Travel can often be approached as just another consumer good; travelers quickly dive in and out of a place, check off the things they want to see, harvest the requisite pictures to prove they were there, and wear their trip as a status symbol.
My guest, Rolf Potts, thinks there’s a better way to approach travel. After exploring the world for years, he wrote a book called Vagabonding, which laid out the practicalities of how to execute long-term travel.
Twenty years later, he’s back with a new book — The Vagabond’s Way — with reflections on the more philosophical side of that kind of travel which you can take on any type of trip. Today on the show, Rolf explains the vagabonding ethos, which involves slowing down, being open to surprises, and really paying attention to your experiences. He first discusses how taking an overly romantic view of travel can actually diminish your enjoyment of traveling. We then turn to the idea that seeking to take a more authentic approach to travel shouldn’t mean trying too hard to differentiate yourself from “typical” tourists, and how to approach stereotypical tourist stuff with a nuanced view. We discuss how to use the idea of pilgrimage beyond its religious connotations as a pretext for choosing which places to visit. We also delve into how to deal with the culture shock that can come both from visiting a new place, and returning home from a long trip. We end our conversation with how the attentive, adventurous attitude which underlies the vagabond’s way can also be applied to exploring your own backyard.
Resources Related to the Episode
- Rolf‘s previous book: Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel
- AoM Podcast #653: The Dirtbag’s Guide to Life
- Sunday Firesides: This One’s for Me
- AoM podcast and article on microadventures
Connect With Rolf Potts
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett Mckay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art Of Manliness podcast. Travel can often be approached as just another consumer good. Travelers quickly dive in and out of a place, check-off the things they wanna see, harvest the requisite pictures to prove they were there, and wear their trip as a status symbol. My guest Rolf Potts, thinks there’s a better way to approach travel. After exploring the world for years, he wrote a book called Vagabonding, which laid out the practicalities of how to execute long-term travel. 20 years later, he’s back with a new book, The Vagabond’s Way, with reflections on the more philosophical side of that kind of travel which you take on any type of trip.
Today in the show, Rolf explains the Vagabonding ethos, which involves slowing down, being open to surprises, and really paying attention to your experiences. He first discusses how taking an overly romantic view of travel, can actually diminish the enjoyment of traveling. We then turn to the idea that seeking to take a more authentic approach to travel, shouldn’t mean trying too hard to differentiate yourself from the, “typical tourist.” And how to approach stereotypical tourist stuff, with a nuanced view. We discuss how to use the idea of pilgrimage beyond its religious connotations, as a pretext for choosing places to visit. We also delve into how to deal with the culture shock that can come, both, from visiting a new place, and returning home from a long trip. [0:01:16.0] ____ conversation with how the attentive, adventurous attitude which underlies the Vagabond’s way, can also be applied to exploring your own backyard. After the show’s over, check out our shownotes at aom.is/vagabond.
Rolf Potts, welcome to the show.
Rolf Potts: Glad to talk to you, Brett.
Brett Mckay: So you are a travel writer and you’ve written a lot about a travel lifestyle that you call Vagabonding, and you got a new book out called, ‘The Vagabonds Way: 366 Meditations on Wanderlust, Discovery, and the Art of Travel’. So it’s one of these books you can just pick up and read a passage a day, it’s really nice, really quick hit. So let’s talk about Vagabonding. How do you define? What is Vagabonding and how does it differ from a 2-week vacation somewhere?
Rolf Potts: Yeah, Vagabonding is about intentionally taking time off from your normal life to travel in earnest. Not necessarily as a vacation or a consumer act, but as a part of your real life. Not as an escape from your life, but an escape into your life. And ‘long-term’ is a big factor in this, it’s the idea of traveling for a year, or if you don’t have that much time, 6 weeks or 6 months. But basically, giving over a time in your life to travel, and learning from that experience, and broadening your life, and using that journey as a way to see your life options, and to educate yourself about the world’s riches.
Brett Mckay: So what’s your experience with Vagabonding? How did you get started?
Rolf Potts: Well, when I was young, I didn’t know that travel was something you could just make happen. I grew up in the middle of the country, in Kansas, which is where I’m still based. I didn’t really know that many people with passports. I thought that travel was something that you did at the end of your life, or at the end of your working life, when you had… When time was given to you by society. But my grandfather was a Kansas farmer, worked harder than anybody I knew. He started farming at age 15 when his father died, had an 8th grade education, super-smart guy. Around the time that he was given his retirement, around the time that he was able to enjoy his time in a non-work way, my grandmother, his wife, his true love, got Alzheimer’s disease.
And so when I was a teenager, when I was young, I saw in a very heartbreaking way, that life doesn’t just give you time. If I was gonna travel, I would have to create my own time to travel. And so in my early 20s, I worked as a landscaper for almost a year, saved up all my money, kitted out a van and traveled across America for 8 months, and really had this life-changing experience. I realized that travel was not as difficult or dangerous or expensive as I thought it would be, and I realized that travel is something that anybody can give to themselves. It’s not necessarily something that you buy like a consumer act, but it’s something that you make time for, whatever your means are.
