April 27, 2015

The art of body language is an essential travel skill

“Learn to watch faces and expressions. Language is not all it’s cracked up to be. Often you go wrong when you are struggling with dimly remembered foreign words and neglect the person or context. You’ll need a bit of Russian, a bit of French, and a bit of Spanish, at least, to do the world. Sometimes it’s better if you just use the international hand-to-mouth for food, or go into the kitchen to point.”
–Mike Spencer Bown, What I’ve Learned: The World’s Most Traveled Man, Esquire, October 25, 2013

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Category: Travel Quote of the Day

April 20, 2015

On the road, disorientation is as important as discovery

“Any budding academic can tell you that deliberately placing oneself in a position of not-knowing, and to then go about finding out what you don’t know, can be a fulfilling pursuit, and the disorientation itself, the early stages of figuring out what you didn’t know that you wanted to know, was as exciting as the eventual discoveries. This was one of the reasons I traveled.”
–Alden Jones, The Blind Masseuse: A Traveler’s Memoir from Costa Rica to Cambodia (2013)

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Category: Travel Quote of the Day

April 18, 2015

You have now entered the Tourist Zone

sadhuA few years ago, after finishing a journey in the Indian Himalayas, I traveled to the desert state of Rajasthan and visited the Hindu holy-town of Pushkar. A scenic outpost of 13,000 residents, Pushkar was famous for its Brahma Temple, its serene lake, and its annual Camel Fair. Several travelers had recommended it to me as a mellow place to relax for a few days.

From the moment I arrived in Pushkar, however, something seemed strange about the little holy-town. As I walked along the shores of Pushkar Lake, a number of long-bearded, monk-like sadhus approached me and suggested I take their photo for the bargain price of 15 rupees; Brahmin priests kept hustling up and offering to take me through a puja ceremony for just 50 rupees. Having spent the previous two weeks in the sleepy villages of far-northern India, this lakeside hustle made me feel like I was in some bizarre new universe. Prior to Pushkar, no Indian had ever implied that there was a cash value to puja (a Hindu ablution ritual), and most of the sadhus I’d seen were more interested in piety and asceticism than photo opportunities.

The more I wandered the streets of Pushkar, the more I discovered this off-kilter synthesis of culture and commerce. In the bazaar, teenage Rajasthani girls relentlessly offered to dye my hands with henna (a ritual typically reserved for Hindu brides), and cheap paper flyers touted competing yoga academies. Perplexed, I retreated to a lakeside restaurant for a cup of tea. When the host offered me food, I asked him what kind of dishes he offered — thinking he might specialize in tandoori or thali or biryani.

“Oh, we serve Indian food,” he said. “But we also have Mexican food, Chinese food, Italian food, Greek food, and Israeli food.”

“But which food is your specialty?” I asked.

“We specialize in all those foods,” he replied with a cheerful wobble of the head. “Plus we have vegetarian hamburgers and banana pancakes. But we’re out of granola right now.”

Peering around at the other diners in the restaurant, I finally figured out what was going on: Pushkar was a Tourist Zone.

On the surface, of course, Pushkar didn’t seem much like a Tourist Zone: There were no glitzy hotels, no air-conditioned knickknack boutiques, no busloads of sunburned Germans and chubby Texans. Moreover, had you surveyed Pushkar’s visitors, you would have mainly found independent travelers — young wanderers from Europe and North America and Israel, who shunned guided tours and took a genuine interest in Hindu culture.

Still, despite the earnestness of its travelers, Pushkar was very much a Tourist Zone — place that had subtly shifted to cater to the needs of its visitors. Only instead of churning out the standard tourist products (postcards, audio tours, spa treatments), Pushkar had developed a makeshift economy in Hindu “authenticity” (exotically dressed sadhus, quick-fix puja rituals, high-turnover yoga ashrams). After several years of popularity on the backpacker circuit, the residents of Pushkar hadn’t gotten greedy; they’d merely become adept at packaging all of the Indian symbols and rituals that indie travelers found whimsically attractive (as well as a few choice Western amenities, like familiar-sounding food and Internet cafés).

As is the case with so many other traveler haunts around the world, the authentic culture of Pushkar had become difficult to discern from the culture that had been spontaneously adjusted to feed visitors’ notions of “authenticity”. And, in this way, it had become a Tourist Zone.

