Sunday, June 13, 2010

Here’s your guide to getting out of here


ROLF POTTS’S Vagabonding “can teach you how to travel for the rest of your life.” I thought this meant living out of a suitcase at various beach resorts and Marriott hotels through skilfully co-ordinated job contracts, press trips and love affairs. If this is true, book me the next AirAsia RM0.00 flight!

Alas, Potts quashes my “escapist cliché” in Chapter 9 and writes: “In all likelihood, your enthusiasm for sitting around smeared in cocoa butter will run out before your money does.”

Before we get to Potts’s how-to for travelling forever, we must first establish why we want to get away.

Escaping the responsibility of voting for a bad or badass government aside, the idea of taking six months or two years off work to travel, of “vagabonding itself is unorthodox.” Potts also told me in an email that: “One shouldn’t travel unless one has the passion for it.”

It’s only with this passion that we transcend the “short, frenzied bursts” of vacationing, recognise that long-term travelling is a choice we can make for our life, and, as Vagabonding declares, become “an explorer in the truest, most vivid sense of the word.”

Potts’s own journey shows that it doesn’t take a sugar daddy or the ability to ride a bicycle for miles to travel the world. Although his travel credentials now include hitchhiking from Poland to Hungary and getting stranded without water in the Libyan Desert, he didn’t even see the ocean until he was 16.

Upon this realisation that time is “our only real commodity”, the next step—leap, more like it—involves applying for a sabbatical or quitting your job, and not worrying about it. Potts, who calls his work “antisabbaticals” to fund his vagabonding, does his best to take you through almost any anxiety and challenge you will face as you earn and plan your travels.

He also advises, “There will always be people who question and criticise your love for travel, and that’s fine. You will probably never convince them otherwise, so the best option is quietly let your travels enrich your life.” Vagabonding reassures readers with anecdotes and excerpts from the works of famous vagabonds.

For instance, he presents a bite of Henry David Thoreau’s meditative Walden, “Explore your own higher latitudes. Be a Columbus to whole new continents within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought.”

Potts also points out that Thoreau never travelled far outside of New England, but “he promoted an uncommon view of wealth that is essential to vagabonding.” This is the simplification of life. Thoreau only had to work six weeks a year, and dedicated the rest of his time for his passion. “Travel by its very nature demands simplicity. If you don’t believe it, just go home and try stuffing everything you own into a backpack,” Potts writes.

Vagabonding is not exactly a book you can digest from cover to cover. I found myself picking it up and flipping to a chapter or section I’d like to reread, say, on how to befriend locals (“One simple option is to approach local folks and ask them where you can find a good restaurant. Even if they can’t understand you, most people will take an interest and try to help.”) Alternatively, the resources at the end of every chapter point me to a new website to visit, or I find myself Googling for more information about the authors he quoted.

“Vagabonding has been essential to my career, but it came after I’d found a bit of success in the travel-writing realm,” Potts said of his beginnings as a writer for Salon. After becoming a columnist, snapping up more travel assignments and publishing Vagabonding, he put together a collection of his best travel stories in Marco Polo Didn’t Go There.

I am impressed with this collection because it reveals not just what Potts achieved as a travel writer and his adventures (or misadventures), but also his literary prowess. If there is a way to go vagabonding and be a brilliant writer, Potts is the best guide to show you how to do it.

One of my favourite stories in the collection is ‘Turkish Knockout,’ where Potts is drugged and mugged in Istanbul. This is not just because it’s a scary story for travellers, but he recounts it in the style of a whodunit. In ‘Tantric Sex for Dilettantes,’ he uses a second-person narrative—rare in fiction, let alone travel writing—to write about learning Tantra in hopes of mastering a technique “that allows you to have sex for hours and hours at a stretch.” While his travels don’t always result in some form of spiritual enlightenment, his travel writing is always crafty, humorous and, in revealing moments, moving, like when he searches for Mr Benny in Ranong, Thailand, to give the barber a copy of his favourite English-language book, but never finds out where the Burmese man has disappeared to in ‘Death of an Adventure Traveller.’

Marco Polo Didn’t Go There ambitiously includes everything: Potts’s adventures and misadventures, acknowledgement of his tourist persona, press trips, and it ends with a mock travel-writing tutorial that really is an Andorran sojourn. “Intentional or not, it was a keen observation about the postmodern reality of far-flung lands,” he writes in his introduction of the titular phrase he got from an inmate at Bangkok’s women’s prison, who chided him for his plans to visit Chiang Mai. Her observation changed the way he travelled.

Here is a guy who didn’t just do a bungee jump and call it an adventure; Potts structured his stories, spoke at great lengths to locals and befriended some of them (although he runs away from an overbearing and bellowing Mr Ibrahim in ‘My Beirut Hostage Crisis’), and he even includes endnotes. “My endnotes might reveal some of the idiosyncrasies of the nonfiction/travel-writing process, but I’m just showing what all writers are dealing with,” he told me.

In a gross generalisation, I suspect many Malaysians think a lot about travel and migration, and no doubt the MATTA Fair, price wars between the airlines and working holiday visas seduce us with all sorts of possibilities.

“I do think that nomadism is a huge part of our collective human past, and to travel is to get in touch with a very essential human part of ourselves,” Potts also reckons.

Tragically, he has never been to Malaysia “even though I lived in southern Thailand for quite some time.” He’s looking forward to visiting Malaysia though, “possibly as soon as this fall, possibly a couple of years from now.”

That’s the life of a vagabond for you. When he gets here, he’ll probably appreciate the botanical, social and even the political landscapes that Malaysia has to offer, dare I say, more than some of us.

As for the rest of us, reading Vagabonding would give us a fresh perspective on how to travel right, no matter how short or long the vacation or vagabonding period is. And if we don’t get to go anywhere, Marco Polo Didn’t Go There makes an inspiring read for couch travellers.

Reproduced from the The Malaysian Insider of May 22, 2010


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