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Interview with Rolf Potts on his new book and on the "tourist" versus "traveler" debate

By Sean O'Neill
January 12, 2022
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Mind the gap! That's the sign passengers see at London Metro stations, warning them to watch for the space between the platform and the subway car.

But "mind the gap" is also a good advice for Americans traveling anywhere overseas. The gap, in this case, is between your expectation of what a foreign country will be like and the reality.

No American travel writer has written as much—and as cleverly—about this gap between expectations and reality as Rolf Potts.

Potts has written a new book, Marco Polo Didn't Go There (Traveler's Tales, $15). It collects many of his award-winning travel articles, which cover his attempt to crash the Thai set of a Leonardo DiCaprio movie, to go native in the Australian Outback, and to look at the Egyptian Pyramids in a fresh light.

Reading the book is like meeting a backpacker who charms you for hours at a bar in Cairo or Bangkok with his tales of the road, told in a self-deprecating style. You want to buy him another round so that he'll keep on entertaining you.

A great thing about seeing Potts's best work from the past decade collected together in one place is to see his avante-garde writing techniques. One of his articles, for instance, is written entirely in the second person, as in "Your two dollar hotel is just down the road...Your room is bare, but you like its ascetic vibe."

One of the issues touched on in the book is whether there's a difference between "tourists" and "travelers."

Sometimes Rolf seems to draw a distinction between them. On page 8 he quotes a backpacker in Thailand who said, "Tourists leave home to escape the world, while travelers leave home to experience the world. Tourists...are merely doing the hokey-pokey: putting their right foot in and taking their right foot out; calling themselves world travelers but experiencing very little."

Rolf argues instead that "regardless of one's budget, itinerary and choice of luggage—the act of travel is still, at its essence, a consumer experience."

But then, on page 25, Rolf seems to change his mind when he describes how, during his second attempt to infiltrate the filming location in Thailand for "The Beach", he landed a job as an extra:

"On my first night of work, 21st Century Fox's handlers divided all the extras into two groups: "tourists" and "travelers."...The production assistants simply made their decisions on the basis of fashion. That is, if you had dreads or wore a sarong or sported tattoos or clutched a set of bongos, you were grouped together with the "travelers." If you kept your hair short and wore nice clothes or had a reasonably neat appearance, you spent your on-camera time as a "tourist." Though my suntan was lacking at the time, I made the cut as a "traveler" on the basis of my hair (which was longish) and clothing (which, while not suitably ethnic, was a bit tattered....Despite such reductive methodology, I'll admit I felt a small flush of pride as I took my place in the extras' tent with the other "travelers." Just like being picked first for a game of kindergarten kickball, I had proof that I had made the cut: I was a member of the elite."

I recently interviewed Rolf by e-mail to discuss this and other questions raised by his book.

Sean: Do you believe there is a difference between a tourist and a traveler, and if so, what is it?

Rolf: At the most essential level, there is no difference between travelers and tourists. I touch on this in my first book, Vagabonding, where I write,

"The tourist/traveler distinction has largely degenerated into a cliquish sort of fashion dichotomy: Instead of seeking the challenges that mindful travel requires, we can simply point to a few stereotypical 'tourists', make some jokes at their expense, and consider ourselves 'travelers' by default."

Perhaps the most vivid illustration of this dichotomy in my new book comes in chapter 11, where I lay out how my Burmese barber in Thailand was probably the greatest adventure traveler I've ever known — and how all of his adventures were less a matter of bravado than staying alive and feeding his family. I wrote:

"Does this all mean that we, as First World wanderers, should feel guilty every time we pack our bags and take a journey? I don't think so. But it certainly can't hurt to retain a sense of perspective as we indulge ourselves in haughty little pissing contests over who qualifies as a 'traveler' instead of a 'tourist.'"

As for the endnotes to chapter 1, I was being ironic when I claimed that being chosen as a "traveler" by the producers of "The Beach" made me "a member of the elite." Obviously their selection criterion—choosing people on the basis of their looks—was ridiculously reductive. The childish flush of pride came from the fact that they considered me hip enough to be one of the cool kids. This had more to do with junior-high lunch-table vanity than a serious analysis of travelers and tourists.

Sean: Backpackers have a bad reputation in some circles for being party-going layabouts who do not engage with the local culture. On page 173 of your new book, you serve up an impassioned defense of backpackers:

"Outside of the predictable traveler ghettos (which aren't as insipid as press accounts let on), independent travelers distinguish themselves by their willingness to travel solo, to go slowly, to embrace the unexpected and break out from the comfort-economy that isolates more well-heeled vacationers and ex-pats. Sure, backpackers are themselves a manifestation of mass tourism—and they have their own self-satisfied clichés—but they are generally going through a more life-affecting process than one would find on a standard travel holiday. My experience at the Sultan [Hotel in Cairo] is a good example...Most of us studied Arabic and learned the rhythms of the neighborhood around Orabi Square; we attended Sunni mosques and Coptic churches; we lingered in tea shops and made Egyptian friends....Along with a stint as an expatriate, there are few other activities that—if approached mindfully—can sharpen the senses and tweak the perspective of someone who intends to leave home and experience the world."