And so, one thing led to another, I moved overseas. I started teaching English as a foreign language in Korea. I started writing about travel, and I traveled across Asia for two and a half years. And that’s when I sat down and wrote the book about that process of living through time wealth, which is now almost 20 years old. And I’ve been talking about it ever since, and I don’t get tired of it.
Brett Mckay: Are you still taking extended travel trips?
Rolf Potts: I am, in a different way than I was when I was younger. And one great thing about travel is, that it can manifest in different ways at different ages, and different things interest you even in the same place. So this summer, I traveled for 6 weeks to Paris, where I teach a writing class each summer. And then also to Norway, a place I had never been to before, but my wife has cousins there. And it’s really fun to see Norway through the eyes of my wife’s family. It’s something… I don’t have any connection to the immigrant sides of my family, and so seeing Norway through a very personal lens, was fun for me. And then we went up to the Faroe Islands before we came home. And so that was a 6-week trip, and that counts as Vagabonding too.
Brett Mckay: So in the book, you’re trying to encourage this idea of not treating travel as a consumer experience. There’s this idea you hear out there, it’s like, “Well, instead of buying things, buy experiences.” But you’re still approaching things as a consumer when you’re buying something as an experience. So what are the benefits of your approach to travel? What have you gotten out of these extended trips you’ve gone on? How has it enriched your life? And when you talk to people, what are the selling points you give them to your approach?
Rolf Potts: Well, this kind of travel allows you to slow down, because rushing through any experience in life is a certain way to miss out on its nuances, and to savor it, and to really enjoy it. So, in giving yourself, say, a year to travel, you don’t necessarily need to go to every continent in the world, but maybe you can spend a year in a handful of places in a way that really allows you to be slow and be still, and enjoy those places.
It’s funny, I’ve been hosting writing classes in Paris for many years now. And a lot of times my friends or my students, they’ll come and they’ll get frustrated at how slow the wait staff is at restaurants. Because they wanna get out and experience Paris. They wanna get out and tick-off the things on their checklist. And I used to be that way too. Then what I realized is, that you are experiencing Paris by having a very slow lunch. French people don’t rush through lunch to get it out of the way, that is a very specific pleasure in their day. And it’s not until you can relax and enjoy a 3-hour lunch, where the wait staff is not going to bring you the check until you ask for it, and they’re gonna be very careful in asking you recommendations because that’s their job and they take pride in that. I use that as metaphor because that slowing down, is something we sometimes forget to do even when at home, to have full life-experiences. And so travel really taught me that, long-term travel, especially.
Brett Mckay: So I think a lot of people, when they think about extended travel, they have this romantic view of it, and they think, “Well, the Golden Age of travel is over. That was like something that happened in the 1890s or the 1960s with Jack Kerouac. It’s not as romantic anymore because you got Yelp and you got these travel reviews, you got social media that’s influencing people to come to these locations. And everyone’s got their smartphone out taking a picture.” You disagree with this notion that traveling is no longer romantic, why is that?
Rolf Potts: Well, I think this has always been a part of the travel conversation. Years ago when trains started going across Europe, people enjoyed that convenience, but they also complained about how it took away from the experience… From the immersive experience of going slow, going on foot, or going by wagon. And so I think if you read travel literature going back to the early 19th century… Actually the 18th Century, lots of people have declared that travel was over, that travel is ruined. So for as long as we’ve been traveling the world as people, people have been assuming that this place was more perfect a generation ago. And maybe there were certain advantages a generation ago, but I think it’s easy… As I say in The Vagabond’s Way, “The golden age of travel is always right now, that it’s easy to fetishize the presumed purity of previous ages, when in fact, this moment is all we have. And some day… ” I actually quote the anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss, who says, “I may complain about the impurity of the cultures I see now, but a 100 years from now, another traveler may express frustration at the reality that I’m seeing right now, but in failing to see.”
And so I think that’s good to keep in mind that in less than a 100 years, in 20 years, in 10 years, people might be looking back to the moment right now in a way that feels pure to them, when in fact, now is all we have. So yeah, I do try to discourage that cynicism that suggests that travel was better in a long-ago-time, and to embrace the romanticism and the beauty of the moment we have now.
Brett Mckay: And you also talk about how over-romanticizing travel can get in the way of having a good travel experience. How so?
Rolf Potts: Well, I think we often… It’s an, expectations versus reality thing. And I think for all the preparation we do before we travel, after a week on the road you’re way smarter than any information you could have gotten from a computer. If you don’t allow yourself to adapt to the real world as it is, as opposed to the filtered world, you’re gonna be selling your travel short. Oftentimes in cross-cultural situations, you’re looking for the tribesmen wearing traditional clothing in this part of Africa, you’re looking for these ancient art traditions in this part of Papua New Guinea. And you feel like you’re being cheated if these people are wearing blue jeans and using smartphones, when in fact, I think… Human cultures have always changed and it’s actually… It’s true to those cultures when those people, they might be interested in art traditions, they might have some clothing that is traditional, but all culture is flexible and jeans and smartphones do not ruin a culture.
