Business lessons from a travel writer
I’ve spent the past three days working almost around-the-clock in a cramped little bedroom with my graphic designer, C. We’ve been putting the final touches on the website that will soon be my very own online journalism portfolio, and yes, it is so far looking absolutely brilliant. C certainly knows her stuff.
Anyway, the process of building the website has required me to thumb through all my old work archives. And earlier today, I found myself reading a Q&A interview I did with the very popular travel writer Rolf Potts back in 2003. Potts was a writer I’ve admired for quite some time, and I remember being very nervous throughout our conversion. Of course I was also excited, and I was proud, too, that I’d managed to set up the interview with such ease.
My interview with Rolf is a long one. But I’m republishing it here because throughout my reading, an interesting hypothesis occured to me. ‘Rolf’s very positive, very tenacious attitude,’ I couldn’t help thinking to myself, ‘is probably more responsible than any other factor for his present success as a writer.’
Don’t get me wrong: That isn’t to say that Rolf lacks talent as a storyteller. On the contrary, even Pico Iyer considers him to be one of the top travel writers publishing today. But just as is the case in the very tricky world of entrepreneurship, freelance travel writing is a hugely competitive business. And I should know — I’ve been making my living as a freelance writer, with a whole lot of travel writing thrown into the mix, for almost five years now.
My guess is that had Rolf not approached his current career with the determination and the courage that he so clearly has, we wouldn’t be reading quite so many of his international dispatches today. Maybe we wouldn’t be reading any at all.
Read through the following interview, and see if you don’t agree.
At 33 years old, travel writer and self-proclaimed “vagabond” Rolf Potts is easily the youngest pioneer featured in our Independent Travel Icons issue. If his youth alone doesn’t make you jealous enough, consider that Potts’ big break came at the tender age of 28, when his now legendary essay “Storming the Beach” was published on Salon.com.
The premise behind “Storming the Beach”–an ingenious fusion of immersion journalism and philosophical travel reportage–was simple enough. Potts’ assignment was to infiltrate the set of a Leonardo DiCaprio movie called The Beach that was being filmed on a southern Thai island. The big twist, however, was that among the backpacking community, this wasn’t just any old film. The screenplay had been adapted from a British novel–also called The Beach — which had become something of an underground secret on the budget travel trail. Fans of the book were understandably worried that releasing the film to a mainstream audience would have negative effects on the Southeast Asian travel scene, and by attempting to sneak onto the set and befriend the cast and crew, Potts’ essay managed to beautifully skewer all the hubbub and silliness surrounding the production.
Potts went on to write a bi-weekly column for Salon that documented his backpacking misadventures in Asia (being drugged and robbed in Istanbul, suffering from cholera in Laos) with constant literary precision and quick wit. Fittingly enough, his most recent project, a book called “Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel,” is an all-encompasing primer on the why’s and how’s of independent travel itself. A front-cover quote by none other than Tim Cahill calls Vagabonding “the most sensible book of travel-related advice ever written,” a proclamation I’ll enthusiastically second. One part inspiration and one part how-to, “Vagabonding” touches not only on where to go and how to pay for it, it also explores the mighty potential that long-term travel has to signifigantly alter the course of anyone’s life.
Young Pioneers spoke with Rolf Potts at the Zietgeist Cafe in Seattle’s Pioneer Square, mere hours before he gave his first-ever public reading at the nearby Elliott Bay Bookstore.
Young Pioneers: I’ve been reading your weblog lately, and I’ve noticed that you’ve been writing a lot about home, and about how you don’t necessarily feel like you have any sense of where home is. I’m curious to hear about how you’ve managed to maintain such an impressive sense of stick-to-it-iveness, especially in situations where you don’t have much personal security. You’ve been on the road for such a long time…Rolf Potts: Sometimes I wonder if the reason people leave the road, or lose their travel nerve… if that’s a conditioned thing or a natural thing. Because in society you’re always being told that a normal or desirable life involves certain possessions: family, house, things like that. And I probably won’t be traveling non-stop until I drop dead at 70. I want to mix it up, and I think you can still experience a place in a nuanced way if you stay there for five years. I can see myself living in a place for a long time, but still having a travel awareness.
