Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Postmodern Marco Polo

After I introduced myself to Rolf Potts at a small bookstore on the Northside of Chicago, he thanked me for skipping the vice-presidential debate to be there. I wanted to thank him first. After all, he has influenced my life as a traveler in way like no one else. A year and a half ago, I read his first book Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, which inspired me to move to Colombia and teach English. Before I had left, Potts responded to an email I had sent him, saying his teaching experience in Korea was “life-changing.” I can now say the same thing for my time spent in Bogotá.

Though I have done a lot of traveling, Potts is a professional at it. He has been traveling for a decade, writing for publications such as National Geographic Traveler, The New York Times Magazine, and He’s one of only five living travel writers who make good money. (This A-list includes Bill Bryson, Tim Cahill, Pico Iyer, and Paul Theroux.) All good travel writers do it for the love. This is evident in Potts new book, Marco Polo Didn’t Go There: stories and revelations from one decade as a postmodern travel writer, which includes endnotes that act as a teacher’s guide to the travel writing process. Potts stopped in this cozy Chicago bookstore as a part of a tour to promote this book of collected travel stories. It was his second stop on the tour, and there were only a half dozen people that had come to see him. One couple had driven from Toledo, Ohio, for the book-signing. I no longer felt so special making the journey from Chicago’s Southside. We were all happy to see Potts, and it felt more like sitting inside someone’s living room than a public event. After a brief reading from the endnotes in his book and a related photo presentation, we spent the next couple hours drinking wine and talking primarily about travel and writing.

When he was a teenager, Potts was fortunate and witty enough to understand a valuable lesson about travel. Rolf’s grandfather had retired as a Kansas farmer, and having worked hard his entire life, would now be able to take the trips he always had wanted to do. Unfortunately, at this same time Rolf’s grandmother was diagnosed with cancer, and his grandfather never went anywhere, spending the remainder of his life taking care of her. Rolf learned that life is uncertain, and that he couldn’t postpone his travel ambitions. After graduating college, Rolf lived in a Volkswagon van for eight months traveling the U.S., only to run out of money, having written a book about this experience which wouldn’t sell. So he taught English in Korea for two years and traveled for another two years from his teacher’s money. During this time, mostly in Southeast Asia, Potts earned his break writing a travel column for He has since become a professional travel writer, sharing his advice and interviews with other professional travel writers on his website and blog. Even though I read Vagabonding, meeting Potts was just as exciting for me. I found it very easy to relate to him and his approach to life. “I think Americans need to travel more,” he says. “I think it’s a good thing that will make us less isolated and parochial and naïve about the rest of the world.” His biggest challenge may be putting those lessons into words. Potts explained his desire to “get away from the old clichés of culture, and try to interpret a changing and inventive globalized world.” In his introduction to Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, Potts wrote:

Unlike Marco Polo, my travels were not a simple journey from Home to The Other and back. At any given moment in Southeast Asia, I was likely to run into a Burmese Shan refugee who could quote West Coast hip-hop to illustrate his plight, a Laotian Hmong tribesman who’d recently visited his relatives in Minneapolis, or a Jewish-American Buddhist who’d slept in suburban Maryland thirty-six hours earlier. Whereas Marco had traveled into a mysterious and frightening terra incognita, I was traveling into a globalized Asia that had long since been visited by the oracle of mass media and the shock troops of mass tourism.

I use the word “tourism” intentionally, since it defines how people travel in the twenty-first century. Sure, we all try to convince ourselves that we’re “travelers” instead of “tourists,” but this distinction is merely a self-conscious parlor game within the tourism milieu. Regardless of how far we try to wander off the tourist trail (and no matter how long we try and stay off it) we are still outsiders and dilettantes, itinerant consumers in distant lands. This is often judged to be a bad thing, but in truth that’s just the way things are….

After chatting with Potts, you realize his job is not a glamorous, “Indiana Jones stereotype” that many people think when they think of a professional travel writer. For every day on the road, he spends about five days researching and writing the story. About 95% of the time Potts travels alone, preferably so he can interact with locals and have more spontaneous experiences. In places like Burma and Sudan, he travels under the identity of a teacher because journalists are often seen as suspicious. His dedication has gotten him to the point where he now has book offers, television gigs, and so many options he never set out to do when he wanted to be a travel writer. Though he has reported from more than 60 countries, Potts owns a 30-acre ranch in Kansas near his family where he enjoys chopping wood and getting away from it all. He has no TV on his Kansas farm, but watches seasons of popular television shows, such as The Wire, on DVDs, 8 hours per sitting without commercial interruptions. This is what happens when you’re always on the road. I was glad he found the time to visit Chicago and talk about everything from Chicago Public Radio’s “This American Life” to Sarah Palin’s travel comment to his friend’s national bestseller The 4-Hour Work Week.

