Vagabonding & The Art Of Long-Term Travel With Rolf Potts | Yuli Azarch

Vagabonding & The Art Of Long-Term Travel With Rolf Potts

Yuli Azarch Yuli Azarch | May 28, 2019 | No Comments on Vagabonding & The Art Of Long-Term Travel With Rolf Potts

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Rolf Potts is the author of “Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel” and “Marco Polo didn’t go there”. He has written for high profile travel magazines such as National Geographic Traveler, Outside, The Guardian, World Hum, and more.

Rolf has been vagabonding the world for about 20 years while writing about his travels. He runs his podcast called Deviate, where he hosts conversations with experts, public figures, and intriguing people.


What We Talked About?

  1. Rolf Potts background. 01:00
  2. The Mindset. 03:18
  3. The Art of Vagabonding. 8:15
  4. Meaningful long-time travel. 10:04
  5. Improving yourself by traveling. 11:16
  6. Don’t be a traveler, just travel. 14:08
  7. Feeling at home while traveling. 22:58
  8. Your Smartphone, your loyal companion. 31:15
  9. Working While Traveling. 37:16
  10. Packing like a Master. 39:58
  11. The Magic of Walking. 44:47
  12. Final Thoughts. 51:41
  13. Show Notes.

Rolf Potts Background.

Twenty-five years ago, Rolf made his first vagabonding trip by van through North America, which lasted seven and a half months. He thought he would forget about his travel urge and get back to his ordinary workaholic American life, but obviously, it didn’t happen.

According to Rolf, he took that trip for existential reasons. He wasn’t really sure if life or society would give him free time to travel until he was very old. He wanted to travel a lot while he was young. And so he found ways to make it happen.”

Rolf traveled through North America and lived in a van. The real van-life back in 1994. He had a different mindset in his early twenties that he is right now. He had many different questions surrounding his mind in his early travels.

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25 years ago this week I embarked on a trip that would change my life: An 8-month VW Vanagon journey around North America. The idea was to scratch my travel itch when I was young. … That first journey taught me that travel isn't nearly as difficult, dangerous, or expensive as one might think. Five years later — 20 years ago this week, as it happens — I set out on another vagabonding adventure, this time an Asia-Europe-Asia journey that wound up lasting 30 months. When that trip had finished I paused for eight months in Thailand, wrote a little book called "Vagabonding," then headed back out on the road. … This morning finds me in LAX, on the cusp of a three-month winter sojourn through parts of Asia (Sumatra, Sri Lanka, Oman, Georgia) I've never visited before. I'm beginning to think I could travel another 25 years and never properly scratch that travel itch.

A post shared by Rolf Potts (@rolfpotts) on

At 26, Rolf moved to South Korea to teach English and live as an expat. According to Rolf Potts, living as an expatriate is as important as traveling because you learn a lot about how other cultures are different. Rolf learned many instincts from working in other cultures that help him for his later trips.

Two years later, he started a full-time 2-year trip across Asia, which resulted in his popular Vagabonding book.


It is All About The Mindset.

Rolf’s mindset has been shifting, but at its core, it remains the same. Twenty years ago his mindset was more tied into the initial existential questions. He wanted to live his life in a good way, and he was always looking to answer questions.

Seeing his Grandfather work very hard back in his hometown Kansas, and not being able to enjoy himself, Rolf realized in a sad emotional level, that life doesn’t reward you with free time. If you dream of doing something amazing, you should do it.

In his early twenties, he was reading a lot of books that opened more questions, like Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Walt Whitman, and even religious scriptures. Through books, he learned that life isn’t about what you own, but it is about the moment and what you make of it.

How to Get the Right Mindset?

Rolf suggests that it is good to be serious about life, but it is also good to be serious about fun. His early mindset was a combination of inquiry and a desire to enjoy himself. Rolf’s travels in his twenties were much more foundational than his later travels.

“I don’t want just passively to live the life that others think I should live, but I should travel the world in such a way that it broadens my life and teaches me lessons about the world and myself. And have fun in the process.”

Rolf Potts is in his forties now, and he is much more experienced about traveling. He has become a travel expert. People come and ask him for travel advice. Rolf is always happy to give travel advice to people who have those same questions he had when he was young.


The Art of Vagabonding.