As independent travelers, of course, we like to assume that we’re above the workings of Tourist Zones. But, as the example of Pushkar illustrates, we have a way of creating our own, more organic tourist areas, whether we intend to or not. Look closely, and you’ll notice that some of the most colorful indie-traveler hangouts in the world — Panahajachel in Guatemala, Dali in China, Dahab in Egypt — have as much in common with each other as they do their host-cultures. Granted, these places retain their own geographical and cultural distinction, but each location shares a laid-back predilection for catering to the aesthetic and recreational needs of Western budget travelers.

Thus, keeping in mind that much of our time as travelers involves moving in and out of Tourist Zones, here are a few tips for making sense of things:

1) Learn to identify Tourist Zones

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a Tourist Zone, but it helps to know when you’re in one, as it will affect how you relate to people. Tourist Zones include airports, hotels, bus and train stations, major city centers, historical venues, pilgrimage sites, nature parks, national monuments, and anyplace where travelers congregate in large numbers — including sleepy backpacker hangouts.

2) Mind your manners

Though interaction with locals in Tourist Zones can often be impersonal and transaction-based, be sure to abide by the simple rules of courtesy. Even when dealing with pushy vendors and aggressive touts, a firm, courteous “no thanks” is always better than an angry rebuff.

3) Tourist Zones serve an economic purpose for the people who live there

In Tourist Zones, many locals will use friendship as a front to tout hotels or sell souvenirs. And, as annoying as this can be, remember that most locals will take a genuine interest in you, even as they try to sell you things. In this way, many of your interactions as you travel will be with folks who are offering a service — cab drivers, guesthouse clerks, shopkeepers. Thus, be aware that you occupy an economic dynamic wherever you go — and that there is no particular virtue in compulsively avoiding expenses (especially when many of those expenses are of direct benefit to local families).

4) Dare to travel outside of Tourist Zones

Invariably, the easiest way to get out of Tourist Zones and into a more authentic setting is to visit villages and neighborhoods that aren’t in any guidebooks or travel websites — places where other travelers never think to go. Normal safety precautions are in order, of course, but half the charm in travel is finding places where granola, pizza, and veggie burgers aren’t on the menu.

[This Rolf Potts article originally appeared in Yahoo! News on May 22, 2006. All rights reserved.]

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Category: Asia, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Advice

April 17, 2015

Vagabonding Case Study: Tracey Mansted

Tracey Mansted unnamed



Age: Tracey – 50
Mike (husband – 47)
Imogen (10)
Indira (9)

Hometown: Rainforest near Byron Bay, NSW Australia

Quote: Albert Einstein said “If at first an idea does not sound absurd, there is no hope for it”  – which I think equally applies to thinking and learning about new things as well as to taking huge leaps of faith like traveling long term with your kids. As a family we like the idea of “feel the fear and do it anyway”.


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Category: Vagabonding Case Studies

April 13, 2015

Travel, its very motion, ought to suggest hope

“Travel, its very motion, ought to suggest hope. Despair is the armchair; it is indifference and glazed, incurious eyes. I think travelers are essentially optimist, or else they would never go anywhere.”
–Paul Theroux, Fresh Air Fiend (2000)

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Category: Travel Quote of the Day

April 9, 2015

The negative impact of mass tourism


In my experience, some of the most difficult things about travel have been facing the realities of mass cultural exchange, swallowing my pride, and recognizing my part in it. Don’t get me wrong, there are incredible benefits to cultural exchange and connecting with people across cultural boundaries is the number one reason I travel. But when lots of people from one culture start invading the space of another, funny things start happening. Mix in heightened demands for creature comforts that the visiting group is accustomed to and things can start to get ugly. Perhaps the easiest place to see this play out is at mass sporting events.

In 2010, I spent a monsoon season in India. I spent months walking between rural villages and tandas, asking questions about education, and questioning everything I thought I knew about human rights agencies. After months spent sweltering and questioning (mostly myself), I found myself in New Delhi, sipping a “mocktail” in a gloriously air conditioned restaurant. I felt as though I had reached the end of a marathon. Air conditioning was literally the only thing on my mind. Well, that and a shower that was actually hot and didn’t require a bucket. I fell into a chair by the window and sat, motionless, thinking about the previous few months.

