Interview two: The travel guru
As part of Old World Wandering’s Kickstarter project, I’m interviewing three people about travel, writing and how they intersect in the topsy-turvy present. Last week I spoke to Graham Boynton who was an editor at Conde Nast Traveler for ten years and Group Travel Editor at the Daily and Sunday Telegraph. He spoke about how the travel industry and travel media have evolved side by side since the early 80s, when people suddenly “regarded travel as a right rather than a privilege.” According to Boynton, “the greatest crisis facing travel writing” is “the dumbing down of the genre.”
Today, I’m talking to Rolf Potts, author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel and Marco Polo Didn’t Go There: Stories and Revelations from One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer.
IM: Tell me about your first book, Vagabonding, and why you wrote it.
RP: Vagabonding is a practical and philosophical primer for long-term travel. It details how a longer, slower-paced journey can be accomplished with a minimum of expense. But it also explains why, in the context of one’s life-journey, long-term travel is an important and rewarding endeavour. The core philosophy of Vagabonding is that one’s truest form of wealth in life is time and experience – not money or “things” – and that travel is a way to actualize that wealth in a meaningful way.
The philosophical component came from my own life experiences. I didn’t grow up in a wealthy or cosmopolitan setting, where international travel is seen as a reflexive lifestyle option for young people; I grew up in an industrial city on the Great Plains, an environment where traditional work ethic was practically a religion. I longed to travel the world, but few people I knew owned passports, and I assumed that international travel was for retired people, folks who’d worked and saved for decades. My grandfather was a Kansas farmer who’d been tilling and harvesting full time since he was 15, but when he was ready to retire – around the time I was a teenager – he was in no position to enjoy his newfound free time, since his health was failing and my grandmother was regressing into Alzheimer’s. I realized at a young age that a life of hard work doesn’t automatically reward you with time to live your dreams.
I was reading a lot of Walt Whitman at the time, as well as Henry David Thoreau, who noted in Walden that most people spend “the best part of life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it.” I began to realize that my own life concerns were part of a much larger philosophical conversation, one that stretched back to the Bible and the Upanishads. I decided to live my life ambitions rather than postpone them; I saved up money from eight months of landscaping work and used it to travel North America for eight months. In the process, I learned that long-term travel was cheaper, easier, and safer than I’d expected. I was hooked. I moved to Korea, where two years of teaching English earned me enough money to travel Asia for two years.
Around that time I started freelancing for Salon.com, and in 1999 I became their “Vagabonding” travel columnist, writing biweekly dispatches about my ongoing adventures. Salon readers began to email me with questions about my travels, and the two most common queries were “How are you able to travel for so long?” and “How does one become a travel writer?” I’d been running an author website, RolfPotts.com, since 1998, so I decided to address those questions online. I wasn’t sure how one becomes a travel writer – I only knew my own experience – so each month I began to pose basic travel-writing career questions to different literary and guidebook professionals. I’m still doing that, and to date I’ve interviewed over one hundred people, including some of the biggest names in travel writing.
As for the “How do you travel for so long?” question, I decided to address it in big-picture terms. I wrote up a ten-point “Vagabonding Suggestifesto” (“manifesto” seemed too presumptuous), which detailed the kind of life-attitude that can enable meaningful long-term travel. This online text found its way to an editor at Random House, who suggested I expand this philosophy into a book. The ten points of my “suggestifesto” became chapter topics, and the book was written over the course of eight months in a little rented room in southern Thailand. It contained lots of practical advice, but at its core was the philosophical argument I’d confronted as a teenager – how long-term travel can deepen one’s life journey, and how this is an experience that shouldn’t be postponed to a seemingly more appropriate time of life.
IM: How do you think travel as an industry constructs our ideas about travel as an experience?
RP: The travel industry has always influenced our ideas about the travel experience – in part because the travel industry has always played a nuts-and-bolts role in making the act of travel possible. Two thousand years ago, the travel industry dovetailed with cross-cultural trade. There was no such thing as a passenger ship, so travellers bought passage on merchant vessels – and they were expected to bring their own supplies and help out with onboard tasks. Most improved roads existed to expedite government business, most inns doubled as brothels, and few people travelled for travel’s sake. Travel was thus perceived to be as difficult and utilitarian as the services and technologies that enabled it.
