Vagabonding by Rolf Potts

January 06, 202415 min read

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Vagabonding by Rolf Potts was an inspirational read recommended to me by a friend, who after suggesting it, went and applied some of the advice from this book to do extended travel. I found it great in divulging the difference between a tourist, and a traveller, by underlining the philosophy behind vagabonding - which is to do with attitude: a friendly interest in people, places, and things that makes a person an explorer in the truest, most vivid sense of the word.

It gives reasonable tips and tricks on how to travel, and discerns the underlying reasons for travelling in an almost spiritual sense. I came away from this book with a much richer appreciation of travel, it’s many different styles, and how I would like to do it.

I read this whilst on a 2-month trip abroad myself, and it was really validating to see that my slower pace of travel was not unheard of, and matched other peoples experiences of immersing themselves into their new environment.

One the best things I gathered from this book was this perspective: vagabonding is like a pilgrimage without a specific destination or goal — not a quest for answers so much as a celebration of the questions, an embrace of the ambiguous, and an openness to anything that comes your way.

I think that is really beautiful, and is something I’d like to absorb into my life, whether that’s here at home, or far, far away from home.

Declare Your Independence

Vagabonding involves taking an extended time-out from your normal life — six weeks, four months, two years — to travel the world on your own terms. But beyond travel, vagabonding is an outlook on life. Vagabonding is about using the prosperity and possibility of the information age to increase your personal options instead of your personal possessions. Vagabonding is about looking for adventure in normal life, and normal life within adventure. Vagabonding is an attitude — a friendly interest in people, places, and things that makes a person an explorer in the truest, most vivid sense of the word.

Some resources related to taking time off work:

  • SABBATICALS, UNPAID LEAVE, AND QUITTING YOUR JOB Six Months Off: How to Plan, Negotiate, and Take the Break You Need Without Burning Bridges or Going Broke, by Hope Dlugozima, James Scott, and David Sharp (Henry Holt, 1996) A detailed, action-oriented how-to book about planning and negotiating employee sabbaticals and leaves of absence. Time Off from Work: Using Sabbaticals to Enhance Your Life While Keeping Your Career on Track, by Lisa Angowski Rogak (John Wiley & Sons, 1994) A practical guide to planning and implementing sabbaticals. Includes tips on long-term financial planning. ( Online advice on how to diplomatically quit your job, sample resignation letters, discussion boards about quitting, tips on finding a new job.

Which would have advanced the most at the end of a month,” he posited, “the boy who had made his own jackknife from the ore which he had dug and smelted, reading as much as would be necessary for this — or the boy who had … received a Rodgers’ penknife from his father? Which would be most likely to cut his fingers?

A vacation, after all, merely rewards work. Vagabonding justifies it.

Quitting — whether a job or a habit — means taking a turn so as to be sure you’re still moving in the direction of your dreams

was proud of myself for being there — because I’d worked hard to get there and I knew it.

Vagabonding sage Ed Buryn knew as much: “By switching to a new game, which in this case involves vagabonding, time becomes the only possession and everyone is equally rich in it by biological inheritance. Money, of course, is still needed to survive, but time is what you need to live. So, save what little money you possess to meet basic survival requirements, but spend your time lavishly in order to create the life values that make the fire worth the candle. Dig?”

Unfortunately, life at home can’t prepare you for how little you need on the road. Even people who think they’re adhering to bare survival necessities when packing at home generally end up dumping three-quarters of their junk within two weeks on the road. Thus, the biggest favor you can do for yourself when trying to decide what to bring is to buy — and this is no joke — a very small travel bag. This small pack, of course, will allow you only the minimum: a guidebook, a pair of sandals, standard hygiene items, a few relevant medicines (including sunscreen), disposable earplugs (for those inevitable noisy environments), and some small gift items for your future hosts and friends. Add a few changes of simple, functional clothes and one somewhat nice outfit for customs checks and social occasions. Toss in a good pocketknife, a small flashlight, a decent pair of sunglasses, a day pack (for carrying smaller items when you leave your hotel or guesthouse), and an inexpensive camera. And then — looking down to make sure you have a sturdy pair of boots or walking shoes on your feet — close the bag and affix a small, strong padlock.


Lonely Plant —> great for most of the world.

Moon Handbooks —> North America, Mexico, Central America, and some Asian regions (including Southeast Asia and South Korea; especially useful is the authoritative Indonesia Handbook).