It’s just, you’re discovering that those cultures are more complex, more modern, more changing, than you would have assumed before you left home. So I think if you’re always judging your travels through those two-dimensional stereotypes by which you thought they would be, then you’re gonna be selling it short. I think you have to be humble as a traveler and realize that the world can surprise you. And that’s the great thing about travel, is that regardless of what you plan, it will surprise you in ways that can be amazing.
Brett Mckay: Is that an American phenomenon to treat travel… Like we expect it to be like, “It’s a Small World,” at Disneyland? Like, when you expect people to…
Rolf Potts: [chuckle] Yeah, I mean that goes into the consumer experience that travel… They used to complain about glossy magazines, now they complain about Instagram. It’s like… The beaches are always empty, the cocktails are always full. There’s sort of this perfection that is a part of tourism marketing, which is fine, there’s great experiences to be had on the road, but those expectations are never exactly like it happens in real time. And so I think sometimes when we go with a bucket-list of sight seeing activities, that’s fine, I have nothing against bucket-lists. But sometimes it’s those subtler things that surprise you, that are cooler than any Instagram sunset photo, that was probably faked anyway, it probably had 10 people in line behind the person who took that Instagram photo.
Brett Mckay: Well, another point you made that I thought was really interesting is this idea that cultures are complex, they’re always changing, and how the cultures can respond to travelers. ‘Cause they see what travelers want. And this is part of their economy. And so in some countries, in Africa, where they’re wearing blue jeans and using smartphones, they’ll actually have places where you can go and get your picture taken with the guys in grass skirts or whatever, and like the typical tribal-wear, because they understand that’s what people want and that’s part of their economy.
Rolf Potts: Yeah, social scientists have talked about this. There’s different phrases to call this, but… And actually, as far back as the ’70s, like a governmental minister in Tanzania is like, “Yeah, we created this tribal village. It’s where the tourists want to go. It might be fake, but it’s less of a hassle than tourists wandering through villages asking where the real Africans are, [chuckle] when in fact, real Africans are the guys in blue jeans.” And I think that’s an ongoing challenge. I think people always have this idealized image of how things should be. But in a weird way, it can be dehumanizing to look for the person in the most traditional garb as the, “authentic person”, when in fact, everybody’s authentic. Everything is real. And you just have to understand that the world is so much subtler and more complex and inter-mixed now.
But sometimes I write a chapter… One of the chapters in my new book is about how we often experience other cultures, first, through pop-culture. And so if you’re a rugby fan, you might know more about Fiji or Australia than your average person. If you like anime in Japan, if you like K-pop, you might know more about Korea before you go there. And that’s a great thing, and it’s cool that we’re sort of borrowing from each other culturally these days. But if you think that there’s this absolute way that Koreans or Fijians have to be, then that’s not really paying attention as a traveler. And I think The Vagabond’s Way, The Vagabonding Ethos is really about paying attention and listening, and asking questions before you take pictures. Because one of the gifts of travel, is seeing how complex and interrelated the world is.
Brett Mckay: So you mentioned this idea of tourists, how tourists can… Sometimes it can feel like a tourist can ruin things. And so you have this… There’s this idea amongst people who are like, “Well, I’m gonna be a real traveler and I’m not gonna be a tourist.” You think that distinction is not very useful, why is that?
Rolf Potts: Well, I think it glosses over the fact that we’re all outsiders in these new places. And it’s funny, I’ve been talking about this for 20 years ever since Vagabonding, and I talk… I try to diminish the, travelers versus tourists dichotomy in Vagabonding, simply because it’s sort of this nightclub ethic, where you’re trying to be cooler than the other people in this very small space. Where as to the people in the host-culture where you are, you all look the same. One guy might call the other guy a tourist, but to the host-culture, it’s just an American or just a British person, or whatever.
But oddly enough, even though I’ve been trying to downplay this distinction for years, people just… They’re trying to compliment Vagabonding or the Vagabonding ethos, and they’ll say, “Oh, it’s about how to be a traveler, not a tourist, right?” And it’s like, “Well, okay.” I mean, let’s just try and be better travelers in relation to ourselves, instead of trying to be cooler than the next guy over. And a lot of the stereotypes attached to tourism, is people being rude or culturally insensitive, and I think those are bad things. But it takes more than just differentiating yourself, to leave yourself open to a place. So I really try to downplay that comparison that happens among people who are all tourists, basically, that we’re all tourists of a sort. Some of us do it a little bit better, but at the end of the day, we’re all outsiders, and that we should be humble about that too.
Brett Mckay: And then you made this point that was interesting, is that when you’re Vagabonding, or you just do this extended travel, looking at the tourist economy in a nuanced way is one of those… I don’t know… Refreshing insights you can get when you take that slow, long-term approach to traveling. You just see this… This is also part of this country’s culture as well, and it’s interesting to see how the culture interacts with the tourists.
Rolf Potts: Yeah, and sometimes tourism can be bad for places, especially when there’s tourism over-crowding, over… It superimposes a service-economy on a place that might be better served by more of a mom-and-pop economy. But it can be weird how tourists bring their ideas to a place… I use an example in the book about how there was a TV show in China that showed the French lavender fields. And so a lot of Chinese tourists started coming to France to take pictures in front of lavender fields and the French people weren’t really sure what to do with them.