Is the real issue whether a person is "mindful" as they travel, not what his or her luggage or budget is?

Rolf: I completely agree that meaningful travel experiences aren't tied to your budget or your luggage. In the endnotes to chapter 10 I was just defending backpackers against the media-driven notion that they're all oblivious, self-absorbed, cheapskate stoners. Naturally, backpackers have their own dumb prejudices and pretensions. Anthropologists have actually gone in and studied backpacker communities and found that when backpackers are hanging out together, they most often tell lies about two things: the amount of time they spend with local people, and how little money they've spent. Every social milieu, it would seem, has status games.

In defending backpackers, I wanted to point out how it's a great rite of passage for travelers, especially young travelers. Many of the elements of mindful travel—going slow, utilizing local economies, getting off the beaten path, etc.—are intrinsic to backpacker ideals. I'm not saying you have to travel like a backpacker your whole life, but it is a good way to learn the value of slow travel.

I'm not big on declaring one type of traveler better than another. Much of my first book, Vagabonding, is dedicated to debunking the social pretensions of travel. The value of travel doesn't come in comparison to other people, but in terms of how it enhances your own life in any number of ways.

Sean: I'm going to continue to ask questions you probably won't be asked elsewhere during your "virtual book tour." What's an example from your book—if any—where you confront someone who feels smug about being well-traveled?

Rolf: I don't know that I've ever personally confronted anyone for being smug about how much they've traveled. Why go to the trouble of getting upset just because someone is bragging about being well-traveled? It's like getting upset at someone because they brag about having a lot of money, or being good at tennis, or having gone to Harvard. Who cares? Let people keep their pretensions.

In general, I think traveler "pissing contests"—regardless of whether they take place in a hostel lounge or an Explorer's Club banquet—are just kind of annoying, and I elect not to participate.

One general piece of advice I might offer is to not get defensive when someone is talking about their travels. So your next-door neighbor went to Guyana and he wants to tell you all about it—is he showing off or just channeling the excitement of his journey? Odds are it's the latter—and if you reflexively judge him as a travel snob just because he went someplace exotic and enjoyed it, then you're the one who's being a jerk.

In a way, returned travelers and new parents have a lot in common. They're both excited about what just happened, and they both tend to overestimate people's interest in it. So, just as it's polite to look at photos of that wrinkled little infant and ask some friendly questions, it can't hurt to take a little interest when someone tells you they've just been someplace interesting and off-the-beaten path. In all likelihood they're not showing off; it's just on their mind, and they want to share their excitement.

Sean: We've all heard people return from trips overseas and say that their time abroad made them more appreciative of the U.S. Should we believe them when they say that? Given mass media and college educations, do we really need to travel to another continent to learn that America is a privileged country?

Rolf: I think it's perfectly normal to come back from your travels with a better appreciation for the United States—just as Brazilians come home with a better appreciation for Brazil and Egyptians come home with a better appreciation for Egypt. One of the joys of travel is that it allows you to see and appreciate your home in a whole new way—not just in the economic sense but in the cultural and communal sense as well.

Sure, education and mass media can make us aware of the differences between the U.S. and the rest of the world on an intellectual level, but travel brings it home on a gut level. I'm not just talking about extreme differences like wealth versus poverty; I'm talking about the whole myriad of differences, from social mores to individualism to religious freedom.

It's one thing to ponder, say, the joy of shopping at Whole Foods, but it's another thing to come home and shop at Whole Foods after a month of getting food from poorly stocked kiosks in Moldavia. It's one thing to think about the hygienic value your nice hot shower, but it's another thing to enjoy a hot shower after a month in India, where people have to bribe local officials to get proper plumbing. You can intellectualize the joys of making out with your girlfriend on a park bench, but you appreciate this activity more vividly after having been in Saudi Arabia, where such public affection would attract the wrath of the religious police.

It makes perfect sense that you better understand the freedoms and comforts of home after you've been to places where you literally can't enjoy those freedoms and comforts. It's one thing to read about, but another thing to experience it.

I mean, come on. When someone eats an Argentine steak are you going to scold them for saying it tastes good because you'd already confirmed this sensory information from other sources? When you get kicked in the nuts do you refrain from howling in pain because this is universally accepted as an unpleasant experience?

Of course not, when you experience something in a visceral way it's natural to let other people know about it.

MORE

You can follow the rest of Rolf Potts' virtual book tour online, or see him in person at one of 20 cities nationwide as he celebrates the release of Marco Polo Didn't Go There (Travelers' Tales, 2008).  We encourage you to ask for the book at your favorite local bookstore or Amazon.com, and follow Rolf's tour diary at Gadling starting Sept 29th.  Tomorrow's

virtual book tour stop will be at BootsnAll.com.  To read yesterday's tour stop, go to The 4-Hour Workweek. You can also ask Rolf questions at World Hum.

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