Potts was happy to answer all of our questions. Below are a few that I told him I’d put in my blog:

Brett Garamella: When I finished reading your first book, Vagabonding, I felt like you had a way of traveling that I could relate to that I couldn’t find talking to friends or family. A couple of months earlier I had quit my job and traveled for one month alone across Cuba. Can you briefly talk about “vagabonding” for those who did not read your book?

Rolf Potts: “Time is your true form of wealth. The philosophical core of Vagabonding is how time is what you really own. And think less about your flat-screen TV and your possessions and make yourself rich in time. And use your time in a way that enriches your life.”

BG: What is your favorite thing about being a professional travel writer?

RP: Probably just being able to do what I love, which is being able to really throw myself into travel and really throw myself into writing. And I’m not saying that everybody needs to be a travel writer, but that’s really what makes me happy. It can be a difficult job sometimes, and I come up against writer’s block or back into playing the farting panda bear game (to procrastinate on Internet) instead of writing….

There are stereotypes about travel writing, the idea that you’re sitting, drinking wine on a sailing boat and sort of living this privileged life. But at the end of the day, that’s not what it’s about. And that’s not really the most interesting thing about doing what I do. And so it’s just the raw process of doing it. It’s almost like the satisfaction of making something. The same thing would happen for a person building a house or when a doctor makes progress with his or her patients. It’s that satisfaction in anybody who’s doing what they love to do.

BG: What do you most dislike about your job?

RP: Well, I’m past the point where I’m worried about the money. (Travel writers) really have to scratch sometimes to make a living. But, one, I don’t really care anymore. I live a very simple life. Two, after 10 years I’m getting a lot better offers, TV stuff, better magazine stuff. Book royalties create a yearly stability. But maybe sometimes it’s just a struggle of trying to capture something real because I’m sort of a perfectionist in what I write about. I don’t want to just write fluff. I don’t want to just write generic service information. I want to really find something true and human about the experience. And that’s hard to do. And it’s not something that comes easy. But it’s rewarding when you come out on the other end. But there’s a lot of struggle, there’s a lot of time spent indoors staring at your computer before you come out with a story that you’re happy about.

BG: How do you take notes when you had a really adventurous day in which you will use a lot of what happened in your written story? How do you get the dialogue when you are talking to men watching an American porno movie in Tibet or lying aboard a small boat at 3 a.m. in rural Laos?

RP: One thing I do is that everywhere I go I take a notebook that I keep in my pocket (as he pulls it out to show us). I’ve found that the actual action of the event, the big things, are easy to remember, but the little things, the telling details are easy to forget two weeks or two months later when you’re sitting down and writing. So I fill up these little notebooks and I have dozens of these with those telling details of my thoughts. One to get the details, and two, to get sort of the connection to the universal because a good literary non-fiction story takes specific situations and ties them to universal ideas and makes the story meaningful to people who aren’t there. And so that’s what I put in these stories.

I actually talk about dialogue in the footnotes to my Australia chapter, about how I wrote this story for Slate and one of the guys who I quoted in the story blogged about it and he said that I understood the situation but I wasn’t quoting him as they came out of his mouth. These are the footnotes to the Australia chapter. Basically in the footnotes I said, that’s true, you can’t verbatim quotes. You have to use the short story techniques of recreating dialogue, the difference being that in a fictional short story it is fictional, whereas in a creative non-fiction you’re bound by the laws of truth and possibility. Of course you’re not doing verbatim dialogues, and you’re condensing long, rambling conversations into dramatic short ones. You can maybe reshape what somebody said, but you can’t bend what somebody said. That’s what you’re bound to by the rules. I think everyone has different systems of remembering. I have a pretty good memory. And so it’s those details that I couldn’t hear, and those bigger thoughts that I couldn’t hear. Other people keep much more detailed notes…. So it’s a personal thing. But I rarely use recorders, actually, because sometimes I feel it gets in the way of a more organic exchange, and I’d rather have fragmentary notes that come from a more spontaneous and real sensibility that self-consciously comes from a reporter.

BG: What do you think about the role of blogs with journalism and travel writing?

RP: Well, blogs sort of came in after I already started as a travel writer. I got started writing for Internet magazines like Salon. And I actually started blogging. I have five people writing my blog now. But that blog is very much tied into vagabonding, and the ethic of vagabonding. Vagabonding themes toward slow travel, and long-term travel… Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, my new book, is just a book of entertaining stories and little peeks on how they were created. So it will be interesting to see. I am one of the first wave of people, of full-time travel writers, who got their first chalk on the Internet. But then behind me by five or 10 years there’s writers who are getting their feet wet writing for blogs. And I think as long as you write well it doesn’t matter. The cream rises. So I’m sure there are blogs you go back to … people who are writing creative narrative.