And so they, sort of, bent their local economy to have lavender massages and lavender products. And weirdly, even though there was an awkwardness to it, I think it ended up being good for the economy in that part of France. And it’s happened in other parts of the world too. I write about in the book, there’s a part of Panama that used to be just this extractive plantain economy, where the tribes-people in a certain region would get hard currency by exporting plantains down the river. When they realized that they could host tourists in their own community, and share their traditions in a way that outsiders would pay for and buy souvenirs and things, tourism actually diversified their economy in that place.
And in other parts of the world… Papua New Guinea as well, art traditions have been revived, Bali is another example, by tourist interest in these local traditions. And so that’s part of the complication or the complexity of the travel experiences that I was talking about. Is that sometimes if practiced mindfully, you can really support communities by just taking an interest and spending time there, and using local guest houses, and buying souvenirs, and eating at local restaurants, and listening and engaging.
Brett Mckay: All that dynamic can also happen here in the United States. So my family went to a Dude Ranch in Wyoming this summer. And it was interesting, a lot of the guests were from South America, there was a big family from Germany. And I later learned that Germany… In Germany, Cowboys and Indians are a really big deal. And so these guys came to the United States to this dude ranch, they just wanted the cowboy experience. They just thought that this was a legit cowboy experience. And I was thinking, “Well, no, probably… ” I know some cowboys, this is not it. But when you talked about that, it made me think of that experience I had at that Dude Ranch.
Rolf Potts: Yeah, and I’ve been using a lot of international examples, but the same thing happens locally too. Americans can take stereotypes to Dude Ranches. And in fact, sometimes… I’m from Kansas, I know you’re from Oklahoma. Kansas is not a very touristic place, it’s a place people mostly know from stereotypes, and if it’s not the Wizard of Oz, it some sort of political generalization. And so sometimes they really… When people visit me in Kansas, they ask questions that feel naive, that are sort of through the lens of this stereotype that Kansas has cowboys, or that it’s this very conservative and inflexible place, when in fact, those are just stereotypes from outside. You can find those stereotypes, but it’s not necessarily that way.
And I actually talk about… Germans have been interested in cowboy culture since the 19th century, when… Actually, I use a word in the book for that… I would mess up the German pronunciation, but it basically means Indian enthusiasm. And these German… They basically read these pulp-fictions about the Wild West that were very popular in Germany. But those pulp-fictions were written by a guy from Saxony. He hadn’t been to the United States, he just read cowboy novels in English, and he wrote German versions, which were very popular.
And so for 100 years or more, Germans had been coming encouraged by the stereotypes from this pop culture vision of the American West. And they come to the US and they sort of demand to see it in a way… And that has bent, actually in the United States also. You’ll see dude ranches, you’ll see Navajo gift shops that are really catering to stereotypes of what those places are like, more so than what day-to-day life is like there. And so that’s one thing I try to encourage in the vagabonding ethic, be it in Arizona or the other side of the world, to really slow down and let your expectations take a back seat to what you’re seeing before your eyes. And to let inquiry, rather than stereotypes influence what you’re gonna do there.
Brett Mckay: Okay, so it sounds like overall, don’t write off the touristy stuff altogether. And also don’t try to out-cool your fellow travelers, ’cause that’s just not a good mindset to have going into something. And also the stereotypical tourist stuff can be fun, that’s why you don’t wanna shut yourself off to it completely. It can also be good for the local economy but then also at the same time, see this stuff, see the touristy stuff in a nuanced way, don’t go into it with your preconceived notions, try to see what’s there. We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.
And now, back to the show. So how do you pick a place to travel to? Is it just like if you got that wanderlust for a specific place, you would just follow that?
Rolf Potts: Absolutely, I think this is something that can be over-planned sometimes. People are trying to figure out, there’s this language in the travel industry, “Oh, this place is hot, this place is trendy, this place is the place to be.” Well, that’s kind of a bad decision to choose your travel plans over. Right? If you feel an urge to go to a place… I talked about Fijian rugby before. If you love watching Fijian rugby, go to Fiji, talk to people, Fijians love to talk about that sort of thing. Just sort of follow those instincts. And oftentimes, there’s a two-dimensional inspiration that like we love… We associate travel with the Eiffel Tower, so we wanna go to Paris and see the Eiffel Tower. That’s great. I hung out with my wife under the Eiffel Tower this summer, it was fantastic. But what’s beyond that?
So I think in a way, your reason for going to a place is less important than what you do when you get there. And I think as much fun as you can have under the Eiffel Tower, wandering off into those neighborhoods and sort of following the smell of a pâtisserie or hearing the sounds of a music festival, or just allowing yourselves to be surprised and humbled by a city, that is going to be rewarding regardless of where in the world you go. And oftentimes, people complain about other tourists in tourist attractions, and it’s like, well, that’s fine, but just go to a place that isn’t [chuckle] a tourist attraction. You don’t have to travel that far off the tourist trail to find a place that is more authentic to what you thought this place would be. I think allowing yourself to be flexible wherever you go sort of absolves yourself from having too much pressure on where you go. Go to a place because it captures your imagination, and then whatever happens there is why you went there.