This didn’t begin to change on a wide scale until the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when an emergent European middle class created a self-contained travel industry that focused on leisure and self-education. As with any middle-class endeavour, the notion of “tourism” came to carry pejorative implications. The funniest travel book of the 19th century, Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad, finds its satire at the expense of an American tour-group visiting the Mediterranean region. Since Twain’s day, the travel industry has grown in tandem with mass culture, hitting its tipping point in the 1980s, when – as Graham Boynton pointed out in last week’s interview – consumers in industrialized nations came to see travel as a right rather than a privilege. Some folks have claimed that this is when the language of travel writing began to blur with the language of advertising – but travel writing (and the expectations of travellers) has always been mixed up with a fantasy vision of what is to be found in faraway lands. In the classic 1976 craft primer On Writing Well, journalist William Zinsser’s was already using the term “travelese” to describe the trite tropes of travel tales. “Nowhere else in nonfiction do writers use such syrupy words and groaning platitudes,” Zinsser noted. “It is a style of soft words which under hard examination mean nothing.”
The term “travel industry” still has a somewhat dodgy connotation for travel purists, and it’s easy to disparage the phony expectations created by tourism marketers. But most people these days are savvy enough to see through the illusions of advertising – if nothing else because we tend to tout the same travel idealizations and half-truths on our Facebook feeds. Regardless of how travel is mediated, it’s not that hard to wander off the beaten path. Moreover, I’d reckon the travel industry offers more benefits than drawbacks for serious travellers. The world has become accessible in ways we could scarcely dream of a few generations ago, and the travel industry has done a lot to enable this. This can lead to certain economic and environmental complexities, of course, but I’d wager the world is better off for the mass exchange of people and ideas.
IM: What do you think about the explosion of amateur travel media online? I’m mostly referring to the thousands of travel blogs that have appeared in the last few years, but there are other examples. What are their strengths and weaknesses?
RP: Travel blogs have become so widespread and diverse in recent years that it’s hard to make a generalization, good or bad, without getting something wrong in the process. A conventional criticism is that travel blogs are poorly written and riddled with verbal and visual clichés – but there are plenty of blogs out there that feature smart, innovative content. On that same token, blogs have been celebrated as an independent, populist alternative to what the travel industry feeds us through mainstream publications – but from what I’ve seen bloggers are as likely as anyone to trot out hackneyed narratives about a given destination.
I’d posit that travel blogs are at their best when they present a straightforward, unpolished, epistolary recounting of a personal journey, since this can capture a place or experience with an unguarded honesty you won’t find in more formal publications. A professional photographer named Peter DiCampo recently created a buzz with “Everyday Africa,” an exhibition of informal iPhone photos that depict the continent not through its media extremes (Africa as strife-torn wasteland; Africa as uplifting human-interest parable), but through the same offhand banality one might see in Hipstamatic app photos of family and friends. Look at DiCampo’s photos, and they feel similar to what you can find on any of thousands of amateur travel blogs. This incidental micro-narrative is important. The only audience for some of these amateur blog posts is a handful of friends or family members – but this enables, say, Grandma Mildred, or your old pal Bob from high school, to see how most Africans (or Arabs, Chinese, Cubans, or any other culture that might be considered “exotic”) are living quiet, “normal” lives that we all can identify with. Amid the alarmist din of mainstream media reporting, these types of blogs offer an important counter-narrative that can make the Other feel more familiar and relatable.
Interestingly, I’ve found that a key weakness in travel blogging emerges when a given blogger becomes more professional and seeks to widen his blog audience. At a certain level this results in better photos and more compelling text, but it also requires that the blogger sink more travel time into the task of content creation and self-promotion. Instead of living one’s journey in the open-ended, organic manner that allows for serendipity and unexpected discovery, the blogger winds up “performing” her travels for her audience; the act of experiencing one’s travels thus becomes hard to separate from the act of recording, editing, posting, and promoting one’s travels. I can attest to this first-hand, since my most intensive experience in from-the-field travel blogging came in 2010, when I travelled around the world with no luggage for six weeks.
The “stunt” at the heart of the journey was an experiment in extreme minimalism, but travelling with no bags was easy compared to the task of trying to portray those travels in near-real time. For every minute of lighthearted travel depicted in my blog posts and videos, I sank three minutes of travel time into conceptualizing, writing, and editing those posts and videos. I had a lot of fun in the process, and I’m proud of how the content turned out, but – despite the large audience and positive publicity – the journey itself wasn’t very affecting on a personal level. It was closer to what historian Daniel Boorstin defined as a “pseudo-event” – a visible activity that is done for the primary purpose of being seen. That’s the recurring shortcoming of any professionalized travel blog, I think: The constant process of feeding content into one’s blog blurs the line between travel and travel-performance.