Down below me, on the street, a few dozen people were working furiously to erect a building. I noticed them after a few minutes and watched their fierce determination. I counted the number of kids I saw. 10…11…12…13…. They littlest among them were sliding in and out of impossibly small nooks and crannies and I quickly found myself hoping none of the bricks that were being thrown around would accidentally wall them into forgotten spaces or, worse, collapse around them.

I asked someone what those people were building and, without a glance, he told me they were getting ready for the Commonwealth Games. Having spent several months wandering dirt paths and not being a sports fan in the least, I had no idea what he was talking about. He explained and told me, with a laugh, not to worry. They’d certainly be done in time! At least, he claimed, things were looking nicer around the city.

After paying, I drifted out on to the street and noticed things I had been unaware of on my way in. The kids laying bricks to fix the holes in the sidewalks, the men scrambling as fast as they could, bent under impossibly heavy loads, desperate not to lose their pay by falling behind. I went back to my hotel to pour over news reports and learn what I could about the games. India was already facing criticism for not being “ready” for the games and many were saying they never should have been given the responsibility of hosting. In the weeks and months to come, reports of human rights abuses (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-south-asia-11218833) would finally begin to gain mass attention. I say finally because, from what little I saw, it should have been the first thing anyone had concerns about.

At the time, the media enjoyed making India seem like the worst games host in history. With many outlets reporting that New Delhi was far from ready to host, some countries even delayed the arrival of their teams at the games. The biggest story of those Commonwealth Games seemed to be India’s struggle to make them happen.

But India isn’t the only country to face harsh criticism for their handling of large scale sporting affairs. Brazil’s World Cup in 2014 and the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics are just two other events where the host country also received backlash for human rights violations. But does all of the criticism lie with the host countries? Shouldn’t we be considering why the host countries work citizens to the bone to produce “world class” venues? One Toronto journalist raised a legitimate question- during those Sochi Olympics was all the complaining justified or were some of the visitors just accustomed to being little more pampered than is possible in developing nations?

Hosting large scale events has an undeniable draw for developing nations. Tourists are sure to stream into the country and bring their tourist dollars with them. There is a very real human desire to be a part of the “in” crowd and to prove you have power and ability. That human desire translates to governments who bid for the right to host these events. Once they win that bid and the reality of having tens of thousands of foreigners with high comfort expectations descend upon their country hits them , they get to work making sure they do everything they can to avoid being plastered all over the media as inept and poor. Everyone knows these countries are struggling when they put their bids in. Every single person who votes knows the very real challenges of getting a city ready for such events. But we still give them the bid. We still celebrate their win and then shame them when they struggle to get things together in time. Why is that?

It seems most people see the benefits of mass tourism on an economy without difficulty. But we struggle to see the very real strain that same tourism puts on developing nations. We mock them when they fall short of Western standards and roast them for human rights abuses that we pretend we didn’t know would be the outcome of intense international pressure to measure up. It’s not very often that we turn the mirror on ourselves and wonder if we had a hand in the turmoil. There is a very real pressure that is inflicted on a host country to keep everyone visiting from abroad safe and comfortable. When the expectations are higher than what the host country can provide, we laugh at them instead of wondering if we are getting lost in our own biases on what “comfort” looks like. When the host country uses labor barely making slave wages to erect stadiums, we chastise them and pretend we didn’t se the reality of their work conditions before they even won the bid. When they clear entire slums to make way for parking lots, we pretend we never wondered how an over-crowded city was going to make room for those lots.

I’m not suggesting any of these games stop happening, nor am I suggesting that developing nations don’t have the right to put bids in to host. But we do need to take a fair look at the negative impact of mass tourism on developing nations and these large scale sporting events are a great place to start having the conversation.

It’s a difficult balance and one I recognized with new clarity after that particular trip to India. I want to see these places, to experience new cultures. But in order to do that responsibly, I need to temper my expectations and biases of what “comfort” is and what being a “good host” looks like. I also need to remind myself not to get as lost as I did that day in my own thoughts and to make sure my eyes are open to what is going on around me. After all, I can’t even begin to look at mass tourism’s impact if I am not wiling to acknowledge that individuals, like myself, make up those masses and individuals are the ones who will make choices that create a sea change.