Brett Mckay: Well, another point you make in the book that I liked was you can use this idea of pilgrimages to help provide some structure for your travels. So how have you used pilgrimages or how have you seen people use pilgrimages in their Vagabonding?
Rolf Potts: Well, I think… Don’t set limit on pilgrimage because there’s grand pilgrimage traditions in all of the major world religions, and they’ve actually created a big body of literature. But your pilgrimage can be like go into the St Andrews Course in Scotland because you like golf. It can be going to a candy factory in Ohio that manufacturers your favorite candy bar, but basically these pretexts are chances for you to go to a place that has really blown your mind. I’ve never properly been to Kenya. I was only in Kenya for less than a day, but I grew up being a runner and some of my running heroes were Kenyans. And so when I do go to Kenya it will, in part, be a pilgrimage that honors my young self as a runner, who really saw this place as a country of excellence that produced people who could run faster than other people.
And so I think my future travels to Kenya will probably be pegged to that, and that’s a pretty good reason too. So, really, a pilgrimage can be through the lens of anything that you love or are devoted for or even interested in. And so that can be popular culture, that can be old traditions, that could be Muay Thai and going to Thailand, it can be almost anything. And what the pilgrimage does is, it’s a pretext to go, it’s a pretext to have the journey and the experiences that happen along the way. Even people who travel with the idea of religious devotion, part of what makes arriving at that Jerusalem or Mecca important is what happens along the way, the new experience of life and the new self-sufficiency and surprise that happens along the way. That’s the gift of the pilgrimage, be it for religious reasons or for whimsical reasons.
Brett Mckay: I’ve got two pilgrimages that I’ve been developing in my head.
Rolf Potts: Awesome.
Brett Mckay: The first one is I want… So I’m a big fan of Teddy Roosevelt. So I’d love… One of the pilgrimages I’m putting together is visit the places that he visited in the United States. So I’ve been to his birthplace, but I haven’t been to Oyster Bay where he lived. There’s places here in Oklahoma that he visited that I’d like to go check out, go to the Badlands, and that would be great to do. The other pilgrimage that I thought, I’ve been together is… My favorite book is Lonesome Dove, and I thought it’d be fun to follow the Lonesome Dove trail, that was set out in the book, but follow it today and see what that’s like.
Rolf Potts: Yeah, well, actually, I love to hear that kind of thing because… Lonesome Dove, is that Larry McMurtry?
Brett Mckay: Yes.
Rolf Potts: Yeah, well, there’s a specific town in Texas, I forget the name of it, where he owned a book store with like 30,000 books.
Brett Mckay: Archer City.
Rolf Potts: Yeah, [chuckle] Archer City. And so that can be a part of that pilgrimage that you are going through those fictional destinations in this work of fiction. And again, I’m from Kansas, people have gone to Dodge City for generations because of the TV show Bonanza, I think. And why not? What you discover again is more important than what brought you there. And I love the Teddy Roosevelt one too, ’cause that could be an international trip as well, because he had a very famous trip to Brazil. He had very public trips to Africa and you could probably spend the rest of your life trying to travel in the footsteps of Teddy Roosevelt. And so I love it, I love and I encourage listeners to think, “Well, what book, what TV show, what anything excites me?”
And then go to that place, go to that place for that reason. A lot of people go to Tunisia because of Star Wars. Why? Well, Tatooine, the desert planet, is named after a town in Morocco, right? And actually they filmed a lot of Star Wars in Morocco, and so people go there. People go to New Zealand for Lord of the Rings, they go to Dubrovnik for Game of Thrones, which sounds silly on the face of it. But I think if you can… If you can enjoy your fan boy trip or your pilgrimage within this framework, but also allow yourself to be surprised and listen and slow down and ask questions, then you’ll get so many more gifts than the parameters of the pilgrimage itself.
Brett Mckay: What’s your take on travel photography, ’cause I think a lot of people, that’s the big reason why they go, they want the pic. Why do we have this urge to catalog our travel and how can we do it in a way so it doesn’t get in the way of our experience?
Rolf Potts: That’s a good question and it’s a big challenge now, especially now that the photos are so easy to take. Susan Sontag wrote a book called, On photography in 1977, which is before the smartphone, which is so prescient and so smart in regards to how… She talks about how we put the camera between ourselves and an experience. If in doubt, the traveler will raise their camera instead of really engaging with a place. Well, now is even… It’s far easier than 1977 to do this. I also talk about how the notion of the picturesque goes back to a minister called William Gilpin in England in the late 18th century, who wrote this tree tease basically arguing that the visual sense was the most important and that we, travelers should seek to capture these images in their minds.
Well, about a generation after he wrote that they invented the camera and suddenly you could literally do on paper what he was encouraging people to see in their minds, and travel has become this very visual thing. We have all five senses, but we usually just see it in the visual way, which is fine, I take a lot of photos myself. But still we have this, maybe now more than ever, we’re tempted to put a camera between ourselves and that experience. And oftentimes that comes at the expense of true engagement with the culture. Oftentimes, there’s an ethical component to this because you’ll often take pictures of people you don’t know without talking to them, without engaging them.