What is Vagabonding?

According to Rolf Potts, Vagabonding is taking an extended time off from your normal life, a month, six months, or more to travel the world on your terms. It is not just a vacation where you are using the time that has been giving to you.

Vagabonding is a personalized thing, and it is not a contest. It is about personally finding the best way of traveling around. Although it is a flexible plan of action, it also emphasizes creativity, discovery, and growth.

According to Rolf, a plan could get you out the door and keep you moving. It can help you re-assure that it is possible to travel. And once you are on the road, you will start learning things in a new and meaningful way.

“I think there is a big imaginative aspect to travel that you can visualize yourself traveling before you go and making that plan allowed me to actualize the imaginary side of that and make it real.”


Meaningful Long-time Travel. 

According to Rolf, the attitude and right mindset are the most important things that you can have for vagabonding. You can cultivate the right frame of mind, remembering that:

  1. Vagabonding is something anybody can do.
  2. It is better to go slow. You can be flexible, by not sticking to an itinerary.
  3. Every day when you travel you are going to be smarter, and you will find things that you thought were impossible.  

Rolf believes that to build the right attitude you don’t even have to be traveling. You can start creating the right frame of mind before you are on the road. Start building the attitude today, that will serve you on your long-term travels tomorrow.

“You don’t need a sense of urgency. If it is going to be two years or four years before you have the money and the life freedom to do it, then realize that in a way those travels can become a part of your travel attitude now.”

According to Rolf, vagabonding is not just a matter of making a plan and following it. Instead, people should relax and realize that the trip itself is a creative act. It is about adjusting as you go along, learning, but also including the right discipline and structure that will get you out of the door.


How Traveling Improves Your life.

According to Rolf, traveling helps him understand the real world and gain perspective about the life that we live at home. In our place, we just receive information about how certain cultures or religions work, but it is not the real thing. 

For example, places such as Egypt or Lebanon are more friendly than you would have expected it. But they are also totally different from each other. Just because they are Muslim countries doesn’t mean they have a lot in common.

News and stories about the world are just simplified and narrative versions. But it is not the real thing. It often serves a purpose other than to simply inform us.

“Going to a place you learn a far more complicated part about the world and how it works and I think that can apply to all aspects of your life.”

Rolf suggests travelers, to put their vagabonding time on their resume, that they shouldn’t hide it from the employers. Being out in the real world, meeting people, and making difficult decisions every day will give you skills that not much people have.


Don’t Be A Traveler, Just Travel.

Rolf thinks that for a long time people saw that there is a meaningful and there is a consumerism way to travel. They said tourists are the consumers and travelers are the meaningful ones.

But then it became a sort of a hipster thing. Being a traveler was a way of being cool. People would spend so much time trying to seem like a traveler, that they don’t even travel that meaningfully. According to Rolf, trying to find a distinction between meaningful travel and the superficial consumerist traveler has become complicated.

So Rolf likes to think that the difference is less important than just traveling well, meaningful and slowly, beyond that consumer experience.

When we travel, going slow means not only spending a month in an exotic place but leaving yourself open. Sometimes you can walk for 10 minutes to any direction from an over-touristic area and find a much more meaningfully travel-friendly place than the place where you were before.

“Leaving yourself open means that if you fall in love with the place, you can stay for a while. Traveling slowly, allows you so many more options, so that you can follow your passions and your heart instead of your itinerary.”


Feeling at Home While Traveling.

One way that Rolf keeps his travels interesting is by creating a sense of home and building relationships. The secret to building a sense of home is by traveling slowly, which lends itself to having more time to build relationships and even work as an expatriate. It is also essential to acknowledge that your travel is not a contest or a status booster.

If traveling is an integrated part of your life, then you should also have some non-travel parts of life too, such as work, home, relationships, etc. Being relax and flexible while traveling is a way of increasing your options.

“I think once you stop subscribing to the societal, subscriptions for life…such as, you need an expensive car, you need the perfect girlfriend, you need this career. Once you start carving out your way of digging the world, then you sort of figure it out. I am still learning. I was surprised this winter, by how enjoyable and at home, I felt when I was traveling across Asia.”

