starting to learn the pleasures of getting to know a single place. I still travel constantly, but now it’s from a home base.
Traveling seems like it might get lonely. Do you recommend traveling with other people or families? How does this affect your experience?
I’m an advocate of solo travel, but this needn’t be all-encompassing. You can depart by yourself, but at various stages of the journey you might team up with any number or combination of people. I enjoy the flexibility this allows — far more so than if you keep a single travel partner the whole time. I don’t object to pair or group travel — everyone has their own tastes and preferences — but I prefer going solo. It makes you more open to other people, as well as your surroundings.
How does extended travel affect your romantic life? Do you recommend traveling with a significant other?
In the short-term it’s great for your romantic life, if you don’t mind the occasional travel-fling. In the long-term, keeping a single relationship is more difficult, though not impossible. I do recommend traveling with a significant other, but it can be hard at times. You can learn a lot about the compatibility of your relationship from a few days or weeks on the road.
In your book you quote Whitman, Thoreau, and Kerouac amongst others. How have these authors’ romantic notions of travel inspired you and shaped your expectations?
I think they all had an openness to new experience, and an exuberance for the possibilities of life. American life (or First World life in general) can be confining and conformist and stressful, and these writers asserted that you don’t have to be a slave to the rat race if you don’t want to. There are other options from life, and you just have to make them happen.
The Internet is changing the profession of journalism in many ways. How has the Internet helped/hurt your career as a writer and how does it affect travel?
The Internet has definitely helped my career, since my first and most essential publications were for Salon.com, an Internet publication. And for years I’ve managed by career by email — not something that was easy to do before the Internet.
Internet has helped travel by making information more available, and by making communication easier. It’s democratized the travel process.
Traveling is expensive right? Before you were a professional travel writer, how did you afford traveling?
Traveling needn’t be any more expensive than day-to-day life at home. But even if it occasionally is more expensive, lifestyle simplicity and money savings can make it happen. Before I was a writer, I taught English in Korea for two years, and was able to save $20,000 for a two-year Asia trip. Not bad!
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” What is the important barrier to cross or first step I can take towards becoming a world traveler?
Telling yourself that you’re going to do it. Even if it’s not something you can afford to do for another three years, that first mental commitment is what counts. People will try to talk you out of it, tell you the world is dangerous or expensive, and that’s fine. Just so long as you resolve to make it happen, it will happen.