You’re sort of just harvesting these stereotypical pictures from a place in Africa or Eastern Europe or wherever, where people don’t necessarily look like you. And you’re sort of objectifying those people through your camera, because instead of engaging with them and getting a sense for who you are, you are again, placing the camera between yourself and the experience. And this happens quite a bit in social media too. Often the Instagram stories we see, the Instagram pictures we see are staged experiences that have been staged for the camera more than they are an interaction with place. So I don’t wanna condemn using a camera as you travel, ’cause I use mine a lot myself, but I do wanna encourage being thoughtful and being more dynamic about how you use the camera lens to navigate the travel experience.
Brett Mckay: That point about how travel is… It’s more than just visual, we use our other senses as well. I’ve noticed this. So I lived in Tijuana for a couple of years, and in certain parts of Tijuana like the… I don’t know how it is now, that was like 20 something years ago. The utilities aren’t well-developed. They just build houses, shacks, wherever, and so you don’t have any infrastructure like plumbing, and so in some of these places, you’d have just black water going through the street and there’s a smell to it. And every now and then I’ll catch a whiff of it. If I’m driving by the sanitation facility here in Tulsa, you catch… And I’d catch a whiff of that. Now, I’m immediately taken back to walking the streets in Tijuana, or there’s certain types of house cleaning products that are used in Mexico, and I’ll be in Walmart and Walmart now, here in the United States, they’ll have sections where you can buy stuff you can get in Mexico, because there’s a lot of Latin Americans that live in the United States. And also with that, and I’m immediately taken back to some grocery store in Mexico. I wouldn’t have had that if it was just… If I just focused on my sense of sight for my travel experience.
Rolf Potts: Absolutely, and this ties into, again, what Byung-Chul Han, the philosopher, said about the scent of time. You can’t fast-forward smell. Smell is a great sense. You can probably fast-forward through this podcast, you can fast forward-through your Netflix movies, but you can’t fast-forward scent. Scent demands patience and being there. And it’s also very associative, it’s very much a memory trigger, and I love that. I spent two years in Korea when I was younger, and when I’m in a grumpy mood, my wife will fix me Korean food because it’s sort of my comfort food. And so that’s another sense, taste, which takes smell into account too. But just the idea that the eating kimchi or eating Bulgogi will suddenly bring me back to a very specific time in my life.
I think scent… Food is something that we all seek out as travelers, and so that’s a pretty common thing. That’s like sight, there’s sightseeing, people also travel according to their stomach, but smell is a great thing. I love that you have associations with Tijuana through cleaning detergents or even bad smells. I remember the first time I went to the tropics, I was in the Philippines, I stepped off the plane and I knew I was in a new place internally, because it smelled like no place I had ever been before, and the complexity of smell in a place like Manila in the Philippines was unlike anything I had ever experienced. And so there’s a real joy for me in traveling in the tropics, simply because of the smell.
Brett Mckay: When you’re traveling for long periods of time and you’re outside of the tourist areas, you’re actually gonna bump up against the cultures as they are, not as you… Maybe you think they are, this romanticized version. How do you deal with that culture shock?
Rolf Potts: Well, you embrace it and you realize that it is culture shock. I think sometimes one neurosis within culture shock is that this new culture is doing something against you, it’s trying to make your life inconvenient or it’s actively giving you anxiety, when in fact you’re just in a place where everything is a little bit different. And so I don’t think there’s a quick fix to culture shock, and I just talked about Korea, when I got there, it was very… I felt anxiety a lot when I was first there ’cause I wasn’t really sure how things worked. And so I think patience and slowing down is really a good way to deal with culture shock, and to know that the longer you stay in a place, the more comfortable you’ll get with its otherness.
And then suddenly you’ll be learning things that you had no idea that you were going to learn before you went there. You’ll be going to the convenience store rather than the tourist restaurant and realizing that a convenience store in Japan or in Sweden is completely different than the one back home. And then suddenly you’re having this, again, this gift of travel, you’re finding these experiences maybe by working through the culture shock, you’re realizing how much human cultures are similar, but also how they’re different and how interesting those nuances are. And those are the kinds of things that you’ll savor. I mean, who would have guessed that after going to Tijuana you would later get sentimental from the place through cleaning detergent or sort of a rotting smell, but that happens and again that’s… It’s not often put into tourist brochures, but it’s really a great memory that comes out of travel.
Brett Mckay: So let’s talk about coming home. So you say you’re gone for, let’s say a year in a different country, what challenges do you have when you’re coming home from a different culture for a long period of time?
Rolf Potts: Well, culture shock. We’ve talked about culture shock in the context of going to a new place. There’s sort of a reverse culture shock that can come when you come back home, because I think on the road time is experienced in a different way, everything is new. Neurologically, your hippocampus is working in a different way because you’re solving problems constantly. You’re seeing new things constantly. You don’t understand everything, so you’re almost in a child-like mindset. I think it’s easy to forget how open to everything children can be. And then suddenly you’re back home and you feel changed. You feel like each day should be exciting, and your friends are living these lives of routine. And not to knock those lives ’cause they’ve been having a different experience. And so often times you try to superimpose that travel high at home, and that can lead to disappointment, and it can lead to a culture shock. And I think you… There’s sort of a re-entry process when you get back home that involves some of the same tools. Don’t judge your friends back home just because they’re living in a different way, just like you don’t wanna judge the people overseas who are living in a different way.
