Vagabonding - By Rolf Potts

Date read: 
November 15, 2015
See My Collection of 50+ Book Notes

My Thoughts

One of the most important books in my life. Always inspires me to go travel and explore. Took this book with me on travels through Central America, East Asia, and India. If this book doesn't make you want to travel, I don't know what will.

Summary Notes

Vagabonding – n.
(1) The act of leaving behind the orderly world to travel independently for an extended period of time.  
(2) A privately meaningful manner of travel that emphasizes creativity, adventure, awareness, simplicity, discovery, independence, realism, self-reliance, and the growth of the spirit.  
(3) A deliberate way of living that makes freedom to travel possible.

No combination of one-week or ten-day vacations will truly take you away from the life you lead at home.

Long-term travel doesn’t require a massive “bundle of cash”; it requires only that we walk through the world in a more deliberate way.

If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” – Henry David Thoreau, Walden

We choose to root ourselves to a home or career and use the future as a kind of phony ritual that justifies the present. “We spend the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it.”

Even if the practical reality of travel is still months or years away, vagabonding begins the moment you stop making excuses, start saving money, and begin looking at maps with the narcotic tingle of possibility. Vagabonding is not merely a ritual of getting immunizations and packing suitcases. Rather, it’s the ongoing practice of looking and learning, of facing fears, and altering habits, of cultivating a new fascination with people and places.

“Which would have advanced the most at the end of a month, the boy who had made his own jack-knife 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 Rodger’s penknife from his father?” – Thoreau, Walden

As citizens of a stable, prosperous democracy, any one of us has the power to create our own free time. We merely need to make strategic use (if only for a few weeks and months) of a time-honoured personal-freedom technique, popularly called “Quitting”.

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.

There are three methods to simplifying your life:

  • Stopping expansion: Don’t add any new possessions to your life;
  • Reign in your routine: Live more humbly and invest the difference into your travel fund;
  • Reduce clutter: Downsize what you already own; Sell what is useless, keep what is priceless.

“My greatest skill has been to want little” – Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Do your pre-trip homework – harness the power of those who examined the world before you -, which will lead you to fabulous new horizons. However, you will never be able to truly appreciate travel if you rely too heavily on your homework and ignore what is right in front of your eyes.

You stand to grow much from your travels if you just skim your way through the world at random.

The naturalist John Muir used to say that the best way to prepare for a trip as to “throw some tea and bread into an old sack and jump over the back fence.” Not only does such bold spontaneity add a spark of adventure, long-time travellers argue, but it also lessens the kind of prejudices and preconceptions that might jade your experience.

“It is fatal to know too much at the outset: boredom comes as quickly to the traveller who knows his route as to the novelist who is overcertain of his plot.” – Paul Theroux, To the ends of the Earth.

Regardless of how much time you choose to spend in travel planning, odds are your true preparations began long ago, when you first learned there was a world out there to explore.

A good rule of thumb when watching the news coverage of other countries, it to think about how the average Hollywood movie exports visions of America to other countries.

Guidebooks should never be your only source of travel information but they deserve a special mention because they’re likely the only resource you’ll bring with you on the road. Far too often, travellers adhere too religiously to the advice and information that guidebooks dispense

Feel free to draw any inspiration, no matter how stolid or silly, when considering where to go. The fanciful idea of learning to tango, for example, might make you consider visiting Argentina. Maybe you’ll visit Djibouti simply because the mention of this country made you giggle in junior high geography class.

Vagabonding is not like bulk shopping: the value of your travels does not hinge on how many stamps you have in your passport when you get home.

“You can read everything there is in the world about a place, but there is no substitute to smelling it!”

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

Slow down. Remember that the whole point of long-term travel is having the time to move deliberately through the world.

“One of the essential skills for a traveller is the ability to make a rather extravagant fool of oneself.” – John Flinn

If the line for Lenin’s tomb outside the Kremlin is too long, you have the right to buy a couple of bottles of beer, plant yourself at the edge of the Red Square, and happily watch the rest of Moscow swirl around you.