Let’s Go —> European and North American destinations

In this way, vagabonding is not just a process of discovering the world but a way of seeing — an attitude that prepares you to find the things you weren’t looking for.

You have to be open not closed for this to truly be magical.

Thus, to gain accurate perspective and inspiration for your travels, you need to duck the frenzy of day-to-day news and dig for more relevant sources of information. Fortunately, there are plenty of options: literary travel narratives; specialty magazines covering all manner of travel; English-language foreign newspapers and journals; novels set in distant lands; academic and historical studies of other cultures; foreign-language dictionaries and phrasebooks; maps and atlases; scientific and cultural videos and TV programs; almanacs, encyclopedias, and travel reference books; travelogues and guidebooks.

A great alternative to using a guidebook — especially once you’ve gotten the hang of vagabonding — is to rely instead on an accurate regional map and a language phrasebook. You might miss out on a little contextual information this way, but the quirky destinations and human-centered adventures you’ll find in this process will more than make up for it.

Whatever the original motivation for going someplace, remember that you’ll rarely get what you expect when you go there — and this is almost always a good thing

Practical tips:

This in mind, pack a dozen or so visa-sized photos of yourself, just to avoid the hassle of getting mug shots overseas. Check the visa requirements of your initial destination before you leave, of course, since many popular countries (such as China and India) still don’t issue visas on arrival.

Should you want to receive a package from home, however, you’ll want to take advantage of the poste restante system, whereby post offices worldwide will hold incoming mail for about a month. To avoid having your package misplaced, have the sender capitalize and underline your family name in large block letters, and send it to the general post office (GPO) of your destination city. If you’re not sure where the GPO is, check your guidebook or ask a hotel clerk. The following template works best for addressing poste restante packages: LAST NAME, First name Poste Restante GPO City COUNTRY

Make a point, then, of easing your way into your travels. Shortly after arriving at your initial destination, find a “beachhead” (be it an actual beach, an urban travelers’ ghetto, or an out-of-the-way town) and spend a few days relaxing and acclimating yourself. Don’t strike off to “hit all the sights” or actualize all your travel fantasies from the get-go. Stay organized and interested, but don’t keep a “things to do” list. Watch and listen to your environment. Take pleasure in small details and differences. Look more and analyze less; take things as they come. Practice your flexibility and patience — and don’t decide in advance how long you’ll stay in one place or another

When bargaining, let the merchant make the first offer — and don’t respond by offering half the price and haggling from there. The merchants already expect you to do this, and they adjust their prices accordingly. Instead, see if the merchant will make another, lower offer before you start making bids. As you haggle, remain friendly and assertive (even playful), and try not to be rude or condescending. Conversely, don’t let the merchant sway you with emotional pleas and melodramatics. Remember that he or she is much more experienced at this than you, and one of the most successful sales techniques in markets worldwide is to make First World shoppers feel guilty for not spending more money on something.

Some places (such as China), taxi and bus drivers will quote you a certain fare in advance, then try to charge you double by claiming that your baggage “counts as one passenger.” Unless your bag is obviously occupying its own bus seat, this is not a legitimate demand. Thus, clarify in advance that the price you’re paying is for yourself as well as your luggage.

Make sure that any meat you order is well cooked when you’re in less-developed countries — and be wary of milk (which may not be pasteurized), “beef” (which may not be beef), leafy salads (which likely haven’t been washed with purified water), and shellfish

Of course, a small first-aid kit full of bandages, antiseptic, painkillers, and personal medicines should already be a part of your travel gear.

Don’t ever live vicariously. This is your life. Live.

As the Koran says, “Did you think you should enter the Garden of Bliss without such trials as came to those who passed before you?”

In other words, tourist attractions are defined by their collective popularity, and that very popularity tends to devalue the individual experience of such attractions.

Don’t set limits on what you can or can’t do. Don’t set limits on what is or isn’t worthy of your time.

How else do we know another person except as an ensemble of suggestions hollowed out from the universe of possible suggestions? How else do we begin to know the world?”

In this way, vagabonding is like a pilgrimage without a specific destination or goal — not a quest for answers so much as a celebration of the questions, an embrace of the ambiguous, and an openness to anything that comes your way

“We see as we are,” said the Buddha, and rarely is this quite so evident as when we travel

Which of these experiences would you most likely share with your friends when you got home? Which would you remember best in your old age?

“People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home.”