YP: But the problem I’ve had before, and that I think a lot of people have, is that it’s so hard not to revert back to that very American attitude where you want to have convenience at your fingertips, constantly. So how is it that you’ve been able to stay grounded for so long?
RP: I’ll confess that writing has a lot to do with that. Writing gives me very specific goals, and a very specific focus for my travels. And I don’t even think you need to be a professional writer to do that. You could even be writing a 100-man list serve, or a weblog, or a journal just for yourself, but that expression–that sense of mission–can really focus your travels. And I think even financially, people sort of put travel writers up on a pedestal in a certain sense. I was just talking about that with friends this morning. [People often] see you as an Indiana Jones type, swinging on vines from place to place and never making a mistake. That’s one stereotype you get, and it’s fun sometimes because it sort of makes you larger than life. But at the same time it’s also a little disconcerting, because I travel with people and I don’t want to be judged by this standard of expertise. You can’t really be a true traveler unless you’re sort of a naive person — someone who’s willing to make mistakes, and someone who’s always trying something new in new places. And so there’s really no room for the infallible expert as a wanderer. Once you start seeing yourself as an expert, you stop being open to new things, and being open to mistakes.
YP: Do you get the sense more often that people are jealous of the life you’re leading, or that they just find it strange and irresponsible?
RP: People who aren’t as interested in travel maybe think it’s weird, and maybe don’t understand why I’m doing it. People who are interested in travel, you get two misconceptions, one of which is the Indiana Jones stereotype. People for some reason just assume that I have powers that I don’t have. And sometimes there’s another negative reaction, a little bit of a sense of hostility. People assume I’m making eighty grand a year, you know, and I have groupies or something. And there’s also a lot of one-downmanship in independent travel…
YP: What do you mean by that?
RP: Well, it’s kind of like a punk-rock scene, and everybody has their own little corner that they’re trying tov defend. For instance, on this book tour I had to take several flights, and there’s some people who’d say you’re a sellout [for doing that].
YP: Right. “Shouldn’t you be hitchhiking?”
RP: Yeah. Or some people take issue with using the word vagabond. They think “vagabond” has to mean that I’m like a hobo, somebody who’s down and out, jumping trains.
YP: You’re getting this hostility from other independent travelers? Other backpackers?
YP: And maybe those are exactly the kind of people who wish they could be doing what you’re doing. Although I really think people have to break away from those attitudes of jealousness, and realize that long-term travel can be difficult. It’s something you have to be mature about, and take seriously.
RP: And you have to keep a realistic attitude. I try to say that again and again in the book. Have you read “Are You Experienced” by William Sutcliffe? The satire about backpackers in India? It hits the bullseye, and the central question of the book is, What do backpackers do? And I think that’s why you have frustrated travelers. That’s why you have travelers who are jealous of people like me, and that’s why you have travelers who throw in the towel after a year, or six months, or two years. Because they’re not really sure what to do. And for all their bohemian posings, they don’t feel comfotable having an open-ended travel experience. So that’s why you get people who’ve had amazing experiences, but they’ll sit in the backpacker ghetto and say things like, “I’ve been to 50 countries.” Or, “How can you be a travel writer and not have been to South America?” It’s this sort of passport-stamp competition, and also there’s the one-downmanship thing, you know: “Why’d you take the VIP bus, dude? You can take the chicken bus and save twenty-five pesos.” And I think that sort of attitude is the result of people who can’t be at peace with their own travel attitude.
YP: But that attitude can be difficult to get rid of, especially when you’re staying in backpacker ghettos. How do you, personally, deal with that? Or how do you think other people can deal with that?
