Maybe Marco Polo Didn't Go There, but Rolf Potts Did

As a self-proclaimed jet-setter, you may be asking why I would want to interview Rolf Potts, since he is a vagabonder.  The answer is simple.  He is an extraordinary travel writer, accomplished author and yet he is just a simple guy that has a bona fide passion for travel.  And if there is one thing that I am passionate about, it’s having a passion for travel.  I love that Rolf doesn’t define himself by his luggage.  Whether someone carries a backpack or the newest Louis Vuitton, personally, I don’t care.  For me, jet setting isn’t about throwing money around so you can sit next to P. Diddy.  It’s about experiencing the world with both eyes open.  Rolf and I definitely travel differently.  Yet, we are on the same earth, under the same stars and staring out at the same oceans.  Maybe the thread count is different or the service is better, but at the end of the trip I would assume that we will both remember the same glowing sunsets, the cultures that we’ve experienced and the many locals that we’ve met.

Rolf travels the world and truly engages himself; he’s not just a bystander.  His new book, Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, is a collection of stories from his journeys over the last ten-years.  His writing style is inspiring.  I guess that’s why he’s graced the page of Conde Nast Traveler, National Geographic and the New York Times Magazine, just to name a few.  You will find yourself completely absorbed into his stories, almost as if you are traveling right along next to him.  His brilliance and passion comes through in every word. It’s definitely a MUST read for ALL travelers.

So without further ado. My interview with Rolf Potts.

Rolf’s self-portrait while traveling the Tigris River Valley, Syria.

1. People often envy my choice to travel often, as opposed to living the
normal 9-5 work week with one-week vacation per year. For me, it was just
a decision that I made to live my life on my own terms. You obviously made
a similar decision. How did travel writing begin for you and how did you
escape societies notions of what you *should* be doing with your life?

In some ways I stumbled into it.  Back when I was in my late teens/early
twenties I really felt like I had to travel when I was young, because I
felt like it would never happen if I waited until I got older.  This
eventually led to my first vagabonding experience — 8 months around North
America not long after I finished college.  It was during that trip that I
discovered how easy and enjoyable and inexpensive long-term travel could
be.  I was hooked.  Instead of getting travel “out of my system,” as I
thought I might do, I made it a part of my life.  In some ways I’m still
on that original journey — and writing is something that came along the
way over the years, though a process and trial-and-failure, until it
became something I could do as a living.

2. Of the places you have traveled to, which of them do you find yourself
constantly wanting to revisit? Which would you never go back to? Why?

I love going back to Paris and New York.  And I love road-tripping the
American West.   India and the Middle East are great, too.  And Korea and
Thailand can, at times, feel like home.  But I also seek out new places too,
so I don’t regularly go back to some of those places.

I don’t know if there’s a place I would never go back to, at least in
principle.  Even lousy places, places where I had bad experiences, might
reveal something new if I go back.

3. One of my favorite parts of travel is participating in rituals,
ceremonies or holiday celebrations in different countries. I especially
love the Reveillon ritual in Rio de Janeiro. Which is the experience that
you have participated in that made the largest imprint on you?

Probably the Kumbh Mela in India in 2001.  Something like 70 million
people visited the Ganges near the city of Allahabad over the course of
six weeks — the largest gathering of humans in the history of the planet.
It was amazing to be a part of it, and unlike anything I’ve ever

4. When you come back to the States, do you experience culture shock? If
so, how do you deal with it?

I don’t really experience Stateside culture shock anymore — I’ve been
coming and going from the US so much in the past 12 years that I’ve kind
of gotten used to the transition.

5. In your new book, Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, are there any stories
that you really wanted to include, but were cut out of the final copy? If
so, can you give me a brief version of the story?

I had almost total creative control over Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, so
there was very little thematic wrangling or unkind edits.  In fact my
publishers specifically requested I add “Death of an Adventure Traveler,”
which I hadn’t originally planned on including — and I’m glad I did,
since that story and its themes are kind of at the heart of the book.  So
mostly what got left out are some old stories of mine that I liked, but
either felt redundant or out of place in this book.  And perhaps some of
them I can come back to in a future collection of travel stories.