I guess one disadvantage of blogs is that blog posts tend to be short. I was able to do 6,000 words or 4,000 words for Salon, but it might be harder to get a following through blog entries, where people read blogs in between their coffee breaks in their office. So it will be interesting to see what happens with blogs. Books have been acquired (from blogs). A lot of book contracts are coming from blogs, especially in the last five years.

BG: Before you became a professional travel writer, what did you envision yourself doing?

RP: I think I’ve always been a writer. After my trip around the United States I tried to write a book about it and it was this horrible failure. Even my sister said, “Rolf…” It was really a blessing because I remember all those wonderful mistakes – realizing the importance of structure in a story and remembering your audience… (Potts gets cut off as he is asked what kind of wine he wants to drink.)”

BG: What about the fact that anyone can write a blog and that with the Internet, information becomes so saturated … how do you feel that relates to professional journalists today? Does this concern you?

RP: Not really. In a general journalism world people are concerned about that because blog writing about politics or blog writing about celebrities is sort of gossip driven and not really well fact checked. And people are getting their news from blogs more and more often. I think blogs sort of aggregate news or they create news that isn’t well reported or researched or fact checked. That’s probably less of a problem with narrative travel writing because narrative travel writing tends to be personal and less journalistic. If I was an international correspondent it would be a different situation. But then again, if I was an international correspondent, my story about Mr. Ibrahim (the main character in a story Potts wrote about Beirut) would say, “Local detergent merchant finds success…” It wouldn’t be about his work. It would be about the news inherent in his story. And it would never be completely distinct. But (my story) was a more impressionistic, memoir-style piece. I don’t think that is going to be an issue with blogs. Most of the travel writer blogs I’ve seen are practical. My blog is about practical information. There’s not a lot of narrative stuff. There’s a blog called The Lost Girls that just landed a book contract. Actually, I stopped at their blog during my virtual book tour. It’s three girls sort of wondering Southeast Asia and keeping a blog. It’s well-written enough that they got a following, they won some blogger awards, and then they got a six-figure contract to write Sex and the City meets traveling the world. And so, we’ll see what happens. But that just goes to show, there is narrative writing out there that shows up in a blog context that is successful, noticed, and rewarded.

BG: In your introduction to Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, you wrote: “While hard news and vacation tips have their place, the Internet has afforded travel writers a unique privilege: the simple opportunity to write about their experiences as they see fit, in their own voice, without the constraint of service information or the contrivance of a news hook.” In regards to travel writing and the “Internet vs. Printed Word,” what do you see in the future? And what will be your approach/plans?

RP: World Hum asked me a similar question in a recent interview… If I knew where it was going then I could make money as a media consultant. Travel writing is always a product of its time. Consumer travel writing is 95-98% of what travel writing is. It’s just vacation information. It’s useful things to give people ideas for vacation. It will always rule travel writing and it will always be a little bit superficial and a little bit bullshit and a little bit cliché. Travel writing is going to end up wherever most of the eyeballs are watching, be it a glossy magazine or a website or whatever. And the more human-driven stuff, the more personal stuff will sort of end up wherever it is championed or wherever people are doing it well. World Hum champions it. Travelers’ Tales does to a big extent. Certain editors do here and there. And people have lampooned travel writing for a long time. It is a very generic thing. It’s sort of this consumer thing about people’s vacation with overwrought language, and I think that will always be a part of travel writing… That’s just how it is. As online video becomes more important, we’ll have more superficial rendering of online travel videos. Actual literary travel writing will always exist as a niche. Probably a third of the stories in (my new book) are my Salon stories, and that’s because Don George is the editor of Salon and he just enabled that, he championed that. So my good stuff has come from situations where I’m working with people who recognize the value of a story that speaks human themes instead of a story that speaks to consumer themes. People need to have good information about vacations, but that’s not what travel is about. That’s why I wrote Vagabonding, and how travel is a fabric of your life. It’s an experience you can use to make your life so much more interesting. The stories that result from that aren’t always championed by consumer magazines… so it’s always going to be a smaller percentage of people who are into that really life-driven travel narrative…. I’d like to go back to those Salon days….

BG: If you could eat dinner with any 3 people in history, who would they be and why?

RP: Walt Whitman for sure. I’ve always been an acolyte of Walt Whitman. He’d probably hit on me… (Then) it’d probably be Jesus. I’d want to get down to the bottom of things with J.C. And I don’t know… that’s too tough of a question because your understanding of the figures of history are sort of given to you in this objective, third-person way…

I think Walt Whitman and Jesus would enjoy chatting with Potts over a glass of wine. I know I did.