But just realize that you can quietly talk about your travels in a way that doesn’t sound braggy, and you can take that travel attitude back home. You can look for surprises, which is a gift to travel in your own home. You can look for permission to slow down and live in a more interesting way and really embrace the present in a way that happened overseas, where you don’t have to save that for home. One fun thing I did during the pandemic when I couldn’t travel overseas is, I went for a 22-mile walk with my wife to a town here in Kansas called Little Sweden, and it was really fun. It was really fun to experience so much at a place I thought I knew well, and arriving in a place on foot was so different than driving there, which I’ve done a million times. Yeah, so I think there are tools. I think it’s never easy to transition back home. That’s always gonna be a little bit of a shock, a little bit of a let down, but if you can keep that open-hearted, open-minded attitude to travel when you come back home and sort of re-integrate its lessons in your home life, that’s sort of a way of not ever letting the journey end.
Brett Mckay: Yeah, you have a chapter that I like, Avoid Being the Pretentious Returned Traveler. I think we’ve all met that guy who comes… Went on a trip and he comes back and they’re like, “Well, in Sweden, they do it this way.” And you’re like, “Okay, yeah, yeah, Jeff, we get it. You went to Sweden.” And it’s funny, this has been a thing for a long time. You had this quote from Adam Smith, the economist, and he wrote this about Britain’s young aristocrats who went traveling and he said, “The traveler… ” This is done in 1776. “The traveler commonly returns home more conceded,” he wrote, “more unprincipled, more dissipated and more incapable of any serious application, than he could well have become in so sort of time had he lived at home.” So, the whole pretentious returned traveler has been a thing for 250 years.
Rolf Potts: It has and it’ll probably never end. And I think one thing that happened during that time is that travel is seen as a status object. It’s sort of a lifestyle accessory going back to the days of the aristocratic travelers of the 18th century. And so, that in a way, it’s… Travel for these returned travelers can be a form of conspicuous consumption. It can be a way of saying, “Oh, well, look what I did, but you haven’t done.” And it’s like getting a sports car and showing it off to your friend, if you’re taking this with the wrong spirit. I think Adam Smith’s observation may have been a little bit…
I don’t know if jealousy is the right word, but I think travelers, aristocratic travelers came back to Britain with a willingness to break the rules, ’cause they saw that other… That people… Things were done differently in other cultures, and they would sort of push the mores of their own society. In a certain sense, travelers, returned travelers can push back against certain stereotypes that people have back home. But at the same time, yeah, you don’t wanna flaunt your travels like it’s a new Maserati sports car. You wanna find a humble way to engage the conversation you had with other places to the conversation you have at home with this place that used to be very familiar and is now a foreign place, is now the new destination on your itinerary. And it’s not that different, but it’s different because you’ve seen other places, if that makes sense.
Brett Mckay: Yeah, that makes sense. So I think a lot of people might think if you’re a world traveler, like yourself, they would live in some big, cosmopolitan, cool city when they’re not traveling, but you live in a small town in Kansas. Why did you choose that for your home base instead of some other cool town or city?
Rolf Potts: Well, a couple of big reasons. One is what’s called geo-arbitrage. I think you’ve talked about it before on this podcast. The idea that some places are cheaper than others, and that you can sort of make yourself wealthier if your daily expenses are less than they were in another place. And so Kansas is a place that’s just a lot less expensive than big cities in the United States. And so I was able to save money, but that was also to be close to my family. I’m from Kansas. My sister lives less than two miles from where I’m talking to you right now, and my parents, until recently, lived very close, and they still live within a half an hour from me. And I actually learned that from travel. I realized that of all the values or the commonalities that we see around the world, family is a huge one, and people make decisions to live near family all over the world.
And so weirdly enough, I had to go away from home to realize how important home was. And I think I really identified that Kansas is part of myself. So in addition to saving money by getting land and having a day-to-day life that is much cheaper than if I was in a hip city some place, it allows me to be close to my family in a way that I’ve seen people in distant lands be close to their family and really enrich my life in ways that I saw it enriching people’s lives in places like Africa and Asia and Europe and South America. So it’s been a fun dove-tailing of sort of enhancing my relationship with my family while also living more cheaply than I would in a more fashionable part of the United States.
Brett Mckay: And as you mentioned, you can still find adventure even in Kansas, like you and your wife went on that trip, walked to the Little Sweden. I think I’ve seen billboards for that when I’m on I-70, I think.
Rolf Potts: Yeah, absolutely.
Brett Mckay: Yeah. And so we’ve had Alasdair MacIntyre, and you talk about him in the book, this idea of micro-adventures. You don’t have to travel super long distances to foreign countries to get this experience of travel. You can do this in your own state and get a similar experience.
