Los Angeles Hotels Blog

June 13, 2010

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.

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 experienced.

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.

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 visit?

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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