The Book That Made Me Go

Vagabonding by Rolf Potts fundamentally changed my perspective on travel. Like many people, I have always fantasized about world travel, but I never thought that it was something I was capable of. It is a nice dream to go out into the world with nothing but a backpack and a sense of curiosity and wonder, but I thought I would never have the courage to turn that into a reality. That was before reading Potts' tome on the art of long-term travel. Every now and then you read a book that changes the way you think, and not only did Vagabonding do this for me, it landed me half way around the world just a few months after I finished it.

Re-Defining Long Term Travel

Potts begins by defining what vagabonding is, and in doing so he presents one of the greatest lessons in Vagabonding, which is to rethink what traveling is, from a commodity that we purchase to a way of life that we can embark on for the rest of our lives. Because commercialism is so ingrained in our society, we tend to value things only in the cash value they represent, and this leads us to believe that adventure is only available in proportion to the impact it has on our bank account.

"The more we associate experience with cash value, the more we think that money is what we need to live. And the more we associate money with life, the more we convince ourselves that we're too poor to buy our freedom."

Vagabonding, on the other hand, is a perspective that is not limited by your place or the size of your wallet.

"The more our life options get paraded around as consumer options, the more we forget that there's a difference between [material investment and personal investment]. Thus, having convinced ourselves that buying things is the only way to play an active role in the world, we fatalistically conclude that we'll never be rich enough to purchase a long-term travel experience. Fortunately, the world need not be a consumer product."

So what is vagabonding then? Simply put, it is a way of looking at life in which we realize that our greatest asset in life is time. How will we spend that time?

"Beyond travel, vagabonding is an outlook on life. Vagabonding is about using the prosperity and possibility of the information age to increase your personal options instead of your personal possessions. Vagabonding is about looking for adventure in normal life, and normal life within adventure. Vagabonding is an attitude - a friendly interest in people, places, and things that makes a person an explorer in the truest, most vivid sense of the word."

Preparing for Long Term Travel

If we choose to spend that time as explorers and students of the world, then it is likely that at some point we will want to venture out beyond our hometown and see for ourselves what the world has to offer. To do this, there is a period of time before our departure in which we will have to work to prepare for our trip. This will involve saving up funds, settling responsibilities that require our attention, and tying up loose ends. Far from being a burden, this process is part of the vagabonding experience, and should be appreciated for the way in which it can transform our relationship with work in general.

"Work is not just an activity that generates funds and creates desire; it's the vagabonding gestation period, wherein you earn your integrity, start making plans, and get your proverbial act together (…) Work is how you settle your financial and emotional debts - so that your travels are not an escape from your real life but a discovery of your real life."

In working to prepare for travel, we come to appreciate it more, and it forces us to confront our fears and other emotional roadblocks that we have been ignoring. The resulting change in perspective is one in which we no longer see work as an obligation that we try to escape from once or twice a year, but as a way to serve our interests as we learn to customize our lifestyles, and create our own destinies.

"Regardless of how long it takes to earn your freedom, remember that you are laboring for more than just a vacation. A vacation, after all, merely rewards work. Vagabonding justifies it."

As our perspectives on work and money change, we will find it easier to live a simpler lifestyle, a prerequisite for extended travel. Potts has spent years traveling the world on a modest budget, and he has discovered that it's easy to live abroad at a significantly cheaper day-to-day cost than we incur back home. One of the easiest ways to do this is to simply forgo a lot of the luxuries that we take for granted back home. Luxuries that we do not really need in our life.

"The secret to my extraordinary thrift was neither secret nor extraordinary: I had tapped into that vast well of free time simply by forgoing a few comforts as I traveled. (…) In what ultimately amounted to over two years of travel in Asia, eastern Europe, and the Middle East, my lodging averaged out to just under five dollars a night, my meals cost well under a dollar a plate, and my total expenses rarely exceeded one thousand dollars a month. (…) For what it costs to fill your gas tank back home, for example, you can take a train from one end of China to the other. For the price of a home-delivered pepperoni pizza, you can eat great meals for a week in Brazil. And for a month's rent in any major American city, you can spend a year in a beach hut in Indonesia."

That last line really struck me. It's common to believe that if we work hard enough for long enough, we can retire and finally have the resources to spend time with our feet in the sand, sipping margaritas on some exotic island. If that's really what we want to do, why are we waiting for retirement?

So many of us want to dream of adventure, but we do not find a lot of validation or justification for it in modern society. It is too easy to feel guilty and selfish for having such dreams, because we live in a society that tells us we are only valuable and useful in the world when we go to work as a productive cog in the machine. In Vagabonding, Potts will spark your sense of adventure, and not only eliminate any guilt that you feel for having dreams of adventure, but give you justification and encouragement for making the choice to venture out into the world.

One of the most exciting things about long-term travel is the uncertainty; the serendipity. We have dreams and fantasies that will draw us to certain places, but we can never truly predicts what our experience there will be like.

"The reason vagabonding is so appealing is that it promises to show you the destinations and experiences you've dreamed about; but the reason vagabonding is so addictive is that, joyfully, you'll never quite find what you dreamed. Indeed, the most vivid travel experiences usually find you by accident, and the qualities that will make you fall in love with a place are rarely the feature that took you there."

This for me is an exciting perspective. It makes the dream of travel twice as big; we experience the dream in having dreamed it, and we experience it again when we arrive and discover something totally new and unexpected. If we adopt this attitude of being open to the unknown, planning our trip becomes less about the details and more about the mindset.