Rolf Potts: Yeah, Alastair Humphreys is his name, actually.
Brett Mckay: Yeah, Alasdair MacIntyre is a philosopher. Alastair Humphreys, right.
Rolf Potts: Okay, yeah. No, he invented… He was… As a young guy, he had these amazing adventures. He rode across the Atlantic, and he walked across India, and he did these amazing travels in Africa, but as he had kids and grew older, he found that… He sort of redefined his idea of adventure and he realized that when he was at home, being a family man, he didn’t have to cut adventure out of his life. If he went out and climbed a tree or if he slept in his backyard, or if he went to a pub two towns over and just talked to strangers in the same way he did on the side of the world. So I love this concept of micro-adventures because it allows you, in a very specific way, to take that attitude to travel home, to say, “Yeah, I could go to the movies or the mall, or hang out with my friends, or stare at my computer this weekend, but no, I’m gonna go on this walk. I’m gonna drive to a town 50 miles away that I’ve never been to and experience it for the first time, and really embrace that adventurous attitude in a way that I give myself permission to in a distant place, but I have… I don’t always give myself permission to do at home.”
Brett Mckay: Yeah. And I think you can see like… You can experience culture shock even in your own state. I’ve always been struck by this, whenever our family travels West, we’ve gone through the Panhandle of Oklahoma, which is just flat… It looks kind of like Kansas, in the western part of Kansas, super flat. You look around and it’s just miles and miles and miles of fields and cotton fields. And you’ll get into these towns and you go to the Toot’n Totum, I guess this is what these small towns have, and you see the people there. And I can tell these people, they see the world differently than I do, even though I’m just four or five hours away from them.
Rolf Potts: Yeah, well, having a road trip to the Panhandle before, there’s a university out there that’s like… Has like 20 national championships in university rodeo. Do you know what I’m talking about?
Brett Mckay: I think I know what you’re talking about. Yeah.
Rolf Potts: Yeah, I’ve never stopped there, maybe I should, but this is just a part of the country that takes pride in being like… As Alabama is to college football, this part, and I think it’s in Guymon in Oklahoma, this little college takes pride in rodeo in a way that some people will take pride in football. That’s cool. And so, yeah, I think oftentimes the landscape or the culture of a specific place will differ from town to town. Even on our walk here in Kansas, every town has a little bit of a different character, it has different restaurants and businesses and attitudes, and that can happen anywhere. So, yeah, I think the next time I go through the Oklahoma panhandle I’m going to investigate this national championship rodeo team.
Brett Mckay: The thing I want to investigate in Kansas is whenever you drive through there I think… I don’t know if it’s on the way up on I-35 or I think it might be I-70, there’s this really tiny, tiny town, but there’s this giant Catholic Cathedral there. Do you know what I’m talking about?
Rolf Potts: Yeah, I think it’s the Cathedral of the Plains. There are several famous cathedrals here, there’s a beautiful cathedral in a town called Damar, which was built by Québécois French people in the 1870s, and it’s amazing. You go in there and it’s like a junior varsity version of a church you would see in Paris. It’s architecturally beautiful, but it’s in this little very under-populated town in Western Kansas. And you drive less than an hour in the other direction, and you stop in Nicodemus town. Nicodemus which was settled by African-Americans in the 1870s and 1880s, and it now has a national landmark there. And so, yeah, actually talking about permission to do things and pretext to stop, that’s a great way… That’s a great pretext to stop.
My wife and I stopped in Damar, Kansas to see the cathedral, and we walked around the town, we found out that the mascot of the high school is called the damartians. [laughter] This space alien called the damartian. And so it was delightful to use that as a pretext. In that part of Kansas also too, there’s the world’s second largest ball of twine in Cawker City. And there is a little art town called Lucas, which is sort of the folk art capital of Kansas, and it’s this weird little artsy community that is just on this dried-up part of the high plains. And that’s in one tiny little part of Kansas, a place I admittedly know pretty well. And often as a traveler in distant places, I try to remind myself how even a place that doesn’t seem like it has much going for it, like Western Kansas, can. And so if I’m in a boring part of Thailand or South Africa or Bolivia, I remind myself how much there is to see in a place like Western Kansas, and I try to adjust accordingly.
Brett Mckay: Well, Rolf, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Rolf Potts: They can go to rolfpotts.com, that has links to everything, all my books and podcasts and articles I’ve written over the years, or go to the local bookstore. I try to encourage people to go to their local independent bookstore. And you can ask for it there, if they don’t have it, they can order it in. But yeah, in the online world, you can find me at rolfpotts.com and sort of follow the rabbit holes from there.
Brett Mckay: Fantastic. Well, Rolf Potts, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Rolf Potts: Good talking to you, Brett.
Brett Mckay: My guest today was Rolf Potts. He’s the author of the book, The Vagabonds Way. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, rolfpotts.com, also check out our show notes at aom.is/vagabond where you’ll find links to resources and we delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM Podcast. Make sure to check out our website at artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles written over the years about pretty much anything you would think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use the code, “manliness” at checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS, and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you’d take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Spotify. It helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to the AOM Podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.