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Category: Ethics

April 6, 2015

“The Tramps,” by Robert W. Service (1907)

Can you recall, dear comrade, when we tramped God’s land together,
And we sang the old, old Earth-song, for our youth was very sweet;
When we drank and fought and lusted, as we mocked at tie and tether,
Along the road to Anywhere, the wide world at our feet.

Along the road to Anywhere, when each day had its story;
When time was yet our vassal, and life’s jest was still unstale;
When peace unfathomed filled our hearts as, bathed in amber glory,
Along the road to Anywhere we watched the sunsets pale.

Alas! the road to Anywhere is pitfalled with disaster;
There’s hunger, want, and weariness, yet O we loved it so!
As on we tramped exultantly, and no man was our master,
And no man guessed what dreams were ours, as swinging heel and toe,
We tramped the road to Anywhere, the magic road to Anywhere,
The tragic road to Anywhere, such dear, dim years ago.

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Category: Travel Quote of the Day

April 3, 2015

Vagabonding Case Study: Nicole Brewer


Nicole Brewer unnamed


Age: 33

Hometown: Detroit, MI

Quote: “I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move”.

Robert Louis Stevenson


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Category: General, Vagabonding Case Studies

April 1, 2015

Vagabonding Field Report: Hanoi, Vietnam

In northern Vietnam lies this gem of a city where French food and fashion meet Vietnamese culture and vermicelli. Sometimes overlooked as it’s not as big of a hub as Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi offers a taste of authentic street food and genuinely good prices.


Cost per day:

Hanoi has a huge range of hotels on offer from $4 a night for a shared dorm to much, much more at some of the fancier establishments in the French quarter. We’re at a solid $14 USD a night which has a western bathroom/shower and includes breakfast. With only a few minutes walk to the old quarter, we’re at the heart of the city and don’t need to rent scooters or bicycles. For lunch we eat street food, sitting on tiny child-sized plastic stools along the sidewalk: maybe a bowl of phở or a sweet and savory bun cha, each costing somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 dong. A bowl of fruit salad mixed with coconut cream, tapioca balls, and jelly cubes with crushed ice will only run you about 20,000 dong as a sweet snack to tide you over until dinner. Dinner may set you back you a bit more but can still be done affordably. We often eat phở on the street for 50,000 dong, but there are many restaurants serving western fare as well as Vietnamese and French for a bit more. Household items can be bought from corner shops (we bought electrical tape for 5,000 dong, the equivalent of about $0.25 USD) and shopping for clothing and handicrafts is plentiful but requires a lot of hard bargaining. Beer is the cheapest I’ve ever seen at 20,000 dong or less.


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Category: Asia, General, Vagabonding Field Reports

March 30, 2015

Foreign news should offer us a means by which to humanize the Other

“At a much deeper, more metaphysical level, foreign news should offer us a means by which to humanize the Other — that is, the outsider from over the mountains or beyond the seas who instinctively repels, bores or frightens us and with whom we can’t, without help, imagine having anything in common. Foreign news should find ways to make us all more human in one another’s eyes, so that the apparently insuperable barriers of geography, culture, race and class could be transcended and fellow feeling might develop across chasms. Many a high-minded news organization has inveighed bitterly against those who resent the influx of immigrants from other countries. But this view proceeds from the assumption that a reflexive suspicion towards foreigners is a mark of Satan rather than a common, almost natural result of ignorance — a fault which news organizations have an explicit ability to reduce through a more imaginative kind of reporting (as opposed to ineffective, guilt-inducing denunciations of bigotry).”
–Alain de Botton, The News: A User’s Manual (2014)

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Category: Travel Quote of the Day













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Paul Morgan: No disrespect , but you are a tourist.

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The art of body language is an essential travel skill
How to choose and use packing cubes
On the road, disorientation is as important as discovery
You have now entered the Tourist Zone
Vagabonding Case Study: Tracey Mansted
Travel, its very motion, ought to suggest hope
Pro’s and Con’s of Traveling Solo
The negative impact of mass tourism
“The Tramps,” by Robert W. Service (1907)
Le Musee du Fumeur: Paris

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