And If there are certain things that Rolf doesn’t like about a place, then he has the option to go back home to Kansas and recharge his batteries. It is good to have sometimes a place to call home and to miss because that gives you the stability to offset the unpredictability of travel.


Your Smartphone: Today’s Loyal Travel Companion.

According to Rolf, the good news about smartphones is that they make travel easier and eliminate the excuses from not going out.

Smartphones give you so many options; they allow you to book rooms on the run or to pull up maps as you need.  But unfortunately, a smartphone is like taking home with you. According to Rolf, you are more likely to be texting people back home and using it for the wrong habits, like watching Netflix.

There was another generation where maybe I would have gone out and had dinner, talk to somebody, or been more interactive or force myself to feel a bit lonely or bored, so that I would have a more organic experience.”

Rolf says that you should be aware of the role that a smartphone plays in your travels, for example about how much you use it as a tool and how often it distracts you. Because usually on a trip, your phone can make your day less enjoyable. It could make your day twice as comfortable but half as interesting if you didn’t have it.


Working While Traveling. 



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Morning office hours. Lake Toba, Sumatra. January 2019.

A post shared by Rolf Potts (@rolfpotts) on

For Rolf, there is no real separation between work and travel anymore. Now he runs the Rolf Potts’ Deviate podcast, he continues to write books and does all this while traveling. Some of his travels are sponsored, so sometimes he is on assignments. He is regularly taking notes, doing stuff on social media, taking a lot of photos, etc.

Although it is considered as “working,” it is not the same as doing it for 8 hours every day from the same place.

“When you are in a digital nomad lifestyle, you do your 8 hours of work, and then you go out, and you have amazing Thai food, or you go out to see the nightlife of Bolivia”.

According to Rolf, one advantage of the digital nomad lifestyle is that at times when the work is all-consuming, you still have the option to go out for a run in the Andes, or going for a hike in the Namib desert.

The idea is not to feel discouraged if you are in an exotic part of the world and working like a workaholic. Vagabonding happens in small bits and pieces, and it can catch you by surprise when you never expect it.


Packing Like A Master.

Carrying a too heavy pack all day will leave you tired. After traveling for more than 20 years, Rolf figured out exactly what he needed. He always packs as little as possible.

“Nine years ago I went around the world for six weeks with no luggage at all. I just put a few things in my small backpack and pockets and it was fine.”

Although Rolf likes to pack minimal, he still uses a backpack. One of his podcast sponsors, Tortuga Backpacks sent him a 35-liter backpack, that fits in an overhead bin.

His packing list.

  • A simple rotation of clothes, maybe 3-4-5 days of cloths is all you need. 
  • Books on a Kindle.
  • The iPhone.
  • Some weather gear.
  • His laptop computer.

He carries a small bag and if there is something he needs in a faraway place, he will just buy it on the go.


The Magic of Walking.

Rolf Potts loves going to zero-tourist zones. He likes going alone and not surrounding himself with other travels; that way he can walk through the streets and meet local people. When Rolf travels, one of his most important habits is to get up early and walk through the village, town, city, or national park.

“There is something about being in a place and getting to know it by moving through it by your own pace. That is one thing that you can’t do through your smartphone.”

Although you can get bits of information by browsing online and getting recommendations for travelers from tourist websites. Walking “randomly” is the only way to catch a glimpse of the real dynamic and local authenticity.

Rolf recommends walking around, because it is a fantastic way to seeing where you are, and orienting yourself. To keep up and optimize his health, Rolf remains active, walks a lot, and eats 100% local food.


Rolf Potts’ Final Thoughts.

“If travel is something that you want to do, decide that it is going to happen. Even if you can’t do it in a year or five years, or ten. Just decide that it is going to happen, and it becomes a part of you.”

Rolf Potts recommends that…

  • Travel doesn’t need to be a consumer experience.
  • Travel is not about logistics or what you planned.
  • Not all cultures are the same.
  • Don’t travel with expectations.

Although plans enable the experience to happen, it is about what happens as you go from place to place. Travel is a great way to get to know who you are and get to know what you love.

“Be humble, emphasise listening when you are in other places. Listening instead of trying to project expectations on a place.”


Show Notes.


Thanks, Rolf Potts!

You can find more about Rolf Potts, through his website, or by checking his Twitter (@rolfpotts), Instagram, or Facebook


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