“What I find is that you can do almost anything or go almost anywhere, if you’re not in a hurry” – Paul Theroux, quoting Tony the Beachcomber, in The Happy Isles of Oceania

If in doubt about what to do in a place, just start walking through your new environment. Walk until your day becomes interesting.

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

Adventure is still considered a purely physical act – a ritual of putting rugged distance between oneself and one’s home. Modern adventure is associated with extreme sports, like ice climbing, street luge, or high-altitude endurance racing. However, true adventure is not an experience that can be captured on television or sold like a commodity. Having an adventure is sometimes just a matter of going out and allowing things to happen in a strange and amazing new environment. The mere act of riding a third-class train or using a squat toilet might qualify as an adventure.

Dare yourself to do simple things you normally wouldn’t consider.

“Adventurous men enjoy shipwrecks, mutinies, earthquakes, conflagrations, and all kinds of experiences. They say to themselves, for example, ‘So this is what an earthquake is like,’ and it gives them pleasure to have their knowledge of the world increased by this new item.” – Bertrand Russel.

“The pleasure in traveling consists of the obstacles, the fatigue, and even the danger.” – Théophile Gautier, Wandering in Spain

“It is difficult and painful for the ear to listen to anything new; we hear strange music badly.” – Friedrich Nietzche.

“The traveller sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see” – G. K. Chesterton

“Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travellers don’t know where they’re going.” – Paul Theroux

What most people consider paradise is defined in contrast to the stresses of home. The point is that you can never dream up the perfect travel formula while you’re still sitting at home.

Conflict will often arise from the impossible desire to be at every place at once. Choosing one option reduces you to the parameters of that choice.

“Powerful men do not necessarily make the most eminent travellers; it is rather those who take the most interest in their work that succeed the best; as a huntsman says, “It is the nose that gives speed to the hound”” – Francis Galton, The Art of Travel

Just because you’re traveling doesn’t mean you must always be on the move. Once you’ve found a special place to call your own for a few weeks or months, your options there are virtually endless – and you needn’t have a concise plan going in.

“If you really want to learn about a country, work there.” – Charles Kuralt, A Life On The Road

“And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again – to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.” – Pico Iyer, Why We Travel

“I think traveling really opens your eyes to the reality that anything from a very easy life (a sort of permanent island-vacation life), to a totally wild and wacky life, is completely attainable.” – Lavinia Spalding, 32, Teacher, Arizona

Those who travel the world hoping to get “blinded by the light” are often blind to the light that’s all around them.

“If we spent half the money on travel that we do on material goods in America, I think the world would be a much different place.”

Of all the adventures and challenges that await on the vagabonding road, the most difficult can be the act of coming home. Every aspect of home will look more or less like it did when you left, but it will feel completely different.

Initially, you’ll enjoy rediscovering all the little aspects of home that you missed in faraway lands: long, hot showers; the latest movies in full Dolby sound; dinner and drinks at your favourite restaurants and hangouts. But after a few days of indulgence, you’ll begin to feel a strange sensation of homesickness… for the road.

As exciting and life-changing as your travel experiences were, your friends will rarely be able to relate, because they don’t share the values that took you out on the road in the first place.

In sharing your road experiences, then, remember to keep your stories short and save the best bits for yourself.

Moreover, telling the story is not nearly as important as living the story. If travel truly is in the journey and not the destination, if travel really is an attitude of awareness and openness to new things, then any moment can be considered travel.

As you continue to read, learn, and think about the places you once visited, you’ll realize that your travels never fully end.

Integrate the deliberate pace and fresh perspective that made your travel experience so vivid, and allow for unstructured time in your day-to-day home schedule.

But most of all, keep living your life in such a way that allows your dreams room to breathe.
Because you never know when you’ll feel the urge to hit the road again.

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