I prefer to travel in relative anonymity for longer periods of time, and capture my experiences in more reflective, long-form narratives. I prefer to read this kind of travel writing as well – but the short-cycle demands of professionalized, social-media-driven blog posts favour shorter, more frequent, less-digested travel narratives. That’s fine if you aim to share consumer service information or document a short-term event in real-time, but the resulting content is far less likely to convey much personal or literary depth.
IM: What do you think separates travel writing from journalism?
RP: Travel writing is typically considered to be a sub-category of journalism – which is interesting, since travel writing existed before journalism, and has done a lot to influence the way journalism works. These days it’s hard to draw a clear line between the two labels. Is international reporting a kind of travel writing? Sometimes it is. Is the content in glossy travel magazines a kind of journalism? Sometimes it is, too. And some types of travel writing – service, news, many destination features – take on the information-driven form and structure of traditional news journalism.
Travel writing deviates from journalism when it takes a more personal, memoiristic slant, and tackles deeper human themes. Instead of taking on a pose of objectivity, this kind of travel writing acknowledges the specificity (and limitations) of one person’s point of view, and this self-awareness becomes a part of the story. Long-form narrative journalism has actually borrowed a lot from travel writing in this sense, in that it acknowledges the conceit of reportorial objectivity and places the writer and her subject in a finite world. Travel writing is particularly good at this approach, since by its very nature travel forces the writer into a position of humility and vulnerability. In this kind of writing, you have a sense for who is telling the story, and this personal sensibility informs the way you understand that story. When done well, this kind of writing resonates on several levels at once, in a way that goes beyond standard journalism.
IM: Since its beginnings, with epics like Gilgamesh and Homer’s Odyssey, travel writing has by its nature been a reflection of an interconnected world. New sorts of travel literature emerge when new sorts of travel become possible, from Marco Polo’s journey along the Silk Road to Pico Iyer’s reflections on global – but mostly American – pop culture. What do you think travel writing will take from the internet, with its unprecedented freedom from physicality that is also a constant connection to home?
RP: That’s an interesting way to frame the question, since Gilgamesh is in many ways a metaphorical tale about mortality, and The Odyssey is as much about Greek self-definition as it is cross-cultural reflection. I guess travel literature has always served multiple tasks at once – and it will certainly continue to do so in the 21st century. At a certain level the Internet has turned the task of reporting on faraway places and cultures – a task that used to be the central mission of travel writing – into a somewhat redundant endeavour. These days we can go online and view simultaneous perspectives on a single place – and more than ever we are hearing the voices of the people who live in these places. That’s a good thing, I think, since as travellers we’re less prone to fall back on the postcard preconceptions and pat conclusions that once defined so much travel writing.
It’s often been said that, historically, travel writing held up a mirror to the ideals of home. From Herodotus to the imperial-era Brits, travel accounts examined other cultures in part to answer the question, “Who, as a people, are we?” The information age has shifted this question so that it now asks, “Who, as a person, am I?” Pico Iyer manages to address this question while still being reportorial, but for the most part I think travel writing will drift more and more into a memoiristic direction, to the point that it will, at times, scarcely feel like travel writing. I remember reading Eat, Pray, Love for the first time six years ago, and feeling frustrated by how little time the author spent engaging the cultures she was visiting. Her travels were so sequestered that they felt like background scenery to a story that had almost nothing to do with travel.
Half a decade later, our electronic connection to home is such a foregone conclusion as we travel that the concerns of a given journey begin to blur with the concerns of home. I’ve been reading Andrew McCarthy’s The Longest Way Home, and it’s interesting to see how much of the story hinges on Skyping his wife from the wastelands of Patagonia, or sending satellite-phone dispatches to his family from the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. I remember how, in Jon Krakauer’s 1997 book Into Thin Air, the socialite who sends sat-phone dispatches from Everest is seen as this kind of vulgar figure, but when McCarthy uses a similar technology in 2012 the gesture feels heartfelt and normal.
I think this direct dialogue between travel and home is going to figure even larger in 21st century travel writing, to the point that some travel-themed stories and books will scarcely feel like travel writing as we have traditionally understood it. The key, I think, will be how well these stories are rendered, how well the writing draws human insights from this way of living and travelling.
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