Sunday, March 25, 2012

READING: Vagabonding

This week's read:

...and for those of you keeping track, I'm still half a week behind.

I'll start with a confession that led me to this book: I'm a habitual overpacker. My general train of thought while packing is -- to borrow a quote from Mo Willems' I Am Invited to a Party! -- "What if there's a fancy costume pool party?!" So packing is always a game of Tetris, except instead of blocks, I'm trying to fit in seven different cardigans and a pair of hiking boots even though I'm going to Bermuda.

So when I first saw this video of Rolf Potts explaining how he traveled through 12 countries without luggage*, I had to buy his book. Leaving the country with only a cargo vest full of necessities is so far out of my wheelhouse -- I had to learn more.


Vagabonding is the concept of long-term, low-budget world travel -- sleep on couches, sleep in the woods, go where the road takes you and where the train fare is cheapest. See what you see. Simplify your life at home so you can spend more time away.
...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.
Now, let me say that I don't think Rolf and I would travel well together. For starters, I'm a big fan of hotels -- the kind with cable television and free wi-fi and room service nachos. The other issue is that I don't just let things happen. I'm all for changing the game plan or pulling off the road if we pass somethng more interesting than our destination. But there are plans. I travel with a manila folder that my husband and friends (with varying degrees of affection) refer to as "Danny Tanner's Clipboard of Fun." I like to know where we're going, what we're doing, and when we're eating. For an extra layer of travel pleasure, I like to pretend I'm coming up with these ideas spontaneously. So I'll wake up in the morning, consult my folder o' fun, and casually say, "Hmmm...maybe we should go snorkeling today?" Then I spontaneously whip out my printed confirmation for a snorkeling cruise at 2 p.m., Mapquest directions to the marina, and my new water shoes.

So, yeah,  I don't think Rolf and I would be travel buddies. Still, he quotes Phil Cousineau's** defense of the prepared traveler:
Preparation no more spoils the chance for spontaneity and serendipity than discipline ruins the opportunity for genuine self-expression in sports, acting, or the tea ceremony.
See? Still fun.

One thing that surprised me was his view on tourism. I expected some degree of traveler vs. tourist elitism, but he seems to fall squarely in the middle of the two. (In that regard, maybe we could travel together, at least for a day or two.) He points out that Kerouac's On the Road inspired more people to buy jazz records and convertibles than to actually hit the road in search of spiritual awakening -- that consumerism tends to be a substitute for living richly. He notes that many travel snobs are actually looking for a caricature version of the culture and a story to tell when they get home again. And he makes the obvious, but often overlooked, point that most tourist sites are crowded because they're worth seeing:
...tourist attractions are defined by their collective popularity, and that very popularity tends to devalue the individual experience of such attractions...this has inspired cultural critics the world over to bemoan how "tainted" the world's tourist draws have become...such fears say more about the travel habits of cultural critics than the actual reality of the road. Indeed you only need to wander a few minutes from the Champs-Elysees, the Sphinx, or the backpacker dives of Dali if you want untainted glimpses of Paris, Egypt, or China.
In other words, if you can't deal with the tourists, quit whining and hop on a train to the next town. It's probably pretty quiet there.

Anyway. There are few things I love reading about more than travel, so this was right up my alley. I highly recommend it to anyone who likes to wax philosophical about travel -- or just needs a vacation.

P.S. In the spirit of vagabonding, if you were taking a long-term vacation -- let's say six months -- where would you plant yourself? I'd pick Kailua Bay or Amsterdam***.

P.P.S. Excuse me while I have a case of the gimmes.

* For anyone who happened to look at the link -- yeah, sorry, this is another Tim Ferriss recommendation.
** He quoted about 2938731982371937 books in this book. This is one seriously well-read dude.
*** Not for any illicit reasons. I just really liked the canals and the pancakes. Actually, pancakes factor pretty heavily into my love for both locations.


  1. I am impressed that you are getting through all these books! It takes me forever to read one!

  2. This is a very accurate representation of traveling with Kara. The clipboard of fun is real! At least I never have to worry what we will be doing. I show up, and Kara has awesome things planned for us. At least one of us is surprised...