RP: It could be a matter of growing up and becoming comfortable with your travel self, and realizing what’s important, which is the travel experience. It’s not how little money you spend or how many countries you’ve been to. It’s the travel experience, and how it feeds yourself and feeds your soul. And that’s why my final road chapter (in “Vagabonding”) is about travel spirituality. You know, a raging atheist can find spirituality in his travels. It’s about satisfying yourself and finding out what gives you pleasure on the road, and I think sometimes people transpose their home values into their travel selves. As so you get people who, if they’re big on crusing chicks in bars back home, they’re going to spend a lot of time on beach scenes, trying to get laid. Which is fine, but they haven’t really challenged anything that they believed whan they were at home.
YP: Maybe the important thing is trying to recognize that, and to maybe have this kind of internal paradigm shift. To try to change the way you look at the world, which of course is really tough to do.
RP: Bertrand Russell, in “The Conquest of Happiness,” talks about how it’s hard to be bored or unhappy if you always have an interest in people and places and things. And to give you an example, people find pleasure in pick-ups in bars, or in shopping, or in studying architecture, which is something you can do at home, or you can do on the road. And those are passions that people do, and things that make people happy, and I’ve done all of those on the road. But you sort of have to open your heart up, I guess. And by that I don’t mean that you have to be sort of a hippy-dippy idealist, but you have to be… if you can take an interest in any small thing, than that’s the starting point in getting out of that cycle. If you can just find a town on the map that’s not in the guidebook, take a bus there and wander around and see how the houses are built, try to have a few conversations, make some friends. And hopefully you can use that information and those relationships to enhance yourself and your life.
YP: How do your parents feel about what you do?
RP: My dad has always been supportive. And actually my first trip was at 23. I traveled for eight months in America, thinking I would get travel out of my system, and my Dad was supportive of that. My Mom wasn’t too sure, but she’s slowly come to terms with it. She’s a farm girl, and I think she has a bit of traditionalism in her. And so she wanted me to have a job, and was a little worried that I would be sort of a bum. And that’s sort of the stereotype you get if people don’t understand what it’s like to be a traveler. But since I’ve been writing for recognizable magazines and publishing books, it’s less of an issue for her. Of course, not everybody can be a National Geographic Adventure writer. Not everybody’s going to be able to keep their mom happy!
YP: Did you get the sense when you landed your column with Salon, that it was going to be the start of something big?
RP: Definitely. The article “Storming the Beach,” which was sort of instrumental in getting me the column, was a huge thing. Because that got me in Best American Travel Writing as well, which is a real legitimizer. I was 28 when I wrote that, so that was great, but I had actually started writing freelance stories for Salon when I was in Korea.
YP: I remember seeing something you did for Outpost magazine about a trip to Hong Kong, where you stayed in the Chunking Mansions.
RP: That’s an old one. That’s when I was working in Korea. I’d started freelancing about Korea a little bit, and I was getting articles rejected by little podunk, online magazines that didn’t pay, and I’m thinking, Why even put my energy towards these other magazines who sort of treat me like a peon? So I decided to try to put my energies into writing really well for Salon, and I sold maybe five more freelance articles that year. And so I got to thinking that I was already going to travel for a year or two on my Korea money, why not pitch the [Salon travel] editor, who I’m already getting to know, and see if he’ll give me a column? Which was really naive, in retrospect. It’s really semi-miraculous that I got the column. What I did, was I bought RolfPotts.com specifically for that, and I did a streaming video pitch of me walking around in Pusan.
YP: That’s brilliant.
RP: I did this 10-minute video, and then I didn’t hear back. So I started traveling, and about a month into my travels I was sending some e-mails to friends, and my friend Steve e-mailed back and told me not to give up on Salon. He said, “Don’t get emotional about it. Call him back, ask him how his day is going, and drop a little hint.” So I called (Salon travel editor) Don George, and he said, “You know, I really like the column idea, but I’m still not sure. But I know they’re shooting this Leonardo DiCaprio movie there, why don’t you see what’s going on?” And I said, “Well, I already has this sort of wild hare to go and infiltrate the set of the movie.” And he said, “If you do it, I’ll publish it.” And so I sort of had a guaranteed venue for “Storming the Beach.” I was going to do it anyway, but that made it that much easier to try. It was sort of a wacky thing. I’m somewhat of a reserved person, but it was a really gonzo thing to do. And so I did it, and I wrote it, and I exceeded my expectations with it, and I exceeded his. I brought in that philosophical angle, quoting Walker Percy and talking about the whole point of why you travel and why you go to certain places. It was just the right story for me at the right time. It made the cover of Salon, and it made it in Best American Travel Writing.