The simplest fact of our neighbors’ lives may read like a fairy tale to us,” wrote Pico Iyer in The Global Soul. “The forgotten, tonic appendix to that is that our lives, in their tiniest details, may seem marvelous to them, and one virtue of [traveling] in so strange a place is to be reminded daily of how strange I seem to it.”

More often than not, you’ll discover that “adventure” is a decision after the fact — a way of deciphering an event or an experience that you can’t quite explain.

Change the way you operate

Dare yourself to do simple things you normally wouldn’t consider — whether this means exploring a random canyon, taking up an invitation to dine with a stranger, or just stopping all activity to experience a moment more fully. These are the kinds of humble choices — each of them as bold as bungee jumping — that lead not only to new discoveries but to an uncommon feeling of hard-won joy.

As Salvador Dalí quipped, “I never took drugs because I am drugs.” With this in mind, strive to be drugs as you travel, to patiently embrace the raw, personal sensation of unmediated reality — an experience far more affecting than any intoxicant can promise.

The ability to laugh at yourself and take things in stride can thus be the key to enduring strange new cultural situations.

After all, if you can find joy in insults — if you can learn to laugh at what would otherwise have made you angry — the world is indeed “all yours” as a cross-cultural traveler.

Vagabonding vs Vacation

This is why 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. You can try to make vagabonding conform to your fantasies, of course, but this strategy has a way of making travel irrelevant. Indeed, vagabonding is — at its best — a rediscovery of reality itself.

However you choose to enrich your experience of a place — be it through building a recreation center, harvesting grapes, or playing pickup games of chess at the local café — always challenge yourself to try new things and keep learning. In this way, you’ll find that you’re not just exploring new places but weaving a tapestry of life experience that is much richer and more intricate than you could ever have imagined while you were still at home.

Travel, I was coming to realize, was a metaphor not only for the countless options life offers but also for the fact that choosing one option reduces you to the parameters of that choice. Thus, in knowing my possibilities, I also knew my limitations. Ultimately, I learned to stop looking at my journey as one final, apocalyptic chance to see the world, and started enjoying it on its own, esoteric terms.

A vacation, after all, merely rewards work. Vagabonding justifies it.

Miscellaneous notes

Mary Wollstonecraft, Isabella Lucy Bird, Alexandra David Neel, Mary Kingsley, Freya Stark, Frances Trollope, Amelia Edwards, Emily Hahn, Ida Pfeiffer, Rosita Forbes, Rose Wilder Lane, Rebecca West, and Martha Gellhorn —> Read up on their lives.

Basic Ecology, by Ralph Buchsbaum, Mildred Buchsbaum, and Lisa Uttal (Boxwood Press, 1957, reprinted 2002 —> Check this out.

“The evaluation of tourism cannot be accomplished against a static background,” wrote tourism scholar Davydd J. Greenwood. “Some of what we see as destruction is construction. Some is the result of a lack of any other viable option; and some the result of choices that could be made differently.”

Overall, the discomforts are few and are far outweighed by the joy of discovery.

I’ve found that if you can make it anywhere, you can make it there (wherever “there” is).


What the Australian Aborigines call “walkabout.” Culturally, the walkabout ritual is when Aborigines leave their work for a time and return to their native lifestyle in the outback. On a broader and more mythical level, however, walkabout acts as a kind of remedy when the duties and obligations of life cause one to lose track of his or her true self. To correct this, one merely leaves behind all possessions (except for survival essentials) and starts walking. What’s intriguing about walkabout is that there’s no physical goal: It simply continues until one becomes whole again.

I have indeed — praise be to God — attained my desire in this world, which was to travel through the earth. — IBN BATTUTA

What is travel?

Travel, after all, is a form of asceticism, which (to quote Kathleen Norris) “is a way of surrendering to reduced circumstances in a manner that enhances the whole person. It is a radical way of knowing exactly who, what, and where you are, in defiance of those powerful forces in society that aim to make us forget.

Spirtual Discovery and Travel

In her writing, Dillard points out that curiosity about the world is the starting point for spiritual discovery, and vice versa: “What we know, at least for starters, is: here we — so incontrovertibly — are. This is our life, these are our lighted seasons, and then we die. In the meantime, in between time, we can see. The scales are fallen from our eyes, the cataracts are cut away, and we can work at making sense of the color-patches we see in an effort to discover where we so incontrovertibly are. It’s common sense: when you move in, you try to learn the neighborhood.”

Read on 15th November 2023

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