Book Review: “Vagabonding” by Rolf Potts (2002)

“An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-term World Travel”

Image result for vagabonding pottsTravel has always been a joy of mine, though I’m firmly aware of how bad my wife and I are at it! While I love walking the most drab and out-of-the-way streets of a new town to get a feel for how the locals really live, my wife likes to check out the malls, so no matter where we go, we’re unhappy. While my wife and I both love food to death and are adventurous eaters, we haven’t the earliest clue about how to pick the right restaurant while on the road. We generally return from a trip weary and wishing we had done more, spent less, wandered more, and toured less. For these reasons, Rolf Potts’ Vagabonding was just what I needed this vacation-time to understand how to travel better and more wisely.

Before I get into the items I found useful from this book, I have to mention that there were times that I felt a bit out of touch with the lifestyle Potts was promoting. He writes at one point, “Statistically, most vagabonders are eighteen to thirty-five years old and childless — but this doesn’t mean that youthful independence is a prerequisite for long-term travel. Indeed, some of the most dynamic vagabonders are the adventurous elder and family travelers who defy stereotype and set out to discover the world for themselves.” (38) Yet later he also adds, “It’s advisable to pick an appealing place at some point in your travels and settle down for a few weeks or months to get to know it better.” (147)

Seriously? I understand that he promotes short-time work for long-time travel, but what if your wife needs stability? What if your children need, I don’t know, school? What if you need friends that stick with you for longer than “a few weeks or months”? In fact, the more I thought about this lifestyle as I read, the more depressing it sounded to me. What good is a life filled with experiencing and learning about other cultures if you’ve got no way of actually using that information to benefit those people you’re getting to know? Perhaps it’s the missionary in me talking, but personal growth and lifelong learning are to be the happy side-benefits of getting to know other people and their cultures, not the self-centered purpose. I don’t pine to be some well-traveled, arrogant vagrant who’s got a story for every occasion but not a close relationship in this world. If I travel and experience new cultures, people, and places, I want to do so with an end-goal in sight, to understand their worldview, to learn about their struggles, and to help lay the bridge between them and the Truth that can set them free.

Now, with all preaching aside: although this book does not perfectly match my desired traveler’s profile—after all, I’m a father of 2 and not some aimless single—it did offer some fantastic ideas about not only how to travel, but also how to prepare to travel. Potts’ describes this concept of “vagabonding”—almost more an attitude than an event—in several ways, and here are just a few to help get the idea across:

  • Vagabonding involves taking an extended time-out from your normal life — six weeks, four months, two years — to travel the world on your own terms. (12)
  • 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….Vagabonding starts now. Even if the practical reality of travel is still months or years away, vagabonding begins the moment you stop making excuses, start saving money, and begin to look at maps with the narcotic tingle of possibility.  (15)
  • This is why vagabonding is not to be confused with a mere vacation, where the only goal is escape. With escape in mind, vacationers tend to approach their holiday with a grim resolve, determined to make their experience live up to their expectations; on the vagabonding road, you prepare for the long haul knowing that the predictable and the unpredictable, the pleasant and the unpleasant are not separate but part of the same ongoing reality. (133)
  • A vacation, after all, merely rewards work. Vagabonding justifies it. (19)
  • Vagabonding is less like a getaway caper than a patient kind of aimlessness — quite similar, in fact, to what the Australian Aborigines call “walkabout.” (145)

Potts presents his material in a clear and well-patterned way, offering not only insights from his many years of extended travel, but also plenty of paper and online resources, a plethora of quotes dealing with travel and life on the road, profiles of great historical travelers, and insights from fellow vagabonders with whom he’s vaga-bonded in distant outposts across the globe. The only thing that got pretty annoying after a while was his propensity to place-drop (as opposed to the more common flaw of name-dropping). Perhaps he felt the need to prove his right to tell us travelers how to roll, perhaps he had some other motivation. Whatever his reason, I felt he could have just as easily shared this great information without having to add his mostly useless anecdotes from some town nobody’s heard of, just to tell us that, yeah, he’s been there too.

Particularly insightful to me, however, were the issues of minimalism, spirituality, and adventure. Regarding minimalism in life and travel, he writes:

Travel by its very nature demands simplicity. If you don’t believe it, just go home and try stuffing everything you own into a backpack. This will never work, because no matter how meagerly you live at home, you can’t match the scaled-down minimalism that travel requires. You can, however, set the process of reduction and simplification into motion while you’re still at home. This is useful on several levels: Not only does it help you to save up travel money, but it helps you realize how independent you are of your possessions and your routines. In this way, it prepares you mentally for the realities of the road, and makes travel a dynamic extension of the life-alterations you began at home…There are three general methods to simplifying your life: stopping expansion, reining in your routine, and reducing clutter. (32)

Regarding spirituality, he writes:

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…This spiritual process is not always free of care. Indeed, if travel is a process that helps you “find yourself,” it’s because it leaves you with nothing to hide behind — it yanks you out from the realm of rehearsed responses and dull comforts, and forces you into the present. Here, in the fleeting moment, you are left to improvise, to come to terms with your raw, true Self. (157)

Finally, regarding adventure he quotes Bertrand Russell (who must have been writing with me in mind): “Adventurous men enjoy shipwrecks, mutinies, earthquakes, conflagrations, and all kinds of unpleasant experiences…They say to themselves, for example, ‘So this is what an earthquake is like,’ and it gives them pleasure to have their knowledge of the world increased by this new item.” (108)

I found that this book is in high demand across the internet, and I can understand why. It’s an excellent dissection of a particular lifestyle that, while not appealing to everyone, lies at the root of everyone’s desire “to just get away.” I did enjoy the book for all the excellent, pertinent information and resources he offers; I just don’t think I’m the vagabonding type.

©2017 E.T.

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