"The goal of preparation, then, is not knowing exactly where you'll go but being confident nonetheless that you'll get there. This means that your attitude will be more important than your itinerary, and that the simple willingness to improvise is more vital, in the long run, than research (…) Thus, feel free to draw any inspiration, no matter how stolid or silly, when considering where to go."

I decided to take this advice to heart. Drawing inspiration from a skate video I watched when I was 14, I bought a ticket to Barcelona on a whim and packed the day before I left. But you might want more concrete advice than this, and in Vagabonding Potts offers plenty of practical resources on how and what to pack, choosing destinations, and more.

On the Road

Using the wealth of experience from his own life, and stories, quotes, and examples from other travelers, Potts is able to describe in great detail what it is like to be on the road. This went a long way in giving me the courage to travel, because I had a better idea of what to expect, even if that means being okay not knowing what to expect. I was really excited about the ideas presented that suggested I would be experiencing the world through a fresh perspective, one that would add adventure to even the seemingly insignificant events.

"Normal experiences (such as ordering food or taking a bus) will suddenly seem extraordinary and full of possibility. All the details of daily life that you ignored back home - the taste of a soft drink, the sound of a radio, the smell of the air - will suddenly seem rich and exotic. Food, fashions, and entertainment will prove delightfully quirky and shockingly cheap."

Not only do we find reasons to be excited for travel in Vagabonding, we also find solutions to problems we did not realize we would have. For example, Potts describes how easy it is to fall into the trap of the accepted travel routes, never straying from well known backpacking circuits. Or we might feel the need to see every museum and sight that we come across, and in the process become jaded and irritated at the mobs of other tourists we constantly find ourselves in. In both cases, it is important to remind ourselves that one of the joys of vagabonding is that we are in complete control of our own destinies.

"Finding a singular travel experience doesn't require heroism so much as a simple change of mind-set. (…) Thus, one the road, you should never forget that you are uniquely in control of your own agenda. If the line for Lenin's tomb outside the Kremlin is too long, you have the right to buy a couple bottles of beer, plant yourself at the edge of Red Square, and happily watch the rest of Moscow swirl around you. (…) If the sight of a McDonald's franchise at the edge of Tiananmen Square bugs you, you have the right to jump on a city bus, get off at random, and wander out to observe everyday life in the ancient hutongs of Beijing."

Examples of singular travel experiences are abundant in Vagabonding, and the wonder and excitement that these examples gave me contributed just as much as anything else in motivating me to plan a trip of my own.

"In Laos, I bought a local fishing boat with some other travelers and drove it down the Mekong River for three adrenaline-filled weeks. In Burma, I bought a Chinese-made one-speed bicycle in Mandalay and pedaled it south for ten days before trading it for a fistful of pearls. In Lithuania, I stuck out my thumb on the side of the road in Vilnius, and found myself four countries away (in Hungary) three days later. (…) In addition to being unforgettable experiences, each of these adventures ended up costing me next to nothing."

Potts also provides a lot of detail surrounding safety and risk, culture, and relationships with locals. He reminds us that they ways in which news stations back home portray people of foreign countries is not necessarily representative of how these people actually are. He encourages us to interact with locals, and how to take part in their lives without taking advantage of them. As fascinating as locals are to us, we should remember that fascination can be a two-way street, and that our own experiences and background might be exotic and interesting to the locals, and we should acknowledge and respect this.

"Some [of the locals you will meet] have plenty to offer as genuine friends and cultural hosts. Of all the locals I hung out with in Egypt, my truest Egyptian friend was a hotel clerk who accompanied me to movies and markets during his time off from work. Of all the people I met in Burma, I learned the most about the local culture from a trishaw driver who (after pedaling me around on a paid tour of the Sagaing area) took me home to meet his family and insisted I sleep for free at the neighborhood monastery."

Other tips you will get about being on the road include:

  • How to negotiate and spend money
  • How to bridge language gaps in areas that do not speak English
  • How to deal with boredom, loneliness, and depression
  • How to deal with men as a woman traveling in regions that do not share your cultural values of gender equality
  • How to avoid and confront sickness
  • How to stay open minded and curious, and why that's important
  • How to find jobs as you travel

Evolve Your Mindset

Above all, Vagabonding reveals the ultimate reason for travel: we will grow, evolve, and discover for ourselves that it really is all about the journey.

"So many new things will happen in the process of reaching these places that you'll probably outgrow your original travel motivations. As new experiences and insights take you in surprising new directions, you'll gradually come to understand why longtime travelers insist that the journey itself is far more important than any destination."

This happens because of the very nature of travel.

"Travel, after all, is a form of asceticism, which (to quote Kathleen Norris) 'is a way of surrendering to reduced circumstances in a manner that enhances the whole person. It is a radical way of knowing exactly who, what, and where you are, in defiance of those powerful forces in society that aim to make us forget.' Thus, travel compels you to discover your spiritual side by simple elimination: Without all the rituals, routines, and possessions that give your life meaning at home, you're forced to look for meaning within yourself."

Perhaps this is what people mean when they say they "found themselve;" by giving up so many of the distractions we surround ourselves with in every day life, we have no choice but to look inward and discover who we are, and who we have been all along.

Start your journey with the only book you really need to prepare you.