6. Globalization is my travel pet-peeve. There’s nothing worse than seeing
Italians in line at Starbucks. What is your travel pet-peeve?

I get irritated by competition among travelers — who’s traveled the
longest, who’s traveled to the most countries, who’s traveled for the
least amount of money, which nationalities are better than others.  Every
hostel lounge in the world seems to have these kinds of social “pissing
contests.”  It seems like such a waste of energy, such a misappropriation
of travel time.  Better to just quietly make your own travels better than
to constantly compare them to other people’s travels.

As for globalization, I’m all for local industry and local color — but
I’m also of the opinion that Italians should be able to drink coffee
wherever they want, even if it’s a Starbucks.

7. It seems that both you and Tim Ferriss are sticking your big toe into
the world of television. Has this always been in your master plan or is
this an opportunity that just came along?

I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of television, but it was never
really a part of my master plan.  Writing is my passion, and it’s what I’m
best at, I think.  But in early 2007 the Travel Channel began actively
looking for “qualified insiders” — people with active travel expertise,
not just “actors” — to host their shows.  I think 12-15 different
production companies approached me that year, wanting me to send them
clips or make an audition tape.  Because I wasn’t really pursuing
television work, I didn’t have many clips to send.  But one company,
Pioneer Productions, flew me to Los Angeles to make an audition reel.  I
wasn’t cast for the show they had in mind in 2007, but a year later they
cast me for “American Pilgrim,” which debuted last November and was my
first TV hosting gig.

Here’s a little excerpt from Rolf’s travel show debut:

8. How was your experience working with The Travel Channel and are there
any future shows in the pipeline?

Though my show appeared on the Travel Channel, I didn’t work directly with
them; all the hands-on work was carried out by the production company.
And it was a great debut hosting experience — the people I worked with
were very supportive and encouraging.  I don’t have any specific TV
projects lined up for the near future, though I do have a TV agent now
that helps me with that kind of thing.  I’m just going to continue to
concentrate on my travels and my writing, and if the right TV show comes
along I’ll do it.

9. What is the one place that you haven’t traveled to yet and are dying to

New Zealand comes to mind.  Though I’d love to hit Madagascar.  And South
Africa.  Most of sub-Saharan Africa, really.  I’m under-traveled in that
part of the world, and I’d love to just get out to Africa and wander.

10. Just a quick little questionnaire to get to know you a little better.

Where are you in this exact moment: Rural Saline County, Kansas, where I
live and write in a little farmhouse when I’m not traveling.

What is your favorite lip balm: Blistex — though I use other kinds from
time to time.  My lips chap easily, so I’m constantly using lip balm.

What is the most luxurious item you travel with: I probably my laptop,
though I don’t always take it with me.  I don’t really do luxury; I tend
to be all practicality when I’m on the road.

What genre of books do you enjoy reading most: Non-fiction.  I can’t get
much more specific than that.  Travel, yes, but also history and science
and sociology and memoirs and essays and all sorts of topics.

What is your favorite beach for relaxing: I’m not much of a beach person.
If you pressed me I might say one of the wilderness beaches on the
Olympic Peninsula in Washington.  But I haven’t been up to that part of
the country in a long time.

Which do you think is the friendliest city: There are a lot of friendly
places in the world.  New Orleans comes to mind.  Havana.  Beirut.
Damascus.  Bangkok, even.

What is the most adventurous thing you’ve done: Many things might qualify
in this category.  Probably taking a little fishing boat 900 miles down
the Laotian Mekong in 1999.

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4 Responses to Maybe Marco Polo Didn't Go There, but Rolf Potts Did

  1. Nice interview, Kim. Creative questions.

    “Marco Polo Didn’t Go There” has just arrived with my last big purchase, and is obediently waiting in my long To-Read List. One of the nexts. ;)

    Cheers from Rio,

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  2. Megan says:

    OH I am def adding this one to my list of to reads! Thanks for always having interesting blogs! I love coming to your site. :)

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  3. Pingback: » Rolf’s latest articles and interviews (and penguin photos) :: Vagablogging :: Rolf Potts Vagabonding Blog

  4. Sprock says:

    Great interview. I loved “Vagabonding”. I’ll have to check out his new book. Hopefully, it’s on the Kindle app.


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