YP: Something I’ve noticed about your essays is that you probably drop more literary references than anyone I’ve ever read.
RP: That comes from a habit I started about eight years ago. When I traveled the U.S. I was going to write a book about it. I thought I was going to be Jack Kerouac or something, and I just completely fell on my face and wrote a really awful book. But I learned so many great lessons, and one of them was to start keeping track of quotes. So I have a quote file going back to the mid-90s, and I keep notes on books that I may never write.
YP: Do you feel like you’ve made any major sacrificies by choosing this lifestyle?
RP: I don’t have a lot of alternative futures that I wish I was living. And I think that’s because if you’re open to it, if you’re not cliquish about who you meet in your travels, than you can sort of sample parts of other people’s lives. And there’s some people who, maybe they’re taking a three-month trip and this may be the biggest trip of their lives, and they’re not going to be a die-hard traveler. But if you can make a connection with them, and not be competitive with them, you can learn from them and they can learn from you. When I came through L.A. a couple of weeks ago, I went to this big, swank celebrity opening of the W Hotel in San Diego. And it was sort of an adventure for me. That’s not usually my crowd, but I had a great time, and I was seeing something I normally wouldn’t have. And it was because I had befrinded a city planner in Egypt who’s sort of a high-roller, and maybe the hippy-dippy crowd would look down on him, but he’s trying to live deliberately, even as a wealthy guy.
YP: Life gets really interesting, I think, when you’re able to get past being a presumptuous type of person and you’re able to be friendly with anyone, genuinely.
RP: And feeling less like you need to identify yourself with something. Because I think a lot of little groups identify themselves by elimination. You know: I am who I am because I’m not this way. I hung out with a 70-year old guy in Burma, for instance. He was a minister of physical fitness for Burma for several years, and I saw his world for a day. So I have fewer “what if” sacrifices, because instead of there being alternative futures for me, I can just have one day as the sidekick of a Burmese fitness minister. Or as a good buddy of a guy who works in urban planning and goes to gala events as a matter of regular course. So that’s decreased the number of “what ifs” for me. I think there are definitely sacrifices, though. There are some pleasures in having a home, for instance, and a more traditional family. But I think I can catch up with that. My sister and her husband are looking to buy a farm in northern Kansas, and I might invest with them and build myself a little writer’s cabin so I can at least have a seasonal place to come back to. So I’m trying not to limit myself. Eventually I’ll get married. I’ll have kids eventually. I was staying with friends recently who have a four-year old and a two-year old, and they were talking about how they might be able to travel themselves when their kids are maybe seven and ten. But they were also talking about the pleasure they got out of their house. And I eluded to this in the book as well, that if you work to fund your travels, then you have so much more pleasure from them. All the landscaping I did in Seattle made my American travels that much more valuable for me, because I’d worked hard for it, and this was the fruition of what I’d done. When I traveled Asia, I had tutored in Korea until midnight to make the money to do that travel. And so I think investing yourself in an experience is good. My friends, for instance, have a house, and they don’t make a lot of money, but they got the loans, they fixed it up, and they put so much of themselves into their house that they can get pleasure out of that house in a way that, if they had inherited it, or if they’d had money since they were born, they might not be able to. So that’s something that I’m still learning as well, that pleasure in any life experience is about personal investment, and taking a real interest. They learned things about the world from building a house. And I think you can use that same analogy in traveling. Maybe the people who are frustrated travelers need to go home and put some more work into something, so they can sustain travel again. The truth is that we’re all born equally rich in time, and if you can make use of this time though travel, then you can enliven your life with what’s important. And that’s experience. And tasting new things.